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History of Japan

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Human habitation in the Japanese archipelago can be traced back to prehistoric times. The Jōmon period, named after its "cord-marked" pottery, was superseded by the Yayoi in the first millennium BC, when new technologies were introduced from continental Asia. During this period, in the first century AD, the first known written reference to Japan was recorded in the Chinese Book of Han. Between the third century and the eighth century, Japan's many kingdoms and tribes gradually unified under a centralized government, nominally controlled by the Emperor. The imperial dynasty established at this time continues to reign over Japan to this day. In 794, a new imperial capital was established at Heian-kyō (modern Kyoto), marking the beginning of the Heian period, which lasted until 1185. The Heian period is considered a golden age of classical Japanese culture. Japanese religious life from this time and onwards was a mix of Buddhism, which had been introduced via Korea, and native religious practices known as Shinto.

Over the following centuries the power of the emperor and the imperial court gradually declined and passed to the military clans and their armies of samurai warriors. The Minamoto clan under Minamoto no Yoritomo emerged victorious from the Genpei War of 1180–85. After seizing power, Yoritomo set up his capital in Kamakura and took the title of shōgun, which literally means "general". In 1274 and 1281, the Kamakura shogunate withstood two Mongol invasions, but in 1333 it was toppled by a rival claimant to the shogunate, ushering in the Muromachi period. During the Muromachi period regional warlords known as daimyō grew in power at the expense of the shōgun. Eventually, Japan descended into a long period of civil war. Over the course of the late sixteenth century, Japan was reunified thanks to the leadership of the daimyō Oda Nobunaga and his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi. After Hideyoshi's death in 1598, Tokugawa Ieyasu came to power and was appointed shōgun by the emperor. The Tokugawa shogunate, which governed from Edo (modern Tokyo), presided over a prosperous and peaceful era known as the Edo period (1600–1868). The Tokugawa shogunate imposed a strict class system upon Japanese society and cut off almost all contact with the outside world.

The American Perry Expedition in 1853–54 ended Japan's seclusion which in turn led to the gradual fall of the shogunate and the return of power to the emperor in 1868. The new national leadership of the following Meiji period transformed their isolated, underdeveloped island country into an empire that closely followed Western models and became a world power. Although democracy developed during the Taishō period (1912–26), Japan's powerful military had great autonomy and overruled Japan's civilian leaders in the 1920s and 1930s. The military invaded Manchuria in 1931, and from 1937 the conflict escalated into a prolonged war with China. Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 led to war with the United States and its allies. Japan's forces soon became overextended, but the military held out in spite of US air attacks which inflicted severe damage on population centers. In August 1945 the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria made it possible for the reigning emperor, Hirohito, to force the military to surrender.

The Allies occupied Japan until 1952. Under the supervision of the Allied occupation forces a new constitution was enacted in 1947 that transformed Japan into a parliamentary monarchy. After 1955, Japan enjoyed very high economic growth rates, and became a world economic powerhouse. Since the 1990s, economic stagnation has been a major issue. An earthquake and tsunami in 2011 caused massive economic dislocations and a serious nuclear disaster.

Prehistoric and ancient Japan[edit]

Paleolithic and Jōmon period[edit]

Jōmon period pottery

Modern humans arrived in southern east Asia 60,000 years ago.[1] It is likely that hominids first reached Japan hundreds of thousands of years ago[2] by crossing the land bridges that have periodically formed, linking the archipelago to the continent at Korea in the southwest and Sakhalin in the north. The earliest firm evidence is of early Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherers from 40,000 years ago, when Japan was separated from the continent. Edge-ground axes dating to 32-38,000 years ago, found in 224 sites in Honshu and Kyushu, are unlike anything found in neighbouring areas of continental Asia,[3] and have been proposed as evidence for the first Homo sapiens in Japan; watercraft appear to have been in use in this period.[4] The earliest skeletal remains, in Okinawa ('Minatogawa Man') and human skeletons in Ishigaki, date back to 16-20,000 years ago.[5][6]

The Jōmon period (縄文 時代 Jōmon jidai?) is the time in Prehistoric Japan from about 12,000 BC[7] and in some cases cited as early as 14,500 BC[8] to about 800 BC,[9] when Japan was inhabited by a hunter-gatherer culture which reached a considerable degree of sedentism and cultural complexity. The name "cord-marked" was first applied by the American scholar Edward S. Morse who discovered shards of pottery in 1877 and subsequently translated it into Japanese as jōmon.[10] The pottery style characteristic of the first phases of Jōmon culture was decorated by impressing cords into the surface of wet clay. This pottery, dated to around 16,000 years ago (14,000 BC), is perhaps the oldest in the world.[11]

Yayoi period[edit]

Main article: Yayoi period
A Yayoi period bronze bell, third century AD

New technologies and modes of living took over from the Jomon culture, spreading from northern Kyushu. The date of the change was until recently thought to be around 400 BC,[12][13] but radio-carbon evidence suggests a date up to 500 years earlier, between 1,000–800 BC.[2][9] The period was named after a district in Tokyo where a new, unembellished style of pottery was discovered in 1884. Though hunting and foraging continued, the Yayoi period brought a new reliance on agriculture.[2] Bronze and iron weapons and tools were imported from China and Korea, and later also produced in Japan.[14] The Yayoi period also saw the introduction of weaving and silk production,[15] glassmaking[16] and new techniques of woodworking.[2]

