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UNIT 4 - JAPANJapan_-_Images.jpg



The islands of Japan are really just the tops of undersea mountains and volcanoes, sticking up out of the ocean. Those mountains, as you can see on the map below, cover nearly all of Japan. Only about 20 percent of the land is flat. Because it is difficult to live and farm on mountain slopes, most Japanese people have always lived in those flat areas, the coastal plains.

In addition to the mountains and the lack of flat land, the nearness of the sea shaped the lives of Japanese people. Their homes were never far from the sea. Naturally, they turned to the sea for food. They learned to prepare all kinds of seafood, from eel to shark to octopus to seaweed. As a result, seafood has been a key part of the Japanese diet for thousands of years.

The islands’ location affected the Japanese people in another way as well. Because they lived on islands, the Japanese were separated from the other people of Asia.
This separation allowed the Japanese to develop their own culture. For example, they created a religion and a social structure very different from those in other parts of Asia. This separation has always been an important part of Japanese society.

Japan isn’t totally isolated, however. Look at the inset map above to find Korea and China. As you can see, neither country is very far from the Japanese islands. Korea is only about 100 miles away from Japan. China is about 400 miles away. Those short distances allowed the older Korean and Chinese cultures to influence the new culture of Japan.



The Ainu

One culture that developed in Japan was the Ainu (EYE-noo). Historians aren’t sure exactly when or how the Ainu moved to Japan. Some people think they came from what is now Siberia in eastern Russia. Wherever they came from, the Ainu spoke a language unlike any other language in eastern Asia. They also looked different from the other people of Japan.

Over time, the Ainu began to fight with other people for land. They lost most of these fights, and so they lost their land as well. Eventually the Ainu were driven back onto a single island, Hokkaido. Over time the Ainu culture almost disappeared. Many people gave up the Ainu language and adopted new customs. However, some Ainu can still be found today on Hokkaido.

The First Japanese

The people who lived south of the Ainu eventually became the Japanese. They lived mostly in small farming villages. These villages were ruled by powerful clans, or extended families. Other people in the village, including farmers and workers, had to obey and respect members of these clans. At the head of each clan was a chief. In addition to his political power, each chief also had religious duties. The Japanese believed that their clan chiefs were descended from nature spirits called kami (KAH-mee). Clan chiefs led their clans in rituals that honored their kami ancestors.

Over time, these rituals became a central part of the traditional religion of Japan, Shinto. According to Shinto teachings, everything in nature—the sun, the moon, trees, waterfalls, and animals—has kami. Shintoists believe that some kami help people live and keep them from harm. They build shrines to kami and perform ceremonies in which they ask the kami to bless them.
The clans of early Japan weren’t all equal. Some clans were larger and more powerful than others. In time
a few of these powerful clans built up armies and set out to conquer their neighbors. One clan that gained
power in this way lived in the Yamato region, the western part of Japan’s largest island, Honshu. In addition
to military might, the Yamato rulers claimed to have a glorious family history. They believed they were
descended from the most powerful of all kami, the goddess of the sun.

By the 500s the Yamato rulers had extended their control over much of Hon-shu. Although they didn’t
control the whole country, the leaders of the Yamato clan began to call themselves the emperors of all Japan.


Early Japanese society received very little influence from cultures on the Asian mainland. Occasionally, officials from China, Korea, or other parts of Asia visited Japan. For the most part, however, these visits didn’t have a great impact on the Japanese way of life.

By the mid-500s, though, some Japanese leaders thought that Japan could learn a great deal from other cultures. In particular, they wanted to learn more about the cultures of China and Korea. To learn what they wanted to know, the rulers of Japan decided to send representatives to China and Korea to gather information about their cultures. They also invited people from China and Korea to move to Japan. The emperors hoped that these people could teach the Japanese new ways of working and thinking.


One of the first things the Japanese learned from China and Korea was language. The early Japanese didn’t have a written language. Therefore, many learned to write in Chinese. They continued to speak in Japanese, however, which is very different from Chinese. It wasn’t until about 200 years later that people devised a way of writing in Japanese. They used Chinese characters to represent the sounds used in Japanese.

As Japan’s contact with China increased, some Japanese people—especially rich and well-educated people—began to write in the Chinese language. Japanese writers used Chinese for their poems and stories. One of the first histories of Japan, written in the 700s, is in Chinese. For many years Chinese was even the official language of Japan’s government.

Religion & Philosophy

One of the people most influential in bringing Chinese ideas to Japan was Prince Shotoku (shoh-toh-koo). He served from 593 to 621 as regent for his aunt, the empress. A regent is a person who rules a country for someone who is unable to rule alone.

