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Ancient Japan: from hunter-gatherers to divine rule

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

Such is the seminal creation myth of Japan. More certainly, humans were present in Japan at least 200, 000 years ago, though the earliest human remains go back only 30, 000 years or so. Till around the end of the last Ice Age some 15, 000 years ago, Japan was linked to the continent by a number of landbridges – Siberia to the north, Korea to the west and probably China through Taiwan to the south – so access was not difficult.

Amid undoubted diversity, the first recognisable culture to emerge was the Neolithic Jōmon (named after a ‘rope mark’ pottery style), from around 13, 000 BC. The Jōmon were mostly hunter-gatherers, with a preference for coastal regions, though agriculture started to develop from around 4000 BC and this brought about greater stability in settlement and the emergence of larger tribal communities. The present-day indigenous Ainu people of northern Japan are of Jōmon descent.

From around 400 BC Japan was effectively invaded by waves of immigrants later known as Yayoi (from the site where their distinctive reddish wheel-thrown pottery was first found). They first arrived in the southwest, probably through the Korean peninsula. Their exact origins are unknown, and may well be diverse, but they brought with them iron and bronze technology, and highly productive wet rice-farming techniques. In general they were taller and less stocky than the Jōmon – though a Chinese document from the 1st century AD nonetheless refers to Japan (by this stage quite heavily peopled by the Yayoi) as ‘The Land of the Dwarfs’!

Opinion is divided as to the nature of Yayoi relations with the Jōmon, but the latter were gradually displaced and forced ever further north. The Yayoi had spread to the middle of Honshū by the 1st century AD, but Northern Honshū could still be considered ‘Jōmon’ till at least the 8th century. With the exception of the Ainu, present-day Japanese are overwhelmingly of Yayoi descent.

Other consequences of the Yayoi Advent included greater intertribal/regional trade based on greater and more diverse production through new technologies. At the same time there was increased rivalry between tribal/regional groups, often over resources, and greater social stratification.

Agriculture-based fixed settlement led to the consolidation of territory and the establishment of boundaries. According to Chinese sources, by the end of the 1st century AD there were more than a hundred kingdoms in Japan, and by the mid-3rd century these were largely subject to an ‘over-queen’ named Himiko, whose own territory was known as Yamatai (later Yamato). The location of Yamatai is disputed, with some scholars favouring northwest Kyūshū, but most preferring the Nara region. The Chinese treated Himiko as sovereign of all Japan – the name Yamato eventually being applied to Japan as a whole – and she acknowledged her allegiance to the Chinese emperor through tribute.

On her death in 248 she is said to have been buried – along with a hundred sacrificed slaves – in a massive barrow-like tomb known as a kofun, indicative of the growing importance of status. Other dignitaries chose burial in similar tombs, and so from this point until the establishment of Nara as a capital in 710, this time is referred to as the Kofun or Yamato period.

The period saw the confirmation of the Yamato as the dominant – indeed imperial – clan in Japan. Their consolidation of power often appears to have been by negotiation and alliance with (or incorporation of) powerful potential foes. This was a practice Japan was to continue through the ages where possible, though it was less accommodating in the case of perceived weaker foes.

The first verifiable emperor was Suijin (died around 318), very likely of the Yamato clan, though some scholars think he may have been leader of a group of ‘horse-riders’ who appear to have come into Japan around the start of the 4th century from the Korean peninsula. The period also saw the adoption of writing, based on Chinese but first introduced by scholars from the Korean kingdom of Paekche in the mid-5th century. Scholars from Paekche also introduced Buddhism a century later.

Buddhism was promoted by the Yamato rulers as a means of unification and control of the land. Though Buddhism originated in India it was seen by the Japanese as a Chinese religion, and was one of a number of ‘things Chinese’ that they adopted to achieve recognition – especially by China – as a civilised country. By emulating China, Japan hoped it could become as powerful. The desire to learn from the strongest/best is another enduring Japanese characteristic.

