The History of Japan: From Feudal Samurai to High Tech Society

Gain an understanding of the major figures, events, and periods of Japanese History.

784 CE
The Muromachi Period
Tokugawa Ieyasu

Ancient Japan

The Jōmon period, from 13000 – 300 BCE, was named after its distinctive ‘rope-patterned’, or ‘Jōmon’ pottery. During this time, the tribes inhabiting Japan were primarily hunters, gatherers, and fishermen. They didn’t have iron tools, systematic agriculture, or a written language.

The Yayoi Period, which lasted from 300 BCE until 250 CE, saw the major catalyst of rice agriculture arrive from the mainland. With it came larger and more permanent settlements, social classes, and iron-worked tools and weapons. Yayoi pottery lost the ornate Jomon decorations and instead focused on function: cooking jars were distinct from storage jars, which were distinct from bowls for religious offerings.

The Yamato Period (250 CE – 710 CE) saw Japan’s first central power, the Yamato, consolidate power over nearly 2/3 of Japan. Shintoism, Japan’s animistic religion worshiping various nature-based deities, became widespread, although Buddhism also arrived from China during this period. Chinese Writing was used to make Prince Shotoku’s Seventeen Article Constitution based on Buddhist and Confucianist ideology.

Nara and Heian periods (710 - 1185)

The Imperial capital was moved to Nara in 710 CE. This is seen as the first era of classical Japanese history. This period saw massive growth in Buddhism, and with it, power for Buddhist monasteries. The Nara period ended quickly in 784 CE when Emperor Kanmu moved the capital to Kyoto, where it remained for the next thousand years, in an attempt to extricate the court from the influence of powerful Buddhist leaders in Nara.

A Golden Era for culture, the Heian Period is considered by some to be the zenith of classical Japanese humanities and society. The formation of the ‘samurai’ class of warrior nobles occurred during this time. A 31-syllable style of poetry called ‘Waka’ was developed, and some of Japan’s most famous art, done in a colorful style called ‘Yamato-e,’ was done, showing a clear break from Chinese art. The era ended with the defeat of the ruling Taira clan in the Genpei War (1180-1185).

Kamakura Period (1185 - 1333)

Minamoto no Yoritomo seized power with victory in the Genpei War and named himself Japan’s first ‘Shogun,’ or supreme military leader. This started the 700 years of feudal Japan and made the imperial court and emperor a symbolic figurehead for its duration.

During this period, Kublai Khan’s Mongol army attempted an invasion of Japan but suffered a rare defeat. A combination of the Shogun’s forces and a ‘divine wind,’ essentially a massive typhoon, wiped out the Mongol navy in 1281. Paranoid of further invasions, the Kamakura Shogun continued investing in preparing defenses. Unfortunately, this practice would speed their downfall as defenses have costs but produce no profits: financial troubles plagued the government and cost them the loyalty of many nobles.

This era also included the writing of one of Japan’s greatest historical epics, The Tale of Heike, about the Taira and Minamoto squaring off in the Genpei War.

Ashikaga Period (1336 - 1568)

This era is called either the ‘Muromachi Period,’ after the location of the government’s buildings at the time, or the ‘Ashikaga Period,’ after the family of shogun rulers of the time. It occurred after a briefly attempted coup by the emperor Go-Daigo, that lasted from 1333 – 1336.

Ashikaga Takauji deftly switched sides and seized power in Kyoto in 1336, forcing Go-Daigo to flee to the south and appointing his relative to be his puppet emperor. The next 50 years would see the formation of 2 courts, a southern one ruled by Gai-Do at Yoshino, and a northern one at Kyoto controlled by the Ashikaga Shoguns. Battles were common and Kyoto was destroyed multiple times in the continuous fighting.

As the civil conflict wore on, new economic conditions saw the emergence of powerful warlords called ‘Daimyo’ who begin to acquire and claim territory throughout Japan. Favorable trade with China’s Ming Dynasty, agricultural advances, and the founding of new markets allowed for the growth of population, towns, and these new local lords.

Warring States Period (1467 - 1573)

The rise of the Daimyo during the Ashikaga period coincided with the fall of central authority, ultimately devolving into a chaotic period of civil conflict known as ‘The Warring States Period.’ This century of Japanese history featured nearly constant war amongst rival daimyos throughout the country as they colluded and betrayed one another in an endless struggle for territory and power.


During this time, the first Europeans, the Portuguese, bearing firearms and Christianity, began to arrive in Japan in 1543. At first, daimyos were eager to trade with Europeans to gain access to military goods to use on their rivals. The large-scale introduction of canons into warfare would spur the need for larger and more impregnable castles, leading to the unintended side effect of larger courts and a flourishing of Japanese humanities.

Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573 - 1603)

The Azuchi-Momoyama Period is characterized by the emergence of the first 2 of Japan’s 3 ‘Great Unifiers.’ Oda Nobunaga began as Daimyo of the Owari province and, through a combination of shrewd diplomacy, ruthless conquest, and innovative thinking, managed to become ruler of most of Japan, taking Kyoto in 1568.

Although firearms had existed in Japan since the 13th century, Nobunaga is credited with using large numbers of muskets to arm his lowest ranking soldiers, allowing them to face even a full charge by samurai. Nobunaga was only stopped from uniting Japan when he was betrayed and murdered by one of his generals in 1582.


Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a common-born general of Nobunaga’s, seized the opportunity to defeat the traitorous general and take control for himself. He not only succeeded in conquering and unifying all of Japan but followed up with an expansionist invasion of Korea with the goal of ultimately conquering all of China.

He built the famed Osaka Castle and began trying to minimize the influence of Christian missionaries on Japanese culture. His military progress stalled when he was met by a combination of Chinese and Korean forces, and he died during the final evacuation of the peninsula in 1598.

Edo/Tokugawa Period (1603-1868)

Tokugawa Ieyasu, an ally of both Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, would become the 3rd and final ‘Great Unifier,’ as his Tokugawa Shogunate would rule in relative peace for the next 250 years. To bring stability, he not only switched the capital to Edo, now called Tokyo, but required all Daimyo to spend every 2nd year at his court, leaving hostages behind for the other year. This largely deterred them from scheming for autonomy and instead left them competing for a standing in his circle.

The Tokugawas had an interesting, if limited, relationship with foreign powers. They established trade with the English and Dutch but scapegoated Christianity after several peasant rebellions. The result was a comprehensive isolation policy that started in 1639, banning travel to other nations, and limiting foreigners to trading only at the port of Nagasaki.

This period also saw a flourishing of the humanities with the growth of ‘kabuki’ theater and ‘ukiyo-e’ art.

Meiji Period (1868-1912)

The Meiji Period saw Japan undergo a remarkable change as it went from a subjugated agrarian society to an industrial powerhouse at an incredible speed. The era began when emperor Meiji moved from Kyoto to Tokyo, taking power, establishing Tokyo as his capital, and then establishing parliamentary democracy. Initially disadvantaged by treaties with western powers, the Meiji sent scholars to study abroad while welcoming foreign academics to teach in Japan. They set up mandatory conscription, with an army based on Prussia’s and a navy based on Britain’s. The country industrialized rapidly with a booming textile industry and government subsidies for businesses.

Japan’s rapid advancement ran into discriminatory and racist treatment from western powers which fostered resentment. Seeing the age of imperialism unfold, Japan went to war with China in 1894, won, and seized Taiwan. However, Russia, France, and Germany intervened and forced Japan to give up some of its colonies. The insult from this ‘Triple Intervention’ inspired Japan to intensify its militarization, culminating in a victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, announcing Japan as an official imperial power.

Taisho and early Showa Period (1912 - 1945)

Meiji’s death in 1912 led to his physically and mentally infirm son Taisho’s brief 14-year reign where nearly all power shifted to the ‘Diet,’ which was the Japanese Parliament. Japan joined with the Allies in World War I and benefitted both by seizing German colonies and profiting off industrial trade. Taisho died in 1926, leaving the Crown to his son, Showa, who held the title until he died in 1989.


In the aftermath of the Great Depression of the 1930s, Japan fully embraced militarism to spend its way out of the recession. The strategy was successful economically, but when spending cuts were proposed, the military seized control of the government and doubled down on its imperialist agenda.

The second Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937 when escalating tensions in Manchuria turned into a full-blown invasion. Japan won a string of military victories seizing territory, including a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 which made the United States its chief opponent in the Pacific. However, momentum swung in America’s favor with the Battle of Midway in 1942, and for the remainder of the war, Japan was slowly pushed back until nuclear weapons were used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945. Emperor Showa surrendered the next week.

Post-war period

Japan was controlled by the U.S., specifically by General Douglas MacArthur, from 1945-1952. MacArthur instituted large-scale reforms such as land redistribution, universal suffrage, and a complete dismantling of the Japanese war machine. In 1947 the Japanese government passed Article 9 of their constitution – forbidding them from ever starting a war again, except for under very limited circumstances of self-defense.

With the Soviet Union looming large, the two countries agreed to continue the U.S. military presence even after the occupation. Unexpectedly, this period would result in an incredibly close trading relationship between the former enemies, helping the two grow into some of the world’s largest economies.

In 1973, an oil crisis led Japan to convert its gas-dependent industrial economy into one focused on high technology industries. Japan has been one of the world leaders in technology, standards of living, and life expectancy ever since.

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