The population of Japan began to increase rapidly, perhaps with a 10-fold rise over the Jōmon, though calculations have varied from 1.5 to 4.5 million by the end of Yayoi.[17] Skeletal remains from the late Jomon period reveal a deterioration in already poor standards of health and nutrition, in contrast to Yayoi archaeological sites with large structures suggestive of grain storehouses. This change was accompanied by an increase in both the stratification of society and tribal warfare, indicated by segregated gravesites and military fortifications.[2] One particularly large and well-known Yayoi village is the Yoshinogari site which began to be excavated by archaeologists in the late-1980s.[18][19]

The Yayoi technologies originated on the Asian mainland. There is debate among scholars as to what extent their spread was accomplished by means of migration or simply a diffusion of ideas, or a combination of both. The migration theory is supported by genetic and linguistic studies.[2][20] Hanihara Kazurō has suggested that the annual immigrant influx from the continent ranged from 350 to 3,000.[21] Genetically, modern Japanese people are most similar to the Yayoi people, whereas Japan's Ainu are, according to the historian Kenneth Henshall, likely to be the direct descendants of the Jōmon. It took time for the Yayoi people and their descendants to fully displace the Jōmon, who continued to exist in northern Honshu until the eighth century AD.[20]

During the Yayoi period the Yayoi tribes gradually coalesced into a number of kingdoms. The earliest written work of history to mention Japan, the Book of Han completed around 82 AD, states that Japan, referred to as Wa, was divided into one hundred kingdoms. A later Chinese work of history, the Wei Zhi, states that by 240 AD one powerful kingdom had gained ascendancy over the others. According to the Wei Zhi, this kingdom was called Yamatai and was ruled by Queen Himiko. Modern historians dispute the location of Yamatai and the accuracy of its depiction in the Wei Zhi.[20]

Kofun period (c. 250–538)[edit]

Main article: Kofun period
Daisenryō Kofun, Osaka

During the subsequent Kofun period, most of Japan gradually unified under a single kingdom. The symbol of the growing power of Japan's new leaders was the kofun burial mounds they constructed from around 250 onwards.[22] Many were of massive scale, such as the Daisenryō Kofun (ja), a 486 m-long keyhole-shaped burial mound which took huge teams of laborers fifteen years to complete.[23] The kofun were often surrounded by and filled with numerous haniwa clay sculptures, often in the shape of warriors and horses.[22]

The center of the unified state was Yamato in the Kinai region of central Japan.[22] The Yamato state extended its power across Japan through a combination of military conquest and co-opting local Uji clans into the ruling aristocracy.[22][23] The rulers of the state were a hereditary line of monarchs, later known as "emperors", who still reign as the world's longest surviving imperial dynasty.[22] Nevertheless, throughout the large majority of Japanese history the emperors have been figurehead rulers holding little real power.[24]

Territorial extent of Japan during the Kofun period

These leaders sought and received formal diplomatic recognition from China, and Chinese accounts record five successive such leaders as the Five kings of Wa.[23] Craftsmen and scholars from the Three Kingdoms of Korea played an important role in transmitting continental technologies, writing systems, and administrative skills to Japan during this period.[22][25][23]

Classical Japan[edit]

Asuka period (538–710)[edit]

Main article: Asuka period

The Asuka period began in 538 with the introduction from Korean kingdom of Baekje of the Buddhist religion, which has since coexisted with Japan's native Shinto.[24][26][27] The period draws its name from its de facto imperial capital, Asuka, in the Kinai region.[26]

The Buddhist Soga clan took over the government in 587 and controlled Japan from behind the scenes for nearly sixty years.[28] Prince Shōtoku, an advocate of Buddhism and the Soga cause who was of partial Soga descent, served as regent and de facto leader of Japan from 594 to 622.[29] Shōtoku authored the Seventeen-article constitution, a Confucian-inspired code of conduct for officials and citizens, and attempted to introduce a merit-based civil service called the Cap and Rank System. In a letter to the Emperor of China in 607, Shōtoku refers to Japan as "the land of the rising sun", and by 670 a variant of this expression, Nihon, established itself as the official name of the nation, which has persisted to this day.[24][29][30]

Prince Shōtoku

In 645 the Soga clan were overthrown in a coup launched by Prince Naka no Ōe and Fujiwara no Kamatari, the founder of the Fujiwara clan.[31] Their government devised and implemented the far-reaching Taika Reforms which nationalized all land in Japan, to be distributed equally among cultivators, and ordered the compilation of a household registry as the basis for a new system of taxation.[27][31] Subsequently the Jinshin War of 672, a bloody conflict between two rivals to the throne, became a major catalyst for further administrative reforms, culminating in the promulgation of the Taihō Code. The Code consolidated existing statutes and established the structure of the central government and its subordinate local governments.[31][32] These legal reforms created the ritsuryō state, a system of Chinese-style centralized government which remained in place for half a millennium.[32]

Nara period (710–794)[edit]

Main article: Nara period

In 710 the government moved to a grandiose new capital constructed at Heijō-kyō (present-day Nara), constructed in a grid pattern modeled on Chang'an, the capital of the Chinese Tang dynasty.[33] The period is noted for its major literary accomplishments. The first two books produced in Japan, the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki chronicle legendary accounts of Japan's beginnings and recount the history of the ruling imperial family which, the accounts claim, descended directly from the gods. Soon followed the earliest extant Japanese collections of Chinese poetry (the Kaifūsō) and Japanese poetry (the Man'yōshū).[34]

The period experience a series of natural disasters including wildfire, droughts, famines, and outbreaks of disease, such as a smallpox epidemic that killed over a quarter of Japan's population. Emperor Shōmu, who reigned from 724 to 749, feared that his own lack of piousness caused the trouble, and so increased the government's promotion of Buddhism, including the construction of Tōdai-ji Temple.[35] Japan nevertheless entered a phase of population decline which continued well into the subsequent Heian period.[36]

