Disclaimer: dates in early Japanese history are notoriously unreliable, with entries before the seventh century often based on speculation and subject to controversy. The following is pieced together from historical accounts.
c.190,000 BC – Earliest known humans living in East Africa.
c.90,000 BC – Movement out of Africa across Red Sea, then migration along the coastline to India
c. 40,000 BC – First migration into Siberia and development of reindeer culture (Evenki may be descendants)
c.30,000 BC – Oldest known evidence of humans in Japan, from remains in Okinawan cave sites.
c.27,000 BC – Continental development of Asian features and Ice Age peak
c.20,000 BC – While stone tools are found on the mainland, shell tools unearthed at the Sakitari-do cave in Okinawa suggest evidence for a southern migration route.
c.16,000 BC – Oldest known pottery in Japan, though not yet with the distinctive ‘cord-marking’ of Jomon pottery.
Evidence of animism together with burials in family groupings that suggest honoring of ancestors. Pottery with cord patterns (called jōmon). Bow and arrow, fishing. Clay figurines (dogu) used for fertility rites. Seasonal lifestyle: gathering buds in spring; summer fishing; autumn nut and grain; winter hunting. Trade contacts with Korea already apparent. Population between 25,000 and 250,000.
YAYOI PERIOD (300 B.C. – 250) – Wet-rice culture and iron age tools
Influx of people from the continent, where agriculture and the Bronze Age had started much earlier than in Japan. The newcomers were racially different from the Jomon, who were similar to modern-day Ainu and Ryukyuans in Okinawa. Intermarriage with the Korean/Chinese immigrants produced the Japanese of today. (See Japan Emerging, p. 61). Agricultural communities developed, with more than 100 small kingdoms and moated enclosures for defence. Iron and copper tools. Population roughly one million by mid-Yayoi.
With the spread of wet-rice culture came seasonal rites based on planting and harvesting, which might be considered ‘proto-Shinto’. Unnamed mountain spirits were thought to descend into the ricefields in spring, transmuting from yama no kami (mountain spirit) to ta no kami (rice-field kami). Chinese accounts tell of kneeling while worshipping, clapping hands and purification rites. Shamanistic rites with yorishiro (temporary abode) drew down spirits into a rock, tree, sakaki plant, etc. Bronze mirrors, doutoku bells, magatama beads and swords have been unearthed at ceremonial sites.
239 – The shamaness Himiko (or Pimiko) recognised as Queen of Yamatai by the Wei Emperor of China
248 – Death of Himiko, either in northern Kyushu or the Kinai area. In recent years archaeologists claim to have located her palace at Makimuku, near Sakurai in Nara pref. (See The Mystery of Himiko.)
KOFUN PERIOD (c. 250- 538) – Large burial mounds for the ruling class.
c.250 – Construction of first large mounded tombs (kofun). Keyhole-shaped tombs characteristic of Yamato rulers.
250-350 – Miwa court, nucleus of emerging Yamato state. Worship of a land god on Mt Miwa. Regional powers also at Izumo, Kibi and in Kyushu.
c. 340 – Emperor Sujin removes Amaterasu from the royal palace to Hibara Jinja (see here). Thereafter the sun-goddess begins the long journey around central Japan to Ise, where she declares her wish to settle.
c. 380 – Izumo cedes power to Yamato (kuniyuzuri) after several shows of force. (Keyhole tombs spread from Yamato to Izumo at this time.) In the settlement Yamato assumes rule over the visible realm and Izumo over the invisible. Some time after this the Izumo kami is enshrined at Omiwa (see also here), and a gigantic palace erected at Izumo which is later made into a shrine.
c. 405 – Arrival of writing with an envoy to Yamato from Paekche. Rule of Nintoku and Ōjin, whose burial mounds eclipse all others (Nintoku’s is one of the three biggest burial monuments in the world). As Yamato power expands, the country’s name is written as ‘Dai Wa’ – Great Kingdom of Wa.
5th and 6th centuries – Horse culture spreads, and weapons buried in tombs suggest a more warlike age. Power shifts between different clan chieftains until the present imperial line takes over kingship and enforces the hereditary principle. This is accompanied by moves towards sacral kingship and manipulated mythology.
late 5th century – foundation of Ise?
