By: Kevin Cooley and Lindsay Green

The most important aspects of ancient Japan are how they used their geography to their advantage and its contributions to military and culture. Their geography protected them from invasion but sometimes shut off movement. They had a wonderful military and an advanced weapon system. The Japanese had a culture that was both inclusive of ideas from China and Korea and unique to their own country. Ancient Japan contributed greatly to everything we use today.


Ancient Japan had an incredibly rich and diverse culture that encompassed many things that we still see today.

The Japanese had three types of theater: No, Kabuki, and Bunraku. No was for the more aristocratic taste. The actors wore elaborate costumes and masks, and recited poetry and danced slowly. They had no scenery or props. Kabuki had an audience consisting more of commoners, and it was colorful and dramatic. It jumped between slow and fast tempos. Bunraku was similar to Kabuki, but it was performed using detailed hand puppets. The actors would dress in black to blend in with the background. The eighteenth century is considered the golden age of Japan’s theater.
A mask for No theater from www.bioge...alism.com

Music and Dancing
The Japanese took most of their instruments from mainland Asia, but they evolved to be unique to Japan. They had instruments that we hear about today- drums, flutes, stringed instruments, cymbals, bells, and gongs. But they also had instruments that may be uncommon to the western world- the samisen and the koto, for example. They resembled a banjo and a harp, respectively. The koto was played for solo performances. Music was not just used for dancing, but for theater as well. Drums and flutes were played during No and Kabuki performances. Music was highly valued for its ability to evoke emotions both religious and human.
The people of Japan also valued dancing as an important part of life. Dances were performed at court ceremonies, village festivals, and more. Kagura was a sacred dance. Gigaku was a Buddhist dance, in which wooden masks were used. It came from Korea. Bugaku was preformed at a Shinto shrine and consisted of all males. Bon, a festival that lasted for one week in August, welcomed the spirits of ancestors home and held memorial services for them. It was held during the night, and people danced for hours on end. Traditional Japanese music was played. A new kind of dance is popular in modern Japan- So-ran Bushi, which is a blend of traditional Japanese music and modern rock.

The Japanese were very good poets. Two of the most common poems in Japan were the tanka and the haiku. Kokinshu (Poems Old and New) was a collection of tankas compiled in A.D 905. The Japanese, much like us, had libraries and bookstores full of books both for serious educational purposes and entertainment purposes. Many people could read. In 1010 B.C, a woman named Murasaki Shikibu completed The Tale of Genji, which is considered to be the first important novel ever written. It tells of the journey of a young prince named Genji searching for love. Books were printed on wooden blocks so they could be made cheaply. (Odijk, The Japanese)

Shrine to silkworm god from www.japannet.de.com

The Japanese were very good architects and their techniques were influenced greatly by China and Korea. Lots of their architecture is still standing today. Kondo (‘golden hall’) and Goju-ho-to (‘five-story pagoda’) were built by the Japanese, and are the oldest surviving wooden structures in the world.

The best examples of Japanese architecture are its religious shrines. Buddhist pagodas had thin walls, and many stories piled up on each other, getting smaller when they went higher. The temples were made mostly of wood. In the front of every temple stood a statue that looked very scary. The point of the statue was to make sure that no bad spirits could enter the temple. Also the temples were built Chinese style. From the inside temples had windows looking out upon peaceful gardens. The Shinto shrines were mostly small. They were entered through a small gate called a torii. Inside the shrines were staffed by priests, musicians, and dancers who would preform riuals for people who asked the gods for a favor. (Odijk, The Japanese) The Shinto shrines were always rebuilt to symbolize youth and purity. The tradition continues today. (www.chinatownconnection.com) -
Miniature gardens were popular in ancient Japan. Small gardens, maybe only a few feet in area, were constructed to look like larger landforms. For example, round bushes on the edge of a very smooth expanse of grass might look like mountains over a lake. Also, small hills sometimes were constructed to look like Mt. Fuji. (Leonard, Early Japan)

