Brief history of Japan summarized
A brief tour of the extensive history of Japan, in an entertaining and summarized way.
The first Japanese
Humans have lived in Japan for at least 30,000 years. During the last ice age, Japan was connected to mainland Asia by a land bridge, and stone age hunters were able to cross it on foot. When the ice age ended, around 10,000 BC, Japan became a group of islands.
Around 8,000 BC the ancient Japanese learned to make pottery. The period from 8,000 BC to 300 BC is called the Jomon. The word Jomon means ‘marked cord’ because those people marked their pottery by wrapping it with cord.
The Jomon people lived by hunting, fishing, and gathering shellfish. The Jomon made tools from stone, wood, and bone. They also made clay figures of people and animals called dogu.
Between 300 BC and 300 AD a new era began in Japan. At that time the Japanese learned to grow rice. They also learned to make bronze and iron tools. The Japanese also learned to weave cloth.
This period is called Yayoi. (It is named after a town called Yayoicho). Farming meant a more settled lifestyle. The Yayoi people lived in log cabin villages. Farming and other skills also meant that society was divided into classes. The leaders of the Yayoi society were buried in mounds away from the cemeteries of the common people.
The Kofun period in Japan
The Yayoi period was followed by the Kofun (300 to 710 AD). At that time, Japan was slowly coming together. The rich and powerful men of the time were buried in vast tombs called Kofun. Clay figures called haniwa were placed around the tombs to protect them.
At the time, Japan was heavily influenced by China. Around the year 400 AD, writing was introduced to Japan from China. The Japanese also learned how to make paper from the Chinese. They also learned how to make porcelain, silk, and lacquer. The Japanese also learned to plan cities in the Chinese way.
According to tradition, in AD 552 the king of Paekche in Korea sent priests to convert Japan to Buddhism. The native Japanese religion is called Shinto, which means “the way of the gods.” Shintoism teaches that spirits are present throughout nature. Every natural phenomenon like a mountain, a lake, a tree, a waterfall and even a rock has a spirit.
Shintoism has no prophets or a holy book, but its teachings were passed down in myths. Shintoism has many ceremonies and festivals. The two religions, Buddhism and Shinto, coexisted peacefully in Japan.
Shinto cares more about this life and its followers often pray for things they need or want. Buddhism is more concerned with what happens after death. Most Japanese were content to practice both religions.
Also, in the 7th century AD the emperor became more powerful. Prince Shotoku (574-622) ruled as regent for Empress Suiko. He was a patron of the arts and learning. He brought scholars from China and Korea to Japan and adopted the Chinese calendar.
Shotoku also built the Horyuji Buddhist temple and monastery in 607. It burned down in 670 but was rebuilt and became a center of Buddhist learning. Today they are the oldest surviving wooden structures in the world.
After him, in the year 646, a series of reforms became known as the Taika. Since then, all the lands in Japan have belonged to the emperor.
Peasants were forced to pay taxes to the emperor, either in goods such as rice or cloth, or in labor, working on construction sites or serving as soldiers. In the year 670 a census was carried out to find out the number of taxpayers. At the end of the 7th century, Japan was a centralized and highly civilized kingdom.
At that time the capital of Japan was shocked when an emperor died as people believed that he was not lucky to stay in the same place afterwards. However, following Chinese custom, the Japanese decided to create a permanent capital. They built a city at Nara in the year 710.
At that time Japan was divided into provinces. In the year 713 the governor of each Japanese province was ordered to write a report on his province. The reports described the products of each province, as well as its plants, animals, and other resources.
However, in the 8th century, Buddhist monks and priests began to interfere in politics. So in 784 Emperor Kammu (737-806) decided to move the capital from him. Finally, in 794 he moved to Heian-Kyo, which means “peace capital”. The city’s name was later changed to Kyoto and it was the official capital of Japan until 1868.
The Heian period in Japan
The era from 794 to 1185 is called the Heian period. During this period the arts and learning flourished. Around 1000 AD Lady Murasaki Shikibu wrote the world’s first novel The Tale of Genji, a story about the life of a prince named Genji. Another book from that time is a diary written by a lady-in-waiting named Sei Shonagon. It’s called The Pillow Book.
Meanwhile, in the early 9th century, Dengo Daishi founded the Tendai Buddhist sect. A little later, Kobo Daishi founded the Shingon sect. Meanwhile, in the late 7th century, an aristocratic family called the Fujiwara became very powerful. They had a growing influence on Japanese politics.