538 (or 552) – Arrival of Buddhism from Paekche, as part of a diplomatic move to secure an alliance
587 – Battle of Shigisen, when the pro-Buddhist Soga clan defeat the nativist Mononobe and Nakatomi clans who championed kami rites. The victory opens the way to syncretism, with conciliation between the two religions.
592 – The Yamato ruler Suiko adopts the term tenshi (child of Heaven), forerunner of the Emperor title (tenno)
597 – Asuka-dera, the first of 46 Chinese-style temples built in this age
604 – The 17 Article Constitution made by Prince Shōtoku calls for wa (harmony) and obedience to the ruler’s will. (Retains validity until 1890.) Introduction of the Chinese lunar-solar calendar. Buddhism instigated as the state religion.
607 – Japanese ruler addresses the Chinese emperor as an equal Child of Heaven. First of several ‘learning missions’ sent to China to bring back the advanced culture (they continue until 838).
645 – Palace coup by the Nakatomi (future Fujiwara), which ends Soga domination. It initiates the Great Reform period (Taika) and Chinese-style centralisation. Male priest-ritualists replace the female shamaness (miko) as state hierarchy replaces clan system.
663 – Silla/ China rout Paekche/Japan. It leads to an influx of immigrants and a desire for Japan’s rulers to prove themselves worthy of Tang recognition.
c. 670 – Country’s name changes from Wa to Nippon, showing identification with the sun rising out of the Pacific. (Ji-pen was the Chinese reading, reportedly transmitted to Europe by Marco Polo.)
672 – Jinshin War. Tenmu comes to power in a coup against his nephew and is the first ruler to call himself emperor. Boosts prestige by strengthening family ties with Ise, ranking shrines and ordering the compilation of official histories (later to become Kojiki and Nihonshoki). Sacral kingship formalised by ruler of nation being supreme priest and living kami. Forms of ritual such as Niinamesai and Daijōsai fixed around this time. Shinto as we know it today takes shape.
675 – Office of Yin-Yang (onmyōryō) established. (Most of modern Shinto’s rituals originate from onmyōdō.)
689 – Jingikan (Department of Kami Affairs) established as an important part of government.
692 – Empress Jitō (Tenmu’s widow) goes to Ise, the last imperial visit until the time of Emperor Meiji.
694 – Capital moves from Asuka to Fujiwara-cho, the first Chinese-style grid capital. Empress Jito writes of white robes on ‘heavenly Mount Kagu’.
701 – Founding of Matsuo Taisha by the Hata clan.
NARA PERIOD (710-784) – Buddhism as state religion
710 – Capital moved to Nara, also modelled on China’s Chang-an (though one sixth the population). Chinese-style ranks and laws. 6000 officials govern a country of roughly 5 million.
711- Founding of Fushimi Inari by the Hata clan.
712 – Kojiki weaves unrelated myths into a narrative account of Japan’s creation and early history, celebrating the sun goddess Amaterasu as ancestor of the imperial line.
720 – Nihon shoki provides variant stories and greater historical focus than Kojiki. Rather than Amaterasu, it is Takami musubi who orders the descent of Ninigi no mikoto from heaven to earth.
750 – Hachiman is taken from Usa Shrine in Kyushu to offer protection to the Big Buddha at Nara’s Tōdaiji. Supposedly the first use of a mikoshi (portable shrine), and recognition of kami as protective spirt of place.
c765 – Dōkyō affair. Powerful Buddhist monk tries to become emperor, but is deterred by Wake no Kiyomaro (deified at Goo Jinja in Kyoto).
Late 8th century – Move towards ancestral and clan deities as the imperial clique cements hereditary ties in the wake of the Dōkyō affair. Shrines such as Kamigamo and Hie enshrine clan ancestors. Hachiman becomes associated with the imperial ancestor, Ōjin, at this time. (For more info, click here.)
768 – Buddhist temple erected next to Ise Jingu.
784 – Emperor Kammu moves capital to Nagaoka to escape Buddhist influences at Nara.
HEIAN ERA (794-1186) – Aristocratic age and formation of Japanese arts
794 – Kammu establishes Heian-kyō (Kyōto), following death and bad omens at Nagaoka. Helped by the Hata clan.