Japanese garden from www.as...fo.org.jpg

Japanese art is beautiful and appealing to the senses. Miniaturization was one form of Japanese art. Tiny trees called bonsai were popular.The five main types of art in Japan were painting, ceramics, metal casting, ikebana, and sword making. Painting, which was originally influenced by the Chinese, was mostly done on paper or silk using ink and watercolors. The paintings were mounted on a hand scroll, hanging scroll, screen, or panel when they were finished. The most common subjects the Japanese painted were nature, animals, narrative paintings, battle, and portraits.
Lacquerware from www.ubushina.com

Another main type of art was Ikebana, or Japanese flower arrangement. Ikebana originated in the Nara period from the custom of giving flowers as offerings to the god Buddha. Metal casting, another skilled art, developed through the spread of Buddhism. Metal casting was called on when the Buddhist temples needed bronze statues, bells, and ornamental metal work. Sword making was also a highly skilled craft and art. Since Japan was a military aristocracy, a sword had to be sharp and strong, but also an object of beauty. The fifth main type of art was ceramics which was invented for the annual tea ceremony called the Chanoyu. The techniques for making the tea cups and bowls were introduced by China and Korea. Ceramics were also used for flower vases and other household items.

The two main religions in Japan were Buddhism and Shintoism. The first religion in Japan was Shintoism but after time Buddhism, an Indian religion, was brought to Japan by China and Korea in the Kamakura period. The Buddhist religion teaches that the inevitable unhappiness of human life is the result of desire. Buddhists also believe that all human beings are reborn after death to a new life. Most of the time these lives are just as good as the first time, but according to the law of karma one's past lives affect one's happiness in the future. This means that if the person was one who sined alot there next life won't be as happy. The word Shinto means the "way of the gods." Like many ancient empires, the Shinto people believed that the powerful natural forces that humans can not control, such as wind, rain, and earthquakes, needed to be worshiped. The Shinto gods were called kami. The main belief of Shinto is that gods can only be approached if one is in the state of purity. An illness, death in the family, and other bad things can bring pollution to the gods. The pollution can be cleansed through making offerings to gods and bathing.

Daily Life
Different types of kimonos from www.fashion.3yen.com
Japanese life was as rich as its culture, with varieties of food and beautiful clothing. What we know of Japanese clothing comes from clay figurines from that time. The kimono was actually a late development in Japanese fashion, and is still worn today. It is a colorful, bright piece of fabric belted at the waist. The working class wore clothes made of hemp, linen and cotton. Silk was for the wealthy, white silk especially. There was lots of Chinese influence in clothing, as in the rest of Japan’s culture. (Odijk, The Japanese)
Japan was and still is a place of exotic cuisine. Many Japanese diets depended heavily on rice and noodles. A few other foods the ancient Japanese ate were:

Daifuku-a bun with sweet bean paste
Curry rice- rice with curry
Inari-zushi- sushi wrapped in bean curd
Gyoza- fried dumplings
Zoni- rice cakes and veggie soup served on New Year holidays
Unaju- grilled eel served in a lacquered box (
www.japaneselifestyle.com) Also the Japanese had many big tea ceremonies called Chanoyu. These were celebrated often and they were so holy that people built small houses specially reserved for the Chanoyu.

Literate education in Japan began in the sixth century. Most of the schools were reserved for the children of the rich and the children of Buddhist priests and monks. The teacheres in Japan were very good. Buddhist missionaries were the first “teachers”. Some of the best writers and poets were Japanese. Education was mainly for the sake of attaining Nirvana, or spiritual enlightenment. (www.core.ecu.edu.com)


Japan grew into a unique nation of its own influenced by its geography and only based slightly off of the Chinese influence taken into Japan.

Japan is a chain of 4,223 volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean. The largest islands are Honshu, Kyushu, Shikoku, and Hokkaido. The Pacific Ocean is off the east coast, the rest of Asia off the west. Its coordinates are 35 degrees north and 140 degrees east.
In the ancient times, the dangerous seas surrounding it made Japan safe from invasion. Twice the Mongols tried to invade Japan, but both times the fleets were destroyed by storms.

