Japanese History: Travel Through the Eras
Japanese eras are a marker of development, unrest and discovery with ancient cultures becoming modern communities over centuries. While earlier dates are somewhat variable, the later periods offer a more fixed view of the upheaval and changes that combined to form the Japan we know today.
The Japanese Era Names
|Period||Era (English Name)||Era (Japanese Name)|
|Before 10,500 BCE||Paleolithic Period||旧石器時代|
|Around 10,500 BCE||Jomon Period||縄文時代|
|Around 300 BCE||Yayoi Period||弥生時代|
|300AD - 562AD||Kofun Period||古墳時代|
|552 - 645||Asuka Period||飛鳥時代|
|710 - 784||Nara Period||奈良時代|
|794 - 1185||Heian Period||平安時代|
|1192 - 1333||Kamakura Period||鎌倉時代|
|1336 - 1573||Muromachi (Namboku and Sengoku) Periods||室町時代 (南北朝時代, 戦国時代)|
|1573 - 1603||Azuchi-Moyama Period||安土桃山時代|
|1603 - 1868||Edo Period||江戸時代|
|1868 - 1912||Meiji Period||明治時代|
|1912 - 1926||Taisho Period||大正時代|
|1926 - 1989||Showa Period||昭和時代|
|1989 - 2019||Heisei Period||平成時代|
|2019 - Onwards||Reiwa Period||令和時代|
From the Paleolithic era to the Yamato period (大和時代), early Japan saw growth from hunter-gatherer survival to political leadership. Following the Paleolithic era, the Jomon Period (縄文時代) was connected to the emergence of pottery and began Japan’s prehistoric cultural period, with evidence it surpassed many other stone-age cultures in complexity and development. While dates vary, it is believed to have begun approximately around 10,500 BCE and ended with the formation of the Yayoi era (弥生時代) in around 300 BCE. Yayoi culture saw a move to bronze and iron casting as well as building raised-floor dwellings, rice was grown and combined with the hunter-gatherer nature of the preceding Jomon era. The following Kofun period (古墳時代) was marked by the introduction of Buddhism and was named after the tombs formed for rulers, lasting from 300AD until 562 AD.
A time of turmoil and ruling change, classical Japan saw a change in economy, rule and religious focus as well as the introduction of Japanese texts including Man’yōgana (万葉仮名).
Asuka Period, 飛鳥時代 (552 - 645 AD)
Named after a region close to Nara and sometimes dated from 538 - 710AD, this was a time of political, artistic and religious change in Japan. Most significant was the introduction of Buddhism (crossing eras) from China, via Korea. While it was initially opposed, the religion soon gathered a strong following, most importantly from the powerful Soga family and Shotoku Taishi, the imperial regent. Reforms introduced a new constitutional government with strong moral basis drawn from Buddhist teachings.
Nara Period, 奈良時代 (710 - 784)
As the seat of government moved to Nara in 710, the period became one of international influence and Buddhist growth. Emperor Shomu (聖武天皇) was eager to have monasteries built in every region along with the still-standing and world-famous Todai-ji (東大寺) in Nara. Buddhism provided an increasingly direct route to political success and connections between the Imperial family were made through marriage. Drawing on Buddhist and Confucian ideas, poetry and culture were influenced by visiting scholars from East Asia as well as deeply Japanese texts such as the man’yoshu (万葉集anthology of poetry) and the historical records known as Kojiki (古事記) and Nihon Shoki (日本書紀).
Heian Period, 平安時代 (794 - 1185)
As the ruling capital moved to Heian (now Kyoto), Buddhist influence was at a peak, although a return to the Ritsuryo system (律令制) of governing was embraced. The Tendai (天台宗) and Shingon (真言宗) sects of Buddhism were founded. Mt. Hiei (比叡山) became a spiritual base for Tendai followers with the popular Enryakuji Temple based at its summit. Mt. Koya (高野山) in Wakayama became the headquarters of the Shingon sect and is still a popular destination with a number of pilgrimage routes and temple lodgings. Culturally, the development of the kana writing systems fuelled growth in the expression of Japanese culture and history, leading to the Tale of Genji (源氏物語) and the (Kokinwakashu 古今和歌集) - an anthology of verse which would be the first of a succession. Politically, while the era was initially relatively peaceful, growing unrest fired by aristocratic success would lead to the battles and disputes of Japan’s fast-approaching feudal era, lead by the Samurai class and beginning with the Gempei War (源平合戦).
As class unrest grew, Japan entered a new phase of feudal rule, punctuated by battles, rebellions and led by the warlords (shogun将軍), powerful daimyo (大名)families and samurai class.
Kamakura Period, 鎌倉時代 (1192 - 1333)
As Minamoto no Yoritomo (源 頼朝) formed a military government in Kamakura (also known as a bakufu (幕府) or shogunate), samurai rule began in Japan and would last until 1868. While civil governance remained in Kyoto, the military rule was eventually passed to the Hojo (北条) family, who gained increasing political power and eventually gained overall control. Battles with the Mongol army in Kyushu were defeated with the help of typhoons, leading to the use of ‘kamikaze’, meaning divine wind and enshrining the idea of divine protection of the nation. The feudal system developed, with lands divided and frequent conflicts between warrior and peasant classes while agriculture and trade developed alongside the introduction of Zen Buddhism, among other sects. Wood carving, military epic tales, and a rise in secular themes punctuated the cultural scene as the Kyoto nobility sought to regain power.
