Retelling the History of Ancient Japan

Every country has its own set of rich history that has shaped what the country is today. This history contains the nation’s culture and tradition and sheds light on why things are the way they are in a certain country. It also shows how traditions were created and the reasons why the citizens continue to do these traditions.

The Geographical Background of Ancient Japan on a Map

Jyusin [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Before getting into the actual history of ancient Japan, it is important to note the basic geographical background of Japan dating back to the ancient times. The Japanese archipelago consists of several mountains and is 3,000 kilometers long measuring from north to south off the east of the continent of Asia. It is located at the convergence of four tectonic plates.

The archipelago houses around 40 active volcanoes and, due to its location, experiences around 1,000 earthquakes every single year. The mountains that cover more than a third of the archipelago’s surface are steep, craggy, and prone to mudslides as well as to quick erosion due to the fast-flowing rivers.

Because of this issue, the Japanese have heavily relied on internal travel and communication as well as on transportation along coastal waters to avoid accidents. The geographical features and weather patterns of each region in Japan varies greatly. Fertile land is provided thanks to the volcanic soil that washes along more than 10 percent of the area that covers the coastal plains.

Moreover, Japan has also been blessed with long growing seasons thanks to the mainly temperate climate. Because of this, there is a diversity of flora and fauna, which provide considerably rich resources used to support the population of the country.

Basic Facts and Timeline of Ancient Japan

Ancient Japan can basically be divided into three different periods. The first period is known as the Jomon period. To give a brief overview, this period lasted from around 14,000 BC to 300 BC. Translating to “cord-patterned” in the Japanese language, the Jomon period was the prime time when markings were created on vessels and figures made from clay. The Jomon period got its name because the markings were made using sticks that are wrapped in cords. This was a primary characteristic of the Jomon people.

As for the second period, it is known the Yayoi period. To give a brief overview, this period lasted from 300 BC to 300 AD. Its name was based on the neighborhood in Tokyo. This neighborhood served as the place where archaeologists were first able to discover artifacts and features from the period before mentioned.

Some of the distinct characteristics of this period include the look of new pottery styles. Also, it was during this era that an intensive rice agriculture in paddy fields began. The culture of Yayoi developed and flourished from the geographic area of southern Kyushu all the way to northern Honshu.

The last period in the history of ancient Japan is known as the Kofun period. To give a brief overview, this period began at about 250 AD. Its name was based on the huge tumulus burial mounds called “kofun” that surfaced during this era. It was also during this period that strong military states thanks to powerful clans were established.

It was also during this era that the dominant Yamato polity was established in the Karachi Province as well as the Yamato Province. This occurred from the 3rd to the 7th century, which was said to be the beginning of the imperial lineage of Japan. Sending tributes to China began in the 5th century.

The said polity known as “Wa,” as well as its five kings, were documented in the Chinese history records. A central administration or constitution, as well as an imperial court system and its society, was initiated and developed into occupation groups. Moreover, close ties between the nation of Japan and the Three Kingdoms of Korea were also developed during the middle of the Kofun period, somewhere around the end of the 4th century.

The Jomon Period: Arts and Inventions During this Era

By Rc 13 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

As the first historical period of ancient Japan, the Jomon period held many firsts for the country or even the world. It is said that the pottery that was produced during this period were considered as the oldest vessels in the world. These pottery vessels were decorated with figures that highly resembled simple ropes, also known as jomon in Japanese.

It was also the surfacing of this pottery that marked the end of the Palaeolithic Age. Considered as the previous period prior to the Jomon period, this age dates back to 30,000 years ago. It was during this age that people were said to cross land bridges that are now lost from mainland Asia all the way to the northern and southern islands of Japan. From there, these people spread out to the four main islands known as Honshu, Kyushu, Hokkaido, and Shikoku. From these four main islands, the people further spread out to the many hundred smaller islands in Japan.

It is believed that the people during the Jomon period lived by hunting and gathering. They utilized wood and stone tools in order to survive. The evidence of pottery making at that time does not necessarily suggest that the communities during the Jomon period lived in fixed settlements.

On the other hand, the first signs of agriculture surfaced in 5,000 BCE. Moreover, the first known settlement began at around 3,500 BC at Sannai-Maruyama. This first known settlement lasted until 2,000 BC. The growth of the population was found mainly in coastal areas and amounted to about 100,000 to 150,000 across the islands. There was a presence of rice around 1,250 BC though its cultivation is believed to have started only 800 BC ago. 200 years later, the first sign of rice growing in wet fields was seen and documented.

Skeletons were also found that dates back to the Jomon period. These findings indicate that people from that era had a muscular build and wide squared faces. The average height was 1.60 meters, which is equivalent to 5 feet and 3 inches, for males and was 1.52 meters, which is equivalent to 5 feet, for females. Genetic and cranial studies were made and their results indicate that the Jomon people are the direct ancestors of the Ainu, which is a minority group at the present day.