Japan is home to abundant wildlife and plant growth. (Odijk, The Japanese) Ornamental trees, such as pear and plum trees, grow in the south. (www.naturehills.com) Some of Japan’s mammals include wild boars, foxes, badgers, monkeys, bears and deer. Japan also has a variety of reptiles and birds, such as gulls, heron, ibis, swans and cranes.
Japan is very mountainous. Among its other landforms are plains, river valleys, hurricanes, and volcanoes, the most famous of which is Mt. Fuji.
Japan has a temperate climate, though things tend to be colder in the mountains and the north. There is plenty of rainfall, providing good soil for farmers, especially in the coastal lowlands. But it is victim to devastating typhoons that bring even more rain, thus the abundant vegetation. Another down side is that there were many active seismic faults and volacanoes.
Map of Japan from www.goyangkarawang.com

Cherry blossoms from www.eplteen.wordpress.com
Japan was isolated from the rest of Asia by the Korea Strait. Lots of influence came from China, but sometimes this flow was shut off by the strait. Japan had to develop on its own sometimes, and it did so. Some of the Chinese things that were taken into Japan were its architectural style, calendar, music, art, alphabet characters, and government. Things also came from Korea, too- printing, music and religion. But these were given a unique Japan twist when adapted into the culture.

Mountains made movement difficult, and there weren’t many roads in Japan originally. But during the Tokugawa Period, a network of footpaths linked the major cities. Japan’s rivers were too shallow for ships, but the Inland Sea provided an area for sea transportation. Goods were traded in both foreign and Japanese ships until foreign trade was stopped in the seventeenth century. Ocean trade routes linked Japan to Korea, Okinawa, Korea, and Southeast Asia. Japan exported blades, lacquer ware, copper, and sulfur to Korea and China. It imported, silk, porcelain, books, and other items of high value in that time. Trade brought ideas, inventions and more from the mainland into Japan. (Odijk, The Japanese)


Japan, while being focused on delicate art, was a country also focused on its military and warfare. The Japanese had some of the best weapons and fighters of the ancient world.

Samurai archer from www.howstufffworks.com

The samurai emerged in the 12th century A.D. Before the samurai, there were simply just Japanese warriors. They fought rival clans, natives of the island, and invaders from foreign countries. The samurai were warriors at heart and if they were captured in war they would commit suicide. The warriors thought that it was embarasing to be captured and that it was a disgrace to the gods. The samurai themselves didn’t invent much of Japan’s military-related matter, but they put their own twist on it. Horses were also very popular among samurai. The “Way of Horse and Bow” was an early samurai way of fighting/code of behavior, like the later Bushido. Most of the samurai class believed in Zen Buddhism, which teaches that enlightment can be achieved through meditation and intense phisicle and mental discipline. This explanes why they wanted to be warriors.
Throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Japan became not much more than a multitude of war camps led by daimyo, or feudal lords. Daimyo meant ‘great name’. (Hall, Life Among the Samurai) Some lower-class samurai served the daimyo. Their code of conduct, Bushido, emphasized complete loyalty to superiors. (Odijk, The Japanese) During this time, clashes between rival clans and peasant rebellions were quite common. This is called Sengoku, or ‘civil war period’. It lasted from 1467-1576.
Samurai women were not combat soldiers, but they were held to the same expectations as male samurai. There have been many famous samurai women in Japan’s history, one of the most prominent being Tomoe Gozen, a fearsome warrior. Another brave samurai woman was Lady Nii. She knew her side had been defeated, and no mercy would be showed to her young son. So she jumped with him into the sea. Often, women and even children would fight alongside their fathers, sons, and husbands. One of the most gruesome tasks a samurai woman had to perform was preparing the heads of slain enemies to be presented to the victorious warlord. The heads would have to be washed, the hair combed, and makeup put on the face. Then they were mounted on a board and presented.

In samurai battles, the soldiers on the losing side would be painfully executed. If a samurai knew this dishonorable death awaited him, he would perform seppuku, or ritual suicide. It was believed that suicide freed your spirit before death, and was often performed in great numbers of samurai. (Hall, Life Among the Samurai)

Samurai armor and weapons changed with Japan’s political circumstances. They changed from bows and arrows to spears and swords. The effectiveness of the spear versus the sword was a common argument among samurai. Fighting terrain became tougher for the samurai’s horses, which were fast and enduring but unable to carry heavy loads. Because of this, armor was lightweight.

