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Brief History of Japan

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 An account of Japan in a Chinese historical document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
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
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

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 GoDaigo, 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, downto-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.

Source: 5th
Jan 2015

History of Japanese Homes

In ancient Japan, there were essentially two different types of houses. The first was what is
known as a pit-dwelling house, in which columns are inserted into a big hole dug in the
ground and then surrounded by grass. The second was built with the floor raised above the
ground. The style of house with an elevated floor is said to have come to Japan from
Southeast Asia, and this type of building was apparently used to store grain and other foods
so that they wouldn't spoil from heat and humidity.
In around the eleventh century, when Japan's unique culture came into full bloom, members
of the aristocracy began to build a distinctive style of house for themselves called shindenzukuri. This type of house, which stood in the midst of a large garden, was symmetrical, and
its rooms were connected with long hallways. It allowed residents to enjoy seasonal events
and the beauty of nature.
As political power passed from the nobles to the samurai (warrior class) and a new form of
Buddhism made its way to Japan, core aspects of traditional Japanese culture as we know it
today began to take root, including ikebana(flower arranging), the tea ceremony, and Noh.
The samurai created their own style of house called shoin-zukuri. This influence can be seen
in the alcove ornament of the guest rooms of modern houses.
The houses of common people developed differently. Farmers in different regions of the
country had houses that were adapted to local conditions. The houses built in the gassho style
in Shirakawa-go, which is listed as a World Heritage site, are examples of residences in
which common people lived. Some farmers' houses had space to keep their cattle and horses
indoors, while the houses of city dwellers were often squeezed close together along the
streets. As urban homeowners were taxed based on the width of the front side of the house,
their houses were built to be long and narrow. This style can still be seen today in older cities
like Kyoto.
Housing continued to develop in the Meiji era (1868-1912). Some towns had houses built in
the kura-zukuri style, which featured Japanese-looking exteriors but were made from more
fire-resistant materials. The style that is the basis for Japanese homes today, which usually
have a long hallway through the middle of the house with rooms on each side, is said to
combine foreign culture with the style of house preferred by the samurai.
Source: at 5th Jan 2015

In the case of Europe, stone seemed the logical building material, in Japan with its vast
forests it was wood. The architecture of Japan is a response to its natural environment: its
weather, its geography and its harmony with all of those elements. European structures were
built as barriers against the forces of nature. It's the "man with nature, man vs. nature"
philosophies which set the ground rules for differences between Japan and western cultures in
art, literature and also building construction.
From that time on, the ruling classes always lived in structures elevated from the ground. The
lower classes remained living on mat covered dirt floors for many centuries to come. The
predominant flooring for the nobility was wooden planks.
A thick mat base of woven rice straw, toko, covered by woven rush, igusa.. Tatami size is
said to have been determined by the sleeping area of a person. The introduction of the shoinzukuri style expanded the use of tatami as the entire floor covering over the wooden planks.
Tatami became the unit of measure of room size. Many believe that there is just one size of
tatami, approximately six feet by three feet.
The advantage of post and beam construction is that there are no bearing walls. The fact that
the building's load is taken by the pillars frees the walls and interior partitions to be not only
light in weight but also mobile as well. The traditional house is really one large room that has
numerous partitions. That is why you can transform a sitting room into a banquet room just
by taking down the shoji and fusuma doors. Fusuma are the opaque sliding doors seen in the
interior of the house. Their origins come from the screens imported from China. Their
function in the house is two-fold. They partition the interior rooms of the house and they
provide artistic decoration since they are usually painted with a scene of some sort. Fusuma
have graced the interiors of castles and temples for centuries. Some of the greatest artists
have painted masterpieces on fusuma doors. Shoji are the lattice frame sliding doors which
are covered with translucent paper made from mulberry bark (sorry, rice paper is a
misnomer). They usually partition the interior from the exterior, and subsequently the outer
bounderies of the tatami. Walking on the tatami side of the shoji requires bare or stocking
feet; on the other side slippers or shoes are acceptable. Shoji's translucence allows diffused
light to filter into the house. It also provides the observer an patterns of shadow and light.
Straw/shingles then tiles, kawara introduced from 6th century with Buddhism.

It was not until the shoin-zukuri that the tokonoma became the permanent formal area of art
display. There are several components of the tokonoma that are usually present. First there is
the tokobashira, the alcove pillar or post. The post defines the tokonoma's area as does the
dais or stand. In the chaistu , the tea hut, the tokobashira is usually made from an unplaned
trunk of a tree such as a cherry or cedar. Scrolls are placed in the center wall of the tokonoma.
Flower arrangements and okimono are placed on the dais in front of it. To the other side of
the tokonoma one might find a desk, tsukeshoin , with a staggered set of shelves, chigaidana. On the side wall there is usually a window of some form to let in light. Each tokonoma
is unique to the space available for it.
The main guest of honor is to be seated next to the tokonoma, however, because of the
seating arrangements the guest of honor's back is to the tokonoma. Actually, the host has the
best view of the tokonoma while talking to the guest, which is probably fitting since the host
has spent the time carefully choosing the right scroll for the occasion. The guests generally
have the best view of the garden which is often directly opposite that of the tokonoma.
Source: at 7th Jan 2015


1. Ministry of Foreign Affairs by Kodansha International Ltd. (n.d.). History of Japan.

Retrieved January 5, 2015 from The Virtual Museum of Japanese Arts website:
2. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, MOFA. (n.d.). The History of Japanese Houses.
Retrieved January 5, 2015 from Kids Web Japan website:
3. Gary Myers. (2010). Elements of Japanese Interiors. Retrieved January 7, 2015 from
Yoshino Japanese Antiques website:
4. MiNDTV35. (2013, April 3). Shoin-Zukuri Architecture. Retrieved January 7, 2015
from Youtube video file: