The history of Japan has been greatly shaped by both its isolation, as an island nation, and its proximity to the massive Asian continent (and particularly by its neighbours, Korea and China). During times of openness it has been a fascinating percolator of the diverse ideas and cultures that have appeared on its shores; in times of retreat it has incubated its own way of doing things. Like most histories, it is also one of conflict, growth and bloodshed.

Ancient Japan

Early Settlers

The earliest traces of human life in Japan date to around 30,000 years ago, but it is possible that people were here much earlier. Until the end of the last ice age about 15,000 years ago, a number of land bridges linked Japan to the continent – Siberia to the north, Korea to the west and probably present-day Taiwan to the south – so access was not difficult.

The first recognisable culture to emerge was the neolithic Jōmon, from about 13,000 BC. They were named by scholars after the 'rope-mark' pottery they made, by imprinting twisted cords on hand-formed ceramic vessels. The Jōmon lived a quasi-nomadic life in settlements along coastal areas, particularly in northeastern Japan, where they could fish, gather seaweed and wild mushrooms, and also hunt deer and bear.

Sometime between 800 and 300 BC a new culture began to take shape, that which is referred to as Yayoi (again after a distinctive form of pottery, now created on a wheel). There remains much debate regarding the origin of this shift, whether it was brought about by settlers from China or Korea (or both); the earliest known Yayoi settlements were discovered in northern Kyūshū, which is close to the Korean Peninsula, and the cultural shifts spread from there.

The Yayoi introduced wet rice farming techniques. This was a huge game-changer, not just because it demanded more stable settlement but also because the labour-intensive practice was better suited to lowland areas, encouraging population growth in fertile basins. They also introduced iron and bronze.

By the 1st century AD, the Yayoi had spread to the middle of Honshū; northern Honshū could still be considered Jōmon territory until at least the 8th century (Hokkaidō and Okinawa were not even in the picture at this point).

Feature: Mythic Origins

Once upon a time, the male and female deities Izanagi and Izanami came down to a watery world from Takamagahara (the Plains of High Heaven), to create land. Droplets from Izanagi's 'spear' solidified into the land now known as Japan, and Izanami and Izanagi then populated it with gods. One of these was Japan's supreme deity, the Sun Goddess Amaterasu (Light of Heaven), whose great-great-grandson Jimmu became the first emperor of Japan, reputedly in 660 BC.

This is the seminal creation myth of Japan, as it is laid out in Japan's first historical record books, the Kojiki (Record of Old Things; 712) and Nihon Shoki (Record of Japan; 720). The imperial family had these works compiled in the late 7th and early 8th centuries – to legitimise its power by tracing its lineage back to the divine.

Scholars are sceptical of the existence of the earliest emperors. Some believe the 10th emperor, Sujin, was the first to really exist, and was perhaps the founder of the Yamato dynasty (some also think he led a clan of horsemen into Japan from the Korean Peninsula). Different accounts place his reign in anywhere from the 1st century BC to the 4th century AD.

Emperor Kinmei (509–71 AD), who reigned 539–71 AD, is the first emperor of verifiable historical record. According to the lineage of legend, he would have been the 29th emperor.

The Rise of Yamato Culture

Agriculture-based settlement led to territories and boundaries being established. According to Chinese sources, by the end of the 3rd century AD there were more than a hundred kingdoms in Japan, some of which were ruled by a queen named Himiko. Where exactly her realm was located is disputed, with some scholars favouring northwest Kyūshū, but most favouring the Nara region. Her territory was known as Yamatai (possibly the origin for the later name Yamato); the Chinese also called this nascent state Wa, and referred to Himiko as its sovereign. Through tributes, she acknowledged her allegiance to the Chinese emperor.

Concurrently, a practice was spreading of burying tribal leaders in mounded tombs (called kofun), whose shape and size corresponded to status – evidence of a burgeoning material culture and increasing societal stratification. (After her death in 248, Himiko is said to have been buried in a massive tomb, along with 100 sacrificed slaves). This development ushered in the start of what scholars call the Kofun, or Yamato, period, during which administrative and military power began to coalesce around the Yamato clan in the Kansai basin.

Starting under the reign of Empress Suiko (592–628) – and her powerful regent Prince Shōtoku (573–620) – a series of administrative reforms were enacted, inspired by Tang-dynasty China, to consolidate power through taxes, regulated land distribution and official ranks.

