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 the Chinese Empire and pre-modern Korea have also left lasting influences that can still be seen in modern Japanese culture today. The Mongolian 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, much of the traditional heritage is well preserved.
Japan has been inhabited since prehistoric times, with the first settlers being hunter-hunter gatherer groups known as the Jomon people that are believed to be the ancestors of today's Ainu people. 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 race.
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 would then have 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 would subsequently send envoys to Tang China to learn about Chinese culture and practices, and built a centralised system of government based on the Chinese model. The imperial family would subsequently build 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. The imperial capital was subsequently moved to Heian-kyo, known today as Kyoto, during the Heian Period, with the city also built to resemble Chang'an. However, the emperor would lose much of his influence, with actual power falling into the hands of the Fujiwara clan of court nobles.
The samurai, or warrior class, would come to prominence during the Kamakura Period, when Minamoto no Yoritomo would gain power and be granted the hereditary title of shogun by the emperor, and ruled from his base in Kamakura. However, this would be short-lived, and the Hojo clan would eventually usurp power from the Minamoto clan following the death of Yoritomo. Ashikaga Takauji would subsequently defeat the Hojo clan to establish the Ashikaga shogunate from his base in Ashikaga, ushering in the Muromachi Period.
Following the fall of the Ashikaga shogunate, Japan would descend 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 would be completed under the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu who re-established a centralised Japanese state and ruled from his power base in Edo, known to day 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 rest of the world surged forward. This isolation would end with the arrival of American Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 during the Black Ships Incident, as the Japanese navy was unable to stand up against the vastly technologically superior American ships, and was forced to open up to trade with the rest of the world. This would eventually lead to the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, to return 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 would follow a different trajectory, becoming the independent Ryukyu Kingdom in the 16th century A.D. 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 would only be 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.
- 1 Nara. This city is over 1,300 years old and was capital of Japan before Kyoto.
- 2 Kyoto. The old capital and imperial residence.
- 3 Yokohama. Japan's gateway to the outer world.
- 4 Kamakura. A former capital city, full of Buddhist temples.
- 5 Nagasaki. One of few foreign ports from the 17th to the latter half of the 19th century.
- Hokkaido. The northernmost of the four Home Islands of Japan, home of the Ainu people.
- 6 Himeji. Japan's most famous castle.
- 7 Kiyosu. Seat of Oda Nobunaga, one of the most influential warlords of the Warring States period
- 8 Osaka. Seat of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, another influential warlord of the Warring States period
- 9 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 Restoration.
- 10 Naha. Currently the capital of Okinawa prefecture, and formerly the capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Home to the reconstructed Shuri Castle, which was the residence of the king of the Ryukyu Kingdom.