Furthermore, outside of Kyoto, the emperor’s power weakened. Wealthy landowners became increasingly powerful and employed private armies (Japanese warriors were called Samurai).
In feudal Japan, samurai were hereditary warriors who followed a code of conduct called bushido. Samurai were supposed to be completely loyal and self-disciplined. Instead of being captured by enemy samurai, they were supposed to commit suicide by disemboweling themselves.
This was called seppuku. Samurai fought with long swords called katanas and short swords called wakizashi. They also used spears called yari and daggers called tanta. Samurai also had spikes called kogai and small knives called kozuka.
The main piece of armor to protect the torso was called haramaki. It had skirts called kaskazuri to protect the lower torso. A helmet was called a kabuto. A kabuto had neck guards called shikoro. Sometimes he had a crest called a kaijirushi.
The neck was also protected by a piece called nowdawa. Samurai also wore masks called mempo. They wore armored sleeves called kote to protect their arms.
Finally, in 1180 a civil war broke out between powerful rival families in Japan. On one side was the Taira family (also called Heike). On the other side was the Minamoto family (also called Genepi). The Minamoto were supported by the Fujiwara.
They were led by two brothers, Yoritomo and Yoshitsune. The Taira were finally defeated by the Minamoto in a sea battle at Dannoura in 1185.
Japan in the Middle Ages
In 1192 the emperor gave Yoritomo the title of Sei Tai Shogun, meaning barbarian conqueror of the great general. The shogun became the true power in Japan, ruling in the name of the emperor. This new form of government was called bakufu, which means tent government, as generals gave orders from their tents during war.
After Yoritomo’s death, two of his sons ruled Japan. However, the second son was killed in 1219. Power passed to Yoritomo’s wife’s family, the Hojo. Afterwards, Japan had an Emperor, who was just a figurehead, a Shogun, and a Hojo Regent who ruled in the name of the Shogun.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, the city and trade in Japan grew and the merchants became rich. They were organized into guilds. Also at this time Zen Buddhism became popular. Zen emphasizes meditation. Some followers meditate trying to empty their minds of all worldly thoughts and desires.
Others meditate on puzzles called Koans, such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping? Zen had a tremendous influence on arts such as gardening and flower arranging. (Japanese flower arrangement is called Ikebana and from the 15th century it became a sophisticated art.)
Also at this time the tea ceremony evolved in Japan. According to tradition, a monk named Eisai (1141-1215) brought tea seeds from China in 1191. He believed that tea helped monks stay alert when meditating. To keep calm, the tea was brewed slowly and carefully.
Gradually the process of making and drinking tea in a calm and relaxing environment spread to the nobility and merchants. Finally, in the late 16th century, the cha-no-yu or tea ceremony was developed into its modern form by Sen no Rikyu (1522-1519).
In the middle of this era the Mongols tried to conquer Japan. They sent out fleets in 1274 and 1281. In 1274 the Mongols landed but withdrew when their fleet was threatened by a storm. In 1281 the Mongols landed again.
For seven weeks they held a bridgehead in Japan, but again their fleet was scattered by a typhoon. The Japanese called it Kamikaze, which means divine wind.
Fighting the Mongols costs a lot of money. That in turn meant high taxes, and inevitably the government became deeply unpopular. Meanwhile, Emperor Go-Daigo was not content to be a mere figurehead and in 1333 he raised an army to fight the Hojo.
The Hojos sent a force under the command of a general named Ashikaga Takauji (1305-1358). However, Takauji changed sides. He joined forces with Emperor Go-Daigo and the Hojos committed suicide. However, Go-Daigo and Ashikaga Takauji soon fell out.
In 1336 Takauji led a rebellion. Go-Daigo fled to Yoshino. Takauji created a rival emperor in Kyoto and ruled as shogun. So until 1392 Japan had two emperors.
The Muromachi period in Japan
The era from 1333 to 1573 is called the Muromachi period because the Ashikaga family ruled from the Muromachi district of Kyoto. During the Muromachi period Noh theater developed in Japan. The actors were masks and perform on a bare stage with a painted background. The musicians accompany the actors.
In addition, two great monuments are preserved from the Muromachi era, the Kinkaku-ji and the Ginkaku-ji, (gold and silver pavilions) of Kyoto.
However, in 1466 the Ashikaga family argued over who would be the next shogun. The argument turned into the Onin War of 1467-1477. The fighting took place mainly in and around Kyoto and much of the city was destroyed.
By the end of the fifteenth century, the central authority had practically disappeared. While there was still an emperor, he was just a figurehead and Japan was afflicted by a long series of civil wars as rival landlords, called daimyos, fought for power.
