Japan: A Brief History

Japan is often referred to as ‘The Land of the Rising Sun’. The ancient Japanese knew about China and Korea, but they did not know of any land east of their islands. They believed theirs was the first land awakened by the rising sun. The Japanese call their land Nippon, literally meaning “the sun’s origin”. The Europeans learned of Japan from the Chinese, who mispronounced the name as Zipango. That word eventually evolved into Japan.


Japan is a strand of islands, or archipelago, that lies to the east of the coast of China. Archeologists think people have inhabited the islands for about 30,000 years. Early humans most likely came to the islands from China during an ice age, when much of the water on the surface of the planet was locked up in glaciers, making the sea level much lower, and allowing people to walk across land bridges that no longer exist.

When the ice age ended and the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea, made land passage impossible, the early inhabitants of Japan were cut off from their nearest neighbors. About 120 miles of water separate Japan from the Asian mainland, which is about 30 miles farther than Key West is from Florida.

The Japanese archipelago, with about 142,000 square miles of land, is smaller than the state of California, but larger than the country of Italy. The country stretches out in a mostly north-south direction. Japan features many mountains and rocky ground. Only about 15 percent of the country’s land is suitable for farming, which happens to be almost exactly the same land that is suitable for building homes. Because of the scarcity of land, urban areas of Japan tend to be very densely populated.

On the west coast of Japan, deep snows blow in across the sea from China and pile so much snow on the western villages that people sometimes have to dig tunnels to get from one house to another. The mountains in the middle of the islands tend to stall the weather fronts so that the east coast gets much less snow than the west, but the whole country gets plenty of rain, especially in the summer, which has been important for the cultivation of a critical grain: rice.


Early Japan until 710

The early inhabitants of Japan survived by hunting, gathering, and collecting shellfish. Around 8,000 B.C., the early Japanese learned to make pottery, including vases that they decorated by wrapping cord around the earthenware while it was still wet. When it dried, the cord pattern was embedded on the pottery. They made basic tools and clay figurines, some of which still exist today.

Sometime between 300 B.C. and 300 A.D., a major revolution took place: The people began to figure out how to grow rice. People stopped roaming the woods and began to settle down, committing to one house in one village, where they would all work together to try to produce enough rice out of a very small amount of land so that all of them could survive through Japan’s harsh winters. As society became more settled, it also became more stratified.

Japanese society slowly started to become more centralized and unified from 300 A.D. to 710. At this time, trends from China began to have a strong influence in Japan: Writing, paper, porcelain, silk, lacquer, and Buddhism, all of which would have enormous impacts on Japanese culture, came to the island nation from China by way of Korea.

Nara and Heian Periods: 710 to 1192

The Nara period is the first era of Japanese history with written records. It is called the Nara period because at this time, political power became centralized under one government, and the capital was transferred to Nara, a city based on Chinese design ideals. Although no one is completely certain, it was probably around this time that a myth started circulating that the Japanese imperial family was a direct descendent of the Shinto sun goddess.

In 794, Emperor Kammu again moved the capital to Kyoto, marking the beginning of the Heian period, which was a golden age of Japanese culture. As written language and a Buddhist sense of appreciation for literature spread, the wealthy nobles of the time, especially women, began writing longer works. At this time, a female author wrote The Tale of Genji, probably the world’s first novel.

During the Heian period, Japan emerged from its island isolation and traded with its neighbors, allowing a free flow of ideas across the Sea of Japan. Buddhism flourished at this time.

Near the end of the 1100s, the centralized power of the Heian period began to fade, as the aristocrats relied more and more on regional warlords to handle conflicts and uprisings in the outlying areas of Japan. The warlords grew stronger as the aristocrats became weaker, and nobles’ role dwindled to that of a figurehead position, although the royal family continued to claim its members descended in an unbroken line from the sun goddess.

Kamakura Period: 1192 to 1333

As the imperial family’s role became more ceremonial and less authoritative, a new leader emerged to rule: the shogun, or general. The shogun’s job passed from father to son through the generations, as did the emperor’s title. From 1192 to 1333, a shogun ruled in the emperor’s name from the city of Kamakura.

Zen Buddhism, which placed emphasis on meditation and processes and rituals instead of products, grew in popularity at this time. The ruling warrior class latched on to Zen Buddhism, and new art forms were born that still exist today, such as the tea ceremony and flower arranging.

The age of the shogun lasted until the late 1200s, when the Mongol armies tried invading Japan. Although the Japanese repelled them, the long war drained the Japanese treasury; leading to massive tax hikes, rising prices, and unhappy citizens. In 1333, the Emperor Go-Daigo wanted to reclaim the authority his family had once commanded. He put together an army and went to fight the shogun.

The shogun sent a general named Ashikaga Takauji to fight Go-Daigo, but Takauji betrayed the shogun, switched sides, and ended up supporting the emperor. Rather than face defeat, the ruling family of the shogun committed ritual suicide.

For a short time, it looked like Japan’s emperor was about to reclaim power, but before long, Takauji and the emperor split up. Go-Daigo was forced to flee, but he still claimed authority. Meanwhile, Takauji installed a new emperor in Kyoto and decided to rule on his behalf as the shogun, leading to the confusing situation of having two emperors in Japan until 1392.

Muromachi Period: 1338 to 1573

From 1338 to 1573, the descendants of Ashikaga Takauji ruled as shogun from a region called Muramachi, in Kyoto. Everything went along fine until 1466, when the family had an epic fight over who would get to be the next shogun. For 10 years, the battle raged and destroyed most of Kyoto and weakened the Ashikaga family. For the next 100 years after the war, the central government lost authority and regional warlord landowners called Daimyo came into power. The Daimyo kept its own small armies of special forces agents called “samurai.” The position of samurai was a hereditary position that passed from father to son. Early samurai worked their farms part time and fought for the Daimyo only when needed. Later on, the samurai spent most of their lives as soldiers.