Prince Shōtoku was also instrumental in the early spread of Buddhism (which also entered Japan through Korean influence), founding several temples in the Kansai area.

Buddhism Enters Japan

Saigō Takamori (1828–77) was born into a samurai family in Kagoshima, Kyūshū (then called Satsuma Province, in the southwestern corner of the main islands). He was an ardent supporter of the emperor Meiji and field commander of the imperial army against the forces of the Tokugawa shogunate. It was he who led the army to quash a rebellion of Tokugawa loyalists in Ueno (now a district in Tokyo) in 1868, which cemented the Meiji Restoration.

But things did not turn out as Saigō had hoped. The samurai system was abolished once Meiji ascended the throne, and by 1872 this system of professional warriors had given way to a Western model of military conscription. Saigō was a member of the new government and lobbied for investment in the military (instead of railroads) and for an invasion of Korea. His ideas, however, found little support. In 1873 he resigned and returned to Satsuma.

Saigō was by no means the only disaffected former samurai, but he was the most prominent. Others rallied around him, urging him to lead a rebellion against the imperial forces. The resulting 1877 siege of Kumamoto Castle lasted 54 days, with a reported force of 40,000 samurai and armed peasants arrayed against the imperial army. When the castle was incinerated and defeat became inevitable, it is said that Saigō retreated to Kagoshima and committed seppuku (ritual suicide).

The Satsuma Rebellion, as it came to be called, soon gained legend status among common Japanese. Capitalising on this fame, the Meiji government posthumously pardoned Saigō and granted him full honours, and today he remains an exemplar of the samurai spirit. Statues of his image can be found most prominently in Kagoshima and, walking his faithful dog, in Tokyo's Ueno-kōen. His most famous maxim, keiten aijin, translates to 'revere heaven, love humankind'.

Fans of the 2003 movie The Last Samurai may recognise elements of this story in Katsumoto, the character played by Watanabe Ken (though the character played by Tom Cruise has no historical basis).

The Age of Courtiers

Culture of the Heian Court

Prior to 694, the Yamato court had a habit of moving and building a new palace every time it got a new emperor or empress (and remember, we're up to 30 or 40 now, depending on how you're counting). Empress Jito was the first to order the construction of a more permanent capital, based on the Chinese model of a neat grid. It only lasted 16 years, but the idea stuck and in 710 a new capital was established at Nara (Heijō-kyō).

By now Buddhism was flourishing, as evinced by the construction of the temple Tōdai-ji (745); it still stands today, housing a huge bronze Buddha, and is the world's largest wooden building (and one of the oldest). Kofun had fallen out of fashion in the capital (though they were still erected in outer territories) and funereal tombs were decorated with Buddhist motifs.

Emperor Kammu (r 781–806) decided to relocate the capital in 784, likely prompted by a series of disasters following the move to Nara, including a massive smallpox epidemic that killed up to one-third of the population in 735–37. In 794 the capital was transferred to nearby Kyoto (Heian-kyō), which remained Japan's capital for more than a thousand years (even if it wasn't always the centre of actual power).

The Genpei War

In Kyoto over the next few centuries courtly life reached a pinnacle of refined artistic pursuits and etiquette, captured famously in the novel The Tale of Genji, written by the court-lady Murasaki Shikibu in about 1004. It showed courtiers indulging in diversions such as guessing flowers by their scent, building extravagant follies and sparing no expense for the latest luxury. On the positive side, it was a world that encouraged aesthetic sensibilities, such as of mono no aware (the bittersweetness of things) and okashisa (pleasantly surprising incongruity), which have endured to the present day. But it was also a world increasingly estranged from the real one. Manipulated over centuries by the politically powerful Fujiwara family, the imperial throne was losing its authority.

While the nobles immersed themselves in courtly pleasures and intrigues, out in the provinces powerful military forces were developing. They were typically led by minor nobles, often sent on behalf of court-based major nobles to carry out tedious local duties. Some were distant imperial family members, barred from succession claims – they were given new names and farmed out to provincial clans – and hostile to the court. Their retainers included skilled warriors known as samurai (literally 'retainer').

The two main clans of disenfranchised lesser nobles, the Minamoto (also known as Genji) and Taira (Heike), were enemies. In 1156 they were employed to help rival claimants to the Fujiwara family leadership, but these figures soon faded into the background when an all-out feud developed between the Minamoto and the Taira.

