Humanities 210 MIC/WIC- Cora Agatucci
Cultures & Literatures of Asia

Japan Timeline 1:
Early Japan
(to CE 1168)

Asian Timelines Table of Contents Literary & Cultural History
Learn more about selected Japanese topics by clicking the links embedded in these timelines.
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The timeline pages are under construction and probably always will be...


"Japan is an island nation, separated by Asia on the east by the Sea of Japan and from the Americas, on the west, by the Pacific Ocean. Unlike many other island nations, Japan did not suffer military invasions from other countries, so for almost fifteen centuries, Japan has been, with the exception of influence from China, virtually isolated from its neighbors. As a result of this isolation, Japan developed a strong sense of cultural identity based on a homogeneous people who spoke a common language and shared strong political, social, religious, and artistic traditions" (Hume xi).
ca. 5000 Japan before Written History: Migrations: Early migrations & settlement of Japan by diverse East Asian groups; population concentrates on coastal plains esp. of so-central Honshu & areas of other 3 main volcanic mountainous islands level enough for cultivation of the Japanese staple, rice. (See agriculture and Japanese Geography: map of the four large islands -- Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu -- arcing off the east coast of the Asian mainland to form Japan.)

Jomon Culture (ca. 2000 BCE)

3000 - 2000 Jomon Culture (named for cord-like decorations on pottery: Jomon "cord pattern" pottery 5000-200 BCE): hunter-gatherers living in pits in ground, sophisticated ceramics. Cultural patterns take shape: aesthetic sensibility to beauty of natural world is primary in religion, arts, architecture; limited resources are maximized by hardworking, disciplined population; geographical isolation homogenizes culture and language. Indigenous Ainu peoples are driven into north Honshu and Hokkaido, &/or gradually assimilated into mainstream Japanese groups (From Hunters to Rice Growers: Jomon period).
NIHONGO: For most of its history, the Japanese language (called Nihongo in Japan) developed in isolation. As a result, linguists have found it difficult to establish any links between the Japanese language—its vocabulary, sound system, and grammar—and those of other languages, to establish which linguistic family Nihongo belongs to. Because the Japanese language seems to have developed in virtual isolation from other languages, there is no conclusive evidence relating Japanese to a single family of languages and to that family's common ancestor language. The most prominent hypothesis places Japanese in the family of Altaic languages—which include Turkish, Mongolian, and Korean, relating Japanese most closely to the Korean language. However, other scholars believe the Japanese language is related to the languages of the South Pacific (the family of Austronesian languages). It is also important to note that in Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, the Ainu people, who are genetically and culturally different from the rest of the Japanese, speak a language that has proven even more difficult to relate to a single language family.

Pre-8th century: Oral tradition of songs, ballads, ritual prayers, myths, legends emerges (see photo of Mt. Fuji, the national symbol of Japan).

"To the Japanese mind, Fujisan is much more than a single volcano. It is regarded as a sacred object, and the climbing of Mt. Fuji has long been a religious practice. It has exerted a great influence upon Japanese culture. Throughout the history of Japanese art and literature, this holy mountain has been the subject of uncountable poems and pictures. The yearning for greatness and beauty symbolized by Fujisan led the ancients to name many local mountains and towns after this beautiful mountain."
Mt. Fuji photo gallery (Yoshiyuki Miyata)

600 Legendary Emperor Jimmu claimed to have established state of Japan. (Of related interest: Japanese Creation Myth (712 CE) from Genji Shibukawa: Tales from the Kojiki.)