All his life, Prince Shotoku admired Chinese culture. As regent, Shotoku saw a chance for Japan to adopt more Chinese ideas. He sent Japan_-_Confucious.jpgscholars to China to learn all they could about Chinese society. The ideas these scholars brought back changed Japanese society. For example, they taught the Japanese about Confucianism.

Among other things, Confucianism outlined how families should behave. Confucius taught that fathers should rule their families. He believed that wives should obey their husbands, children should obey their parents, and younger brothers should obey older brothers. Families in China lived according to these rules. As Confucian ideas spread through Japan, the Japanese began to live by them as well.

More important than these social changes, though, were the vast religious changes Shotoku made in Japan. He was a Buddhist, and he wanted to spread Buddhism throughout his country. Buddhism wasn’t new to Japan. Korean visitors had introduced the religion to Japan about 50 years earlier. But it was not very popular. Most people preferred to keep their traditional religion, Shinto.

Shotoku worked to change people’s minds about Buddhism. He built a grand Buddhist temple that still stands today. He also wrote commentaries on Buddhist teachings. Largely because of his efforts, Buddhism became very popular, especially among Japanese nobles.


Changes in Government

Shotoku also wanted to change Japan’s government to be more like China’s. He especially wanted Japan’s emperors to have more power, like China’s emperors did.
Afraid that they would lose power to the emperor, many clan leaders opposed Shotoku’s government plans. As a result, Japan’s emperors gained little power.


The nobles who followed Japan’s emperor to Heian wanted to win his favor by living close to him. In Heian, these nobles created an imperial court, a group of nobles who live near and serve or advise a ruler.

Members of the noble court had little to do with the common people of Heian. They lived apart from poorer citizens and seldom left the city. These nobles enjoyed their lives of ease and privilege. In fact, their lives were so easy and so removed from the rest of Japan that many nobles called themselves “dwellers among the clouds.”

The nobles of this court loved beauty and elegance. Because of this love, many nobles were great supporters of the arts. As a result, the court at Heian became a great center of culture and learning. In fact, the period between 794 and 1185 was a golden age of the arts in Japan.


The nobles’ love of beauty began with their own appearances. They had magnificent wardrobes full of silk robes and gold jewelry. Nobles loved elaborate outfits. For example, women wore long gowns made of 12 layers of colored silk cleverly cut and folded to show off many layers at once.

To complete their outfits, nobles often carried delicate decorative fans. These fans were painted with flowers, trees, and birds. Many nobles also attached flowers and long silk cords to their fans.

Japan_-_Fashion.jpg Literature

In addition to how they looked, Japanese nobles took great care with how they spoke and wrote. Writing was very popular among the nobles, especially among the women. Many women wrote diaries and journals about their lives at court. In their diaries, these women carefully chose their words to make their writing beautiful.

Unlike men, who usually wrote in Chinese, noble women wrote in the Japanese language. As a result, many of the greatest works of early Japanese literature were written by women. One of the greatest writers in early Japanese history was Lady Murasaki Shikibu (moohr-ah-sahk-ee shee-kee-boo). Around 1000, she wrote The Tale of Genji. Many historians consider this book to be the world’s first full-length novel. Many readers also consider it one of the best. The Tale of Genji is the story of a prince named Genji and his long quest for love. During his search he meets women from many different social classes. Many people consider The Tale of Genji one of Japan’s greatest novels. The characters it describes are very colorful and seem real. In addition, Lady Murasaki’s writing is clear and simple but graceful at the same time. She describes court life in Japan with great detail.

Most early Japanese prose was written by women, but both men and women wrote poetry. Nobles loved to read and write poems. Some nobles held parties at which they took turns writing poetry and reading their poems aloud to each other. Poems from this time usually had only five lines. They followed a specific structure that outlined how many syllables each line could include. Most were about love or nature, but some described everyday events. Here is an example of a nature poem about the end of winter:
“The breezes of spring
Are blowing the ripples astray
Along the water—
Today they will surely melt
The sheet of ice on the pond.”

Visual Art

Besides literature, Japan’s nobles also loved the visual arts. The most popular art forms of the period were painting, calligraphy, and architecture. In their paintings, the nobles of Heian liked bright, bold colors. They also liked paintings that illustrated stories. In fact, many of the greatest paintings from this period illustrate scenes from
literature, such as The Tale of Genji. Other paintings show scenes from nature or from court life. Many artists
painted on doors and furniture rather than on paper.

Another popular form of art in Heian was calligraphy, or decorative writing. Calligraphers spent hours carefully
copying poems. They wanted the poems to look as beautiful as they sounded.


