Ancient Japan: An Island Nation

A Byodoin temple in Japan


Traditional samurai attire

Japan’s samurai warriors had a strict code of conduct. They were the protectors of the Japanese people and the masters of the martial arts.

Japan is a land of contrasts.

Ultramodern skyscrapers tower over ancient shrines and temples. The latest styles from Paris or Milan are tastefully displayed alongside traditional silk kimonos. The high-speed Shinkansen bullet train thunders past a medieval castle that still looks fit enough to house a feudal lord and his devoted retainers.

Are these signs of a culture that cannot make up its mind? Hardly. Although high technology and modern conveniences have come to dominate Japanese life, the past is alive and well in the so-called Land of the Rising Sun.

But what’s behind this sobriquet? Surprisingly, quite a lot. The name “Japan” (Nihon in Japanese) is a European mispronunciation of the Chinese term for “Land of the Sun’s Origin,” the old name by which the ancient Chinese referred to the islands lying to their east, the direction from which the sun seemed to rise.

The Archipelago

Map of Japan

Although Japan is roughly the size of California, its geographical features are very different. The surrounding Sea of Japan and Pacific Ocean made foreign invasion difficult, while the mountains covering the land made unification on the island difficult as well.

Today, this chain of almost 7,000 large and small islands, collectively called the Japanese archipelago, sweeps down from the eastern tip of Siberia in the north to the northern edge of Taiwan in the south.

Comparing this impressive stretch to the lengthy eastern coast of the United States, Japan would extend from Maine to Miami. With a total land area that is slightly smaller than California, Japan is a very long but also very skinny country.

The largest and most notable parts of the island chain are the vast agricultural island of Hokkaidô, the main island of Honshû, the small but spirited island of Shikoku, the historically significant island of Kyûshû, and the tropical paradise of Okinawa.

As part of the volcanic Ring of Fire that encircles the Pacific Ocean, Japan has its share of volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunami. Mountains define the lay of the land: 80 percent of the country is too mountainous to be suitable for agriculture.

Japan’s rocky terrain impeded smooth transportation and easy communication among different parts of the land, especially in earlier times. These difficulties contributed to a sense of regionalism that later played a significant role in Japan’s feudal period.

Perfect Proximity

Japan’s location just off the fringe of continental Asia made it an ideal place for its unique culture to develop. The islands are situated close enough to China and Korea to benefit from the cultural and technological innovations of those great civilizations, but far enough removed across perilous seas to resist significant political and military domination from the two powers.

Japan has been commonly viewed as an isolated island nation with a single language and culture shared by a uniform population. From ancient times, though, Japan has been home to more than one ethnic group.

The Ainu, a race of Caucasoid peoples whose origins are still shrouded in mystery, settled a significant portion of the north.

Korean immigrants have been crossing the sea to reside in Japan ever since they learned the islands existed. Japan’s rich history of cultural exchange is not limited to interactions with its Chinese and Korean neighbors. Since the 16th century C.E., Portuguese and Dutch visitors brought European trade and culture to the Japanese isles. This vibrant tradition of international commerce and communication significantly shaped Japan’s history and culture.

So, what of this land where the ancient and the present collide every day? Pokémon and fuel-efficient cars are aspects of Japanese culture that can be seen in the modern world. But the ancient history of Japan reveals innovations and traditions that run much, much deeper.

Japanese Religion and Spirituality

Mt. Fuji, Japan's tallest mountain

Its towering majesty and near-perfect symmetry make Mt. Fuji stand out — even in a heavily mountainous country like Japan. At 12,388 feet, the imposing mountain inspires spiritual awe, and many consider the lengthy hike up its slope a religious pilgrimage.

If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Since ancient times, Japanese philosophers have pondered basic, unanswerable questions about their natural environment. The early Japanese believed that the world around them was inhabited by gods and spirits, from streaks of mist obscuring jagged mountain peaks to water cascading over secluded waterfalls. Almost every aspect of Japan’s stunning natural beauty evoked a sense of awe and wonder among its people.

