History Files

Far East Kingdoms



Early Japan

FeatureThe system which has evolved to catalogue the various archaeological expressions of human progress is one which involves cultures. For well over a century, archaeological cultures have remained the framework for global prehistory. The earliest cultures which emerge from Africa and the Near East are perhaps the easiest to catalogue, right up until human expansion reaches the Americas. The task of cataloguing that vast range of human cultures is covered in the related feature (see link, right).

The chain of islands which make up modern Japan in East Asia stretch from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea in the south. Much of Japan faces what is now North Korea and South Korea, while the southernmost edge of the country's territory abuts that of modern China to the south-west. Four main islands make up the country, these being from north to south Hokkaido, Honshu (Honshū - the largest of all of them), Shikoku (the smallest), and Kyushu (Kyūshū). A further six thousand smaller islands are also included, although less than five hundred of these are occupied.

Prehistoric Japan can be divided into four major cultures: Palaeolithic, Jomon, Yayoi, and Kofun. Each of these major cultures, or periods, is further subdivided into several sub-periods. The cultural phases are almost limitless. Archaeological dates for these periods are generally given in uncalibrated radiocarbon years before present which are then recalculated for the Gregorian calender. The only exception to this process is the Palaeolithic which is based on other dating methods. The idea of human occupation in Japan before 35,000 BC is highly contentious, but is covered here in order to include all important timeline events.

Palaeolithic sailors

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from the BBC series, The Story of China, by Michael Wood, first broadcast between 21 January and 25 February 2016, and from External Links: Japanese Archaeology, and Encyclopaedia Britannica.)

Palaeolithic Period (Japan)
50,000 - 13,000 BC

The Japanese Palaeolithic was a period dominated by big-game hunters, although there is little direct evidence to show how these people lived. The beginning of this period predates the emergence of any localised cultural traits in Central Asia by around twenty-four thousand years, primarily because it and areas of Europe belonged to the same civilisation. This was the Aurignacian culture which succeeded the Neanderthal-led Châtelperronian culture. Detached from this, early cultures in ancient Korea and Japan seem to have evolved along roughly the same lines and within the same time span as those in ancient China.

There were four ice ages during the Palaeolithic era. The climate in Japan at this time was mostly cool to cold. No continental glaciers reached the islands as they did in Northern Europe and North America but places that are now underwater off the coast of Japan were exposed by the lower seas levels, providing a much greater land mass than is the case today. When the ice ages were at their peak and the sea levels were at their lowest, some parts of Japan were connected to the Asian landmass by land bridges. Around 18,000 BC, during the Wiirm ice age, Japan was certainly connected to the continent and sea levels were around a hundred-and-fifty metres lower than they are today.

Hunter-gatherers seem to have arrived during these ice ages. Two routes are available, one being via one of those land bridges in the north while sea crossings may have been possible in the south. A precise date for the first arrival isn't yet possible, with many scholars refusing to go beyond 35,000 BC despite others preferring a controversially earlier date. DNA now suggests that the Palaeolithic ancestors of the later-dominant Jomon people came from the north-eastern part of the East Asian mainland. Good quality finds, however, are rare thanks to Japan's highly acidic soil which soon destroys fossil matter.

The long Japanese coasts provided good supplies of fish which would have supplemented the game diet of these Palaeolithic people. They also gathered fruits and nuts such as hazelnuts and berries. The fact that they were migrant hunters, though, makes it hard to find evidence of their lives. Most sites were occupied for short periods of time - between a few days to a few weeks or months - and then perhaps not used again for thousands of years. Generally it has been thought that they preferred caves for dwellings, although pit dwellings may also have become popular in some parts of the islands. However, a more recent theory suggests that very few people actually lived in caves, and instead that they mostly lived in short-term camps which used animal skins for protection at night, with them leaving no permanent traces to be discovered.

The Palaeolithic on Japan lasted until about 13,000 to 10,000 years ago, when pottery began to appear throughout the islands at the very end of the Palaeolithic to herald the start of the Jomon period. It is thought that the Palaeolithic inhabitants of the islands - and their Jomon descendants - successfully fended off invaders until well into the Jomon, and in doing so were able to contribute greatly to the genetic make-up of modern Japanese people.

