A Japanophile who has survived 15 solo trips to Japan. Ced's visits focus on discovering the country’s lesser-known attractions.
Japanese Historical Periods Timeline
- Jōmon (14,000 BC–300 BC)
- Yayoi (BC 900–AD 300)
- Kofun (AD 300–AD 538)
- Asuka (AD 538–AD 710)
- Nara (AD 710–AD 794)
- Heian (AD 794–AD 1185)
- Kamakura (AD 1185–AD 1333)
- Muromachi (AD 1333–AD 1573)
- Azuchi-Momoyama (AD 1573–AD 1603)
- Edo (AD 1603–AD 1868)
- The Meiji Restoration, Meiji, and Taishō Periods (AD 1868–AD 1926)
- Prewar Shōwa and World War II (AD 1926–AD 1945)
- Postwar Shōwa (AD 1945–AD 1989)
- Heisei (AD 1989–Apr 2019)
- Reiwa (May 2019–Present)
Jōmon Period (縄文時代 14,000 BC–300 BC)
The earliest evidence of human habitation in the Japanese archipelago dates from around 30,000 years ago, with evidence of ancient human inhabitation found in places such as Okinawa’s Yamashita Cave. From 13,000 BC onwards, a hunter-gatherer culture also gradually developed in the islands. This culture would eventually achieve significant cultural complexity.
In 1877, American archaeologist Edward S. Morse named this prehistorical period of Japanese history as Jōmon, the name itself meaning “cord-marked.” His choice of name was inspired by the way the above-mentioned hunter-gatherers decorated pottery by impressing rope-cords onto wet clay.
Of note, Shintoism creation myths state the founding of the Japanese Imperial Family to have happened during the Jōmon Period. However, there is no conclusive archaeological evidence supporting these claims.
- In academic discussions, the Jōmon Period is usually divided into the early, middle, and late/final eras. Most timelines, however, do not make this distinction.
- The most convenient place to learn about this prehistorical period of Japanese history is Tokyo National Museum, which has a sizable collection of Jōmon Period relics. Other major national museums, such as the Kyūshū National Museum, also have extensive displays.
- There are various recreations of Jōmon Period villages across Japan. For example, the Sannai-Maruyama Site in Aomori Prefecture, and the Kitakogane Site in Hokkaido.
- 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.
Yayoi Period (弥生時代 BC 300–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, minimally decorated pottery from this era was first found. Often described as the Iron Age of Japan, this prehistorical period witnessed the growth of agricultural development. There was also noteworthy importing of weapons and tools, and agricultural technology, from China and Korea.
Geographically, Yayoi culture extended from southern Kyūshū to northern Honshū, with archaeological 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 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.
- There is academic disagreement over when the Yayoi Period began. Some discussions place the start date as early as the tenth century BC.
- 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 the most famous and extensive reconstruction of a Yayoi Period settlement.
- The Chinese historical text, Records of the Three Kingdoms, mentioned Yayoi Japan. This ancient text named the ancient island nation 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.
Aerial View of Kamiishizumisanzai Kofun in Sakai
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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 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 soon came to be known as Yamato too, a name that’s still synonymous with historical Japan. During this period, the nascent country continued to be strongly influenced by culture, technology, and arts imported from China and the Korean Peninsula.
Buddhism also reached the country during the final years of the Kofun Period. Historically, the introduction of Buddhism marks the end of this pre-medieval period in the Japanese history timeline.
- The Yamato rulers based their rule on Chinese models. However, they did not have any permanent capitals. 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.
Asuka Period (飛鳥時代 AD 538–AD 710)
The Asuka Period of Japanese history began with the introduction of Buddhism in the country. It was also 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 eventually formed the foundation for the next stage of Japan’s development as a proper nation.
Importantly, the Asuka Period further 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. They were overthrown in AD 645, following which the Fujiwara clan monopolized power.
Throughout these decades, 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 Japanese throne will consistently be repeated throughout the next 13 hundred years. In a limited way, it curiously mirrors 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 several of the world’s oldest wooden structures. 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 Japanese leaders to refer to his country 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).
Nara Period (奈良時代 AD 710–AD 794)
Though the shortest period of medieval Japanese history, this brief era witnessed several significant events. These being, the establishment of the country’s first permanent capital at Heijō-kyō (modern-day Nara), the completion of Japanese literary classics such as the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, and Buddhism gaining permanent roots in Japan.