The Way of the Gods

Ancient Japanese elevated this fascination with nature into what was later called Shinto, the Way of the Gods. This belief system that imbued every mountain, every stream, and even impressive trees with a spirit. These deities, known as kami, were considered cheerful and friendly to humans. If kept satisfied, they would watch over human affairs and refrain from causing natural disasters.

But the kami also would not hesitate to unleash their wrath if humans violated their cardinal rule of physical and spiritual cleanliness. To appease the kami, worshipers avoided defiling holy places by undergoing thorough ritual purification before passing beneath the torii, the gate leading into the sacred precinct of a Shinto shrine. Clean humans meant happy kami, and happy kami meant a peaceful realm.

Although its origins are obscure, Shinto helped forge national and political unity by emphasizing Japan’s divine beginnings through myths and legends. For example, the Shinto creation myth tells of a pair of deities called Izanagi and Izanami who created the islands of Japan when droplets of water dripped down from Izanagi’s spear. After the couple descended from the heavens to live on the islands, they had numerous divine offspring, including the sun goddess Amaterasu, the most important deity in Shinto.

Later generations of Japanese emperors claimed their divinity — and therefore their right to rule — by tracing their imperial lineage back to Amaterasu herself. As a direct descendent of the sun goddess, the emperor became a Living God who was to be worshiped along with his all-illuminating divine ancestor.

The Buddha Has Landed

The Buddhist monk Kûkai

Kûkai (774-835) was a prominent Buddhist monk who established the Shingon — or “True Word” — sect in Japan. Not only was he a central figure in religious history, but he also left his mark on Japanese culture as a master calligrapher, an astute scholar, and a brilliant linguist. / Photo courtesy of Ngawang Geleg

Shinto was already well established as the national religion when Buddhism was transmitted from China (via Korea) to Japan in the 6th century C.E. As Buddhism gained popularity, it occasionally clashed with Shinto, but it did not displace the pre-existing religion. Rather, the two overlapped and complemented each other.

With its abundant scripture and rigid ethical code, Buddhism used precise terms to articulate concepts that Shinto had left vague. Whereas Shinto was generally life-affirming and flexible about human conduct (except in matters of purity), Buddhist philosophy provided a moral framework for the universe and addressed questions about death, reincarnation, and punishment for wrongdoing that Shinto failed to answer in detail.

The Buddhist teachings of impermanence (that nothing lasts forever) and emptiness (that nothing really has its own substance) became ingrained in Japanese thought and shaped subsequent philosophy, art, and literature.

One Hand Clapping

As in China, Buddhism developed in Japan with numerous sects vying for supremacy. Of the schools that did not die out and still exist today — such as Tendai, Shingon, Nichiren, and Zen — the Zen sect is probably the most distinctive.

The word “Zen” comes from the Sanskrit word dhyana (absorption), which reflects the attitude with which the practitioner should approach his or her pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. This goal is achieved through zazen (sitting Zen), a form of meditation in which the practitioner sits for hours on end in an attempt to free the mind from the fetters of worldly concerns.

A Zen master tries to help a novice break through the delusions and illusions of the mind to discover the true nature of things by employing kôans, seemingly paradoxical or nonsensical riddles intended to disrupt the mind’s normal thinking process. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Anyone who has ever been asked this question has experienced the conundrum of a kôan.

A Chinese Flavor

Although Shinto and the various sects of Buddhism have dominated the hodgepodge that is Japanese spiritual life, other belief systems — mostly of Chinese origin — have influenced the way in which the Japanese have viewed the world.

Confucianism, the philosophy and religion based on the ethical and humanitarian teachings of Confucius, gained a foothold in Japan in the 7th century C.E. Its political theories and family values have persisted for centuries, and even became the official ideology of the state during the Tokugawa period (1600-1868).

