Japanese Civilization


Geographical and historical background

Government and state

Society and economy

Religion and thought


This article deals with Japan’s civilization – its religion, literature, art and so on. It provides only a brief historical outline. For a more detailed history of Japan, go to the series of maps which trace the story of Japan from ancient times through to the 21st century.

Geographical and historical background

Japan consists of the four large islands off the east coast of Asia, and a hist of smaller islands. These are Kyushu, Shikoku, Honshu and Hokkaido. The smaller islands stretch to both north and south of these main ones.

The islands of Japan lie across the sea from Korea, and, further west, China. Both Korea and China have played huge roles in Japan’s history.

The climate on the islands is temperate, ranging from subtropical in the south to cool in the north. All the islands are mountainous, with steep valleys through which many small rivers flow. The mountainous nature of the land has made farming a challenge, and concentrated populations in comparatively small areas.

Prehistoric Japan

Farming came comparatively late to Japan. Its island location probably isolated it from developments on the Asian continent, such as the spread of agriculture from its core areas in China. Also, the prehistoric Jomon culture, based on fishing, hunting and foraging, seems to have been superbly adapted to the mountainous landscape of Japan, which makes farming difficult on many places.. This would have made farming a less attractive economic alternative.

Nevertheless, paddy-field wet rice cultivation reached Japan from Korea around the middle of the first millennium BCE. Once established, the farming way of life gradually spread from the southern island of Kyushu to the northern tip of Honshu. The northernmost of the main islands, Hokkaido, with its cool and somewhat inhospitable climate, remained home to the aboriginal people of the Japan, the Ainu, until the 19th century.

The mountains and valleys of Japan made communications difficult, and meant that in most places society tended to be based on localised, self-sufficient clans. By the fifth century CE one of these clans had won some kind of widespread recognition as the predominant clan amongst the Japanese. This clan was the Yamato, whose chief gradually assumed the status of the monarch of all the Japanese.

The Classic Age

In the second half of the first millennium and the first half of the second millennium, contacts with Korea remained strong. Through these contacts various innovations, which had originated in China or even further afield, came to Japan, including iron, and, much later, writing. Later, the Buddhist religion, Confucianism and the Chinese model of statecraft would also arrive.

All these developments strengthened the authority of the Yamato clan, giving the emperor and his court the tools with which to create an organized, literate state. These developments were reinforced in the 7th and 8th centuries by direct contacts with the Chinese empire of the Sui and Tang dynasties. The Japanese court set about modelling itself and the state institutions along Chinese lines. Regular embassies to the Tang court continued to enhance Chinese influences of all kinds, with Japanese students studying at the great Tang capital of Chang’an to study Confucianism, Buddhist monks travelling to Japan in large numbers, and such innovations as the use of money, standardized weights and measures, and Chinese styles in art and architcture, gaining ground.

These exchanges set the stage for the golden age of the the Nara (710-94) and Heian periods (794-1156). This was very much centred on the emperor’s court, where the elite developed an extremely sophisticated culture. The writing of history, poetry and fiction, and the production of paintings and sculpture, proceeded apace and achieved an astonishingly high standard, and over time Chinese models evolved into more “Japanese” styles.

The early shogunate

Sooner or later, however, the constraints of geography will not be denied. The efforts of the Japanese court to impose a centralized state along Chinese lines was doomed by the mountainous landscape. Clan chieftains with immense local power, rooted in the numerous valleys of Japan, began to challenge the authority of the court and fight with each other. The resulting chaos led to the rise of groups warriors serving the lords, who now built castles for themselves and gained complete control over the faming populations within their territories, which can properly be called fiefs (areas of land over which lords have political, judicial, military and economic control). A system similar to European feudalism appeared, with its barons, knights and serfs. Powerful religious institutions, in the form of Buddhist monasteries, also flourished. The warriors increasingly followed a military code of conduct known as bushido and were the forebears of the famous samurai class.

Japan was wracked by clashes between different confederations of clans until one group, led by the Minamoto clan, triumphed and imposed some kind of order on the country. The Minamato set up a military government centred on their headquarters camp (Bakufu) at Kamakura, some distance from the imperial court at Kyoto, which was kept in place because the sacred nature of the emperor gave legitimacy to the new regime. However, real power now lay firmly with the Bakufu, and the Minamoto chief took the title of shogun, or military supremo, and he passed his position on to his descendants for several generations, as later shoguns would do.