Heian period (794–1185)[edit]

Main article: Heian period
Miniature model of Heian-kyō

The capital moved briefly to Nagaoka-kyō in 784, and then in 794 to Heian-kyō (present-day Kyoto), where it remained until 1868.[37] At Heian-kyō the imperial court was a vibrant center of high art and culture.[38] Its literary accomplishments were especially noteworthy, including the poetry collection Kokinshū, the Tosa Diary, and the novel The Tale of Genji.[38][39] The early eleventh-century The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu is considered the supreme masterpiece of Japanese literature.[40] The appearance of the kana syllabaries was part of a general trend of declining Chinese influence during the Heian period. The Japanese missions to Tang China ended during the ninth century and afterwards Japan developed more typically Japanese forms of art and poetry.[38] A major architectural achievement, apart from Heian-kyō itself, was the temple of Byōdō-in built in 1053 in Uji.[41]

A handscroll painting dated c. 1130, illustrating a scene from the "Bamboo River" chapter of The Tale of Genji

Political power within the imperial court itself soon passed from the Emperor to the Fujiwara clan, a family of court nobles who had been close to the imperial family for centuries. In 858 Fujiwara no Yoshifusa had himself declared sesshō ("regent") to the underage emperor. His son Fujiwara no Mototsune created the office of kampaku, which could rule in the place of an adult reigning emperor.[38][42] The Fujiwara clan held onto power through these offices until the late eleventh century when the practice of cloistered rule became prevalent. Cloistered rule meant that the reigning emperor would retire early to manipulate the nominally ruling emperor from behind the scenes.[42]

Throughout the Heian period the power of the imperial court declined. The court became so self-absorbed with power struggles in Kyoto and with the artistic pursuits of court nobles that it neglected the administration of government outside the capital. The nationalization of land undertaken as part of the ritsuryō state decayed as various noble families and religious orders succeeded at securing tax-exempt status for their private shōen manors.[38] By the eleventh century more land in Japan was controlled by shōen owners than by the central government. The imperial court was thus deprived of the tax revenue to pay for its national army. In response, the owners of the shōen set up their own armies of samurai warriors.[43] Two powerful noble families descended from branches of the Japanese imperial family, the Taira and Minamoto clans, acquired large armies and many shōen outside the capital. The central government began to employ these two warrior clans to help suppress rebellions and piracy.[42]

In 1156 a dispute over succession to the throne erupted and the two rival claimants hired the Taira and Minamoto clans respectively in the hopes of securing the throne by military force. In this war, the Hōgen Rebellion, the Taira clan led by Taira no Kiyomori defeated the Minamoto clan. Kiyomori used his victory to accumulate power for himself in Kyoto until 1180 when he was challenged by an uprising led by Minamoto no Yoritomo, a member of the Minamoto clan whom Kiyomori had exiled to Kamakura. Though Taira no Kiyomori died in 1181, the bloody Genpei War between the Taira and Minamoto families continued until 1185 when the Minamoto scored a decisive victory at the naval battle of Dan-no-ura. Yoritomo and his retainers thus became the de facto rulers of Japan.[38]

Medieval Japan[edit]

Kamakura period (1185–1333)[edit]

Main article: Kamakura period

Upon seizing power, Yoritomo chose to rule in consort with the imperial court in Kyoto. Though Yoritomo set up his own government in Kamakura in the Kantō region east of Kyoto, he styled it as a bakufu, which means "tent headquarters", implying that the Kamakura government was merely the army of the central imperial court. In 1192 the emperor declared Yoritomo shōgun, an abbreviation of the title seii tai-shōgun ("barbarian-subduing great general").[44] Japan was to remain largely under military rule until 1868. The office of shōgun weakened however after Yoritomo's death in 1199. Behind the scenes, Yoritomo's wife Hōjō Masako, who was also a member of a samurai clan, became the true power behind the government. In 1203 her father Hōjō Tokimasa was appointed regent to the shōgun, Yoritomo's son Minamoto no Sanetomo, and henceforth the Minamoto shōguns became puppets of the Hōjō regents who wielded actual power.[45]

The regime which Yoritomo had established and which was kept in place by his successors was decentralized and feudalistic in structure in contrast with the earlier ritsuryō state.[44] Yoritomo selected the provincial governors, known under the titles of shugo or jitō, from among his close vassals, the gokenin. The Kamakura shogunate allowed its vassals to maintain their own armies and to administer law and order in their provinces on their own terms.[46]

A samurai doing battle with Mongol forces

The samurai armies of the whole nation were mobilized in 1274 and 1281 to confront two full-scale invasions launched by Kublai Khan of the Mongol Empire.[47] Though outnumbered by an enemy equipped with superior weaponry, the Japanese fought the Mongols to a standstill in Kyushu on both occasions until the Mongol fleet was destroyed by typhoons called kamikaze, meaning "divine wind". In spite of the Kamakura shogunate's victory, the defense so depleted its finances that it was unable to provide compensation to its vassals for their role in the victory. This had permanent deleterious consequences for the shogunate's relations with the samurai class.[44]

Japan nevertheless entered a period of prosperity and population growth starting around 1250. In rural areas greater use of iron tools and fertilizer, improved irrigation techniques, and double-cropping increased productivity and rural villages grew. There were fewer famines and epidemics which caused cities to grow and commerce to boom.[48] Buddhism, which had been largely a religion of the elites, was brought to the masses by such prominent monks as Hōnen, who established Pure Land Buddhism in Japan, and Nichiren, who founded Nichiren Buddhism. Zen Buddhism spread widely among the samurai class.[44][49]

