History of Japan

History of Japan - Contents

Japan (Japanese: Nihon or Nippon) is an island country located on the Pacific Ocean, east of China and Korea, stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to Taiwan in the south. It is composed of over 3,000 islands, the largest of which are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. Most of Japan’s islands are mountainous, and many are volcanic; the highest peak is Mount Fuji.

Japan is the third-largest economy in the world and one of the world’s leading industrialized countries. It is a unitary constitutional monarchy with an emperor and an elected parliament, one of the oldest legislatures in Asia. Despite its rugged terrain, it is one of the most populous—and one of the most densely populated—countries in the world. Its capital, Tokyo, is the largest metropolitan area in the world with over thirty million residents.

Historically, Japan adopted many Chinese customs and institutions beginning in the 7th and 8th centuries. From the 12th century to the mid-1800s, Japan was a feudal country led by clans of warriors. After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan adopted many European and American customs and institutions. Its culture today is a mixture of these influences.

Japan’s name in Chinese characters is often translated as “Land of the Rising Sun”, and comes from the country’s location on the east coast of Asia. Its English name is derived from Chinese names for Japan.



Archaeological research indicates that the earliest inhabitants of the Japanese archipelago migrated over land bridges from Northeast Asia about 30,000 years ago. Other evidence also suggests that some may have later come by sea from Southeast Asia during a period of migration toward the Pacific Ocean. The first signs of civilization appeared around 10,000 BC with the Jomon culture, characterized by a Mesolithic to Neolithic semi-sedentary hunter-gatherer lifestyle of pit dwelling and a rudimentary form of agriculture. Weaving was still unknown and clothes were often made of bark. Around that time, however, the Jomon people started to make clay vessels, decorated with patterns made by impressing the wet clay with braided or unbraided cord and sticks (Jomon means “patterns of plaited cord”). This led to the introduction of the earliest known type of pottery in the world.

The start of the Yayoi period around 300 BC marked the influx of new practices such as rice farming, shamanism, and iron and bronze-making brought by migrants from Korea. These formed the basic elements of traditional Japanese culture, still seen today. As the population increased and society became more complex, they wove cloth, lived in permanent farming villages, constructed buildings of wood and stone, accumulated wealth through landownership and the storage of grain, and developed distinct social classes.

The ensuing Kofun era, beginning around AD 250, saw the establishment of strong military states centered around powerful clans. The Yamato court, concentrated in the Asuka region, suppressed the clans and acquired agricultural lands, increasing their power. Based upon the Chinese model, they developed a central administration and an imperial court system (the Ritsuryo state) and society was organized into occupation groups: farmers, fishermen, weavers, potters, artisans, armorers, and ritual specialists.

Classical era

The Japanese did not start writing their own histories until the 5th and 6th centuries, when the Chinese writing system, Buddhism, advanced pottery, ceremonial burial, and other aspects of culture were introduced by aristocrats, artisans, scholars, and monks from Baekje, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea.

The beginning of Japanese historical writing culminated in the early 8th century with the massive chronicles, Kojiki (The Record of Ancient Matters, 712) and Nihonshoki (Chronicles of Japan, 720). Though Japan did not appear in written history until 57, when it is first mentioned in Chinese records as the nation of “Wa” (in Chinese, “Wo”), or “dwarf state”, these chronicles tell a much different and much more legendary history of Japan, deriving the people of Japan from the gods themselves.

According to traditional Japanese mythology, Japan was founded in the 7th century BC by the ancestral Emperor Jinmu, a direct descendant of the Shinto deity Amaterasu. It is claimed that he started a line of emperors that remains unbroken, to this day. However, historians believe the first emperor who actually existed was Emperor Ojin, though the date of his reign is uncertain. Nonetheless, for most of Japan’s history, real power has been in the hands of the court nobility, the shoguns, the military, or, more recently, prime ministers.