Yayoi Culture (ca. 1st century BCE)

1st century BCE - to -
CE 1st cent.
Yayoi Culture: wet-rice cultivation, iron working, wheel-turned pottery, sophisticated bronzeware (e.g., bells: click Bronze Bell). Early Japanese societies divided into 100s of clans, each with clan deity & claimed descent from a real/fictional common ancestor. Yayoi societies have rigid social distinctions, the warrior elite supported by the peasantry (90% of the population) and a small percentage of slaves. Women have strong positions in matriarchal households, as shamans (priests conducting religious ceremonies and worship), & some as clan leaders and later empresses.
Shinto, literally meaning "the way of the gods," is an ancient Japanese religion from the earliest times, centering on the ideas of Japanese intimacy with nature and ancestor worship. All things on earth were brought forth and ruled over by the gods and spirits—kami--who reside throughout all nature. Mountains and trees often become objects of worship, and Shrine archways and sacred Shinto rope (torii) mark shrine precincts and sacred areas where deities dwell. Ordinarily, shrines (jinja)are built there, and objects of worship in which gods or kami reside are enshrined. Shinto has no elaborated theology or scriptures. Its priests, kannushi, minister at Shinto shrines, serving the kami by making offerings, reciting prayers, performing purification for worshippers, executing weddings, and managing sales of written oracles (omikuji), talismans (omamori), and good luck charms. Omikuji are written on long narrow paper and usually are tied to trees after being read in hopes that their prayers will be answered. Omamori are said to summon good fortune and expel evil, so divinities' names or prayers or temple and shrine names are written on pieces of wood or scraps of paper. Shinto is said to constitute the foundation of the sensibility of the Japanese people, supported by the Emperor system, even among contemporary non-believers. The Japanese Imperial Family continues today to observe ancient Shinto spiritual practices. (See painting: "The cooperative and labor intensive demands of the annual wet rice agricultural cycle...give a particular rhythm to Japanese ceremonial life." The proximity to the sea has also shaped the cultural patterns of Japanese life. See What is Shinto? and "Shinto and the Sacred Dimension of Nature" (Dr. Carmen Blacker, Univ. of Cambridge). Or Shinto: The Japanese Heart - Tour a Shinto Shrine.

AD/CE 1st - 8th centuries

From CE 1st century Japanese import and adapt Chinese ideas, production techniques, institutional models, and other cultural features; Chinese borrowing is indirect & mediated via Korea, occurring by sea, through Korea, via traveling merchants, monks, and students who study in China.
1st to 4th
Japanese develop unique civilization by blending their own culture with selective import, adaptation, & conscious refashioning of Chinese influences. Japan imitates but controls this process, retaining political independence from China while acknowledging Chinese cultural superiority in many areas.

Uji Tomb Culture (ca. CE 3rd century)

200-552 Uji (clan) period & Tomb culture (see Kofun era Bronze Mirror CE 200-500)
300-400 Yamato clan establishes imperial control through islands & extended into southern Korea. Shinto religion practiced. The Yamato claim descent from Shinto sun-goddess Amaterasu
5th century: Chinese script is introduced. Japanese was strictly a spoken language, called Old Japanese, before the introduction of Chinese characters, called kanji, in the 5th century. The Japanese did not produce written documents. Thus scholars have little evidence of the development and characteristics of the ancient Japanese language, and a number of features of Old Japanese have been lost.

Kanji: The system of Chinese characters (which the Japanese call kanji) is a difficult system to learn and use because of the large number of characters (ideograms, or idea pictures) and the complexity involved both in writing and in reading each character. Each character is composed of symbols associated with a meaning or idea, rather than a sound. The Chinese and later Japanese methods of writing in characters (a character is called moji in Japanese) look very different from Western systems of writing, based on letters in alphabets which individually have no meaning, but are related to the sounds of pronunciation.

With the introduction of a writing system, Chinese writing was adapted laboriously to spoken Japanese, and the Japanese people began to record their language and oral arts, using Chinese characters, in written poetry and prose.

