Study Guide on the Japanese: History, Culture, and Art

Study Guide on the Japanese: History, Culture, and Art
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An Ancient Culture

Time flies when you’re having fun, and for the Japanese, they’ve come a long way since their ancient beginnings. While modern Japan is

a technological hub, ancient Japan was filled with ninja, samurai, and a warrior code based upon familial clans. The Japanese culture is steeped in tradition, and in order to understand some parts of the culture, it’s also important to understand the history.

The country of Japan is only about the size of California; however, unlike California which has a population of approximately 36 million people, Japan has a population of approximately 127 million people. That’s almost three and a half times the population.

The early Japanese were hunters, gatherers, and fishermen. This isn’t surprising considering that Japan is a series of islands located in the Pacific Ocean and fish is a primary staple of the Japanese culture - sushi anyone?

Ancient Times

As already mentioned, the earliest Japanese were hunters and gatherers. Hunter-gatherers would sometimes move to follow the game they hunted. The men would usually do the hunting, and the women would gather fruits, berries, nuts, and vegetables from plants that were growing in the region. The dietary staples of the early Japanese included flounder, shark, grapes, and strawberries.

This early period of Japanese history lasted from about 14000 before common era (BCE) until about 300 BCE and was known as the Jomon Period. In addition to hunting and gathering, the people living on the Japan islands also created pottery.

Following the Jomon period was the Yayoi period. The Yayoi period involved the introduction of rice to Japan. This period reached its height in around 100 BCE.

Another development during this period was the development of social classes. It is believed that there as a queen living during the Yayoi period named Himiko. Himiko lived sometime around the 3rd century of the common era (CE). The interesting thing about this queen is that Chinese legend describes her as a person who used magic while she ruled in order to bring peace to the Japanese of the time. Ironworking also became popular during the Yayoi period.

From about 300 CE - 538 CE, the Japanese went through the Kofun Period. This period in ancient Japanese history brought with it a centralization of power in Yamato Japan. Yamato Japan was where the current Nara Prefecture is today. The Kofun Period was so named because the Japanese during the time would build tombs to honor the political figures.

The spiritual practices during the Kofun Period are known as a religion called Shinto. Shinto is an early religion based more upon spiritual beliefs than church-going practices. Those embracing the religion worship nature and heroes. The practice of Shinto involves a strong connection between the past and the present through the use of shrines, festivals, and even good luck charms.

The Nara and Heian Periods

Buddhist statue

In about 518, Buddhism appeared in Japan. Buddhism is a religion and philosophy based upon the teachings of Buddha. The main tenants of the religion involve a belief that enlightenment comes through a detachment to material objects and emotions and the belief that everything we experience in life is not permanent but is instead just a transition from one phase to another.

The height of the Nara period lasted from about 710 through 790 C.E. During this period, there was a constant struggle for control of Japan among many contenders for the throne.

Due to this struggle, the capital city of Japan was changed many times. Buddhism spread quickly during this period. Empress Shotoku had prayer charms printed during this time in order to help the religion spread. However, after her death, there was a backlash against women taking power in Japan, and steps were taken to prohibit this in future generations.

Also during this time, literature became more popular. In addition to the Sutras, works that celebrated Buddha’s beliefs, two important works were written chronicling the history of Japan. The first of these works was a piece called The Kojiki, The Record of Historical Matters and The Nihon Shoki, Chronicles of Japan. Additionally, works of poetry began to spring up, including one of the more famous collections of poems, The Man’yoshu.

The Heian period ran from about 790 C.E. through about 1185 C.E. This period has been likened to other classical ages of civilization such as Greece and Rome. There was a long period of peace, and literary and aesthetic progress. While women were silenced during the Nara period, many women found their voice in the Heian period. Murasaki Shikibu, one such Japanese female author, wrote what has been called possibly the first novel in history: The Tale of Genji.

The Samurai

Samurai are still an important part of Japanese culture

During the Heian period, not only did many of the traditional fashion roles develop, but so too did the class of samurai warriors. Around 640 C.E., warriors began to band together.

The class rose out of a response to new policies, including higher taxes and the redistribution of property. The redistribution led to a system of feudalism. Feudalism is a system where a region of land is owned, and then land-slaves (known in Europe as serfs) work that land.

There were many people who were not happy with this new system, and those who owned the land wanted a way to protect their property. Due to this desire, they often hired warriors to protect their interests against those who would invade the land. By the 900s, the Heian emperors began to weaken, and control of Japan was lost. When this happened, the samurai stepped in to find military and political power.

By the height of the samurai period, the myth, 47 Ronin, the samurai were well-entrenched as part of Japan’s cultural heritage. Though they do not fight now, the samurai code still exists in Japan and is often called upon during business meetings and events requiring structure.

Japan’s Emperors During the Samurai Years

At the same time the Samurai were roaming the countryside, there were emperors making changes in the nation’s history. From around 1200 until the 1330s, a simpler form of feudalism was established in Japan.

This new organization of government began when Minamato Yoritomo was elected shogun of Japan. He established the Kamakura Bakufu, the new form of government in 1192. During this period, the samurai not only worked on their warrior skills, but they also cultivated and refined their love of the arts including haiku poetry. For this reason, the members of the aristocratic class would develop their warrior skills, so the two became intertwined.

Once allegiance was sworn to Shogun Yoritomo and his government, the Japanese medieval period began. The Kamakura period came to an end when the Mongols invaded Japan.

The Azuchi Castle wasbuilt by Oda Nabunaga to reunify Japan in the 16th century

The Muromachi period began in approximately 1330. Unfortunately, Ashikaga Takauji had a difficult time holding authority in the nation. Instead, the landowners, known in Japan as the daimyo, began to take power and contradict the rule of the legitimate shogun. As a result of this, in 1467 war broke out.