The Taira prevailed, under their leader Kiyomori (1118–81), who based himself in the capital and, over the next 20 years, fell prey to many of the vices that lurked there. In 1180 he enthroned his two-year-old grandson, Antoku. When a rival claimant requested the help of the Minamoto family, who had regrouped, their leader, Yoritomo (1147–99), was more than ready to agree.

Both Kiyomori and the claimant died shortly afterwards, but Yoritomo and his younger half-brother Yoshitsune (1159–89) continued the campaign against the Taira. By 1185 Kyoto had fallen and the Taira had been pursued to the western tip of Honshū. A naval battle ensued, won by the Minamoto. In a well-known tragic tale, Kiyomori's widow leapt into the sea with her grandson Antoku (now aged seven), rather than have him surrender. Minamoto Yoritomo, now the most powerful man in Japan, was to usher in a martial age.

The Age of Warriors

The Kamakura Shoguns

Yoritomo did not seek to become emperor, but wanted the new emperor to give him legitimacy by conferring the title of shogun (generalissimo), which was granted in 1192. He left many existing offices and institutions in place and set up a base in his home territory of Kamakura (not far from present-day Tokyo) rather than Kyoto. His 'shogunate' was known in Japanese as the bakufu, meaning the tent headquarters of a field general. While in theory Yoritomo represented the military arm of the emperor's government, in practice he was in charge of government. The Kamakura bakufu established a feudal system – which would last almost 700 years as an institution – centred on a loyalty-based lord-vassal system.

When Yoritomo died in 1199 (after falling from his horse in suspicious circumstances) his son succeeded him to the title of shogun. However his widow, Masako (1157–1225), was a member of the Hōjō clan and a formidable figure, holding significant power for much of her remaining life (despite shaving her head and taking religious vows on her husband's death). Her father acted as regent – a title the Hōjō would continue to hold until suspicion and infighting killed the last Minamoto heir and the Hōjō claimed the shogunate outright.

The Ashikaga Shoguns

It was during the Hōjō shogunate that the Mongols twice tried to invade, in 1274 and 1281. Under Kublai Khan (r 1260–94), the Mongol empire was close to its peak and after conquering Korea in 1259 he sent requests to Japan to submit to him, but these were ignored.

Kublai Khan's expected first attack came in November 1274, allegedly with about 900 vessels carrying 40,000 men, though these figures may be exaggerated. They landed near Hakata in northwest Kyūshū and, despite spirited Japanese resistance, made progress inland. However, for unclear reasons, they retreated to their ships and shortly afterwards a violent storm blew up, damaging about a third of the fleet. The remainder returned to Korea.

A more determined attempt was made from China seven years later. Kublai had a fleet of 4400 warships built to carry a force of 140,000 men – again, these are questionable figures. In August 1281 they landed once more in northwest Kyūshū and again met spirited resistance and had to retire to their vessels. Once more, the weather intervened – this time a typhoon – and half their vessels were destroyed. The survivors went back to China, and there was no further Mongol attempt to invade Japan.

The typhoon of 1281 prompted the idea of divine intervention to save Japan, with the coining of the term kamikaze (literally 'divine wind'). Later this term was used to describe Pacific War suicide pilots who, said to be infused with divine spirit, gave their lives to protect Japan from invasion.

Medieval Culture

Hideyoshi’s power had been briefly contested by Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542–1616), son of a minor lord allied to Nobunaga. After a brief struggle for power, Ieyasu agreed to a truce with Hideyoshi; in return, Hideyoshi granted him eight provinces in eastern Japan. While Hideyoshi intended this to weaken Ieyasu by separating him from his ancestral homeland Chūbu (now Aichi Prefecture), the upstart looked upon the gift as an opportunity to strengthen his power. He set up his base in a small castle town called Edo (which would one day become Tokyo).

On his deathbed, Hideyoshi entrusted Ieyasu, who had proven to be one of his ablest generals, with safeguarding the country and the succession of his young son Hideyori (1593–1615). Ieyasu, however, had bigger ambitions and soon went to war against those loyal to Hideyori. Ieyasu’s forces finally defeated Hideyori and his supporters at the legendary Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, moving him into a position of supreme power. He chose Edo as his permanent base and ushered in two and a half centuries of Tokugawa rule.

Through these three men – Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu – by fair means, or more commonly, foul, the country was reunified within three decades.

Feature: Samurai

The prime duty of a samurai – a member of the warrior class from about the 12th century onwards – was to give faithful service to his lord. In fact, the origin of the term ‘samurai’ is closely linked to a word meaning ‘to serve’. The samurai's best-known weapon was the katana sword. They were among the world's finest swordsmen and formidable opponents in single combat.

