Japan has been shaped by both its isolation as an island nation and its proximity to the massive Asian continent (particularly Korea and China). During times of openness, the country has absorbed ideas and cultures from abroad; in times of retreat, it has incubated its own way of doing things. Together, these trends created the fascinating Japan we know today – as has its times of power struggle, aggression, defeat and resurrection.

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 about 12,000 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.

The earliest identifiable culture was that of the neolithic Jōmon, who, from about 10,000 BC, inhabited coastal areas, particularly in eastern Japan. Historians associate them with a distinct style of hand-formed pottery imprinted with twisted cords (Jōmon means 'cord markings'). They lived a quasi-nomadic life, gathering seaweed and wild mushrooms, hunting deer and bear, fishing and dry-farming crops like taro.

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, this time 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.

By the 1st century AD, the Yayoi had spread to the middle of Honshū, bringing with them a huge game-changer: wet-rice farming. Not only did this labour-intensive practice demand more stable settlement, it also encouraged population growth in fertile basins (and population growth in general). Agriculture-based settlement led to territories and boundaries being established. The Yayoi also introduced iron and bronze.

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 story of Japan's creation, as told by the young empire's first written accounts, Kojiki (Record of Old Things; 712) and Nihon Shoki (Record of Japan; 720).

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 anywhere from the 1st century BC to the 4th century AD. Emperor Kinmei (r 539–71 AD) is the first emperor of verifiable historical record. According to the lineage of legend, he would have been the 29th emperor. Either way, the Yamoto dynasty is the longest unbroken monarchy in the world.

The Rise of Yamato Culture

According to Chinese sources, by the end of the 3rd century AD there were more than a hundred kingdoms in Japan, organised into federations. The most powerful of these was ruled by a shamaness-queen named Himiko (in either present-day Nara prefecture or northwest Kyūshū; the location is unclear). Her land was called Yamatai. The Chinese called her state 'Wa'; through tributes, she acknowledged her allegiance to the Chinese emperor.

Over the next couple of centuries, administrative and military power began to coalesce around a polity called Yamato (which may or may not be related to Himiko's Yamatai), in Nara prefecture. Part of Yamato culture was the practice of burying leaders in mounded tombs (called kofun), whose shape and size corresponded to status – evidence of a burgeoning material culture and increasing societal stratification. By the end of the Kofun period (AD 250–538), tombs could be found as far north as Niigata and as far south as Tanegashima, an island off the coast of present-day Kagoshima (though the largest were around Nara), showing the extent of Yamato hegemony.

The Yamato did have their challengers: throughout these early centuries rival chiefdoms within the Yayoi cultural sphere made power plays of their own. There were also what historians call the Epi-Jōmon people, who had resisted Yayoi culture altogether. Likely descended from the earlier Jōmon people, the Epi-Jōmon lived in Tōhoku (northern Honshū) and traded with the Satsumon and Okhotsk people of Hokkaidō and Sakhalin. The Yamato court called the Epi-Jōmon people Emishi and fought to subjugate them in wars that continued until the 8th century.

The Age of Courtiers

Buddhism Enters Japan

Buddhism entered Japan in the mid-6th century, introduced by the Korean kingdom of Baekji, considerably transforming Yamato culture. The religion itself was noteworthy for the cohesive world view it presented, but also powerful were the attendant technologies – used to create temples and statues that would confer on the court an undeniable gravitas. Buddhist rites were incorporated into the increasingly elaborate pageantry of courtly life. The era of kofun building was over.

Imported concurrently with Buddhism, increasingly sophisticated techniques of statecraft would serve to bolster the Yamato state. Prince Shōtoku (573–620), the powerful regent to Empress Suiko (592–628), was an early champion of Buddhism and founded the temple Horyū-ji (607). He also enacted the first of a series of administrative reforms that regulated land distribution and official ranks, laying the groundwork for a bureaucratic society. From the 7th century onward, the court sent emissaries to Tang-dynasty China to further study Buddhism, government, medicine and art.