Other significant belief systems have been Chinese astrology and feng-shui (earth study), as well as a host of other Chinese folk beliefs and practices.

Early History and Culture

Emperor Nintoku's tomb

One of the most recognizable remnants of Japan’s so-called “Tomb period” is the tomb of Emperor Nintoku, who is said to have reigned during the 4th century.

With all the technological innovations coming from modern Japan, it’s easy to forget that even they had a Stone Age.

From around the middle of the 11th century B.C.E. to 300 B.C.E., Japan was populated by a Neolithic civilization called the Jômon (rope pattern) culture.

This group of hunters and gatherers decorated their pottery by twisting rope around the wet clay, to produce a distinctive pattern. Remnants of their pit-dwellings and enormous mounds of discarded shells mark the locations of their settlements, which were scattered throughout the islands.

But it wasn’t until the Yayoi period (300 B.C.E. to 250 C.E.) that Japan became a rice-loving culture. With the transmission of wet-field rice cultivation from the continent, the Yayoi people followed techniques for irrigation, planting, and harvesting that are still used in modern agriculture.

Torii at Meiji Jingû shrine

The entrance gate to a Shinto shrine is called a torii. Once one enters a shrine, he or she must go through an elaborate cleansing ritual. The sick and injured are not allowed in the temple at all because they are considered unclean.

The Tomb period (250 C.E.-552 C.E.) gets its name from the massive tombs that dot the landscape to this day. The most impressive of these is the awe-inspiring tomb of Emperor Nintoku, who may have reigned from about 395 to 427 C.E. Measuring 2,695 feet long and covering an area of 80 acres, this tomb near Osaka has a distinctive keyhole shape and is encircled by a moat.

The Land of Wa

The first written records about and by the Japanese date from this time. Contemporary Chinese histories describe Japan (or the “Land of Wa”) as a tributary nation ruled by an unmarried queen named Pimiko who occupied herself with magic and sorcery. Japanese historical chronicles explored the country’s origins and elaborated on the legendary roots of the Japanese rulers through stories.

By the Yamato period (552-710), the hundreds of clans scattered throughout the country were unified under a single clan, the Yamato, who traced their lineage to the sun goddess Amaterasu. This connection made them powerful political and religious leaders with the divine responsibility to protect the nation.

Ten Thousand Leaves

A notable figure of the late Yamato period was Prince Shôtoku (573-622), a patron of Buddhism and man of letters who governed as regent. Under his rule, Japan based its first centralized government and constitution on Confucian models, Buddhist temples multiplied, and official relations with China expanded through frequent delegations.

The twin influences of Chinese culture and Buddhism define the late Yamato and Nara (710-84) periods. A writing system was developed by adopting Chinese characters to represent the native Japanese language. With this advancement, literature flourished, culminating in the Manyôshû, (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), a compilation of poetry gathered from across the realm.

The expanding impact of Buddhism led to the crowning achievement of Nara culture: the casting of the Great Buddha, a statue 53 feet high and made up of 1,000,000 pounds of metal.

Vying for Power

Sei Shônagon

Sei Shônagon, author of The Pillow Book, was a rival of Murasaki, author of The Tale of Genji. Japanese women wrote much of the classic Japanese literature during the feudal period because it was considered beneath a man at court to write in any language but Chinese.

The shift of the capital from Nara to what is now Kyoto marks the beginning of the Heian period (794-1185), a time of increasing political uncertainty but also great cultural achievement. The emperor and various aristocratic families of the court ruled Japan but were often more concerned with aesthetics and political and romantic intrigue than with governing the realm.

The most influential of these families were the Fujiwara, a powerful faction that engaged in marriage politics and manipulated emperors to hold sway at court.

As aristocratic government eroded under the Fujiwara, new forces emerged: the warrior class, headed by the mighty Taira and Minamoto families, slowly extended its power through the provinces and later Kyoto itself. An increasingly powerful Buddhist clergy also asserted itself: politically, by allowing former emperors to take control of temples, and militarily, by organizing armies of “warrior monks” who fought to preserve a temple’s interests.

