Lesson 5: Life in Ancient Japan

Getting Started

Traveling still further east from China, you have now arrived in ancient Japan! In this lesson, you will learn about the geography, government, and economy of ancient Japan.

Stuff You Need

  • Geography of the World: The Essential Family Guide to Geography and Culture by Jayne Parsons
  • Life in Ancient Japan by Hazel Richardson
  • colored pencils, crayons, or markers

Ideas to Think About

  • How do people of different cultures divide their societies by rank or status?
  • How is power distributed among the citizens of different societies?
  • How do rulers in different societies claim and wield power?
  • How can trade foster cultural exchange and shift balances of power?

Things to Know

  • People first settled on the islands of Japan 30,000 years ago.
  • Early in Japan's history, clans of warriors controlled regions of Japan.
  • In 250 A.D., the Yamatai clan conquered many other clans and became known as the Yamato -- eventually they ruled most of Japan.
  • A shogun was a general who was allowed unlimited authority to keep the peace in Japan. The shogun held tremendous power.
  • Ancient Japanese merchants traded with merchants from China and Korea.


  • Analyze the geographic, political, economic, religious, and social structures of the civilizations of Medieval Japan. (SS)
  • Describe the significance of Japan's proximity to China and Korea and the intellectual, linguistic, religious, and philosophical influence of those countries on Japan. (SS)
  • Discuss the reign of Prince Shotoku of Japan and the characteristics of Japanese society and family life during his reign. (SS)
  • Describe the values, social customs, and traditions prescribed by the lord-vassal system consisting of shogun, daimyo, and samurai and the lasting influence of the warrior code in the twentieth century. (SS)
  • Trace the development of distinctive forms of Japanese Buddhism. (SS)
  • Study the ninth and tenth centuries' golden age of literature, art, and drama and its lasting effects on culture today, including Murasaki Shikibu's Tale of Genji. (SS)
  • Analyze the rise of a military society in the late twelfth century and the role of the samurai in that society. (SS)

Introducing the Lesson

This lesson will introduce your child to ancient Japan, with a focus on its geography, government, and economy.
Reading and Questions
Materials: Life in Ancient Japan by Hazel Richardson
Read the Introduction through page 17 of Life in Ancient Japan by Hazel Richardson. These pages cover the geography and early history of Japan, including information about the clan system and government of early Japan.
  1. How does the Kojiki say that Japan was created?
    The Kojiki says that Japan was created when the god Izanagi and goddess Izanami stirred waters with a spear. The water that dripped from its end became the island of Onokoro, where the god and goddess lived. Some of their children became the other islands of Japan.
  2. How did the Jomon people get their name?
    "Jomon" means a cord pattern, and the Jomon people decorated their clay pots with ropes of clay.
  3. What were the uji?
    The uji were clans of warriors who controlled different regions of ancient Japan.
  4. How did the Emperor Kotoku appease the clan leaders who objected to a centralized government run by the emperor?
    He formed the government from members of important clans, giving clan members rice and land in exchange for their loyalty.