For centuries, Shintō tenets on purity had ordained that the court relocate following the death of an emperor or empress; however, in 710, a permanent capital was established at Nara, designed in the same grid pattern as the Tang dynasty capital, Chang’an (present-day Xi’an). The great temple Tōdai-ji (752) was symbolic of the Buddhist theocratic state that reached its peak during the Nara period (710–794). And yet, the court did not totally relinquish its older Shintō belief system; in fact, it doubled down on it, compiling record books that traced the lineage of Yamato's emperors to the realm of its native gods.

The Capital at Heian-kyō

By the end of the 8th century the Buddhist clergy at Nara had become so powerful that Emperor Kammu decided to move the capital to escape it. He first settled in Nagaoka (today a suburb of Kyoto), but following several inauspicious disasters, he relocated the capital to Heian-kyō, present-day Kyoto, where it would exist for the next 1000 years. The location was ideal: surrounded on three sides by gentle mountains, the site was both a natural fortress and a perfect embodiment of the principles of Chinese geomancy that were in vogue at the time. Like Nara, Heian-kyō was modelled after Chang’an.

Heian-kyō was an exclusive, insular world that revolved around the court. (Interestingly, the court had no practice of executions; to be transferred to the provinces was considered punishment enough.) It has been estimated that the number of courtiers and courtesans hovered around 5000 to 7000; including family members, servants, merchants and artisans, it is likely that the population of the capital was at least 10 times that. Rank, largely determined by bloodlines, was everything; it determined, for example, what clothes could be worn and what kind of house could be built. High-ranking clans were granted untaxed estates (called shōen) from which they derived their wealth (and which were worked by peasants). In Heian-era Japan, women could inherit land, which gave them a degree of independence.

In 894, as China's Tang dynasty was on the wane and political tensions in Heian-kyō were at a high, the imperial court ceased its practice of sending emissaries to China. For the next several centuries, Japan turned inward. On the one hand, from isolation was born a rich court culture – the first inklings of what we consider today to be Japanese culture – defined by refined aesthetic pursuits. Purely Japanese styles of Buddhism developed, in the Tendai and Shingon sects. On the other hand, the court grew increasingly stagnant and out of touch, removed from the realities of governing. By now much power was out of imperial hands, as court politics came to be largely manipulated by the powerful Fujiwara clan.

Culture of the Heian Court

By all accounts, and most notably Murasaki Shikibu's 11th-century serialised novel The Tale of Genji, life in the Heian court reached near sublime levels of aestheticism. Chief among pleasures was the composition of waka, 31-syllable poems in Japanese (as opposed to Chinese, the language for court documents). Skill in composition, which required both a working understanding of the symbolism and themes established in classical Chinese poetry and a heightened sensitivity – ears attuned to the rustling of bamboo or the call of the cuckoo, for example – could make or break a courtier's reputation.

One of the more unusual aspects of Heian-era Japan is that the nobility lived a life circumscribed by self-imposed taboos, which were initially based on Chinese systems of geomancy and astrology, but had taken on a life of their own in Japan. Prohibitions on everything from travel in certain directions to hair washing on certain days, were decided by the Onmyō-ryō, the court's official Bureau of Yin and Yang, and strictly followed. Adding to this regimented life was a full calendar of annual rituals, festivals and observances at court.

The whole culture of the Heian court might have seemed frivolous were it not for Buddhism tugging on its sleeves. Buddhism taught that all things (life included) were impermanent. From this the court derived a melancholy joie de vivre: the present was to be cherished because it would pass all too soon. Appreciation for the cherry blossoms, which appears in poetry of the time, is in this same vein; the blossoms, though glorious, bloom only for a brief time. The inherent sorrow of nature's transient beauty is summed up in the Japanese expression mono no aware.

The Genpei War

Outside the capital, 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 administrative duties or to put out the flames of rebellions – particularly in northeast Japan, then the very edge of the court's sphere of influence. 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. To build up their own power, they recruited local warriors, who would later become the samurai of the feudal period.

There were two prominent and increasingly influential clans of disenfranchised lesser nobles: the Minamoto (also known as Genji) and Taira (Heike) were hostile towards each other. 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. Over the following 20 years he, too, became overly absorbed in courtly politics and society. In 1180 he enabled the enthroning of his two-year-old grandson, Antoku. When a rival claimant requested the help of the Minamoto family, who had spent those last two decades regrouping, 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 – the famous Battle of Dan-no-ura, 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.

The Age of Warriors

The Kamakura Shoguns

Minamoto Yoritomo was now the most powerful figure in Japan, yet he did not seek to become emperor; instead, he asked the new emperor to legitimise his authority by conferring upon him the title Sei-i Taishōgun (Commander-in-Chief of Barbarian Subjugation) – or shogun, for short. This was granted in 1192.

Yoritomo left many existing offices and institutions in place in Kyoto and set up a base in his home territory of Kamakura (not far from present-day Tokyo). The shogun's government was called the bakufu, meaning the tent headquarters of a field general. In theory, the shogun represented the military arm of the emperor's government; in practice, the shogun held the real power. The feudal age had begun.

Yoritomo's government, and that of the Hōjō clan (his wife's family) who succeeded him, laid the groundwork for the loyalty-based lord-vassal system that would rule Japanese politics and society for the next seven centuries. With few exceptions, the emperor would now largely be a symbolic ruler.

Though influential, the Kamakura shogunate would be short-lived. The Mongols, under Kublai Khan and at the height of their power, reached Korea in 1259 and sent envoys to Japan seeking Japanese submission. When the envoys were expelled, the Mongols sent a fleet to invade the southern island of Kyūshū in 1274. This attack, and a more determined effort in 1281, were only barely repulsed after timely storms destroyed much of the Mongol fleet.

Despite having held off the Mongol invasion, the shogunate suffered. Its inability to make promised payments to the warriors involved in holding off the Mongols caused considerable discontent, while the payments it did make severely depleted its finances. Dissatisfaction towards the Kamakura regime came to a head under the unusually assertive emperor Go-Daigo (1288–1339). In 1333, following a failed coup that saw him exiled, Go-Daigo raised an army and toppled the government, ushering in a return of political authority to Kyoto.

The Ashikaga Shoguns

Kamakura receded but feudalism did not. Go-Daigo, and the Kyoto nobility, sought a return to courtly rule, but the warriors who fought for him – notably his general, Ashikaga Takauji – had no intention of withdrawing quietly back to the provinces. When Go-Daigo refused to name Takauji shogun, the general revolted; Go-Daigo fled south to Yoshino (where he set up a court in exile that existed until 1392). Takauji installed a puppet emperor from a rival line, who returned the favour by declaring him shogun in 1338.

Takauji set up his base in Kyoto, at Muromachi. With few exceptions, the Ashikaga shoguns were relatively ineffective. They struggled to control the provincial warlords (called daimyō), who they relied on to maintain rule over the country. Buddhist populist revolts and vigilantism fed off and further exaggerated the lack of central authority.

By the 15th century, the warlords had succeeded in carving Japan into a patchwork of fiefdoms. Castles and fortresses were going up around the country. The Ōnin War (1467–77), between two rival clans who wielded much of the real power in the capital, all but destroyed Kyoto. For the next hundred years, the country was in a near-constant state of civil war – a time known as the Sengoku-jidai (Warring States period; 1467–1568).

Feature: Medieval Culture

The rise of the warrior class heralded great changes in Japan. The state once again turned to face the world, and new currents of thought – most notably Zen Buddhism – swept in from Song-dynasty China (960–1279). Zen's emphasis on austerity and self-discipline appealed to the warriors.

