Japanese History – A Timeline of Periods and Events

Updated on May 17, 2020
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Yong is a Japanophile who has survived 15 solo trips to Japan. His visits now focus on discovering the country’s lesser-known attractions.

A timeline of Japanese history periods.
A timeline of Japanese history periods.

Jōmon Period (縄文時代 14,000 BC–300 BC)

The earliest evidence of human habitation in the Japanese archipelago dates from over 35,000 years ago, with relics such as axes found in 224 sites in Kyūshū and Honshū. Following the end of the last glacier age, a hunter-gatherer culture also gradually developed in the islands, one that would eventually achieve significant cultural complexity.

In 1877, American scholar Edward S. Morse named this prehistorical period of Japanese history as Jōmon, the name itself meaning “cord-marked” and inspired by the way these hunter-gatherers decorated pottery by impressing rope-cords onto wet clay. Of note, foundation myths of Shintoism state the founding of the Japanese Imperial Family to have happened during the Jōmon Period. However, there is no conclusive archeological evidence supporting this claim.


  • In academic discussions, the Jōmon Period is usually divided into the early, middle, and late/final eras.
  • The most convenient place to learn about this ancient Japanese historical period is at Tokyo National Museum, which has a sizable collection of Jōmon Period relics. Other major Japanese museums, such as Kyūshū National Museum, also have extensive displays.
  • There are various recreations of Jōmon Period villages across Japan. For example, the Historical Museum of Jōmon Village in Oku-Matsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, and the Sannai-Maruyama Site in Aomori Prefecture.
  • The most famous “face” of the Jōmon Period is perhaps that of the Dogū. These unique-looking earthen figurines are often mass produced for sale as tourist souvenirs.

Sannai-Maruyama Jōmon Period archaeological site in Aomori Prefecture.
Sannai-Maruyama Jōmon Period archaeological site in Aomori Prefecture. | Source

Yayoi Period (弥生時代 BC 900–AD 300)

In most Japanese history timelines, the Yayoi Period overlaps the final years of the Jōmon Period. The name itself comes from a district of modern-day Tokyo where ancient, unembellished pottery was found. Often described as the Iron Age of Japan, this prehistorical period witnessed the growth of agricultural development. There was also noted importing of weapons and tools from China and Korea.

Geographically, Yayoi culture extended from southern Kyūshū to northern Honshū, with archeological evidence suggesting the hunter-gathering culture of the Jōmon Period was progressively replaced by agricultural cultivation. Notably, one area that has fascinated researchers is the notable physical differences between the Jōmon and Yayoi people. The Yayoi tend to be taller than the Jōmon, with facial features closer to those of modern-day Japanese.


  • • In the late 1990s, analysis of Yayoi remains uncovered in Southern Japan revealed similarities to those found in Jiangsu, China. A general belief is that the Yayoi people were immigrants from the Asiatic mainland.
  • Yoshinogari in Kyūshū is most famous and extensive reconstruction of a Yayoi Period settlement in modern Japan.
  • The Chinese historical text, the Records of the Three Kingdoms, mentioned Yayoi Japan. The text named Japan as Yamatai and stated it was ruled by a priest-queen titled Queen Himiko.
  • There has been much academic debate over whether “Yamatai” was the Chinese transliteration of Yamato (see next section).
  • Other Chinese historical texts recorded Yayoi Japan as Wa (倭). In Chinese, the word means dwarf and would later be changed within Japan to Wa (和), which means harmony.

Yayoi Period pottery on display at Yoshinogari Site. The site is the best place in Japan to understand this prehistorical period of Japanese history.
Yayoi Period pottery on display at Yoshinogari Site. The site is the best place in Japan to understand this prehistorical period of Japanese history.

Chinese Historical References of Japan

According to ancient Chinese records, Japan was a land of scattered tribes during the Yayoi Period. This contradicts the events stated in the Nihon Shoki, an account of Japanese history penned in the eighth century. However, it should be noted that the Nihon Shoki is regarded by academics as partly mythical/fictional.

Kofun Period (古墳時代 AD 300–AD 538)

The years following the Yayoi Period saw the gradual unification of half of the Japanese archipelago under one clan. Several rulers of this clan also constructed several elaborate burial mounds for themselves. This practice eventually led to modern historians naming this era as Kofun. The name means “ancient tomb” in the Japanese language.