804 – Mission to China takes both Kūkai (founder of Shingon) and Saichō (founder of Tendai). Both were later to incorporate kami worship into their respective forms of esoteric Buddhism.
859 – Iwashimizu Hachiman founded, probably the first with a haiden (worship hall) as well as honden (for kami).
927 – Engishiki completed. The 50-volume compilation of laws promotes codification of Shinto ritual and systemisation of shrines. Only 8 shrines named as jingu or miya, with the rest probably temporary structures. Permanent shrine buildings become more widespread later in the century, and the first use of the term ‘shintai’ dates from this time.
937 – First evidence of honji-suijaku (essence-trace) theory, by which Buddhist deities are the universal essence and kami merely local manifestations or avatars.
1087 – Emperor Shirakawa abdicates to become a Buddhist monk, the first of the insei (cloistered emperors)
KAMAKURA PERIOD (1185-1333) – Samurai rule
The ruling Minamoto clan aligns itself with Tsurugaoka Hachiman to legitimise its rule.
1274 and 1281 – Attempted Mongol invasions heighten Japanese sense of national identity.
1336 – Ashikaga Takauji forces Emperor Go-Daigoin into exile at the Southern Court in Yoshino
1467 – Onin War divides Kyoto and the rest of Japan; era of Feuding States
1549 – Arrival of Christianity in a mission led by Francis Xavier
1568 – Oda Nobunaga enters Kyoto and begins the process of unification
1600 – Battle of Sekigahara in which the Tokugawa win ascendancy
1790 – Neo-Confucianism is made the official state philosophy
1854 – Admiral Perry’s ‘black ships’ force Japan to open up through Treaty of Kanagawa
1867 – Emperor Komei dies and is replaced by the 14-year old Mutsuhito (later to be Emperor Meiji). Tokugawa Yoshinbou resigns in Nijo Castle, Kyoto.
1868 – Boshin Civil War ends in defeat of shogunate forces. Emperor system restored and the capital moves to Edo, renamed Tokyo (East Capital). Government announces the split of Shinto and Buddhism (shinbutsu bunri).
A new ‘Shinto’ ideology is proclaimed, with initial persecution and violence against Buddhists. Authority of Yoshida and Shirakawa families ended as all priests placed under the Jingikan (Office of Shinto Affairs). The government sets about establishing a new emperor-centred religion designed to bolster the authority of state.
1869 – Emperor Meiji visits Ise Jingu as the imperial family’s “ancestral shrine”. First emperor to do so since Empress Jito in the seventh century.
1871 – End of the feudal system and daimyo power. End of hereditary system of priests in favour of central appointment. Shinto declared the national religion and an Imperial decree establishes a hierarchic ranking of Imperial shrines (kampeisha) and National shrines (kokuheisha), divided into minor, medium, or major.
1872 – Jingikan established (Office of Kami Affairs)
1873 – Religious freedom tolerated under Western pressure and Christianity allowed. Annual cycle of Shinto rites regulated by law requiring shrines to perform imperial oriented rites, such as rice harvest festivals for Amaterasu; Jingu’s accession; emperor’s birthday.
1876 – Idea put forward that Shinto be a ‘non-religion’ of ethical teachings and state rites.
1882 – Shinto funerals banned and other activities that might be considered ‘religious’. Controversy over which kami should be included in the official pantheon, with Izumo’s case for Okuninushi being defeated.
1887 – Government funding agreed for Ise, Yasukuni and 140 other state-sponsored shrines.
1889 – Meiji Constitution promotes the emperor’s divine origins.
1890 – Shinto declared ‘a non-religion’ of ethical teachings and state rites.
1894-5 – War with China leads Shinto to be adopted as a patriotic tool and means of glorifying the war dead. Gokoku Jinja (shrines for the protection of the nation), originally named shokonsha (spirit inviting shrines), spread at this time.
1900 – Fashion for ‘Shinto weddings’ started by Crown Prince Yoshihito (Emperor Taisho)
1906 – Government commits to sponsoring élite shrines in perpetuity.
1945 – GHQ directive separates religion and the state.
1946 – State Shinto officially abolished. Founding of Jinja Honcho (Association of Shinto Shrines).