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By the early 8th century, Japan was a unified and peaceful nation, with its capital of Nara a thriving urban and business centre, with strong times to Tang China. Peace and prosperity would continue well after the "Nara period" (when the Japanese sovereigns ruled from Nara) but in the late 9th century, decentralisation, corruption and economic collapse began to take its toll, and as the central government, now based at Heian (present-day Kyoto) weakened, feudalisation and a return to self-sufficient agrarianism began to take hold in Japan, leading to political power being usurped by local strongmen who eventually coalesced into a military aristocracy headed by military dictators called Shogun. Although Japan experienced some recovery and even renewed prosperity under the Kamakura and Ashikaga shogunates, a new breed of warrior caste, the saburai, would continue to dominate Japan and her history for at least six centuries thereafter.
The so-called Heian (in Japanese, "peace and tranquility") period began when the capital of the Empire was moved from Nara to a new city near Heian in 794 CE, located some 26 km north of Nara. This new city would be renamed Kyoto (meaning "capital city") by the end of the 11th century. It was at this time that Japan began to write its own official histories, as well as, many of its other literary monuments, while Buddhism was also established as the official state religion.
During this era, the Japanese continued to annex the non-Japanese peoples to the north and south. Emperor Kammu was appointed Shogun to accomplish this task and by 801 CE gained total control of the main Japanese isle of Honshu. While Imperial succession was ensured much of the actual power was held by one of the noble families. The Fujiwara clan was to take control after Kammu's death in 806 CE. With the Tang dynasty in decline in China, however, Chinese-style central authority also became disfavoured, and Japan developed a more parochial approach to foreign affairs with the last official mission to China in 838 CE.
Despite the power struggles between the Fujiwara and their peers, the Minamoto and the Taira, Japanese culture was flowering throughout this time. The Chinese kanji system which Japanese writing had depended on began to be supplemented with two phonetic scripts called katakana and hiragana, which gave spoken Japanese a written form. This also opened the door to court women to produce literary works as previously only males had been educated to use the Chinese kanji system of writing. Some famous works during this time was the Genji Monogatari, or "The Tale of Genji" and Makura no Soshi, or "Pillow Book", both of which were written by female Heian courtiers.
Rise of the Samurai
"I really think that among barbarous nations there can be none that has more natural goodness than the Japanese. [...] Honour with them is placed above everything else. There are a great many poor among them, but poverty is not a disgrace to any one. [...] The nobles, however poor they may be, receive the same honour from the rest as if they were rich."
— St Francis Xavier
The growing decentralised nature of Japan, also saw the rise of a military class called the saburai (or later, samurai), who followed bushido, or the "way ('-do') of the warrior ('bushi')", and soon the saburai became the mainstay of provincial and local power holders, and even civil and religious institutions had independent control of private saburai guard units to protect themselves. Several saburai clans naturally arose to prominence. The period between the 8th century until the 12th century saw the Fujiwara, the Taira and the Minamoto clans vying for control and power over Japan and over one another. By 1185 the Minamoto clan emerged as strongest of the three, signaling the Kamakura period, named after their headquarters in Kamakura in the northern part of Japan's main island, south-west of modern Tokyo. This period essentially made official the role of Saburai in politics for the next 700 years where the Emperors based in Kyoto were no more then figureheads relegated to ceremonial functions, while civil, military, and judicial functions were exercised by Saburai class, with the most powerful Saburai clan being the de factor ruler, the head of which was given the title shogun (in Japanese, "general" or "warlord").
Fall of the Minamoto
The Minamoto did not continue to hold power for long, and by 1199 lost power to the Hojo Clan which was a branch of the Taira Clan. Under the Hojo clan the military governing body known as the bakufu in turn also became ineffectual, making the title of shogun a purely ceremonial one as well. The title was passed to many different people including members of the Fujiwara clan or even to Imperial Princes until 1221, when the Hojo clan that was supposed to be the official protector of the Imperial family went to war against them to regain power. However they managed to reform the governing body to allow other military lords to exercise judicial and legislative power at Kamakura with the Hojo presiding over a council of these lords. Military law was codified known as the joei code and Japan fell under official martial law.
In the late 13th century the Mongols who had established the Yuan Dynasty in China turned their attention towards Japan, demanding tribute from Japan but were steadfastly refused. The Yuan Emperor Kublai Khan ordered an invasion of Japan in 1274, consisting of 600 ships, and a force of 23,000 troops of mixed Mongol, Chinese and Korean origins, along with siege engines and early rocket artillery.
In battle these troops fought in close cavalry formations, in contrast to the strict bushido code of honoured single combat. The Japanese fought bravely but couldn't really defend themselves against this massive force fighting in a way alien to them. It was a miracle that after the first day of fighting that a typhoon swept in, and wrecked the invaders' ships. Seven years later, the Mongols would attempt a second invasion, this time fighting lasted for seven weeks as the Japanese no longer stuck to their practice of single combat against these foreigners until again a typhoon struck, destroying the Mongol fleet. The Shinto priests attributed the Mongols' defeat to the typhoon and pronounced its divine nature.
Yet, the war against the Mongols had cost a lot economically. There were not enough rewards to go around to the clans that helped contributed to the defence of Japan, and civil war eventually broke out. The Emperor Go-Daigo eventually emerged victorious over the previous Hojo government intent on reviving imperial authority and Confucian practices, but in turn was defeated by the Ashikaga clan in 1336. However, Go-Daigo would flee Kyoto to establish a separate Imperial court south, while the Ashikaga clan installed their choice for emperor from a rival line. This dual existence of Imperial courts was to last for over the next 50 years.
The Ashikaga clan ushered in the Muromachi period during which Zen Buddhism developed. Trade with the Ming Chinese was established, sowing the seeds of Japanese cultural and economic development. By the middle of the 16th century, however, the Ashikaga government lost control of Japan. Once more, the provincial lords called Daimyo who had exerted the actual control over the regions began to fight with each other in what became known as the Sengoku Jidai or Age of the Civil Wars.
- One Dead Angel, Rise of Nations: Japan — a Guide, Rise of Nations Heaven