A Brief History of Japan

A Brief History of Japan

Located in the Pacific Ocean, Japan is made up of a string of islands. Over 6,800 islands, actually! Let's explore these islands and how they came to be Japan!

mount fuji behind cherry blossoms in japan

Mount Fuji and cherry blossoms

Honshu, the largest island, is the 7th largest in the world. It’s the most populated island of Japan, and also home to Mount Fuji (which is a volcano!)

Japan might not be very big, but it has a BIG history! Japan’s history goes way back to pre-history. That's before history was written down.

ancient japanese vessel and polished arrowheads

Archaeologists look for clues to what life was like ages ago. They’ve found pottery from 100,000 BC and stone tools from 32,000 BC! People have been in Japan since at least the Paleolithic period.

From Hunting and Gathering to Agriculture

The clans and tribes who lived in Japan, in the very early stages, were groups of hunter/gatherers. This was a common means of survival for all people hundreds of thousands of years ago.

As people began to figure out more of how the world around them worked, they discovered methods of growing food. This allowed them to stay closer to home and start settlements. 

In the Yayoi period, which was around 300 BC to 250 AD, the people of the islands discovered ways of growing rice. Farming and agriculture became a main part of society.

japanese rice field

Even now, over 2,000 years later, rice is still a big part of food and nutrition in Japan!

The growing cultivation of rice also brought about changes in society. Clan culture was still dominating Japan during the Yayoi period.

The various clans clashed and fought with each other over all sorts of stuff.

The Land of the Rising Sun

From the Chinese point of reference, Japan was the area where the sun popped up over the horizon every morning.

The Japanese people called their islands Nippon or Nihon, which translates to "source of the sun."

The flag of Japan even displays a large red circle representing the rising sun.

The World’s Oldest Monarchy

All the different clans were brought together by one ruling family.

The Imperial Family, also known as the Yamato Dynasty, is the longest lasting monarchy in the world! Dating back to 660 BC, there are 126 recognized emperors in this family’s lineage.

Emperor Jimmu was the first. Not much is known about him, except through legends. And the legends tell the tale of Emperor Jimmu being a direct descendant of the Japanese sun goddess, Amaterasu.

Though the Imperial House of Japan has been the royal family for a very long time, they weren’t always completely in charge.

Enter the Samurai

samurai in kanji and samurai in armor and helmet

Japan went through a rough period where land owners were building up their properties and fighting with each other. There was a lot of fighting going on.

The landowners hired skilled swordsmen known as samurai to defend what they had.

They were warriors.

The samurai put and end to the fighting. Then they began to gain power.

Pretty soon, the warrior families took over ruling the country. The emperor was restricted to the city of Edo. (That’s what Tokyo used to be called.)

Shogunate Rise

samurai armor and a shogunate boshido helmet

The Edo period of Japan saw the rise of the Tokugawa shoguns. Though, technically, the shogunate (the military dictatorship) was under the rule of the emperor, they really ran things.

A shogun is a shortened version of sei-i taishogun. It’s the highest rank a warrior could have. It literally means “barbarian quelling generalissimo.” That’s a pretty heavy-duty title!

They stopped the fighting amongst the land owners. They established some pretty strict rules. The shogunate said what people could and couldn’t do. They said what religion people were allowed to be a part of.

And from 1603, when the first of the shoguns took over handling the running of the country, until about 1867, they controlled just about everything.


During the rule of the shogunate, Japan was cut off from most of the rest of the world...completely!

No one could come into the country and everyone that wasn’t a natural citizen (or was a Japanese Christian) was booted from Japan. This was part of the shogunate law.

Sakoku means “chained country.” Pretty accurate description, huh?

This period lasted for about 250 years. During this time, Japan was cut off from the rest of the world, except for four ports which allowed trade.

They only allowed trade with certain groups. Everyone else was banned!

This period, while it sounds like it might be pretty boring, was actually a very peaceful era for the country of Japan.

Sakoku came to an end with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry sailing into port with four ships.

The Demand for Trade

The confusion that Commodore Perry brought about with his abrupt arrival in 1853 brought about chaos which had been building up with the people of Japan.

They were tired of the strict rules imposed by the shogunate. They wanted their emperor back in charge.

The last shogun yielded to the emperor, and trade and travel resumed with the outside world.

Cool Stuff with Roots in Japan

Japan is the birthplace of a lot of interesting things.

japanese bonsai chrysanthemum

You’ve heard of bonsai trees? These are crafty little trees which are shaped and pruned as they grow in shallow pots. It’s an art form in Japan. And it’s not limited to trees.

Gardeners also do this with shrubs and other plants.

Another art form revolving around plants is Ikebana. This is the art of displaying flowers. And it’s taken very seriously. There are whole schools dedicated to teaching this art.

It originated in the 15th century by a Buddhist priest, Ikenobo Senkei. He started the first school dedicated to teaching the art of flower arrangement!

The simple and pretty arrangements were first used to decorate the altars in Buddhist temples. These flower arrangements use, not only the blooms, but also the branches, stems, and leaves.

manga artwork from japan

The art form known as manga originated in the 12th century on scrolls in Japan! The stylized art is recognizable all over the place. People of all ages read manga comic strips and graphic novels.

Manga refers to the comic strips and graphic novels. Anime, which is also from Japan, is the animated version.

Fun fact: most of the drawings are left in black-and-white. And in Japan they are published in manga magazines in episodes. Each story is continued in the next issue!

sushi on a bamboo mat

Sushi and sashimi originated in Japan… yum! Incorporating two of the major food staples in Japanese culture, rice and fish.

The country of Japan has grown and evolved over the centuries. Many more things have come from Japan and Japanese culture to the rest of the world. 

You can explore the tastes of Japan with our Japan box! And remember to take a look in the Explorer Toolkit for lesson plans which help you Explore Japan in a Week.

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