The student of Japanese history is confronted at the outset with a serious difficulty. In ancient times the Japanese had no literary script, so that all events had to be handed down from generation to generation by oral tradition. Moreover, the early records made after the introduction of the art of writing were destroyed by fire, so that the only "reliance or information about . . . . antiquity" has to be placed in the Kojiki ("Records of Ancient Matters") and in the Nihongi ("Chronicles of Japan"). The former, completed in 712 A.D., is written in a purer Japanese style; while the latter, finished in 720 A.D., is "much more tinctured with Chinese philosophy": though differing in some details, they are practically concordant and supply the data upon which Japanese "history" has been constructed.

In accordance with our present purpose, it seems best, following the illustrious example of Arnold in Roman history, to treat the more or less mythological periods in the form in which they have been handed down in tradition, and thus preserve "the spirit of the people," as reflected in the legends. As Dr. Murray puts it, "Yet the events of the earlier period which have been preserved for us by oral tradition are capable, with due care and inspection, of furnishing important lessons and disclosing many facts in regard to the lives and characteristics of the primitive Japanese." Therefore, without attempting to indulge specially in "higher criticism," which has not yet accomplished its much-needed work in the field of Japanese history, we shall rather endeavor to present that history, so far as possible, in Japanese dress and from the Japanese point of view. And we must surely admit the continuity of Japanese history as illustrated in the "unbroken line of illustrious sovereigns," who, for at least eighteen or twenty centuries, have formed the oldest continuous dynasty in the world. Another point of extraordinary importance is that, in all the history of Japan since the beginning, the country "has never once felt the shame of foreign conquest." And this unusual fact is regarded by many as an indubitable proof, not merely of the " divine right," but also of the "divine descent," of the Japanese emperors. "To the end of time each Mikado is the son of the [sun-] goddess." The spirit of the divine ancestors still holds sway. Although Charles I of England paid with his life the penalty of insisting too vigorously and too practically upon the exemplification of the theory of "the divine right of the king," no Stuart ever even dreamed of the applications to which it could be put in Japan. And the theory of divinity extended also to the land itself; for a Japanese poet (Hitomaro) once wrote the following lines:

Japan is not a land where men need pray, For 'tis itself divine.

There are various plans by which we may portion off Japanese history. In a very general way, we may make the following three divisions:

Ancient: Imperialism (patriarchal).
Mediaeval: Feudalism (military).
Modern: Imperialism (constitutional).

Brinkley, in his encyclopedic work, writes as follows:

There are, in fact, six great divisions of Japanese history: first, the patriarchal age, when the sovereign was only the head of a group of tribal chiefs, each possessing a hereditary share of the governing power; secondly, a brief period, from the middle of the seventh to the early part of the eighth century, when the tribal chiefs had disappeared and the Throne was approximately autocratic; thirdly, an interval of some eighty years, called the Nara Epoch, during which the propagandism of Buddhism and the development of the material and artistic civilization that came in that religious train engrossed the attention of the nation; fourthly, the Heian Epoch, a period of three centuries, when the Court in Kōyto ruled vicariously through the Fujiwara family; fifthly, the age of military feudalism, from the beginning of the twelfth to the middle of the nineteenth century, when the administrative power was grasped by soldier nobles; and sixthly, the present, or Meiji Epoch, of constitutional monarchy.

Another plan, however, which is more particular and definite, suits our purpose better; but its delimitations must not be taken too literally or its chronology too precisely. Dates will be added, not alone for accuracy, but sometimes merely for convenience. The following is the plan:


Old Japan
I. The Divine Ages
II. The Prehistoric Period
III. The Imperialistic Period
IV. The Heian Epoch (Fujiwara Bureaucracy)
V. The Gempei Era
VI. Hōjō Tyranny
VII. Ashikaga Anarchy
VIII. Civil Strife
IX. Tokugawa Feudalism
1. Organization .
2. Sleep of Japan .
New Japan .
  3. Awakening of Japan
X. The Meiji Era
1. Reconstruction
2. Internal Development
3. Constitutionalism
4. Cosmopolitanism
5. Continentalism

In the case of New Japan, it is possible, in the very names of the periods, to trace the progress of the last sixty years (1853-1913).