Over the centuries, the samurai established a code of conduct that came to be known as bushidō (the way of the warrior), drawn from Confucianism, Shintō and Buddhism. Confucianism required a samurai to show absolute loyalty to his lord. Towards the oppressed, a samurai was expected to show benevolence and exercise justice. Subterfuge was to be despised, as were all commercial and financial transactions. A real samurai had endless endurance and total self-control, spoke only the truth and displayed no emotion. Since his honour was his life, disgrace and shame were to be avoided above all else, and all insults were to be avenged.

From Buddhism, the samurai learnt the lesson that life is impermanent – a handy reason to face death with serenity. Shintō provided the samurai with patriotic beliefs in the divine status both of the emperor and of Japan (promulgated to be the abode of the gods).

Seppuku (ritual suicide), also known as hara-kiri, was an accepted means of avoiding dishonour. Seppuku required the samurai to ritually disembowel himself, watched by an aide, who then drew his own sword and lopped off the samurai’s head. One reason for this ritual was the requirement that a samurai should never surrender but always go down fighting.

Of course not all (and probably very few) samurai lived up to these strict standards. Some were professional mercenaries who were unreliable and often defected. Samurai indulging in double-crossing or subterfuge, or displaying outright cowardice, were popular themes in Japanese theatre. Those who became lordless were known as rōnin (wanderers or masterless samurai); they acted more like brigands and were a serious social problem.

During modernisation in the late 19th century, the government – itself comprising samurai – realised that a conscript army was more efficient as a unified fighting force and disestablished the samurai class. However, samurai ideals such as endurance and fighting to the death were revived through propaganda prior to the Pacific War, and underlay the determination of many Japanese soldiers.

The Battle for Unification

Despite its successful defence of Japan, the Hōjō shogunate suffered. Its inability to make promised payments to the warriors involved in repelling the Mongols caused considerable discontent, while the payments it did make severely depleted its finances.

Dissatisfaction towards the shogunate came to a head under the unusually assertive emperor Go-Daigo (1288–1339). After escaping from exile imposed by the Hōjō, he started to muster anti-shogunal support in western Honshū. In 1333 the shogunate dispatched troops to counter this threat, under one of its most promising generals, the young Ashikaga Takauji (1305–58). However, recognising the resentment towards the Hōjō and that together he and Go-Daigo would have considerable military strength, Takauji threw in his lot with the emperor and attacked the shogunal offices in Kyoto. Others also soon rebelled against the shogunate itself in Kamakura.

This was the end for the Hōjō shogunate, but not for the institution. Takauji wanted the title of shogun, but his ally Go-Daigo feared that conferring it would weaken his own imperial power. A rift developed, and Go-Daigo sent forces to attack Takauji. However, Takauji emerged victorious and turned on Kyoto, forcing Go-Daigo to flee into the hills of Yoshino about 100km south of the city, where he set up a court in exile. In Kyoto, Takauji installed a puppet emperor from a rival line, who returned the favour by declaring him shogun in 1338. The two courts coexisted until 1392 when the 'southern court' (at Yoshino) was betrayed by Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358–1408), Takauji's grandson and the third Ashikaga shogun.

Feature: Hidden Christians

Japan's so-called 'Christian Century' began in 1549 with the arrival of Portuguese missionaries on the island of Kyūshū. Within decades, hundreds of thousands of Japanese, from peasants to daimyō (domain lords), were converted.

The rapid rise of Christian belief, as well as its association with trade, Western weaponry and possibly territory grabbing, came to be viewed as a threat by the bakufu (shogunate) under Toyotomi Hideyoshi. In 1597 Hideyoshi ordered the crucifixion of 26 Japanese and Spanish Franciscans in Nagasaki. Despite his death in 1598, an era of suppression of Christians had begun and, with the expulsion of missionaries ordered in 1614 by Tokugawa Hidetada, thousands of Christians were persecuted over the following six decades. Many thousands of Christian peasants resisted in the 1637–38 Shimabara Rebellion, after which Christianity was outlawed completely.

Other persecution took the form of fumi-e, in which suspected Christians were forced to walk on images of Jesus. The Gregorian date on the Dutch trading house on the island of Hirado was taken as proof of the Dutch traders' Christianity and used to justify their exile to Nagasaki's Dejima. This ushered in more than two centuries of sakoku (closure to the outside world).