Gradually, the loci of culture shifted from the court to the palaces of the new rulers (the shoguns) and to the monasteries. Though it was a time of political instability, the Muromachi era (1336–1573) produced two great cultural centres: Kinkaku-ji, the retirement villa of the third Ashikaga shogun, Yoshimitsu (1358–1403), and Ginkaku-ji, the retirement villa of the eighth Ashikaga shogun, Yoshimasa (1436–1490). It was during this time many elements that we now consider to be quintessentially Japanese first appeared: tatami mats and sliding doors, rock gardens and the tea ceremony.

The devastating Ōnin War had the unintended effect of spreading the culture of the capital to the provinces, as artists and people of means fled, seeking refuge in the villas of provincial lords.

Feature: Samurai

The prime duty of a samurai – a member of the warrior class from about the 12th century onward – 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’. Instantly recognisable with their plated armour knit with silken cords, terrifying face guards and helmets sprouting crests or horns, they are one of the most enduring images of Japan. The samurai's best-known weapon was the katana sword, which rendered them a formidable opponent in single combat.

Over the centuries samurai established a code of conduct that came to be known as bushidō (the way of the warrior). Above all, this meant loyal service to the lord. A samurai's honour was his life; disgrace and shame were to be avoided above all else, and all insults were to be avenged. Seppuku, also known as hara-kiri, was for the samurai an honourable death – far preferable to surrender. It required the samurai to ritually disembowel himself, watched by an aide, who then drew his own sword and lopped off the samurai’s head. Subterfuge was to be despised, as were all commercial and financial transactions. Towards the oppressed, a samurai was expected to show benevolence and exercise justice.

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.

Following the Meiji Restoration, the new government – itself comprising samurai – replaced the historic warriors with a conscript army.

The Bloody Road to Reunification

In the latter half of the 16th century, a series of powerful daimyō attempted to bring the country back under united rule: first Oda Nobunaga (1534–82), then Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–98) and finally Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616). By now, Europeans had begun to arrive, bringing with them Christianity and firearms – another game changer.

One of the most successful of the warlords to take advantage of firearms was Oda Nobunaga. Starting from a relatively minor power base in what is now Aichi Prefecture, he managed to outmanoeuvre rivals (including several family members), seizing Kyoto in 1568. He installed a puppet shogun from the Ashikaga clan (Yoshiaki), only to drive him out in 1573. Although he did not take the title of shogun, Nobunaga held de-facto power. He was noted for his brutality and his disdain for Buddhist priests; he tolerated Christianity as a counterbalance to Buddhism's hegemony.

Following Nobunaga's assassination (by one of his generals), another of his generals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi – a foot soldier who had risen through the ranks to become Nobunaga's favourite – took up the torch of unification, succeeding over eight years in taking control of Japan.

Hideyoshi’s power had been briefly contested by Tokugawa Ieyasu, son of a minor lord allied to Nobunaga. Ieyasu agreed to a truce with Hideyoshi; in return, Hideyoshi granted him eight provinces in eastern Japan (around present-day Tokyo). Hideyoshi intended this to weaken Ieyasu by separating him from his ancestral homeland Chūbu (now Aichi Prefecture); however Ieyasu looked upon the gift as an opportunity to strengthen his power.

Hideyoshi built his showy castle – which reputedly took some 100,000 workers three years to build – in Osaka. The emperor crowned him regent. In his later years, Hideyoshi became increasingly paranoid, cruel and megalomaniacal. He had grand plans for 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.

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, soon went to war against those loyal to Hideyori, finally defeating them in the decisive Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. In 1603 the emperor named Ieyasu shogun. Breaking centuries of tradition, Tokugawa Ieyasu decided to locate his government not in Kyoto, but within his own stronghold in eastern Japan, choosing a small castle town called Edo (present day Tokyo) for his capital.

The Edo Period

Tokugawa Rule

The Tokugawa shoguns would rule for two and a half centuries – a period of relative peace known as the Edo period (1603–1868). Tokugawa Ieyasu was both an ambitious ruler and an ambitious city planner. He built the world's largest fortress, Edo-jō (Edo Castle); around the castle, a spiral of moats were dug (by samurai attached to the clans who had opposed Tokugawa), as well as a canal system to bring water to the population that had quickly swelled to 500,000 by 1650.

