The first humans to live on the islands now known as Japan arrived during the Paleolithic era, some 10 to 30,000 years ago. Where they came from is a matter of great controversy. It is possible that they came from the Korean mainland over temporary land bridges that existed from time to time. Other theories have them coming by sea from Pacific islands. They were hunter-gatherers, living off the land in small tribal units.
Around 400 BCE (Before the Common Era) the process of growing wet rice was developed in Southern China. It spread quickly, arriving in what is now Korea around 300 BCE, and was soon brought into Japan. It changed everything.
Wet rice farming is very demanding. It requires an organized community and cooperation among the members of the society. Storage and distribution systems are required. It sometimes led to local wars; a community that has a crop failure is likely to raid another community for its harvest. However, it was far more stable than its hunter-gatherer predecessors, and the population grew. Foreign trade began with the Chinese.
A spoken language evolved among these people. Again, its origin is a matter of heated debate. There are signs of the language family of central Eurasia and Siberia – and of Malayo-Polynesian origin. But no definitive origin has been identified.
There was no written language until early in the Common Era, when people began using the Chinese system of writing, learned from traders.
It is said that the first writing in China was introduced some 5,000 years ago. Around 220 BCE Emperor Xin conquered the warlords and united China. The name China comes directly from his name. In order to govern and collect taxes, he built an extensive road system, created a uniform system of weights and measures, and standardized the writing system. This was the system that came to Japan.
The Chinese characters used in Japanese are called kanji.
The Japanese had a problem using Chinese writing.; Chinese is a different type of language. Japanese depends upon conjugation of verbs and adjectives, Chinese does not. To resolve this, early scholars used some Chinese characters for their meaning, and others for their sound, to spell out the needed conjugations, etc. It was very difficult to read, because the reader had to somehow determine whether a character was there for its meaning or its sound.
The answer was the creation of a set of characters representing sounds. Called kana, it is traditionally said to have been invented by the Buddhist priest Kūkai in the ninth century. On his return from China in 806 CE; his interest in the sacred aspects of speech and writing led him to the conclusion that Japanese would be better represented by a phonetic alphabet than by the Chinese characters that had been used up to that point. His contribution is called kana.
The kana alphabet is purely phonetic. It contains characters for all the sounds used in Japanese speech.
Originally, kana was for use by Buddhist priests, later for all men. It is called kata kana. Later, hira gana was created for use by women, who were forbidden to learn kanji. The hira and kata kana characters represent exactly the same sounds, but are drawn differently. An analogy is printed and cursive English. Kata kana uses generally straight lines while hira gana is more curvy.
Today hira gana is used for Japanese words and add-ons to Chinese kanji, while kata kana is used for foreign names and words.
By 250 CE bronze tools and weapons, weaving and silk production, glassmaking, and advanced woodworking had been developed.
As many as one hundred kingdoms formed and gradually coalesced into one Empire. In 660 BCE Jimmu was declared Emperor, beginning the longest dynasty in human history.
The Classical period began in 538 CE. Buddhism was introduced and co-existed with Shinto, the Japanese system of beliefs, myths, and activities.
Japan called itself Wa. In a letter to the ruler of China in 606 BCE the Japanese spoke of the sun rising in Japan and setting in China. It was considered offensive by the Chinese, but served to give Japan a name – Nihon (or Nippon) – rising sun.
Confucian concepts from China were introduced and led to use of honorifics in the court aristocracy. They also defined the class structure (rulers – including samurai, farmers and fishers, artisans, and despised merchants) that lasted until the 19th century.
1185 CE began the Medieval period in Japan. The country was run by a Shogun, named by the Emperor. Daimyos – local war lords – were subordinate to the Shogun. There were continuous wars among the daimyos.
By 1477 CE, there were hundreds of daimyos, and the shogun’s power was dissipated.
In 1543 CE, trade with the Dutch began bringing many new things to Japan, including muskets. Art continued to flourish. Ikebana, the tea ceremony, ink wash painting, bonsai, and Noh theater were developed during this time.
From 1100 to 1500 CE the language changed – Old Japanese gave way to modern changes. The original eight vowels were reduced to today’s five.
The Early Modern Japan era began in 1603, when the Tokugawa family seized power and began 250 years of power as Shoguns, leaving the Emperor with only spiritual duties, while secular rule was by the Shoguns. Called the Edo period, the Shogun required all Daimyos to keep their families in Edo – the new capital later to be renamed Tokyo. The families were essentially hostages, to be sacrificed if the Daimyo started a war. The result was 250 years of peace. Samurais turned to art as a pastime, and poetry, painting, and other art forms flourished again.
The court adopted Neo-Confucianism. This led to a class structure – samurai, farmers, artisans, merchants. The samurai class were the rulers as the armies of the Daimyos. Their power was such that they could decapitate any who offended them. They reported to their respective Daimyo, who in turn reported to the Shogun. The Emperor was merely the religious leader with no secular power.
By Confucian standards farmers and fishermen were high in status because they produced the most necessary thing – food. Artisans came next because they also produced things that were wanted – swords, decorative items, clothing, etc. Merchants were at the bottom because they created nothing but got money for distributing other people’s work. They were considered to be parasites, profiting from the food producers and artisans. In time, the merchants became very rich, and many samurai were deeply in debt to them.
For 250 years the Shogun closed the doors of Japan to the outside world. All European Catholics were driven out or killed; Japanese Catholics were forced to reject Catholicism or were killed. Only a handful of Protestant Dutch were allowed to trade – they were restricted to a small artificial island in Nagasaki.
In 1857, the American Navy threatened Tokyo with bombardment from its ships, and the government agreed to open the doors. Soon after that, the Shogun stepped down and the Emperor was restored to full power.
1864 CE marked the beginning of modern Japan. The Meiji restoration changed Japan completely. The Meiji court abolished the class system, and avidly adopted western ways – from clothing to technology.
The Meiji government established a national dialect based on that spoken by the higher class areas of Tokyo. Today there are still regions of Japan with their own dialect – some so different that they are not understood by mainstream Japanese.
Several wars followed as Japan grew in international stature. Finally, for many reasons, the country took on the western nations of the United States, England, France etc. Overwhelmed by technology and logistics, they lost the war. Under U.S. occupation, a new constitution was developed that, among other features, forbade Japan from fighting other nations.
The war’s end in 1945 marked the beginning of the contemporary era for Japan. The country was devastated. Most cities had been reduced to rubble by Allied bombing.
The United States and other Allies helped build a new Japan.
In 1946, the government declared that 1,850 kanji characters were official and publishers should attempt to limit their printing to those characters.
In 1981 the number was increased to 1,945 kanji characters. Despite the complexity of kanji with hira gana and kata kana, Japan has one of the world’s highest literacy rates. Although kata kana was favored for almost all non-kanji writing, around 1965 hira gana became the standard for Japanese words, and kata kana for all ‘borrowed’ words and names from other languages. And there are many. Early on, pan was adopted from the Portuguese for bread, which they introduced to Japan. In today’s technical and electronic world, the Japanese have adopted hundreds of otherwise foreign words.