People were buried in pits during the Jomon period. At times lined with stone slabs, these pits typically contain one or more persons. On the other hand, there were also other burial types that the Jomon people incorporated when burying bodies. This includes single persons in jars as well as huge pits that contain skeletons amounting to up to 100.

Some of the notable artifacts that were uncovered in relation to this period are figurines shaped like humans and made up of stone and clay. Others include stone rods, clay masks, and jewelry such as earrings and beads made of clay, stone, and jade. Ritual structures of circles and arrows made up of stones were also found by archaeologists. 

The Yayoi Period: Government and Achievements During this Era

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Based on its name, the Yayoi period was the era when pottery of red hues was first found in the district of Yayoi located in Tokyo. This discovery indicated that the style and making of pottery developed from the Jomon period. It was also during this period, about 400 BC, when migrants from continental Asia, started to arrive and settle in the islands of Japan. Especially the migrants from the Korean Peninsula, these people traveled to Japan probably due to the battles that were caused by the Chinese expansion.

These new migrants either conquered or integrated with the indigenous people of Japan. They also brought iron, bronze, and new pottery to the islands. Furthermore, they introduced improved metalworking methods to the indigenous people, which resulted in creating better and more efficient tools for farming and as weapons and armors.

Agricultural management was also developed and improved during this era. Because of this, the people in this era were able to further progress in terms of specialized professions as well as trades. Ritual practices were also establish, an example of which was the number of special items like otaku bronze bells used during this era. Social classes, as well as ruling classes, were also established based on the family’s prosperity. These families formed alliances that bore to small kingdoms within the islands.

Due to the number of these small kingdoms, conflicts were inevitable. Hence, there were also wars that occurred during this era. Remains of fortified villages were uncovered by archaeologists, which support the claim about there being warfare during the Yayoi period. At the end of this period, the population was estimated to be as high as 4.5 million.

It was also by the end of this period that the country was just starting its initial attempts in global relations. One of the steps that the Japanese people took at this attempt was to send envoys and tributes to the Chinese commanders situated in northern Korea by the Wa. One of the rulers of Japan who was known to have sent embassies to Chinese territory was none other than Queen Himiko. She was probably also the most famous person hailing from the Yayoi era.

Never married, it was said that Queen Himiko ruled over 100 kingdoms. Also a female shaman, she was served by 1,000 women in a castle as her residence. Hence, she served not just the ruler of her land but also as a high priest. The fact that she was able to embody both roles during that period indicate the importance of women during that era, prior to the introduction to Chinese culture.

The Kofun Period: Religion Development Before the Samurai Days

By Uploadalt (Own work, photographed at the MET) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Last but certainly not the least in the history of ancient Japan is the Kofun period. Its name was based on the huge burial mounds that were built during this era. Also referred to as the Yamato-Kofun period, it was during this era and even after that the dominant region in Japan was Yamato. Though the exact location of Yamato is uncertain, various historians agree that this region was situated in the Nara region.

It was during this period that there was an influx of people coming from the Korean Peninsula. Most of these people hailed from the Baekje kingdom and the Gaya Confederation. Some believe that these were the people who were described as the warrior riding in horses that were said to have conquered Japan for a time. However, many find this conquest unlikely.

Still, what is certain was that the Koreans were able to hold high positions in the government at the time. Others even claim that the Koreans were also able to mix with the imperial bloodline. Goods and products manufactured from Korea were also brought to Japan, along with raw materials like iron. Cultural ideas from Korea were also introduced to Japan through Korean scholars, teachers, and artists.

Chinese culture was also introduced and developed in Japan during this era. Teachings of Confucius as well as weaving and irrigation were taught to the Japanese people. Buddhism was also introduced to the locals, which is currently among the top religions in Japan. During this period, international diplomatic presence was being established by Yamato Japan.

Another connection to mainland Asia was the huge burial mounds, known as kofun, amounting to 20,000 or more built all over Japan. These burial mounds were first constructed for the elite in several states of the Korean Peninsula. One other feature of this era was the placement of big terracotta figurines in the shape of animals and humans, known as haniwa, on top of the mounds or surrounding them. It was believed that these figurines served as guardians to the deceased.

After this period, events that followed include the Kamakura period, the Edo period, the rise to power of the Tokugawa clan, the changing of emperors and ministers through the years, the growth and development of Zen Buddhism and Buddhists, and the development of schools and universities located in the different parts of the country such as Tokyo and Kyoto. Ancient Japan provides a lot of insights as to how the Japanese used to live in the old days. Today, there are only artifacts, paintings, and documents to prove how they lived. Despite the limited amount of resources, they were still able to develop a lot of things, which says a lot about the abilities and resourcefulness of the Japanese in the olden days.