Centered in the Kinai (modern-day Kansai) area of Honshū, the unified kingdom came to be known as Yamato too, a name that’s still synonymous with historical Japan. During this period, Japan continued to be strongly influenced by culture, technology, and arts imported from China and the Korean Peninsula. Buddhism also reached Japan during the final years of the Kofun Period. Historically, the introduction of Buddhism marks the end of this period in ancient Japanese history.


  • The Yamato rulers based their rule on Chinese models. However, they did not have a permanent capital. The capital was frequently shifted, a practice that continued till the Heian Period.
  • The most representative landmarks of the Kofun Period are the immense keyhole-shaped burial mounds of rulers, many of which can still be found in the Kansai region.
  • Based on the location of the above-mentioned burial mounds, the Yamato State is believed to have extended from Yakushima to present-day Niigata Prefecture.
  • The Yamato State was not unchallenged. There were other clans coexisting with them. All of which were eventually subjugated.

Aerial View of Kamiishizumisanzai Kofun in Sakai

Asuka Period (飛鳥時代 AD 538–AD 710)

The Asuka Period of Japanese history began with the introduction of Buddhism in Japan and is characterized by significant socio-political and artistic changes.

Politically, the Yamato clan was affirmed as the supreme ruling entity of Southern Japan. At the height of this period, the famed Regent Prince Shōtoku introduced a new court hierarchy and constitution, both of which were inspired by Chinese ideals and systems. These new systems then formed the foundation for the next stage of Japan’s development as a proper nation.

Importantly, the Asuka Period also witnessed the beginning of a phenomenon that would continue to modern times. In AD 587, the powerful Soga clan took over the government and became the de facto rulers of Japan. They were overthrown in AD 645, following which the Fujiwara clan became the true rulers. Throughout these years, the Yamato Emperors remained in position, still venerated as supreme sovereigns but with little or no power. This phenomenon of actual political might residing away from the throne will consistently be repeated throughout the next 13 hundred years of Japanese history. In a limited way, it curiously mirror the systems of modern constitutional monarchies.


  • The period is named after the Asuka region, which is south of modern-day Nara. Today, the Asuka region is a tourist hotspot for its various Asuka Period architectures and museums.
  • Hōryū-ji, near the Asuka region, is home to what is widely considered the world’s oldest wooden pagoda. The temple was founded by Prince Shōtoku in AD 607.
  • Prince Shōtoku was a devout Buddhist, credited with the founding of Japanese Buddhism. There are many temples associated with him throughout the Kansai region.
  • Prince Shōtoku was also one of the first leaders in Japanese history to refer to Japan as Nihon, or the Land of the Rising Sun.
  • Asukadera Temple in Asuka contains the oldest known Japanese statue of the Buddha with an accepted date of creation (AD 609).

Hōryū-ji with its famed pagoda in the background.
Hōryū-ji with its famed pagoda in the background. | Source

Nara Period (奈良時代 AD 710–AD 794)

This brief period in classical Japanese history contains two major events. These being, the establishment of Japan’s first permanent capital at Heijō-kyō (modern-day Nara), and the Japanese population being decimated by various natural disasters and epidemics.

In reaction to the calamities, Emperor Shōmu ordered the increased promotion of Buddhism, a move that resulted in many large monasteries such as Tōdai-ji being built in Heijō-kyō. Ironically, the political influence of the monasteries soon became too worrying for the royal family and the government, the latter still dominated by the Fujiwara clan.

In AD 794, the Nara Period ended with Emperor Kanmu shifting the capital away from the monasteries to Heian-kyō. Heian-kyō, or modern-day Kyoto, then became Japan’s capital for the next 1000 years.


  • There are partial reconstructions of the Heijō-kyō palace near Nara City today.
  • Only a single hall from the original structure survived. This was moved to Toshodaiji Temple.
  • The most famous temple from the Nara Period is undoubtedly the immense Tōdai-ji. However, the current structure is a reconstruction from AD 1692. The original temple hall is believed to be much larger.
  • Major Buddhist monasteries were so powerful, they were able to compete with aristocratic clans for political dominance.
  • The semi-mythological historical annals, the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, were written during the Nara Period.
  • The first Japanese-styled gardens were built during this classical period of Japanese history.

