CHRONOLOGY OF ANCIENT JAPAN
From the origins to the classical age (10th millennium B.C. – 1185 A.D.)
While the furthest origins of Japanese civilization go back to the tenth millennium B.C., it is only from 57 A.D. that we have the first reference (in Chinese) to the Japanese as the “people of Wa, formed by over a hundred tribes”.
Between the third and the eighth century, in the area of Yamato a dominant political centre was formed,giving rise to the form of imperial government. During this phase Buddhism spread throughout the country and the state was organized on a Chinese political and administrative model.
The development of an autonomous Japanese state dates from the eighth century, as do the legendary accounts of its birth from the Shintoist goddess of the sun.
The Heian Period, between 794 and 1185, was an age of assimilation of Chinese and Buddhist culture, during which literature and art developed (the Genji Monogatari, the first story in the history of literature, dates from the ninth century). The emperor’s power was influenced by the regents of the Fujiwara clan.
The Japanese Middle Ages and the Samurai (1185/ 1868)
At the beginning of this long phase, the emperor’s power began to weaken and family clans came to the fore. The permanent army at the service of the Shōgun (a sort of supreme general) or of the daymō (feudal vassals) belonged to a warrior caste, buke, whose members were known as bushi.
Kamakura Period (1185-1333)
It was in this period that the imperial palace guards took the name of samurai, or “those who serve”. Minamoto Yoritomo became Shōgun and imposed a military government (bakufu) with its headquarters in Kamakura, confining the emperor to the role of priest of Shintoism.
With this new political system, the Samurai became the ruling class. In 1333 the shogunate of Minamoto was abolished, with a brief restoration of imperial power under the protection of the Ashikaga clan.
Muromachi Period (1333-1573)
The restoration of imperial power lasted three years: in 1336 the Ashikaga clan re-established the shogunate and ruled until 1573 with the capture of Kyoto by General Oda Nobunaga.
It was the legendary age of wars between rival clans, with two opposing imperial courts and the country divided into dozens of fiefs forever at war with one another. There were two main periods during this tormented age:
Nanboku-cho (“of the Courts of the North and South”, 1336-1392), and Sengoku (“of the combatting states” 1467-1573).
In this age the name Samurai was reserved for soldiers of the imperial court, the goshozamurai, and was later extended to warriors authorized to bear the long sword (katana) and the short one (wakizashi) and who served a lord.
Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1603)
These years were dominated by the figures of three great leaders who reunified Japan, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu who, winning the decisive
battle of Sekigahara, finally led the country to peace. Azuchi-Momoyama are the names of the fortresses of the cities of Toyotomi Hideyoshi near Fushimi.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), son of peasants, could not accede to the caste of the Samurai and had to make do with the more modest title of taiko, but it was he who established that only the Samurai could bear arms.
After Tokugawa Leyasu won the battle of Sekigahara (1600), the shogunate became hereditary within his clan.
Edo Period (1603-1867)
In this phase the military government (shogunate) of the clan of the Tokugawa ruled, with the capital Edo, today’s Tokyo. It was a period of peace (apart from two episodes when the castle of Osaka was besieged) in which the warrior-class was gradually transformed into an administrative class.
Japan remained a nation completely closed to the outside world until 1867, the year in which imperial power was restored and the shogunate definitively abolished.
With the abolition of the fiefs in 1869, the Samurai were incorporated under the name of shizoku into the nobility of modern Japan.