High Art

Culture and the arts, however, benefited from the lax rule of the aristocracy. Poets perfected the waka, or Japanese verse, as a literary form, and made it a basis for courtly communication and competition. The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari ) by Murasaki Shikibu, considered the world’s first novel, paints a detailed and delicate picture of life and love at court.

Daini no Sanmi

As Mount Arima
Sends its rustling winds across
Ina’s bamboo plains,
I will be just as steadfast
And never will forget you.

Lady Kataiko, 11th century. Example of a waka poem.

Aristocratic refinement shaped Japanese etiquette and aesthetics in ways that persist even today. Modern Japanese sigh just as wistfully as their aristocratic Heian ancestors about mono no aware, “the fleeting nature of things,” even as they make merry and watch cherry blossoms scatter in the breeze.

Feudal Japan:  The Age of the Warrior

Female Samurai

While most samurai warriors were men, some women were renowned for their skill in battle. A monument was erected to honor Nakano Takeko — a female warrior — at the Hokai temple in Fukushima prefecture because she asked her sister to behead her rather than die dishonorably from a gunshot wound in captivity.

Being a warrior in feudal Japan was more than just a job. It was a way of life. The collapse of aristocratic rule ushered in a new age of chaos — appropriately called the Warring States period (c.1400-1600) — in which military might dictated who governed and who followed.

The samurai warriors, also known as bushi, took as their creed what later became known as the “Way of the Warrior” (Bushidô), a rigid value system of discipline and honor that required them to live and die in the service of their lords.

If commanded, true bushi were expected to give their lives without hesitation. Any form of disgrace — cowardice, dishonor, defeat — reflected poorly on the lord and was reason enough for a bushi to commit suicide by seppuku, or ritual disembowelment. In return for this devotion, the lord provided protection, financial security, and social status — in short, a reason to live.

The bushi swore unwavering loyalty to their immediate masters in the chain of command. But this wasn’t always easy. Frequently, switched loyalties and shifting alliances forced the bushi to decide between obeying the daimyô (baron) or following their more immediate lord.

Although elegant and refined in appearance, Japanese castles were used as military installments. The wood used in their construction allowed these castles to withstand Japan’s many earthquakes, but made them susceptible to fire at the same time.

Shôgun Might

The daimyô reported to the shôgun, more out of political and military necessity than out of loyalty. The shôgun became the most dominant feudal lord by subduing the other daimyô and receiving from the emperor the impressive title “Barbarian-Quelling Generalissimo.” Not that the emperor wielded any sort of political power — the awesome military might of the shôgun often left the emperor little choice but to grant the title.

The shogunal rule of the bakufu, (tent government) began in earnest with the Kamakura period (1185-1333), when the Minamoto clan defeated its bitter rival, the Taira family.

When Mongol invaders tried to land in western Japan, they were repelled by the Kamakura bakufu — with the help of kamikaze, powerful storms thought to be of divine origin. Despite this seeming divine favor, though, the bakufu could not withstand the unstable political situation on the domestic front.

Kinkakuji temple in Kyoto

The Kinkakuji — or “Golden Pavilion” — was originally built as a villa for the third Ashikaga shogun, Yoshimitsu. Upon his death, the eye-catching structure became a Zen Buddhist temple — creating an unusual combination of extravagant decor and minimalist doctrine.

The next to ascend to power were the Ashikaga, who established the Muromachi bakufu (1336-1573). The third Ashikaga shôgun, Yoshimitsu (1358-1408), was a patron of the arts and oversaw such cultural achievements as the construction of the picturesque Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) and the flowering of Nô drama as the classical theater of Japan. The greatest figure in Nô was Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443), whose aesthetic and critical theories defined the genre and influenced subsequent performing arts.

