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

Japan Timeline 2:
The Medieval Period (CE 1160 - 1600)

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...

11th -12th c. Bushido and the Samurai Code: Imperial power weakens, becomes increasingly dependent on alliances with powerful bushi, the provincial warrior-elite, and their armies of samurai, mounted troups devoted to developing martial skills. The samurai code stresses heroic warfare (usually chaotic battles featuring great champions in man-to-man duels with great curved steel swords but few fatalities), values family honor and death: if beaten or disgraced, honor demands samurai commit ritual suicide (seppuku "disembowelment", vulgarized by Western term hara-kiri or "belly-splitting"). Being put to shame in public and in warfare (haji), was as good as being dead. The relations of loyalty among samurai and lords, of social and psychological obligation taken on with favors received from others, is expressed in the Japanese word on. Lords take care of their subordinates, and subordinates return this with on, respect and loyalty. To forget what is received from others is morally inexcusable. So too does the closely related concept of giri, moral obligation, derive from the feudal system and the samurai code. Giri is highly valued in human relationships of social hierachies and mutual support—lord-samurai, parent-child, husband-wife, brothers-sisters, friends, and sometimes even enemies—caring for others from whom one has received a debt of gratitude, determined to realize their happiness even to the point of self-sacrifice or death.
1160 -1185

Taira period: Taira clan becomes dominant, but is challenged by rival Minamoto clan especially on the island of Honshu.

Gempei Wars openly rage between Taira and Minamoto clans for supreme power in Japan. This period of rampant crime & civil strife moves Japan into feudal order, with a chivalric code. Rigid class barriers reduce peasants to serfs, the property of local lords; and the populace turns increasingly to Buddhist promises of bliss in next life

Kamakura Period 1185 - 1333

1185-1192 Taira house faction is destroyed and the Minamoto clan emerges victorious; Yorimoto (1147-1199) breaks imperial power, establishes bakufu (literally "tent," in effect a military government) at Kamakura, and declares himself shogun (military ruler) of Japan.
1186 -
Kamakura Shogunate: Japan’s feudal age begins under the military rule of shoguns, inaugurating a succession of military dictatorships that will rule Japan into 19th century, while respected emperors will wield little real power. During the Kamakura period, Chinese influence wanes and Buddhism is thoroughly indigenized. Zen Buddhism (Zenshu) is brought to Japan during this period, by priests like Eisai and Dogen who had studied Cha’an Buddhism in China. Zenshu stresses that truth goes beyond verbal expression, and enlightenment can be realized only through meditation and training in calming the self. Zen Buddhism becomes the dominant religion of the samurai and strongly influences the way of the warrior.
1274 & 1281 Kublai Khan, Yuan (Mongol) emperor of conquered China, makes two failed attempts to invade Japan and expand his empire; kamikaze winds are unfavorable to the invading Yuan fleet.
The transition from Old Japanese to Modern Japanese language occurred during the 12th century. Distinct varieties of modern Japanese have developed. Japan comprises numerous mountainous islands, geography which has limited contact between peoples living in different regions of Japan. As a result, a large number of different regional dialects (hogen) of Japanese are spoken throughout Japan's four main islands (Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu), as well as on the smaller islands, such as the Ryukyu Islands. Some dialects are virtually incomprehensible to the speakers of other dialects. In the modern era, the Japanese have established a standard, or common, dialect to facilitate communication throughout the country, principally taking the language of Tokyo as standard. Modern Japanese is also characterized by separate social styles of speech. Keigo, or honorific speech, in Japan, as in most Asian languages, expresses levels of politeness and honor, through word markers, of speakers’ social standing in relation to the person addressed and to the person being discussed. For example, a speaker uses the informal form of the verb to go, iku, when talking with someone close to the speaker, such as a relative or a friend, but if the person addressed is a stranger or is older than the speaker, the politeness marker -masu is used: iki-masu. If the person is socially superior to the speaker, the honorific form of the verb to go, irassharu, may be employed, even if the person is not present. When speakers use this honorific form to speak of a socially superior person and address their comments to individuals with whom they do not have a close relationship or who are older than they, the politeness marker appears on the honorific form: irasshai-masu. This form, irasshai-masu, allows the speaker simultaneously to be polite to the person addressed and to show respect to the person discussed.