Discontent among the samurai proved decisive in ending the Kamakura shogunate. In 1333 Emperor Go-Daigo launched a rebellion in the hope of restoring full power to the imperial court. The shogunate sent general Ashikaga Takauji to quell the revolt, but Takauji and his men instead joined forces with Go-Daigo and overthrew the Kamakura shogunate.[44]

Muromachi period (1333–1568)[edit]

Main articles: Muromachi period and Sengoku period
Ashikaga Takauji

Takauji and many other samurai soon became dissatisfied with Go-Daigo's Kenmu Restoration, an ambitious attempt to monopolize power in the imperial court. Takauji rebelled after Go-Daigo refused to appoint him shōgun. In 1338 Takauji captured Kyoto and installed a rival member of the imperial family on the throne, Emperor Kōmyō, who did appoint him shōgun. Go-Daigo responded by fleeing to the southern city of Yoshino where he set up a rival government. This ushered in a prolonged period of warfare between the Northern Court and the Southern Court.[50]

Takauji set up his shogunate in the Muromachi district of Kyoto. However, the shogunate was faced with the twin challenges not only of fighting the Southern Court, but also of maintaining its authority over its own subordinate governors. Like the Kamakura shogunate, the Muromachi shogunate appointed its allies to rule in the provinces, but increasingly these men styled themselves as the daimyo ("feudal lords") of their domains and they often refused to obey the shogun. The Ashikaga shogun who was most successful at bringing the country together was Takauji's grandson Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, who came to power in 1368 and remained influential until his death in 1408. Yoshimitsu expanded the power of the shogunate and in 1392 brokered a deal to bring the Northern and Southern Courts together and end the civil war. Henceforth the shogunate kept the emperor and his court under tight control.[50][51][52]

In spite of the war, Japan's relative economic prosperity which began in the Kamakura period continued well into the Muromachi period. By 1450 Japan's population stood at ten million, compared to six million at the end of the thirteenth century. Commerce flourished as never before, including considerable trade with China and Korea.[48] The cultural elite developed some of Japan's most representative art forms during the Muromachi period, including ink wash painting, ikebana flower arrangement, the tea ceremony, Japanese gardening, bonsai, and Noh theater.[51]

Map showing the territories of major daimyo families around 1570

During the final century of the Ashikaga shogunate the country descended into another, even more violent period of civil war which started in 1467 when the Ōnin War broke out over who would succeed the ruling shogun. The daimyos each took sides and burned Kyoto to the ground while battling for their preferred candidate. By the time the succession was settled in 1477 the shogun had lost all power over the daimyo who now ruled hundreds of independent states throughout Japan.[52] During this Warring States period, daimyo fought among themselves for control of the country. Not only the daimyo but also rebellious peasants and "warrior monks" affiliated with Buddhist temples raised their own armies.[51]

Amid this on-going anarchy a Chinese ship was blown off course and landed in 1543 on the Japanese island of Tanegashima just south of Kyushu. The three Portuguese traders on board were the first Europeans to set foot in Japan. Over the coming decades European traders introduced many new items to Japan, most importantly the musket.[50] By 1556 Japan's daimyos were already using about 300,000 muskets in their armies.[53] The Europeans also brought Christianity, which soon came to have a substantial following in Japan. The Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier disembarked in Kyushu in 1549.[50]

Azuchi–Momoyama period (1568–1600)[edit]

During the second half of the 17th century Japan gradually reunified under two powerful warlords, Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The period takes its name from Nobunaga's headquarters, Azuchi Castle, and Hideyoshi's headquarters, Momoyama Castle.[54]

Nobunaga was the daimyo of the small province of Owari who burst onto the scene suddenly in 1560 when, during the Battle of Okehazama, his army defeated a force several times its size led by the powerful daimyo Imagawa Yoshimoto. Nobunaga was renowned for his strategic leadership and his ruthlessness. He encouraged Christianity to incite hatred toward his Buddhist enemies and to forge strong relationships with European arms merchants. He equipped his armies with muskets and trained them with innovative tactics. He promoted talented men regardless of their social status, including his peasant servant Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who became one of his best generals.[55][56][57]

Japan in 1582, territory conquered by Oda Nobunaga in gray

The Azuchi-Momoyama period is often said to have begun in 1568 when Nobunaga seized Kyoto and thus effectively brought an end to the Ashikaga shogunate. He came close to reuniting all Japan when in 1582 one of his own officers, Akechi Mitsuhide, killed him during an abrupt attack on his encampment. Hideyoshi avenged Nobunaga by crushing Akechi's uprising and emerged as Nobunaga's successor. Hideyoshi completed the reunification of Japan by conquering Shikoku, Kyushu, and the lands of the Hōjō family in eastern Japan. He launched sweeping changes to Japanese society, including the confiscation of swords from the peasantry, new restrictions on daimyo, persecutions of Christians, a thorough population census, and a new law effectively forbidding the peasants and samurai from changing their social class. As Hideyoshi's power expanded he dreamed of conquering China and launched two massive invasions of Korea starting in 1592. Hideyoshi failed to defeat the Chinese and Korean armies on the Korean peninsula and the war ended only with his death in 1598.[55][56][58]

In the hope of founding a new dynasty, Hideyoshi had asked his most trusted subordinates to pledge loyalty to his infant son Toyotomi Hideyori. Despite this, almost immediately after Hideyoshi's death war broke out between Hideyori's allies and those loyal to Tokugawa Ieyasu, a daimyo and former ally of Hideyoshi.[55] Tokugawa Ieyasu won a decisive victory at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, ushering in 268 uninterrupted years of rule by the Tokugawa clan.[59]