The nobles of Heian worked to make their city beautiful. They greatly admired Chinese architecture and modeled Heian after the Chinese capital, Chang’an. They copied Chinese building styles, especially in the many temples they built. These styles featured buildings with wooden frames that curved slightly upward at the ends. The wooden frames were often left unpainted to look more natural. Thatched roofs also added to the natural feel.

For other buildings, the nobles liked simple, airy designs. Most buildings were made of wood with tiled roofs and large, open spaces inside. To add to the beauty of these buildings, the nobles surrounded them with elegant gardens and ponds. Similar gardens are still popular in Japan.

Performing Arts

The performing arts were also popular in Japan during the Heian period. The roots of later Japanese drama can be traced back to this time. People often gathered to watch performances by musicians, jugglers, and acrobats. These performances were wild and fun. Especially popular were the plays in which actors skillfully mimicked other people.

In later centuries, these types of performances developed into a more serious form of drama called Noh. Created in the 1300s, Noh plays combine music, speaking, and dance. These plays often tell about great heroes or figures from Japan’s past.

Buddhism Changes

Religion became something of an art form in Heian. The nobles’ religion reflected their love of elaborate
rituals. Most of the common people in Japan, though equally religious, didn’t have the time or money for elaborate rituals. As a result, different forms of Buddhism developed in Japan.

One new form of Buddhism was very popular with Japan’s common people. It was called Pure Land Buddhism and didn’t require any special rituals. Instead, Pure Land Buddhists chanted the Buddha’s name over and over to achieve an enlightened state.

In the 1100s another popular new form of Buddhism called Zen arrived from China. Zen Buddhists believed that neither faith nor good behavior led to wisdom. Instead, people seeking wisdom should practice self-discipline and meditation, or quiet thinking. These ideas appealed to many Japanese, especially warriors. As these warriors gained more influence in Japan, so did Zen Buddhism.


By the late 1100s, Heian was the great center of Japanese art and literature. But in the rest of Japan, life was very different. Powerful nobles fought each other over land. Rebels fought against imperial officials. This fighting destroyed land, which made it difficult for peasants to grow food. Some poor people became bandits or thieves. Meanwhile, Japan’s rulers were so focused on courtly life, they didn’t notice the many problems growing in their country.

Rise of the Samurai

With the emperor distracted by life in his court, Japan’s large landowners, or daimyo (DY-mee-oh), decided that they needed to Japan_-_Samurai.jpgprotect their own lands. They hired samurai (SA-muh-ry) or trained professional warriors, to defend them and their property. The samurai wore light armor and fought with swords and bows. Most samurai came from noble families and inherited their positions from their fathers.

The word samurai comes from the Japanese word for "to serve. Every samurai, from the weakest soldier to the most powerful warrior, was supposed to serve his lord. Because all lords in Japan were supposed to serve the emperor, all samurai were required to be loyal to him. An army of samurai was expensive to support. Few lords could afford to buy armor and weapons for their warriors. As a result, lords paid their samurai with land or food.

Only the most powerful samurai got land for their service. Most of these powerful samurai didn’t live on the land they received, but they did profit from it. Every year, the peasant farmers who worked on the land gave the samurai money or food. Samurai who received no land were given food—usually rice—as payment.

Shoguns Rule Japan

Many of the nobles outside Heian were unhappy with the way Japan’s government was being run. Frustrated, these nobles wanted a change of leadership. Eventually a few very strong noble clans decided to try to take power for themselves.

Two of these powerful clans went to war with each other in the 1150s. For almost 30 years, the two clans fought. Their fighting was terrible, destroying land and property and tearing families apart. In the end, the Minamoto clan won. Because he had a very powerful army, and because the emperor was still busy in Heian, the leader of the Minamoto clan was the most powerful man in Japan. He decided to take over ruling the country.

He didn’t, however, want to get rid of the emperor. He kept the emperor as a figurehead, a person who appears to rule even though real power rests with someone else. As a samurai, the Minamoto leader was supposed to be loyal to the emperor, but he decided to rule in the emperor’s place. In 1192 he took the title shogun, a general who ruled Japan in the emperor’s name. When he died, he passed his title and power on to one of his children. For about the next 700 years, one shogun would rule in Japan.


Under the shogun, who were military rulers, samurai warriors became more central to Japanese society. As a result, samurai enjoyed many social privileges. Common people had to treat the samurai with respect. Anyone who disrespected a samurai could be killed. At the same time, tradition placed restrictions on samurai. For example, they couldn’t attend certain types of entertainment, such as theater, which were considered beneath them. They also couldn’t take part in trade or commerce.

