World History: Journey Across Time

Chapter 14: Medieval Japan

Chapter Overviews

Japan is a chain of more than 3,000 islands that are surrounded by the vast Pacific Ocean. Geography isolated the country and shaped the society. Historians believe Japan was settled by people who came from northeast Asia. The Yayoi introduced farming and metalworking to Japan. They were organized into clans and ruled by warriors. A clan called the Yamato grew strong enough to control the entire country. Shotoku, a Yamato prince, created Japan's first constitution and borrowed many ideas from China. Japanese officials began the Taika, dividing the country into provinces. Shotoku's reforms and the Taika created Japan's first strong central government.

Japan's later emperors built upon Prince Shotoku's reforms and established a strong national government at Nara. Buddhism came to Japan from Korea. Japan's government officials and nobles accepted the religion, which also became popular among the common people and eventually caused problems in the government. Over time, Japan's government grew weak. Disputes between clans led to the creation of two governments, and the emperor forfeited all real control of the country to military rulers called shoguns. Revolts against the shoguns weakened their hold on Japan, and the country broke into warring kingdoms run by rulers called daimyo. These leaders rewarded samurai warriors with land in exchange for protection. This relationship between a lord and vassal became known as feudalism.

During the Middle Ages, religion was an important part of everyday life. Most Japanese believed in Shinto and Buddhism. Shinto was based on the idea of animism, which is the belief that all natural things are alive and have spirits. Buddhism was divided into sects, which included Pure Land Buddhism and Zen Buddhism. Followers of Zen practiced martial arts and meditation. These religions helped to shape Japan's culture by influencing Japanese art, architecture, novels, and plays. Although some Japanese nobles, merchants, and artisans grew wealthy during the shogun period, most people were poor farmers. In Japan's warrior society, upper-class women lost the freedoms they had enjoyed in earlier times.

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