Portal:Ancient Japan

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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 centred 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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Dogū - a figurines made during the late Jōmon period of ancient Japan.

National Treasures of Japan are the most precious of Japan's Tangible Cultural Properties, as determined and designated by the Agency for Cultural Affairs (a subsidiary of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology). A Tangible Cultural Property is considered to be of historic or artistic value, classified either as "buildings and structures", or as "fine arts and crafts". Each National Treasure must show outstanding workmanship, a high value for world cultural history, or exceptional value for scholarship.

The designated items provide an overview of the history of Japanese art and architecture from ancient to modern times, with the earliest archaeological National Treasures dating back 4,000 years, and the Akasaka Palace dating from the early 20th century. In Japan, the first indications of stable living patterns and civilization date to the Jōmon period, from about 14,000 BC to 300 BC. Clay figurines (dogū) and some of the world's oldest pottery, discovered at sites in northern Japan, have been designated as the oldest National Treasures in the "archaeological materials" category. Some of the earliest items in this category are objects discovered in sutra mounds from the Kamakura period. A proportion of the oldest designated National Treasures were directly imported from mainland China and Korea.


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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.

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Shell midden strata - Chiba, Japan.

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Blades, from left to right: naginata, tsurugi, tantō, uchigatana and tachi (not to scale)

The term "National Treasure" as been used in Japan to denote cultural properties since 1897. The definition and the criteria have changed since the inception of the term. The weapons in this list of swords designated as National Treasures of Japan span from the late Kofun to the Muromachi period.

During the Yayoi period from about 300 BC to 300 AD, iron tools and weapons such as knives, axes, swords or spears, were introduced to Japan from Korea and China. Shortly after this event, Chinese, Korean, and eventually Japanese swordsmiths produced ironwork locally. Swords were forged to imitate Chinese blades: generally straight chokutō with faulty tempering. Worn slung from the waist, they were likely used as stabbing and slashing weapons. Swordmaking centers developed in Yamato, San'in and Mutsu where various types of blades such as tsurugi, tōsu and tachi were produced.

Flat double-edged (hira-zukuri) blades originated in the Kofun period, and around the mid-Kofun period swords evolved from thrusting to cutting weapons. Ancient swords were also religious objects according to the 8th century chronicles Nihon Shoki and Kojiki. In fact, one of the Imperial Regalia of Japan is a sword, and swords have been discovered in ancient tumuli or handed down as treasures of Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples. Few ancient blades (jokotō) exist because the iron has been corroded by humidity. The transition from straight jokotō or chokutō to deliberately curved, and much more refined Japanese swords (nihontō), occurred gradually over a long period of time, although few extant swords from the transition period exist.


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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