Though Buddhism was introduced into Japan over a century ago, it only received state recognition, albeit indirectly, under the reign of Emperor Shōmu. A fervent believer, Shōmu established provincial temples known as Kokubunji in each of the provinces, the most famous of which is Tōdai-ji, the provincial temple of the Yamato Province. Apart from Tōdai-ji, many other notable Buddhist institutions were also founded in Heijō-kyō.
Ironically, the political influence of these monasteries eventually 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, will remain the Japanese imperial 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 Heijō-kyō palace 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 actually 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 first Japanese-styled gardens were built during this medieval period.
- The Man'yō-shū, Japan’s oldest anthology of poetry, was also compiled during the Nara Period.
- While Emperor Kanmu was wary of powerful Buddhist temples, he still sponsored Buddhist pilgrimages to China. Most notably, that of Saichō’s and Kūkai’s. The two masters would later establish two major branches of Japanese Buddhism.
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 reform, centralization 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.
To protect their property and money, these landowners then hired private armies as protection. This move is nowadays recognized as a major factor contributing to the rise of the warrior class, i.e. samurai, in Japan. Politically, it also splintered Japan into a feudal system in which the court is constantly surrounded by powerful factions.
Amid this changing social situation and the decline of the Fujiwara clan, two aristocratic families furthermore rose to prominence. The conflicts between these two, the Minamoto clan and the Taira clan, eventually resulted in all-out civil war.
In AD 1160, Taira no Kiyomori became the new de facto ruler of the country following his 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 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 remnants of the Taira clan were completely defeated in the famous Battle of Dan-no-ura.
Yoritomo thereafter became the new de facto ruler of the country. More importantly, he established the Kamakura Shogunate and became the first Shogun, thus kickstarting the next Japanese historical era.
- The Japanese Kana writing system is believed to have been created during the Heian Period. In turn, the development of the new system saw a proliferation of literary works.
- Thanks to the efforts of their respective founders, 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, began during the early years of the Heian Period.
- The world-famous The Tale of Genji, one of the world’s earliest novels, was written during the Heian Period.
Kamakura Period (鎌倉時代 AD 1185–AD 1333)
In a move that would be repeated centuries later by Tokugawa Ieyasu, Minamoto no Yoritomo established his base of power at Kamakura, far away from Heian-kyō i.e. the imperial capital. 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, following 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. The Kamakura shoguns, revered as they continued to be, were no more than political 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 betrayed and defeated. When the Emperor repeated his efforts two years later, the general sent by Kamakura to deal with him, Ashikaga Takauji, deflected 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 also appointed himself Shogun, thus beginning the second shogunate in Japanese history.
- Japan named the typhoons that repelled the Mongolians as kamikaze, or divine wind. Today, the name is more notoriously remembered as the suicidal crashing of Zero fighter planes into Allied forces during World War II.
- Several new schools of Japanese Buddhism, such as the Jōdo Shinshū sect and the Nichiren School, were founded during the Kamakura Period.
- 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 Hojo Regents were known as Shikken. In Japanese, the kanji for this title roughly means “authority executor.”
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 move 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 permanently planted. This came in the form of allies appointed by the Ashikaga Shogunate to manage the provinces.
Such allies steadily grew in power over the next few decades, till powerful enough to openly defy the Ashikaga Shogunate. The leaders of these factions also styled themselves as daimyōs, the title meaning Great Lord or Great Landowner.
By the final years of the Ashikaga Shogunate, the whole country was racked by endless 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 crisis was resolved, the Shogunate lost all remaining power in the process, following which the country was splintered into numerous feuding states.
Worse, large Buddhist monasteries that had long supported their own armies soon joined the conflicts too. 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 shogunates.
- The final years of the Muromachi Period saw the arrival of Europeans in the country. For example, the Portuguese landed in 1543 at Tanegashima and introduced European firearms to Japan. (Thus, the Japanese matchlock gun is still often called Tanegashima)
- Jesuit Francis Xavier also reached Japan’s shores in AD 1549.
- Kyoto’s magnificent Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) and Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku-ji) were both built during the Muromachi Period.
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.
- 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 that 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.
- 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 by way of Korea disastrously failed 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 the country.
- 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 Edo Period.