This was known as the Onin War. During the course of this war, Kyoto was burned to the ground. Following this war, there was a period of more than one hundred years where different families were at war with one another for control over the country.

Following the period of strife, in around 1570, Oda Nabunaga took power. Nabunaga was a warlord, and as such, he worked hard to unify Japan under his rule. He had Azuchi Castle constructed as a symbol of the reunification of Japan.

Following this period of military rule (the shogun following Nabunaga invaded the neighboring country, Korea) was the Edo period. The Edo period was characterized by two and a half centuries of peace for Japan. However, once this period ended, there were many reforms in Japanese cultural, political, and economical life.

Meiji Period

The Meiji period brought many changes that modernized Japan

The Samurai played a major role in Japanese life well into the 19th century when Emperor Meiji dismissed the warriors and began to favor more Western methods of warfare. Meiji also began to restructure the government in Japan. He made a move from feudalism and created a constitution.

Moreover, he needed to have the consent of his advisors before he could move along and make decisions that would affect his nation.

In addition, there was a move from custom to law. The constitution that was created was largely responsible for the movement of traditional life into the modern, Western world.

For example, the “Rights and Duties of Subjects” (the second section of the constitution) protects citizens from unlawful search, their freedom of speech and publication, and equal treatment under law.

Japan in the 20th Century Wars

When the Meiji period ended, Japan was on the map as a powerful Asian country. During World War I, Japan was in the midst of the Taisho Period. The Taisho period was characterized by their alignment against Germany.

Following the World War, Japan fell into economic and political turmoil. This was topped off by the fact that Japan experienced a large earthquake that is estimated to have killed more than 140,000 citizens in 1923. This earthquake became known as the Great Kanto Earthquake.

After the earthquake, Emperor Hirohito took power, marking the beginning of the Showa Period. Unfortunately, much of this history was not positive.

Due to the Great Depression of 1929, many people were looking for solutions to their suffering. By 1933, Japan withdrew its membership with the League of Nations, which was an alliance set up at the end of World War I that was intended to ensure lasting peace between countries. By 1936, Japan signed a treaty with Germany stating that they too were anti-communism.

World War II in Japan ended with the atomic bomb

In 1940, Japan joined in the axis alliance with Germany and Italy. Tojo Hideki took power as a totalitarian leader. He began to wage war on Pacific islands. This culminated in December 1941 when Japan attacked allies at Pearl Harbor. Following this event, allies began to reclaim conquered lands.

Perhaps the saddest event in the course of Japanese history was the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th, 1945. The bombs that the allies dropped on these cities were atomic bombs and they created massive destruction.

This event has caused many to debate whether this event was right or wrong, but it was also credited as bringing an end to the Pacific War. The United States took control of much of the country, and this wasn’t relinquished until 1972.

Japan Today

Following the Second World War, Japan reconstructed itself and rose to again become an economic superpower. Japan rose to become known for its technological advances, especially when it concerned the manufacturing of cars, robots, and other electronics. The problem in Japan for many years involved a financial structure that resembled pre-modern feudalism, and this economic bubble burst in the 1990s.

Japan today still faces economic struggles, more so following an earthquake in April 2011 that crippled the country at its core. Currently, efforts are being made to restore the country though there are many challenges ahead.

To help you get started on your project (or to read for fun), here are some recommended resources. With many of the nonfiction books, you will find further recommendations so that you may pursue topics that interest you in your studies.


Grades K-4

  • Haslam, A. (2001) Japan (Make it Work History). Cooper Square Publishing.
  • Moore, W. and Wilds, K. (2011) All About Japan: Stories, Songs, Crafts and Moore. Tuttle Publishing.
  • Tames, R. (2003) Japan (Exploring History). Chrysalis Children’s Books.

Grades 5-8

  • Richardson, H. (2005) Life in Ancient Japan. Crabtree Publishing Company.
  • Nishimura, S. (2005) An Illustrated History of Japan. Tuttle Publishing.
  • Uschan, M. V. (2002) The Bombing of Pearl Harbor. World Almanac Library.

Grades 9-12

  • Henshall, K. G. (2004) A History of Japan: From Stone Age to Superpower. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Mason, R. H. P. (1997) A History of Japan: Revised Edition. Tuttle Publishing.
  • Gordon, A. (2008) A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present. Oxford University Press.


Grades K-4

  • Brenner, B. and Otani, J. (1999) Chibi: A True Story from Japan. Turtleback.
  • Myers, T. J. and Han, O. S. (2000) Basho and the Fox. Marshall Cavendish Children’s Books.
  • Coerr, E. (2004) Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. Puffin Modern Classics

Grades 5-8

  • Lasky, K. (2004) Kazunomiya: Prisoner of Heaven, Japan 1858. Scholastic, Inc.
  • Yep., L (1996) Hiroshima. Scholastic Paperbacks.
  • Whitesel, C. A. (2004) Blue Fingers: A Ninja’s Tale. Clarion Books.

Grades 9-12

  • Keene, D. (1994) Anthology of Japanese Literature: From the Earliest Era to Mid-Nineteenth Century. Grove Press.
  • Davis, F. H. (2007) Myths and Legends of Japan. Cosimo Classics.
  • Skord, V. (1993) Tales of Tears and Laughter: Short Fiction of Medieval Japan. University of Hawaii Press.
  • Murasaki, S. (1990) The Tale of Genji. Vintage.


Japanese History, from Ohio State University

Jamon pottery piece courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Buddha Statue courtesy of

Samurai on horseback courtesy of

Azuchi Castle courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Old vs. New courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Atomic Bomb courtesy of Wikimedia Commons