The Portuguese arrive in Japan
In 1542 the Portuguese arrived in Japan. Two Portuguese were passengers on a Chinese ship that landed on the island of Tanegashima. The Portuguese were eager to trade with the Japanese and soon returned. Very quickly the Japanese learned how to make weapons from the Portuguese.
The Portuguese also brought tobacco and sweet potatoes to Japan. They also brought watches. The Japanese called the Portuguese namban, meaning southern barbarians because they sailed to Japan from the south.
In 1549 Jesuit missionaries led by Francis Xavier arrived in Japan and attempted to convert the Japanese to Roman Catholicism. At first the Japanese tolerated them. In 1571 Nagasaki was founded to trade with Europeans and became a center of missionary activity.
Meanwhile, Japanese warfare was radically changed by the introduction of firearms and cannons. A warlord named Oda Nobunaga quickly learned to use the new weapons and in 1569 he captured the port of Sakai. In 1575 he won a great victory at Nagashino. When he died in 1582 he controlled central Japan.
Oda Nobunaga was assassinated in 1582, but his general Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) avenged his death and continued the work of reuniting Japan. In 1587 he subdued the southern island of Kyushu and in 1590 he also conquered eastern Japan. Toyotomi then attempted to conquer Korea. However, it failed and the Japanese withdrew in 1598. Toyotomi died soon after.
Toyotomi wanted his son Hideyori to succeed him. Before he died, Toyotomi convinced his general Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) to promise to support his son. However, Ieyasu soon broke his promise to him and seized power. In 1600 he crushed his rivals at Sekigahara, though Hideyori survived.
In 1603 Ieyasu was appointed shogun and in 1615 his forces captured Osaka Castle, Hideyori’s stronghold. Hideyori committed suicide. Japan was now united under a strong central government and the Tokugawa family ruled as shogun until 1868.
The Tokugawa period in Japan
During the Tokugawa period, Japanese society was strictly divided. At the top were the daimyo, the landowners. Below them were the samurai, hereditary warriors. Below them came the farmers, the artisans, and then the merchants. (The merchants were at the bottom because they did nothing. In reality, however, many merchants became very rich.)
Meanwhile, in 1600, a badly damaged Dutch ship landed in Japan. On board was an Englishman, William Adams (1564-1620). He was brought to Ieyasu, who questioned him. Adams showed the Japanese how to build two European-style ships. He also married a Japanese woman and lived in Japan until his death.
In 1609 another Dutch ship arrived in Japan. The shogun granted the Dutch the right to trade with Japan. In 1613 an English ship arrived and the shogun also gave them the right to trade. Meanwhile, Japanese merchants were sailing to Thailand and the Philippines (a Spanish colony). In 1610 a Japanese merchant named Tanaka Shosuke set sail for Mexico.
However, despite trading with foreigners, the Japanese began to persecute Christians. The government feared that the Christians were a threat to Japan’s internal security. In 1597 Toyotomi Hideyoshi had 26 Christians, including 9 European missionaries, crucified in Nagasaki.
In 1612 Christianity was completely banned in Japan and the persecution of Christians became worse and worse. Finally, in 1637, the Christians in the Shimabara area revolted. However, in 1638 the rebellion was crushed and the Christians massacred.
The Japanese government then isolated their country from the rest of the world. Between 1633 and 1639, laws were passed that prohibited the Japanese from traveling abroad or building ocean-going ships. Only the Chinese and the Dutch were allowed to trade with Japan. In 1641 the Dutch were restricted to an island in the port of Nagasaki called Dejima.
This isolation policy of Japan was called sakoku. However, Japan did not completely isolate itself from the outside world. Dutch books continued to be imported and the Japanese ruling class was very well informed of what was happening in the outside world.
The Tokugawa government did its best to maintain order. They directly controlled about a quarter of the land in Japan. Around their lands they gave lands to trusted daimyos. The land around the borders of Japan was given to their former enemies. The Tokugawa also used spies to keep tabs on powerful families in Japan.
The arts flourished during the Tokugawa period. Also trade and commerce. However, Japan was not entirely peaceful. There were many peasant rebellions. However, the samurai were less useful than in times past and many became ronin or lordless samurai.
In the late 17th century, Kabuki theater developed in Japan. The male actors play the female roles and the actors are accompanied by music and singing. The martial art of kendo developed into its modern form in the late 18th century. It was derived from samurai training, but practitioners use bamboo staves instead of swords.
