Osaka is a sightseeing destination that is hugely popular, mostly for its entertainment spots and food. In reality, though, it is a historic land with a 1,400-year history that has long been loved and valued by the Japanese people. With that, here is an introduction of some not commonly known aspects of Osaka's history.
1. Antiquity (5th century - Around 7th century)
Osaka is a region facing the Seto Inland Sea, where numerous rivers meet. Because of that, it has been a strategic spot for shipping since ancient times. In particular, there is the port located around Chuo Ward in Osaka City that opened around the 5th century. Functioning as the gateway to foreign trade, this port served as the location where various goods and technology were imported into Japan. It was also around this time when Buddhism came to the country. Shitennoji, the first state-run temple in Japan, was built in Osaka in the year 593. Osaka was also a significant in the realm of politics, as it was made the capital of Japan in 645. The Naniwa-no-Miya Palace, which was built in that period, is the oldest Imperial Palace in the country. It remains in Osaka today as the Remains of Naniwa-no-Miya Palace Historic Park, which is free of charge for visitors to explore.
Photo shows the south bell tower and five-story pagoda of Shitennoji
2. Ancient Times – Medieval Times (8th century – Prior to start of 15th century)
The Japanese capital was moved to Nara and then Kyoto as time went on, but Osaka still steadily developed as a second city because it remained a pivotal hub where transportation modes by water and land were concentrated. In particular, Yodogawa River served as a main route that connected Kyoto to the Seto Inland Sea and the Saikoku region. In the succeeding years, the many highways were also developed. The Kumano-mode (pilgrimage to three major Kumano shrines in Wakayama) that went through Osaka flourished at this time. However, there were many times during that period when Osaka was ravaged by wars. It is said that Osaka became a town wasted by war around the 14th century.
Photo shows Shirokita Wando (Shirokita Biotope), a natural area that represents Yodogawa River
3. Warring States Period (1467 – Around the latter half of 16th century)
In 1496, a monk called Rennyo built Ishiyama Gobo, later renamed Ishiyama Honganji Temple, around the current location of Osaka Castle. Inside the temple grounds, there was a "jinaicho" (temple town) where traders lived, and it served as the prototype for the present-day Osaka. Meanwhile, the temple was surrounded by moats and fences, making it seem like a fortress city. Given its excellent topography, it boasted impregnable strength. Oda Nobunaga (1534 – 1582), a military commander during that era, thought that toppling down the fortress of Osaka would grant one control of the entire country. He continued to attack Ishiyama Honganji Temple for more than 10 years, eventually burning down nearly the whole temple.
4. Momoyama Period (Latter half of 16th century)
The one person that is crucial when talking about the history of Osaka is Oda Nobunaga's successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536 – 1598), who unified Japan. With his base of operations located in Osaka, he built Osaka Castle over the ruins of Ishiyama Honganji Temple. He also began to develop Osaka into a city that ought to be a capital. He developed canals such as the Higashi-yokobori Canal and streets to build an orderly castle town. Together with his moves to centralize industry by having traders move to Osaka from different places, he also focused on foreign trade. Toyotomi created the foundation of present-day Osaka through various means, such as building an embankment on Yodogawa River to curb flooding.
Photo shows Osaka Castle, the symbol of Osaka
5. Edo Period (1603 - 1867)
At the turn of the Edo period, the center of government moved from Kyoto to Edo (present-day Tokyo). Despite that, Osaka continued to make great strides as the biggest economic city in Japan, since it had become a distribution hub where cargo from inside and outside Japan was consolidated. In particular, a lot of the annual rice tax and goods were shipped from Osaka, so it became famous for its nickname “Tenka no Daidokoro” (Kitchen of the Nation). When business thrived, the townsman culture also bloomed. Various artistic works were born in Osaka, such as the Ningyo Joruri Bunraku (a UNESCO intangible cultural asset), which is a musical theater with dolls. With this, Osaka transformed into a town overflowing with uniqueness and dynamism. Even today, there are many spots with a distinctive atmosphere, such as Kuromon Market where you can find a wide variety of food products.
Photo shows Kuromon Market that supports Osaka’s food culture
When you visit Osaka, make sure to look back and think about its history.
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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