In 604 the regent Prince Shōtoku (573–620) enacted a constitution of 17 articles, with a very Chinese and indeed Confucianist flavour, esteeming harmony and hard work. Major Chinese-style reforms followed some decades later in 645, such as centralisation of government, nationalisation and allocation of land, and law codes. To strengthen its regime, under Emperor Temmu (r 673–686) the imperial family initiated the compilation of historical works such as the Kojiki (Record of Old Things, 712) and Nihon Shoki (Record of Japan, 720), with the aim of legitimising their power through claimed divine descent. It had the desired effect, and despite a number of perilous moments, Japan continues to have the longest unbroken monarchic line in the world.

Emulation of things Chinese was not indiscriminate. For example, in China Confucianism condoned the removal of an unvirtuous ruler felt to have lost the ‘mandate of heaven’, but this idea was not promoted in Japan. Nor was the Chinese practice of allowing achievement of high rank through examination, for the Japanese ruling class preferred birth over merit.

Northern Japan aside, in terms of factors such as effective unification, centralised government, social stratification, systematic administration, external recognition, legitimisation of power, a written constitution and a legal code, Japan, with its estimated five million people, could be said to have formed a nation-state by the early 8th century.

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The age of courtiers

In 710 an intended permanent capital was established at Nara (Heijō), built to a Chinese grid pattern. The influence of Buddhism in those days is still seen today in the Tōdai-ji, which houses a huge bronze Buddha and is the world’s largest wooden building (and one of the oldest).

In 784 Emperor Kammu (r 781–806) decided to relocate the capital. His reasons are unclear, but may have beenrelated to an inauspicious series of disasters, including a massive smallpox epidemic (735–37) that killed as many as one-third of the population. The capital was transferred to nearby Kyoto (Heian) in 794, newly built on a similar grid pattern. It was to remain Japan’s capital for more than a thousand years – though not necessarily as the centre of actual power.

Over the next few centuries, courtly life in Kyoto 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 around 1004. It showed a world where courtiers indulged in amusements, such as guessing flowers by their scent, building extravagant follies and sparing no expense to indulge in the latest luxury. On the positive side, it was a world that encouraged aesthetic sensibilities, such as mono no aware (the bitter-sweetness of things) and okashisa (pleasantly surprising incongruity), which were to endure right through to the present day. But on the negative side, it was also a world increasingly estranged from the real one. Put bluntly, it lacked muscle. The effeteness of the court was exacerbated by the weakness of the emperors, manipulated over centuries by the intrigues of the notorious and politically dominant Fujiwara family, who effectively ruled the country.

By contrast, while the major nobles immersed themselves in courtly pleasures and/or intrigues, out in the real world of the provinces, powerful military forces were developing. They were typically led by minor nobles, often sent out on behalf of court-based major nobles to carry out ‘tedious’ local gubernatorial and administrative duties. Some were actually distant imperial family members, barred from succession claims – a practice known as ‘dynastic shedding’ – and often hostile to the court. Their retainers included skilled warriors known as samurai (literally ‘retainer’).

The two main ‘shed’ families were the Minamoto (also known as Genji) and the Taira (Heike), who were basically enemies. In 1156 they were employed to assist rival claimants to the headship of the Fujiwara family, though these figures soon faded into the background, as the struggle developed into a feud between the Minamoto and the Taira.

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

Both Kiyomori and the claimant died very shortly afterwards, but Yoritomo and his younger half-brother Yoshitsune (1159–89) continued the campaign against the Taira – a campaign interrupted by a pestilence during the early 1180s. By 1185 Kyoto had fallen and the Taira had been pursued to the western tip of Honshū. A naval battle ensued (at Dannoura) and the Minamoto were victorious. In a well-known tragic tale, Kiyomori’s widow clasped her grandson Antoku (now aged seven) and leaped with him into the sea, rather than have him surrender. Minamoto Yoritomo was now the most powerful man in Japan, and was to usher in a martial age.

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The age of warriors

Yoritomo did not seek to become emperor, but rather to have the new emperor confer legitimacy on him through the title of shōgun (generalissimo). This was granted in 1192. Similarly, he left many existing offices and institutions in place – though often modified – and set up his base in his home territory of Kamakura, rather than Kyoto. In theory he represented merely the military arm of the emperor’s government, but in practice he was in charge of government in the broad sense. His ‘shōgunate’ was known in Japanese as the bakufu, meaning the tent headquarters of a field general, though it was far from temporary. As an institution, it was to last almost 700 years.