Modern Japan[edit]

Edo period (1600–1868)[edit]

Main article: Edo period

The Edo period was characterized by relative peace, stability, and prosperity under the tight control of the Tokugawa shogunate, which ruled from the eastern city of Edo (modern Tokyo).[60][61] In 1603 Emperor Go-Yōzei declared Tokugawa Ieyasu shōgun, and Ieyasu abdicated two years later to groom his son as the second shōgun of what became a long dynasty.[60] Still, it took time for the Tokugawas to consolidate their rule. A plan to make their rival Hideyori a daimyo failed and instead Hideyori's castle was stormed and destroyed during the Siege of Osaka in 1615.[62] Soon after this the shogunate promulgated the Laws for the Military Houses imposing tighter controls on the daimyo. This was later coupled with the alternate attendance system, which required each daimyo to spend every other year in Edo under the watchful eye of the shōgun.[60][63] Even so, the daimyo continued to maintain a significant degree of autonomy in their domains within a system that the historian Edwin Reischauer called "centralized feudalism".[61] The central government of the shogunate in Edo, which quickly became the largest city in the world by population, took counsel from a group of senior advisors known as rōjū and employed samurai as bureaucrats.[60][64] The Emperor in Kyoto was funded lavishly by the government but was allowed no political power.[65]

Document with the original vermilion seal of Tokugawa Ieyasu, granting trade privileges in Japan to the English East India Company in 1613

The Tokugawa shogunate went to great lengths to suppress social unrest. Harsh penalties, including crucifixion, beheading, and death by boiling, were decreed for even the most minor offenses. Christianity, which was seen as a potential threat, was gradually clamped down on until finally, after the Christian-led Shimabara Rebellion of 1638, the religion was completely outlawed. To prevent further foreign ideas from sowing dissent the Tokugawa shogunate adopted the sakoku ("closed country") isolationist policy under which Japanese people were not allowed to travel abroad, return from overseas, or build ocean-going vessels. The only Europeans allowed on Japanese soil were the Dutch, who were granted a single trading post on the island of Dejima. China and Korea were the only other countries permitted to trade, and many foreign books were banned from import.[60][61]

Social structure of the Edo period

One of the most significant social policies of the Tokugawa shogunate was the freezing of Japan's social classes. The Tokugawas had adopted the philosophy of Neo-Confucianism as their state ideology, and were thus inspired to divide society into the Neo-Confucian hierarchy of four occupations, samurai, peasant farmers, artisans, and merchants. By law, no person was permitted to adopt a different occupation from the one he was born into or to marry a person of a different occupation. Outside of these four classes there were also court nobles, clergymen, and the untouchable burakumin class.[60][66]

During the first century of Tokugawa rule between 1600 and 1700, Japan's population doubled to thirty million people, due in large part to agricultural growth, but after that the population would remain stable for the rest of the period. The shogunate's construction of new roads, elimination of road and bridge tolls, and standardization of coinage promoted commercial expansion which also benefited the merchants and artisans of the cities.[67] Urbanization did take place, but almost ninety percent of the population continued to live in rural areas.[68] However, both the inhabitants of cities and of rural communities would benefit from one of the most notable social changes of the Edo period: increased literacy. The number of private schools in Japan, particularly schools attached to temples and shrines, greatly expanded, raising Japan's literacy rate to thirty per cent. This rate may have been the world's highest at that time.[60]

The Edo period was a time of prolific cultural output. During this period haiku emerged as a major form of literature. Matsuo Bashō, generally considered Japan's greatest haiku poet, was active during the first century of Tokugawa rule. Two important new styles of theater, kabuki drama and the puppet theater known as bunraku, were also created and popularized. The wealthy merchant class patronized poetry and theater, and were said to live hedonistic lives in an ukiyo ("floating world"). This lifestyle inspired both popular novels known as ukiyo-zōshi ("books of the floating world") and art known as ukiyo-e ("pictures of the floating world"), the latter of which were often woodblock prints.[69]

Decline and fall of the shogunate[edit]

Main articles: Bakumatsu and Meiji Restoration

By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the shogunate showed signs of weakening. The dramatic growth of agriculture which had characterized the early Edo period had ended and the government poorly handled the devastating Tenmei and Tenpo famines. Peasant unrest built and government revenues fell.[70][71] The shogunate cut the pay of the already financially distressed samurai, many of whom worked side jobs to make a living.[72] Discontented samurai were soon to play a major role in engineering the downfall of the Tokugawa shogunate.[73][74]

At the same time, the people drew inspiration from new ideas and fields of study. Dutch books brought into Japan stimulated interest in Western learning, called rangaku or "Dutch learning", though the shogunate restricted and sometimes banned such study.[71][74] The philosophy of kokugaku or "National Learning" arose, promoting what it asserted were native Japanese values. It criticized the Chinese-style Neo-Confucianism advocated by the shogunate and emphasized the emperor's divine authority, which the Shinto faith taught had its roots in Japan's "Age of the Gods".[75]

Samurai of the Satsuma domain during the Boshin War

The arrival in 1853 of a fleet of American ships commanded by Commodore Matthew C. Perry threw Japan into turmoil. The US government aimed to end Japan's isolationist policies. The shogunate had no defense against Perry's gunboats and had to agree to his demands that American ships be permitted to acquire provisions and trade at Japanese ports. The US, Great Britain, Russia, and other Western powers imposed what became known as "unequal treaties" on Japan which stipulated that Japan must allow citizens of these countries to visit or reside on Japanese territory and must not levy tariffs on their imports or try them in Japanese courts.[71][76]

