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Portal:Ancient Japan

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Introduction

Depiction of bearded Emperor Jimmu with his emblematic long bow and an accompanying wild bird.

The history of Japan covers Japan and its relation to the world. It is characterized by isolationist, semi-open and expansionist periods.

Please see the era classifications for details of each era.

The very first human habitation in the Japanese archipelago has been traced to prehistoric times around 30,000 BCE. The Jōmon period, named after its "cord-marked" pottery, was followed by the Yayoi in the first millennium BC when new technologies were introduced from continental Asia. During this period, the first known written reference to Japan was recorded in the Chinese Book of Han in the first century AD. Between the fourth century and the ninth century, Japan's many kingdoms and tribes gradually came to be unified under a centralized government, nominally controlled by the Emperor. This imperial dynasty continues to reign over Japan. In 794, a new imperial capital was established at Heian-kyō (modern Kyoto), marking the beginning of the Heian period, which lasted until 1185. The Heian period is considered a golden age of classical Japanese culture. Japanese religious life from this time and onwards was a mix of native Shinto practices and Buddhism.

Over the following centuries, the power of the Emperor and the imperial court gradually declined, passing first to great clans of civilian aristocrats – most notably the Fujiwara – and then to the military clans and their armies of samurai. The Minamoto clan under Minamoto no Yoritomo emerged victorious from the Genpei War of 1180–85, defeating their rival military clan, the Taira. After seizing power, Yoritomo set up his capital in Kamakura and took the title of shōgun. In 1274 and 1281, the Kamakura shogunate withstood two Mongol invasions, but in 1333 it was toppled by a rival claimant to the shogunate, ushering in the Muromachi period. During the Muromachi period regional warlords called daimyōs grew in power at the expense of the shōgun. Eventually, Japan descended into a period of civil war. Over the course of the late sixteenth century, Japan was reunified under the leadership of the prominent daimyō Oda Nobunaga and his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi. After Hideyoshi's death in 1598, Tokugawa Ieyasu came to power and was appointed shōgun by the Emperor. The Tokugawa shogunate, which governed from Edo (modern Tokyo), presided over a prosperous and peaceful era known as the Edo period (1600–1868). The Tokugawa shogunate imposed a strict class system on Japanese society and cut off almost all contact with the outside world.

Portugal and Japan started their first affiliation in 1543, making the Portuguese the first Europeans to reach Japan by landing in the southern archipelago of Japan. They had a significant impact on Japan, even in this initial limited interaction, introducing firearms to Japanese warfare. The Netherlands was the first to establish trade relations with Japan, Japanese and Dutch relations are dating back to 1609. The American Perry Expedition in 1853–54 more completely ended Japan's seclusion; this contributed to the fall of the shogunate and the return of power to the Emperor during the Boshin War in 1868. The new national leadership of the following Meiji period transformed the isolated feudal island country into an empire that closely followed Western models and became a great power. Although democracy developed and modern civilian culture prospered during the Taishō period (1912–26), Japan's powerful military had great autonomy and overruled Japan's civilian leaders in the 1920s and 1930s. The military invaded Manchuria in 1931, and from 1937 the conflict escalated into a prolonged war with China. Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 led to war with the United States and its allies. Japan's forces soon became overextended, but the military held out in spite of Allied air attacks that inflicted severe damage on population centers. Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's unconditional surrender on August 15, 1945, following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria.

The Allies occupied Japan until 1952, during which a new constitution was enacted in 1947 that transformed Japan into a constitutional monarchy. After 1955, Japan enjoyed very high economic growth, and became a world economic powerhouse. Since the 1990s, the Lost Decade had been a major issue, such as the 1995 Great Kobe-Osaka earthquake and Tokyo subway sarin attack. In 2004, Japan sent a military force as part of the international coalition forces during the Iraq War.

On Friday, March 11, 2011, at 2:46 p.m. (UTC+9), Japan suffered from a powerful magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami, one of the most powerful earthquakes recorded. The earthquake killed almost 20,000 people, affected places in the three regions of Tohoku, Chubu, and Kanto in the northeast of Honshu, including the Tokyo area, had massive economic ramifications, and caused the serious Fukushima nuclear power disaster.

Selected article

Statue of a kitsune.
Kitsune (, キツネ, IPA: [kitsɯne] (About this soundlisten)) in the literal sense is the Japanese word for 'fox', specifically in the red fox of East Asia. Foxes are a common subject of Japanese folklore; in English, kitsune refers to them in this context. Stories depict legendary foxes as intelligent beings and as possessing paranormal abilities that increase with their age and wisdom. According to Yōkai folklore, all foxes have the ability to shapeshift into human form. While some folktales speak of kitsune employing this ability to trick others – as foxes in folklore often do – other stories portray them as faithful guardians, friends, lovers, and wives.

Foxes and humans lived close together in ancient Japan; this companionship gave rise to legends about the creatures. Kitsune have become closely associated with Inari, a Shinto kami or spirit, and serve as its messengers. This role has reinforced the fox's supernatural significance. The more tails a kitsune has – they may have as many as nine – the older, wiser, and more powerful it is. Because of their potential power and influence, some people make sacrifices to them as to a deity.

Conversely foxes were often seen as "witch animals", especially during the superstitious Edo period (1603–1867), and were thought of as goblins who could not be trusted (similar to some badgers and cats).

Selected images

Did you know...

Shell midden strata - Chiba, Japan.

Selected National Treasure

Ujigami-jinja's Main Shrine (Japan's National Treasure)
The Ujigami Shrine (宇治上神社, Ujigami-jinja) is a Shinto shrine in the city of Uji, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan. The shrine was built as a guardian shrine for the nearby Byōdō-in, and is adjacent to the Uji Shrine. In 1994, it was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as one of the "Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto". The honden and haiden have been designated by the Agency for Cultural Affairs as National Treasures in the category shrines.

The Ujigami Shrine is dedicated to the Emperor Ōjin and his sons, the imperial princes Uji no Wakiiratsuko and Emperor Nintoku. Uji no Wakiiratsuko committed suicide to solve a dispute over the imperial succession, and the shrine was built in his honor.

Selected biography

Yamamoto Kansuke fighting a giant boar, in a woodblock print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.
Yamamoto Kansuke (山本 勘助, 1501 – October 18, 1561) was a Japanese samurai of the Sengoku period. He was known as one of the "Twenty-Four Generals of Takeda Shingen". Also known by his formal name, Haruyuki (晴幸). He was a brilliant strategist, and is particularly known for his plan which led to victory in the fourth battle of Kawanakajima against Uesugi Kenshin. However, Kansuke never lived to see his plan succeed; thinking it to have failed, he charged headlong into the enemy ranks, dying in battle.

In the news

November 2010: A 35,000 year old stone tool with a ground edge is found in Australia, predating the earliest ancient Japanese example by at least 5,000 years. (1)


August 2010: Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan promised to return a “small portion” of the estimated 61,000 artifacts that were taken from Korea during colonial rule. (2)


March 2009: For the first time since World War II, a complete set of ancient Japanese dolls was displayed at the week-long "Session Road in Bloom" to celebrate the 14th Panagbenga Festival. (3)

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Lists: List of National Treasures of Japan (castles)

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