The system of government now became feudal, centred on a lord-vassal system in which loyalty was a key value. It tended to be more personal and more ‘familial’ than medieval European feudalism, particularly in the extended oya-ko relationship (‘parent-child’, in practice ‘father-son’). This ‘familial hierarchy’ was to become another enduring feature of Japan.

But ‘families’ – even actual blood families – were not always happy, and the more ruthless power seekers would not hesitate to kill family members they saw as threats. Yoritomo himself, seemingly very suspicious by nature, killed off so many of his own family there were serious problems with the shōgunal succession upon his death in 1199 (following a fall from his horse in suspicious circumstances). One of those he had killed was his half-brother Yoshitsune, who earned an enduring place in Japanese literature and legend as the archetypical tragic hero.

Yoritomo’s widow Masako (1157–1225) was a formidable figure, arranging shōgunal regents and controlling the shōgunate for much of her remaining life. Having taken religious vows on her husband’s death, she became known as the ‘nun shōgun’, and one of the most powerful women in Japanese history. She was instrumental in ensuring that her own family, the Hōjō, replaced the Minamoto as shōguns. The Hōjō shōgunate continued to use Kamakura as the shōgunal base, and was to endure till the 1330s.

It was during their shōgunacy that the Mongols twice tried to invade, in 1274 and 1281. The Mongol empire was close to its peak at this time, under Kublai Khan (r 1260–94). After conquering Korea in 1259 he sent requests to Japan to submit to him, but these were ignored.

His expected first attack came in November 1274, allegedly with some 900 vessels carrying around 40, 000 men – many of them reluctant Korean conscripts – 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 presently retreated to their ships. Shortly afterwards a violent storm blew up and damaged around a third of the fleet, after which the remainder returned to Korea.

A more determined attempt was made seven years later from China. Allegedly, Kublai ordered the construction of a huge fleet of 4400 warships to carry a massive force of 140, 000 men – again, questionable figures. They landed once more in northwest Kyūshū in August 1281. Once again they met spirited resistance and had to retire to their vessels, and once again the weather soon intervened. This time a typhoon destroyed half their vessels – many of which were actually designed for river use, without keels, and unable to withstand rough conditions. The survivors returned to China, and there were no further Mongol invasions of Japan.

It was the typhoon of 1281 in particular that led to the idea of divine intervention to save Japan, with the coining of the term shinpū or kamikaze (both meaning ‘divine wind’). Later this came to refer to the Pacific War suicide pilots who, said to be infused with divine spirit, gave their lives in the cause of protecting Japan from invasion. It also led the Japanese to feel that their land was indeed the Land of the Gods.

Despite the successful defence, the Hōjō shōgunate suffered. It was unable to make a number of promised payments to the warrior families involved, which brought considerable dissatisfaction, while the payments it did make severely depleted its finances.

It was also during the Hōjō shōgunacy that Zen Buddhism was brought from China. Its austerity and self-discipline appealed greatly to the warrior class, and it was also a factor in the appeal of aesthetic values such as sabi (elegant simplicity). More popular forms of Buddhism were the Jōdo (Pure Land) and Jōdo Shin (True Pure Land) sects, based on salvation through invocation of Amida Buddha.

Dissatisfaction towards the Hōjō shōgunate came to a head under the unusually assertive emperor Go-Daigo (1288–1339), who, after escaping from exile imposed by the Hōjō, started to muster anti-shōgunal support in Western Honshū. In 1333 the shōgunate despatched troops to counter the rebellion under one of its most promising generals, the young Ashikaga Takauji (1305–58). However, Takauji was aware of the dissatisfaction towards the Hōjō and realised that he and Go-Daigo had considerable military strength between them. He abandoned the shōgunate and threw in his lot with the emperor, attacking the shōgunal offices in Kyoto. Others soon rebelled against the shōgunate in Kamakura itself.