The shogunate's failure to oppose the Western powers angered many Japanese, particularly those of the southern domains of Chōshū and Satsuma. Many samurai there, inspired by the nationalist doctrines of the kokugaku school, adopted the slogan of sonnō jōi ("revere the Emperor, expel the barbarian"). The two domains went on to form an alliance and in 1868 convinced the young Emperor Meiji and his advisors to issue a rescript calling for an end to the Tokugawa shogunate. The armies of Chōshū and Satsuma marched on Edo. The ensuing Boshin War led to the fall of the shogunate.[71][77]

Meiji period (1868–1912)[edit]

Main article: Meiji period
Emperor Meiji, the 122nd emperor of Japan

Starting in 1868 Japan underwent major political, economic, and cultural changes, many spearheaded by Japan's new leadership who desired Japan to become a modern, unified nation-state which could stand equal to the Western imperialist powers.[78][79] The emperor was restored to nominal supreme power, but those most powerful in the government were former samurai from Chōshū and Satsuma rather than Meiji, who was fifteen in 1868. In 1869 the imperial family moved to Edo, which was renamed Tokyo ("eastern capital").[78]

Political and social reforms[edit]

The Meiji government abolished feudalism and the Neo-Confucian class structure, and replaced the domains of the daimyo with prefectures. It instituted comprehensive tax reform and lifted the ban on Christianity. Major government priorities included the introduction of railways, telegraph lines, and a universal education system. In 1872 the government began work toward compulsory primary school attendance.[78][80]

The Meiji government promoted widespread Westernization and hired hundreds of advisers from Western nations with expertise in such fields as education, mining, banking, law, military affairs, and transportation to remodel Japan's institutions. The Japanese adopted the Gregorian calendar, Western clothing, and Western hairstyles. One leading advocate of Westernization was the popular writer Fukuzawa Yukichi.[78][81] The government also developed a form of Japanese nationalism under which Shinto became the state religion and the Emperor was declared a living god. Schools nationwide instilled patriotic values and loyalty to the Emperor.[78][82]

Government institutions developed rapidly in response to Freedom and People's Rights Movement, a grassroots campaign demanding greater popular participation in politics. Itō Hirobumi, the first Prime Minister of Japan, responded by writing the Meiji Constitution, promulgated in 1889. The new constitution established an elected lower house, the House of Representatives, but its powers were restricted. Only two percent of the population were eligible to vote, and legislation proposed in the House required the support of the unelected upper house, the House of Peers. Both the cabinet of Japan and the Japanese military were directly responsible not to the elected legislature but to the Emperor.[78]

Rise of imperialism and the military[edit]

Yamagata Aritomo, who was born a samurai in Chōshū domain, masterminded the reform and enlargement of the Imperial Japanese Army, including modernization and the introduction of national conscription.[83][84] The new army was put to use in 1877 to crush the Satsuma Rebellion of discontented samurai in southern Japan.[78]

The Japanese military spearheaded Japan's expansion abroad. The government believed that Japan had to acquire its own colonies to compete with the Western colonial powers. After consolidating its control over Hokkaido and the Ryukyu Islands, it next turned its attention to China and Korea.[85] In 1894 Japanese and Chinese troops clashed in Korea, where they were both stationed to suppress the Donghak Rebellion. During the ensuing First Sino-Japanese War, Japan's highly motivated and well led forces defeated the more numerous and better-equipped military of Qing China. Japan was thus ceded the island of Taiwan in 1895, and Japan's government gained enough international prestige to renegotiate the "unequal treaties". In 1902 Japan signed an important military alliance with the British.[86]

Japan next clashed with was Russia, which was expanding its power in Asia. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05 ended with the dramatic Battle of Tsushima which sealed another victory for Japan's military. Japan thus laid claim to Korea as a protectorate in 1905, followed by full annexation in 1910.[78]

Economic modernization and labor unrest[edit]

During the Meiji period Japan underwent a rapid transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy. Both the Japanese government and private entrepreneurs imported Western technology and know-how to create factories capable of producing a wide range of goods. By the end of the period, the majority of Japan's exports were manufactured goods.[78] The owners of some of Japan's most successful new businesses and industries constituted huge family-owned conglomerates called zaibatsu, such as Mitsubishi and Sumitomo.[87] The phenomenal industrial growth sparked rapid urbanization. The population working in agriculture shrank from 75 percent in 1872 to 50 percent within a decade of the end of the Meiji period.[88]

Japan enjoyed solid economic growth at this time and most people lived longer and healthier lives. The population rose from 34 million in 1872 to 52 million in 1915.[89] Poor working conditions in factories led to growing labor unrest, and many workers and intellectuals came to embrace socialist ideas. The Meiji government responded with harsh suppression of dissent. Radical socialists plotted to assassinate the Emperor in the High Treason Incident of 1910, after which the Tokkō secret police force was established to root out left-wing agitators.[90][91] The government also introduced social legislation in 1911 setting maximum work hours and a minimum age for employment.[91]

Taishō period (1912–1926)[edit]

Main article: Taishō period

Emperor Taishō's short reign saw Japan develop stronger democratic institutions and grow in international power. The Taisho Political Crisis opened the period with mass protests and riots organized by Japanese political parties which succeeded in forcing Katsura Tarō to resign as prime minister. This and the Rice riots of 1918 increased the power of Japan's political parties over the ruling oligarchy.[90][92] The Seiyūkai and Minseitō parties came to dominate politics by the end of the so-called "Taishō demoracy" era. 1925 brought both universal male suffrage for elections to the House of Representatives and the far-reaching Peace Preservation Law which prescribed harsh penalties for communist and socialist activity.[93]