Majestic Tōdai-ji. Nowadays the most visited tourist attraction in Nara City.
Majestic Tōdai-ji. Nowadays the most visited tourist attraction in Nara City.

Heian Period (平安時代 AD 794–AD 1185)

During the Heian Period, the Yamato court conquered the Ainu lands of Northern Honshū, thus extending their rule over most of the Japanese archipelago. Conversely, it also suffered a prolonged political decline. This decline was the result of courtiers being more concerned with petty power struggles and artistic pursuits, rather than proper governing.

In AD 1068, the Fujiwara hegemony also came to an end when Emperor Go-Sanjō implemented various policies to curb the influence of the Fujiwara clan. Sadly, this did not secure the permanent return of power to the throne, no thanks to the failures of the Taika Reforms.

A land redistribution and taxation program implemented during the Asuka Period, the Taika Reforms impoverished many farmers, forcing them to sell their lands to large landowners. At the same time, tax immunity also led to many aristocrats and monasteries amassing incredible wealth. The combined repercussions ultimately resulted in wealthy landowners actually owning more land than the government, correspondingly enjoying more income too. These landowners then hired private armies to protect their interests, a move that greatly fueled the rise of the military class in Japan.

In the midst of this worsening situation and the decline of the Fujiwara clan, two other aristocratic families rose to prominence. The conflicts between these two, the Minamoto clan and the Taira clan, soon resulted in all-out civil war.

In AD 1160, Taira no Kiyomori became the new true ruler of Japan following victory over the Minamoto Clan in the Heiji Rebellion.

Like the Heian Court before them, the Taira clan was soon seduced by the creature comforts and the intrigues of imperial court life. Meanwhile, the surviving sons of the Minamoto clan slowly rebuilt their armies.

In AD 1180, Minamoto no Yoritomo joined an uprising against Taira rule. He was assisted by his brothers Noriyori and Yoshitsune, the latter one of the most beloved and legendary generals in Japanese history.

In AD 1185, the Taira clan was completely defeated in the famous Battle of Dan-no-ura.

Yoritomo thereafter became the new de facto ruler of Japan. More importantly, he established the Kamakura Shogunate and became the first Shogun, thus kickstarting the next period of Japanese history.


  • The Japanese Kana writing system is said to have been invented during the Heian Period. In turn, the development of the new system saw a proliferation of Japanese literary works.
  • The Japanese Buddhist sects of Tendai and Shingon flourished during the Heian Period.
  • The Tendai Sect, which enjoyed a close relationship with the imperial court, became so powerful they could support their own monastic army.
  • The unusual practice of blackening one’s teeth as a projection of beauty, known as ohaguruo, began in the Heian Period.
  • The magnificent Byōdōin in Uji was built during the Heian Period as a retirement home for a powerful Fujiwara clan member.
  • Development of Mount Kōya, the headquarters of Japanese Shingon Buddhism, also began during the Heian Period.

Heian Period architecture at Kyoto’s Heian Shrine. The brilliant style gives a hint of the peaceful albeit decadent years of that era.
Heian Period architecture at Kyoto’s Heian Shrine. The brilliant style gives a hint of the peaceful albeit decadent years of that era.

Kamakura Period (鎌倉時代 AD 1185–AD 1333)

In a move that would be repeated centuries later in Japanese history by Tokugawa Ieyasu, Minamoto no Yoritomo established his base of power at Kamakura, far away from Heian-kyō. Notoriously, he also ordered the killing of his brothers Noriyori and Yoshitsune. Yoshitsune was forced to commit ritual suicide after being cornered in Hiraizumi.

Yoritomo himself died in AD 1199 from a horse-riding accident, thereafter which his wife Hōjō Masako seized power for her family. For the rest of the Kamakura Period, the Hōjō regents would be the ones wielding true authority in Japan. The Kamakura shoguns were no more than mere puppets.

In AD 1274 and again in AD 1281, the Mongolian Empire launched two massive invasions of Japan, both of which failed because of typhoons. These twin victories, however, did not strengthen Hōjō rule. Instead, the regency was severely weakened by ever-increasing defense expenditures.

In AD 1331, Emperor Go-Daigo attempted to remove the Kamakura Shogunate and the Hōjō Regency by force but was defeated by Kamakura’s General Ashikaga Takauji. When the Emperor repeated his efforts two years later, Takauji switched sides and supported the Emperor instead. With Takauji’s help, Go-Daigo successfully overthrew the Kamakura Shogunate and restored power to the imperial throne. Unfortunately for him, though, the imperial court was by then outdated and inefficient, completely unable to govern the country. Seizing the day once more, Takauji attacked the capital and expelled Go-Daigo. He subsequently appointed himself Shogun, beginning the second shogunate in Japanese history.


  • Japan termed the typhoons that repelled the Mongolians as kamikaze, or divine wind. Today, the name is more notoriously remembered as the suicidal crashing of Japanese planes into Allied forces during World War II.
  • The father of Nichiren Buddhism, Nichiren, lived during the Kamakura Period of Japanese history.
  • Only the first three Shoguns of the Kamakura Shogunate were from the Minamoto clan. The rest were from other aristocratic families such as the Fujiwaras.

The famous Big Buddha of Kamakura was constructed during the Kamakura Period of Japanese history.
The famous Big Buddha of Kamakura was constructed during the Kamakura Period of Japanese history.

Muromachi Period (室町時代 AD 1333–AD 1573)

Although Go-Daigo was expelled by Ashikaga Takauji, he wasn’t out of the game, so to speak. Fleeing to Yoshino, he founded the Southern Court and challenged Takauji’s appointed emperor. This began the Northern and Southern Courts period of Japanese history, during which the Ashikaga Shogunate faced the twin challenges of defeating the Southern Court while maintaining nationwide rule. Though Takauji’s grandson, Yoshimitsu, ultimately succeeded in reuniting the country, the seeds of strife were planted, in the form of allies appointed by the Ashikaga Shogunate to manage the provinces. These allies would steadily grow in power, eventually openly defying the Ashikaga Shogunate. They also styled themselves as daimyōs, the title meaning Great Lord or Great Landowner.

By the final years of the Ashikaga Shogunate, Japan was racked by frequent internal conflicts. The worst of these was the Ōnin War of AD 1467, a succession crisis over who was to be the next Shogun. Though the issue was resolved, the Shogunate lost all power, following which Japan was splintered into numerous feuding states. Worse, large Buddhist monasteries that had long supported their own armies soon joined in the conflicts too. The remnant authority of the Ashikaga Shogunate was destroyed for good in AD 1573 when daimyō Oda Nobunaga drove the 15th Ashikaga Shogun, Yoshiaki, out of the capital. In AD 1588, Yoshiaki formally resigned from his post of Shogun.


  • The era takes its name from the Muromachi district of Heian-kyō, where the “best-performing” Ashikaga Shogun, Yoshimitsu, had his residence.
  • Historians consider the Ashikaga clan the weakest of Japan’s three historical shogunates.
  • Europeans arrived in Japan toward the end of the Muromachi Period.
  • AD 1549 saw the arrival of Francis Xavier and Roman Catholicism in Japan.
  • Kyoto’s magnificent Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) and Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku-ji) were both built during the Muromachi Period.

The Golden Pavilion of Kyoto. The most famous construction of the Muromachi Period of Japanese history.
The Golden Pavilion of Kyoto. The most famous construction of the Muromachi Period of Japanese history.

Azuchi-Momoyama Period (安土桃山時代 AD 1573–AD 1603)

Three names define the Azuchi-Momoyama Period, otherwise known as the warring states era of Japanese history. These names are: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu.