The downfall of the Ashikaga came about with the rise of the first of three “Great Unifiers” who sought to consolidate power. Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) was a minor daimyô who embarked on a ruthless campaign for control that culminated in the removal of the last Ashikaga shôgun.

Western Influence, Feudal Struggle

Map of Japan created by Dutch explorers, c. 1606

Japan was a land of mystery to foreign explorers such as the English and Dutch, as shown by this somewhat inaccurate 17th-century map.

It was under Nobunaga’s watch that Europeans first arrived in Japan, and he took full advantage of their presence. Part of his military success came from his use of firearms, brought to Japan by the Portuguese, which allowed him swift and complete dominance.

Nobunaga’s hostility toward Buddhism, which he expressed by burning countless monasteries and slaughtering monks, made him receptive to the influx of Jesuit missionaries from Spain and Portugal.

When Nobunaga’s tenure ended in betrayal and death, the next leader who rose from the ensuing chaos was Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), one of Nobunaga’s loyal vassals.

Japanese tea ceremony

The Japanese tea ceremony, otherwise known as chadô, has very precise steps to follow. This participant demonstrates the correct way to hold a teacup; in her left hand while steadying it with her right. / Photo from the Urasenke Foundation

Originally a peasant of humble origins, Hideyoshi surged through the ranks to become a leading general. His hunger for power knew no bounds. He organized two invasions of Korea (both failed) and schemed to make the Spanish Philippines, China, and even India part of his empire.

Hideyoshi’s obsession with complete control pushed him to execute Christian missionaries and even to order the great master of the tea ceremony, Sen no Rikyû (1522-91), to commit suicide for no apparent reason. But because of his peasant origins, Hideyoshi was never able to become shôgun, and instead he became regent to the emperor.

After Hideyoshi’s death, another power struggle ensued, in which two factions battled over the realm. The side led by the powerful daimyô Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) prevailed, and within a short time the mighty Tokugawa bakufu was established in Edo — now known as Tokyo. Centuries of strife were finally over; for the next 300 years, peace and order would rule the land.

Tennô (Emperor) Symbolic ruler of Japan, descended from and representative of Shintô deities; during the feudal period, mostly a figurehead.
Shôgun (Generalissimo) Head of bakufu military government, with the power to oversee national affairs; receives title from emperor; usually the strongest daimyô.
Daimyô (Lord of a domain) Powerful warlord with control over territories of varying size; strength frequently determined by the domain’s kokudaka (tax based upon rice production).
Kerai or Gokenin (Vassal) Loyal to the daimyô; receives fiefs or rice stipends from the daimyô; some comparable in strength to lesser daimyô.
Bugyô (Magistrate) Appointed by the shôgun to oversee a specific government post (e.g., finance, construction), a large city (e.g., Edo, Nagasaki), or a region.
Daikan (Intendant) Appointed by the daimyô or the shôgun to collect taxes and oversee administration of local regions.
Shôya (Village headman) Commoner appointed by the daimyô or the shôgun to represent the bakufu at the village level.

The Martial Arts

Judo techniques

Many of the throwing, grappling, choking, and falling techniques in the martial art of judo were culled from the various forms of jujitsu that existed in Japan since the medieval period.

It slices, it dices, it chops, it skewers. The samurai’s sword, or katana, was one of the most elegant and deadly weapons in military history. A warrior’s sword was his most prized possession. More than just the means of his livelihood, it was a symbol of his status.

No true samurai would enter combat by flailing his katana around wildly. A graceful weapon calls for an equally sophisticated way of handling it. Swordsmanship was a crucial skill that required not only combat prowess but also strict discipline and philosophical balance. This made Zen Buddhism, with its emphasis on spontaneity and physical and mental toughness, the ideal philosophical backdrop for a swordsman’s training.

Samurai warrior

Jujitsu, in its present form, was developed by samurai warriors. They developed an unarmed form of combat because they were forbidden to wear weapons and feared their military skills would become obsolete.

