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Early Japan (until 710)  

Basic information

During the Jomon Period (13000 BC to 300 BC), the inhabitants of the
Japanese islands were gatherers, fishers and hunters. Jomon is the name of
the era's pottery.

During the Yayoi Period (300 BC to 300 AD), the rice culture was
imported into Japan around 100 BC. With the introduction of agriculture,
social classes started to evolve, and parts of the country began to unite
under powerful land owners. Chinese travellers during the Han and Wei
dynasties reported that a queen called Himiko (or Pimiku) reigned over
Japan at that time. The Yayoi period brought also the introduction of iron
and other modern ideas from Korea into Japan. Again, its pottery gave the
period its name.

By the beginning of the Kofun Period (300 - 538), a center of power had
developed in the fertile Kinai plain, and by about 400 AD the country was
united as Yamato Japan with its political center in and around the province
of Yamato (about today's Nara prefecture). The period's name comes from
the large tombs (kofun) that were built for the political leaders of that era.
Yamato Japan extended from Kyushu to the Kinai plain, but did not yet
include the Kanto, Tohoku and Hokkaido.

The emperor was ruler of Yamato Japan and resided in a capital that was
moved frequently from one city to another. However, the Soga clan soon
took over the actual political power, resulting in the fact that most of the
emperors only acted as the symbol of the state and performed Shinto

Nara and Heian Periods (710 - 1185)  

Basic information

In the year 710, the first permanent Japanese capital was
established in Nara, a city modelled after the Chinese capital.
Large Buddhist monasteries were built in the new capital.
The monasteries quickly gained such strong political
influence that, in order to protect the position of the
emperor and central government, the capital was moved to
Nagaoka in 784, and finally to Heian (Kyoto) in 794 where it
should remain for over one thousand years.

One characteristic of the Nara and Heian periods is a gradual
decline of Chinese influence which, nevertheless, remained
strong. Many of the imported ideas were gradually
"Japanized". In order to meet particular Japanese needs,
several governmental offices were established in addition to
the government system which was copied after the Chinese
model, for example. In the arts too, native Japanese
movements became increasingly popular. The development
of the Kana syllables made the creation of actual Japanese
literature possible. Several new Buddhist sects that were
imported from China during the Heian period, were also

Among the worst failures of the Taika reforms were the land
and taxation reforms: High taxes resulted in the
impoverishment of many farmers who then had to sell their
properties and became tenants of larger land owners.
Furthermore, many aristocrats and the Buddhist monasteries
succeeded in achieving tax immunity. As a result, the state
income decreased, and over the centuries, the political power
steadily shifted from the central government to the large
independent land owners.

The Fujiwara family controlled the political scene of the
Heian period over several centuries through strategic
intermarriages with the imperial family and by occupying all
the important political offices in Kyoto and the major
provinces. The power of the clan reached its peak with
Fujiwara Michinaga in the year 1016. After Michinaga,
however, the ability of the Fujiwara leaders began to decline,
and public order could not be maintained. Many land owners
hired samurai for the protection of their properties. That is
how the military class became more and more influential,
especially in Eastern Japan.

The Fujiwara supremacy came to an end in 1068 when the
new emperor Go-Sanjo was determined to rule the country
by himself, and the Fujiwara failed to control him. In the
year 1086 Go-Sanjo abdicated but continued to rule from
behind the political stage. This new form of government was
called Insei government. Insei emperors exerted political
power from 1086 until 1156 when Taira Kiyomori became
the new leader of Japan.