We all know that Japan has one of the richest cultures and history in the world. There’s no doubt about that. Japanese civilisation can be traced all the way back to the first pottery – that’s about 16,000 years ago! You can’t tell me nothing significant happened during that time.
Most of us know Japan for its current, modern fun facts of bright, neon lights and karaoke. But are we well informed of its history? Don’t worry, this won’t be a crash course of Japanese history. We’re going to be bringing you 10 interesting facts about Japan’s ancient culture!
1. Japan was closed to the world for 217 years
Did you know that Japan had little to no contact with the outside world for just a bit over two centuries? From 1635 to 1852, there was a ban on foreign travel due to a law called Sakoku Edict. This also included foreign trade and anyone going in and out of Japan.
The law was implemented because the country experienced quite a bit of trouble, especially with foreign powers. We won’t go into the gruesome details of what went on back then that caused this passing of the law, but Japan did suffer a bit of a technology lag because of this closure.
The American Navy forced Japan out of closure in 1852, which helped the country to continue developing its unique culture we now know and love.
2. Kamakura was the 4th largest city in the world
There’s a fun fact in this fact: Kamakura was actually the de facto capital of Japan for a bit of time, between 1185 to 1333. During these years, the city was rapidly growing. The population in Kamakura boomed to 200,000, resulting in the city becoming the fourth largest city in the world, at the time.
Right now, Kamakura’s population is around 174,000, which is slightly lower than how it was back in those days. But that’s because this city is extremely close to the capital city Tokyo, and many are choosing to live in the bright neon lit city rather than the laid back vibes of Kamakura.
3. A woman wrote the first Japanese novel
It’s surprising that, despite the strict rules on women and gender inequality back in the days in Japan, it was actually a woman who wrote the first novel. Not the first Japanese novel, but the world’s first novel. In the year 1010, the novel called The Tale of Genji (源氏物語・Genji Monogatari) is written by pen name Murasaki Shikibu. Her real name is unknown to this day.
The author was born into a less powerful branch of the Fujiwara clan. She also served the Empress Joto-mon’in in the court of Emperor Ichijo.
A brief summary of the book: it follows the romantic adventures of a son of a fictional emperor and a low-ranking concubine. This was set in the Heian Period in Kyoto. It’s like the Japanese version of Romeo and Juliet, with a few waka poems weaved into the tale.
4. Japan developed colour printing in 1765
Woodblock printing is huge in Japan. Originally, they were in black and white, but in 1765, coloured woodblock printing was invented. Woodblock printing was used for graphic novels and adverts back in the day. Sometimes it was seen as a threat to Japan’s aristocracy because they were often used to cover political controversies.
5. An african samurai defended Japan
An African slave was brought to Japan in 1579 by the Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano. The African’s origins and real name is still unknown to this day, but his nickname was Yasuke. It’s believed that it’s the Japanese phonetic estimate of his real name.
Yasuke impressed the most powerful warlord of his day with his strength and size. He became the warlord’s personal retainer and bodyguard, and eventually became a samurai in 1581. In 1582, his warlord was betrayed by the samurai general and was forced to commit suicide. Yasuke witnessed the whole thing.
The African samurai fought the samurai general, and they went back and forth for a while. Yasuke even served the warlord’s son, who was also attacked by the general and committed suicide. Yasuke surrendered instead of committing suicide, which was a more common action. The general then sent him back to the Jesuit mission in Kyoto. After that, things were a blur as to what happened to Yasuke.
6. Robots already exists in the 1600s
In the 1600s, Japan was already building robots! There were records of automatons like water clocks in Japanese written records from the 8th century. By the time the 17th century rolled around, the Japanese were already making mechanisms like mechanical puppets, known as Karakuri, which were used for entertainment.
In the 19th century, these mechanical puppets were able to shoot arrows or serve tea.
7. Kabuki was invented by a woman
Kabuki is a traditional Japanese performing art of dance-drama. The first known record of this is in 1603, referred to as kabuki otori. A woman called Okuni gathered a group of travelling dancers and actors, who also engaged in prostitution.
Kabuki was often happening in the red light district because of this. When samurais started fighting for their favourite performers, the government banned women from performing kabuki. The ban happened in 1629, and women were replaced with young boys.
Despite the replacement, the same issues occurred. Young boys were then banned in 1652. Now, we only see old men in kabuki shows.
8. Japan was vegetarian
The Japan we know now loves their meat. Everything from yakiniku and yakitori to shabu shabu and sukiyaki. However, Japan was initially vegetarian, for about 1,400 years. There was a Buddhist law passed in the 7th century that forbade eating meat.
However, in the 19th century, the Meiji emperor ate meat and broke the taboo. SInce then, the Japanese have opened their arms to the Western ideals of eating meat.
9. Japanese are both Shinto and Buddhist
Japan is full of temples and shrines. These are two different places of worship for two different religions, but in Japan, the people are both Shinto and Buddhist. This is called shinbutsu (神仏). I’ve asked some of my Japanese pals and they say that, for them, there’s no real difference between the two.
Only 40% of Japanese people subscribe to a religion. Most Japanese people, about 80%, are Shinto and practice Shinto rituals, and 34% practice Bhuddist rituals.
10. Christianity was kept secret in ancient Japan
In 1549, Francis Xavier led Christian missionaries to Japan. They focused on the southern part of the nation, in Kyushu. During the time, Christianity was repressed and had loose bans. Sometimes, there were even crucifixes. By the 1650s, Christianity was kept secret because of all of that.
In 1864, there was a commercial treaty that simultaneously allowed Christianity among foreigners in Japan, but not the Japanese people themselves. The ban on Christianity was lifted in 1873, and churches started to be built on the islands and coasts of Nagasaki and Kumamoto.
Which fact of the ancient Japanese culture is the most interesting?
Japanese ancient history doesn’t just end with these 10 facts. There are actually so many more, and loads of them have lessons you can learn from. Hopefully, these 10 facts are enough to ease you into the subject and get you more interested in the ancient culture of Japan!