History Files History Files
 

Far East Kingdoms

Japan

 

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 line 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), and 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.

Suizei

Son. Reigned 37 years.

Annei

Son. Reigned 38 years.

Itoku

Son. Reigned 33 years.

Kōshō

Son. Allegedly reigned 82 years.

2nd century

Kōan

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.

Kōrei

Son. Allegedly reigned 75 years.

Kōgen

Son. Allegedly reigned 56 years.

? - 219

Kaika

Son. Allegedly reigned 60 years.

219 - 249

Sujin

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

Suinin

Son. The unnamed, unpopular Yayoi period king?

280 - 316

Keikō

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

Seimu

Son. Allegedly reigned 59 years.

343 - 346

Chūai

Nephew. Reigned 8 years.

346

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.

Early Cultures IndexYamato Period Japan (Kofun Period)
AD 346 - 539

A central power had certainly developed in the fertile Kinai Plain in Japan by the time of the Kofun Period (kofun after the type of tombs which were built for the country's rulers). By about 400 the country was unified as Yamato Japan, with the royal court in Yamato Province (the modern Nara Prefecture). Yamato Japan extended from Kyushu to the Kinai Plain, but did not yet include the Kanto, Tohoku, or Hokkaido. Still part of the Legendary period, dates for the emperors of this period are less uncertain than previously, but still not entirely trustworthy.

Historically speaking, the Yamato had formed Japan's largest and most powerful clan in the third century AD, during the Yayoi period. Their best-known ruler at this time was Queen Himiko, as attested by Chinese travellers. In her later years she effectively became supreme ruler of Japan after having led the Yamato drive to dominate the other clans. It was also Yamato which served as the capital for most of the legendary emperors who claimed descent (or had it claimed for them by later writers) from Jimmu Tenno. Dates for the first twenty-eight emperors are based on the Japanese calendar system but are adjusted to bring them into line with 'real world' dating. As their historical existence is unproven, they are shown with a pink background to highlight their legendary status.

Japanese did not have its own script before the fifth century. After the Japanese had become acquainted with Chinese culture via Korean monks and scholars, they adopted Chinese script in addition to other Chinese cultural aspects. Their own Japanese script was developed from this over the course of time. Chinese characters were used to write Chinese loan words or Japanese words with the same meaning. Word endings and expressions with a grammatical function were also written in this Kanji script until replaced by the development of two writing systems, Hiragana and Katakana, which were based on syllables.

(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 Yokohama Burning: The Deadly 1923 Earthquake and Fire that Helped Forge the Path to World War II, Joshua Hammer (Simon & Shuster, 2006), and 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, and Japan: The Official Guide.)

346 - 395

Ōjin / Oojin

Son of Chūai. Last proto-historical emperor.

346 - ?

Empress Jing Kg

Mother & regent. Associated with Himiko of the Yayoi period.

395 - 427

Nintoku

Son of Ōjin.

416

The earliest earthquake to be documented in Japanese history occurs in this year. The imperial palace at Kyoto is 'thrown to the ground' by it, with the cause commonly believed to be the thrashing of the great catfish upon which the Japanese islands rest.

427

Commonly known as the tomb of Emperor Nintoku, the keyhole-shaped creation is one of the three largest tombs in the world. Although clearly dedicated to someone of immense power, there is no proof that it actually is built for Nintoku, so archaeologists generally know it as Daisenryo or Daisenryo Kofun. The tomb is surrounded by three moats, and construction takes sixteen years.

Daisenryo Kofun
Nintoku's tomb - Daisenryo Kofun - in Sakai, Osaka in Japan, cannot specifically be ascribed to him despite the popular name, and the emperor himself is regarded as one of the legendary emperors, with the unreliable Nihon Shoki proclaiming his deeds

427 - 432

Rich

Son. Killed by disease.

433 - 438

Hanzei

Brother. Ruled despite Rich having 2 sons.

438 - 453

Ingyō

Brother.

453 - 456

Ankō

Son. Accepted widely as an historical ruler. Murdered.

456

In one of the earliest-known internal power struggles in Japan, Ankō is murdered as part of a conflict between his various brothers. Yūryaku defeats the rest and succeeds him as the next emperor.

456 - 479

Yūryaku

Brother. Reputed to be cruel.

480 - 484

Seinei

Son. Defeated his brother to secure throne. Died childless.