The Mind Is Sharper Than the Sword

Zen not only helped a warrior solidify his resolve to do battle, it also helped him keep his wits about him. This anecdote about the master swordsman, Tsukahara Bokuden (1489-1571), illustrates the samurai’s quick thinking.

As Bokuden was crossing a lake on a ferry, another samurai challenged him to demonstrate his skill. Bokuden coolly responded that he was an adept of the “no sword” method. “My method consists not in defeating others,” he said, “but in not being defeated.”

The other samurai had the ferryman pull ashore to test Bokuden’s claim. When the boat reached land, the braggart hopped off and drew his sword. Bokuden took the boatman’s pole and shoved the boat back into the lake, stranding the samurai on dry land. Bokuden called to him, “Here is my no-sword school. I have just defeated you without a sword.”

Although warriors were also expected to be handy with the bow and arrow, the spear and the quarterstaff, it was sword handling that set the elite samurai apart from the common footsoldier.

The fascination with swordsmanship persists to this day. Because waving around an authentic katana is expensive, dangerous, and probably illegal, today people have been get their swordfighting fix through kendo.

In this less lethal martial art, opponents wear heavy padding and solid headgear and strike each other with bamboo sticks instead of swords. This way, they can escape combat with only bruises and aches instead of slashes and gashes.

No Sword, No Problem

Kendo armor

Kendo swords and armor have passed through many changes throughout the centuries. Armor, in particular, underwent many developments from the 10th through 12th centuries.

But the sword wasn’t the only weapon in a Japanese warrior’s arsenal. The samurai were also proficient in hand-to-hand combat, using ancient techniques collectively known as jujitsu. The objective of the various forms of jujitsu was to use an opponent’s strength against him by employing handholds and deft maneuvers to throw the opponent off balance.

Judo and aikido, popular throughout the world as techniques for self-defense, were derived from older forms of jujitsu as practiced by samurai masters.

Other forms of martial arts that took root in Japan were imported from Asian neighbors. Most notably, karate, (empty hands), originated in China or India and was transmitted to Japan via the Ryukyu Empire (present-day Okinawa). When that once-independent kingdom was taken over by a daimyo from Kyushu in 1609, the Ryukyuan people were forced to surrender their weapons.

Instead of remaining defenseless, they secretly developed a fighting style that combined their native martial arts with forms from China, such as Shaolin Temple kung fu, to create an effective method of unarmed combat. This did not remain a secret for long, though, and the art of karate spread far beyond the island.

Many of the martial arts that were either developed in Japan or adopted by the Japanese from elsewhere have become a global pastime. Judo is an Olympic sport, and aikido and karate have devoted practitioners throughout the world.

Although the samurai of old have become the new corporate “warriors” of Japanese big business, the flickering embers of the samurai spirit are fanned when someone in the world bows to their sensei (teacher), and learns a grip or form that a Japanese master developed centuries ago.

Life During the Edo Period

Outside the Echigoya merchant house

The bustling commercial district around the Nihombashi bridge in Edo was home to the Echigoya merchant house, run by the wealthy Mitsui family. Today, the Nihombashi area still feels the influence of the Mitsui — the head office of the Mitsui Bank and the Mitsukoshi Department Store occupy the original site of the Echigoya.

Busy streets crowded with pedestrians. Shopping opportunities for all budgets, from large merchant houses that pamper their clientele to vendors hawking their wares on the street. Events for all during the day followed by a vibrant nightlife after the sun goes down. A lively theater scene, with superstars in top acts playing to packed houses.

Sound like a guidebook description of New York, London, or Paris? Perhaps. But these images also depict a typical day in Edo, the bustling capital of the Tokugawa shogunate.

Before Tokugawa Ieyasu, Edo was a remote fishing village of little significance. But once the Tokugawa bakufu moved in, Edo became the center of political and cultural life — so much so that the duration of Tokugawa rule is also known as the Edo period (1600-1868).