In the mid-1500s, Japan started trading with Portugal, whose ships brought the game-changing new inventions: gunpowder, guns, and bullets, to the port of Nagasaki. Along with the desirable weapons came Christian missionaries, whom the Japanese government tolerated in small quantities for a short time.

Azuchi-Momoyama Period: 1573 to 1603

After the loose central control of the Muromachi, where most authority rested with the regional chiefs, the Azuchi-Momoyama marked a return to centralized power.

Tokugawa, or Edo Period: 1603-1868

In the early 1600s, the reunification of Japan was well underway, and it became complete when a general named Tokugawa defeated his rivals and claimed the title of Shogun. Tokugawa had his work cut out for him in bringing the feudal lords back under control, so his regime was very severe and strict and did not tolerate any deviation from his will. Tokugawa’s need to keep Japan under his strict control had one very small, but particularly annoying, problem. There was a small colony of Christians around Nagasaki, whose religion stubbornly prohibited seeing anyone as equal, and certainly not superior, to God. Frustrated with the fact that the Christians would not recognize him as a supreme authority, his government started persecuting them, and eventually outlawed Christianity and massacred many of the very few Christians who lived in Japan at the time.

Under the Tokugawa regime, Japan once again closed its ports and stopped trading with the rest of the world (except for a small outpost in Nagasaki where only the Dutch were allowed to trade). The trends at the time turned toward all things that could be perceived as authentically Japanese. The Tokugawa period brought peace and stability to the land of the rising sun, and lasted until Commodore Perry’s Black Ships appeared on the horizon.

Meiji Period: 1868 to 1912

By the middle of the 1800s, the West, specifically the United States, grew tired of Japan’s closed borders and unwillingness to trade. The U.S. was producing more finished goods, and Americans wanted to be able to sell their items to the growing population of Japan. The islands were also convenient stopping places for merchant ships traveling the globe with American goods. To pressure the shogun, the U.S. sent Commodore Matthew Perry to visit the island with four warships and a message asking that Japan open her ports, protect shipwrecked sailors, and allow foreign ships to get coal at Japanese ports. Perry used a combination of persuasion and subtle threat: the next year, he retuned again with more than twice as many ships.

The shogun agreed to Perry’s demands; and western products, fashions, and ideas very quickly spread through the islands. It was a very confusing time: Some people resented the changes that had been forced on the country, and they thought the shogun had shown weakness in accepting unfair treaties. Others wanted Western changes and grew tired of what they saw as an outdated, feudal regime. Within a few years, efforts to topple the shogun began. In 1868, the shogun was pushed out of power and the emperor was returned to a position of real authority; but the unrest did not end there. The people wanted a constitution and representation. They clamored for a nationwide educational system.

Change came fast during the Meiji period. In less than 50 years, Japan went from an isolated, feudal, agrarian society to a major player in the global marketplace. The transition had not been easy, and many people resented that outside influences had forced their country to change.

Taisho and Early Showa Period: 1912 to 1945

Japan rose so quickly to power that the other major players of the time, the U.S. and Great Britain, started to get a little worried about the Empire. Although Japan rallied to Britain’s side in World War I, the country’s post-war boom brought it into direct conflict with the U.S.

Acting together, the U.S. and Britain forced Japan into a treaty in 1921, limiting the size of its navy to a fraction of their own. Two years later, a devastating earthquake followed by a massive fire hit Japan and refugees poured out of her borders. The next year, in an inhospitable move, the U.S. closed its borders to Japanese immigrants. Relations between the two countries went from bad to worse as the military began to control the Japanese government, and in the 1930s, Japanese forces began encroaching on her neighbors in Asia.

The U.S. worried that Japan was a threat to American interests in the Pacific, so the U.S. cut off the export of oil to the islands. In the spirit of “do or die” that characterized the Japanese throughout the war, they pressed on, eventually bombing Pearl Harbor in 1941 and forcing the U.S. to enter the war directly.

World War II went well for the Japanese in the beginning. They successfully invaded several nearby nations. However, the tide eventually began to turn, mostly due to the Allies’ industrial superiority. The war dragged on past the point where Japan could conceivably win, but the “do or die” mentality was so pervasive in Japanese culture and the idea of surrender so humiliating, that the country continued to fight on until the U.S. finally dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The war ended six days later.

Postwar Period: 1945 to Present

When the Allied forces came into Japan in 1945, it was the first time the nation had ever been occupied by a foreign power. General Douglas MacArthur led the American forces. Rather than attempting to try Emperor Hirohito as a war criminal, MacArthur kept the Japanese leader in place; but he did demand that the emperor publicly proclaim that he was not a direct descendent of the sun goddess, that he was just an average Joe, and that the Japanese people were not inherently superior to other races of the world. This declaration was the beginning of a major democratic transformation in Japan.

The occupation years were definitely not easy on the Japanese people, but in the end, the country’s military industrial complex was retooled to produce peacetime products. The country had a representative democracy. Women had the right to vote. There was no army. There were rules against mega-companies, but these rules faded after the occupation ended.

Although the Japanese economy has had its ups and downs over the decades, it has never again gone to war. It has remained a peaceful country, a land of harmony. The population is still almost entirely ethnic Japanese. People who live in Japan can expect to live long, healthy lives with low rates of illness in extremely peaceful, safe, and law-abiding communities.


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