Japan's participation in World War I on the side of the Allies sparked unprecedented economic growth and earned Japan new colonies in the South Pacific seized from Germany.[94] After the war Japan signed the Treaty of Versailles and enjoyed good international relations through its membership in the League of Nations and participation in international disarmament conferences. A powerful earthquake in 1923 decimated Tokyo and left roughly 100,000 dead.[92]

Shōwa period (1926–1989)[edit]

Main article: Shōwa period

Emperor Hirohito's sixty-three-year reign from 1926 to 1989 is the longest in Japanese history.[95][96] The first twenty years were characterized by the rise of extreme nationalism and a series of expansionist wars. After suffering defeat in World War II, Japan was occupied by foreign powers for the first time in its history, and then re-emerged as a major world economic power.[96]

Manchurian Incident and the Second Sino-Japanese War[edit]

Japan filmed in 1937

Left-wing groups had been subject to violent suppression by the end of the Taishō period, and radical right-wing groups, inspired by fascism and Japanese nationalism, rapidly grew in popularity.[97] The extreme right became influential throughout the Japanese government and society, notably within the Kwantung Army, a Japanese army stationed in China along the Japanese-owned South Manchuria Railroad.[98] During the Manchurian Incident of 1931, radical army officers bombed a small portion of the South Manchuria Railroad and, falsely attributing the attack to the Chinese, invaded Manchuria. The Kwantung Army conquered Manchuria and set up the puppet government of Manchukuo there without permission from the Japanese government. International criticism of Japan following the invasion led to Japan withdrawing from the League of Nations.[96]

Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai of the Seiyūkai Party attempted to restrain the Kwantung Army and was assassinated in 1932 by right-wing extremists. Because of growing opposition within the Japanese military and the extreme right to party politicians, who they saw as corrupt and self-serving, Inukai was the last party politician to govern Japan in the pre-World War II era.[99][100] In February 1936 young radical officers of the Japanese Army attempted a coup d'état. They assassinated many moderate politicians before the coup was suppressed.[96] In its wake the Japanese military consolidated its control over the political system and most political parties were abolished when the Imperial Rule Assistance Association was founded in 1940.[101]

Japan's expansionist vision grew increasingly bold. Many of Japan's political elite aspired to have Japan acquire new territory for resource extraction and settlement of surplus population. These ambitions led to the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. The Japanese military failed to defeat the Chinese government led by Chiang Kai-shek and the war descended into a bloody stalemate which lasted until 1945. During the invasion the Japanese military committed atrocities such as the infamous Nanking Massacre.[96] Japan's stated war aim was to establish the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, a vast pan-Asian union under Japanese domination.[96] Hirohito's role in Japan's foreign wars remains a subject of controversy, with various historians portraying him as either a powerless figurehead or an enabler and supporter of Japanese militarism.[102]

The United States opposed Japan's invasion of China and responded with increasingly stringent economic sanctions intended to deprive Japan of the resources to continue its war in China. Japan reacted by forging an alliance with Germany and Italy in 1940, known as the Tripartite Pact, which worsened its relations with the US.[96][103]

World War II[edit]

Main article: Pacific War
Planes from the Japanese aircraft carrier Shōkaku preparing the attack on Pearl Harbor

In late 1941 Japan's government, led by Prime Minister and General Hideki Tojo, decided to break the US-led embargo through force of arms. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii. This brought the US into World War II on the side of the Allies. Japan then successfully invaded the Asian colonies of the US, Great Britain, and the Netherlands, including the Philippines, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Burma, and the Dutch East Indies.[96]

The tide began to turn against Japan following the Battle of Midway in June 1942 and the subsequent Battle of Guadalcanal, in which US troops wrested the Solomon Islands from Japanese control. During this period the Japanese military was responsible for such war crimes as mistreatment of POWs, massacres of civilians, and use of chemical and biological weapons.[96] The Japanese military earned a reputation for fanaticism, often employing suicide charges and fighting almost to the last man against overwhelming odds.[104] In 1944 the Japanese Navy began deploying squadrons of "kamikaze" pilots who crashed their planes into enemy ships.[96]

Atomic cloud over Hiroshima, 1945

Life in Japan became increasingly difficult for civilians due to stringent rationing of food, electrical outages, and a brutal crackdown on dissent. In 1944 the US Army captured the island of Saipan, which allowed the United States to begin widespread bombing raids on the Japanese mainland which destroyed over half of the total area of Japan's major cities.[105][106]

On August 6, 1945, the first nuclear attack in history struck Japan when the US dropped an atomic bomb over Hiroshima, killing 90,000 people. On August 9 the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and invaded Manchukuo, and Nagasaki was struck by a second atomic bomb. Japan surrendered unconditionally to the Allies on August 15. During the war Japan suffered almost three million military and over half a million civilian casualties.[96]

Occupation of Japan[edit]

Main article: Occupation of Japan
General MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito

Japan experienced dramatic political and social transformation under the Allied occupation from 1945–52. US General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers, served as Japan's de facto leader and played a central role in implementing reforms, many inspired by the New Deal of the 1930s.[107][108]

