The four islands that make up the Japanese archipelago have been inhabited by humans for at least 30,000 years—though some theories suggest the area was populated as long as 200,000 years ago! If you don't have time to digest the history of Japan (and unless you're a scholar or a speed reader you probably don't) you should at least familiarize yourself with some of the basic facts about Japan before embarking on your journey. Understanding the facts about Japan can only add another layer of meaning to the temples, parks, religious ceremonies and cultural wonders you are bound to encounter during your visit.
What follows, then, is a cursory look at Japanese history, a jumping off point for further study about the history of Japan, and a quick reference for a few key facts about Japan.
Japan history begins with the migration of people from the Asian mainland during a period in which the sea separating present day Japan from China and the Korean Peninsula was only partially formed. When the sea rose and the land bridges washed away, these first inhabitants of ancient Japan were left to settle the islands.
In addition to rising sea levels, this period of global warming produced more abundant sea life and a thriving forest. With these resources ancient Japan flourished during the Jomon Period—some of the oldest pottery in the world has been dated to this period. The Jomon Period lasted from about 10,000 BC to roughly 300 BC. During this time ancient Japan was mostly a fishing and hunter/gatherer society. What is known as the Yayoi Period began around 300 BC with the introduction of rice from the Korean Peninsula. The spread of rice farms led to a closer social structure, tightly knit settlements, and, in the following Kofun Period (300 AD to 710 AD), the emergence of political and social institutions. Japan history was also influenced during this period by the arrival of Buddhism in the sixth century.
Like the rice crop, Buddhism came to Japan via Korea. Whether or not writing directly accompanied the Buddhist religion, an increase in literacy that coincided with the arrival of Buddhism led to the study of Confucius and other Chinese classics. Japanese history then underwent a period in which clan strength diminished in favor of a stronger central government based upon a Chinese style of rule.
During the Heian Period (794-1185) the capital of Kyoto was thriving. Kyoto would remain the imperial capital until 1868, and the cultural capital throughout the history of Japan. The Chinese-style of central government, though successful at first, broke down when the central government began to expand its influence farther from Kyoto, but lacked the resources to govern the provincial areas. Aristocrats and temple guardians were given the power to rule these areas; soon, however, these very same people began to challenge the central government, eventually forming small areas of influence and power. If you want to see what life was like during this period, plan a trip to visit the Shingon Buddhist temples at Mount Koya.
In this war for the countryside the shogun Minamoto Yoritomo was victorious. Minamoto wasted no time creating a capital far from Kyoto, and protecting himself and his shogunate with samurai warriors. For a glimpse of this periods architectural significant castles, head to Osaka for a tour of the imposing Osaka Castle.
A series of shoguns came and went until the Edo Period (1600-1868). In Japanese history the Edo Period was a time of isolation and peace in which the merchant class began to gain importance. By the early 1700s an estimated 1.4 million people lived in Edo—present day Tokyo—making it the largest city in the world at the time.
During the Meiji Restoration of 1868, imperial rule was once again established, the last shogun was retired and the samurai were disbanded with relatively little bloodshed. As if awakening to the rest of the world, the Meiji Emperors began a period or rapid modernization unequaled in the history of Japan.
During the Taisho Period (1912-26) Japan experienced an economic and intellectual boom that lasted until that dark and militant period in Japanese history that would lead the country into WWII. The war was infamously ended with the dropping of two atomic bombs by American forces on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A sober reminder of this event is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.
Yet in the face of this crippling nuclear holocaust Japan has proved resilient and resourceful. Modern, post-war Japan history has ding for inbeen a model of success. Government coordinated industrialization, its ability to move on from WWII, and massive funfrastructure has all made Japan's post-war economy a paradigm of success.