In 1853 the Western powers wanted Japan to open its market to their goods. The Americans also wanted to use Japan as a coaling station for steamships. So in July 1853 4 American ships commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Japanese waters near Edo.
Perry delivered a message asking for trading rights, coal ports, and protection for shipwrecked sailors. Perry warned that he would return next year with a much larger force. He returned in February 1854 with 9 ships.
The Japanese armed forces were in no condition to resist, so the shogun agreed to open two ports to American ships. In 1856, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Russia also forced Japan to sign similar treaties. In 1858 the Americans forced the Japanese to open more ports for trade.
Britain, France, and Russia forced Japan to sign similar treaties. The treaties stated that the Japanese could only charge low import duties on imported goods. Also, foreign citizens are exempt from Japanese law.
The Meiji Restoration
Not surprisingly, the humiliating treaties were bitterly resented by the Japanese, who called them unequal treaties. Also, the shogun lost face due to his weakness. Many Japanese thought that Japan would only be strong if the shogunate was abolished and the emperor restored to power.
Some Japanese wanted to resist foreigners. Others wanted to copy Western technology. Opinion was bitterly divided.
Finally, in 1868 there was a brief civil war. The pro-emperor and pro-shogun forces clashed at Fushimi and the pro-emperor force won. Later, Emperor Meiji and his followers were determined to modernize Japan. And they were successful. In a surprisingly short period of time, Japan was transformed from a primitive, agricultural country to a modern industrial country.
The government encouraged industrialization with loans and grants. Soon many new industries, such as shipbuilding, flourished. In 1870, the first mechanized silk factory was opened in Japan. Also in 1870 a telegraph was placed between Tokyo (as Edo was renamed) and Yokohama.
In 1872 a railway was built between them. Meanwhile, in 1871, the private armies maintained by daimyo were abolished. Many samurai joined the new national army. That same year the first Japanese newspaper was published.
Compulsory education was introduced in Japan in 1872. In the same year compulsory military service was introduced. In 1878 the Japanese Army was reformed to be like the German Army. The Japanese navy was modeled after the British navy. In 1873 Japan adopted the Western calendar.
The same year a land tax was introduced and the emperor and empress began to wear western clothing. In 1889 the Meiji Emperor granted a constitution based on the German one. Japan got a parliament called a diet, but only a small minority of men got to vote.
However, these rapid changes were not popular with everyone. In 1877, samurai led by Saigo Takamori (1827-1877) rebelled in Satsuma. An army of conscripts led by Marshal Yamagata crushed the rebellion. Later, the samurai lost their privileges and most were forced to accept civilian jobs.
In 1894, Japan and China fell out over Korea. China considered Korea to be under China’s “influence” and in 1894 sent troops to that country. The Japanese objected and went to war. The Sino-Japanese War was an impressive victory for Japan. The Japanese quickly drove the Chinese out of Korea and captured Port Arthur.
By the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895 Japan gained Formosa (Taiwan) and Port Arthur. China was also forced to pay a large indemnity and refrain from interfering in Korean politics. However, Russia, France, and Germany forced Japan to return Port Arthur.
Japan in the early 20th century
Then on January 30, 1902, Japan signed a treaty with Great Britain. They both agreed to help each other if they were attacked by two other countries. Meanwhile, Russia was increasing her influence in Manchuria, which brought her into conflict with Japan. On February 9, 1904, the Japanese navy sank two Russian ships in Port Arthur (Russia had leased this port from China in 1898).
The Japanese then besieged Port Arthur, but it took 5 months to capture it. However, the Japanese army gradually advanced into Manchuria, and on May 27, 1905, the Japanese navy won a complete victory at Tsushima.
The Americans mediated between Russia and Japan, and the two signed the Treaty of Portsmouth in September 1905. Japan gained Port Arthur and the southern part of Sakhalin. Japan also gained great prestige. It was the first Asian power to defeat a European power.
Then in 1910 Korea was annexed by Japan. Furthermore, by 1911 all foreign countries had agreed to abolish the “unequal treaties” of the 1850s. By the time Emperor Meiji died in 1912, Japan was a power to be reckoned with.
When World War I began, Japan joined the British side. Japan took German colonies in Asia. However, after the war, Japan’s growing economic and political power brought it into conflict with the United States.
In 1921 the Washington Conference was held. Britain and the United States pressured Japan to agree to a naval treaty. For every 5 tons of warship Britain and the US had in the Pacific, Japan was allowed 3. So the Western powers were determined to keep Japan in her place.
