Wikijunior:Ancient Civilizations/Japanese

Gate at Nijo Castle in Kyoto, Japan.

What country did they live in?


Japan, which they call '日本’ (Nihon), which means "source of the sun", since the sun rises in the east and Japan is east of Asia; this is why Japan is sometimes called "Land of the Rising Sun". The word "Japan" comes from a western mistranslation of the Mandarin word "Ze-pan," which was how the symbols of the name (which were originally Chinese symbols) were pronounced by the Chinese during the Middle Ages.

Japan is an archipelago, or a group of islands, east of China and Korea. It is made up of many different islands, but the four main islands are Honshu, Kyushu, Shikoku and Hokkaido. Japan is a country with a lot of mountains, and because there is so little space in the centre of the islands to build, most Japanese cities and towns are built close to the sea. The nearby Ryukyu Islands - and the biggest of the islands, Okinawa - were a group of islands near to Japan, but they were taken over by the Japanese in the 1800s, and are now considered by some to be part of Japan.

What did their buildings look like?


The earliest Japanese people lived in wooden buildings elevated above the ground. The Japanese quickly adopted Chinese style architecture, with curved roofs to resemble the wings of a bird and multiple tiers of roofs, and set about building larger and more impressive buildings similar to the Chinese. Japanese buildings often featured sliding doors and thin walls, and later the Japanese built large castles with many small gardens and towers.

What did they eat?


The main foods in Japan were mostly rice, since it was easy to plant lots of rice in flooded fields, and fish, because most of Japan's cities and towns have to be built close to the shore, since further in land, the mountains make building difficult. The Japanese also ate other types of vegetables, such as algae or soy beans, and they could grow buckwheat to make noodles. The Japanese used chopsticks to eat most of their foods. Tea was, and still is, a very popular drink in Japan, and the steps of making, serving and drinking tea were parts of a very important and celebrated ritual to the Japanese.

What did they wear?

  • Kimono - meaning clothing or things to wear, is the basic Japanese clothing
  • Yukata - the summer kimono
  • Nagajugan - undergarments
  • Clothing Accessories - obi, shoes, socks. Obi: a shash to hold together a kimono.
  • Haori - short silk jackets
  • Michiyuki - Overcoats
  • Hakama - Japanese pants
  • Uchikake - most formal kimono
  • Shiro-maku - wedding kimono

Customarily, woven patterns, dyed clothing and repetitive patterns are considered informal Japanese clothing. Examples of traditional informal Japanese clothing are; cotton yukata, woven cotton haori and dyed ikat kimono. These types of Japanese clothes would be used as daily wear, for traveling to and from bath houses or for informal friend and family visits.

Formal Japanese clothing normally takes on either of two characteristics; very elaborate designs or a simple elegant designs. A few examples of elaborate designed Japanese clothes worn for an event are uchikake wedding kimono and festive happi coats. The more elegant designs, subdued colors or solid pattern formal Japanese clothes would be worn for paying formal visits, funerals or by married women for weddings or formal functions.

The Japanese wore clogs for shoes, they are called getas. Japanese women did not wear jewelry. But wore lipstick made of crushed flower petals and white rice powder on their faces. Both men and women slept with their heads on padded wooden headrests to protect their hair styles, which took a long time to create. They often wore hair combs and sticks. [1]

What did their writing look like?


The Japanese handwriting works the same way as cuneiform and hieroglyphics. A type of writing the Japanese do is Haiku. Haiku is a type of poetry that's purpose is to be simple. Books were printed from wooden writing blocks. It didn’t cost much to print books. The finest piece of Japanese literature was called the Tale of Genii Witch was written in 1010 by a lady named Murasaki Sikibu. It was the first novel written in the Japanese language. Most of the Japanese words are shaped like what they mean. The art of Japanese handwriting was popular during the time period of Heeians. The Japanese also used fancy paint brushes to write their words. Japanese isn’t just a language its a form of art.[2]

Two pages from the "Reigns of the Gods" chapters of the Chronicles of Japan.

Before the fifth century, aristocrats and samurai and men used Chinese characters to transcribe the sounds of the Japanese language, called "manyogana." Writing forms similar to Chinese writing is still used today, even though the modern kanji is more developed than what they used a long time ago. The simpler words in the old version resemble symbols of real-life items. In the fifth century, the simpler hiragana was developed from the shosho form of Chinese calligraphy and became much more widely used, becoming mixed with Chinese characters, or kanji. In the seventh century, an even more simplified form of writing, katakana, was created by Buddhist monks as a shorthand. Each katakana represented a Chinese character and the sound the Chinese character represented in manyogana. Japanese language became a mix of kanji, hiragana, and katakana, with katakana being used more to transcribe sounds and foreign words.

What did they believe?


The native religion of Japanese is Shinto, which means "the way of the Gods ". Shinto has existed in Japan since prehistoric times. Shinto involves the worship of gods, or "kami" that are related to nature or other spiritual presences. The sun, water, mountains, trees and stones play an important part in Shinto worship. Shinto mythology said that Japan's emperors were direct descendants of the supreme Kami, the sun goddess.

In Shinto rituals and ceremonies, offerings are made to the Kami, along with prayers. To celebrate special occasions, festivals called matsuri are held in order to honor a particular god.

Around A.D. 552, Buddhism was brought into Japan from Korean and China. During this period, Japan was highly influenced by Chinese ideas. Buddhism involves the belief that people can achieve peace and be free from suffering by letting go of attachments to material things.

Prior to the government mandated separation of the Shintoism and Buddhism in 1868 (Shinbutsu buri, "Separation of Kami and Buddhas), Shintoism and Buddhism coexisted in many temples and shrines with artifacts of both religions present in the same temple or shrine and shrine priests would teach Buddhist doctrines. Even today, though the two religions are to be separate, many Japanese will visit both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples when appropriate.

What is Left of Them Today?


Archaeologically, the famous burial mounds of the Yamato civilization are dotted all around Southern and Western Japan. This civilization existed around 1700 years ago, and ruled much of Southern Japan. They were once a band of tribes fighting amongst themselves, but they got together and conquered other civilizations at the time, such as the Izumo.

Today, Japan is a thriving nation. They make some of the things that we use everyday. Like cars, video games, electronics, table lamps, flower pots, and many other things. They have also created many cartoons that we watch, including Pokémon, Digimon and Card Captor.


  1. Andrew Haslam and Clare Doran. Old Japan. p. 10-15.
  2. Miles Harvey. Look What came from Japan.