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Japanese Eras

(This page was originally published in 5/2013,
due to the ever-evolving nature of JapanThis!,
it was updated in 7/2015)

The Meiji Era (1868-1912) was a time of profound change in Tokyo. These are geisha dressed in Japanized western swimsuits.  Wait. Do I see camel toe?

The Meiji Era (1868-1912) was a time of profound change in Tokyo.
These are geisha dressed in Japanized western swimsuits.
Wait. Do I see camel toe?

And I quote…

“If your Blog is for begginers as it claims to be.
Why do you keep using Emperor years instead of Real years?”
(sic)

I got a rather long and startling e-mail the other day that included this question. I think I’ve been pretty consistent with my use of dates on JapanThis. But maybe I haven’t and this is as good a time as any to clear things up (for my readers and for myself).

2015 Update: While I try to keep the blog as accessible to everyone, since 2013, the blog has gone to some deep, deep places. I think a fundamental familiarity with Japanese history is necessary to swim in these waters now. The creation of this page was actually a result of that shift towards more research-intensive articles.
Now it’s even more critical than ever for my readers to understand some of the basics of Japanese History.

Japanese history is long. And for most westerners, it’s totally alien. Hell, my high school history class never mentioned Japan until Pearl Harbor – which is utterly ridiculous and arguably racist.

what's-up

Most of Japanese history is divided into conventional eras. Conventions created by historians are usually called 時代 jidai era/period. Official calendar conventions are called 元号 gengō or 年号 nengō. Many gengō span all of Japanese History right up to the present and are still in official use to a certain extent. Since the end of the Edo Period in 1868, these eras correspond to the reign of each emperor. Prior to that, eras could be opened or closed according to Imperial whim.

Here’s where my personal conventions come in. Since the bulk of JapanThis! has turned into a repository of Tōkyō place names, we can disregard most of the gengō. Sometimes I mention them, but I always give the dates in modern forms – without exception. That is, if I talk about a catastrophic event like the Meireki Fire which happened in the Meireki Era (1655 to 1658), I’ll definitely say it occurred in 1657.

a little background

I try to keep it simple, so this is a very simplified version of the Japanese Eras. These are the conventions I use JapanThis!, but be aware that real historians use a plethora of periodic divisions. Many of these dates are contentious – basically because most of these periodic divisions of history are completely subjective. If you don’t like one of my conventions, stick “-ish” to the end of a year, that should fix things.

Most of my articles range from the Sengoku Period to the Early Meiji Period, but from time to time other eras do come up. From 14,000 BCE to 1868, I use conventional era names made by up historians. If a recorded date is available, I use the Gregorian calendar (eg; 1590, 1603, etc). From 1868 to 1912, I will give the 元号 gengō imperial year (eg; Meiji 1, Meiji 2, etc) to show distance from the Edo Period. After the Meiji period, I just use Gregorian dates because imperial years are fucking めんどくさい mendokusai a royal pain in the ass.

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drumroll

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So Here’s My (Updated) List of Era Conventions for JapanThis!:

I try to keep it simple, so this is a very simplified version of the Japanese Eras. These are the conventions I use on JapanThis!, but be aware that real historians use a plethora of periodic divisions. Many of these dates are contentious – basically because most of these periodic divisions of history are completely subjective. If you don’t like one of my conventions, stick “-ish” to the end of a year – that should fix things lol.

One final note on conventions – for the past year and a half or so I’ve been using BCE (before common era) to designate anything before 0 CE[i]. I’ll continue using BCE, but I won’t use any designation for anything after 0 CE. If 2011 is OK as is, then I think 700 is OK as is, too.

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Jōmon Period
14,000 BCE – 300 BCE

Originating in modern Russia, a hunter-gatherer society migrated to the Japanese islands and eventually settled down around 2500–1500 BC[ii]. The name 縄文 Jōmon means “straw rope pattern” and refers to their pottery designs.

