Heian tile with sutra text

Ancient Japan


Jomon Period: 10,000 B.C. – 400 BC


Stable living patterns began to appear in Japan with the arrival of the Jomon people around 10,000 B.C. People during this period began to make open-pit fired clay vessels and decorated them with patterns made by pressing wet clay with unbraided or braided sticks and plaited cord. The pottery techniques of the Jomon were very advanced and characteristic of Neolithic cultures although the Jomon were a Mesolithic, Middle Stone Age, people. The period is named after their pottery methods as the word Jomon means "patterns of plaited cord". The pottery found during this period suggest the Jomon people led a sedentary or at least semi-sedentary lifestyle as pottery is easily breakable and not much use to hunter gatherers who are always on the move. It is believed they were skilled fisherman who lived in caves and shallow pit dwellings.

The Jomon period is typically divided into six different eras; the Incipient, Initial, Early, Middle, Late, and Final periods. The division of these eras is largely based on changes in pottery types.

Incipient Jomon: 10,000 B.C. - 8,000 B.C.
The only archaeological evidence found for the Incipient Jomon era is pottery fragments found in the Kanto plain. Kanto is on the eastern side of the island of Honshu where Tokyo is located. It is unknown what these fragments were when complete, but it is thought they are pieces of small round bowls used for eating or possibly storing food. The Incipient Jomon pottery fragments are the oldest ceramics known, appearing more than 2,000 years before ceramics in the Mesopotamian region. Pottery making is usually found in cultures that practice agriculture. However, to date there has been no solid evidence of agricultural practices during the Incipient Jomon.

Initial Jomon: 8,000 B.C. - 5,000 B.C.
Pots were produced for cooking and boiling food. These display the characteristic patterns made by pressing shells or plaited cord on the surface of the wet clay prior to firing. The bullet-shaped pots have tapered bases, which are thought to have aided in stabilizing the vessels in the ground, usually ash or soil, at the center of a fire pit.

Early Jomon: 5,000 B.C. - 2,500 B.C.
During this period, the average global temperature was 4-6 degrees Fahrenheit higher than today's temperature. This time is believed to have been the warmest in Earth's history. During this warming period, the practice of agriculture rapidly spread around the world and humans began living a more sedentary lifestyle. It is during this period the Jomon people began living in the large villages. Simple clay figurines have been found but it is unclear what they represent.

Middle Jomon: 2,500 B.C. - 1,500 B.C.
The Jomon began migrating out of the Kanto plain into the more mountainous areas of Japan. It is also during this time the Jomon began practice simple forms of agriculture. The Dogu, or clay figurines, they were producing became much more sophisticated. It is unknown what purpose these clay figurines served, but many believe they were used as a talisman for good health or for safe childbirth. Others believe these figurines could were toys for children or even representations of aliens who visited the Jomon from outer space.

Late Jomon: 1,500 B.C. - 1,000 B.C.
The temperature became cooler and rainfall increased forcing the Jomon to migrate out of the mountainous areas and back into the coastal plains of Honshu. An increase of ritual artifacts such as figurines and stone rods are produced during this period. The Goryo, Horinouchi, and Kasori B styles of pottery are a few of the more well known from this period.

Final Jomon: 1,000 B.C. - 400 B.C.
Excavations reveal a sophisticated harpoon technology was developed during this period. Many large stone circles dating to this period are thought to have been used for ritual practices. Although there is evidence of plant cultivation, it had only a slight impact on the Jomon people's lifestyle. A large amount of female figurines discovered from this period suggests they had developed a religion involving goddess worship.

