Prehistoric Japan

During the Jomon period, which began around 10,000 BC, the inhabitants of Japan lived by fishing, hunting, and gathering. The period is named after the cord-markings (jomon) on the pottery they produced. In the Yayoi period, beginning around 300 BC, rice cultivation was introduced from the Korean Peninsula. An account of Japan in a Chinese historical document of the third century AD describes a queen named Himiko ruling over a country called Yamatai.

Kofun Period (ca. AD 300-710)

In the fourth century, ancestors of the present imperial family established Japan's first unified state under what is known as the Yamato court. During this period, manufactured articles, weapons, and agricultural tools were introduced from China and Korea. The period is named after the huge mounded tombs (kofun) that were built for the political elite. These tombs were often surrounded with clay cylinders and figurines called haniwa.

Nara Period (710-794)

A centralized government, with its capital in what is now the city of Nara, was established under a Chinese-style system of law codes known as the Ritsuryo system. Buddhism became the national religion, and Buddhist art and architecture flourished. Provincial temples called kokubunji were set up throughout Japan. It was during this period that the Great Buddha at the Todaiji temple in Nara was built. Histories of Japan, such as Kojiki and Nihon shoki were compiled, as was the celebrated collection of poetry called Man'yoshu.

Heian Period (794-1185)

After the capital moved to what is now Kyoto, certain noble families,especially the Fujiwara family, gained control of the government, ruling on behalf of the emperor. The Chinese-style culture that had dominated the Nara period was gradually replaced by a more indigenous style of culture closer to the lives of the people and their natural surroundings. The palaces of the emperor and the residences of the noble families incorporated beautiful gardens, with buildings in the shinden-zukuri style of architecture. Literary masterpieces such as Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji and Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book were written during this period.

Kamakura Period (1185-1333)

The Taira family, a warrior family that had come to dominate the imperial court in the late Heian period, was overthrown by the Minamoto family. Minamoto no Yoritomo was given the title of shogun by the court, and he set up a military-style government at Kamakura - the Kamakura Shogunate - ushering in a period of de facto rule by members of the warrior class. In the arts, a vigorous, realistic style emerged that was in keeping with the warrior spirit. The statues of fierce guardian deities by Unkei and other sculptors at the Southern Great Gate of Todaiji Temple are examples of this powerful, realistic style. In literature, this period is noted for military tales such as the Tale of the Heike, which celebrated the exploits of the warriors.

Muromachi Period (1333-1568)

The beginning of this period was dominated by a political standoff between Emperor Go-Daigo, who had briefly restored control of the government to the imperial court, and his former supporter Ashikaga Takauji, who had overthrown the Kamakura Shogunate but had then gone on to establish the Muromachi Shogunate. In time the shogunate weakened, losing its centralized control over local warlords; the latter part of this period is referred to as the Sengoku period - a period of "warring states." More plebeian forms of culture began to emerge as the merchant class and the peasants managed to improve their circumstances. In the arts this was a period of Chinese-style ink painting, and in theater Noh drama and kyogen came to the fore. This was also the period in which the pursuits of tea ceremony and flower arrangement were born. In architecture, an important development was the shoin-zukuri style, with elegant tatami-matted rooms, featuring an alcove where paintings were hung.

Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568-1600)

The nation was reunified by Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (foremost among the Sengoku warlords) who respectively ruled it briefly. In the arts, this was a period of increased contact with Europeans, who had begun to visit Japan earlier in the century. In place of the Buddhist influence of earlier periods, a lavishly ornate decorative style was developed at the hands of the warlords and the emerging merchant classes in the towns. This new style reached its height in Nobunaga's Azuchi Castle and Hideyoshi's Momoyama and Osaka castles. At this time the tea master Sen no Rikyu developed the tea ceremony into an esthetic discipline that is known as the Way of Tea.

Edo Period (1600-1868)

Tokugawa Ieyasu, who defeated other vassals of the deceased Toyotomi Hideyoshi at the Battle of Sekigahara and thereby gained control of Japan, established the Tokugawa Shogunate in Edo (now Tokyo). The Tokugawa shoguns ruled Japan for over 260 years, and for some 200 of these years the country was virtually shut off from foreign contact by the shogunate's policy of national seclusion. From the end of the 17th century through the beginning of the 18th century, a colorful, down-to-earth new culture developed among the townsmen of the older cities of Kyoto and Osaka. Ihara Saikaku composed his ukiyo-zoshi (books of the "floating world"), Chikamatsu Monzaemon portrayed tragic relationships between men and women in his puppet plays, and Matsuo Basho raised the comic haiku verse form to the level of a literary art. By the Bunka and Bunsei eras, at the beginning of the 19th century, this new merchant-class form of culture was also flourishing in the shogunal capital of Edo. The kabuki drama was in its heyday. The printing of books had become an industry. The art of the woodblock print (ukiyoe) was born, with Sharaku producing his portraits of actors, Utamaro his pictures of beautiful women, and Hokusai and Hiroshige their landscapes.

Meiji Period (1868-1912)

The Meiji Restoration, by which political authority was restored from the shogunate to the imperial court, ushered in a period of far-reaching reform. The policy of national seclusion was rescinded, and the culture and civilization of the West began to pervade every aspect of Japanese life. Japan's victories in the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars enabled it to assume the stance of a modern, imperialistic world power. Modern Japanese literature was born with the publication of Futabatei Shimei's novel Ukigumo (Drifting Clouds), the first literary work to be written in the modern colloquial language. A Japanese version of romanticism soon appeared, with writers making their first attempts at free, natural expression of people's true feelings.

Taisho Period (1912-1926)

The educated urban middle classes avidly read the latest translations of Western books and provided the audience for new experiments in literature, drama, music, and painting. New kings of mass media - large circulation newspapers, general monthly magazines like Chuo koron (The Central Review) and Kaizo, and radio broadcasts - added to the richness of cultural life. The significant development in literature was the emergence of the Shirakaba school. Members of the group including Mushanokoji Saneatsu and Shiga Naoya were united by their upper- class background as well as by their basic humanism. In the Western-style of painting, Yasui Sotaro and Umehara Ryuzaburo returned from Paris to promote the styles of Cezanne and Renoir. Japanese-style painters such as Yokoyama Taikan and Hishida Shunso were also affected by European styles, although on a limited scale.

Showa Period (1926-1989)
Heisei Period (1989 to present)

The financial crisis of 1927, which occurred in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 that devastated the Tokyo area, eventually led to a long period of economic depression. In these circumstances, the power of the military increased, and it eventually gained control of the government. The Manchurian Incident of 1931 launched a series of events that culminated in Japan's entry into World War II. This war ended in Japan's defeat, with Emperor Showa accepting the terms of the Potsdam Declaration. Japan rose from the rubble of defeat, going on to achieve an almost miraculous economic recovery, which has allowed it to take its place among the world's leading democratic powers.