Japanese Christians reacted by going undercover as kakure Kirishitan (hidden Christians). Without priests, they worshipped in services held in secret rooms inside private homes. On the surface, worship resembled other Japanese religions, including using kamidana (Shintō altars) and butsudan (Buddhist ancestor-worship chests) in homes, and ceremonial rice and sake. But kakure Kirishitan also kept hanging scrolls of Jesus, Mary and saints, as well as statues like the Maria-Kannon, depicting Mary in the form of the Buddhist deity of mercy holding an infant symbolising Jesus. The sounds of worship, too, mimicked Buddhist incantations. Scholars estimate there were about 150,000 hidden Christians.

It was not until 1865 – 12 years after the arrival of the American expedition led by Commodore Matthew Perry, who eventually forced Japan to reopen to the West – that Japan had its first large-scale church again, Ōura Cathedral in Nagasaki. The Meiji government officially declared freedom of religion in 1871. Today, there are estimated to be between one and two million Japanese Christians (about 1% of the population).


The Ambitions of Hideyoshi

Another of Nobunaga's generals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–98), took up the torch of unification. He, too, was an extraordinary figure, a foot soldier who had risen through the ranks to become Nobunaga's favourite. Small and with simian features, he was nicknamed 'Saru-chan' (Little Monkey) by Nobunaga, but his huge will for power belied his physical size.

He disposed of potential rivals among Nobunaga's sons, took the title of regent, continued Nobunaga's policy of territorial redistribution and insisted that daimyō should surrender their families to him as hostages to be kept in Kyoto. He also banned weapons for all classes except samurai.

In his later years, Hideyoshi became increasingly paranoid, cruel and megalomaniacal. He would saw in half messengers who gave him bad news, and had young members of his own family executed for suspected plotting. He also issued the first expulsion order of Christians (1587), whom he suspected were an advance guard for an invasion. His grand scheme for power included a pan-Asian conquest, and as a first step he attempted an invasion of Korea in 1592, which failed amid much bloodshed. He tried again in 1597, but the campaign was abandoned when Hideyoshi died of illness in 1598.

The Edo Period

Tokugawa Rule

Having secured power for the Tokugawa, Ieyasu and his successors were determined to retain it. Their basic strategy was extreme micro-management. They kept tight control over the provincial daimyō, who ruled as vassals for the Tokugawa regime, requiring authorisation for castle-building and marriages. They continued to redistribute (or confiscate) territory and, importantly, required daimyō and their retainers to spend every second year in Edo, where their families were kept permanently as hostages – an edict known as sankin kōtai. This dislocating policy made it hard for ambitious daimyō to usurp the Tokugawas.

The shogunate also directly controlled ports, mines, major towns and other strategic areas. Movement was severely restricted by checkpoints; written authority was required for travel and wheel transport was outlawed.

Society was made rigidly hierarchical, comprising (in descending order of importance): shi (samurai), (farmers), (artisans) and shō (merchants). Class dress, living quarters and even manner of speech were all strictly codified, and interclass movement was prohibited. Village and neighbourhood heads were enlisted to enforce rules at the local level, creating an atmosphere of surveillance. Punishments could be harsh, cruel and even deadly for minor offences.

Retreat from the World

Early on, the Tokugawa shogunate adopted a policy of sakoku (closure to the outside world), which was to last for more than two centuries. The regime was leery of Christianity's potential influence and expelled missionaries in 1614. Following the Christian-led Shimabara Rebellion, Christianity was banned and several hundred thousand Japanese Christians were forced into hiding. All Westerners except the Protestant Dutch were expelled by 1638.

The shogunate found Protestantism less threatening than Catholicism (knowing that the Vatican could muster one of the biggest military forces in the world) and would have let the British stay on if the Dutch had not convinced it that Britain was a Catholic country. Nevertheless, the Dutch were just a few dozen men confined to a tiny trading base on the artificial island of Dejima near Nagasaki.

Overseas travel for Japanese was banned (as well as the return of those already overseas). And yet, the country did not remain completely cut off: trade with Asia and the West continued through the Dutch and Ryūkyū empire (now Okinawa) – it was just tightly controlled and, along with the exchange of ideas, funnelled exclusively to the shogunate.