Civil War

The Kamakura period (1185-1333) ended in a long period of civil war in which anarchy again spread throughout the land (1333-1568). The shoguns of the Ashikaga clan were unable to impose their authority on the feudal lords, and power largely resided at the local level in the numerous fiefs into which the country was divided. A process of consolidation gradually took place as more powerful lords (daimyo) absorbed the lands of weaker ones, but this only entrenched their power against the centre.

Nevertheless, this was a period of economic advance and cultural achievement. Trade and cities expanded, and some of the most characteristic elements of later Japanese civilization gained prominence – Zen Buddhism, Noh theatre, Sumo wrestling, tea ceremonies, landscape gardening, and the artistic arrangement of flowers. At the end of this period Westerners made contact with Japan when Portuguese ships arrived in 1542.

The end of the 16th century saw waves of civil war sweep over Japan as the daimyo rallied behind one leader or another, punctuated by periods of dictatorship. In the course of this, the Japanese embarked on their only major foreign adventure before the late 19th century, when they mounted a huge invasion of Korea (1592-8). This was turned back by Korea and Chinese forces, but not before Korea was ruined.

The Tokugawa shogunate

In 1600, a leader called Ieyasu won virtual control of Japan and inaugurated the Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1868). During this period the Japanese government isolated Japan from foreign influences, prohibiting overseas travel and maintaining only a small trading centre on the island of Nagasaki where Dutch merchants were based.

The Tokugawa shoguns made the city of Edo (modern Tokyo) their capital, and from their imposed a rigid system of what can only be called centralised feudalism on the country. They succeeded in maintaining stability until the last decades of their rule, and this led to a renewed time of economic expansion, especially in the early part of the period. Despite its isolation, important cultural and social changes took place as cities grew, the middle class expanded, literacy spread and a money economy reached all levels of society. In the cultural sphere, the Noh theatre, Kabuki drama and puppet theatre (Bunraki) came to prominence. Buddhism declined while the native Shinto religion increased in influence. The Tokugawa period formed the last chapter of Japan’s pre-modern history, and in many ways it saw traditional Japanese civilization reach its peak.

Government and state

The Emperor

Throughout Japan’s recorded history, the country has been ruled by an Emperor. He is a figure of enormous prestige, surrounded by an aura of divinity. He has the title of Tenno, or “Heavenly Sovereign” (normally rendered in English as “Emperor”). This office has descended without break in the same family, the Yamato, from prehistory. The Yamato claim descent from the Sun Goddess.

In the Nara and Heian periods, the emperor ruled the country in fact as well as in theory. A series of measures known as the Taika reforms sought to establish the Japanese state along Chinese lines.  He was to be served by a hierarchy of officials, who were to be chosen through an examination system and promoted on merit; all land was deemed to belong to the emperor and had to be redivided every six years to ensure everyone had enough to live off; and n fair tax system was decreed.

From the start these measures were largely ineffective. Japan is not China. In the latter, rivers need damming, canals constructing, reservoirs digging, and all of these public works need maintaining. To make this happen, a centralized, well-organized administration is imperative, and if it does not happen, many people starve or are drowned.

None of these things are necessary in mountainous, rainy Japan, with its multitude of small, fast-flowing streams. The hilly nature of the country, and the difficulties of communication, meant that the power of the nobles was deeply entrenched in their local areas. Because the emperor depended on their support for the state to function properly, the attempt to concentrate power at the centre could not succeed.

The Shogun

After the 12th century the emperor had little power. He was a ceremonial figurehead, commanding great prestige but little authority. Real power was exercised by an hereditary military official called the shogun. This figure had at his disposal his army of feudal retainers, and he ruled the localities through the nobles.

The shogun was theoretically appointed by the emperor. In practice his power was based on the fact that he usually controlled much more land then any other lord, in a feudal system where landholding meant power. It meant that he could command more retainers – and therefore greater military force – than any others.

The emperor lived in the city of Kyoto surrounded by the imperial court. As the emperor’s power declined, he and his court came to be paid for by the shogun. At times this was inadequate to meet the expenses of the court, and the royal family and courtiers experienced real poverty. The shogun and his officials, meanwhile, exercised power from their military headquarters (bakufu). The location of this changed from time to time, but wherever it was it was the real political and administrative centre of the country. Under the Tokugawa shoguns the bakufu was in the enormous city of Edo, which today we call Tokyo and is still the capital of Japan.