Much of Edo's stability and swift rise can be attributed to a canny move by the Tokugawa regime that ensured its hegemony: a system called sankin kōtai that demanded that all daimyō in Japan spend alternate years in Edo. Their wives and children remained in Edo (hostages, essentially) while the daimyō returned to administer their home provinces. This dislocating policy made it hard for ambitious daimyō to usurp the Tokugawas and the high costs of travelling back and forth (with sufficiently large retinues) eroded their finances.

Tokugawa-style micro-management extended to 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.

Retreat from the World

Early on, the Tokugawa shogunate adopted a policy of sakoku (closure to the outside world). The regime was leery of Christianity's potential influence and expelled missionaries in 1614. 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

Society under Tokugawa rule 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.

Yet for all its constraints, the Tokugawa period had a considerable dynamism. Japan's cities grew enormously during this period: Edo's population topped one million in the early 1700s, dwarfing much older London and Paris. Kyoto, which evolved into a production centre for luxury goods, and Osaka, a centre for trade, each hovered around 400,000 for much of the period.

Though they sat at the bottom of the hierarchy, many merchants became fabulously wealthy, profiting from the great cost required of the daimyō for their processions and suitably grand lifestyles in Edo. Shut out from established status symbols by law – they were not allowed, for example, to wear embroidered silk – the shōnin (merchants) created their own culture, one that revolved around the Kabuki theatre, sumo tournaments and the pleasure quarters. The height of fashion was iki, a kind of rakish dandyism.


The Black Ships

By the mid-19th century, the Tokugawa shogunate was losing its grip. It is questionable how much longer it might have held on, 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.

America in particular was keen to expand its interests across the Pacific. 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.

Despite last-ditch efforts by the Tokugawa regime to reassert their power, anti-shogun 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 was, however, and following a series of military clashes between the shogun's armies and the rebels, the rebels proved victorious. The last shogun, Yoshinobu (1837–1913), agreed to retire in 1867. He lived out his remaining years peacefully in Shizuoka. Which is not to say Tokugawa loyalists went quietly into the night; fighting continued, especially in the northeast, through 1868–69, in what is known as the Boshin War.

Meiji Restoration

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). In truth, the emperor still wielded little actual power: the new government was formed primarily of Satsuma or Chōshū samurai.

The Meiji Restoration 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. Many moved to the cities to join the growing workforce in the new manufacturing and white-collar sectors. In 1898, Tokyo's population was just shy of 1.5 million; by 1909 it had surpassed two million.

The new government sought to expand its rule: annexing Hokkaidō in 1869 and the Ryūkyū Kingdom (then a tributary of China; now present day Okinawa) in 1879, imposing strict assimilation policies.


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.

Still, 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 Mitsubishi, Sumitomo and Mitsui).

By the 1920s, Western fashions and ideas, initially the domain of the elite, began to trickle down to the middle class. Women began to work outside the home, in offices, department stores and factories, enjoying a new freedom and disposable income. Like women around the world in the 1920s, they cut their hair short and wore pants – and became symbols for both the optimism and the dread that the new modern era inspired.

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 and 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. 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

The early decades of the 20th century were a time of optimism, when democratic ideals seemed to be overtaking feudal-era loyalties. But there was a dark undercurrent of dissatisfaction, both among certain political and military factions (who felt they were still not held in equal esteem by Western powers) and by the poor (rural and urban alike, as the Great Depression hit Japan), appalled by what they saw as an elite under the sway of Western decadence.

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 proposed by Japan to the League of Nations was rejected. And in 1924 America introduced race-based immigration policies that effectively targeted Japanese. The armed forces bristled at the humiliation of yet another round of capitulations. 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 of its own accord.

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. According to Japanese wartime rhetoric, the empire sought to create what it called a 'Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere' and to liberate other Asian peoples from European colonialism. While some locals may have been initially optimistic about the ousting of the European imperialists, their hopes quickly faded; millions, especially in Indonesia, were conscripted into harsh labour.