- This bloody Japanese historical period takes its name from the strongholds of Nobunaga and Hideyoshi. Nobunaga’s headquarters was the legendary Azuchi Castle. Hideyoshi’s headquarters before Osaka Castle was Momoyama Castle.
- Nobunaga was notably, also the first Japanese warlord to use firearms.
- 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.
Edo Period (江戸時代 AD 1603–AD 1868)
Some Japanese history timelines alternatively refer to the Edo Period as the Tokugawa Shogunate. Regardless of name, the period 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, the country 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 pre-modern 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 ports to international trade, Japan finally 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, Yoshinobu, 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 last pro-shogunate forces in AD 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 Christianity a major threat, particularly, evangelized 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 and trade. 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 the three centuries of Tokugawa rule.
- 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.
- Though “disposed,” Yoshinobu was neither killed nor imprisoned. He spent his later years indulging in hobbies before made a prince. He died in 1913 at the age of 76.
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 rule following the Boshin War.
Under his leadership, the victorious leaders of the Boshin War progressively modernized 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, the country’s international standing 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 people, 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 also took root, leading to increased antagonism towards western powers and regional neighbors. These tensions ultimately started 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 traditional 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 their fold. Using borrowed technologies, Japan was transformed into Asia’s first industrialized nation within a few decades.
- The reign of Emperor Meiji also saw the rise of “State Shintoism.” The use of Shinto rites to endorse radical nationalism was a major contributor to the country'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 government.
- Militarism wasn’t the only reason pushing Japan towards war. Chronic economic woes lasted throughout the 1920s and 30s.
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 referred to 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 political might shifting towards a military government. Horrifically, moderate politicians who attempted to reign in the military were even assassinated; for example, Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai. Inukai himself was also the last party politician to lead Nihon 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.
In 1940, the Japanese army further invaded French Indochina to restrict imports into China, and signed the Tripartite Pact with fascist Germany and Italy. After negotiations faltered in 1941, the United States froze Japanese assets and imposed an oil embargo on Aug 1, 1941. All these were part of the path to what is perhaps the most notorious Japanese attack of the second world war.
On Dec 7, 1941, the imperial Japanese army attacked the American Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. With American military might in the Pacific then temporarily crippled, the Imperial Japanese army proceeded to invade the rest of Southeast Asia. Practically all Southeast Asian colonies of the European powers were conquered by 1942.
Victory in the Asia Pacific region was ultimately short-lived, though. 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 also decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the world’s first atomic bombings. Confronted with an all-out invasion of the homeland, further nuclear attacks, and the Soviet Union declaring war, Japan announced an unconditional surrender on Aug 15, 1945.
In an unprecedented act throughout Japanese history, Emperor Hirohito personally announced the surrender on radio. For many Japanese commoners back then, the thought of the semi-divine Emperor directly speaking to them was considered unimaginable.
- As of 2022, atrocities during World War II remain a highly contentious subject between Japan and her neighbors.
- Before her defeat at Midway, the imperial army 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 because of its historical heritage.
- Japanese militarism was fueled by the concept of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Envisioned in Japan since the 1930s, the concept envisioned a bloc of Asian nations, led by Japan, that was self-sufficient and free of the control of Western powers.
Postwar Shōwa Period (AD 1945–AD 1989)
The postwar Shōwa Period could also be divided into three segments. These were 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 Emperor Hirohito on Aug 15, 1945, Japan was stripped of all her wartime territorial gains. Constitutional changes led by US General Douglas MacArthur then spearheaded demilitarization and democratization, 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 subsequently badly affected by the oil crisis of the 70s, her position as an economic giant was unshaken. By the 80s, the Land of the Rising Sun was one of the richest nations in the world. She was also widely regarded as an economic and technological leader.
This postwar economic miracle then 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 2021, 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.
- The postwar economic miracle resulted in many Japanese brands elevated to the status of international household names.
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, the country did not lose its status as a global financial, economic, and technological powerhouse.
The Heisei Period was also witness to 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 the nation 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.
- Despite 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 the country. In 2017, China demanded a boycott of the 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 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 in Japanese history.
- The Heisei Period formally ended on Apr 30, 2019, with the abdication of Emperor Akihito.
