Japan's history

Man has lived on the Japanese archipelago for at least 30,000 years. After dark centuries (Yayoi period), it was first the Chinese and Korean stories that brought Japan into history. The first Mikado, founder of the State, bears the title of "tenno" (celestial king; assimilated to the polar star or the sun, fixed point around which the Universe is organized) he is the grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu.

Photo by dalbera on Foter

300 CE, start of the Yamato Empire (300-710)

The Kofun period is a subdivision of the Yamato period. It corresponds to the period extending from the 3rd century to the middle of the 6th century. This period begins with the invasion of riders from Korea, who will gradually conquer part of Japan and create the first Japanese state: Yamato. This company will establish itself definitively and give the cultural bases of Japan. This era is characterized by the "Kofu", gigantic tumuli in the shape of a "keyhole" where the dignitaries and warlords were buried.

It was during this period that Shinto, the characteristic religion of Japan, was born. The state of Yamato grows quite quickly, quickly annexing all the other tribes already there. From 450, all of Japan (except the North) and part of South Korea are subject. The Asuka period starts from 538 and ends in 710. This period owes its name to the village of Asuka where the emperors sometimes set up their capital. Indeed, they often moved it. According to most historians, 538 is the year Buddhism was officially introduced to Japan. In 594, Prince Shotoku Taishi imposed it as the state religion and also laid down in 604 the moral and legal principles of the Japanese state. Influenced by China, whose cultural influence extends to all of Asia, the Japanese sovereigns will adopt the characters of writing, religion and administration.

In 701, the Code of taiho is promulgated (revised in 718), it regulates the role of the Japanese civil servants (recruitment, promotion, remuneration) and the penal rules. Although the efficiency is only real during the 2 and 3 centuries that will follow, the Taiho code will be applied until the beginning of the Meiji era, it will then be abolished, putting an end to this feudal system of organization of society. .

The Nara period (710-794)

In 710, Empress Gemmei decided to establish the capital of Yamato in Nara, under the name of Heijô-Kyô. The new capital will become the first great Buddhist city. It presents no less than six sects (Nanto Rokushu) founded by Japanese monks trained in China, in particular by Ganjin who will seek to influence more and more the policy of the Emperor.

Splendid temples were then built: Yakushi-ji, Toshodai-ji and Todai-ji. The Nara period is marked by the artistic blossoming of Chinese influence of the Sui and the Tang. Trained by Korean and Chinese craftsmen, the Japanese have mastered the Art and sculpture in wood or lacquer on a wooden frame.

It is also the period of the first signs of national unity. Empress Gemmei requested that the first annals of Japanese history be written down as Kojiki (Chronicles of Ancient Things) in 712, followed by Nihon Shoki (Annals of Japan) in 720. After the Attempted to seize power by the monk Dokyo in 766, civilization saw a purely Japanese character refine itself, freeing itself from the influence of China.

Photo by L'Ubuesque Boîte à Savon on Foter
Emperor Kammu, Photo by sjrankin on Foter

The Heian period (794-1192)

In 794, exasperated by the pressures he was subjected to by the six Buddhist sects (Kusha-shû, Jôjitsu-shû, Hossô-shû, Sanron-shû, Ritsu-shû) to obtain more and more advantages and prerogatives, the Emperor Kammu transfers the capital to Heiankyô (later renamed Kyoto).

Faced with the rise of these sects, Emperor Kammu commissioned certain monks to bring back new doctrines from China. This was the case of Saichô, founder of the Tandaï sect and of Kukai, founder of the Shingon sect. Although these two new sects were more syncretic than the previous ones, they still did not reach the people. Much simpler, amidism (cult of the Buddha Amida), promising the salvation of all, made its appearance.

