Portal:Ancient Japan

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Depiction of bearded Emperor Jimmu with his emblematic long bow and an accompanying wild bird.

The history of Ancient Japan can be broken down into three distinct periods. The first period called Jōmon period is the time in from about 14,000 BC to 300 BC. The term "Jōmon" means "cord-patterned" in Japanese. It refers to the markings made on clay vessels and figures using sticks with cords wrapped around them which are characteristic of the Jōmon people.

The second period called Yayoi period is an era in the history of Japan traditionally dated 300 BC to 300 AD. It is named after the neighbourhood of Tokyo where archaeologists first uncovered artifacts and features from that era. Distinguishing characteristics of the Yayoi period include the appearance of new pottery styles and the start of an intensive rice agriculture in paddy fields. Yayoi culture flourished in a geographic area from southern Kyūshū to northern Honshū.

The last period called Kofun period of ancient Japanese history, beginning around AD 250, is named after the large tumulus burial mounds (kofun) that appeared at the time. The Kofun period saw the establishment of strong military states centered around powerful clans, and the establishment of the dominant Yamato polity centred in the Yamato and Kawachi provinces, from the 3rd century to the 7th century, origin of the Japanese imperial lineage. Japan started to send tributes to Imperial China in the 5th century. In the Chinese history records, the polity was called Wa and its five kings were recorded. Based upon the Chinese model, they developed a central administration and an imperial court system and its society was organized into occupation groups. Close relationships between the Three Kingdoms of Korea and Japan began during the middle of this period, around the end of the 4th century.

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Small seal script epigraph on the standard weight prototype of China's Qin Dynasty.

Written Chinese comprises Chinese characters used to represent the Chinese language and the rules about how they are arranged and punctuated. It had a huge effect on the development of the written language of ancient Japan. Chinese characters are called kanji in Japanese. Kanji do not constitute an alphabet or a compact syllabary. Rather, the writing system is roughly logosyllabic; that is, each character generally represents either a complete one-syllable word (see logogram) or a single-syllable part of a word. Kanji themselves are often composed of parts that may represent physical objects or abstract notions. Written Chinese is one of the world's oldest active, continuously used writing systems. Many current Chinese characters have been traced back to the Shang dynasty about 1200–1050 BC, but the process of creating characters is thought to have begun some centuries earlier. After a period of variation and evolution, Chinese characters were standardized under the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC).

Kanji were first introduced into ancient Japan in the first half of the first millennium AD. At the time, Japanese had no native written system, and kanji were used for the most part to represent Japanese words with the corresponding meanings, rather than similar pronunciations. A notable exception to this rule was the system of man'yōgana, which used a small set of Chinese characters to help indicate pronunciation. The man'yōgana later developed into the phonetic alphabets, hiragana and katakana.


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Credit: Peggy Greb

Travelers from ancient Japan had been returning from mainland China with souvenirs, including container planting, since the 6th century. This may be when the bonsai was first introduced to Japan.

Did you know...

Heishi Rock is an attraction at Kamome Island.

  • ...that in Shinto, yorishiro, such as sacred trees, attract spirits, give them a physical space to occupy and make them accessible to people for religious ceremonies?
  • ...that according to a legend, the Heishi rock (pictured) represents the God of the Sea of Japan?
  • ...that the stone "lions" seen at the gates of Shinto shrines are actually Chinese dogs?

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Kofun soldier, 5th century Japan.

The term "National Treasure" has been used in Japan to denote cultural properties since 1897. The definition and the criteria have changed since the inception of the term. The weapons in this list of archaeological materials designated as National Treasures of Japan span a period from about 4,500 BC to 1361 AD. The Japanese Paleolithic marks the beginning of human habitation in Japan. It is generally accepted that human settlement did not occur before 38,000 BC. Archaeological artifacts from the paleolithic era consist of stone tools of various types. From about 14,000 to 8,000 BC, the society gradually transformed to one characterized by the creation of pottery used for storage, cooking, bone burial and possibly ceremonial purposes. Dogū—small clay figurines depicting humans and animals—can be dated to the earliest Jōmon period but their prevalence increased dramatically in the middle Jōmon. Three dogū from 3000 to 1000 BC have been designated as National Treasures. The ensuing Yayoi period is characterized by great technological advances such as wet-rice agriculture or bronze and iron casting, which were introduced from the mainland. Iron knives and axes, followed by bronze swords, spears and mirrors, were brought to Japan from Korea and China. The primary artistic artifacts, with the exception of Yayoi pottery, are bronze weapons, such as swords, halberds and dōtaku, ritual bells. In addition ornamental jewels were found. The starting date of the Kofun period (c. 250–300 AD) is defined by the appearance of large-scale keyhole-shaped kofun mound tombs, thought to mark imperial burials. Typical burial goods include mirrors, beads, Korean Sue ware, weapons and later horse gear. Mirrors, swords and curved jewels, which constitute the Imperial Regalia of Japan, appear as early as the middle Yayoi period, and are abundant in Kofun period tombs. Characteristic of most kofun are haniwa clay terra cotta figures whose origin and purpose is unknown. A haniwa of an armoured man has been designated as National Treasure; and a 1st-century gold seal, designated a National Treasure, shows one of the earliest mentions of Japan or Wa.


In the news

November 2010: A 35,000 year old stone tool with a ground edge is found in Australia, predating the earliest ancient Japanese example by at least 5,000 years. (1)

August 2010: Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan promised to return a “small portion” of the estimated 61,000 artifacts that were taken from Korea during colonial rule. (2)

March 2009: For the first time since World War II, a complete set of ancient Japanese dolls was displayed at the week-long "Session Road in Bloom" to celebrate the 14th Panagbenga Festival. (3)


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