Japan History

Essay by catwalk June 2004

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Japan's earliest settlers were fishers, hunters and gatherers who slogged over the land bridges from Korea to the west and Siberia to the north. It's also thought that seafaring migrants from Polynesia were part of the ethnic blend. By AD 300, the sun-worshipping Yamato kingdom had loosely unified the nation through conquest and alliance. Buddhism was introduced from China in the mid-6th century and soon became the state religion. Rivalry between Buddhism and Shintō, the traditional religion of Japan, was diffused by presenting Shintō deities as manifestations of Buddha.

With the empire more or less stable, particularly after the conquest of the indigenous Ainu in the 9th century, Japan's emperors began to devote more time to leisure and scholarly pursuits and less time to government. Important court posts were dominated by the noble but corrupt Fujiwara family. Out in the provinces, a new power was on the rise: the samurai, or warrior class, readily turned to arms to defend its autonomy, and began to muscle in on the capital, Heian (modern-day Kyoto).

The Taira clan briefly eclipsed the Fujiwara, and were ousted in turn by the Minamoto family in 1185. After assuming the rank of shōgun (military leader), Minamoto Yoritomo set up his HQ in Kamakura, while the emperor remained the nominal ruler in Kyoto. This was the beginning of a long period of feudal rule by successive samurai families which lingered until imperial power was restored in 1868.

The feudal centuries can be clunkily split into five main periods. The Kamakura Period (1185-1333) saw repeated invasions by Kublai Khan's Mongol armies. Japan managed to stave off the Mongols, but a weakened leadership lost the support of the samurai. Emperor Go-Daigo presided over the beginning of the Muromachi Period (1333-1576), until a revolt masterminded by the disgruntled warrior Ashikaga Takauji...