The occupation sought to decentralize power in Japan by breaking up the zaibatsu, promoting labor unionism, and transferring ownership of agricultural land from landlords to tenant farmers. Other major goals were the demilitarization and democratization of Japan's government and society. Japan's military was disarmed, its colonies were granted independence, the Peace Preservation Law and Tokkō were abolished, and the International Military Tribunal of the Far East tried war criminals. The cabinet of Japan became responsible not to the Emperor but to the elected National Diet. The Emperor was permitted to remain on the throne, but was ordered to renounce his divinity, which had been a pillar of the State Shinto system. Japan's new constitution came into effect in 1947 and guaranteed civil liberties, labor rights, and women's suffrage, and through Article 9 Japan renounced its right to go to war with another nation.[107][109]

The San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951 officially normalized relations between Japan and the United States. The occupation ended in 1952, though the United States has continued to operate military bases on Japanese territory.[107]

Postwar growth and prosperity[edit]

Shigeru Yoshida

Shigeru Yoshida served as prime minister in 1946–47 and 1948–54, and played a key role in guiding Japan through the occupation. He argued with the Yoshida Doctrine that Japan should forge a tight relationship with the United States and focus on developing the economy rather than pursuing a proactive foreign policy. Yoshida's Liberal Party merged in 1955 into the new right-wing, pro-business Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which went on to dominate Japanese politics for the remainder of the Shōwa period.[110][111]

Though the war had devastated the Japanese economy, an austerity program implemented in 1949 called the Dodge Line ended inflation. The Korean War (1950–53) was a major boon to Japanese business.[107] In 1949 the Yoshida cabinet created the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) with a mission to promote economic growth through close cooperation between the government and big business. MITI sought successfully to promote manufacturing and heavy industry, and encourage exports.[110][112] Japan's postwar economic growth nevertheless rested on factors including technology and quality control techniques imported from the West, close economic and defense cooperation with the United States, non-tariff barriers to imports, restrictions on labor unionization, long work hours, and a generally favorable global economic environment.[110]

According to the historian Conrad Totman, "For the Japanese people as a whole, the three decades after 1960 were arguably the best in their entire history". By 1955 the Japanese economy had grown beyond prewar levels.[95][113] After that, Japan's GNP expanded at an annual rate of over 10% and real wages more than tripled.[110] Japan's population increased dramatically to 123 million by 1990, life expectancy rose, and the Japanese became wealthy enough to purchase a wide array of consumer goods.[95][114] During the Shōwa period Japan became the world's largest manufacturer of automobiles and a leading producer of electronics.[110][115] By 1968, Japan was the second largest economy in the world.[116]

Japan was a close ally of the United States during the Cold War, though this alliance did not have unanimous support from the Japanese people. Hundreds of thousands protested in 1960 against amendments to the US-Japan Security Treaty.[95] Japan successfully normalized relations with the Soviet Union in 1956, despite an ongoing dispute over the ownership of the Kuril Islands, and with South Korea in 1965, despite an ongoing dispute over the ownership of the islands of Liancourt Rocks.[117] In accordance with US policy, Japan recognized the Republic of China on Taiwan as the legitimate government of China after World War II, though Japan switched its recognition to the People's Republic of China in 1972.[118]

Heisei period (1989–present)[edit]

Main article: Heisei period

Japan's economic miracle came to an end shortly after Emperor Akihito took the throne, beginning the Heisei period. The economic bubble of the 1980s popped in 1989, and stock and land prices plunged as Japan entered a deflationary spiral. Japan's banks found themselves saddled with insurmountable debts which hindered economic recovery. Stagnation worsened as the birthrate declined far below replacement level. The 1990s are often referred to as Japan's Lost Decade, and economic performance has frequently been poor in the following decades as well; the stock market never returned to its pre-1989 highs.[119][120] The faltering economy and several corruption scandals weakened the LDP's dominant political position. Japan was nevertheless governed by non-LDP prime ministers for only two periods: 1993–96 and 2009–12.[119][121]

Wreckage at a railway station destroyed during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami

On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan left up to 20,000 people dead and caused US$300 billion in damage. The damage extended to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which experienced a nuclear meltdown and severe radiation leakage.[119]

See also[edit]

Academic journals[edit]


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Books cited[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Akagi, Roy Hidemichi, Japan's Foreign Relations, 1542–1936: A Short History (Tokyo: The Hokuseido Press, 1936)
  • Allinson, Gary D., The Columbia Guide to Modern Japanese History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999)
  • Allinson, Gary D., Japan's Postwar History (London: UCL Press, 1997)
  • Beasley, William G., The Modern History of Japan (New York: Praeger, 1963)
  • Beasley, William G, Japanese Imperialism, 1894–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987)
  • Clement, Ernest Wilson, A Short History of Japan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1915)
  • Cullen, Louis, A History of Japan, 1582–1941: Internal and External Worlds (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003)
  • Edgerton, Robert B., Warriors of the Rising Sun: A History of the Japanese Military (New York: Norton, 1997)
  • Friday, Karl F., ed., Japan Emerging: Premodern History to 1850 (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2012)
  • Gordon, Andrew, A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003)
  • Hall, John Whitney, Japan: From Prehistory to Modern Times (New York: Delacorte Press, 1970)
  • Hane, Mikiso, Modern Japan: A Historical Survey (Boulder : Westview Press, 1986)
  • Huffman, James L., ed., Modern Japan: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Nationalism (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998)
  • Hunter, Janet, Concise Dictionary of Modern Japanese History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)
  • Jansen, Marius, The Making of Modern Japan (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000)
  • Perez, Louis G., ed., Japan at War : An Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2013)
  • Reischauer, Edwin O., Japan: The Story of a Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970)
  • Stockwin, JAA, Dictionary of the Modern Politics of Japan (New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003)
  • Tipton, Elise, Modern Japan: A Social and Political History (New York: Routledge, 2002)
  • Varley, Paul. Japanese Culture. 4th Edition. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. 2000)