This was the end for the Hōjō shōgunate, but not for the shōgunal institution. Takauji wanted the title of shōgun for himself, but his ally Go-Daigo was reluctant to confer it, fearing it would weaken his own imperial power. A rift developed, and Go-Daigo sent forces to attack Takauji. When Takauji emerged victorious, he turned on Kyoto, forcing Go-Daigo to flee into the hills of Yoshino some 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 shōgun in 1338. Thus there were two courts in coexistence, which continued until 1392 when the ‘southern court’ (at Yoshino) was betrayed by Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358–1408), Takauji’s grandson and third Ashikaga shogun, who promised reconciliation but very soon ‘closed out’ the southern court.

Takauji set up his shōgunal base in Kyoto, at Muromachi, which gives its name to the period of the Ashikaga shōgunate. Notable shōguns include Takauji himself and his grandson Yoshimitsu, who among other things had Kyoto’s famous Kinkaku-ji (Golden Temple; p343) built, and once declared himself ‘King of Japan’. However, the majority of Ashikaga shōguns were relatively weak. In the absence of strong centralised government and control, the country slipped increasingly into civil war. Regional warlords, who came to be known as daimyō (big names), vied with each other in seemingly interminable feuds and power struggles. Eventually, starting with the Ōnin War of 1467–77, the country entered a period of virtually constant civil war. This was to last for the next hundred years, a time appropriately known as the Sengoku (Warring States) era.

Ironically perhaps, it was during the Muromachi period that a new flourishing of the arts took place, such as in the refined drama, ikebana (flower arranging) and cha-no-yu (tea ceremony). Key aesthetics were yūgen (elegant and tranquil otherworldliness, as seen in ), wabi (subdued taste), kare (severe and unadorned) and the earlier-mentioned sabi (elegant simplicity).

The later stages of the period also saw the first arrival of Europeans, specifically three Portuguese traders blown ashore on the island of Tanegashima, south of Kyūshū, in 1543. Presently other Europeans arrived, bringing with them two important items, Christianity and firearms (mostly arquebuses). They found a land torn apart by warfare, ripe for conversion to Christianity – at least in the eyes of missionaries such as (St) Francis Xavier, who arrived in 1549 – while the Japanese warlords were more interested in the worldly matter of firearms.

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One of the most successful warlords to make use of firearms was Oda Nobunaga (1534–82), from what is now Aichi Prefecture. Though starting from a relatively minor power base, his skilled and ruthless generalship resulted in a series of victories over rivals. In 1568 he seized Kyoto in support of the shōgunal claim of one of the Ashikaga clan (Yoshiaki), duly installed him, but then in 1573 drove him out and made his own base at Azuchi. Though he did not take the title of shōgun himself, Nobunaga was the supreme power in the land.

Noted for his brutality, he was not a man to cross. In particular he hated Buddhist priests, whom he saw as troublesome, and tolerated Christianity as a counterbalance to them. His ego was massive, leading him to erect a temple where he could be worshipped, and to declare his birthday a national holiday. His stated aim was Tenka Fubu (A Unified Realm under Military Rule) and he went some way to achieving this unification by policies such as strategic redistribution of territories among the daimyō, land surveys, and standardisation of weights and measures.

In 1582 he was betrayed by one of his generals and forced to commit suicide. However, the work of continuing unification was carried on by another of his generals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–98), a footsoldier who had risen through the ranks to become Nobunaga’s favourite. He, too, was an extraordinary figure. Small and simian in his features, Nobunaga had nicknamed him Saru-chan (Little Monkey), but his huge will for power belied his physical smallness. He disposed of potential rivals among Nobunaga’s sons, took the title of regent, continued Nobunaga’s policy of territorial redistribution and also insisted that daimyō should surrender their families to him as hostages to be kept in Kyoto – his base being at Momoyama. He also banned weapons for all classes except samurai.

Hideyoshi became increasingly paranoid, cruel and megalomaniacal in his later years. Messengers who gave him bad news would be sawn in half, and young members of his own family executed for suspected plotting. He also issued the first expulsion order of Christians (1587), whom he suspected of being an advance guard for an invasion. This order was not necessarily enforced, but in 1597 he crucified 26 Christians – nine of them European. 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 he died of illness in 1598.

