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History of Japan

Updated on February 20, 2012

The original inhabitants of the Japanese islands were the Ainu, a hairy, bearded people culturally close to the Buryats and other tribes of the northern Russia, and still surviving in small numbers on the island of Hokkaido. It seems certain that immigrants came to what is now Japan from various parts of East Asia, probably by way of Korea, and even from various Southeast Asian and South Pacific islands. The Japanese themselves claim descent from the Yamato people who established themselves in Honshu where they mastered other tribes and clans during the first centuries of the Christian era. They were growers of rice and users of iron, and their religion was based on sun-worship.

Later, sun-worship, ancestor worship, and associated animist practices developed into Shinto, The Way of the Gods.

The present Imperial house is generally held to be descended from the Yamato; until 1946 Japanese Emperors were regarded as divine descendants of the Sun Goddess. Their first permanent capital was Nara (710-784 AD). From 794 AD until 1868 the Imperial seat was at Kyoto, which was succeeded as capital by Edo, the present Tokyo.

Arts, crafts, learning, and religion came to Japan through Korea and China. Of great importance were the introduction of Buddhism in 538 AD and of the Chinese ideographic script which Japanese scholars modified and extended by devising new syllabaries. So modern Japanese consists of the hiragana syllabary of 50 symbols and 25 variants, hundreds of Chinese symbols (kanji), and the katakana characters used in writing foreign words. The name Japan is a corruption of jih-pen, the Chinese pronunciation of the two characters with which the word is written. These two characters, which the Japanese pronounce Nihon or Nippon, mean "the place where the sun rises".

The Feudal Aged

The development of a truly Japanese script occurred during the Heian Period (794-1192), an age of cultural elegance at Kyoto and of assimilation and adaptation of ideas from abroad. Attempts by the powerful Fujiwara family, still the second family in Japan and closely related to the Imperial family, to build a strong, centralized system of government around the Emperor were not successful and effective power passed increasingly to clan leaders and feudal lords (dainzyo). In 1185 the destruction of the Taira clan in the battle of Dannoura in the Inland Sea gave supreme power to Yoritomo, leader of the victorious Minamoto clan, who established an austere military government (the Bakufu, or "camp office") at Kamakura; the Emperor, virtually stripped of all power, remained at Kyoto and presently awarded Yoritomo the title Sei-i Tai Shogun ("Barbarian-subduing military governor").

Japan was to be ruled by shoguns for the next 700 years. Yoritomo's shogunate was the golden age of the Samurai, dedicated warriors expert with the sword, whose code of conduct (Bushido) has influenced the Japanese in modern times.

The First Europeans

The first Europeans to reach Japan were Portuguese traders from Macao (1543). Christianity was brought by Jesuit missionaries led by St Francis Xavier. Traders also came from England, Spain and The Netherlands. Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate (1603), who consolidated the pacification of Japan begun by the great general Hideyoshi Toyoromi, at first favored foreign trade. The English navigator Will Adams was richly rewarded for advising Ieyasu on European ways and ship-building.

But Ieyasu feared the spread of Christianity, and in 1614 expelled all foreign priests and began a persecution that was continued by his son. Finally, in 1636, leyasu's grandson lyemitsu barred the entry of all foreigners except a few Dutch and Chinese traders who were permitted to use the small island of Deshima in Nagasaki harbor. The Japanese themselves were forbidden to leave the country.

The period of seclusion called sakoku ("the closed country") lasted until 1853-54 when Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the US Navy visited Japan with his squadron, a peaceful demonstration of American power intended to scare Japan into opening trade. The Treaty of Kanagawa (1854) between the USA and Japan was followed by similar treaties with Russia, Britain, The Netherlands and France. Once again Japan was open to the world. These developments speeded the disintegration of the feudal structure, and in 1867 the Tokugawa shogunate collapsed.

The Meiji Restoration

The Meiji Restoration (1868) saw full sovereignty returned to the Emperor, though effective power was held by the young provincial nobles who had toppled the shogunate.

The reign of Emperor Mutsuhito (1867-1912), who is also known by his reign name Meiji ("Enlightened Rule") was a period of intense modernization as the Meiji leaders energetically tried to make good the centuries of isolation.

The Constitution of 1889 confirmed the Emperor as the "sacred and inviolable" head of state and established a Diet (Parliament) of two houses: the House of Peers and the House of Representatives. Westernization was rapidly extended to almost every sphere-the law, education, the organization of the armed forces, transportation and communications, industry and commerce.

Even the priesthood was reformed, Shinto being designated the state religion (1882). Industry, mining, finance and commerce were developed and eventually dominated by the Zaibatsu, powerful family corporations such as Mitsubishi, Mitsui, and Sumiromo, which are still among Japan's top trading organizations.

Territorial Expansion

Territorial expansion, in classic imperialist style, began with the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) by which Japan ensured her domination of Korea and gained Formosa (Taiwan) and the Pescadores Islands from China. War with Russia (1904-05), which began with a surprise Japanese attack on Port Arthur (modern L├╝shunkou), gave Japan a foothold in Manchuria and the southern section of the island of Sachalin. Russia recognized Japan's interests in Korea, which was made a Japanese protectorate in 1907 and annexed three years later. Japan also benefited from World War I. Her industrial growth was speeded by Allied demands for munitions and fresh concessions were gained in China. As one of the victorious Allies, Japan received former German islands in the Pacific (the Carolines, Marshall Islands, and Marianas) as mandates from the League of Nations.

From 1923, a year in which most of Tokyo and the whole of Yokohama were destroyed by earthquake, fire, and tidal wave, Japanese politics rapidly became dominated by militarism. Japanese aggression in Manchuria led to the 1931 "Mukden incident" (probably Japanese-engineered), the subsequent Japanese conquest of Manchuria and the creation of the puppet state of Manchukuo (1932). In 1937 an "incident" engineered by the Japanese near Peking marked the beginning of an all-out war against China which was still in progress when Japan entered World War II with her surprise attack on the US base at Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941). At first the Japanese had considerable success, but after 1942 the tide turned and by 1945 Japan itself was under attack. After atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima (August 6) and Nagasaki (August 9) the Japanese surrendered.

Postwar Japan

For seven years Japan was occupied by Allied (mostly US) forces under General Douglas MacArthur. Despite Russian protests the Emperor Hirohiro was permitted to remain on the throne as a stabilizing factor in a country traumatized by defeat. A new constitution was proclaimed (1946) and other reforms instituted. Full sovereignty and independence were returned to Japan by the San Francisco Peace Treaty (1951). Since that time many of the islands that Japan lost as a result of her defeat have been returned: the Amami group of the Ryukyus in 1953, the Bonin Islands and Marcus Island in 1968, lwo Jima in 1968, and the remaining Ryukyu Islands, including Okinawa, in 1972; they are now called Nansei-Shoto.

Since the mid-1950s Japan has become the most prosperous country in Asia and an industrial superpower, third only to the USA and Russia. Her rapid economic growth, long unchecked, has been characterized by an insatiable appetite for raw materials and by a thrusting worldwide quest for new markets for Japanese product.


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