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Far East Kingdoms



Dynastic Japan

The chain of islands that make up modern Japan 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.

Japan has emerged from a generally unified but rarely harmonious history of clan feuding and political intriguing that began as soon as its Early Cultures had reached any particular level of complexity. At various points that unity existed in name only, thanks to the continued presence of a divine emperor, while two or more major clans conducted what was little less than a Japanese civil war across the four main islands. It is the divine emperors who are chronicled here, someone whom their warring subjects rarely opposed but who were often little more than pawns themselves in the ongoing clan struggle for superiority.

(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.)

Cherry blossom

Emperors of the Sun Line of Japan (Legendary Period)
AD 1st Century (660 BC) - AD 539

FeatureAccording to legend, Emperor Jimmu Tenno arrived with his people on the islands of Japan in 660 BC. However, the number of his successors between that arrival and the first truly historical emperors puts that arrival at a point in the first century, coinciding with the Yayoi period of Japan's Early Cultures. In addition, all dates prior to AD 500 should be approached with caution, and even more so given the extraordinary lengths of reign ascribed to some early emperors. Those for the first twenty-eight emperors are based on the Japanese calendar system but are adjusted to bring them into like with 'real world' dating. As their historical existence is unproven, they are shown with a pink background to highlight their legendary status.

Today there are around 127 million Japanese speakers worldwide, with a vocabulary that has been strongly influenced by Chinese during the fifteen hundred years between the legendary period and the modern day. It is an agglutinative language with a complex system of formalities that express the hierarchical relationships within Japanese society and the relative relationships between internal discussion partners.

Japanese script is a mixture of Kanji - characters copied from Chinese - and Hiragana and Katakana, which are based on syllables. It is one of two languages in the Japanese Ryukyuan language family - the other being Ryukyuan, which is spoken on the Ryukyu Islands. Experts remain unsure about the origins of this language family. It shows links and similarities with other languages in many different areas, with many theories being expounded about its source, these including the following: Japanese is related to a now-extinct language which used to be spoken in Korea and Manchuria; Japanese is related to Korean; Japanese is one of the Altaic languages which followers of this theory also believe to include Mongolian, Tungusic, Turkic, and Korean; Japanese is a Creole language, possibly with Austronesian influences; Japanese is a purely Austronesian language; or Japanese is related to Tamil. All or any of these theories may contain elements of truth.

(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 the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters), from the Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan) from External Links: Fasttranslator, and Japan-Guide.com, and Ancient History Encyclopaedia, and Early Jomon hamlet found (The Japan Times, 1997), and Three Kingdoms (Encyclopaedia Britannica, and New World Encyclopaedia).)

AD 1st century

Jimmu Tenno

Tribal leader. Legendary founder of Japan.

AD 1st century

Jimmu Tenno - the posthumous name for this legendary founder figure of Japanese culture and imperial rule - is given a date of birth of 660 BC and a date of death of 585 BC. Shintoism places him as a direct descendant of the sun goddess, Amaterasu, after she had sent her grandson to the Japanese islands to marry a local princess. Jimmu Tenno is the grandson of that princess and her husband.

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

However, his claimed arrival on Japan with his followers is in fact an eastwards migration from Takachiho, the southern part of Kyūshū (in modern-day Miyazaki prefecture) towards Naniwa (modern day Ōsaka). The migration is lead by Jimmu's brother as their former location is inappropriate for ruling over all of Japan. The brother is killed in battle and Jimmu completes the conquest by sailing around the islands and attacking Naniwa from the east (hence his 'arrival'). It would seem that Jimmu's clan is largely dominant but needs to defeat one or more other clans to be able to claim complete domination, much as the historical Yayoi period clans are in fact doing at this time in Japan.


Son. Reigned 37 years.


Son. Reigned 38 years.


Son. Reigned 33 years.


Son. Allegedly reigned 82 years.

2nd century


Son. Allegedly reigned 101 years.

by 100

A society has by now emerged in Yayoi period Japan 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.


Son. Allegedly reigned 75 years.


Son. Allegedly reigned 56 years.

? - 219


Son. Allegedly reigned 60 years.

219 - 249


Son. Reigned 67 years. Legendary male version of Himiko?

c.220s - 240s

Emperor Sujin's proto-historical reign coincides very nicely with the historically-attested reign of Himiko, 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, and that she had come to power through many years of war and conquest. In her later years she is effectively supreme ruler of Yayoi period Japan.

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

249 - 280


Son. The unnamed, unpopular Yayoi period king?

280 - 316


Male equivalent of female relative of Queen Himiko?

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.

316 - 342


Son. Allegedly reigned 59 years.

343 - 346


Nephew. Reigned 8 years.


According to early myth Emperor Chūai is ordered by a kami (a spirit) to invade Korea. He refuses and the kami later engineers his death during a battle (on Japanese soil). His length of reign of eight years is in marked contrast with those of his predecessors. His position as nephew of the preceding emperor is the first instance in which the title has not passed from father to son. Finally, his use of Kyushu rather than Yamato for the imperial capital is another first. Possibly these changes mark the emergence of a greater historical aspect to the early emperors and the gradual end of the legendary period. The subsequent Yamato period witnesses the emergence of more concrete historical markers in Japan.

Japan's dynasties continue here.