Historical Japanese Persons – The Japan that everyone’s witnessing today is vastly different from the Japan that existed centuries ago. Like every other country around the world, wars had to be won, cultural barriers had to be broken, and many people in the past (and still now) have had to step up to make the necessary changes to become what the country is today.
Japan’s long and rich history and present is full of brave, creative, unabashed forward-thinkers. It’s a country where people had to travel hundreds of kilometres by foot in ancient times, and now it boasts the fastest bullet trains that can take you across the country in just 3.5 hours.
Whilst the list of historical figures contributing to the success of this wonderful country is limitless, we’ve managed to pull together 10 historical Japanese figures who have undoubtedly influenced Japan’s history in some major way.
1. Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582)
If you’re asking a Japanese person, they’d likely say that Oda Nobunaga, a Japanese feudal lord who attempted to unify Japan in the 16th century, is the most famous person in all of Japanese history. He is a figure who is still studied first and foremost in school.
Like many revolutionists in Japanese history, Nobunaga is remembered and celebrated for his successful advancements in militia as well as opening up Japan to free trade with the world, but at that time, he was revered for being a brutal ruler.
2. Tezuka Osamu (1928-1989)
Have you heard of Astro Boy? If you have, then you have Tezuka Osamu to thank! Osamu has been dubbed the ‘Godfather of Manga’ since he started a (now endless) wave of popularity for manga with his original adaptation of ‘Treasure Island’.
He fell in love with Disney films at a young age, and used his passion for the animations to pursue further anime creations, ultimately leading to the globally famous ‘Astro Boy’.
Yasuke is a man of African origin, the first to serve as a samurai under the rule of Oda Nobunaga.
In the 16th century, Yasuke arrived as a slave on Japanese waters. When Nobunaga first met Yasuke, he was in disbelief at his black skin and ordered for him to be stripped down and scrubbed. When he realised that this was who Yasuke was, he enlisted Yasuke as part of his official entourage. Yasuke went on to be a loyal soldier who stood by Nobunaga up until his death.
Netflix actually released an animation early in 2021 about Yasuke, loosely based on his history, to introduce the world’s first Black samurai.
4. Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616)
On a similar level as Oda Nobunaga, Tokugawa Ieyasu is considered one of the major unifiers of Japan. He was actually an ally to Nobunaga. He outlived Nobunaga but continued to pave roads towards a unified Japan.
He founded Tokyo (referred to as Edo back then), and is commonly referred to as the father of the Edo period. During his time, he openly facilitated relationships with foreign countries such as England, the Netherlands, and Spain.
Read More: Best Historical Japanese Dramas
5. Sakamoto Ryoma (1836-1867)
Sakamoto was a revolutionist, but also an entrepreneur, a samurai, and above all, an idealist who was not afraid to make things happen. He was a huge deal back in the 1800s, when he became a symbol of freedom for all of Japan.
Opposing the harsh shogunate ruling of Tokugawa, Ryoma used the democracies of the U.S.A and Great Britain as inspiration to bring welcomed modern changes to Japan.
Read More: 15 Best Books About Japan (History, Culture, Novels)
6. Takeshi Kitano
You may or may not have seen Takeshi Kitano on your screens whilst watching J-drama or movies, but there is no doubt that he has had a major influence in the Japanese creative industry.
Kitano started out as a comedian, but in no time, paved his way into darker yakuza roles in film. From there, he made a firm mark as a film director. He’s now a household name in programs both as a host and participant.
Read More: Best Japanese Movie Directors
8. Kobo Daishi (774-835)
Kobo Daishi is one of the most famous monks in Japanese history. He became an important spiritual leader of his time when he created the 88-temple Shikoku pilgrimage route in Japan that’s still revered today.
Not only was he a devout monk, he was also a scholar, gifted sculptor and a poet who eventually founded Shingon Buddhism in Japan.
8. Shotoku Taishi aka. Prince Shotoku (574-622)
Shotoku Taishi is a common name in Japanese history. He is credited with forming the first centralised government across the country, as well as being the founder of Japanese Buddhism. It is believed that he was inspired by the China model and thus brought changes to the country to bring it out of prehistoric times to be placed on the path to becoming what it is now.
In fact, many believe he was the actual inventor of the word ‘Nihon’, referring to Japan itself in Japanese!
9. Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645)
Miyamoto Musashi was many things: a fearless warrior, an exceptional swordsman, a philosopher, and a famous writer. However, these days, most people would know him as the author of the classic novel ‘The Book of Five Rings’. Whilst originally written on the martial arts in general, many modern businessmen have found its teachings applicable in modern environments.
Musashi duel with Sasaki Kojiro, in which he defeated the latter with a wooden sword he fashioned out of a boat oar, is a legendary tale still told today.
10. Yayoi Kusama
It would be hard to try and build an itinerary for Japan without coming across one of Yayoi Kusama’s attractions. Yayoi is a world-renowned contemporary artist who has been working on installations in Japan and around the world for decades now.
Her eye-catching, colourful and thought-provoking galleries are instantly recognisable. Her famous Infinity Mirror Rooms in particular are a must-experience.
We hope you have enjoyed reading about these 10 historical Japanese figures that influenced Japan’s history. If you haven’t heard of any, there’s some great knowledge here to attain!
Unfortunately, the actual list of historical influencers is far too long to even begin, but if you have a certain someone in mind you know deserves the spotlight, we’d love to hear about it in the comments!