Japanese history is divided up into four distinct eras, then these eras are further divided into various historical periods. This article gives a short explanation the first two, along with a brief comparison with British history, in order to put the history of Japan in a wider historical context.

 Prehistoric Japanese History

A haniwa, from the Kofun period (6th century)

A haniwa, from the Kofun period (6th century)

This era includes everything up to A.D. 538. It includes the During this time, the imperial family of Japan solidified their hold on the throne and absorbed various competing kingdoms to form a single nation-state. This state was only a small portion of what we now know as Japan. There is no written information on this time period, because the Japanese had no writing system. Most of what is in the national chronicles is hearsay and oral tradition.

In Europe, much of Britain enjoyed a degree of civilization unparalleled for more than a thousand years due to the Roman occupation. By the end of the period, the Romans had retreated, leaving a fractured and chaotic Britain behind them.

 Classical Japanese History

This period begins with the introduction of Chinese characters. The Japanese used this as their writing system. Comprises the years A.D. 538-1185.

Asuka Period (A.D. 538-A.D. 710)

Kudara Kanon

Kudara Kanon

In the mid-sixth century A.D., Buddhism was introduced to Japan by envoys from Korea. The new religion soon developed many adherents among the ruling aristocracy, although there was some resistance to its adoption from clans who were responsible for ceremonial duties associated with the native Shinto religion. It is difficult to overstate the importance of Buddhism in the history of Japan. In addition to the impact that it had on the national consciousness because of its doctrines, it also served as the vehicle for the introduction of Chinese art and culture that later became the starting point for many things distinctively “Japanese” that developed over the next millennium and a half. [^Sansom, George, *A History of Japan to 1334*, pp. 48, 60-66]

In A.D. 645, Emperor Kōtoku ascended to the throne after a bitter succession struggle. The real power behind the throne was Crown Prince Naka no Ōye and his retainer, Nakatomi Kamako. For his support, the crown prince allowed Nakatomi to found a new family, the Fujiwara, who were to play a critical role in Japanese history for the next half a millennium. Together they pushed through Chinese-style government reforms which included such provisions as government ownership of all the land and the introduction of a strict rank structure for the nobility wherein rank was denoted by special caps worn by officials. [^Sansom, George, *A History of Japan to 1334*, pp. 67-81]

During this time in British history, the Anglo-Saxons invaded and divided the country into seven competing kingdoms. Christianity was spreading throughout the islands and was the *de facto* state religion by the end of the seventh century A.D.

Nara Period (A.D. 710-794)

The Great Buddha at Nara (Tōdai-ji), 752 CE

The Great Buddha at Nara (Tōdai-ji), 752 CE

In A.D. 710, the capital was moved to the area of the present-day Nara. It had long been the custom to move the palace when the sovereign died, to avoid the pollution caused by his death. Something of this thought seems to have been the impetus behind the founding of the new capital. The eighth century A.D. showed an astonishing development in the sophistication of the doctrine, art, and culture of the Buddhist churches. In many ways, they became a competitor to the central government. The power and revenue of the imperial government depended upon control and taxation of the rice lands under cultivation, but the large religious institutions managed to acquire large areas of land which was subject to neither government taxation nor even government administration. This resulted in a goodly portions of the land becoming effectively beyond the jurisdiction of the central government, a direct challenge to the government’s sovereignty and even legitimacy. [^Sansom, George, *A History of Japan to 1334*, pp. 83-89]

This period was also marked by several bloody coups centering around the imperial succession. Interestingly, this is the period where we find four Empresses ruling, the last female sovereigns in Japanese history for over a thousand years. The records of this era are fragmentary, but there are indications that much of this unrest was created by ambitious religious monks of the large Buddhist temples and monasteries seeking to place pet monarchs on the throne in order to obtain power and concessions from the central government. In addition to the disputes surrounding the succession, the native Ainu peoples in the north and east of the country staged several uprisings which hindered government efforts to open up new rice lands in the far off provinces. Finally, in order to control the problem, the government instituted a policy of employing standing forces made up of men trained in arms instead of the peasant armies they had used in the past. This class of armsman became the root of the *samurai* class that rose to prominence in later eras. [^Sansom, George, *A History of Japan to 1334*, pp. 89-91]

During this time in Britain, the Vikings from Denmark and Norway began their incursions on the British and Irish coasts, causing severe hardships for the inhabitants.

Heian Period (A.D. 794-1185)

Despite the fact that Nara had been the capital for only 84 years, the capital was once again moved in A.D. 794, this time to Heian-Kyou, which means “the capital of peace and harmony.” Heian-Kyou remained the capital of Japan until 1876, when it was moved to Yedo, the modern-day Tokyo. The Heian period saw a flowering of literature and the arts unprecedented in Japanese history. Previous to this time, poetry, literature, art, and music were all created in slavish imitation of Chinese styles, in archaic, stilted Chinese. During the Heian period, all of these developed a uniquely Japanese bent. Particularly in literature and poetry, the trailblazers were women who wrote in vernacular Japanese instead of the formal Sino-Japanese used in official pronouncements and government chronicles.

A scene from an Illustrated handscroll of Tale of Genji. ACE1130 and stored in TOKUGAWA Museum, Japan

A scene from an Illustrated handscroll of Tale of Genji. ACE1130 and stored in TOKUGAWA Museum, Japan

During the four hundred years of the Heian period, senior government positions were almost completely monopolized by a small branch of the extensive Fujiwara family. They also kept tight control over the reigning emperors, reducing them to little better than figureheads who were forced to follow the dictates of these Fujiwara officials. This was done through a process known as “marriage politics.” Emperors were enthroned as children, sometimes as young as two or three years old. At age twelve or thirteen, the young emperor would be married to the daughter of the ruling Fujiwara patriarch. When the new consort became pregnant and presented the Emperor with a son, the Fujiwara daughter would be named Empress and her son the crown prince. Once the crown prince reached an appropriate age of three or so, the Emperor would be encouraged to abdicate, the crown prince would become the new emperor, and the entire cycle would start over again. Fortunately for the Fujiwara family fortunes, they were a prolific lot with many attractive and marriageable daughters.

The world of the Heian aristocrats was a very insular world. They paid little attention to anything happening outside of the small circle of nobles located in the capital. For many of them, exile was considered worse than death. In the end, this lack of interest outside of their small world cost them dearly. They paid little attention to governance or events in the far-flung provinces. Small landowners and rich commoners out in the provinces ended up banding together to solve problems the central government ignored. These people were the genesis of the military class, and the failure of the central government to actually govern caused them to take more and more authority into their own hands. The situation culminated in 1185 with the creation of a feudal government under Yoritomo, the leader of the Minamoto, a powerful warrior clan.

During this time in Britain, the island was under the control of the Anglo-Saxon kings until William the Conqueror and his Normans took over in 1066.