More importantly, all samurai had to follow a strict code of rules that taught them how to behave. The samurai code of rules was Japan_-_Bushido.jpgknown as Bushido (BOOH-shi-doh). This name means “the way of the warrior.” Both men and women from samurai families had to follow Bushido rules. Bushido required samurai to be brave and honorable fighters. Both men and women of samurai families learned how to fight, though only men went to war. Women learned to fight so they could protect their homes from robbers.

Samurai were expected to live simple, disciplined lives. They believed that self-discipline made them better warriors. To improve their discipline, many samurai participated in peaceful rituals that required great concentration. Some created intricate flower arrangements or grew miniature bonsai trees. Others held elaborate tea ceremonies. Many samurai also adopted Zen Buddhism, which stressed self-discipline and meditation. More than anything else, Bushido required a samurai to be loyal to his lord. Each samurai had to obey his master’s orders without hesitation, even if it caused the samurai or his family to suffer. Obeying his lord was important to the samurai’s sense of honor. Honor was the most important thing in a samurai’s life. If he did anything to lose honor, a samurai was expected to commit suicide rather than living with his shame. Such shame might be caused by disobeying an order, losing a fight, or failing to protect his lord.

Although it was created as a code for warriors, Bushido influenced much of Japanese society. Even today, many Japanese feel a connection to the samurai. For example, the samurai’s dedication and discipline are still greatly admired in Japan. Values such as loyalty and honor, the central ideas of the samurai code, remain very important in modern Japan.



Mongol Invasion

One of the greatest challenges to the shoguns was an invasion by the Mongols from China. China’s emperor, Kublai Khan, sent an army to conquer the islands in 1274. Faced with invasion, the shogun sent troops to fight the Mongols. In addition, Japan’s warring nobles put aside their differences to fight the enemy. The Japanese warriors were aided by a great storm. The storm sank many Mongol ships and forced the Mongols to flee.

In 1281 the Mongols invaded again. This time they sent two huge armies and threatened to overwhelm the Japanese warriors. For weeks, the two armies were locked in deadly combat. Once again, though, the weather helped the Japanese. A huge storm swept over Japan, sinking most of the Mongol fleet. Many Mongol soldiers drowned, and many more returned to China. The grateful Japanese called the storm that had saved them the kamikaze (kah-mi-kah-zee), or “divine wind.” They believed the gods had sent the storm to save Japan.

But many nobles were left unhappy by the war. They didn’t think the shogun gave them enough credit for their part in the fighting. Many came to resent the shogun’s power over them.

Internal Rebellion

After the Mongol invasion, new problems arose for the shogun. The emperor, tired of having no say in the government, began to fight the shogun for control of the country. At the same time daimyo, the nobles who owned much of Japan’s land, fought to break free of the shogun’s control. During these struggles for power, small wars broke out all over Japan. By the 1400s the shoguns had lost most of their authority. The emperor was still largely powerless, and daimyo ruled much of Japan. Each daimyo controlled his own territory. Within that territory, he made laws and collected taxes. There was no powerful central authority of any sort to impose order in Japan.


Soon new leaders rose to power. They began as local rulers, but these men wanted more power. In the 1500s, each fought to unify all of Japan under his control.
The first such leader was Oda Nobunaga (ohd-ah noh-booh-nah-gah). Oda gave his soldiers guns that had been brought to Japan by Portuguese traders. This was the first time guns had been used in Japan. With these new weapons, Oda easily defeated his opponents.

After Oda died, other leaders continued his efforts to unify Japan. By 1600, one of them, Tokugawa Ieyasu (toh-koohg-ah-wuh ee-e-yahs-ooh), had conquered his enemies. In 1603 Japan’s emperor made Tokugawa shogun. From his capital at Edo (AY-doh)—now Tokyo—Tokugawa ruled all of Japan.

Tokugawa’s rise to power began the Tokugawa shogunate (SHOH-guhn-uht), or rule by shoguns of the Tokugawa family. Early in this period, which lasted until 1868, Japan traded with other countries and let Christian missionaries live in Japan.

Not all of the shoguns who followed Tokugawa liked this contact with the world, though. Some feared that Japan would become too much like Europe, and the shoguns would lose their power. To prevent such a thing from happening, in the 1630s the ruling shogun closed Japan off from the rest of the world. Japan’s rulers also banned guns. They feared that peasants with guns could defeat their samurai armies. The combination of isolation from the world and limited technology helped extend the samurai period in Japan until the 1800s, far longer than it might have otherwise lasted.