Photos of Jomon period artifacts


Yayoi Period: 400 BC – AD 250

Origin of the Yayoi
The Yayoi period is named after the area of Tokyo where pottery from the period was discovered in 1884. It was actually a mistake as later mass spectrometry methods dated the pottery to 900 - 800 B.C. which is about 500 years before the appearance of the Yayoi. The drying out of their lands forced large waves of immigrants to leave Northern China in search of a more hospitable climate. Some settled in Korea and others crossed over into Japan. It is not known exactly how the Yayoi interacted with the Jomon, but there are several theories. The most widely accepted theory in Japan is the Yayoi immigrants were small in number and assimilated into existing Jomon society. Differences in skeletal remains between the Yayoi and the Jomon are generally believed to be genetic in nature, but some archaeologists argue the differences can be explained by nutritional reasons. Eventually, the Yayoi displaced the indigenous language, social customs, and religion of the Jomon. As the Yayoi came from the Asian mainland this would suggest that Japanese culture ultimately originates from China and Korea. This is in direct discordance with the popular Shintoist view that Japanese culture is indigenous and of great antiquity. Japanese language, religion, and social structure can be traced back no earlier than the Yayoi. The earliest archaeological sites are located in Japan's southern island of Kyushu. After the Yayoi established in Kyushu they began migrating north and displacing the Jomon throughout the rest of Japan.

Technology and Agriculture
The Yayoi brought knowledge of agriculture, metallurgy, and the beginnings of Shintoism. Relatively few iron objects have been unearthed from this period, as they tend to rust easily. Some of the iron artifacts that have been found include axes, knives, farming implements, swords, and arrowheads. Swords, spears, Dotaku (ceremonial bell-shaped objects), and mirrors made of bronze have been unearthed and dated to this period. Marks from rice husks on pottery as well as carbonized rice grains have been found at archaeological sites in Kyushu. The methods used for rice cultivation were advanced for the time. Irrigation channels have been found with built-in dams and drainage systems. The introduction of rice cultivation, and subsequent deification, likely contributed to the large population increase from the Jomon to the Yayoi.

The Yayoi used a primitive potter's wheel as opposed to making pottery by hand like the Jomon. Although some Yayoi pottery clearly shows Jomon influence, overall it lacks the ornate style of Jomon pottery and instead uses rather simple designs. Yayoi pottery was also fired at higher temperatures than Jomon. Clothing woven from vegetable fibers also appeared during this time and demonstrates advancement in the knowledge of textiles. Primitive looms were used to weave the fibers into cloth.

Religion and Social Structure
The Yayoi lived in groups called uji. These clans were led by a single leader who served as both a spiritual leader and war-chief. Each clan was associated with a single god and the head of the clan was responsible for performing ceremonies to pay tribute to this god. Gods represented aspects of nature or any other mysterious aspect of the world. There were mountain gods, river gods, storm gods, and many others. When a clan defeated another clan in war, they absorbed that clan's god into their own religion. In this way, the Yayoi slowly developed a complex hierarchy of gods, which in turn represented the hierarchy of the clans. The Yayoi lived primitively in circular pit-type dwellings as well as surface structures made from wood and stone. Raised floor structures were used for storing grain and keeping it inaccessible to rodents and other animals. There was no writing or monetary system. Although marriages were often polygamous, Chinese texts suggest that women held prominent positions in the uji, possibly even serving as clan-heads.

Burial Practices
The dead were buried in large clay urns or stone coffins. These types of burial devices were also found in the Korean peninsula and it is thought the custom probably originated there. Circles of stones or mounds of earth usually marked the gravesites. Some used a large slab of stone called a dolmen which indicating a society divided into classes. These gravesites sometimes contain other artifacts such as swords, mirrors, and beads.

Interaction with Asian Mainland
 Chinese writings of the time mention the nation of Wo. A document from the Han Dynasty described the Wo nation as being divided into more than 100 states. Another text, the Hou Han Shu compiled by Fan Ye in the 5th century, mentions in 57 AD the "Na state of Wo" sent emissaries to the Han court. The Na state is now Hakata Bay in the southern island of Kyushu. The Chinese emperor Guangwu presented the emissaries with a gold seal. The gold seal was discovered in 1748 at the mouth of Hakata Bay. Today the seal can be seen at Fukuoka City Museum.

The description of Chinese historians of the Wa nation being divided into more than 100 states seems to disagree with the the 8th-century Japanese work Nihon Shoki. The Nihon Shoki text describes a unified nation with a 700 year history dating the foundation of the country to 660 B.C.. Archaeological evidence suggests there were many feuds and conflicts between states during the Yayoi. Headless skeletal remains have been unearthed at the Yoshinogari site and in the coastal area of the Inland Sea stone arrow tips were found among burial items. Although there were violent conflicts, there there was also a high degree of civilization with clear-cut divisions of rank within society and people paying taxes.