Ice age

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from External Links: Japan-Guide.com, and Researchers in reed canoes fall short in bid to replicate Stone Age voyage (The Japan Times), and Heritage of Japan, and Ryukyu Cultural Archives.)

c.35,000 BC

Generally-accepted theory is that modern humans arrive on the Japanese islands around this time. A land bridge exists towards the north. Hunter-gatherers migrate along it, probably following herds of Naumann elephant (Palaeoloxodon naumanni) and other large animals such as Yabe's giant deer (Sinomegaceros yabei), both of which are now extinct.

c.32,000 BC

Yamashita Daiichi cave in Okinawa Prefecture is a semi-ruined cave complex. Because it is used around this time as a final resting place for the Palaeolithic inhabitants of Japan it escapes post-war destruction by quarrying. The bones of an eight year-old girl, subsequently called the Yamashita-dojin, are laid about this time, later producing one of the most significant finds in the entire East Asia region.

c.30,000 BC

It seems that a sea crossing may be possible between Taiwan and the southern island of Okinawa in the Ryuku (or Nansei) Islands chain. Many relics have been found which prove the existence of humans on the islands around this time and, despite the low sea levels, there is no land bridge.

Palaeolithic boats near Japan
This artist's recreation depicts Late Upper Palaeolithic occupiers of Japan (it is too early to refer to them as settlers), carrying obsidian from Kozu Island by Teru Va

However, in 2016 a team of researchers who set off in raupo (reed) canoes in a bid to replicate a theorised sea journey find that they require help to complete the voyage after encountering rough seas. The journey may still be possible, but would have to be completed during calmer weather.

c.19,000 BC

Between this point and around 16,000 BC the temperature is around seven or eight degrees lower than it is today. This is the peak of the most recent glacial cold spell, during which tundra covers much of Hokkaido in the north. Much of the rest of eastern and central Japan (in the sub-arctic zone) is covered by boreal forests which include larch, spruce, and Japanese hemlock. Western Japan from the Kanto Plain around Tokyo to Kyushu is covered with a temperate coniferous forest.

c.16,000 BC

Minatogawa Man is the most famous of the Stone Age residents of the Japanese islands. He is considered to be a direct, albeit remote ancestor of some of the modern day Japanese population. This fossilised resident of Naha city in Okinawa is 155 centimetres tall, and has a jaw with two of his large teeth knocked out - the earliest known example to date of this rather common global tribal custom. He has a high, broad, pinched nose but a low and narrow forehead with a prominent brow ridge. It may be his descendants over the next four thousand years who begin to use pottery which introduces the Jomon period of Japan's prehistory.

Jomon Period (Neolithic) (Japan)
13,000 - 300 BC

The earliest inhabitants of the Japanese islands were Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers, with the long coasts providing good supplies of fish. They arrived before the end of the last ice age via land bridges that joined Japan to Asia's mainland. Following around forty thousand years of hunter-gatherer activity, the first pottery appeared on the islands around 14,500 BC although it was not especially widespread until around 13,000 BC. It gave the period its name, with 'Jomon' meaning cord-marked, patterned'. Its start saw the main ice age land bridge becoming submerged by around 12,000 BC, cutting off the Jomon people from the Asian mainland and largely ensuring their security and isolation.

Large animal herds that they may have brought with them were less successful in terms of the relatively limited resources of the islands, so the Jomon people switched to foraging and fishing to supplement their diet. Archaeological evidence shows that they made use of bear, boar, fish, shellfish, yams, wild grapes, walnuts, chestnuts, and acorns. Unlike the Neolithic communities of Europe which began with the Sesklo culture around 6700 BC, the Jomon did not farm. They continued to rely on a forager existence until the first rice farmers began to arrive in regions of Japan from around 900 BC (possibly Jeulman migrants who have been marginalised by the arrival of the Mumun pottery period in the Korean peninsula).