On his deathbed Hideyoshi entrusted the safeguarding of the country, and the succession of his young son Hideyori (1593–1615), whom he had unexpectedly fathered late in life, to one of his ablest generals, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542–1616). However, upon Hideyoshi’s death, Ieyasu betrayed that trust. In 1600, in the Battle of Sekigahara, he defeated those who were trying to protect Hideyori, and became effectively the overlord of Japan. In 1603 his power was legitimised when the emperor conferred on him the title of shōgun. His Kantō base, the once tiny fishing village of Edo – later to be renamed Tōkyō – now became the real centre of power and government in Japan.

Through these three men, by fair means or more commonly foul, the country had been reunified within three decades.

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Stability & seclusion

Having secured power for the Tokugawa, Ieyasu and his successors were determined to retain it. Their basic strategy was of a linked two-fold nature: enforce the status quo and minimise potential for challenge. Orthodoxy and strict control (over military families in particular) were key elements.

Policies included requiring authorisation for castle building and marriages, continuing strategic redistribution (or confiscation) of territory, and, importantly, requiring daimyō and their retainers to spend every second year at Edo, with their families kept there permanently as hostages. In addition the shōgunate directly controlled ports, mines, major towns and other strategic areas. Movement was severely restricted by deliberate destruction of many bridges, the implementation of checkpoints and requirements for written travel authority, the banning of wheeled transport, the strict monitoring of potentially ocean-going vessels, and the banning of overseas travel for Japanese and even the return of those already overseas. Social movement was also banned, with society divided into four main classes: in descending order, shi (samurai), (farmers), (artisans) and shō (merchants). Detailed codes of conduct applied to each of these classes, even down to clothing and food and housing – right down to the siting of the toilet!

Christianity, though not greatly popular, threatened the authority of the shōgunate. Thus Christian missionaries were expelled in 1614. In 1638 the bloody quelling of the Christian-led Shimabara Uprising (near Nagasaki) saw Christianity banned and Japanese Christians – probably several hundred thousand – forced into hiding. All Westerners except the Protestant Dutch were expelled. The shōgunate found Protestantism less threatening than Catholicism – among other things it knew the Vatican could muster one of the biggest military forces in the world – and would have been prepared to let the British stay on if the Dutch, showing astute commercial one-upmanship, had not convinced it that Britain was a Catholic country. Nevertheless, the Dutch were confined geographically to a tiny trading base on the man-made island of Dejima, near Nagasaki, and numerically to just a few dozen men.

Thus Japan entered an era of sakoku (secluded country) that was to last for more than two centuries. Within the isolated and severely prescribed world of Tokugawa Japan, the breach of even a trivial law could mean execution. Even mere ‘rude behaviour’ was a capital offence, and the definition of this was ‘acting in an unexpected manner’. Punishments could be cruel, such as crucifixion, and could be meted out collectively or by proxy (for example, a village headman could be punished for the misdeed of a villager). Secret police were used to report on misdeeds.

As a result, people at large learned the importance of obedience to authority, of collective responsibility and of ‘doing the right thing’. These are values still prominent in present-day Japan.

For all the constraints there was nevertheless a considerable dynamism to the period, especially among the merchants, who as the lowest class were often ignored by the authorities and thus had relative freedom. They prospered greatly from the services and goods required for the daimyō processions to and from Edo, entailing such expense that daimyō had to convert much of their domainal produce into cash. This boosted the economy in general.

A largely pleasure-oriented merchant culture thrived, and produced the popular kabuki drama, with its colour and stage effects. Other entertainments included bunraku (puppet theatre), haiku (17-syllable verses), popular novels and ukiyoe (wood-block prints), often of female geisha, who came to the fore in this period. (Earlier geisha – meaning ‘artistic person’ – were male.)

Samurai, for their part, had no major military engagements. Well educated, most ended up fighting mere paper wars as administrators and managers. Ironically, it was during this period of relative inactivity that the renowned samurai code of bushidō was formalised, largely to justify the existence of the samurai class – some 6% of the population – by portraying them as moral exemplars. Though much of it was idealism, occasionally the code was put into practice, such as the exemplary loyalty shown by the Forty-Seven rōnin (masterless samurai) in 1701–03, who waited two years to avenge the unfair enforced suicide by seppuku (disembowelment) of their lord. After killing the man responsible, they in turn were all obliged to commit seppuku.