Kamakura Era Literature & Drama

Shin kokin-shu, 1201 (trans. New Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems), is an anthology of "waka" or tanka court poetry possibly compiled by the 13th-century critic and poet Fujiwara no Sadaie (also known as Teika), and others with royal patronage.
Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, or 100 Poems by 100 Poets, an anthology of "waka" or tanka court poetry possibly compiled by Fujiwara no Sadaie, or Teika. Introduction: What is Ogura Hyakunin Isshu? A Note on the English Translation and Japanese and English versions of the poems, and woodblock print illustrations of the poems from a 19th-century Meiji-era edition of the Hyakunin poems designed for women, and MacCauley's translation of Hyakunin-Isshu. Don't miss the earlier beautiful ukiyo-e style illustration by Hokusai (reproduced in Peter Morse, Hokusai: One Hundred Poets, New York: Braziller, 1989).
Japanese scholars characterize the literature of the period with the term yugen (mystery and depth with definite religious overtones). Yugen values suggestiveness and brevity, arising from deep emotion beyond the apparent meanings of words or what is visible to the eyes. It is closely associated with a short poetic style that can awaken many thoughts while limiting itself to few words. One of the major poets of this anthology is, significantly, a religious figure, the priest Saigyo.
Heike monogatari, ca. 1220 (trans. The Tales of the Heike): The defeat of the Taira by the Minamoto clan became the subject of the most famous prose piece of the period, the Heike monogatari (The Tales of Heike, the Taira Clan), with anonymous authorship. In its familiar version, the Heike monogatari has 12 books, each composed of 9 to 20 episodes suited in length for recitation. The Heike was meant to be recited by blind priests to the recitation of heikyoku, an exalted oral manner to evoke awe in listeners throughout the land. Buddhism supplies one of the major themes of The Tales of Heike: mujo (transience and change). Mujo refers to the Buddhist belief in the transmigration of souls, which holds that every life inevitably dies and everything is undergoing constant change, an old theme in Japanese literature. The Tale of Heike tells the story of the fall of the clan of warriors that once enjoyed strong power. Buddhism reveals the law that the prosperous must inevitably decay and pride goes before the fall. (See scene from Tales of Heike from Kamakura Shogunate era, 1185-1333.) Another major type of fiction of the Kamakura era was the otogizoshi, collections of popular short stories by unknown authors.
In the Heian period, virtually all cultural manifestations, from Buddhism to art, were centered in the court aristocracy. With the destruction of the court’s hegemony during and after the disastrous civil wars at the end of the Heian period, those [aristocratic cultural] ideas began to spread through ever-greater segments of society.

Muromachi Period1333 - 1568

1333 - 1335

1336 -1573

Revolt against Kamakura regime is led by Ashikaga Takuaji, and the emperor is driven out of Kyoto. The samurai code of ethics (bushido or "way of the bushi") is the dominant philosophy, emphasizing military values and ideals of feudal Japan under the Shogunates, confederations of great clan leaders and their vassal bands of samurai. Politics directed by shifting alliances among clans & the strength of their supporting allies.

Ashikaga (Muromachi) Shogunate: long period of civil wars among daimyos (warlords) and their samurai, with constant betrayals, intrigues, and shifting alliances among warlords and samurai vassals.

Renga, or linked verse, began as a pastime from the 12th century, but developed into a major poetic form after the early 14th century. Three or more poets would cooperate in composing one long poem, consisting of alternate verses, one containing lines of seven, five, and seven syllables and the other two lines of seven syllables each. Renga gradually was formalized by many poetic rules. The greatest masters of this form, Sogi, Shohaku, and Socho, together composed the famous Minase sangin (Three Poets at Minase) in 1488.
Noh theater develops in the 14th century. Don't miss the "refined world of Noh" (courtesy of the city of Kanazawa), with links to "What is it?" and beautiful images of Noh performances: "In the 14th century the SARUGAKU performers Kiyotsugu Kan'ami (1333- 1394) and his son Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443) created a new type of theater,...imbued with a serious Buddhist tone." Visit also the Noh Mask Home Page.
One key to understanding Noh and later Kabuki, as well as other Japanese arts, is the concept of ma, an interval in time or space that is not simply a blank. Closely connected to breathing and rhythm, ma derives from music—a stillness or silence that is inserted between spoken lines or actions to leave suggestiveness. In painting, the effect of ma, or empty space, is crucial to the effect, the movement and expression, of the whole. Introduction to Noh Plays (Thomas Rimer), Technical Terms for Noh plays (Royall Tyler), including a diagram of the Noh stage; and Glossary of Japanese Noh Terms (Karen Brazell). Background to Noh Theater
1467 - 1477 Onin War among rival heirs of Ashikaga Shogunate & allied samurai inaugurate a period of destructive civil wars; Ashikaga Shogunate eventually begins to self-destruct as provincial lords’ power & plotting intensifies, and Japan divides into 300 little states ruled by daimyos (warlords, the successors of the bushi), who build castles to fortify their holdings & rely on armies of peasants with pikes; bushido (way of the bushi) and samurai codes of heroic chivalry of earlier bushi era deteriorate: spies, sneak attacks, betrayals, brutality, destruction, peasant misery dominate as civil wars continue. However, not all was chaos, famine, and war in the 15th and 16th centuries; some daimyo (warlord) states are well run, with succession trends toward primogeniture (eldest son inherits from his father), and cultural refinements and artistic expression were encouraged.
In the 15th – 16th centuries, not all was chaos, famine, and war; some daimyo (warlord) states are well run, with succession trends toward primogeniture (eldest son inherits from his father). Cultural refinements and artistic expression were encouraged.
Zen Buddism, stressing simplicity and discipline, influenced the development of distinctive Zen arts of graceful gesture, elaborate ritual, composure and contemplation-- such as gardens, architecture, and the tea ceremony--in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Sado (also known as chado or cha no yu) is the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, brought to perfection by Sen-no-Rikyu (1521-1591) in the 16th century (see Raku-ware tea bowl, designed by Sen-no-Rikyu). He incorporated the aesthetic values of wabi (subtle taste, a way of being calm and clear) and sabi (elegant simplicity) with ichigo ichie (the concept that every single encounter never repeats in a lifetime). Special powdered tea prepared with deep sincerity and hospitality in subtly shaped tea pots and cups, and drunk ritualistically with guests in attitudes of composure and contemplation, free of worldly concerns, seeking beauty that is one with nature.