These 'invaders' seem to have been largely fended off until about 300-200 BC when the rice-planting new-arrivals largely took over to herald the start of the subsequent Yayoi period. They settled in larger numbers towards the south, while Jomon DNA survived in increasingly dominant levels further towards the north. Hokkaido especially retained a very largely Jomon-dominant DNA heritage. Overall these Neolithic inhabitants contributed greatly to the genetic make-up of modern Japanese people.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Responses of Amazonian ecosystems to climatic and atmospheric carbon dioxide changes since the Last Glacial Maximum, Francis E Mayle, David Beerling, William D Gosling, & Mark B Bush (Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, 359 (1443), 2004), from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, from Land-Use Conflict and the Rate of Transition to Agricultural Economy: A Comparative Study of Southern Scandinavia and Central-Western Korea, Kim Jangsuk (Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 2003), and from External Links: Japan-Guide.com, and Ancient History Encyclopaedia, and Early Jomon hamlet found (The Japan Times, 1997).)

c.14,500 BC

The 'Incipient Jomon Period' lasts until 5000 BC. Pots are hand-made, without the use of a wheel, and with rounded bottoms. They are used to cook in the open, supported by a pile of stones or sand. This form of pottery is amongst the oldest-known in the world.

c.5000 BC

Beginning around this time - during the 'Early Jomon' of 5000-3000 BC - the Jomon adopt a more sedentary lifestyle. A shift to drier conditions occurs across northern latitudes at the end of the Holocene Climactic Optimum (circa 7000-3000 BC) which benefits many early cultures. They settle into villages, some of which are quite large - the largest is known to cover about forty hectares (a hundred acres) and has a population of about five hundred.

Early Jomon pot
This 'Early Jomon' pot dates to around 5000 BC, with Jomon pottery perhaps being amongst the world's oldest forms of pottery (disputed, but the argument certainly has favourable radiocarbon dating to support it)

The inhabitants of villages near the sea continue to rely heavily on fishing while those inland still follow a forager lifestyle. The initial simple shelters soon develop into pit houses that are built around a central fireplace. The main structure is supported by pillars and accommodates around five people. Despite this sedentary move, the Jomon are sometimes forced to move by the climate. Colder periods require proximity to the sea, as evidenced by much larger mounds of shells and fish bones found there in comparison to warmer periods when the settlement pattern shows a shift towards a greater number of inland sites in order to take advantage of the flourishing flora and fauna.

c.3000 BC

After seeing an explosion in population numbers during the Early Jomon to a high of two hundred thousand, that figure gradually drops over the following two millennia, returning to around one hundred thousand by the time the first Yayoi rice farmers arrive about 900 BC. This is the 'Middle Jomon Period', with pottery being more elaborately decorated and basic human figurines becoming highly popular, reflecting a style which is concurrently seen across much of East Asia, including the Jeulmun pottery period of the Korean peninsula.

c.1000 - 300 BC

The 'Late Jomon Period' (1000-300 BC) sees pottery becoming finer, thinner, and more professionally-made. Figurines now gain three-dimensional features with many depicting pregnant women, possibly as fertility offerings. Stone circles sometime encircle villages, although they are not the greatly elaborate circles that have fallen out of favour in Western Europe during the past millennium ( Britain being a prime example).

Jimmu Tenno, 'founder' of Japan
Jimmu Tenno, founder figure of modern Japan, as seen in a coloured wood engraving by Nakai Tokujiro in 1908 during the country's growing imperial status in the twentieth century

By around 900 BC Japan's period of isolation is being disrupted by a trickle of new arrivals from mainland Asia. Primarily originating from Korea (which is already in its Old Chosen period), these arrivals bring with them rice farming and different pottery styles. The legendary arrival of Jimmu Tenno would make him and his followers part of this rice farming culture (although the dating for his arrival in the Legendary period is highly unreliable). They largely settle on Kyushu and until about 300 BC their influence on the Jomon is relatively minimal until the Yayoi period which they inspire becomes dominant.

