Home|Index Japanese Archaeology last revised:
June 14, 2009

Historic Archaeological Periods in Japan

by Charles T. Keally

Japanese written history begins around 700 A.D., but a long proto-historic period preceeded this. Proto-historic is defined as a period for which there are written documents, but these are either fragmentary and inadequate or written by outsiders. The outsiders may be contemporary outside observers, decendants who recorded their own traditional oral history, or outsiders who recorded that oral history.

The Kofun Period is Japan's true proto-historic period, but the Middle and Late Yayoi periods are to a degree also proto-historic. Chinese records from the 1st century B.C. mention a land called Wa, which is generally thought to have been in the present Japanese islands. These Chinese records culminate in the middle 3rd century A.D. Wei Dynasty record of Yamataikoku and its queen Himeko in the Land of Wa. Then the Chinese light goes out for the next century and a half, but the Korean records of the 4th century tell us much about the growing power of Wa during these years. Chinese records pick up the fragmentary story again in the 5th century.

Writing probably came to Japan in the 5th century, certainly at least during the 6th century, and we know a lot of documents were written locally in the 7th century. Unfortunately, these have been lost to us. But Japanese records from the early 8th century, particularly the Nihon Shoki (720 A.D.) and the many fudoki (713 A.D.) are quite informative about events in the preceeding few centuries. (Note that the often cited Kojiki [712 A.D.] is a political document meant to tell a unified story that supported the legitimacy of the powers that were. On the other hand, the Nihon Shoki is filled with multiple and often incompatable or contradictory versions of the same historic event, and it is a much more interesting document.)

Japan's real history begins with the final chapters of the Nihon Shoki. After that, the body of historical documents piled up rapidly. And archaeological documents in the forms of mokkan (wooden strips with writing of various kinds) and urushigami bunsho (lacquer-preserved paper documents) are growing in number every year, adding to the body of historic information available to us for the early historic periods.

The Historic Period is divided into Ancient, Medieval, Early Modern and Modern periods. The Ancient Period includes the Nara and Heian periods. Some scholars also include the Hakuho (645-710) period, alternatively called the Early Nara Period. The Medieval Period includes the Kamakura, Muromachi and Azuchi-Momoyama periods. It also includes the overlapping Nambokucho (Divided Court) phase (1336-1392) and the Sengoku (Warring Nation) era (1482-1558). The Early Modern Period -- the Edo or Tokugawa Period -- is a major focus of archaeology since the 1970s, especially, of course, in Tokyo, old Edo. Archaeologists today deal with much of the Modern Period, too, at least up to the end of World War II. But the archaeology of modern times is still a small endeavor and does not reach the general public.

Early Modern
Edo (Tokugawa)1600-1868

There are numerous other datings for the historic period. Most sources begin the Nara Period in 710 and end it in 794. But different sources end the Heian Period alternately at 1160 or 1185. Most sources begin the Kamakura Period at 1185 but end that period at either 1333 or 1392. The Muromachi or Ashikage Period is given beginning dates of 1333, 1336 and 1392, and ending dates of 1568 or 1573. The Azuchi-Momoyama Period marks the transition from the Medieval Period to the Early Modern Period, and most sources place it in the Early Modern Period; I prefer to keep it at the end of the Medieval Period and begin the Early Modern Period with the beginning of the Edo Period. The Edo Period begins variously in 1600, 1603 or 1615, and ends in 1867, but the Early Modern Period ends variously in the Tempyo Era (1830-1843), 1853 or 1867, the times when Europeans and Americans first began to put heavy pressure on Japan to open the country, the arrival of Admiral Perry, and the taking of power by the Emperor Meiji.

The ANCIENT PERIOD marks the final settling of the capital at one site and the thorough consolidation of central power. A "permanent" capital city laid out on the Chinese pattern was established at Fujiwara-kyo in the southern Nara Basin in 694. But a much larger capital city was soon built at Heijo-kyo (Heizei-kyo) near the city of Nara in 710. Less than a century later, the "permanent" capital was again moved, this time to Nagaoka-kyo near Kyoto in 784. Finally, in 794, a truly permanent capital was built at Heian-kyo in today's Kyoto. This is where the imperial capital stayed until the Meiji emperor moved it to Edo/Tokyo in 1868.

June 14, 2009

Heijo-kyo vs. Heizei-kyo

The name of the capital at Nara is now frequently given as Heizei-kyo (Takioto 1996:76) instead of Heijo-kyo. The kanji are the same, but the Heizei-kyo reading comes from the emperor Heizei (806-809), whose name is also written with the same kanji as Heizei-kyo.

  • Takioto, Yoshiyuki. (1996). Nihonshi Handobukku [Handbook of Japanese History]. Daigaku Juken (Nihonshi) [College Entrance Examinations (Japanese History)]. Tokyo: Nagase. (in Japanese)

To help consolidate its control over the provinces, the Yamato government in Nara established provincial capitals (kokufu) and built provincial temples (kokubun-ji) all over the nation. Most of the provincial capitals were established in the late 7th century; most of the provincial temples were built in the mid 8th century.