 According to the Chinese text Wei Zhi, a part of the San Guo Zhi, Queen Himiko led the Wa from Yamatai after a civil war. Queen Himiko's younger brother carried out government affairs including participating in diplomatic relations with the Chinese Kingdom of Wei. When inquired about their ancestry, the Wa claimed to be descendants of the Grand Count Taibo of Wu, a well known figure of the Wu Kingdom around the Yangtze Delta area in China.

Location of Yamatai
The location of Yamatai is still debated and there are currently two possible sites. One is in Saga Prefecture in Kyushu and the other in Nara Prefecture in central Honshu. If Yamatai was located in Kyushu then it would seem to be limited to governance of local states and unrelated to the later Yamato court. However, if Yamatai was located in central Honshu this would suggest Japan had achieved a considerable degree of unification during the Yayoi period.

Photos of Yayoi period artifacts


Yamato-Kofun Period: 250 – 538

Around 300 A.D. a new culture, distinguished from the Yayoi, emerged in Nara prefecture, then known as Yamato. The culture of the Kofun period is characterized as more centralized, patriarchal, and militaristic than the Yayoi. The Yayoi either evolved into or came to be dominated by the people of the Kofun. The Kofun is also known for the establishment of the Japanese Imperial Court ruling from Yamato. The actual date the Court was established at Yamato is unknown, but the period usually assigned to the Kofun is 250 - 710 A.D..

Burial Mounds
The word Kofun comes from the Japanese name of the burial mounds dating to this period. Most of the tombs from the Kofun period are located around Osaka. Kofun range in size from a few meters to almost 500 meters in length. The most well known, and one of the largest in the world, is the keyhole-shaped tomb of Emperor Nintoku. Nintoku's tomb is 486m long and 27m high. Ceramic objects known as haniwa were placed around burial sites. Haniwa usually represented people, houses, and animals. Most of the information we have from the Kofun period comes from artifacts discovered in these tombs as well as domestic and foreign written sources. 740 kofun are off limits to the public and archaeologists as the Imperial Household Agency has designated these as tombs of ancient imperial family members.

The most significant progress in pottery during the Kofun was Sueki ware first produced in the mid-fifth century. It is made of blue-gray clay and is often thin and hard having been fired at temperatures 1,000 to 1,200° C. This temperature range is similar to that used to make modern porcelain. Its roots are from China but its direct precursor came from the Three Kingdoms of Korea. Sueki was fired in a Korean-style kiln called an anagama. The anagama kiln was half buried in the soil along the slope of a hill.

Relationship with Asian Mainland
Although there was conflict with mainland Asia, there was also diplomatic relations with China and also the Three Kingdoms of Korea, then known as Baekje, Silla, and Goguryeo. Some historians argue that Japan had conquered and maintained control over parts of the Korean peninsula. Other historians dispute this theory claiming there is lack of evidence to support this. Many aspects of Chinese culture influenced Japan. Confucianism, the Chinese writing system, weavers, smiths, and irrigation experts all made their way to Japan.

Yamato Polity
Toward the end of the Kofun period in the late 5th century the Yamato polity emerged. The Yamato court was ruled by a hereditary leader who designated powerful clan leaders as court members in order to receive their clan's allegiance.. The highest officers were called o-muraji and o-omi. Clan leaders continued to perform sacred rites to their clan's kami, or god, as was the custom with the Yayoi.

Photos of Kofun period artifacts


Yamato-Asuka Period: 538 – 710

The Asuka period is named after the Asuka region, an area about 25km south of what is now the city of Nara. During the Asuka period there were many significant transformations in art, society, and politics. These transformations began in the Kofun period but were later influenced by the spread of Buddhism during the Asuka period. It was during this period the name of the country changed from Wa to Nihon. The period can further be sub divided into into two periods, the Asuka and the Hakusho. During the Asuka period, up to the Taika Reforms, influence came mostly from Northern Wei and Baekje. In the latter Hakusho period, more Sui and Tang influences are seen. Buddhist culture imports continue unimpeded through both the Asuka and Hakusho sub-periods.