Rise of the Merchant Class

The first Europeans arrived in 1543 – three Portuguese traders blown ashore on the island of Tanegashima south of Kyūshū. Soon other Europeans arrived, bringing with them Christianity and firearms. They found a land torn apart by warfare, ripe for conversion to Christianity – at least in the eyes of missionaries such as Francis Xavier, who arrived in 1549. The Japanese warlords, however, were more interested in the worldly matter of guns.

One of the most successful of the warlords to take advantage of firearms was Oda Nobunaga (1534–82). Starting from a relatively minor power base (in what is now Aichi Prefecture), his skilled and ruthless generalship produced a series of victories over rivals. In 1568 he seized Kyoto and installed one of the Ashikaga clan (Yoshiaki) as shogun, only to drive him out in 1573 and make his own base at Azuchi. Although he did not take the title of shogun, Nobunaga held de-facto power.

Noted for his brutality, Nobunaga was not a man to cross. He hated Buddhist priests, and tolerated Christianity as a counterbalance to them. His stated aim was 'Tenka Fubu' (A Unified Realm under Military Rule) and he went some way to achieving this by redistributing territories among the daimyō, having land surveyed and standardising weights and measures. What sort of ruler he might have made, however, was never to be discovered: before he could complete his mission, he was betrayed by one of his generals and killed in 1582.


The Black Ships

It is questionable how much longer the Tokugawa shogunate and its secluded world might have continued, but as it happened, external forces were to hasten its demise. A number of Western vessels – which the Japanese called kurofune (black ships), because they were cloaked in pitch – had begun appearing in Japanese waters since the start of the 19th century. However, any Westerners who landed, even through shipwreck, were almost always expelled or even executed.

America in particular was keen to expand its interests across the Pacific, with its numerous whaling vessels in the northwest needing regular provisioning. In 1853 and again the following year, US commodore Matthew Perry steamed into Edo-wan (now Tokyo Bay) with a show of gunships and demanded Japan open up to trade and provisioning. The shogunate was no match for Perry's firepower and had to agree to his demands. Soon an American consul arrived, and other Western powers followed suit. Japan was obliged to sign what came to be called the 'unequal treaties', opening ports and giving Western nations control over tariffs.

Meiji Restoration

Despite last ditch efforts by the Tokugawa regime to reassert their power, anti-shogunal sentiment was high, particularly in the outer domains of Satsuma (southern Kyūshū) and Chōshū (western Honshū). A movement arose to 'revere the emperor and expel the barbarians' (sonnō jōi); in other words, to restore the emperor to a position of real power (rather than titular authority) and to kick the Westerners out.

After unsuccessfully skirmishing with the Western powers, however, the reformers realised that expelling the foreigners was not feasible. Restoring the emperor, however, was: following a series of military clashes between the shogun's armies and the rebels – which showed the rebels to have the upper hand – the last shogun, Yoshinobu (1837–1913), agreed to retire in 1867. He lived out his remaining years peacefully in Shizuoka.

In 1868, the new teenage emperor Mutsuhito (1852–1912; later known as Meiji) was named the supreme leader of the land, commencing the Meiji period (1868–1912; Enlightened Rule). The institution of the shogun was abolished and the shogunal base at Edo was refashioned into the imperial capital and given the new name, Tokyo (Eastern Capital). Which is not to say Tokugawa loyalists went quietly into the night; fighting continued, especially in the north, through 1868–69, in what is known as the Boshin War.

In truth, the emperor still wielded little actual power. A new government was formed, primarily of leading Satsuma or Chōshū samurai aged in their early 30s. Though they claimed that everything was done on behalf of the emperor and with his sanction, they were driven as much by personal ambition as genuine concern for the nation.


Above all, the new leaders of Japan – keen observers of what was happening throughout Asia – feared colonisation by the West. They moved quickly to modernise, as defined by the Western powers, to prove they could stand on an equal footing with the colonisers.

The government embarked on a grand project of industrialisation and militarisation. A great exchange began between Japan and the West: Japanese scholars were dispatched to Europe to study everything from literature and engineering to nation building and modern warfare. Western scholars were invited to teach in Japan's nascent universities.

The new Japanese establishment learned quickly: in 1872 the first railroad opened, connecting Tokyo with the new port of Yokohama, south along Tokyo Bay. By 1889 the country had a constitution, modelled after the government frameworks of England and Prussia. Banking systems, a new legal code and political parties were established. Daimyō were 'persuaded' to give their domain land to the government in return for governorships or other compensation, enabling a prefectural system to be set up.