From the point of view of the historical critic there is no break between this period and the next, so that the two might fairly be combined under the title "Prehistoric." But this first period is quite distinct in the minds of Japanese and is called in their histories Jindai, which means "Divine Ages." It is acknowledged, in the official History of the Empire of Japan, that "strange and incredible legends have been transmitted from that era"; but it is added that, "in order to understand the history of the Empire's beginnings, the traditional incidents of the age, however singular, must be studied." There is also another reason why some attention should be given to the myths and legends of this unhistorical period. The incidents and the names of the actors are so inextricably interwoven into the fabric of Japanese art, religion, and literature, and are so influential yet among the common people and even in politics, that one cannot afford to ignore this period. Indeed, "the age of the gods and the present [modern] age are not two ages but one"; for all, rulers and ruled, "act upon the traditions of the divine age." It is to be regretted that the legendary nature of this period prevents giving definite dates; for on this point not one of the eight hundred myriads of deities (yaoyorozu no kami) has vouchsafed a revelation. The story of the creation of the world bears striking resemblance to that related in Ovid Metamorphoses, and has points in common with the story in Genesis. We quote the opening lines of the Nihongi, as follows:

Of old, Heaven and Earth were not yet separated, and the male and female principles not yet divided. They formed a chaotic mass, like an egg, which was of obscurely defined limits and contained germs. The purer and clearer part was thinly drawn out and formed Heaven, while the heavier and grosser element settled down and became Earth. The finer element easily became a united body, but the consolidation of the heavy and gross element was accomplished with difficulty. Heaven was therefore formed first and Earth was established subsequently. Thereafter Divine Beings were produced between them. . . . . At this time a certain thing was produced between Heaven and Earth. It was in form like a reed-shoot. Now this became transformed into a God.
Then various other gods were spontaneously created, at first "solitary males"; but finally five pairs of brothers and sisters were created. The last pair were instructed by the other gods to "make, consolidate, and give birth to the floating land." The dual progenitors, Izanagi and Izanami, in their various activities remind one of Saturn and Rhea, or Jupiter and Juno, or Adam and Eve. The story of Amaterasu, the sun-goddess, provoked by her boisterous brother, Susano-ō, retiring to a cavern, thus leaving the world in darkness, and finally being enticed out again by a shrewd appeal to curiosity and jealousy, is apparently a myth of a solar eclipse. And one Japanese writer (Kawakami) thinks it "not improbable that the prehistoric tribes of Japan worshipped the sun as the highest deity."

The aforementioned Susano-ō, having finally been expelled from heaven on account of his violent performances, came to Izumo. Here, just as Hercules killed the hydra, Susano-ō kills an eight-forked serpent, from whom he rescues a maiden and takes her as his wife. The cycle of myths clustering about Izumo evidently describe an emigration from Korea into Japan. Still another cycle of myths concerning Ninigi, grandson of the sungoddess, cluster around Tsukushi in Kiūshiu and probably describe a Malay emigration from the south. It was to Ninigi that the heavenly deities intrusted the rosary of jewels (one red, one white, and one blue), the mirror with which the sun-goddess had been enticed from her retirement, and the double-edged sword which Susano-ō had found in the tail of the serpent. These have since been known as the "Three Imperial Insignia." And "they symbolize courage, knowledge, and mercy, the necessary attributes of a great sovereign, of whose divine rights the Regalia are the outward manifestation." The jealousy and quarreling between Ninigi's sons, Prince Fire-Shine and Prince Fire-Fade, are, of course, reminders of Romulus and Remus and of Cain and Abel.

The grandson of Prince Fire-Fade led an emigration, by gradual steps, from Kiūshiu up the main island, until they finally reached a spot, apparently near Ōsaka, then known as Naniwa. In this central section of Japan, the immigrants, or invaders, met opposition from natives; and concerning these events there is a Yamato cycle of legends.