Taika Period (552-710)

552 Taika period begins.
574-622 Prince Shotoku: reorganizes Japanese state on Chinese models, establishes new capital at Nara, imperial center of cultivation of Chinese literature, learning, governmental institutions
From 580s Buddhism (called Bukkyo in Japan) is imported from China & Korea, adopted and becomes an important influence in Japanese arts, religion, and ethics among the elite & peasant majority.
Japanese Buddhism: A Historical Overview (Part 1) and Shaka Triad, Buddhist art, ca. 623, of Asuka period, CE 552-645)
The coming of Buddhism (Bukkyo) stimulated the definition of Shinto, the older indigenous nature worship of many gods and spirits--kami-- of the natural world, at simple unornamented shrines. (Shinto style architecture is still dominant in Japan today.) Buddhists built temples throughout Japan under government patronage and often with the support of Shinto shrines. Buddhism, with its non-theistic doctrine, co-existed fairly harmoniously, co-influenced and occasionally synthesized with Shinto in Shinbutsu-Shugo. Shinto and Bukkyo spirituality and religious practices often parallel, forming the deeply rooted spiritual culture of Japan still evident today. It is not uncommon in contemporary Japan for the same house to set up both Buddhist and Shinto family altars, or to enact Shinto and Buddhist rituals at weddings and funerals. See Japanese Buddhism: A Historical Overview (with images).
Ca. 595 Emergence of published literature in borrowed Chinese characters during the reign of Suiko.
580s to mid-7th century Controversy grows regarding foreign influences, central to factional struggles for imperial throne and provincial power.
645 - 710 Taika reforms instituted, attempting to revamp imperial administration, master 1000s of Chinese characters, write dynastic histories, develop elaborate court etiquette on Chinese imperial models. During the later Taika period, the Japanese court is awash in Chinese influences, as nobility master Confucian ways, worship at Chinese style temples, admire Chinese Buddhist subjects and techniques in the arts. ( See Amida Trinity at the Shrine of the Lady Tachibana, Horyu-ji, late 7th century).

Nara Period (710-784)

710 - 784 Nara period: At Nara (map), the first permanent imperial capital, Buddhist ethics, Confucian legal codes, Chinese court rituals & Chinese-style bureaucracy enhance Japanese rulers’ legitimacy and dignity (see photos of ancient Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples). However, Japan lacks China’s resource base, warrior elites resist imperial designs for large-scale conscription of peasant service and labor. Many Taika reforms fail, resisted by the aristocracy and Buddhist monks. (See Birth of a Nation under Chinese Influences: Nara and Kyoto. Todaiji, begun 747, marked the apex of classical Buddhist art and architecture in Japan. The temple's honzon, or principal object of worship, is a colossal gilt-bronze image -measuring some 15 meters in height-of the cosmic Buddha called the Nara Daibutu came to symbolize the power, wealth,and instrusiveness of state-sanctioned Buddhism. See the Guze Kannon, a form of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara as the universal saviour: Bodhisattvas are compassionate beings who have postponed their own enlightment in order to save others. See also Shitenno, clay statue; and 8th c. Horyu-ji: Four groups of dry clay figures at the floor of the five-story Nara pagoda.)