The Daimyo

Throughout Japan’s pre-modern history, political and administrative power at the local level has always been exercised by aristocratic lords. These powerful nobles (daimyo) controlled fiefs which were politically autonomous  – in effect, mini-principalities; the shogun’s government more or less left the feudal lord to rule his fief as he pleased.

In Tokugawa times, many of these fiefs developed sophisticated bureaucracies, smaller versions of the shogunal administration based in Edo, to run their territories. These were staffed by samurai, the traditional supporters of the daimyo, whose forebears had been simple warriors but whose members were now often well-educated and cultured officials.

Villages and towns

At the village level, a headman saw to it that law and order was maintained and the wishes of the daimyo were obeyed. He was chosen by the daimyo’s officials, but in most cases was probably from one of a small group of leading families within the village.

Towns and cities were administered directly by the daimyo’s officials. There were no town councils, and towns never became the alternative centres of power that they were in Europe.

Society and economy

At the top of traditional Japanese society stood the emperor and the royal family. Below these were the nobility, who fell into two groups. A court nobility attended the emperor at his court, but after Heian times had little power and not much wealth either – they seem to have subsisted on payments made to the court by the shogun.

The other aristocratic group, much more powerful than the first, where the daimyo, the feudal lords who ruled the numerous local territories into which the country was divided. The most important of these, and usually the one who controlled by far the largest fief, was the shogun.

The Samurai

Below the nobility came the samurai class. This warrior class emerged in the anarchy and civil wars of the 12th to 16th centuries, and acted as the personal retainers of the various feudal lords. They never lost this function, and always retained their military esprit de corps. However in Tokugawa times the class became divided into the “haves” and “have-nots”. The Tokugawa regime decreed that all Samurai be paid a stipend to support them in their gentry lifestyle. However, as time went by and the cost of living rose, those of them who only had this stipend to support them fell increasingly into poverty. This encouraged some of them to become educated officials; these staffed the bureaucracies of the shogun and the daimyo.  Others forsook their calling and became merchants (theoretically the most despised group in society), or invested in trade.

The Peasantry

The rural peasantry made up the largest group with pre-modern Japan. They were utterly subservient to the nobility and the samurai. Legally, they were serfs of the daimyo. If an aristocrat or samurai passed by peasants had to stand still and bow – otherwise they could be cut down there and then.

Nevertheless their standard of living was probably high when compared with other ordinary farmers in the rest of the world at that time. Also, in the Tokugawa period at least, they were comparatively well educated – pre-modern Japan had one of the highest literacy rates in the world.

Urban society

The towns and cities of premodern Japan functioned as both commercial and political centres. Many would have been the capitals of feudal lords, while others were the headquarters of high officials of the shogun. The topmost group in most towns, therefore, was composed of feudal lords and their officials. Some cities, however, were major market centres, and contained a sizeable merchant community. Edo, the capital of the Tokugawa shoguns, was one of the largest cities in the world in the 17th and 18th centuries. The shogun’s court dominated the society of the city (all daimyos, their families and many of their retainers had to live there for a part of each year), it was an immense source of demand. The city was noted for its huge number of shops, markets, theatres, restaurants and other places of entertainment.

In this situation, merchants could grow extremely wealthy, and some merchant families developed strong ties with the feudal ruling classes. Indeed some were themselves descended from samurai families. Below them came a large urban middle class, well educated and with much in common with the feudal officials. All this made the actual social status of the merchants very different from their theoretical status in the Confucian scheme of things, where they were positioned at the very bottom of society.

A huge class of craftsmen could be found in the large towns and cities, working in their industrial workshops and producing the high quality textiles, pottery and metalwork for which Japan was famous. Below them in status and wealth came a large number of poor labourers, and at the bottom, a group who have been labelled “outcastes”. These were workers in polluting occupations such as gravediggers and butchers. They were hereditary, and although without the extreme social degradation experienced by the untouchables of India, their position in society was unenviable and well-nigh inescapable.