Yayoi Period / Wō (Wa) (Iron Age) (Japan)
300 BC - AD 300

Rice culture was imported into Japan around 200-100 BC by farmers who migrated from the Korean peninsula, although some experts believe the influx may have begun up to seven hundred years earlier (it may have, but did not gain a prominent position for the first few centuries). These newcomers also introduced the language from which all modern dialects of Japanese appear to descend, replacing any language possessed by the earlier populations of hunter-gatherers (see the Legendary period for a more detailed examination of Japanese language origins). The last of those proto-Yayoi farmer populations in the south of the Korean peninsula disappeared following the formation of the Gaya confederacy in AD 42.

With the introduction of agriculture to Japan, social classes started to evolve, and parts of the country began to unite under powerful landowners. Chinese travellers during the Han and Wei dynasties reported that a queen called Himiko (or Pimiku) reigned over Japan at this time, although what they meant was that she ruled the most powerful of a series of clans. Chinese records refer to the island of Kyushu as Wō (or Wa), a term signifying the Chinese impression of a small, distant state. The Yayoi period also witnessed the introduction of iron and other modern ideas from Korea into Japan. As with the preceding period, it is Yayoi pottery that gives the period its name.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Chinese Yen/Yan kingdom conquered the dominant Korean state of Old Choson around 300 BC, during China's 'Warring States' period - at the approximate start of the Yayoi period on Japan's islands. For the previous six hundred years or so increasing numbers of rice farmers had been settling areas of southern Japan and bringing with them their differing pottery style from that of the native Jomon people. Could it have been refugees from conquered Korea during its Mumun pottery period who provided the final push towards ending the Jomon period?

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Records of the Three Kingdoms, Chen Shou (third century text which covers the period AD 184-220 and which combines individual histories of the three kingdoms), from Myth in History: Mythological Essays, Peter Metevelis (iUniverse, 2002), and from External Links: Japan-Guide.com, and Ancient History Encyclopaedia, and Early Jomon hamlet found (The Japan Times, 1997), and Three Kingdoms (Encyclopaedia Britannica).)

by AD 100

A society has by now emerged which involves a class system. Around a hundred clans have formed which fight each other for dominance throughout the rest of the period. Despite this fighting, the clans also form alliances when necessary, creating small kingdoms for the purpose of ensuring military power or mutual economic success. The Chinese Han Shu history of AD 82 is one source for this information.

fl AD 220s - 248

Himiko / Pimiku

Queen of Yamato clan, attested by Chinese travellers. Died.

c.220s - 240s

Ruling around the 220s-230s for an unknown length of time, Himiko is the female ruler of the Yamato, Japan's largest and most powerful clan at this time. She is recorded in the Wei Zhi, a history of the Wei kingdom in 'Three Kingdoms' China. Himiko is described as a shaman, practicing magic in her spare time, while having come to power through many years of war and conquest. Those wars have decimated the number of chiefdoms, according to Chinese records, cutting them from over a hundred to around thirty. In her later years Himiko is effectively supreme ruler of Japan (Wō or Wa to the Chinese).

Queen Himiko of Japan
Queen Himiko is mentioned by a number of contemporary and near-contemporary Chinese sources (shown here with her single male advisor) but seems to have been airbrushed out of early Japanese records, which suggests that a change of dynasty made her a figure to be avoided

248 - ?


Unnamed, unpopular king. Removed.

248 - ?

Upon the death of Himiko at the age of sixty-five, she is succeeded by an 'unpopular king'. Whether he is of the same clan is unclear, as is whether he is already an established king - which would suggest a different clan - but a period of turmoil seems to follow his accession. Peace is only restored by the accession of one of Himiko's female relatives after an uncertain amount of time has passed.



Female relative of Queen Himiko. Aged 13.

c.AD 300

The Yayoi period is succeeded by the Kofun period in Japan. A central ruling power has by now emerged and within a century all of Japan is united under its control. This ruling power claims descent and continuity from the far more dubious and uncertain rulers of the Legendary period which essentially covers the arrival, settlement, and ascendancy of the Japanese during the Yayoi period. Japan's dynastic history has begun.