During the tenth century, the system based on personal ties replaced the system of codes (merit and seniority). Gradually the central power crumbles in favor of large provincial landowners and monasteries. Fujiwara no Michinaga represents the preponderance of the Fujiwara ("wisteria enclosure") clan, which two centuries earlier had obtained the function of regent of the emperor and then that of grand chancellor, giving the same power as those of the regent while the emperor was of age.

Michinaga will remain in power under the reign of three successive emperors, to whom he marries his daughters, then he retires in 1016 to a monastery.

The Fujiwara period is favorable to cultural and architectural development (Daigo-ji, Byodo-in). In 1001, Murasaki Shikibu wrote The Tale of Genji (genji monogatari), a work considered to be a major work in 11th century Japanese literature. The plot of the book takes place during the Heian era. The Genji is an emperor's son who cannot claim the throne. The Tale of Genji, which presents itself as a true story (monogatari), recounts the life of one of these imperial princes, of extraordinary beauty, accomplished poet and charmer of women.

The Kamakura period (1192-1333)

Two great clans of bushi (warriors hired by local lords to defend their domains during their extended stays at court) will fight for the supreme power of Japan.

The Taira will temporarily be the masters of the country. But it was their adversaries, the Minamoto, who finally triumphed at the Battle of Dan-no-Ura in 1185 and set up their military capital in Kamakura, far from the splendor of the Kyoto court. This Bakufu ("tent government") or military government is the seat of the first shogun: Minamoto no Yoritomo.

In 1219, the Hôjô succeeded the Minamoto for a century. They will have to face two great trials: the Mongol invasions of Kublai Khan. Twice he tried to conquer the archipelago. Twice (1274 and 1281), his fleet was swept away by typhoons, forcing him to abandon. These salutary winds were called "Kamikaze" (Divine Winds) by the Japanese. But the Hôjô, exhausted by these two successive wars, lost power.

Minamoto no Yoritomo, Photo by Fæ on Foter

The Muromachi period (1333-1573)

Ashikaga Takauji

It is a troubled and very rich period in the history of Japan. As early as 1318, Emperor Go-Daigo tried to regain power from the Hôjô. In 1333 General Ashikaga Takauji, a descendant of the Minamoto, rallied to the emperor, annihilated the Hôjô and destroyed Kamakura. Three years later, Takauji betrayed Go-daigo, became the master of Kyoto and restored the shogunate for the benefit of his clan. He then fixed his residence in the Muromachi District. Emperor Go-Daigo retreats to southern Japan, establishing "The Southern Court", while Takauji places a new emperor in Kyoto.


But the reign of the Ashikaga will not be easy. In 1392 Shogun Yoshimitsu put an end to the rivalry between two imperial courts claiming the throne and strengthened the authority of the Bakufu.

His power and glory surpass successive emperors. He then decided to build a Hana no Gosho palace, a rokuon-ji monastic residence in Kitayama and in 1398 the golden pavilion "kinkaku-ji" where he died there in 1398.

Civil war, peasant revolts, war of succession (Onlin War 1467-1477), gradually lose all the authority of the shoguns over the country. During the Sengoko period 1478-1573 - of knights and heroes - between civil wars and the dissolution of the state, new "daimyos" families ousted the old ones. Their vassals constitute the warrior caste of samurai.

Confucianism by incarnating itself in the sacred way “bushido” creates the Japanese chivalric ideal, in addition to the art of combat (bow, fencing…) we tend towards the virtues of loyalty to the tenno and to the family. Matters of honor are not settled by duel, but by suicide (Hara-kiri).Japan at last at peace is in the hands of the Ashikaga. During the 13th and 14th centuries, Zen Buddhism, spread by the Rinzai and Soto schools, was distinguished by the place given to seated meditation or zazen, allowing one to achieve awakening (find deep within oneself the Buddha and thus free themselves from the cycle of rebirths). Many Zen temples were then created, including Ryoan-ji.