Religion and thought


The indigenous religion of Japan is Shinto, a term which means ”way of the gods”. As its name implies, this religion revolves around the worship of numerous gods (kami), and Japan is dotted with shrines to deities relating to the harvest, or war, or other facets of life. The word kami can refer to spirits of rocks, trees, rivers, animals, places and natural phenomena; but it can also refer to the spirit, or sacred essence, of such entities. Kami and people all belong to a unified universe in which the spiritual and material are deeply interconnected. So, too, is the past and present. An important focus for Shinto is the maintenance of the link between the current generation and its ancient roots.

A philosophical strand of Shinto has parallels with Chinese Daoism, in which followers seek to live inharmony with the spiritual dimension of nature.

The Shinto religion embraces different sects, which identify themselves as belonging to the same religious tradition through similar styles of dress, ritual and terminology.

The earliest records for Shinto rituals date from the 8th century, when they reflected a collection of native beliefs and practices. Shinto’s identity as a specific religion arose to distinguish it from other modes of thought, all of foreign origin, particularly Buddhism.


This religion arrived in Japan, from Korea, in the 6th century, and was soon accepted by the Japanese court. Buddhism helped to buttress the emperor’s power in relation to the local chieftains, who remained largely wedded to the ancient worship of ancestral and nature spirits (which would eventually consolidate to form the Japanese religion of Shinto).

Various Buddhist sects have arrived in Japan from Asia (above all from China) at different times. After the 12th century the most popular of these was Zen, but other sects have continued to attract followers and have waxed and waned in popularity. Most of these have themselves become divided into various schools.


This Chinese philosophy came to Japan at around the same time that Buddhism arrived. It did not attain anything like the same popularity as Buddhism, but it profoundly influenced Japanese thinking. The education of the elite was shaped by Chinese models, which was heavily Confucian in content, and this gave the Japanese a hierarchical view of society similar to that which prevailed in China.

After the Nara period Confucianism declined in influence. In the Tokugawa period (1600-1868), however, it attained an official status it had not enjoyed for centuries. This was the Neo-Confucianism which had been dominant in China for over the past few centuries, and was rational and philosophical in tone. This distinguished it from the mysticism of Zen Buddhism. Unlike the Buddhists, the Neo-Confucians believed that an objective, material reality existed, and could be understood by men, even though interpretations of reality might differ amongst the various school of Neo-Confucian thought.

Like the Confucianism of China, that of Japan divided aced the warrior right at the top of the social scale, where in China soldiering was (at least by the 17th century) a despised occupation.



Writing was introduced into Japan from Korea in the early fifth century. The Japanese language, however, could not easily be rendered by Chinese characters, and a hybrid of Chinese characters used in Japanese syntactical formats developed, resulting in sentences that looked like Chinese but were read phonetically as Japanese. Later, Chinese characters were further adapted to create today’s Japanese syllabic writing.

Interestingly, scholarly works continued to be produced in Chinese right up to the end of the Tokugawa period. Just as Latin was the language of learning in Medieval Europe, so Latin was in Japan.

A native Japanese literature began to develop in the Nara period. Works of history and poetry were complied by the court aristocracy. The following Heian period saw the poetic tradition continue, but it also saw a remarkable flowering of prose writing. The two most famous exponents of this were two noblewomen, Lady Murasaki, who wrote the Tale of Genji, and Lady Sei Shonagon, who wrote  diary of court life entitled the Pillow Book.

The literature of the Kamakura period (1285-1333) was characterized by histories and histoical stories, especially tales of war. The period also produced large amounts of poetry. These works had a more sombre tone than those of the previous eras, and there was an element of nostalgia for the lost glories of the Heian age.

Literature remained dominated by the court aristocracy for much of this time, though female authors were not so prominent. The decline of the importance of the imperial court, however, led to writers from other classes of Japanese society making their presence felt, and from this point the classical court literature gradually disappeared. Noh theatre developed among the common people. The Japanese love of travel literature also dates from this time, perhaps stimulated by the growing public interest in pilgrimages.

The Tokugawa period saw many new genres of literature appear. The spread of literacy throughout all levels of society, especially in the growing towns, created a huge new market for books and plays. Remarkably, lending libraries appeared in the towns, centuries before they did so in the West.