Finally, when the leader of this expedition had subdued his enemies, he set up his palace at Kashiwabara in the province of Yamato. This event is taken as the beginning of Japanese "history," and has been assigned chronologically to 660 B.C. The aforementioned prince is now known as the Emperor Jimmu, the founder of the Empire of Japan. If he is a truly historical personage, his ascension to the throne can scarcely have been at so early a date as is claimed: but at any rate he is an important "character" and cannot be entirely ignored.

The myths and legends of the "Divine Ages" and the following period have more or less pedagogical value and teach considerable about the native or primitive civilization of the Japanese. Their food, clothing, huts, arms, and implements are all described. They had knowledge of some plants and of some wild and domestic animals. They "had a rude system of agriculture and knew the art of fashioning iron." The family was "in its most rudimentary stage." The people "were able to count only to ten," and were "without writing or commerce" or art. Their mode of government seems to have been a kind of patriarchal feudalistic imperialism. They loved nature, and were full of superstition; they had "childlike religious ideas," with reverential worship, sacrifices, and festivals. Their gods were "only men of prowess or renown."

We ought at least to treat a little, but not minutely, the topics of the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age in Japan. These eras fall chiefly in the "Divine Ages," but may lap over somewhat into the next period. Various stone implements have been found in different parts of Japan so widely separated as Yezo, the vicinity of Yedo, and Kiūshiu. Milne and Munro assign them to the Ainu, but the best Japanese authorities are inclined to attribute them largely, if not wholly, to a pre-Ainu people known as Koro-pok-guru. This name points out the fact that they lived in pits or caves, and hints that they may possibly be identical with the "earth-spiders" of the Kojiki. But one branch of the ancestors of the Japanese proper buried their dead in barrows, in which "are found weapons and implements of bronze"; so that it looks as if "the builders of the barrows were in the Bronze Age of civilization." Still another band of the ancestors of the Japanese seems to have "completely emerged from the Bronze Age," and must have been in the Iron Age; for they buried their dead in dolmens, in which are found "weapons and implements of iron and vessels of wheel-turned pottery."

This brings us to one more difficult subject for consideration in this chapter: Who were the ancestors of the Japanese; and were they the aborigines of Japan? The latter part of this double question should naturally be answered first. It now appears quite certain that the ancestors of the Japanese were not the aborigines of Japan; and some make a similar statement concerning the ancestors of the rapidly disappearing Ainu. The real aborigines are said to have been the aforementioned Koro-pok-guru, who were driven out by the Ainu into Sakhalin, the Kuriles, Kamschatka, and perhaps also to North America. But Dr. Munro is strongly of the opinion that these dwarfs never existed and that the Ainu were the aborigines of Japan.

The other part of the double question must receive a double answer. Even if we accept Brinkley's views of "three tides of more or less civilized immigrants," who settled respectively in Izumo, Yamato, and Kiūshiu, it looks as if the two latter may represent two movements of the same or closely related peoples. But there are, and always have been, two very distinct types of Japanese; and these may be said, in a general way, to represent Mongol and Malay. The former, "neither Koreans nor Chinese," evidently reached Izumo via Korea; the latter naturally drifted up from the south on the Japan Current to Kiūshiu and to the Kii Promontory, in which is Yamato. These two types are still distinguishable physically: the patrician or aristocratic type is Mongoloid; while the plebeian type is Malayan. The latter "has a conspicuously dark skin, prominent cheek bones, a large mouth, a robust and heavily boned physique, a flat nose, full straight eyes, and a receding forehead." The former "is symmetrically and delicately built; his complexion varies from yellow to almost pure white; his eyes are narrow, set obliquely to the nose; the eyelids heavy; the eyebrows lofty; the mouth small; the face oval; the nose aquiline; the hand remarkably slender and supple."

The band which made the political conquest of Japan and, with Jimmu, founded the one dynasty which has always ruled Japan, was probably Malayan. But that conquest was quite like the Norman conquest of England, in that the victors became absorbed in the vanquished and the union produced a mighty nation.