Quick Primer on Japanese History, Culture and Language

Timeline: Jidai

The timeline of Japanese history and prehistory has been divided by historians into periods illustrating the stages the archipelago went through since the arrival of humans some thirty thousand years ago. Those periods are broad generalizations intended as tools to help understand and study the history of the country. As such, they do not necessarily represent a concrete reality and may vary depending on the author. A detailed analysis of the various periods and their dates is beyond the scope of this page. However, a broad timeline of the most widely accepted divisions does help better understand the historical context of Japan.

In parallel to the now widely used Gregorian calendar, the traditional nengō (年号) calendar is still used in Japan, for instance in official documents. Historically, eras were declared by the Emperor or the court and used to situate the years chronologically. For instance, the year 718 of the Gregorian calendar corresponds to the second year of the Yōrō era (717 – 724) (the first mention of sushi in a Japanese text). Those eras could be announced for a variety of reasons (auspicious events, years, celebrations, etc). Starting from the Meiji Restoration (1868) however, a policy of changing era names only during imperial successions has been instituted, meaning that each modern era represents the reign of an Emperor. So the Meiji era (1868 – 1912) represents the reign of the Emperor Mutsuhito, the Taishō era (1912 – 1926) is the reign of the Emperor Yoshihito, and so forth.

Although the Japanese term jidai (時代) can mean both of these concepts, in order to avoid ambiguity, on this website the term “period” is used when talking about a historical period, and “era” when describing the reign of an Emperor (modern period) or Japanese native chronology (pre-modern period).


30000 – 8000 BCE: Paleolithic
8000 – 300 BCE: Jōmon period
300 BCE – 300 CE: Yayoi period
300 – 593: Kofun period

Ancient Age

593 – 710: Asuka period
710 – 784: Nara period
784 – 1185: Heian period

Feudal Age

1185 – 1333: Kamakura period
1333 – 1336: Kenmu Restoration
1336 – 1573: Muromachi period

Early Modern Age

1573 – 1603: Azuchi-Momoyama period
1603 – 1868: Edo period

Modern Age

1868 – 1912: Meiji era
1912 – 1926: Taishō era
1926 – 1989: Shōwa era
1989 – 2019: Heisei era
2019 – present day: Reiwa era

Geography: Todōfuken and Kuni

Starting from the Meiji Restoration, Japan is geographically subdivided into prefectures. The current todōfuken (都道府県) system gets its name from the possible denominations for those prefectures (Tōkyō-to, Ōsaka-fu, Hiroshima-ken…). Those prefectures are grouped in regions, like the Kantō region (around Tōkyō) or the Kansai region (around Ōsaka and Kyōto).

Before the Meiji Restoration however, the country was divided into provinces (国, kuni). Those provinces originated from the centralized reign of the imperial court starting in the Nara period. Although the province system is not in use anymore, the former names are still used in traditional settings, often referring to famous crafts and foods from the area. For instance, the renowned udon noodles from Kagawa prefecture are still called sanuki udon, from the prefecture’s former name of Sanuki province. Sometimes, places changed names after some events, such as is the case with the capital Edo, which was renamed to Tōkyō following the Meiji Restoration. For clarity, when older names are used, current names will be added.

Language: Kanji, Hiragana, Katakana and Rōmaji

The Japanese language is written using Chinese characters, kanji (漢字), and two syllabaries, hiragana (ひらがな) and katakana (カタカナ). For readers unfamiliar with this native writing system, the Japanese language can be phonetically transcribed with rōmaji (ローマ字), the Latin alphabet. For ease of understanding, on this website Japanese words are always written in rōmaji. When a word is first encountered, the native writing is also shown. Japanese orthography and readings can also be investigated by pasting the rōmaji term in an online dictionary (Jisho is recommended).

Romanization on this website follows the Revised Hepburn standard. Long vowels are denoted with a macron (ō, ū). Names are written in the Japanese order (last name, first name).