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A Very Brief History of Japan

To better understand and enjoy your tour of Japan we feel that it is important to have a basic understanding of its history. This is just an outline and there are many great books and websites that can give you a more detailed history but this will give you a start. For more information please visit your local book store or library as we are sure they will have a good selection of books.

Japanese history can be broken down into periods which are:

Japanese GirlEarly Japan until 710 AD
Nara and Heian Periods 710-1192
Kamakura Period 1192-1333
Muromachi Period 1338-1573
Azuchi-Momoyama Period 1573-1603
Edo Period 1603-1868
Meiji Period 1868-1912
Taisho and Early Showa Period 1912-1945
Showa and Early Heisei Periods 1945-present

Early Japan (13000 BC 710 AD)
Jomon Period (13000 BC to 300 BC)
The people of the Jomon Period were generally gatherers, fishers and hunters. Clothing was generally made of bark as weaving technology had not been discovered. A great deal of pottery has been unearthed dating back to this age. Weapons were made of shell, bone and wood.

Yayoi Period (300 BC to 250 AD)
Rice was first cultivated during the Yayoi Period after being imported from China. Metallurgy was also introduced and developed. Basic kinds of regional government, called “kuni” or “koku”, were established along with a class system, and landownership. One of the most well known figures of this time was a queen named Himiko who collected mirrors among other treasures from Korea and China. Pieces of her treasure are still being unearthed today.

Kofun Period (300 AD to 538 AD)
Nintoku Tomb - Saikai, JapanA more centralized power emerged as Japan entered into the Kofun Period. This period was named after the large keyhole shaped tombs found near Nara in the Kansai area. This new country was called Yamato after the Yamato Province near modern Nara Prefecture. Yamato extended from Kyushu to the Kinai plain of Honshu. The emperor was the ruler during this period though the Soga clan held all of the political power and the emperor only acted as a symbol of the state to perform Shinto (religious) rituals. The capital was also moved from city to city.

Asuka period (538 to 710)
Buddhism was introduced to Japan from the Korean peninsula in either 538 or 552 and was promoted by the ruling class. Prince Shotoku was said to support Chinese ideas and authored the Seventeen Article Constitution about morality and political principles. It is also thought that writing was brought in from China at this time as well as Confucian and Tao principals. In 607 a letter from the “Emperor of the Land Where the Sun Rises” (Japan) was sent to the “Emperor of the Land Where the Sun Sets” (China). This show of equality between Japan and China did not sit will with the Chinese emperor. It was the first time that the word Nihon (日本), which means land of the rising sun, was used.

Nara and Heian Periods (710 - 1185)
Nara was established as Japan's first permanent capital in 710 and modeled after the Chinese capital. Buddhist monasteries quickly established themselves and gained political influence. In order to protect and keep the emperor in control the capital was moved to Nagaoka-kyo (southern part of Kyoto prefecture) in 784 and then to Heian (modern Kyoto) in 794.

During this time Japan was able to take Chinese ideas and adapt them to better fit the Japanese people and lifestyle. Kana characters (Hiragana - aiueo) were developed and made the creation of Japanese literature possible. Up until this time they used Chinese characters to represent Japanese sounds. Today a mixture of Kanji (Heianjidai – Heianjidai – Heian Period), Hiragana (Sushi- sushi) and Katakana (Supagecchi - Spaghetti – supagetti - spaghetti) are used. Hiragana is a phonetic alphabet used for Japanese derived words and Katakana is also phonetic but is used for foreign derived words. Often Kanji and Hiragana are used in the same word like Tabemasu - to eat – tabemasu which means “to eat”.

Land and tax reforms named Taika Reforms were also developed. These reforms taxed farmers to the point of poverty and many of them had to sell their land and become tenant farmers of wealthy land owners. Aristocrats and Buddhist monasteries were granted tax immunity. As a result tax revenue decreased and power shifted from the central government over to large land owners.

The Fujiwara Clan was able to gain control and intermarried with the imperial family, which cemented their power for centuries. Many smaller land owners had to hire samurai to protect them which was the birth of the military class.

Kamatari FujiwaraThe Fujiwara Clan was able to maintain power until 1068 when emperor Go-Sanjo decided that he would not allow himself to be controlled like a puppet. Emperors ruled Japan from 1068 to 1156 when Kiyomori Taira came into power.

After Kiyomori Taira's death two families struggled for power; Taira and Minamoto. This struggle was called the Gempei war and lasted from 1180 to 1185. Yoritomo Minamoto took power after eliminating all potential rivals including family members. Once gaining control he moved the capital to Kamakura (in modern day Kanagawa prefecture), his home city, in 1192 and the Kamakura Bakufu was born.

