Pre-modern Japan

Japan is one of Asia's oldest civilizations. While the Japanese archipelago was settled in 50,000 BC, classical Japan was founded in AD 538. Being an island nation has allowed Japan to develop a unique culture but at the same time, the proximity of Imperial China and pre-modern Korea have also left lasting influences that can still be seen in modern Japanese culture today. The Mongol Empire, which conquered much of Asia, barely failed to invade Japan.

For most countries, the line between pre-modern and modern history is difficult to draw. Not so for Japan; the country was virtually isolated from the outer world until the Black Ships Incident in 1853, which opened the country for commerce. With extensive social reforms, leading up to the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan became the first non-Western nation to industrialize.

While Japan has become known for advanced technology and pop culture, and aerial bombardment combined with iconoclastic urban planning have many cities devoid of buildings predating the 1850s, much of the traditional heritage is well preserved.

Japan historical travel topics:
Pre-modern JapanJapanese colonial empire
Japanese castlesSites of Japan's Meiji Industrial Revolution


A reconstructed Jomon village.

Japan has been inhabited since prehistoric times, with the first settlers being paleolithic people. The oldest evidence of human existence in Japan is a 120,000-year-old stone tool found at the Sunahara site in Izumo City, Shimane Prefecture. Humans are believed to have entered Japan by taking three routes known to date which are: a southward route through Hokkaido (about 25,000 years ago), a northward route through Okinawa (about 35,000 years ago), and the Tsushima route (about 38,000 years ago). Human remains excavated from archaeological sites from the Jomon period, about 12,000 to 2,500 years ago, were hunter-hunter gatherer groups known as the Jomon people that are believed to be the ancestors of old and New Peoples of Japan. Japan would subsequently be populated by more settlers from mainland Asia known as the Yayoi people, who are believed to have intermingled with the Jomon people to give rise to the Japanese ethnic group (about 2,800 years ago). Perhaps because Okinawa and Hokkaido were remote islands, Okinawans and Ainu have strong Jomon blood in their veins. There are other things it has been argued that humans with no connection to the Jomon, such as the Minatogawa people, may have lived before the Jomon.

The first centralised Japanese state can be traced to the Kofun Period, during which a kingdom known as Yamato ruled what is today the Western half of Japan. The rulers of Yamato were a hereditary line of emperors, whose lineage continues in the modern Japanese imperial family to this day. The Japanese had their first contact with China and Korea during the Asuka Period, during which Japanese culture started to absorb Chinese influences, initially via the Korean kingdom of Baekje. Prince Shotoku sent envoys to Tang China to learn about Chinese culture and practices, and built a centralized system of government based on the Chinese model. The imperial family built a new capital at Heijo-kyo, known today as Nara, during what is known as the Nara Period, with the city designed to resemble Chang'an, the capital of Tang China. During the Heian Period, the imperial capital was moved to Heian-kyo, known today as Kyoto, which was also built to resemble Chang'an. However, the emperor lost much of his influence, and power fell into the hands of the Fujiwara clan of court nobles.

The samurai, or warrior class, came to prominence during the Kamakura Period, when Minamoto no Yoritomo gained power and was granted the hereditary title of shogun by the emperor. A shogun is a mixture of a generalissismus, prime minister and grand vizier and was often the true power center when the emperor was merely a symbolic figure. He ruled from his base in Kamakura. However, this was short-lived, and the Hojo clan usurped power from the Minamoto clan following the death of Yoritomo. Ashikaga Takauji defeated the Hojo clan to establish the Ashikaga shogunate from his base in Ashikaga, ushering in the Muromachi Period.

Himeji castle was built in 1333.

Following the fall of the Ashikaga shogunate, Japan descended into years of warfare and anarchy, known as the Warring States Period, during which many samurai fought for control over Japan. The late stage of the Warring States Period was known as the Azuchi-Momoyama Period, during which Japan was gradually unified under the influence of the powerful warlords Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Following the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, unification was completed under the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu, who re-established a centralized Japanese state and ruled from his power base in Edo, known today as Tokyo, ushering in the Edo Period. The Tokugawa shogunate shut Japan off from the rest of the world, and kept Japan peaceful for the next few centuries, but also led Japan to stagnate while the West surged forward. The Edo period was also an era of religious persecution for the small Japanese Christian community leading to the emergence of "hidden Christians" who continued practicing their idiosyncratic version of Christianity in secret until Japan was opened back up and religious toleration was established.