Taika Reforms
The Taika Reforms were a set of doctrines written under the authority of Emperor Kotoku in an effort to bring about greater centralization and increase the the power of the Imperial Court. Emperor Kotoku later took the name Taika, which means "big change" or "great reform". The Taika Reforms started with land reform based on Chinese Confucianism philosophy. The Imperial Court was also based on the Chinese governmental structure. During the Taika Reforms Japan sent envoys of scholars to China to study the Chinese character-based writing system, Buddhism, Chinese literature, architecture, agriculture, and farming. The influence of the Taika reforms can still be seen in Japanese culture today.

Buddhism Officially Introduced
Mahayana Buddhism was officially introduced to Japan in 552 according to the the Nihon Shoki, or in 538 according to the biography of Prince Shotoku. It is believed Buddhism was being practiced in Japan long before it was "officially" introduced. Buddhism was not immediately accepted by all members of the Imperial Court as xenophobia and nationalism made some reluctant. Buddhism's emphasis on the transience of human life was likely the reason why the Imperial family stopped using kofun style tombs. In 587, the Mononobe Clan was defeated at the Battle of Shigisen. The Mononobe Clan opposed Buddhism and fought the Soga Clan to stop its spread. After the defeat of the Mononobe Clan Empress Suiko encouraged the Japanese people to accept Buddhism and sent a diplomatic mission to China to obtain copies of Sutras during the Sui Dynasty.

The administrative government units organized during the Asuka period were called Gokishichido. This system of law and government was borrowed from China. The Gokishichido consisted of five main provinces, sub-divided into seven circuits, or do, which were further divided into sub-provinces. The administrative structures of the Gokishichido persisted for 700 years until the Muromachi period. The Gokishichido structure was the early beginning of Japanese Feudalism.

Photos of Asuka period artifacts


Nara Period: 710 – 794

In 710 A.D., Empress Gemmei established her official residence in Heijyo-kyo, present day Nara city. The capital of Japan would be moved several times during the Nara period. It was custom for the capital to be moved with the beginning of each new reign because the place of death of an emperor was thought to be polluted. A constant power struggle for the throne was another reason the capital was often relocated. In 782, the decision was made by Emperor Kammu to move the capital from Nara to Nagaoka in an effort to escape the Buddhist monasteries that were gaining political power. In 784, the capital was relocated to Nagoaka, about 30 miles from Nara, as Emperor Kammu had planned.

Buddhism Spreads
Buddhism had reached Japan in the 6th century but it was not until the Nara period that it was able to gain solid acceptance. Some of the earliest printed works in the world are the Hyakumato dharani, or 1 million prayer charms, which Empress Shotoku had printed in 770. Empress Shotoku had a close relationship with a Buddhist faith healer called Dokyo. It is thought she may even have wanted to make him Emperor but she died before giving him the throne. Her actions were deemed unacceptable by the people and led to the exclusion of women from imperial succession as well as the exclusion of Buddhist priests from any positions with political power.

Another big proponent of Buddhism during the Nara period was Emperor Shomu. He and his consort strongly believed in the religion and were active in promoting its spread. They felt it could help promote peace and stability in Japan. The government sanctioned the building of temples, called kokubunji, in regional provinces. Under Emperor Shomu, the Todai-ji temple (the kokubunji for Yamato province) was built at Nara. Iside it still houses a fifteen-meter high gilt-bronze statue of the Great Sun Buddha, or Dainichi Nyorai. This Buddha was associated with the Shinto Sun Goddess Amaterasu. The association of a Buddha with a Shinto kami started the complex syncretism between Shinto and Buddhism, which still exists in Japan today.

Nara emperors had a deep reverence for a particular Buddhist teaching called the Sutra of Golden Light. This sutra teaches that Buddha is not only a historical human being, but also the Law and Truth of the universe. Every individual has reason with which to distinguish good from bad. Living in accordance to this reason is the way to a proper Buddhist life. The sutra also claimed that human law should be a reflection of the Ultimate Law of the universe. However, since human law is an aspect of the material world, it was subject to change. This sutra gave Japanese rulers a religious basis for their laws and a justification for adapting these laws to new circumstances.