  1. Born in Owari Province (modern-day Western Aichi Prefecture), Oda Nobunaga was a ruthless warlord renowned for his strategic brilliance. Through the forging of strong relationships with foreign missionaries and merchants, he secured powerful European firearms for his armies, thus ensuring a string of important victories in Japan’s bloodiest civil war. By AD 1582, it was clear Nobunaga would emerge the ultimate victor, which would have happened had Nobunaga not then suffered a coup. On June 21, 1582, Nobunaga’s retainer, Akechi Mitsuhide, cornered him in a burning temple. In the face of hopelessness, Nobunaga opted for ritual suicide. His abrupt death immediately created a power vacuum.
  2. No dependable record of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s younger life exists, however, he is popularly believed to be the son of a lowly foot-soldier. Cunning and resourceful, he achieved recognition while serving under Nobunaga. Upon Nobunaga’s death, Hideyoshi also moved quickly to avenge his former lord, in the process conveniently subjugating surviving Oda clan members. By AD 1583, Hideyoshi had replaced Nobunaga as medieval Japan’s most powerful warlord. Though his subsequent megalomaniacal ambitions to invade China failed disastrously and seeded the demise of his clan, Hideyoshi died while in power. Today, Hideyoshi’s stronghold i.e. Osaka Castle remains one of the symbols of Japan.
  3. Like Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu was an ally and subordinate of Nobunaga. Easily the most devious member of the trio, Ieyasu faithfully served Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, never once revealing his true ambitions. In fact, Ieyasu was so adept at his masquerade, he was appointed the chief advisor of Hideyoshi’s young heir, by none other than Hideyoshi himself. In AD 1599, a mere year after Hideyoshi’s passing, Ieyasu turned on his former lord and stormed Osaka Castle. After the decisive Battle of Sekigahara in AD 1600, he emerged the ultimate victor of the Azuchi-Momoyama Period. His appointment as Shogun by Emperor Go-Yōzei in AD 1603 formally commenced the next period in Japanese history.


  • The period takes its name from the strongholds of Nobunaga and Hideyoshi. Nobunaga’s headquarters was the legendary Azuchi Castle. Hideyoshi’s headquarters prior to Osaka Castle was Momoyama Castle.
  • The saying, Nobunaga kneaded the dough; Hideyoshi baked the pie; and Ieyasu ate the pie, summarizes the gory taleof Japan’s three unifying warlords.
  • Other than the above-mentioned trio, there were several other famous warlords from this era. For example, Takeda Shingen of Kagemusha fame.
  • While Nobunaga welcomed Christian missionaries, albeit with ulterior motives, Hideyoshi distrusted them. Hideyoshi notoriously ordered the execution of several missionaries.
  • Ironically, the serene art of tea flourished during this tumultuous period. Nobunaga and Hideyoshi were both enthusiastic collectors of tea ceremony utensils.

For many warlords during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period, castles were expressions of power, might, and ability.
For many warlords during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period, castles were expressions of power, might, and ability.

Edo Period (江戸時代 AD 1603–AD 1868)

The Edo Period is alternatively known as the Tokugawa Shogunate and refers to the three pre-modern centuries when Japan was under the de facto rule of the Tokugawa Shoguns. Major events of this important historical period include a strengthening of social order, the implementation of nation-wide isolationist policies, and a shift of political power from the Heian Court to Edo. “Edo” itself is the historical name of Tokyo and means “bay entrance.”

While Tokugawa laws were often harsh and brutal, Japan enjoyed peace and domestic economic growth during these three centuries. Uniquely Japanese art forms such as Kabuki also flourished brilliantly. As an indication of prosperity, Edo grew from a small fishing village into a bustling city that was home to a million Japanese in the 18th century.

The end of this peaceful period began in AD 1853 with the arrival of American Commodore Matthew C. Perry and his “Black Ships.” Forced by Perry’s gunboat diplomacy to open up its ports to international trade, Japan painfully realized how backward she was compared to western powers. By then, the Tokugawa Shogunate was also in decline, with dangerous discontent festering between the social classes created by the Tokugawa Shoguns. In AD 1867, the 15th Tokugawa Shogun resigned in the face of growing unrest. This, however, did not prevent armed conflict and the Boshin War broke out the following year. With the defeat of the pro-shogunate forces in 1869, authority was at long last fully restored to the imperial crown. This restoration marked Japan’s first step into the modern era.


  • The Tokugawa Shogunate considered Catholicism a major threat, particularly, converted daimyōs in Southern Japan. This was the main reason for isolation.
  • Tokugawa Japan wasn’t completely isolated. Selected foreigners, such as Dutch East India Company personnel, could still visit Japan. However, all were restricted to the artificial island of Dejima in Nagasaki. Dejima is today, a major tourist attraction of Nagasaki.
  • Society was extremely structured during this period of Japanese history.
  • Peace afforded commoners the means and time to seek entertainment. This birthed ukiyo, not the painting style but a general term for the quest for fleeting entertainment. In turn, ukiyo fueled the growth of many industries and art forms.

Today, Edo Period Japan can be experienced at well-preserved small towns like Narai.
Today, Edo Period Japan can be experienced at well-preserved small towns like Narai.

The Meiji Restoration, Meiji, and Taishō Periods (明治維新, 明治, 大正 AD 1868–AD 1926)

The Meiji Restoration takes its name from Emperor Meiji, who was restored to nominal supreme power following the Boshin War.

Under his rule, the victorious leaders of the Boshin War progressively modernize Japan into a leading international power, with westernization the unspoken keyword during these formative years. At the same time, the Japanese military was also aggressive in the establishment of overseas colonies, examples of which being the annexation of the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa) and Korea. By the time of Emperor Meiji’s passing in 1912, Japan was widely considered one of the Great Powers of the world. She was also the strongest independent nation in Asia.

Political domination by the military, nation-wide industrialization, and westernization, continued into the reign of Emperor Taishō, which lasted from 1912 to 1926. After participating in World War I on the side of the Allies, Japan’s international standing was skyrocketed on top of her gaining the South Pacific colonies of defeated Germany. The Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, which killed over a hundred thousand Japanese, then severely challenged the country, but nonetheless, Japan’s growth as a new empire was not hampered. Towards the end of the Taishō Period, extreme nationalism took root in Japan, leading to increased antagonism towards western powers and regional neighbors. These tensions would ultimately kick start the massive confrontation that was the Pacific Theater of World War II.


  • Western design was greatly favored during the Meiji and Taishō periods. Subsequent integration with classic Japanese elements resulted in a uniquely Japanese aesthetic style.
  • While the Tokugawa Shogunate was antagonistic to foreigners, the Meiji government welcomed several thousand foreign “experts” into Japan. Through borrowed technologies, Japan was transformed into Asia’s first industrialized nation within a few decades.
  • The reign of Emperor Meiji also marked the rise of “State Shintoism.” The use of Shinto rites to endorse radical nationalism was a major contributor to Japan’s subsequent expansionist war efforts.
  • The Taishō Period saw the beginning of Japan’s transition into a modern democracy. Unfortunately, this was quickly stifled by military dominance in the Japanese government.

The Meiji Mura theme park showcases several architectural gems from the Meiji and Taishō Period. These structures are noted for their harmonious mix of Eastern and Western elements.
The Meiji Mura theme park showcases several architectural gems from the Meiji and Taishō Period. These structures are noted for their harmonious mix of Eastern and Western elements. | Source

Prewar Shōwa Period and World War II (昭和 AD 1926–AD 1945)

The Shōwa Period is named after Emperor Shōwa, or Emperor Hirohito as he is more commonly remembered as nowadays. The period itself contains three distinct phases. These being the years before World War II, the war itself, and the postwar years thereafter.

The years before the war was marked by the peaking of radical right-wing nationalism and military dominance in Japan. Moderate politicians who attempted to reign in the military were assassinated, for example, Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai. Inukai himself was the last party politician to lead Japan prior to World War II. After his assassination, de facto power was firmly in the hands of the military.

In 1937, the Marco Polo Bridge incident at Wanping, China, led to the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Japan thereafter enjoyed a series of victories cumulating with the capture of Nanking. The appalling Nanking Massacre, which saw the execution of hundreds of thousands of Chinese, was committed after this victory.

The West reacted strongly to Japan’s invasion of China. The United States imposed harsh sanctions, in the face of which Japan responded by forming an alliance with fascist Germany and Italy. After Japanese assets were frozen by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands as punishment for Japan’s invasion of French Indochina, Japan launched a surprise attack on the American Fleet at Pearl Harbor. With American military might in the Pacific temporarily crippled, Japan proceeded to invade the rest of Southeast Asia. Practically all Southeast Asian colonies of the European powers were conquered by Japanese imperial forces by 1942.