This period will be an opportunity for significant artistic renewal, led by the shogun, and no longer by the imperial court. The most original is the creation of a new form of lyrical theatre, Nô, a sort of danced and masked musical drama. The wars for the unification of Japan, but above all the arrival of firearms in the 16th century, would profoundly mark the architecture of Japanese strongholds and castles. Almost all of the castles that Japan has were built in the 16th century between 1550 and 1650. The first castle built during this period was Azuchi Castle in 1457 for Oda Nobugana. This building served as a model for all the others. An institution in Zen monasteries, the tea ceremony ("Chanoyu" translated as "hot water for tea"), a means of detaching man from his external tensions through aesthetic meditation, is gradually opening up to lay people. Taking place according to the principles of simplicity and rusticity with harmonious and controlled gestures, its practice leads to the development of other arts such as those of ceramics, metal lacquer and the arrangement of flowers (ikebana). The architecture of the tea houses, which always include a garden, is also inspired by Zen (Saiho-ji in Kyoto, koke dera "moss temples" founded by the priest Muso Kokushi in 1339, a reformer of Zen Buddhism).

Theater nô, Photo by Free Public Domain Illustrations by rawpixel on Foter

The Momoyama period (1573-1603) known as
"period without shogun"

Brief period of Japanese history, but the most important: that of the unification of Japan. Tired of a century of civil wars, three generals will appear to unify Japan. Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) conquers the center of the archipelago, and in particular Kyôto, and deposits there the last shogun Ashikaga (1573). He imposed a strong military and political unity there. Betrayed by one of his generals, he committed suicide in 1582.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi

Its action is taken over by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (reigning from 1582 to 1598). A man of destiny and extraordinary political sense, he continued the work of Oda Nobunaga. He ends up unifying Japan by conquests and breaks the hegemony of the daimyos. In 1590, the whole country was under his command. He then tried unsuccessfully to export his military genius to Korea twice, and his death in 1598 put an end to his dreams of hegemony.

The Edo period: Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867)

Tokugawa Ieyasu

After the battle of Sekigahara (1600), Tokugawa Ieyasu who succeeded Hideyoshi took the old title of shogun, after defeating his last opponents. He will then establish the longest of dynasties which will reign unchallenged for almost three centuries of inner peace. In order to make a break with the other dynasties, he established his new capital in Edo (former Tokyo). A strongly centralized government then appeared, the shogun was at the head of a hierarchy of lords “the daimyos” who exercised their power in the different provinces (“the hans”) of the archipelago. This will structure and codify all aspects of the life of the country. The shogun exercises a police power which leaves the emperor, locked up in his palace, only a ritual function. To better reinforce its action and fearing the influence of Westerners, Tokugawa Ieyasu sends back the Portuguese and the Spaniards and hermetically closes Japan on itself in 1639 for two centuries. The only counter is the island of Deshima. The country is therefore completely isolated from the outside world, which will allow it to retain its traditional values ​​and avoid Western colonization, but it will lose the opportunity to integrate valuable innovations.

Between 1680 and 1709, Tsunayoshi ruled the country. He brings the masterless samurai “the ronin” to heel. We note a flowering of poetry and theater under the shogunate of Ienobu (1709-1713). Arai hakuseki launches the Confucian reforms, advocating social order and the respect due to superiors, but the overhaul of finances remains the work of Ienobu, the most important.

The shogun Yoshimune (1713-1751) strengthens the central power in relation to feudalism by limiting the great vassals and confiscating the fiefs, he also taxes the luxury of the samurai caste by obliging them to set an example of humility in times of economic hardship. It was then that the art of the luxurious button and the extravagant Netsuke, objects for attaching objects to the belt, developed. The Edo period experienced great economic prosperity, the well-administered campaigns developed the extension of rice fields.