A Closed-Door Policy

For the first time in centuries, Japan was relatively peaceful. The strict political and social policies of Ieyasu and subsequent shoguns ushered in a golden age of economic and cultural prosperity. To maintain this so-called Pax Tokugawa, the bakufu instituted its sakoku (closed-country) policy in an attempt to keep foreign powers out of Japan. The Spanish, the English, and the Portuguese were expelled as subversive influences. Christianity was banned, and Japanese Christians were hunted down and persecuted.

Dejima, in Nagasaki harbor

Dutch traders were the only Europeans allowed to remain in Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate’s sakoku policy, but even they were restricted to Dejima, an artificial island constructed in Nagasaki harbor.

But sakoku was far from pure isolationism. Japan still conducted frequent but strictly regulated trade with Korea and China. And not all Europeans were driven out: the Dutch were allowed to maintain a small trading post on an artificial island in Nagasaki harbor.

Samurai Growing Soft

With peace came a growing problem: a large population of warriors with nothing to do. The official class system sanctioned by the bakufu placed samurai at the top, followed by farmers and artisans, with merchants at the bottom.

Kabuki theater, mid-Edo period

Of the many popular entertainments available to the residents of Edo, kabuki was perhaps the most spectacular. Lavish costumes, colorful sets, catchy music, and engrossing plots meant theaters packed with devoted fans.

But social reality contradicted this hierarchy. With growing boredom and shrinking stipends, lower-ranking samurai often found themselves borrowing money from wealthy merchants. Although traditional ideas of status still held, the actual balance of power was beginning to shift.

Merchant prosperity fostered the rise of commoner culture, giving rise to popular entertainments and diversions that even the samurai class couldn’t resist.

Puppets, Poems, Sumo, and Sushi?

The jôruri, or puppet theater, offered elaborate plots and masterful puppeteering. Puppet theater is one of the most entertaining but technically demanding performing arts.

Japanese Woodblock Print

This Japanese woodblock print, one of the 36 Views of Mt. Fuji by the famous artist Hokusai, was made by carving a block of wood. Ink would then be rolled or painted on the block and paper would be pressed onto the painted surface to get a print. At first the prints were all black and white, but eventually a process for making color prints was developed.

The greatest jôruri playwright, Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724), crafted historical dramas and tragic romances that were wildly popular, in his day and beyond.

The flash and excitement of the Kabuki theater drew throngs of enthusiasts, and many performers became full-fledged celebrities. Lead actors were heartthrobs, and male actors who performed female roles — called onnagata — also enjoyed a die-hard following.

Stories of star-crossed romance, betrayal, political intrigue, and love suicides kept the crowds hungry for more.

Commodore Perry's "Black Ships"

When the U.S. Navy steamed into Edo Bay in 1853 under orders from President Millard Fillmore and commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry, all of Japan was thrown into a panic. Although the Tokugawa shogunate had already started to flounder, the arrival of Perry’s heavily-armed “Black Ships” signalled the beginning of the end of the Edo period.

The likenesses of pop icons such as favorite Kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers could be widely distributed thanks to the development of the woodblock print.

This innovation allowed for mass reproductions of images and text, such as ukiyo-e paintings of the “floating world” — referring to the pleasure quarters of Edo — as well as works of popular fiction.

The more serious literary arts also flourished. The haiku poem — a short verse made up of only 17 syllables — was perfected by Matsuo Bashô (1644-1694) as an elegantly simple way to express subtle and elusive emotions.

An old pond
A frog leaps in
The water resounds.
-Matsuo Basho, 1644-1694

Culinary history was forever altered by the ingenuity of an Edo street vendor named Yohei who came up with the idea of serving raw fish on little slabs of vinegared rice. Although different types of this dish — sushi — had existed in Japan since ancient times, the modern version got its start in Edo, and since then has spread over the globe.