The imperial and provincial capitals and the provincial temples are, of course, the focuses of much of the archaeological research on this Ancient Period, and of the popular press. There is, however, much more to the archaeology of the Ancient Period. This archaeology also deals with provincial government offices, ancient roads, kilns and roofing tiles, shrines and temples, wells, toilets, workshops, religious sites and religious documents preserved in archaeological sites, early coins, and metal and wooden artifacts. But villages and pottery are the objects of a large portion of the archaeological work on the Ancient Period.

In the Tohoku District in northeastern Japan, forts and castles are central to archaeological research, for the Ancient Period sees the final conquest of this frontier region that was occupied by a native peoples called the Emishi. The northern end of Tohoku is where Japan's national boundaries stayed until the late 19th century. The 12th-century city of Hiraizumi in Iwate Prefecture is a major focus of archaeological research. This was a major center of culture, rivaling Kyoto in brilliance.

In Hokkaido in the far north, archaeology studies the inland Satsumon farmers and the coastal Okhotsk sea-mammal hunters. In Okinawa in the far south, this is the time of the later half of the Late Shellmound Culture.

The MEDIEVAL PERIOD marks the rise of military (shogunate) governments in Japan -- and the rise of castle building. In the late 12th century, the first military rulers, the Minamoto clan, set up their government in Kamakura, near present Tokyo, far to the east of the imperial capital at Kyoto. But central control ever so slowly began to disintegrate after that. During much of the 14th century, the imperial court -- and the country -- was divided. The Ashikaga clan gained considerable control at the end of the 14th century and set up a new military government at Muromachi near Kyoto. But disintegration of central control continued, and within a century the whole nation was fragmented among warring daimyo chiefs, all vying for greater power at all levels. Ota Nobunaga was the first of three great military leaders (including Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu) who pulled the country back together under one central shogunate government during the last decades of the 16th century.

The archaeology of the Medieval Period focuses much energy on the castles and manor houses of the great chiefs. But it also studies towns and villages, and the many varied goods manufactured during these centuries. Coins from China are common finds, sometimes in buried caches of 100s or even 1,000s of coins. In the Kanto District, the green shist itabi (board-shaped) grave stones are one of the most common traces of Medieval settlement, after castles. In the Tohoku District, the port town of Tosaminato draws a lot attention. And, outside the national boundaries of that time, the Ainu culture evolved in Hokkaido in the north, and the early Ryukyu Kingdom (Gusuku Period) held sway over the Okinawan islands in the south.

Visit the Medieval town of Kusado Sengen.

Also visit the ancient northerm port of Tosa Minato.

The EARLY MODERN PERIOD is nearly three centuries of relative stability under the Tokugawa Shogunate. Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first of the shoguns in this line, set up his capital in Edo (now Tokyo), far to the east of the imperial capital in Kyoto and just a short distance northeast of the early Medieval shogunate capital in Kamakura. The Tokugawa Shogunate closed the country to the outside world early in the 17th century, keeping open only a trading port at Nagasaki in western Japan. Christianity, which had arrived with the first Europeans in the 16th century, was banned. But the country was active internally, and there is much about these centuries that is not clear from the documents.

The growing and dynamic city of Edo produced a fascinating archaeological record, which archaeologists have been intensively exploring since the late 1970s. Other town and village sites are also the objects of much archaeological work. Early Modern archaeology further devotes considerable effort to the excavation of buildings, particularly castles and the mansions of the elite. The pottery and porcelain of the period, too, draw a lot of attention. Some of the porcelain is imported, sometimes from Europe and other distant places. And the archaeology of this period also studies the many manufactured products, production sites and art works.

Outside the national boundaries of the time, Hokkaido in the north was the home of the Ainu. The southwestern tip of the island was occupied by the Matsumae-han under Tokugawa control, but the rest of the island was seen only by the natives and a slowly growing number of Japanese explorers. In Okinawa in the south, the Ryukyu Kingdom was independent, but maintained relations with the Satsuma-han in Kyushu.

The MODERN PERIOD begins officially in 1868, but its roots go back a decade or two, when the outside pressure from Europeans and Americans to open the country began to increase significantly. In 1867, the Emperor Meiji got control of the nation back from the shogunate, and in 1868 he moved the imperial capital from Kyoto to Edo, soon known as Tokyo, the Eastern Capital. Japan's military grew rapidly, defeating China in 1895 and Russia in 1905, and occupying Korea in 1910. Japan was on its long march to industrialization and modernization. The militarization culminated in the Pacific War, ending in ashes in 1945.

This period still draws little archaeological attention, but reports of excavations of factory sites and World War II sites do appear from time to time. And reports on excavations of earlier periods often include the finds from the Modern Period, such as underground backyard bomb shelters, bomb craters, unmarked graves and burials, and building foundations, as well as tools, machine guns and helmets, among other objects. I am sure, however, that a lot of undocumented information about the late 19th century and early 20th century has been lost because of the low level of interest in what most archaeologists seem to see as a period too well documented to warrant serious investigation with a shovel. The Culture Affairs Agency designated wartime sites as cultural properties in 2002, an action that should improve the archaeological research into 20th-centery sites.

The pages describing each of these historic periods in greater detail -- if I ever finish them -- will deal primarily with the archaeological materials and emphases, because this information is still largely found only in Japanese-language sources, mostly excavation reports. There are many books on Japan in other languages that give good accounts of the political, cultural and social history of these recorded times.

Suggested Bibliography

Home Index