Nara Era Literature

712: Koji-ki (Records of Ancient Matters) contains many oral compositions of previous centuries collected and written down, largely in Japanese with Chinese characters (kanji). "Japan’s long and varied literary history, from the publication of the Kokiji (Record of Ancient Matters) in A.D. 712, to the more recent translation and publication of the works of Mishima Yukio and other contemporary writers of the 1970s, is at last becoming accessible to the West" (Hume xi; Nancy G. Hume’s collection Japanese Aesthetics and Culture (1995), referenced at the end of Timeline 4, is highly recommended "to facilitate, for the Western reader, an understanding of the aesthetic, cultural, and artistic legacy which shaped and informed Japan’s literary history" [xi-xii]).
720: Nihon shoki (History Book of Ancient Japan), written almost exclusively in Chinese, offers earliest extant histories of Japan, explaining the origin of the Japanese people, the formation of the Japanese state, and the essence of the national polity.
After 759: Manyo-shu (Anthology of a Myriad Leaves), ca.777?, the first great Japanese poetry collection, is completed. It features 4,516 poems drawn from many sources, including lyric poetry developed from the early ballads. Lyric poetry celebrates the intense moment (vs. the narrative or story-telling impulse of fiction and drama). The poet Otomo no Yakamochi (d. 785) is considered the last compiler of the Manyo-shu, which is written in manyo-gana, a complex, cumbrous writing system using Chinese characters as both phonetic (sound) and semantic (meaning) symbols of syllables, rather than of words.
The prevailing mood of the Many
o-shu anthology is makoto (truth or sincerity), the full involvement of the person. Two important poetic forms dominate the anthology: (1) the choka (long poem), consisting of alternate lines of five and seven syllables, followed by a final line of seven syllables to which is appended one or more hanka (envoys); and (2) the tanka (short poem), consisting of 31 syllables, written in five lines according to a pattern of five, seven, five, seven, and seven syllables. While the choka waned in popularity, the tanka became the preeminent Japanese verse form, maintaining its vitality until the modern period. The main feature of tanka is that, in expressing the gamut of feelings in a simple form, it must contain--and this is an indispensable feature—a suggestiveness felt beyond the words. Perhaps a requirement for an outstanding tanka is that it causes associations with a suggestiveness not expressed in words and a deep elegance. Today there are still many lovers of this art form.

From the preface of the later Heian era anthology of poetry,
the Kokinwakashu:
"the Japanese poetry grows out of people's feelings
to become leaves of words for everything in the world."

Heian Period (794-1160)

784 - 794 Japanese capital moved to Heian (the Japanese imperial capital from 794-1868 - modern Kyoto) after the imperial plot of empress Koken, assisted by a Buddhist monk, forces the Japanese emperor to flee in 784. During this period, Buddhist monasteries were forbidden and Taika reforms abandoned.
794 - 857 Heian Period: The Heian is a refined court culture dedicated to pursuit of beauty (see photos of Heian temples, gardens and architectural treasures of modern Kyoto). Chinese models are prized but not slavishly imitated; indigenous culture becomes increasingly refined and sophisticated. Heian court dominated by powerful aristocracy like the Fujiwara family, but offset by growing power of provincial clans and militia, who call for the revival and strengthening of indigenous Japanese culture and traditions. See Zocho Ten and Jikoku Ten [two of the four Guardian Kings], Portrait of the monk Ganjin [Chien-chen], 8th c.portrait of the founder of Tashodai-ji, and Mandra (mandala), theological diagram or schema prominent in Esoteric Buddhism. The mandala, which originated in India and is made up of interlocking triangles and circles, has been used by ascetics as aids to private meditation. In the kondo of Japanese Shingon temples, two large mandalas are frequently mounted on permanent wooden screens at right angles to the axis of the image platform. See also Amida Buddhism.
838 Last Japanese embassy to China.
857 - 1160 Late Heian or Fujiwara period: high value placed on writing original verses, and distinctly Japanese & elegant poetry written by court men and women; Chinese writing simplified and made compatible with spoken Japanese. The court becomes increasingly detached from life outside it. See Ho-o-Do "Phoenix Hall" of Byodo-in (ca. 1053).
Heian Era Literature (794-1186): Aristocratic court society at Heian (present-day Kyoto) created a new type of literature (poetry and prose fiction), aided by the creation of two types of simplified Japanese kana (or syllabaries, systems of writing in characters based on phonetics, or a mixture of the sounds of spoken Japanese, and of the Japanese apprehension of Chinese pronunciation of characters). These two kana are the hiragana and the katakana, based on a mixture of native Japanese words and Japanese apprehension of Chinese pronunciation of characters. Each syllabary is a character that represents a syllable in the language, and, unlike a Chinese character, it represents a sound but not a meaning. Hiragana and katakana contain the same set of sounds, but the sound ka in Japanese may be represented by the hiragana or the katakana , both of which evolved from the Chinese ideographic character .