Japanese victory in the Asia Pacific region was ultimately short-lived. After the Battle of Midway, the Japanese military suffered a long series of increasingly bloody defeats. On Aug 6 and Aug 9, 1945, the Allies decimated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the world’s first atomic bombings. Confronted with an all-out invasion of the Japanese homeland, further nuclear attacks, and the Soviet Union declaring war, Japan announced an unconditional surrender on Aug 14, 1945. In an unprecedented act throughout Japanese history, Emperor Hirohito also personally announced the surrender on Japanese radio. For many Japanese commoners back then, the thought of the semi-divine Emperor directly speaking to them was considered as unimaginable.


  • As of 2020, Japanese atrocities during World War II remain a highly contentious subject between Japan and her neighbors.
  • Prior to her defeat at Midway, Japanese forces reached as far south as Indonesia.
  • Though she occupied important cities like Shanghai and Nanjing, Japan did not even conquer half of China.
  • Many Japanese cities were flattened by aerial bombings during the final years of the war. Kyoto, however, was famously spared.

The capturing of Iwo-Jima by Allied Forces. WWII was the first time in history Japan was defeated by external powers.
The capturing of Iwo-Jima by Allied Forces. WWII was the first time in history Japan was defeated by external powers.

Postwar Shōwa Period (AD 1945–AD 1989)

The postwar Shōwa Period of Emperor Hirohito’s reign could also be divided into three segments. These being the Allied Occupation that lasted till 1952, the postwar recovery and growth era of the 50s and 60s, and the bubble economy years of the 80s.

Following the unconditional surrender declared by the Emperor on Aug 14, 1945, Japan was stripped of all her wartime territorial gains. Constitutional changes led by US General Douglas MacArthur then spearheaded the demilitarization and democratization of Japan, as well as the separation of Shintoism from the state. In terms of territory, Japan largely remained intact. While she lost all her wartime gains, the original territories of the Japanese archipelago were not seized.

In part thanks to the Korean War, the Japanese economy rapidly recovered after the end of the Allied Occupation. Milestones achieved during this boom period include the hosting of the 1964 Summer Olympics and the inauguration of the Tōkaidō Shinkansen High-Speed Train (Bullet Train) route, the latter also in 1964. Though Japan was severely affected by the oil crisis of the 70s, her position as an economic giant was unshaken. By the 80s, Japan was one of the richest nations of the world. She was also widely regarded as an economic and technological leader.

Japan’s postwar economic miracle cumulated with the asset bubble economy of the late 80s. These heady, champagne-drinking days began their demise in the final years of the Shōwa Period, ending with the economically difficult years of the 90s, a decade some historians refer to as the “Lost Decade.” As of 2020, the Nikkei stock index has never risen above its 1991 highs.


  • The Allied Occupation was the first time in Japanese history that the island nation was occupied by a foreign power.
  • Article 9 of Japan’s postwar constitution forbids the country from maintaining any armed forces. However, this did not stop the country from establishing and maintaining a powerful “Self-Defense” force.
  • Emperor Hirohito was never prosecuted by the Allies for war crimes. This remains a subject of much debate.
  • Japan’s postwar economic miracle resulted in many of Japanese brands elevated to international household names.

Despite ending on a sour note, there is a certain nostalgia for the Showa Period of the 60s and 70s in today's Japan.
Despite ending on a sour note, there is a certain nostalgia for the Showa Period of the 60s and 70s in today's Japan.

Heisei Period (平成 AD 1989–Apr 2019)

The Heisei Period began with the passing of Emperor Hirohito and the ascension of his eldest son as Emperor Akihito on Jan 7, 1989. In the two decades since, Japan was locked in protracted struggles with a stagnating economy, a rapidly aging population, and tenuous relationships with regional neighbors. Nonetheless, as of 2019, Japan remains a global financial, economic, and technological powerhouse.

The Heisei Period was also marked by two catastrophic earthquakes, namely, Kobe (1995) and Tōhoku (2011). The latter was the most powerful earthquake ever registered in Japan and resulted in the meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Currently, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster is still an issue of much concern and debate.

On the other hand, globalization and advances in communication technologies fueled the worldwide popularity of Japanese mass entertainment such as Anime, Manga, and Cosplaying. These interests are nowadays considered synonymous with the term, “pop culture.”

Lastly, affordable mass transportation transformed Japan into a tourism hotspot for group and solo travelers alike. What was once one of the world’s most isolated nation became, ironically, the dream vacation destination of millions of tourists.


