Portal:Ancient Japan

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THE ANCIENT JAPAN PORTAL

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Depiction of bearded Emperor Jimmu with his emblematic long bow and an accompanying wild bird.

The history of Ancient Japan can be broken down into three distinct periods. The first period called Jōmon period is the time in from about 14,000 BC to 300 BC. The term "Jōmon" means "cord-patterned" in Japanese. It refers to the markings made on clay vessels and figures using sticks with cords wrapped around them which are characteristic of the Jōmon people.

The second period called Yayoi period is an era in the history of Japan traditionally dated 300 BC to 300 AD. It is named after the neighbourhood of Tokyo where archaeologists first uncovered artifacts and features from that era. Distinguishing characteristics of the Yayoi period include the appearance of new pottery styles and the start of an intensive rice agriculture in paddy fields. Yayoi culture flourished in a geographic area from southern Kyūshū to northern Honshū.

The last period called Kofun period of ancient Japanese history, beginning around AD 250, is named after the large tumulus burial mounds (kofun) that appeared at the time. The Kofun period saw the establishment of strong military states centered around powerful clans, and the establishment of the dominant Yamato polity centered in the Yamato and Kawachi provinces, from the 3rd century to the 7th century, origin of the Japanese imperial lineage. Japan started to send tributes to Imperial China in the 5th century. In the Chinese history records, the polity was called Wa and its five kings were recorded. Based upon the Chinese model, they developed a central administration and an imperial court system and its society was organized into occupation groups. Close relationships between the Three Kingdoms of Korea and Japan began during the middle of this period, around the end of the 4th century.


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Mount Fuji, an icon of Japan.

The first signs of human occupation of Japan appeared with a Paleolithic culture around 30,000 BC, followed from around 14,000 BC by the Jōmon period, a Mesolithic to Neolithic semi-sedentary hunter-gatherer (possibly Ainu) culture of pit dwelling and a rudimentary form of agriculture. Decorated clay vessels from this period, often with plaited patterns, are some of the oldest surviving examples of pottery in the world.

The Yayoi period, starting around 500 BC, saw the introduction of many new practices, such as wet-rice farming, a new style of pottery and metallurgy brought by migrants from China and Korea. The Japanese first appear in written history in China’s Book of Han. According to the Chinese Records of Three Kingdoms, the most powerful kingdom on the archipelago during the third century was called Yamataikoku.

Buddhism was first introduced to Japan from Baekje, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, but the subsequent development of Japanese Buddhism and Buddhist sculptures were primarily influenced by China. Despite early resistance, Buddhism was promoted by the ruling class and eventually gained growing acceptance since the end of the Kofun period.

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BonsaiTridentMaple.jpg
Credit: Peggy Greb

Travelers from ancient Japan had been returning from mainland China with souvenirs, including container planting, since the 6th century. This may be when the bonsai was first introduced to Japan.


Did you know...

Heishi Rock is an attraction at Kamome Island.

  • ...that in Shinto, yorishiro, such as sacred trees, attract spirits, give them a physical space to occupy and make them accessible to people for religious ceremonies?
  • ...that according to a legend, the Heishi rock (pictured) represents the God of the Sea of Japan?
  • ...that the stone "lions" seen at the gates of Shinto shrines are actually Korean dogs?


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Izumo Taisya, Izumo, Shimane prefecture, Japan

The term "National Treasure" has been used in Japan to denote cultural properties since 1897. The definition and the criteria have changed since the inception of the term. The structures in this list of shrines designated as National Treasures of Japan are eligible for government grants for repairs, maintenance and the installation of fire-prevention facilities and other disaster prevention systems. Owners are required to announce any changes to the National Treasures such as damage or loss and need to obtain a permit for transfer of ownership or intended repairs. The practice of marking sacred areas began in Japan as early as the Yayoi period (from about 500 BC to 300 AD) originating from primal religious beliefs. Features in the landscape such as rocks, waterfalls, islands, and especially mountains, were places believed to be capable of attracting kami, and subsequently were worshiped as yorishiro. Originally, sacred places may have been simply marked with a surrounding fence and an entrance gate or torii. Later, temporary structures similar to present day portable shrines were constructed to welcome the gods to the sacred place, which eventually evolved into permanent buildings that were dedicated to the gods. Ancient shrines were constructed according to the style of dwellings (Izumo Taisha) or storehouses (Ise Grand Shrine). The buildings had gabled roofs, raised floors, plank walls, and were thatched with reed or covered with hinoki cypress bark. Such early shrines did not include a space for worship. Three important forms of ancient shrine architectural styles exist: taisha-zukuri, shinmei-zukuri and sumiyoshi-zukuri. They are exemplified by Izumo Taisha, Nishina Shinmei Shrine and Sumiyoshi Taisha, respectively, and date from before 552 AD. According to the tradition of Shikinen sengū-sai (式年遷宮祭?), the buildings or shrines were faithfully rebuilt at regular intervals adhering to the original design. In this manner, ancient styles have been replicated through the centuries to the present day.

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In the news

November 2010: A 35,000 year old stone tool with a ground edge is found in Australia, predating the earliest ancient Japanese example by at least 5,000 years. (1)


August 2010: Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan promised to return a “small portion” of the estimated 61,000 artifacts that were taken from Korea during colonial rule. (2)


March 2009: For the first time since World War II, a complete set of ancient Japanese dolls was displayed at the week-long "Session Road in Bloom" to celebrate the 14th Panagbenga Festival. (3)


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Lists: List of National Treasures of Japan (castles)


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