New cities are created (Hiroshima, Sendaï…) and art flourishes considerably. Bunraku (Japanese theater was born during the 17th century. The characters are represented by large puppets, manipulated at sight), Kabuki (combining singing, dancing and ka-bu-ki talent) Haïkus (poem extremely brief aiming to say the evanescence of things), Ukiyo-e prints and Utamaro's paintings are born at this time. However, this splendid isolation did not resist the Western powers, including the United States, which in 1853 forced Japan to open up. It is the end of the reign of the Tokugawa, unable to absorb this shock. In 1868, the young Emperor Meiji regained power. The military had confiscated it for 700 years.

Estampe ukiyo-e, Photo by The Library of Congress on Foter
Saigo Takamori, Photo by Dick Thomas Johnson on Foter

The Meiji period (1868-1912)

In the space of five years, the whole of Japanese society will be radically transformed, moving from feudalism to modern society. In April 1868, Emperor Meiji promulgated the "5-Article Oath".

This is the kick-off of a wave of profound reforms aimed at catching up with the country's delay on Western countries.

In 1868, the emperor moved to Tokyo, founded his new capital there and reorganized the administration (end of feudalism (1871), created the yen following the model of the dollar, compulsory military service, the army following the Prussian and French model, the development of industry and the means of communication and the introduction of income tax).

From 1885, the apparent democratization of Japan is in place: creation of a Western-style government, a Parliament and two years later, drafting of the first Constitution of the country (1889).

These changes will lead to the revolt of the samurai caste led by Saïgo Takamori suppressed in Kagoshima in 1877. Japan's efforts are quickly put to good use. He won the first Sino-Japanese war in 1895, and thus began a policy of territorial expansion (annexation of Formosa by the Treaty of Shimonoseki of 1895). But it was the victory against Russia in 1905 with the capture of Port Arthur (January 2, 1905) and the naval victory of Tsushima (May 27, 1905) that gave Japan its role as the first non-Western international power. With the Treaty of Portsmouth, Japan obtains southern Sakhalin (karafouto), Port Arthur, the protectorate over Korea and South Manchuria. In the space of three decades, the student has caught up with his masters at the cost of an immense national leap. In 1905 Japan annexed Korea (Khosen).

The Taisho period (1912-1926)

When Emperor Meiji died in 1912, power passed to his son, Yoshihito, who reigned as Taisho. But the latter, suffering from the consequences of meningitis, is unable to occupy power, and leaves the politicians to lead Japan. Japan declares war on Germany but refuses to participate in operations in Europe (1914). However, he will obtain all the former German possessions, including several territories in China, which allows him to consolidate his positions in Manchuria, even if he has to liberate the province of Liaodong, which is particularly strategic. The occupation of Vladivostok took place in 1917. In 1919, serious troubles broke out in Korea, annexed in 1905 by Japan. During the funeral of the former Korean emperor, nationalist groups revolt against the Japanese occupier. The repression is terrible. In 1921, the ailing Emperor Taisho appointed his son Hiro-Hito regent to govern in his place. In a liberal political atmosphere and marked by strong economic growth, Japan was struck on September 1, 1923 by an immense earthquake which destroyed a large part of Tokyo and Yokohama, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths, most of them succumbing in the fires that ravage the city built of wood. Emperor Taisho died in December 1926.

Emperor Taishō, Photo by jbeaulieu on Foter
Pearl Harbor, Photo by Paul M Walsh on Foter

The Showa period, the era of enlightened peace (1926-1989)

The Showa era is the period in Japanese history when Emperor Hirohito reigned over the country from December 25, 1926 to January 7, 1989. This was the longest reign of any Japanese emperor. The first part of the reign of Hirohito is characterized by strong nationalist influences (Japanese nationalism: tripartite pact with Germany and Italy (1940)) and imperialism (memorandum of General Tanaka, beginning of the expansion towards China) .

The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, triggering the Battle of the Pacific (Guadalcanal, Midway…). After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1945), and the surrender of Japan during World War II, the occupation of Japan by the Americans lasted until 1952.

After the Treaty of San Francisco with 48 Western countries (1951), Japan lost all its conquests since 1854 but regained its sovereignty.