Muromachi (Namboku and Sengoku) Periods, 室町時代 (南北朝時代, 戦国時代) (1336 - 1573)
The Namboku period lasted only 56 years and was known for its division of the south and north courts and was the formative era for the development of the Muromachi bafuku. Following a brief return to imperial rule lasting only a few years, the new bakufu government was established in Kyoto’s Muromachi district. Civil unrest dominated but eventually, a balance of power was determined between the daimyo and shogun, ended by the Onin war (応仁の乱) in 1467. Unrest followed, with peasants rising against samurai and small daimyo appeared with an increase in infrastructure thanks to castle towns and border defenses. Zen Buddhism and a renewed interest in Shinto led the religious focus while European influence began with the arrival of the Portuguese, bringing trade and Christianity which saw a boom before being outlawed in the late 16th century. The Sengoku period (戦国時代) lasted within this time from 1467 to 1573 and was known as the time of the warring states. Triggered by the Onin war, it was a restless and dangerous period in Japanese history.
Azuchi-Moyama Period, 安土桃山時代 (1573 - 1603)
Also known as the Momoyama period, this was a short time of political unification under daimyo rule, with all areas under central government rule. Lead by Oda Nobunaga (織田信長) and later Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉), the nation enjoyed a period of opulence and extravagance. Impressive castles and mansions were common, with artists decorating interiors with detailed works. The era’s name is lent from two such castles in Lake Biwa (琵琶湖) and Kyoto respectively.
Edo Period, 江戸時代 (1603 - 1868)
Under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate (徳川幕府) and its hundreds of regional Daimyo, Japan’s Edo Era brought power to the present-day capital. Strict social order, economic growth, and isolationism were markers of a time of peace, which allowed for cultural development on a national scale. As Christianity was targeted, remaining followers went underground and foreign presence was limited to the small artificial island of Dejima (出島) in Kyushu. The stable state of the nation allowed for leisure time, which in turn allowed for education, entertainment and a rise in merchants and artisans alongside farmers and samurai. Popular entertainment in the form of Geisha, kabuki and bunraku were developed along with Ukiyo-e printing and poetry by the likes of Matsuo Basho (松尾芭蕉). Eventually, foreign intrusion, domestic unrest and natural disasters weakened the state and power was returned to the Emperor.
Meiji Period, 明治時代 (1868 - 1912)
Renaming Edo as Tokyo (meaning Eastern Capital) and relocating the emperor from Kyoto, the Meji restoration (明治維新) marked major changes in Japanese society in the name of westernization and modernization. In unequal trading relationships with Western powers, Japan sought to regain control and reforms affected all elements of society, from land ownership to finance to education. Industries grew, particularly textiles and decorative art, which led to a trade boom in lacquerware, enamel work and porcelain. Short international conflicts with Korea and Russia reflected growth in military strength and a struggle of national identity was managed.
Taisho Period, 大正時代 (1912 - 1926)
Bringing domestic democracy and a rising prominence internationally, the relatively short Taisho period was led by Emperor Yoshihito (大正天皇). Voting was opened to the masses and Western life was embraced, with strengthened trade and growth in influence following WW1. In the post-war era, Japan was recognized as a leading nation, although anti-Japanese sentiment following the war was strong in countries such as China. Strengthened by labour unions, demonstrations began and frequent economic crises led to a depression at the end of period.
Showa Period, 昭和時代 (1926 - 1989)
Emperor Showa Hirohito (昭和天皇) led the nation through two distinct halves of this period - the pre and post-war eras. Before 1945, fascism and totalitarianism were rife, and Japan’s invasion of China in 1937 was soon followed by the start of WWII. Following their defeat, Japan began the arduous task of rebuilding the nation and was stripped of military rights with continued occupation by American forces. The Japanese economic miracle was a defining marker, with rapid development and constitutional change giving rise to the markers of Japanese society more familiar today.
Heisei Period, 平成時代 (1989 - 2019)
The Japan many of us know best, the Heisei era went from the famed ‘bubble economy’ of wealth and affluence to the devastating depression which followed. The 90’s were known as the ‘lost decade’, but also saw a boom in Japanese popular culture across the world, with Pokemon, Hello Kitty and Evangelion drawing interest from around the world. Military power was slowly regained and Japan hosted international events including the 2002 Fifa World Cup, opened Tokyo Skytree as the tallest building in the world and became a leading nation in technology and tourism. However, a series of natural disasters including the Kobe Earthquake and the Great Tohoku earthquake, Tsunami and radioactive disaster of March 11th, 2011 have become defining elements of the era, leading to regeneration and changes in construction. In 2018, the reigning emperor announced concerns of declining health, and for the first time in Japanese history, a law permitting abdication was passed.
The Reiwa Period, 令和時代 (2019 - Onwards)
Led by Emperor Naruhito (徳仁天皇), following his father’s abdication, the Reiwa era began on May 1st, 2019. Now in its second year, the period is one of booming tourism, a declining population and a relatively minor impact from the ongoing global pandemic of Covid-19.