Through the Taika Reform Edicts of 645, Japanese intensified the adoption of Chinese cultural practices and reorganized the government in accordance with the Chinese administrative structure. This paved the way for the dominance of Confucian philosophy in
Japan until the 19th century.

The Nara period of the 8th century marked the first strong Japanese state, centered around an imperial court, in the city of Heijo-kyo (now Nara). The imperial court later moved briefly to Nagaoka, and later Heian-kyo (now Kyoto), starting a “golden age” of classical Japanese culture called the Heian period which lasted for nearly four centuries and was characterized by the regency regime of the Fujiwara clan.

Medieval era

Japan’s medieval era was characterized by the emergence of a ruling class of warriors, the samurai. In the year 1185, general Minamoto no Yoritomo established a base of power in Kamakura. After Yoritomo’s death, another warrior clan, the Hojo, came to rule as regents for the shoguns. The shogunate managed to repel Mongol invasions from Mongol-occupied Korea in 1274 and 1281, with assistance from a storm that the Japanese interpreted as divine intervention, and named kamikaze (Storm of God). The Kamakura shogunate lasted another fifty years. Its successor, the Ashikaga shogunate, was much weaker, and Japan soon fell into warring factions. The “Warring States” or Sengoku period ensued.

During the 16th century, traders and missionaries from Portugal reached Japan for the first time, initiating the Nanban (“southern barbarian”) period of active commercial and cultural exchange between Japan and the West (and even China). During the last quarter of this century, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu established increasingly strong control over the warring states of Japan. Toyotomi reunified the country, and the Tokugawa shogunate pursued a policy of isolation. This period of isolation lasted for two and a half centuries, a time of tenuous political unity known as the Edo period, considered to be the height of Japan’s medieval culture.

Modern era

In 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy forced the opening of Japan to the West with the Convention of Kanagawa. The Boshin War of 1867 to 1868 led to the resignation of the shogunate, and the Meiji Restoration established a government centered around the emperor.

Japan adopted numerous Western institutions during the Meiji period, including a modern government, legal system, and military. These reforms helped transform the Empire of Japan into a world power, defeating China in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). By 1910, Japan controlled Korea, Taiwan, and the southern half of Sakhalin.

The early 20th century saw a brief period of “Taisho democracy” overshadowed by the rise of Japanese expansionism. World War I enabled Japan, which fought on the side of the victorious Allies, to expand its influence in Asia, and its territorial holdings in the Pacific. In 1936, however, Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact, joining with Germany and Italy to form the Axis alliance. During this period, Japan invaded China, occupying Manchuria in 1931, and continued its expansion into China proper in 1937, starting the Second Sino-Japanese War, which lasted until the end of World War II. In 1941, after US President Franklin D. Roosevelt demanded that Japan withdraw its forces from China, Japan attacked the United States naval base in Pearl Harbor as well as British and Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia, bringing itself and the United States into the war.

After a long campaign in the Pacific Ocean, Japan lost its initial territorial gains, and American forces moved close enough to begin strategic bombing of Tokyo, Osaka, and other major cities, as well as the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese eventually agreed to an unconditional surrender to the Allies on August 15, 1945 (V-J Day). The Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal was convened on May 3, 1946 to prosecute Japanese war crimes, including atrocities like the Nanking Massacre. Emperor Hirohito, however, was given immunity and retained his title.

The war cost millions of lives in Japan and other countries, especially in East Asia, and left much of the country’s industries and infrastructure destroyed. Official American occupation lasted until 1952, although U.S. forces still retain important bases in Japan, especially in Okinawa. In 1947, Japan adopted a new pacifist constitution, seeking international cooperation and emphasizing human rights and democratic practices.

After the occupation, under a program of aggressive industrial development and U.S. assistance, Japan achieved spectacular growth to become one of the largest economies in the world. Despite a major stock market crash in 1990, from which the country is recovering gradually, Japan remains a global economic power today and is now bidding for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

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