Japanese writing today still uses two principal systems of orthography, or moji (writing in characters): Chinese characters (kanji) and syllabaries (kana), a system in which each written character represents a syllable. Katakana is used to write words borrowed from Western languages such as the French language, the German language, and the English language. Kanji, hiragana, and katakana frequently appear in the same sentence.

C.E. 905: Kokin-shu (Anthology of Ancient and Modern Poems), a waka collection compiled by Ki Tsurayuki (died ca. 945), reflects the change in mood from that of personal sincerity of the previous period, to one of mono no aware, or empathy with the essence of things, a bond linking nature and human beings (See What is Kokin Wakashu?)

10th century: Prose forms such as poetic diary (a type of monogatari, or narrative tale) also develop: the Tosa-Diary (935; trans. 1912), also by Tsurayuki, recounts his journey home to Kyoto from Tosa Province, with moving references to his daughter's death there. Other prose monogatari include fairy tales (e.g.The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, trans. 1956), and poem tales (e.g. Ise monogatari or The Tales of Ise, c. 980.)
ca. 978? -1026?: Lady Murasaki Shikibu records Heian court life in Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji, written ca. 1009-1020), a fictional life history of a prominent and amorous son of emperor who is devoted to aesthetic pleasures & obsessed with courtly social conventions. (See Murasaki Shikibu and beautiful narrative picture scrolls--1, 2, 3, 4, ca. CE 1120-1140--from the Tale of Genji, all of late Heian period.)
The Tale of Genji, written in hiragana, is considered the first important novel in world literature. It also includes many tanka written by the characters in various situations. The novel offers a detailed panoramic picture of Heian court life, tracing in 54 long chapters the life and loves of Prince Genji and Kaoru, his presumed son. The work of Murasaki Shikibu has frequently been translated into English.

The Pillow-Book, the earlier of the two classic works, is a witty, often brilliant, collection of sketches revealing the more worldly aspects of the same Heian court society (first translated into English by scholar Arthur Waley in 1928). The Tale of Genji and Makura-no-soshi (trans. The Pillow-Book) by Sei Shonagon, another woman of the court, are two of the greatest works of the Heian period.

Juni-hitoe is a ceremonial robe that was the proper attire for court ladies and daughters of the warrior-class families in the Heian Period (794-1185) and after. It was a modification of the clothing worn by court ladies in the Nara Period (710-784) and even today juni-hitoe is worn on the occasion of weddings of the members of the Imperial Family. It is different from the kimonos worn by ordinary people, usually having brightly-colored kimonos worn on top of each other in twelve-layers over undergarments. The skirt has an extended train that trails behind when walking. In addition, when wearing the juni-hitoe, the hairstyle is gathered at the neck to hang down the back (suberakashi) and a fan made of Japanese cypress is held in the hands. Heian era court ladies also thought it the height of fashion to paint their teeth black. See the exhibition Four Centuries of Fashion: Classical Kimono from the Kyoto National Museum.

Japan Timeline 1:  Early Japan (to CE 1185)
URL of this webpage:
JapanTimeline 2:  Medieval Period (CE 1160 - 1568)
Japan Timeline 3: Tokugawa and Modern Japan (17th - mid-20th c.)
Japan Timeline 4:
Post-World War II Period & Japan Timelines Sources

Asian Timelines: India China Japan
  were first prepared by Cora Agatucci, in 1998. 
They are slowly being updated in Winter 2001.  Please bear with me.
Other Online HUM 210 Course Resources:
HUM 210 Syllabus Course Plan Assignments Student Writing 
Asian Film Asian Links: India China Japan

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If you're interested in other world literatures and cultures, visit these course websites:
Hum 211 - Culture and Literature of Africa 
Eng 109 - Western World Literatures (late 18th-late 20th centuries)