Nihon-teien (Japanese gardens) are structured to create natural views and imitate the natural world, with heaped-up earth likened to mountains, ponds to oceans, and with rivers made by drawing water; some also incorporate a tea garden with arranged stepping stones and stools. Another type of nihon-teien is the dry Japanese garden expressing landscapes with only rocks and sand, which may imitate waterfalls with rock constructions and represent rivers with the marks of bamboo brooms on flowing white sand. (See photo of Zen garden Ryoan-ji at Kyoto.)

Zen has also influenced the practice of Shodo (Japanese calligraphy), the art of drawing characters with a brush and India ink to express spiritual depth and beauty. Shodo originally came from China, but Japanese calligraphers, using Japanese moji (characters), have created of Shodo a unique and beautiful Japanese art form to express their spirit and ideas.
See also
The Religious World of Letterforms, Image A: Seed-syllable by the Japanese monk Chozen - "...sign systems in the able hands of sensitive calligraphers or master writers reflected their inherent formal aesthetics through their well formulated structures, taking ordinary writing to the level of Art. At a still higher level, philosophies of writing have attributed certain sacred qualities to the written signs, even claiming spiritual experience through the ritualistic practice of writing."

Kado or ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement, has flourished since the 16th century, tracing its origins back to the 6th century when Buddhist priests offered up flowers before Buddha. Flower artists attempt to express the three elements of heaven, earth, and humankind, in a balanced composition using natural flowers; whose stems and leaves are cut and the composition curved to express natural beauty and the artists’ feelings.

After 1433 Japanese fleets begin to fill vacuum left after Ming China discontinued sea expeditions. Commercial cities & dynamic commercial and artisan classes grow, along with trade with China.
Nihonga: Chinese cultural influence revives with this renewed contact, especially as seen in the development of brilliant, original Japanese screen & scroll painting (nihonga, or paintings done with traditional materials, techniques and form on silk and Japanese paper). From the Nara Period, Japanese artists have adapted the influence of Chinese techniques to perfect uniquely Japanese styles of painting by the 14th and 15th centuries. See beautiful Colors of Streams, Hues of Mountains, painting attri. to Shubun (early-mid 15th c.). Japanese garden construction (nihon-teien) was also influenced by landscape painting imported from China (14th – 16th centuries), many designed as entry-way gardens for Zen temples.


by 1562

Portuguese introduce gun to Japan; European trade opens with Japan.

Christianity (Kirisutokyo) was introduced to Japan by the Jesuit priest Francis Xavier.

10,000 Japanese soldiers equipped with muskets, and Japan adopts superior European ships, guns, canons, navigational instruments. But Japanese rulers and elite distrust Christianity, which comes with European exchanges, for its tendency to spread discontent and disobedience.

Momoyama Period1568 – 1600

1568 - 1573 Oda Nobunaga ends Ashikaga Shogunate
1582 Nobunaga is assassinated. Toyotomi Hideyoshi unifies Japan, and Tokugawa Shogunate begins.
1587 Catholic missionary activity is prohibited.
1592 First unsuccessful Japanese invasion of Korea.
1597 Second unsuccessful Japanese invasion of Korea. Japan moves toward isolationist policy.

Japan Timeline 1:  Early Japan (to CE 1185)
Japan Timeline 2:  Medieval Period (CE 1160 - 1568)
URL of this webpage:
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 
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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)