Kamakura Period (1192 - 1333)
Yoritomo ruled until he died in 1199. Upon his death quarrels for power began between the Kamakura Bakufu and the Imperial court of Kyoto. They ended with the Jokyu Disturbance in 1221 when Kamakura’s Hojo regents took control. Generous gifts of land to powerful people created a large and loyal support base and the Imperial court lost almost all control. Samurai now became the leading social class with Confucian and Buddhist ideas setting the moral code. and rebellions were quickly brought under control.

During this time the Mongols wanted to expand their control over Japan and in 1274 attempted an invasion. The Mongols were strong enough to defeat Japan. However, during their attack bad weather caused them to retreat and give up. After that first attempt the Japanese decided to prepare for the next invasion. The Mongols staged a second attempt in 1281 which also failed thanks to the weather. It was said that Japan was protected from invasion by the gods who sent the kamikaze (divine winds) to protect them. Because the Mongols retreated and were not defeated there were no spoils of war. The loyal men of Kamakura were never repaid for their efforts which helped to bring down the Hojo regents in 1333 when emperor Go-Daigo was able to re-establish imperial power.

Muromachi Period (1338 – 1573)
The rule of the emperor did not last long due to the impractical and outdated administrative system which did not gain the loyalty of the large land owners. Takauji Ashikaga, originally a loyal servant of the emperor, now challenged and took over the capital of Kyoto and appointed himself shogun. Because of this Go-Daigo fled south and established a new court in Yoshino. In Kyoto a new emperor was appointed which was possible because of a succession dispute between two lines of the imperial family. The two imperial courts fought until 1392 when the southern court finally gave in.

Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto built by Yoshimitsu AshikagaWhile Yoshimitsu Ashikaga (the builder of Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto) was shogun the Muromachi Bakufu were slowly losing control over the outlaying provinces. During his reign better trade with Ming China, improved agricultural techniques, and a new inheritance system made it possible for markets to develop and new social classes to be born.

During the 15th and 16th centuries members of land owning military families known as ji-samurai were able to gain control over provincial constables and establish control. These new feudal lords, called daimyo, divided Japan into many autonomous governments. Daimyo often fought each other to increase their influence and power. These were the years of civil war called Sengoku jidai.

In 1542 the first Portuguese traders and Jesuit missionaries arrived, bring both firearms and Christianity. Buddhists were not happy about this but the feudal lords tolerated the Portuguese because of the new war technology they brought.

The feudal lords kept on fighting until mid 1500’s when Nobunaga Oda made the first big steps toward unifying Japan. In 1568 he was able to capture Kyoto, and finally overthrew the Muromachi Bakufu in 1573.

Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573 - 1603)
After capturing Kyoto, Nobunaga Oda continued to eliminate his rivals which included Buddhist sects. In 1582 Nobunaga was assassinated by general Akechi. General Hideyoshi Toyotomi reacted quickly, defeated Akechi and took power for himself. He then took over the Northern Provinces, Shikoku and Kyushu. In 1590 he defeated the Hojo clan in Odawara and Japan was again united.

Hideyoshi brought Japan under absolute control. He destroyed many of the castles, and confiscated weapons from everyone except samurai. While samurai could carry swords they were no longer allowed to work and had to live in castle towns. This made it almost impossible for samurai to gain wealth and oppose the government. He also expelled all Christians, and made it illegal to be a Christian.

After uniting Japan Hideyoshi dreamed of adding China to his control. His attempt was a miserable failure and in 1598, the year he died, the last Japanese were sent back to Japan.

Although Hideyoshi had intended Hideyori to be the next shogun, Ieyasu Tokugawa gained control. This was the beginning of the most peaceful time in Japanese history, known as the Edo period.

Edo Period (1603 - 1867)
This period began when Ieyasu Tokugawa took power and became shogun in 1603. Tokugawa Shogunates continued to rule Japan in relative peace for over 250 years.

Shield of the Tokugawa Shogunate - Edo PeroidIeyasu moved the capital to Edo (modern Tokyo) and managed to gain support by generously giving out land and the best domains to daimyo (feudal lords) who supported him. He controlled the daimyo by requiring them to spend every second year in Edo. The daimyo’s family were made to stay in Edo as a kind of hostage. The daimyo had to spend a great deal of money traveling back and forth to Edo and maintaining two residences. This made it impossible for them to accumulate enough funds to wage a war and also limited their ability to gain support in the home domain.