Democracy was, of course, not an overnight process and cronyism persisted. The government took responsibility for establishing major industries and then selling them off at bargain rates to chosen government-friendly industrial entrepreneurs – a factor in the formation of huge industrial conglomerates known as zaibatsu, many of which still exist today (such as Mitsubushi, Sumitomo and Mitsui).

In the early years, Japan's main industry was textiles and its main export silk, but later in the Meiji period it moved into manufacturing and heavy industry, becoming a major world shipbuilder.

The World Stage

Imperialist Japan

A key element of Japan's aim to become a world power was military might. Following Prussian (army) and British (navy) models, Japan built up a formidable armed force. Using the same 'gunboat diplomacy' on Korea that Perry had used on the Japanese, in 1876 Japan was able to force on Korea an unequal treaty of its own, and increasingly meddled in Korean politics.

Using Chinese 'interference' in Korea as a justification, in 1894 Japan manufactured a war with China, a weak nation at this stage despite its massive size, and easily emerged victorious. As a result, it gained Taiwan and the Liaotung Peninsula. Russia pressured Japan into renouncing the peninsula and then promptly occupied it, leading to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, won by Japan. When Japan officially annexed Korea in 1910, there was little international protest.

By the time of Mutsuhito's death in 1912, Japan was recognised as a world power. In addition to its military victories and territorial acquisitions, in 1902 it had signed the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, the first-ever equal alliance between a Western and non-Western nation. The unequal treaties had also been rectified.

Mutsuhito was succeeded by his son Yoshihito (known as the Taishō emperor), though his mental deterioration led to his son Hirohito (1901–89) becoming regent in 1921. While it was not without challenges, the short-lived Taishō period (1912–26; Great Righteousness) was generally a time of optimism. Old feudal-era loyalties finally buckled and party politics flourished for the first time, giving rise to the term Taishō Democracy.

Japan entered WWI on the side of the Allies, and was rewarded with a council seat in the newly formed League of Nations. It also acquired German possessions in East Asia and the Pacific. The war had been a boon for industry, creating a new stratum of wealth (though the vast majority of the population was left out).

Aggression in China

In the fall of 1931, members of the Japanese army stationed in Manchuria, who were there to guard rail lines leased by China to Japan, detonated explosives along the track and blamed the act on Chinese dissidents. This ruse, which gave the Japanese army an excuse for armed retaliation, became known as the Manchurian Incident. The Japanese easily overpowered Chinese forces and within months had taken control of Manchuria (present-day Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning provinces) and installed a puppet government. The League of Nations refused to acknowledge the new Manchurian government; in 1933 Japan left the league.

Skirmishes continued between the Chinese and Japanese armies, leading to full-blown war in 1937. Following a hard-fought victory in Shanghai, Japanese troops advanced south to capture Nanjing. Over several months somewhere between 40,000 and 300,000 Chinese were killed in what has become known as the Nanjing Massacre or Rape of Nanjing. To this day, the number of deaths and the prevalence of rape, torture and looting by Japanese soldiers is hotly debated among historians (and government nationalists) on both sides. Japanese attempts to downplay this and other massacres in Asia remain to this day a stumbling block in Japan's relations with many Asian nations.


Encouraged by Germany's early WWII victories, Japan signed a pact with Germany and Italy in 1940 (though these European allies offered little actual cooperation). With France and the Netherlands distracted and weakened by the war in Europe, Japan quickly moved on their colonial territories – French Indo-China and the Dutch West Indies – in Southeast Asia.

Tensions between Japan and the USA intensified, as the Americans, alarmed by Japan's aggression, demanded Japan back down in China. When diplomacy failed, the USA barred oil exports to Japan – a crucial blow. Japanese forces struck at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, damaging much of the USA's Pacific fleet and apparently catching the USA by surprise (though some scholars believe Roosevelt and others deliberately allowed the attack, to overcome isolationist sentiment and to bring the USA into the war against Germany; many also believe Japan never expected to beat the USA, but hoped to bring it to the negotiating table and emerge better off).

Japan advanced swiftly across the Pacific; however, the tide started to turn in the Battle of Midway in June 1942, when much of its carrier fleet was destroyed. Japan had overextended itself, and over the next three years was subjected to an island-hopping counter-attack. By mid-1945, Japan, ignoring the Potsdam Declaration calling for unconditional surrender, was preparing for a final Allied assault on its homeland. On 6 August the world's first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, killing 90,000 civilians. Russia, which Japan had hoped might mediate, declared war on 8 August. And on 9 August another atomic bomb was dropped, this time on Nagasaki, with another 50,000 deaths. The emperor formally surrendered on 15 August.

