Americans, Europeans, and Africans know a great deal about their own past but likely not much about the history of the consequential, faraway nation of Japan. That’s understandable. Japanese is a difficult language. For much of Japan’s history, the country’s leaders kept foreigners out and their citizens in isolation. The culture is sometimes referred to as “inscrutable.”
But the more I learn about Japan, the more fascinating it is. I visited only once, nearly 40 years ago, when I did not yet know much of its past. Now I’m aware of many true-life stories from Japanese history that make me want to go back and learn more.
Did you know, for instance, that a black East African slave made his way to Japan in the late 16th century and ultimately became a celebrated samurai warrior? His name was Yasuke. He befriended the powerful, unifying warlord Oda Nobunaga, who was initially so shocked by the black man’s color that he ordered it to be scrubbed out. When Yasuke emerged from the “cleaning” as black as before, he earned special respect from Nobunaga and the Japanese people. In 2019, Thomas Lockley and Geoffrey Girard authored a magnificent biography of him titled African Samurai.
Or have you heard about William Adams, an English sailor shipwrecked in early 17th century Japan, who rose to high position in the Japanese court? His story was chronicled in Giles Milton’s biography, Samurai William. James Clavell’s 1975 historical fiction novel, Shogun, was loosely based on the Adams story and made into a popular TV miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain in 1980.
Did you know that an attempted Mongol invasion of Japan in the 13th century was literally blown away by a devastating typhoon? The Mongol fleet was demolished by what the locals called a “kamikaze,” which means “divine wind.” It’s a word that Americans came to know rather painfully during World War II.
Japanese history is conventionally presented as a sequence of eras or “periods.” Here at FEE.org, I’ve recently written about the Warring States (Sengoku) Period, the Muromachi Period, and a famous figure from the Reform Period of the Meiji Restoration, for example.
For the balance of this essay, I want to introduce readers to the 400-year Heian Period that began in 794 A.D. It commenced with a flowering of art and literature and ended in 1185 with the first shogunate, or military dictatorship.
The Heian Period is so named because Emperor Kanmu moved the capital from Nara to Heian-kyo (modern-day Kyoto) in 794. The word for the city translates to “Capital of Peace and Tranquility.” The Heian Period is known as a high-water mark for the emperor and his imperial court. A gradual decentralization reduced power at the nucleus of Japan, which partially explains the cultural reformation that accompanied it.
If there was a Golden Age of Japanese culture, the Heian Period qualifies. Despite a smallpox epidemic that wiped out half the country’s population beginning in 812, new and distinct Japanese art forms appeared and flourished—in poetry, calligraphy, literature, architecture, music, and dance.
The world’s first full-length novel, “The Tale of Genji,” was penned in this period by a woman in the imperial court, Murasaki Shikibu.
“Heian culture was characterized by a refined sense of aesthetics, with a focus on beauty, elegance, and courtly manners,” writes Ava Sato. “The concept of ‘mono no aware’ (the ephemeral nature of things) became central to the Japanese aesthetic sensibility during this time.”
The Heian Period itself proved ephemeral. By the 11th century, rival clans arose and fought each other to attain control. In a sad story repeated the world over, the lust for power led directly to civil conflict. The Fujiwara family emerged eventually as the real rulers of late Heian Japan, benefiting most the landed, aristocratic elites and alienating the commoners.
The five-year, devastating civil strife of the Genpei War (1180–1185) ended the Heian Period and ushered in the Kamakura Shogunate (1185–1333), a military dictatorship. For its 150 years, it featured two Japanese governments—the imperial court of a largely ceremonial and powerless emperor in Kyoto and the center of real power in the hands of the shogun in the city of Kamakura.
The samurai class appeared late in the Heian Period as warriors for local clans. In the later Kamakura Period, the samurai comprised the armies of the centralized shogunate. They would be prominent in Japan for the next seven centuries until their abolition in 1871. Now you hopefully know a little more about them than you learned from Saturday Night Live sketches such as “Samurai Hotel” and “Samurai Delicatessen.”
Khan Academy, incidentally, offers a short but informative history of the samurai. The Tom Cruise epic 2003 blockbuster The Last Samurai earned critical acclaim even in Japan, though viewers there generally believed the film made the samurai appear more noble and admirable than they really were.
Japanese history can be daunting to a Western newcomer to it, but a good place to start is A History of Japan by R. H. P. Mason and J. G. Caiger.
As “inscrutable” as the Japanese may at first appear, the more one learns about them the more one understands that common themes dominate human history everywhere.