Yayoi Period
300 BCE – 250

Probably originating in China and migrating to Kyūshū via Korea, a second culture invaded Japan and intermarried with Jōmon people. They introduced the wet rice culture to Japan and supplanted the old culture. Japan, under the name 倭 Wa[iii], first appears in imperial Chinese records in 57).

Rise of the Yamato State
200 – 700
Kofun Period
250 – 550

This is a blurry period. In short, a culture that probably originated in modern Korea migrated to Japan with new technologies. They imported a tradition of burial mounds, called 古墳 kofun today. They began uniting the indigenous tribes by force and/or intermarriage. Those whom they didn’t defeat or merge with migrated north eventually reaching Hokkaidō[iv]. The imperial line seems to have begun its rise to prominence at this time – or at least it took credit for all this conquering and unification.

Asuka Period
538-710

This marks the shift from kingly rule by the Yamato clan emerging out of Yayoi and Kofun period clan structures, to Imperial rule, informed by Chinese thought and forms. It also saw the introduction of Buddhism, and of much Chinese political culture and philosophy, as well as bureaucratic structures and practices[v]. The 大化の改新 Taika no Kaishin Taika Reforms are promulgated[vi]. For most of this time, the imperial court was based in Asuka, hence the name.

Nara Period
710-794

Imperial court moved to Nara, hence the name. Rise of Buddhism at the Imperial Court in Nara. Rise of the Fujiwara clan. Creation of 61 国 kuni provinces. A warrior class emerges. Most of the country is still backwards, the court at Nara flourishes under its adopted Confucian and Buddhist culture. Warriors clans related to the imperial clan are given control over fiefs in the provinces.

Heian Period
794 – 1185

Imperial court relocates to Kyōto. This is considered the classical period – peak of the courtly culture. It’s also one of the most mind numbingly dull periods of Japanese history. But art, poetry, and fashion are raised to a high level and begin to permeate other elite circles in the provinces. The warrior class continues to rise in the provinces. Tale of Genji, blah blah blah.

Kamakura Period
1185 – 1333

Power is now in the hands of the Kamakura shōgunate in Kamakura, near modern Edo-Tōkyō. The shōgunate was established by the Minamoto clan but the real power came to be held by the Hōjō clan. Art and culture begin to thrive in the Kantō area. Edo and the surrounding hamlets begin appearing in records because of the presence of fortified residences of elite samurai in the area. These residences are called 城 shiro (translated as “castle,” but don’t think of the Japanese castles preserved today.

Muromachi Period
1336 – 1573
Ōnin War
1467 – 1477

Power is the hands of the Ashikaga shōgunate whose capital was in the Muromachi neighborhood of Kyōto.
Interestingly, the Ashikaga clan is a powerful samurai clan from Kantō, but they relocate to be near the imperial court. Kyōto is decorated with amazing architecture, art and poetry continues to thrive until… all hell breaks loose in 1467 and the Onin War leaves the city of Kyōto in ashes. Even the imperial palace was in ruins. Portuguese missionaries who arrived in the 1500’s described the emperor’s residence as a shack.

Sengoku Period
1467 – 1600
(one common reckoning is 1467 to 1573)

The Warring States Period. Think “samurai Game of Thrones.” Extremely powerful samurai warlords begin land grabs in the chaos brought on by the Onin War. These warlords are called 大名 daimyō. The imperial court’s power is nominal at best. The warrior class has the martial power and enough financing from spoils to back up their claims for supremacy.

Azuchi-Momoyama Period
1560 – 1600

The final land grabs ended with a daimyō named Oda Nobunaga making the greatest push to unify the country under his own rule. His general Toyotomi Hideyoshi “united” the country with the blessing of the imperial court after his death – both daimyō had been courting its favor financial for legitimacy. This era is a combination of the names of locations of Nobunaga and Hideyoshi’s 城 shiro castles. These castles typified what would become the final iteration of Japanese castle construction. This style of castle was only possible because there was finally relative stability. Edo, began its transition into a “castle town” in the Sengoku Period, but its rise as the pre-eminent castle town in Japan began at the end of this period.