The influence of Chinese fiction stimulated the rise of Japanese fiction. Genres included historical fiction, romances, horror, crime stories, fantasy, morality stories, comedy, and pornography. In all cases the texts were often accompanied by colourful woodcut prints. The travel writing genre continued to flourish. New types of popular drama made their debut, most notably Kabuki. The works of the Kabuki dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon were particularly popular, and very highly regarded.

Performing arts

There are four traditional Japanese theatre. The first two developed from a type of Chinese entertainment which originally came to Japan in the 8th century.

Noh is characterized by stylized gestures, sometimes accompanied by a fan that can represent other objects. Other features are masks and standardized costumes. Kyōgen is a comic drama which usually dispenses with masks but which has similar stylization of movement.

Kabuki appeared in the Tokugawa period. These dramas make a generous use of makeup – which can be crucial for female parts, which are played by male actors.

Bunraki is Japanese puppet theatre, which also developed in the Tokugawa period. the same period, though its origins date back to the Heian period.

Painting, calligraphy, woodblock printing and sculpture

Just as in China, the use of the brush as a traditional writing and painting tool was a central focus of Japanese art. The flowing, brush-drawn text itself is seen as a traditional art form in its own right, as well as a means of conveying written information. The texts can consist of phrases, poems, stories, or even single characters. Again as in China, text and picture are often combined, with the the texture and stroke of the writing in tune with and enhancing the subject matter. The actual process of creating such a work is considered as important as the end product.

One art form, sumi-e, or ‘ink-painting’, was almost a combination of calligraphy and painting. In this, scenes or objects were painted using brush strokes of monochrome ink.

Woodblock printing was used to make beautifully illustrated works of both fiction and non-fiction. One notably genre was Ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”), which, unlike previous Japanese art which was aimed at an elite audience, catered to the tastes of the common people. The illustrations were often vividly coloured, full of activity and complexity, and entertaining. Prints could be mass-produced, so that they were available to a wide cross-section of society, and became particularly popular in the Tokugawa period.

Closely linked to painting and calligraphy was the making of Japanese paper, or washi. Paper-making had come from China around the 7th century, and the Japanese developed with technqiues to make a tougher, stiffer form of paper. This is the normal material on which to produce paintings or calligraphy, and it also enabled the development of the art of paper folding (origami). It is also frequently used in the making of traditional Japanese clothes and furniture.

Sculpture came to Japan with Buddhism, and thereafter mainly focussed on Buddhist images. The oldest sculpture dates from the Nara period, and indeed this period was some of the creation of some of the greatest statues in Japan, such as the 53-foot Great Buddha at Nara.

Architecture and garden design

Japanese architecture was, like so much else in Japanese culture, originally influenced by Chinese styles and techniques. The introduction of Buddhism led to the erection of many temples, particularly in the Nara and Kyoto area. The construction of large temples employed wood in a sophisticated and complex way. Some of these have been rebuilt several times to the same design. Other examples of traditional Japanese architecture are seen in shrines and castles. In the latter case, what strikes the Western observer is the attention to the architectural aesthetics which Japanese castles show, in comparison with the brute stone fortresses which dot the countryside in many parts of Europe.

The design of the first permanent capital of Japan, Nara, was modelled on that of the imperial capital of Tang China, Chang’an. It was laid out according to the same checkerboard street pattern. layout used the Chinese capital of Chang’an as a template for its design.

Japanese domestic architecture has been characterized by wooden construction, and simplicity of design. Roofs are typically made of tile or thatch. Sliding doors are often used in place of walls. Chairs and tables were uncommon until modern times, with cushions being used instead. Mats were used as beds. All this allowed the internal arrangements of a house to be very flexible.

Garden design is regarded as an art form in its own right. As important as building architecture, with which it is closely associated in the Japanese mind, it has developed in tandem with it, and influenced by the same historical and religious background. Garden designers have been greatly influenced by ink landscape painting  (see above, sumi-e).

Flower arranging

The Japanese art of flower arrangement (ikebana) is famous for its focus on harmony, use of colour, elegance and simplicity of design.

Traditional clothing

The traditional Japanese garment is the kimono. Originally, the word kimono (“something one wears”) was used for all types of clothing, but came to refer specifically to the full-length garment which is still worn today on special occasions by both men and women. The kimono developed from from a type of Chinese garment worn at the Tang court. Kimonos come in a variety of colours, patterns and styles.

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