5 Japanese Historical Figures   日本史の人物

Date of publication :
Horyuji Temple

The pagoda at Horyuji temple.

Monk Kobo Daishi

Monk Kobo Daishi

Tokugawa Ieyasu

The great men of Japan

Not easy to visit Japan when you have no historical background. Everything seems to look alike and get mixed up. Here's a list of key historical figures that every Japanese knows, and sites linked to them.

Shotoku Taishi, the dawn of Japan (574-622)

Shotoku Taishi is a true legend. A prince who never ascended the throne, great protector of Buddhism and editor of the first constitution of Japan. He is the father figure of the country.

It was Shotoku Taishi who brought Japan out of prehistoric times into a nation following the Chinese model. He is at the origin of Japanese Buddhist architecture and sculptures, since he was the one who ordered the construction of the first Buddhist temples. Incidentally, he is the inventor of the word Nihon, used to refer to Japan in Japanese.

In the footsteps of Shotoku Taishi: go to Nara and visit the temple of Horyu-ji due to him and especially the octagonal building Yumedono, the dream of the hall, where they venerate the statue.

Kobô Daishi, the saint (774-835)

Kobo Daishi, or rather monk Kukai, is the most revered of Japanese Buddhists. He is the founder of the Tendai Buddhist school and became the most important living spiritual leader of Japan.

His life is full of legends and miracles that all Japanese know. Note that his followers do not believe in his death. It is said that he simply went into deep meditation one day, therefore his body has been protected and maintained by monks waiting for him to wake up.

In the footsteps of Kobo Daishi: visit his native island of Shikoku and experience the pilgrimage route of 88 temples on Mount Koya or (where he rests).

Oda Nobunaga, the Japanese Napoleon (1534-1582)

Viewed as either the savior of Japan or an evil tyrant, Oda Nobunaga leaves no Japanese indifferent. It was he who began the movement which would permit the reunification of Japan and end the civil wars.

He is known for his ruthlessness and his pathetic end. In 1582, he was trapped by one of his vassals and driven to suicide when he was about to unify Japan.

In the footsteps of Oda Nobunaga: you can meet Oda Nobunaga directly at Honno-ji temple in Kyoto, the temple where he ended his days and where he now rests.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, Machiavelli in the land of the rising sun (1543-1616)

Tokugawa Ieyasu was the first shogun of the Edo period and the final winner of the civil wars of the Sengoku. He is revered in Japan as the unifier of the country, the founder of Tokyo (Edo) and the father of the Edo period. He made his mark, which can still be seen through the Japanese today, by imposing his ideas and his vision of the world to the state he had formed.

In the footsteps of Tokugawa Ieyasu: you can visit his grave in Nikko, or in Edo Castle, in the heart of Tokyo. Also why not visit his hometown of Shizuoka, which retains many objects that belonged to him.

Sakamoto Ryôma, the idealistic revolutionary (1836-1867)

He is not a figure of primary importance, but has become in the eyes of the Japanese a symbol of the end of the shogunate, as well as a Japan who dreamed of opening to the world and to modernisation. Sakamoto Ryoma was an entrepreneur, a samurai, a revolutionary and an idealist, who made the imperial Meiji Restoration possible, but was assassinated before it was completed.

He is an icon that can be found in almost everything: dramas (TV series), manga, t-shirts or posters...all visitors see his face without even realising it.

In the footsteps of Ryoma Sakamoto: rendezvous at the Teradaya hostel in Kyoto, where he was assassinated, or at Sanenzaka, the street where he was hiding from the guards of the shogun. Finally, you can visit him at his grave, at the Gokoku Jinja temple, where he rests with other revolutionaries.

Comments Read comments from our travellers

Missing Toyotomi Hideyoshi

I'd argue that Toyotomi Hideyoshi is the biggest one of them all. He is Napoleon and Machiavelli combined into one. He's the one that fully unified Japan, and he laid the foundation for the Shogunate, Ieyasu simply took advantage of the fact that Hideyoshi's heir was young and thereby took Hideyoshi's empire for himself.

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This really helped me with a school project. I’m gonna live in Japan one day and i cant wait, thanks :)

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This is very interesting


Thanks so much for this! It's really interesting and I loved learning about these interesting men.


This is very interesting! I especially like the part about Kobo Daishi. I wonder where those who believe in him think his body is while he has been meditating for the last hundreds of years?


I like the part about Sakamoto Ryoma. He did a lot of things! Why was he hiding from the guards of the shogun, and why did the guards assassinate him? It's cool that he's in a lot of places in Japan.