485 - 487

Kenzō

Grandson of Rich.

488 - 498

Ninken

Brother.

498 - 506

Buretsu

Son. Died childless.

507

Buretsu dies childless, and his successor is claimed as a fifth generation descendant of Ōjin (346-395). Keitai may be responsible for founding a new dynasty with his accession to the throne. If true, then Buretsu is effectively the last incumbent of Japan's first historical (or semi-historical) dynasty.

507 - 531

Keitai

Son. Possible founder of a new dynasty.

531

Upon the death of Emperor Keitai, a succession dispute sets in between two branches of the Yamato clan. Keitai's immediate successors, Ankan and Senka, are opposed by Kimmei. The latter will eventually found his own Asuka period of emperors.

531 - 535

Ankan

Son.

535 - 539

Senka

Brother.

539

Both Ankan and Senka have been opposed by their brother, Kimmei. Little detail is available regarding any of the emperors in this period but discrepancies in Kimmei's dating have raised the suspicion that he has set up a rival court between 531-539. Senka's reign lasts for just three years, although his cause of death seems to be unrecorded. Death by civil war cannot be ruled out. The Asuka period succeeds the Yamato.

Asuka Period Japan (Historical Period)
AD 539 - 710

According to available records, not all of which are entirely reliable, Japan had been a single, unified state since around AD 400 during the Yamato period. Dates for those early emperors are based on the Japanese calendar system but have been adjusted to bring them into line with 'real world' dating. It is the Asuka period that does much to dispel that early dating uncertainty. From this point onwards, emperors follow traditional dates which are more or less reliable. Despite the period beginning in 539, though, the imperial court did not move to Asuka until 592.

The end of the Yamato period saw the final two emperors being opposed by their brother, Kimmei. Little detail is available regarding any of the emperors in this period but discrepancies in Kimmei's dating have raised the suspicion that he set up a rival court between 531-539. Emperor Senka's reign lasted for just three years, although his cause of death seems to have been unrecorded, or has not survived, although death by civil war cannot be ruled out.

Kimmei was now unopposed - the earliest of Japan's emperors with dates that can be verified. Under him and his successors the Asuka period witnessed the continuance of friendly relations with the kingdom of Paekche. This aided in the arrival of Buddhism in Japan in 538 or 552, and the flourishing of the imperial court which promoted the new religion. It is largely this act that pins the start of the Asuka to the start of Kimmei's reign. Mentions of the major clans are shown in red and green to highlight them in the text.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Yokohama Burning: The Deadly 1923 Earthquake and Fire that Helped Forge the Path to World War II, Joshua Hammer (Simon & Shuster, 2006), from the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters), from the Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan), 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), and New World Encyclopaedia, and Japan: The Official Guide.)

539 - 571

Kimmei / Kinmei

A Yamato. Earliest emperor with verifiable dates.

572 - 585

Bidatsu

Son of Yamato Emperor Keitai. Possibly died of smallpox.

585 - 587

There is a succession war in Japan, although it remains a cold war until the death of Yōmei, the half-brother to Bidatsu. None of Bidatsu's many children are considered for the role of emperor. Yōmei is a supporter of Buddhism, but the traditionalists in Japan launch an attack on pro-Buddhists just a month or so after his death. They are thoroughly defeated, while the Soga clan becomes dominant at court at the expense of the diminished Mononobe clan.

Asuka period building
The Asuka period in Japan saw the ruling emperors begin to assert their authority fully, establishing themselves and their country as Nippon, the land of the rising sun, and throwing off Chinese regionalism in the form of the earlier name of Wa ('little kingdom')

585 - 587

Yōmei

Half-brother to Bidatsu.

587 - 592

Sushun / Sajun

Son of Kimmei. Assassinated.

592

Sushun had begun to resent the power at court of the Soga clan. Shortly after announcing his desire to kill the head of the clan he is himself assassinated. No chosen successor is in place to fill the power vacuum so Sushun's half-sister accepts the role in order to avert further internecine fighting. The powerful Soga no Umako may not be a power behind the throne, but he certainly wields considerable influence.

592 - 628

Empress Suiko

Half-sister. First truly historical empress.

592 - 593?

Soga no Umako

Regent, but possibly not entirely dominant behind the throne.