  • In spite of economic, natural, and social difficulties, several record-breaking construction projects were completed in the Heisei Period. For example, the Akashi Kaikyō Bridge and the Tokyo Skytree.
  • While largely unnoticeable by casual visitors, right-wing extremism continues to exist in Japan. In 2017, China demanded a boycott of Japan’s APA Hotel Group for promoting books denying the Nanking Massacre.
  • Tensions with China and the two Koreas were made worse by incidences of history rewriting in Japanese school textbooks, as well as top Japanese politicians visiting Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine. Yasukuni enshrines several convicted World War II war criminals.
  • The 1995 Tokyo Subway Sarin Attack by doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo was the worst act of domestic terrorism ever suffered by modern Japan.
  • The Heisei Period of Japanese history formally ended on Apr 30, 2019, with the abdication of Emperor Akihito.

A rainy evening in Shinjuku, Tokyo, in April 2015.
A rainy evening in Shinjuku, Tokyo, in April 2015.

Reiwa Period (令和 May 2019–Present)

Reiwa began on May 1, 2019 with the ascension of Emperor Naruhito following his father’s abdication. The name of the period means “beautiful harmony” and was derived from an eighth-century Waka poetry collection. Of note, the second Kanji of Wa () is also the Kanji often used to represent Japanese origins. For example, wafuku (Japanese clothing) and washoku (Japanese food).

In his first official speech, Emperor Naruhito pledged to continue to work for the unity of the Japanese people. With the Emperor and Empress both having lived and studied overseas for extended periods, analysts predict the royal couple to be more international in their outlooks. The Emperor is also expected to continue his father’s style of frequent outreach to the common people. Both approaches are undoubtedly crucial as Japan continues to navigate the many challenges of the postmodern world.

Sadly, the Reiwa Period thereafter quickly faced its first major crisis in the form of the COVID-19 Pandemic. In the face of numerous country lock downs in March 2020, Japan was forced to postpone Tokyo Olympics 2020, an event that the country has prepared for many years. With the Japanese tourism industry also badly affected by the pandemic, different days lay ahead for the ancient nation and her economy. It remains to be seen how Japan will emerge from these new challenges. Whether it would once again be one of the most prosperous nations of Asia.


  • “Rei” refers to a wave of auspicious energy generated by plum blossoms, while “Wa” is often used to denote peace.
  • To celebrate the new era, Japan announced an unprecedented 10-day holiday from April 27 to May 6, 2019. New coins will also be released into circulation.
  • Emperor Naruhito is the 126th Emperor of Japan. The Japanese Royal House continues to be the longest reigning dynasty in the world.
  • Tokyo Olympics 2020 would have been be the most significant international event to take place in Reiwa Period Japan, had it not been postponed.

What challenges await Japan in Reiwa, the latest period of Japanese history?
What challenges await Japan in Reiwa, the latest period of Japanese history?

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 ScribblingGeek


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      • CYong74 profile imageAUTHOR


        7 months ago from Singapore

        Dear May,

        Yes it is! Thank you for highlighting.

      • profile image


        7 months ago

        Reiwa Period (令和 May 1989–Present) should be started from May 2019, is it typo?

      • CYong74 profile imageAUTHOR


        15 months ago from Singapore

        Hi, thanks for commenting. I can't do that though, because of the editorial policies on this site.

      • profile image

        Danny Letterman 

        15 months ago

        This was an interesting article about Japanese history. Can you please put more websites of Japanese article

      • Emmy ali profile image

        Eman Abdallah Kamel 

        21 months ago from Egypt

        This is a very interesting article. So much information about Japan History.

      • CYong74 profile imageAUTHOR


        21 months ago from Singapore

        Hey Mary, Liz,

        Thanks for commenting! I think there's quite a lot of life lessons to be learned from Japanese history. First of all being, you don't always have to be the boss to wield ultimate power. Often, it's the 2nd-guy who calls the shots.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        21 months ago from UK

        This is a fascinating article. You certainly know a lot about Japanese history.

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        21 months ago from Ontario, Canada

        This is very interesting. I have snippets of these periods when I read some Japanese novels but this orderly presentation is very helpful to understand Japanese history. Lovely palaces.


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