Then, on September 1, 1923, an earthquake devastated Tokyo. After the fire that swept through the city, some 107,000 people died. In 1924, Japan suffered another “slap in the face” when the United States banned immigration from Japan.
In 1926 Hirohito became emperor. In the early years of Hirohito’s reign, the Japanese economy did well, but in 1929 the world entered a severe recession. Meanwhile, Japan had an army stationed in Manchuria around Port Arthur.
The Japanese also controlled much of the Manchurian economy. The Japanese army thought that Japan should take control of Manchuria and in 1931 the army engineered a takeover. Japan controlled a railway that passed through Manchuria. On September 18, 1931 an explosion near Mukden damaged it.
The Japanese troops claimed that they saw the Chinese troops fleeing. The Japanese army then acted independently and seized Muckden. In December 1931 the army seized all of Manchuria. The Japanese government was unable to stop them.
Meanwhile, the Chinese emperor had been overthrown in 1911. In 1932 he was made the puppet ruler of Manchuria, which was renamed Manchukuo. However, the real power in the region was the Japanese military. Japanese politicians could not stop the generals.
The Japanese military gradually took control of Japan. Civilian politicians remained the nominal rulers, but the army held the real power. Politicians were too weak to resist them.
Many in the military pushed to expand into China. In 1936 China was forced to accept the Japanese occupation of an area of China called Fengtai, near Beijing.
Tension between Japanese and Chinese troops in that region increased, and on July 7, 1937, fighting broke out. Japan sent troops to the area, and it soon escalated into a full-scale invasion of China, although there was no formal declaration of war. In December 1937 the Japanese captured Nanking and massacred civilians.
Then in July 1941 Japanese troops occupied French Indochina. The US objected, fearing that Japan was a threat to its interests in the Pacific. The United States banned oil exports to Japan. Japan imported 80% of its oil from the US and had to choose between a humiliating decline and war. The Japanese chose war.
Japan sent a force of aircraft carriers and on December 7, 1941, they attacked the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese sank many ships, but lost several American aircraft carriers that were at sea.
At first, the Japanese were amazingly successful. In February 1942 they captured Singapore, the main British base in the Far East. In the months of January to May 1942 they also captured the Philippines and most of Indonesia. However, the tide turned at the Battle of Midway Island in May 1942 when they lost 4 carriers.
In January-February 1943 the Japanese were forced to evacuate Guadalcanal and in August 1943 they were defeated by the Australians in New Guinea. Meanwhile, in June 1943, the Americans began submarine warfare and Japanese shipping suffered terrible losses.
The Americans also launched an “island hopping” campaign. They attacked some Pacific islands held by the Japanese and left others nearby to “wither on the vine.” The Japanese suffered a severe naval defeat in Leyte Gulf in October 1944.
Beginning in March 1945, Japanese kamikaze pilots flew suicide missions, deliberately crashing into American ships. But it was in vain. In June 1945 the Americans captured Okinawa.
Meanwhile, American bombing was destroying Japanese cities. On July 26, 1945, Truman and Churchill demanded the surrender of Japan and threatened the Japanese with “swift and total destruction” if they did not. Japan refused.
On August 6, 1945, an American bomber, the Enola Gay, dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. On August 9, another was dropped on Nagasaki.
Japan capitulated on August 15, 1945. An official surrender document was signed on September 2. After the surrender of the Japanese, the Americans occupied Japan. General MacArthur led the American troops. Under his command, seven Japanese war criminals were hanged, including Prime Minister Tojo Hideki.
Japan in the late 20th century
The emperor publicly announced that he was not divine, and in 1946 the Americans drafted a new constitution for Japan. Women can vote. The constitution also contained a clause renouncing the “threat or use of force as a means of resolving international disputes.”
Also, the island of Okinawa was occupied until 1972. Meanwhile, the Korean War began in 1950. It provided a boost to Japanese industry, and by 1954 Japanese industrial production had returned to 1939 levels.
In 1955 the Liberal Democratic Party took power and ruled Japan for most of the period from 1955 to 2009.
Meanwhile, during the 1950s and 1960s, the Japanese economy boomed. Japanese industry exported a large number of electronic products and vehicles. The Japanese people experienced a great improvement in their standard of living.
Japan’s rapid economic growth continued through the 1970s and 1980s, while much of the rest of the world was mired in recession.
However, in the 1990s the period of rapid economic growth ended and a long recession began, although Japan remained a rich country. Worse yet, in 1995, the city of Kobe was devastated by an earthquake. Meanwhile, Emperor Hirohito died in 1989 and was succeeded by Emperor Akihito.