As a result of the imperial court's effort to record and document its history two of the most famous works of Japanese historical literature were produced during the Nara period. The Kojiki, The Record of Historical Matters, was written in 712 and the Nihon Shoki, Chronicles of Japan, was written in 720. In these chronicles, it is often difficult to distinguish between myths and actual events. These works state that Japan was founded in 660 B.C. by Emperor Jimmu, a direct descendant of the Shinto Sun Goddess Amaterasu. Historians believe the first Emperor who actually existed was Emperor Ojin who likely reigned sometime during the early Yamato-Kofun period. Since the Nara period political power has not been held by the Emperor. The Man'yoshu, an anthology of poems written in Chinese, was also compiled sometime after 759. Japan continued to import Chinese culture and sent envoys known as kentoshi to the T'ang court at set intervals; usually every 20 years.

Photos of Nara period artifacts


Heian Period: 794 – 1185

The Heian period is named after the capital city of Heian-kyo, present day Kyoto, established in 794 under the authority of Emperor Kammu. The period is considered one of the high points in Japanese history, perhaps equaled only by the later Tokugawa period. It is a time known for unprecedented peace and security in Japan as well as the rise of the samurai class. It is also during this period that the Emishi, believed to be direct descendants of the Jomon, were conquered in 801 by the military commander Seii Taishogun under the authority of Emperor Kammu.

Poetry and Literature
There was great interest in poetry and literature during the Heian as evidenced by the poem above. The Japanese writing system began to incorporate its own phonetic alphabets. Hiragana and katakana replaced the use of Chinese characters to represent some spoken words for which no kanji, Chinese character, existed. Women of aristocratic families began to use the new writing system, as they were not trained in Chinese like their male counterparts. As a result much of the literature written in Chinese by male writers of the Heian has been forgotten, while the writings of the supposedly less educated women, who could only write in their native script, have become some of the most famous works of literature in the world today. Genji Monogatari, or Genji's Story or Tale of Genji, was written by Murasaki Shikibu and is possibly the first novel ever written. Many modern novelists have cited the Tale of Genji as their source for inspiration.

Fashion of the Heian Aristocracy
Members of the aristocracy behaved according to subtle rules of aesthetic refinement. For the aristocrat seeking a good reputation negotiating these rules was the primary challenge. Beauty constituted good taste, but what was considered beautiful to a Heian aristocrat might be considered ugly by a member of another culture. White teeth were considered ugly, and women were expected to blacken their teeth with dye. When a woman smiled, it might have looked like a dark oval. The custom of blackening teeth was known as o-haguro and lasted until the late 19th century. Women also plucked out their eyebrows and painted them about 2-3cm above their original location. It is likely men would have done the same to achieve the high-eyebrow look. It was also attractive for a woman to have extremely long hair, which may have been longer than her body. For men a large amount of facial hair was no acceptable, but a thin mustache and and thin tuft of hair on the chin were considered attractive. Other rules of Heian beauty applied equally to both sexes. Typical attractive features for men and women were small eyes, a round and puffy face, plump figure, and white complexion. A thin figure and dark skin was associated with peasants and laborers. Aristocrats considered the nude body to be disgusting and ugly. People of stature would wear multiple layers of clothing. Women would wear up to six layers of robes with sleeves that were of a different length and color creating bands of colors at the end of the arms. If one of these colors was too pale or too bright, it would be the source of much criticism. Heian nobility could have their reputation ruined by inappropriate attire.

Power Structure
Four major groups held power during the Heian. The emperor and imperial family, the aristocracy or nobility, organized Buddhist sects, and provincial warriors. The aristocrats were the most powerful, divided into families often referred to as clans. It was rare that an emperor was able to rule without the backing of the major aristocratic families. There was little or no social mobility during the Heian and hereditary was the main, if not the only, factor in determining one's social status. Among the aristocratic families, the Fujiwara clan enjoyed the highest prestige. The Fujiwara became so powerful that by the year 1000, Fujiwara no Michinaga's word was law. He left a diary, which is a source of much information about the Heian court. At a party to celebrate his daughter's accession to Empress in 1018, he composed the poem below.

"This world, I think,
Is indeed my world.
Like the full moon I shine,
Uncovered by any cloud."

Although the Heian period is known for a time of peace and security, some historians argue the Heian led to an economically weakened Japan and increased poverty among the general population. The aristocracy, who made up around one percent of the population, were known as the Good People, or Yokibito. This noble class proved to be inept at managing Japan's administrative affairs. The lack of an external threat to Japan was likely a contributing factor in allowing the inefficient central government to remain in power so long.

Photos of Heian period artifacts