593 - 622

Shōtoku

Regent to Suiko. Promoted Chinese ideas.

599

The second earthquake to be documented in Japanese history occurs now. Buildings throughout the province of Yamato (the modern Nara Prefecture) are destroyed, leading thousands of survivors to offer prayers to Kashima to stave off further destruction.

629 - 641

Jomei

Grandson of Bidatsu.

642 - 645

Empress Kōgyoku

Wife-niece. Abdicated in favour of her brother. Returned 655.

645 - 654

Kōtoku

Brother.

644 - 645

The power of the Soga clan is broken, and the emperor marries a Soga daughter to ensure that any remaining influence is brought entirely within the imperial family. From 645 the era of the Fujiwara clan starts and lasts until the rise of the samurai military class in the eleventh century. A new government and administrative system is established after the Chinese model in the Taika reforms. All land is bought by the state and then redistributed equally amongst farmers as part of sweeping land reforms in order to introduce the new tax system that is adopted from China.

Empress Suiko
Empress Suiko, half-sister to the murdered Emperor Sushun, became Japan's first historically-confirmed female ruler, although she would certainly not be the last

655 - 661

Empress Saimei

Empress Kōgyoku re-acceded throne as Saimei.

660

The Chinese T'ang invade and conquer the kingdom of Paekche on the mainland. Empress Saimei fully intends to launch an invasion of the rival Silla kingdom which is assisting the Chinese in order to support Paekche's nobility. An army that is made up of Japanese and Paekche troops is assembled and departs soon after the unexpected death of the aging empress.

662 - 671

Tenji / Tenchi (Nakanooye)

Son of Jomei.

671 - 672

Kōbun (Prince Ōtomo)

Son. Ruled several months. Named posthumously.

673

Prince Ōtomo has gained the throne despite being the son of a lowly imperial consort who does not have the status required to back him or support him. Known only after his death as Emperor Kōbun and not always included in the list of succession, Ōtomo is opposed by his uncle, Kemmu. In an incident that is known as the Jinshin War, Ōtomo's forces are defeated and Ōtomo commits suicide. Kemmu almost immediately moves the imperial capital back to Yamoto but names as 'Asuka' a freshly-built infrastructure there.

673 - 686

Kemmu / Temmu

Brother of Tenji. Usurped Kōbun's throne.

690 - 697

Empress Jitō

Wife. Stepped down when her grandson was of age.

697 - 707

Mommu

Grandson.

707 - 715

Empress Gemmei / Genmei

Mother-cousin. Paved the way for the Nara period.

710 - 715

Empress Gemmei establishes her official residence in the mountainous location of Nara in AD 710 (still within Yamato Province), a projected move that had been initiated during the reign of Mommu. In 715 she abdicates in favour of Mommu's elder sister - her own daughter - who succeeds her as Genshō, the first ruler of the Nara period.

Nara Period Japan
AD 710 - 794

According to available records, not all of which are entirely reliable, Japan had been a single, unified state since around AD 400 during the Yamato period. Dates for those early emperors are based on the Japanese calendar system but have been adjusted to bring them into line with 'real world' dating. It was the succeeding Asuka period that did much to dispel that early dating uncertainty. From this point onwards, the dating for emperors follows traditional dates which are more or less reliable. The imperial court largely (but not exclusively) remained at the period's eponymous capital of Asuka until 710.

At that point, the first permanent Japanese capital was established in Nara. This was a city that had been modelled on the Tang Chinese capital of Xi'an, which was now at its peak in terms of cultural influence and industrial power. China at this point was the superpower of the east, and everyone wanted to copy its glories. This was not a change of dynasty, however, just of capital, and it is this that informs the change of imperial period. Abdications became common, usually by emperors or empresses who were devout Buddhists. In addition, partially due to that Chinese imperial influence, the Japanese imperial court now made a concerted effort to document its history, producing the country's first work of literature in the form of the Nihon shoki. Mentions of the major clans are shown in red and green to highlight them in the text.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters), from the Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan), from Ichirō Ichida: The Future and the Past (a translation and study of the Gukanshō, an interpretive history of Japan written in 1219), Delmer M Brown (University of California Press, 1979), from The Imperial House of Japan, Richard Ponsonby-Fane (Ponsonby Memorial Society, Kyoto, 1959), and from External Links: Japan-Guide.com, and Ancient History Encyclopaedia, and New World Encyclopaedia, and Japan: The Official Guide.)

