Japan Lesson for Kids: Facts & History

Instructor: David Wilson

David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.

The history of Japan stretches over hundreds of years and includes different eras and rulers who have made the island country into the society that it is today. Learn about Japan's history in this lesson.

Island Life

Imagine that your family is about to move to an island in the Pacific Ocean. How difficult would it be to see your friends and family? Some countries are naturally far away from others, meaning that they haven't been influenced by other people as much. That's the case for Japan, a country of five very large islands (and many more smaller ones), with a rich history that began over 1500 years ago.

Origins of Japan

What do we know about the earliest time of Japan's history? Legend holds that the sun goddess Amaterasu (pronounced ah-mah-terr-ah-soo) sent one of her children to bring together the Japanese people. They followed a religion called Shintoism based on the belief in nature spirits and the worshiping of ancestors and heroes. By 1500 years ago, Japan also adopted the religion of Buddhism, popular in nearby China, and built giant Buddha sculptures that still stand today.

Japanese Buddha statue
Buddha statue

The capital of Japan changed with each new emperor, until about 1200 years ago, when the capital was moved to the city of Kyoto (pronounced key-oh-toe) for the next 1000 years. This began a period known as the Heian (pronounced hey-an) era, remembered for peace and artistic accomplishments. One of the great works of Japanese literature, a book called the Tale of Genji, was written during this period.

Breaking Apart

Around 800 years ago, the era of stable peace came to an end. Warlords took power in the various provinces, the states that made up the country, and competed for control of all of Japan. Finally, a general named Yoritomo (yor-ee-toe-moh) managed to become the most powerful person in Japan, taking the title shogun (pronounced show-gun), which means supreme commander. The emperor no longer had power but still had importance as a religious leader.

Painting of Shogun Yoritomo
Shogun Yorimoto

While the shogun had a peaceful life in the capital with tea ceremonies and Noh theater performances, the provinces became more and more violent. Civil wars broke out in Japan often between 900 and 400 years ago. Warlords built great castles as symbols of their power.

Mask from Japanese Noh theater
Theater mask

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