During the time of the Way of Horse and Bow, the samurai were mainly archers and not foot soldiers. They practiced on dogs at first, but Buddhism discouraged the brutality of the practice, thus it was changed. Arrows were to have dull tips and the dogs would wear a hard sheath.
Arrows had different types of points for different purposes. Signaling points, for example, whistled as they flew through the air. The samurai were amazing archers on horseback, trained to hit both immobile and moving targets. At first, swords were not as important as the bow. Later, they became treasured as both artwork and weapons.
The Japanese had many great weapons to keep them protected and help them win in war. Their main weapon was the two-handed samurai sword which was sharp enough cut to people in half. The Japanese valued their swords so much that the swords were treated with respect and were sacred to Hechiman, the god of war. They were believed to have spirits of their own. Along with swords, sword makers were highly honored and were the only people who weren’t samurai allowed to use the swords. Then, in 1541, firearms were introduced by the Europeans and swords became a secondary weapon. Along with swords the samurai fought with bows and arrows, spears, and daggers. The bow was the first weapon the Japanese used and was made out of wood and bamboo. When swords were first made, bows weren’t used as often anymore. Another thing that helped keep the warriors alive was their armor. The warriors all wore protective helmets made out of metal panels that were carefully fitted together and decorated with patterns. The jutting peak on the helmet protected the face while the nape guard protected the back of the neck. ( Odjik, The Japanese)
Samurai from www.friends-partners.org

Armor was put on in this order:
1. First, a cotton undergarment resembling a loincloth was put on.
2. Next, an “armor robe” (kimono) was donned.
3. The samurai put on billowing pantaloons.
4. He put on thick shin guards.
5. The warrior put on thigh guards.
6. Metal sleeves were donned.
7. Next, a torso sheath was put on.
8. Shoulder guards came next.
9. An iron collar was donned.
10. The samurai put on a cotton cap.
11. An iron mask, designed to be terrifying, was put on next.
12. Lastly, a helmet was fitted securely on the samurai’s head. (Leonard, Early Japan)

Donning armor was a solemn ritual for the warriors, though sometimes it had to be done quickly. Armor was mounted on a stand or hung on a hanger so the samurai could slip quickly into it. Foot soldiers of lower rank had armor that was not as thick as their more powerful superiors.
The samurai, fierce warriors that they were, had very formal battle tactics. As armies rushed towards each other, warriors would call out challenges that were accepted by a warrior in the other army. The individual duels would eventually merge into a violent melee, and continued until one side was defeated. (Hall, Life Among the Samurai)

Bushido was the simple code of conduct the samurai followed. Aspects of it came from Zen, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shintoism. The samurai didn’t fear death; they believed that a dead person’s soul would be reincarnated.
The samurai strongly disagreed with the writings of Confucius, but they evidently agreed with at least some things. The Confucian aspect in bushido emphasized the five moral relations- to servant, father and son, husband and wife, elder and younger brother, and friend and friend.
The code also valued justice, benevolence, love, sincerity, honesty and self-control. (www.mcel.pacificu.edu)

The Japanese civilization never exactly "declined", it has been around since the beginning of civilization. Instead, it was transformed by new and modern ideas. These were brought by Europeans, who had originally been banned from the country. Japan was isolated from the rest of the world until 1853, when a very powerful naval officer demanded that Japan open itself up to modernization and trade with other countries. The government knew that the officer and his army were too much for them, so they gave in. The young people of Japan were outraged at the government’s weakness, and the last shogun of Japan was defeated in 1867 by rebels. (Odijk, The Japanese)

Today, Japan is one of the leading powers in the world. It has grown into a developed country with a strong army. And it is all because of the powerful world of traditional Japan, which has lasted since the beginning of civilization itself.

Works Cited
Macdonald, Fiona. Step Into Ancient Japan. N.p.: Anness Publishing, 1999. N. pag. Print.
Greenblatt, Miriam, and Peter Lemmo. Human Heritage. N.p.: Mcgraw Hill, 2004. N. pag. Print.
Doran, Clare. The Japanese. N.p.: Thomson Learning, 1995. Print.
Hall, Eleanore J. Life Among the Samurai. N.p.: Lucent Books, 1999. Print.
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