This isolation ended with the arrival of American Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 during the Black Ships Incident, as the Japanese navy was unable to stand up to the vastly technologically superior American ships, and was forced to open up to trade with the rest of the world. This led to the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, returning power to the Emperor Meiji in 1868; an event which is known as the Meiji Restoration, marking the end of pre-modern Japan as covered in this article.

The Ryukyu Islands followed a different trajectory, becoming the independent Ryukyu Kingdom in the 16th century AD. Similar to the Joseon Dynasty in Korea, the Ryukyu Kingdom was a tributary state of Imperial China, and for centuries served as a conduit for trade between China and Japan. The Ryukyu Kingdom was annexed by Japan as Okinawa prefecture in 1879. Due to its separate history, the Ryukyu Islands have a culture that has stronger Chinese influences and is distinct from that of mainland Japan, as well as local languages that are distinct from, though related to Japanese. However, due to cultural assimilation policies instituted since the Meiji restoration, the Ryukyuan languages are now moribund; most younger people cannot speak them unless they were raised by their grandparents. The Ryukyuans are also not recognized as and ethnic minority by the Japanese government, and are instead regarded as a subset of the Yamato people.

Although most of Japanese are not divided into separate ethnic groups, each region of Japan is divided by mountains and has its own unique culture and dialect. The only officially-recognized ethnic minority in Japan is the Ainu people of Hokkaido, who spoke a language that is unrelated to Japanese. However, over a century of aggressive cultural assimilation policies since the Meiji Restoration means that most Ainu have assimilated into the dominant Yamato ethnic group, and the Ainu language is now moribund, with only a handful of elderly speakers remaining.

Religion and culture


Japan developed a unique synthesis between "national Shintoism", the descendant of the traditional polytheism and the imported Buddhism which mainly came through China. Today most Japanese practice a combination of the two even if they might answer in polls that they do not subscribe to any religion as this faith is simply seen as the default of "how things ought to be done". Christianity with its demands for exclusivity obviously couldn't fit in which is one of the reasons that led to its persecution. Japan also adapted Chinese writing to form no less than three commonly used writing systems (Kanji, Hiragana, Katakana) and achieved literacy rates above 50% in pre-industrial times.


Map of Pre-modern Japan
  • 1 Nara. This city is over 1,300 years old and was capital of Japan before Kyoto.
  • 2 Kyoto. The old imperial capital, still home to the former Imperial Palace, and many historic Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.
  • 3 Yokohama. Japan's gateway to the outer world.
  • 4 Kamakura. A former capital city, full of Buddhist temples.
  • 5 Nagasaki. A port city and the only part of the country that was open to foreigners during the Edo Period. Foreigners were mostly confined to a small part of the city, and their interactions with Japanese people were heavily restricted.
  • 6 Hokkaido. The northernmost of the four Home Islands of Japan, home of the Ainu people. Hokkaido (Q35581) on Wikidata Hokkaido on Wikipedia
  • 7 Himeji. Japan's most famous castle.
  • 8 Kiyosu. Seat of Oda Nobunaga, one of the most influential warlords of the Warring States period
  • 9 Osaka. Seat of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, another influential warlord of the Warring States period. It is home to the Mozu Furuichi Tombs, a World Cultural Heritage Site.
  • 10 Edo. Seat of the Tokugawa Shogunate during the Edo period. Has since been re-named Tokyo and been the capital of Japan since the Imperial Court relocated here during the Meiji period.
  • 11 Naha. It is the capital of Okinawa prefecture, and used to be the capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Home to the reconstructed Shuri Castle, which was the residence of the king of the Ryukyu Kingdom.
  • 12 Enoshima. Scene of the Enoshima Engi, a history of shrines written by the Buddhist monk Kōkei in the 11th century. Today the island at the mouth of the Katase River is a local resort hub.

See also

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