To make it easier for daimyo and other travelers, five main roads (Gokaido) were established between various domains and Edo. The most important of these roads was the Tokaido which ran from Edo to Kyoto and was Tokaido Road in 1825dotted with 53 stations. At these stations travelers could rest, get food and other supplies. Ryokans (Japanese inns) of various ranks were also constructed. Prostitution and drinking quickly became problems so the government required all ryokans to serve dinner and breakfast to their guests. This meant that no one really had a good reason for being out after dark. While this is no longer a law the tradition of serving dinner and breakfast continues today and is an integral part of the whole ryokan experience.

In 1615 Ieyasu captured the Toyotomi clan’s castle in Osaka, thereby defeating the last of his rivals. Peace prevailed and samurai began to educate themselves in literature, calligraphy, tea ceremony and other arts as their warring skills were no longer necessary. Many of them became homeless as they could not find employment and were not allowed to work. The movie “Shichinin no Samurai” (7 Samurai) directed by Akira Kurosawa will give you an idea of how some samurai lived.

Japan became more isolated. In 1633 Shogun Iemitsu forbade foreign travel and in 1639 went a step further by reducing contact with the outside world. The only trade permitted was at Nagasaki, with China and the Netherlands. Foreign books were outlawed until 1720 when the ban was lifted.

Satsuma SamuraiThroughout these years of isolation Japan was basically peaceful and the government was stable, though this did not last. The decline of the government came about for several reasons. One was the government’s coffers became low, so taxes were raised. The tax increase led to riots among the farmers, who were hardest hit. Natural disasters also played a hand as Japan is located along the Pacific Ring of Fire and has many earthquakes. The social hierarchy became strained as merchants, long considered the lowest class, became stronger and more powerful. Since the merchants were wealthy they could make loans to samurai as well as the government, which made the highest class (samurai) dependent on the lowest class (merchants).

Toward the end of the 18th century the outside world wanted to establish trade and other relationships with Japan. Most attempts were unsuccessful until 1853 when Commodore Perry of the United States forced open the doors with his Black Ships. This led to a historic treaty signed by Japan and the United States in 1854. Trade remained limited until the Meiji Restoration in 1868 when the Tokugawa government handed power back to the Emperor Meiji.

Meiji Period (1868 – 1912)
The main thrust of the Meiji Period was to Westernize Japan as Commodore Perry’s visits exposed their military weakness. The Japanese knew that if they did not modernize their military, government and society, Sapporo Beer Ad in the Meiji Peroidthey would be a second class nation. This was clearly demonstrated to them when the West forced them to sign unfair treaties.

The capital and Emperor were formally moved from Kyoto to Tokyo and power was transferred from the Tokugawa Bakufu to the Emperor. While the Emperor formally held power the real power was wheeled by a small group of nobles and former samurai known as the genro.

The new government knew they needed to make Japan democratic with equality for all people. Of course the samurai class had the most to lose as many of their privileges were stripped. The feudal lords (daimyo) lost all of their land and a prefectural system was established. This caused unrest among them and intense nationalism. Of course they approved of modernizing the military but they also demanded that principles of Confucianism and Shinto (national religion) be taught in the new public education system. The educational system was based on the French and German examples but they wanted to make sure that the Japanese spirit was also included in the curriculum.

The economic system needed to be changed from an agrarian one to a modern industrial one. To accomplish this many of Japan’s best minds were sent overseas to study, and foreign experts were invited to Japan to teach.

Westernization was moving very fast and was very expensive. Powerful family businesses called zaibatsu were encouraged and became vertical monopolies that controlled all aspects of business and the economy. The four biggest zaibatsu were Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Sumitomo and Yasuda. Since the government did nothing to control them these four companies ruled the Japanese economy until the end of World War II. All four of these companies still exist today but they do not have nearly as much power as the once did.

Japan’s military gained strength. Conflicts over Korea arose between China and Japan, which led to the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895. Japan’s modern military was able to defeat China, and new territory was added to its holding. Complaining that Japan had taken too much territory, Russia, France and Germany forced Japan to return it all with the exception of Taiwan. This was called the Triple Intervention and caused Japan to rethink and intensify its military modernization and build up. The Japanese people viewed this intervention as being unfair since Western nations took land after a conflict.

Once again conflicts of interest in Korea saw Japan up against Russia in 1904-1905. Japan won and gained more territory but most importantly Japan’s international prestige increased. In 1910 Japan completely captured Korea. This success fueled nationalism and self confidence.

When Emperor Meiji died in 1912 the age of the elder statesmen (genro) came to an end. Although the Emperor Taisho was only 32 years old when he took office in 1912, he was not in the best of health and died on Christmas day 1926.