Meanwhile, tensions between Japan and the USA had been intensifying, as the Americans, alarmed by Japan's aggression, demanded Japan back down in China. When diplomacy failed, the USA (then still neutral) 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 bringing the USA into the war.

Despite initial successes, the tide started to turn against Japan at 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 the Allies. 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 USA dropped the world's first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing 90,000 civilians. Russia, which Japan had hoped might mediate, declared war on 8 August. On 9 August another atomic bomb was dropped, this time on Nagasaki, causing another 50,000 deaths. The emperor formally surrendered on 15 August, 1945.

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 could he be 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, the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers (SCAP), a situation that would last until 1952 (and until 1972 in Okinawa).

MacArthur lead the drafting of a new constitution, one that laid out the emperor's new role as figurehead; dictated a separation of religion and state; and extended suffrage to women. Crucially, Article 9 of the constitution renounced war and the right to maintain a standing armed forces. In 1951, a security treaty was signed by the United States and Japan that stipulated Japan would fall under the umbrella of US military protection – a treaty (and source of contention) that remains to this day.

Following the end of occupation, Japan settled into a– if not happy, then stable – medium between the democratic ideals put forth in its new constitution and the top-down authority favoured by the government's reigning conservatives (who still bristled at Japan's defeat). In 1955, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) came to power; they would rule Japanese politics with few breaks until the present day, in cooperation with career bureaucrats and big business.

The Boom Years

In the 1950s Japan took off on a trajectory of phenomenal growth that is often described as miraculous (though it was jump-started by US procurement for the Korean War). Throughout the 1960s, Japan's GDP grew, on average, 10% a year. The new consumer class, inspired by the images of affluence introduced during the American occupation, yearned for the so-called 'three sacred treasures' of the modern era (a play on the three sacred treasures of the imperial family: the sword, the mirror and the jewel) – a refrigerator, a washing machine and a television. By 1964, 90% of the population had them.

The 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, were seen by many as a turning point in the nation’s history, the moment when Japan finally recovered from the devastation of WWII to emerge as a fully fledged member of the modern world economy.

Growth continued through the '70s and reached a peak in the late '80s, when wildly inflated real-estate prices and stock speculation fuelled what is now known as the ‘Bubble economy’. These were heady times, when it seemed like all the hard work of the postwar decades had paid off; many Japanese went overseas for the first time, famously snapping up Louis Vuitton handbags by the armful. It seemed like things could only go up – until they didn't.

Heisei Doldrums

In 1991, just two years after the Heisei Emperor ascended the throne, the bubble burst and Japan's economy went into a tailspin. The 1990s were christened the 'Lost Decade', but that has since turned into two, and probably three, as the economy continues to slump along, despite government intervention. Long-time prime minister Abe Shinzō's so-called Abenomics plan, which included a devaluing of the yen, has had some positive effects on corporate gains – and also on in-bound tourism (making Japan a cheaper place to visit!) – and generated some 'Japan is back!' headlines, but ordinary people have seen little change. By now a whole generation has come of age in a Japan where lifelong employment – the backbone of the middle class – is no longer a guarantee.

There have been other disturbing troubles in Japanese society. In March 1995, members of the Aum Shinrikyō doomsday cult released sarin nerve gas on crowded Tokyo subways, killing 12 and injuring more than 5000. This, together with the devastating Kōbe earthquake of the same year, which killed more than 6000 people, signalled the end of Japan’s feeling of omnipotence, born of the unlimited successes of the 1980s. The once proud brand of Japan Inc has been tarnished by successive corporate scandals. The 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan, coupled with the meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, further underlined the nation's fragility.

Japan is also struggling with its international role: the leeway allowed by its ‘Peace Constitution’; its relationship with its unpredictable neighbours, China (whose economy eclipsed Japan's in 2010 to become number two) and North Korea; and its relationship with an increasingly unpredictable US – Japan's largest trading partner and the country for whom it relies on for national security.