December 8, 2023 | Miles Brucker

Historical Facts About Japan


Rise from oblivion and return to existence. —Japanese Proverb

We know Japan is a country made up of thousands of islands, and that it is rich in tradition and abundant in proverbs, but have you ever wondered the origins of this ancient land? Read on to discover what ancient Japan had to offer then, and what still stands today.


1. Top Four

Researchers say that in the year 1250, the city Kamakura had a population of approximately 200,000, making it the fourth-largest city at the time. Today its population is 174,000.

historic japan

2. Tommy Polka, the Samurai

In 1860, 76 Samurai were sent to New York City as diplomats. The youngest, Tateishi Onojiro, was nicknamed Tommy by the Americans, and become somewhat of a sensation. He even had a song, "Tommy Polka," written about him.

Japan FactsWikipedia

3. Everyone Gets a Castle

At one point in time, Japan was home to roughly 5,000 castles, though only a handful still stand today.

Japan FactsWikipedia

4. Comic Relief

The Japanese created Gesaku sometime after 1765, which many consider early comic books. The Gesaku were woodblock colour printings, and often portrayed the political controversies of the time.

Japan FactsWikimedia Commons

5. Early Robotics

In the 1600s, the Japanese were producing Karakuri, or mechanical puppets. They were able to perform simple dances and acts from plays. By the nineteenth century, the Karakuri were able to serve tea and shoot arrows.

Japan FactsShutterstock

6. Sushi, Please

Japan has had sushi since the second century AD. It was used as a way to preserve fish in China, and soon Japan followed suit. Sushi is the consumption of rice that is seasoned with vinegar, sugar, and salt, whereas sashimi is raw fish that is sliced and served alone without rice.

Japan FactsPixabay

7. No Pearly Whites Here

White teeth were not seen as a thing of beauty in Japan. Women would blacken their teeth with dye in a practice called ohaguro. This practice continued far into the late 1800s.

Japan FactsShutterstock 

8. Let Them Entertain You

Sumo wrestling has been around for about 1,500 years in Japan, flourishing as a spectator sport in the 1600s. It is a sport rich in tradition and rules and was originally performed as a way to entertain the gods. The fighters can weigh 300lbs or more, and younger wrestlers must bathe the older veterans.

Sumo fighter Hoshihikari Shinichi at the Hokugikan centerLisa0111, CC BY-SA 4.0 Wikimedia Commons

9. A Novel Idea

Widely regarded as the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji was written in the early 11th century by Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu. In its English translation, it is more than 1,000 pages long and has 54 chapters. Well-bred women of the time were enthralled by it, as most Japanese literature up until that point was just collections of poetry written in a borrowed Chinese script.

Japan FactsWikipedia

10. Love of Performing

Gagaku and bugaku are the oldest continuous music and dance traditions in the world and are still performed by members of the Imperial Court Orchestra. Introduced by China and Korea primarily during the seventh century, the musicians and designers wore incredible costumes and usually performed outside against beautiful settings.

Japan FactsShutterstock

11. The World's a Stage

Going back to the fourteenth century, Japanese Noh drama is the oldest surviving theatrical form worldwide. The movement is slow and language is poetic. The pieces often center around ghosts and spirits. All performers are male, and wear masks to indicate what kind of character they are portraying, whether it be women, men, demons, or spirits.

Japan FactsFlickr

12. Long May They Reign

The first Japanese emperor ruled around the same time Christ that lived. Jimmu Tennō began a long, unbroken lineage lasting 2,000 years; there is no other royal family in history that has ruled as long.

Japan FactsWikimedia Commons

13. Back to the Beginning

The Jōmon, the ancestors of Japan’s aboriginal inhabitants, were believed to have been around in 13,000 BC. The people at this time fed themselves through hunting and gathering, and lived in simple surface dwellings.

 

Japan FactsWikipedia

Jōmon pottery 

14. Attaining Enlightenment

Mahayana Buddhism was introduced to the Japanese from Korea as early as 538.

Japan FactsWikimedia Commons

15. The Written Word

Writing was introduced to Japan in the mid-fifth century by scholars from the Korean kingdom of Paekche. They used Chinese symbols to express the Japanese spoken language.

Japan FactsGetty Images

16. No Carnivores Here

For over 1,200 years, starting from the seventh century, certain meats (especially those from mammals) were prohibited from consumption in Japan. This law lasted off and on during this time period.

Japan FactsPxHere

17. The Warriors

The Samurai were the highest ranking social caste in the Edo Period (1603-1868). After this time, many became teachers, administrators, and moral guides. Though they utilized a range of tools for conflict, including bows and arrows, guns, and spears, they are more commonly recognized for their use of the sword.

Japan FactsGetty Images

18. Say Yes to the Kimono

The kimono became a popular choice of attire during the Heian Period (794-1185). Many years later, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, kimonos were works of art and would sometimes cost more than a family home. Although they aren’t the go-to choice now, they still may be worn during special occasions like weddings, funerals, and tea ceremonies.

Japan FactsMax Pixel

19. Off With Their Heads

The Japanese invaded Korea twice between 1592 and 1598. The invasions were brutal, and Japanese combatants often seized the heads of their victims as trophies. They realized the difficulties of transporting so many heads, and instead would take noses and ears back home.

 Grayscale Photo of Tokyo, JapanBaltzerFranz, Wikimedia Commons

20. Changing Faith

The first Japanese man to be baptized a Christian was a 35-year-old Samurai in 1546. Anjiro had been on the run for causing harm to a man during a fight, which resulted in the man's demise. He came across some Portuguese while in hiding, and they took pity on him. He was eventually baptized as Paulo de Santa Fe.

Fyodor Dostoevsky factsPexels

21. Slavery and Hypocrisy

Japanese leader and warlord, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, issued an edict in 1587 effectively banning slavery of the Japanese, though the sale of Japanese slaves continued for some time after. Nonetheless, Hideyoshi would enslave Koreans during his invasions in the country in the 1590s.

 

Japan FactsWikimedia Commons

22. A Language of Their Own

The ninth century saw the emergence of a more defined Japanese culture, with their own written language coming to the forefront. Up until this time, they had been using Chinese symbols in their writings.

Japan FactsShutterstock

23. Epidemics of Mass Proportions

There was a devastating smallpox outbreak in Japan between 735 and 737. Moreover, between 698 and 800, there were at least 36 years of plague.

Japan FactsShutterstock

24. Rogue Warriors

It was considered dishonorable in medieval Japan if a Samurai’s sword couldn’t cut through a body in one sweep. Although the warriors usually trained using bodies of criminals, the tradition of tsujigiri, often referred to as "crossroads trials," gradually became customary. In this practice, samurais ambushed unsuspecting commoners at crossroads during the night. This practice was quite rare, but still common enough that the authorities felt the need to ban it in 1602.

Japan FactsShutterstock

25. No Fury Compares

The last time Mount Fuji erupted was in 1707. Although it did not spew lava, ash and rocks buried nearby fields and crushed homes. Residents had to use candles in the middle of the day because of how dark it had become. The eruption may have been triggered by a magnitude 8.6 earthquake from 49 days earlier, which also resulted in a tsunami and claimed the lives of over 5,000 individuals.

Japan FactsPxHere 

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15


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