Taisho and Early Showa Periods (1912-1945)
Emperor Taisho took office and the government shifted from the elder statesmen (genro) to a parliamentary system with democratic parties. This shift in power is often called Taisho Democracy.

Emperor Showa (known in the West as Hirohito) became the emperor at the age of 25 with his reign ending on January 7, 1989. During his reign Japan changed a great deal, going from a nation out to prove its power to nation that denounced war.

During WWI Japan joined the Allied Powers though played only a minor role in East Asia. After the war Japan proposed amending a “racial equality clause” to the covenant of the League of Nations. This was rejected by the United States, Britain and Australia. Japanese faced racial discrimination time and again since the West forced it to open its borders in the 1800’s. In fact the US government passed the Exclusion Act of 1924 which prohibited further immigration from Japan. This did not sit well with Japanese and fueled nationalism which helped the military gain almost complete control of the government by 1930.

Japan’s military continued to gain territory in China. In 1932 the Kwantung Army (Japanese armed forces in Manchuria) formally established “Manchuko” as an independent state. The state was ruled by a puppet government headed by the last Chinese emperor. Since Japan was heavily criticized for its actions in China it withdrew from the League of Nations in 1933.

The Chinese were still fighting for independence and the second Sino-Japanese War started in 1937. National pride continued to grow and Japanese solders saw themselves as far superior to the Chinese. This led to war atrocities which included the Nanking Massacre.

In 1940 Japan gained control over French Indochina (Vietnam) and joined the Axis powers of Germany and Italy. In response the United States and Britain blocked all shipments of oil to Japan. Since Japan is very poor in natural resources they decided to capture oil rich Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and start a war with America, Great Britain and the Netherlands.

On December 7, 1941 Japan attacked the US fleet in Pearl Harbor. This gave them a terrific advantage and they were able to expand control over much of the Pacific and procure much needed resources including oil. Hiroshima A-Bomb Dome

The Battle of Midway was the turning point of the war. From June 1942 on Japan started to lose territory. The bloody war continued until on August 6, 1945 the first atomic bomb was dropped over Hiroshima, and a second atomic bomb was dropped over Nagasaki on August 8. The Soviet Union entered the war against Japan on August 9, 1945. Then on August 14 Emperor Showa finally surrendered and WWII in the Pacific was finished.

Showa and Early Heisei Periods (1945-present)
Japan’s defeat in WWII devastated the heart and soul of Japan. Almost all of its major cities (excluding Kyoto which was saved due to its beauty and historical value) were destroyed. Most of the territory it gained since the Meiji Restoration was lost. Food was short, people were tired but there was a lot of work to do.

Japan’s war machine was destroyed, and war crime tribunals were conducted. In Japan suicide is considered honorable so 500 military offers committed ritual suicide just after the surrender to show remorse for losing the war. There was also an attempted coup d'état by die-hard army fanatics who wished to continue the war until the last man.

In 1947 a new constitution went into effect which took all power away from the emperor and made him strictly a figurehead. The most significant part of the constitution was Article 9 which forbade Japan from leading a war or maintaining a military. The occupation ended in 1952 and in 1954 Japan established a Self Defense Force. Article 9 is still enforced as the SDF is only used for the self defense of Japan. Currently there are those fighting to change this article to allow Japan to create an offensive military.

Osaka Castle next to Osaka Business ParkGeneral MacArthur wanted to spread out control so that a handful of people could not take control again. The corporate monopolies known as zaibatsu were broken up, education was decentralized, and land reform was put into place.

During the Korean War, Japan was called upon to supply much that we needed for the war effort. This spurred economic growth and increased Japan’s standard of living. After the war Japan’s economy continued to grow until the Economic Bubble of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

The Economic Bubble saw land prices, wages and buying power increase with no end in site. Loans were taken out with land and other assets as collateral and often the same collateral was used for numerous loans. When the bubble burst many borrowers could not pay off loans. Lenders were forced to foreclose but there was nothing to foreclose on. Banks and other lenders were forced to write off huge amounts of uncollectible loans. Land and housing prices dropped to the point where people could not pay off their loans even if they sold their property. In the early 1990’s a condo in a suburb of Osaka could sell for over 70,000,000 yen (about US$ 660,000) but by the early 2000’s a seller could only get about 35,000,000 yen (US$ 330,000). Today, thanks to a lot of hard work and spirit, Japan’s economy is recovering and the people have a high standard of living.

The people of Japan have faced enormous hardship but have always had the strength and spirit to overcome them. It is an amazing country that we hope you will fall in love with as so many people have.

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