Japanese History: A Chronological Outline


ca. 4000 BCE Jomon Culture  

Prehistoric culture characterized by handmade pottery with rope pattern design

ca. 300 BCE Yayoi Culture  

More advanced agricultural society, using metals and wheel-turned pottery

ca. 300 CE

Tomb Period:
Kofun (250-538) | Asuka (538-710)


Great earthen grave mounds and their funerary objects, such as clay haniwa — terra cotta figurines of people and animals, models of buildings and boats — attest to emergence of powerful clan rulers. Among these was the Yamato clan, whose rulers began the imperial dynasty that has continued to the present.

552 CE Introduction of Buddhism
645 CE Taika Reform

Reorganization and reform based largely on learning imported from China: Buddhism, writing system, bureaucratic organization, legal theories

710-814 Nara Period  

Establishment of first permanent capital at Nara; emergence of Japanese patterns of administration and institutions. Beginning of classical period.

794-1185 Heian Period; Late Heian (Fujiwara)  

Great flowering of classical Japanese culture in new capital of Heian-kyo (Kyoto). Court aristocracy, especially women, produced great body of literature — poetry, diaries, the novel The Tale of Genji — and made refined aesthetic sensibility their society's hallmark.

1185-1333 Kamakura Period  

Beginning of military rule, as samurai (warriors) replaced nobles as real rulers of Japan. Imperial court remained in Kyoto but shoguns governing organization based in Kamakura, south of modern Tokyo.

1333-1336 Kemmu Restoration
1336-1573 Ashikaga (Muromachi) Period  

New warrior government in Kyoto retained weak control of the country, but from its base in Kyoto's Muromachi district became patron of newly flourishing artistic tradition, influenced by Zen Buddhist culture as well as samurai and court society.

  Country at War

Warring factions engaged in lengthy, destructive civil wars

1568-1598 Unification
1600-1867 Tokugawa (Edo) Period  

Country unified under military government which maintained 250 years of secluded peace, leading to development of vibrant urban, "middle-class" culture with innovations in economic organization, literature, and the arts.

1868-1912 Meiji Restoration
Meiji Era

Emergence, with Western stimulus, into modern international world, marked by dramatic alterations in institutions, traditional social organization, and culture.


Taisho Era

Japan as a world power in the 20th century

Showa Era

1945-present Contemporary Japan:
Heisei Era (1989-present)
Reiwa (2019-present)
Prepared by Dr. Amy Vladeck Heinrich, Director, C.V. Starr East Asian Library, Columbia University, for the Columbia University Project on Asia in the Core Curriculum.

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