Post-War Japan

The terms of Japan's surrender to the Allies allowed the country to hold on to the emperor as the ceremonial head of state, but he no longer had authority – nor was he thought of as divine – and Japan was forced to give up its territorial claims in Korea and China. In addition, America occupied the country under General Douglas MacArthur, a situation that would last until 1952. Defeat was a bitter pill to swallow, but the population was largely starving and food from the Americans was better than nothing.

Then in the 1950s Japan took off on a trajectory of phenomenal growth that has been described as miraculous. (Though many historians, both Japanese and American, say Japan's role as a forward base for the USA in the Korean War reignited the Japanese economy.) It wasn't until 1990, with the bursting of the 'Bubble Economy', that it finally came down to earth.

The following decades were marked by protracted economic stagnation that was only worsened by the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. Three years later, Japan was devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami, in which more than 15,000 people perished. The 21st century has so far been an era of soul-searching for Japan, as it grapples with the legacy of the previous centuries highs and lows while trying to find its niche in a rapidly changing world.


As the 1920s rolled around, a sense of unfair treatment by Western powers once again took hold in Japan. The Washington Conference of 1921–22 set naval ratios of three capital ships for Japan to five American and five British, which upset the Japanese (despite being well ahead of France's 1.75). Around the same time, a racial-equality clause Japan proposed to the League of Nations was rejected. And in 1924 America introduced race-based immigration policies that effectively targeted Japanese.

This dissatisfaction intensified in the Shōwa period (1926–89; Illustrious Peace), which commenced with the death of Yoshihito and the formal accession of Hirohito. The rural populace decried what they saw as an elite under the sway of Western decadence. The Great Depression that began in the late 1920s created a new class of urban poor who now recoiled at what had been deemed progress; leftist networks, inspired by developments in Russia, began agitating for workers' rights.

The armed forces, meanwhile, bristled at the humiliation of yet another round of capitulations. Japan needed to look after its own interests, they believed, which meant a resource-rich, Japan-controlled Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Prime Minister Hamaguchi Osachi who favoured economic austerity over increased military spending was shot in 1931 (dying some months later). By then, the military was acting on its own accord.

The Boom Years

The Meiji Restoration also heralded far-reaching social changes. The four-tier class system was scrapped; after centuries of having everything prescribed for them, citizens were now free to choose their occupation and place of residence. The new intellectual elite, well-travelled and well-read, encouraged citizens to make a success of themselves and become strong, and in so doing show the world what a successful and powerful nation Japan was. Improvement in agricultural technology freed up farming labour, and many moved to the cities to join the growing workforce in manufacturing sectors.

Buddhism, which had strong ties to the shogunate, suffered under the new government. Shintō – and particularly rituals of emperor worship – were promoted in its place, as a pure (read: nativist) system of beliefs. Elements of new-Confucianism were retained, however, for the orderliness they encouraged; new laws codified a patriarchal family system wherein women were subordinate to their husbands. The ban on Christianity was lifted (though few took advantage of it).

Heisei Doldrums

Takauji set up his shogunal base in Kyoto, at Muromachi. With a few exceptions such as Takauji and his grandson Yoshimitsu (who had Kyoto's famous Kinkaku-ji built and once declared himself 'King of Japan'), the Ashikaga shoguns were relatively ineffective. Without strong, centralised government and control, the country slipped into civil war as regional warlords – who came to be known as daimyō (domain lords) – engaged in seemingly interminable feuds and power struggles. Starting with the Ōnin War of 1467–77 and for the next hundred years, the country was almost constantly in civil war. This time was known as the Sengoku (Warring States) era.

During this time, the warrior class succeeded in siphoning land and cultural sway from the landed nobility and it was their tastes that set the fashions of the time. The austerity and self-discipline of Zen Buddhism, which had entered Japan from China in the 13th century, appealed greatly to the warrior class. It also influenced their aesthetic values, such as sabi (elegant simplicity), yūgen (elegant and tranquil otherworldliness, as seen in ), wabi (rustic) and kare (severe and unadorned).

And thus it happened that during this time of near constant war and instability there came a flourishing of the arts, such as in the refined (stylised dance-drama performed on a bare stage), ikebana (flower arranging) and chanoyu (tea ceremony).