Edo Period
1600 – 1868 (my convention)

Other possible starting dates:
1590 – Ieyasu relocates his clan and retainers to Edo
1600 – Ieyasu wins Battle of Sekigahara,
becomes the de factō ruler of Japan
1603 – Ieyasu is granted the title of shōgun

Tokugawa Ieyasu sets up shop in Edo, more or less an isolated part of the country. Since the Ashikaga shōgunate 1336, everyone had be sucking the emperor’s dick, including Hideyoshi. Ieyasu had autonomy and the court in Edo.  250 years of relative stability and last age of samurai rule ensue. Japan experiences a second classical period – one that still has far reaching consequences today in terms of Japanese culture. Samurai become bureaucrats. Because of the relative peace and a system known as sankin-kōtai, the culture of Edo permeates the entire country – with the exception of Okinawa and Hokkaidō[vii]. The first 2 shōguns’ interact with foreign powers as needed to allow the Edo-based government to focus on stabilizing the country and consolidating their power. But both increasingly curtailed access to the country. The 3rd shōgun severely limited foreign interaction. During this period most people say Japan was a closed country.

Bakumatsu
1850’s – 1868

The name means “end of the shōgunate.” Technically, this falls under most generally agreed upon for the Edo Period. But it’s a nearly 20 year internal strife that ultimately becomes a full-fledged civil war. The shōgunate wanted to open and modernize while keeping power. This was met with resistance by certain xenophobic samurai and justified by claims that the shōgun ruled in the name of the emperor until the emperor repeals that power. In the end, 3 southern daimyō courts led the coup (Satsuma, Chōshū, and Tosa). Japanese imperialism has its roots in the terrorists and traitors of this era.

Meiji Period
1868 – 1912

The new Imperial government shuts down samurai rule and begins “modernizing” the country. Industrialization begins. The era is marked by a massive transition and mixing of Japanese style with random foreign elements. Japan begins exerting international influence. First effective military expansion under the Meiji Government. The look of the city of Edo, under the name Tōkyō, stays intact for the most part, but as daimyō residences are demolished, western urban planning takes root.

Taishō Era
1912 – 1926

Modernization continues. Outside influence continues. The rise of Taishō fashion sees a return Japanese esthetic without rejecting “western” esthetics. The Great Kantō Earfquake levels the city – an event that many in the city considered the death of Edo.

Shōwa Era
1926 – 1989

Tōkyō sees everything from WWII to atomic bombs to American occupation to the Bubble Economy to Japan becoming an economic superpower.
Firebombing in WWII levels most of the city in the 1940’s. While the 1923 Earfquake was considered the end of Edo, the firebombing ensured its death. This era saw the majority of Japan’s “westernization.” Tōkyō Tower. 1964 Olympics.

Heisei Era
1989 – any day now…

It saw the rise of ギャル gals and オタク otaku and JapanThis!

And the current Imperial Family seems to hate Prime Minister Abe Shinzō. Good on them. Everyone should. He’s an idiot and an outlaw.

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[i] CE Common Era or AD to all you Christians…
[ii] To learn about the Jōmon people genetically, check this article out.
[iii] Later 和 Wa/Yamato.
[iv] This genetically different group of peoples came to be the 蝦夷 Emishi and アイヌ Ainu.
[v] This is a direct quote from Samurai Archives Samurai Wiki’s excellent article on the Asuka Period. I quoted it because I couldn’t summarize this era better. I can’t recommend Samurai Archives enough. They’re the rock stars of Japanese History on the internet!
[vi] Read more about the Taika Reforms here. By the way, Taika is Japanese Era name, but I don’t use it on this blog.
[vii] That said, the culture fostered by the Tokugawa Shōgunate actually did affect these areas.

  1. He didn’t just say “real years” did he?

  2. I clicked the link for “JAPANESE HISTORY SCHOLAR.”

    Hilarious!!!!

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