Reiwa Period (令和 May 2019–Present)
The Reiwa Period began on May 1, 2019 with the ascension of Emperor Naruhito following his father’s abdication. The name means “beautiful harmony” and was derived from the eighth-century Man'yōshū poetry collection. Of note, the second Kanji of Wa (和) 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 common people. With the Emperor and Empress both having lived and studied overseas for extended periods, political analysts predicted the royal couple to be more international in their outlooks. The Emperor was 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 encountered its first major crisis in the form of the COVID-19 Pandemic. In the face of numerous country lockdowns in March 2020, Japan was forced to postpone Tokyo Olympics 2020. The country had spent many years preparing for this prestigious sporting event.
With international and domestic tourism also badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, difficult days lay ahead for the ancient nation and her economy. It remains to be seen how the Land of the Rising Sun would emerge from these new challenges. Would she retain her position as one of the most prosperous modern 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 were also released into circulation.
- Emperor Naruhito is the 126th Emperor of Japan. The Japanese Royal House is the longest-reigning dynasty in the world too.
- Tokyo Olympics 2020 would have been the most significant international event to take place in Reiwa Period Japan in 2020, had it not been postponed.
- Despite overwhelming domestic protest, Tokyo Olympics 2020 proceeded ahead in July/August 2021. While the event itself was largely free of issues, Japanese cities were besieged by soaring COVID-19 infection rates throughout the fortnight. The delays, preventive measures, etc, further resulted in severe over expenditure.
A detailed narration of the Senkoku Period i.e. the Azuchi-Momoyama Period. Japan’s bloodiest civil war to date.
The Bubble Burst and Recession: 1990s-
An academic analysis of Japan’s “Lost Decade.” The champagne days, and the consequences, that continue to plague the Japanese economy.
Defining the Heisei Era
A series of articles by The Japan Times that examines the development of Japan during the Heisei Period.
- Davis, F. H. (1997). Myths and Legends of Japan. Dover Publications. ISBN: 0-486-27045-9.
- Nishimura, S. (2005). An Illustrated History of Japan. Tuttle Pub. ISBN: 0804836701.
- Totman, C. D. (2002). A History of Japan. Blackwell. ISBN: 063121447X.
- 蔡新苗 (Ed.). (2013). 世界历史百科全书. 中国华侨出版社. ISBN: 978-5113-3584-5.
- Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, June 19). History of Japan. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Japan.
- Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, June 13). 日本の歴史. Wikipedia. https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E6%97%A5%E6%9C%AC%E3%81%AE%E6%AD%B4%E5%8F%B2. [In Japanese]
- Japanese History. Japanese History | JapanVisitor Japan Travel Guide. (n.d.). https://www.japanvisitor.com/japanese-culture/history.
- Szczepanski, K. (2019, July 24). The history of Japan's samurai warriors. ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/samurai-history-195813
- Cartwright, M. (2021, June 18). Kamakura Period. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/Kamakura_Period/.
- Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, June 3). Sengoku period. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sengoku_period.
- History.com Editors. (2009, November 9). Tokugawa Period and Meiji Restoration. History.com. https://www.history.com/topics/japan/meiji-restoration.
- Timeline of Events in Japan. Facing History and Ourselves. (n.d.). https://www.facinghistory.org/nanjing-atrocities-crimes-war/timeline-events-japan.
- 政策研究大学院大学(GRIPS). (n.d.). https://www.grips.ac.jp/teacher/oono/hp/lecture_J/lec13.htm.
- Gilhooly, R., Martin, A. K. T., Ito, M., Hornyak, T., Kelts, R., Coskrey, J., McKirdy, A., Brasor, P., & Tsubuku, M. (2019, April 29). Defining the Heisei Era - News. The Japan Times. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/column/defining-the-heisei-era/.
- Over budget and fraught with problems, Tokyo GAMES SPARK calls for Olympic reforms. Voice of America. (n.d.). https://www.voanews.com/east-asia-pacific/over-budget-and-fraught-problems-tokyo-games-spark-calls-olympic-reforms.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Ced Yong
Ced Yong (author) from Asia on February 26, 2019:
Hi, thanks for commenting. I can't do that though, because of the editorial policies on this site.
Danny Letterman on February 23, 2019:
This was an interesting article about Japanese history. Can you please put more websites of Japanese article
Eman Abdallah Kamel from Egypt on September 10, 2018:
This is a very interesting article. So much information about Japan History.
Ced Yong (author) from Asia on September 07, 2018:
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.
Liz Westwood from UK on August 31, 2018:
This is a fascinating article. You certainly know a lot about Japanese history.
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on August 31, 2018:
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.