710 - 715

Empress Gemmei of Asuka period Japan establishes her official residence in the mountainous location of Nara in AD 710 (still within Yamato Province), a projected move that had been initiated during the reign of Emperor Mommu. In 715 she abdicates in favour of Mommu's elder sister - her own daughter - who succeeds her as Genshō, the first ruler wholly of the Nara period.

Nara Park's deer (Nara Kōen)
Replete with ancient temples and former imperial structures, modern Nara also hosts the extensive Nara Park (Nara Kōen in Japanese) which allows its thousand-or-more deer to roam freely amongst the buildings

715 - 724

Empress Genshō

Daughter of Empress Gemmei of Asuka. Stood down.

720

During the regency period under Genshō, her nephew, Obito (later Emperor Shōmu), retains the title of crown prince. Upon the death of leading court official Fujiwara no Fuhito of the Fujiwara clan in 720, Prince Nagaya, a grandson of Emperor Temmu of the Asuka period, seizes effective control of the imperial court, governing from behind the throne. One of his reforms (short-lived as it turns out, lasting for only twenty years) is of the tax system to try and encourage extra rice cultivation.

724 - 749

Shōmu

Son of Mommu, nephew of Genshō. Abdicated.

735 - 737

Japan suffers its 'Black Death' moment when the islands are hit by a massive smallpox epidemic. Fully one third of the country's population is killed by the plague, and even the imperial court loses its four most-senior courtiers, all leading members of the Fujiwara clan. The losses weaken the clan in the imperial court, and even more so when their replacements are confirmed as members of the imperial family.

740

The Fujiwara no Hirotsugu Rebellion is named for its Fujiwara clan leader, who is dissatisfied with the post-737 political situation in Japan. He raises an army in Kyushu but the forces of Emperor Shōmu defeat him while the emperor himself is making a tour of the provinces in the hope that his presence will dampen down support for the rebellion.

749 - 758

Empress Kōken

Daughter. Survived coup attempt. Abdicated for cousin.

758 - 764

Junnin (Haitei)

Second cousin, quite young. Posthumously named Junnin.

764

Junnin's position is unclear - he could be little more than a figurehead who is controlled by his cousin and adopted mother, the former Empress Kōken who had stepped down in his favour. Now the brief Fujiwara no Nakamaro Rebellion (or Emi Rebellion) pits another dissatisfied member of the Fujiwara clan against the imperial court.

Empress Kōken of Nara Japan
First as Empress Kōken and then as Empress Shōtoku, the woman who dominated Japan's politics for twenty years is depicted here with the Buddhist priest, Dōkyō, who attempted to seize the throne for himself

The controlling empress' main opponent is Fujiwara no Nakamaro, who raises an army. Lacking popular support though, even from within his own clan, he is quickly defeated in battle and his head is taken as a trophy. The empress is now free to remove Junnin and return to the throne herself, as Empress Shōtoku. Junnin's name in contemporary records - Haitei - means 'the untrhoned emperor'.

764 - 770

Empress Shōtoku

Empress Kōken assumed throne and ruled again.

770

At the start of her second stint as empress, Shōtoku (formerly known by the imperial name of Kōken), becomes involved in an affair with a Buddhist priest known as Dōkyō. Almost immediately he is appointed grand minister and, in 766, he is promoted to the position of priestly emperor. In 770 he attempts to gain the throne for himself but the death of the empress and resistance from the nobility thwarts his efforts.

770 - 781

Kōnin

First cousin. Abdicated in favour of his son.

781 - 794

Kammu

Son. Moved the capital and began the Heian period.

794

The power and prestige of the imperial court is at its height in the late eighth century and into the ninth. Although Empress Kōken had allowed a level of corruption to creep into state affairs, Kōnin had worked to remove this and restore good governance before stepping down in favour of his son, Kammu.

Emperor Kammu divides his own reign into two periods with his attempts to find a more secure location for the imperial capital. A move in 784 to Nagaoka-kyō on the edge of modern Kyoto has not proven successful due to the frequent flooding of the rivers and the resultant outbreaks of disease. In 794 he moves again to Heian kyō (at the centre of modern Kyoto), thereby inaugurating the Heian period.

Japan's dynasties continue here.