In more general terms, Confucianism was officially encouraged with the apparent aim of reinforcing the idea of hierarchy and status quo. Though this was clearly not in the best interests of women, it encouraged learning, and along with this, literacy. By the end of the period as many as 30% of the population of 30 million were literate – far ahead of the Western norm at the time. In some opposition to the ‘Chinese learning’ represented by Confucianism, there was also a strong trend of nationalism, centred on Shintō and the ancient texts. This was unhelpful to the shōgunate as it tended to focus on the primacy of the emperor. Certainly, by the early-mid-19th century, there was considerable dissatisfaction towards the shōgunate, fanned also by corruption and incompetence among shōgunal officials.

It is questionable how much longer the Tokugawa shōgunate and its secluded world could have continued, but as it happened, external forces were to bring about its demise.

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Modernisation through Westernisation

Since the start of the 19th century a number of Western vessels had appeared in Japanese waters. Any Westerners who dared to land, even through shipwreck, were almost always met with expulsion or even execution.

This was not acceptable to the Western powers, especially the USA, which was keen to expand its interests across the Pacific and had numerous whaling vessels in the northwest that needed regular reprovisioning. In 1853, and again the following year, US Commodore Matthew Perry steamed into Edo Bay with a show of gunships and demanded the opening of Japan for trade and reprovisioning. The shōgunate had little option but to accede to his demands, for it was no match for Perry’s firepower. Presently a US consul arrived, and other Western powers followed suit. Japan was obliged to give ‘most favoured nation’ rights to all the powers, and lost control over its own tariffs.

The humiliation of the shōgunate, the nation’s supposed military protector, was capitalised upon by anti-shōgunal samurai in the outer domains of Satsuma (southern Kyūshū) and Chōshū (Western Honshū) in particular. A movement arose to ‘revere the emperor and expel the barbarians’ (sonnō jōi). However, after unsuccessful skirmishing with the Western powers, the reformers realised that expelling the barbarians was not feasible, but restoring the emperor was. Their coup, known as the Meiji (Enlightened Rule) Restoration, was put into effect from late 1867 to early 1868, and the new teenage emperor Mutsuhito (1852–1912), later to be known as Meiji, found himself ‘restored’, following the convenient death of his stubborn father Kōmei (1831–67). After some initial resistance, the last shōgun, Yoshinobu (1837–1913), retired to Shizuoka to live out his numerous remaining years peacefully. The shōgunal base at Edo became the new imperial base, and was renamed Tōkyō (eastern capital).

Mutsuhito did as he was told by those who had restored him, though they would claim that everything was done on his behalf and with his sanction. Basically, he was the classic legitimiser. His restorers, driven by both personal ambition and genuine concern for the nation, were largely leading Satsuma/Chōshū samurai in their early 30s. The most prominent of them was Itō Hirobumi (1841–1909), who was to become prime minister on no fewer than four occasions. Fortunately for Japan, they proved a very capable oligarchy.

Japan was also fortunate in that the Western powers were distracted by richer and easier pickings in China and elsewhere, and did not seriously seek to occupy or colonise Japan, though Perry does seem to have entertained such thoughts at one stage. Nevertheless, the fear of colonisation made the oligarchs act with great urgency. Far from being colonised, they themselves wanted to be colonisers, and make Japan a major power.

Under the banner of fukoku kyōhei (rich country, strong army), the young men who now controlled Japan decided on Westernisation as the best strategy – again showing the apparent Japanese preference for learning from a powerful potential foe. In fact, as another slogan oitsuke, oikose (catch up, overtake) suggests, they even wanted to outdo their models. Missions were sent overseas to observe a whole range of Western institutions and practices, and Western specialists were brought to Japan to advise in areas from banking to transport to mining.

In the coming decades Japan was to Westernise quite substantially, not just in material terms, such as communications and railways and clothing, but also, based on selected models, in the establishment of a modern banking system and economy, legal code, constitution and Diet, elections and political parties, and a conscript army.

Existing institutions and practices were disestablished where necessary. Daimyō were ‘persuaded’ to give their domainal land to the government in return for governorships or similar compensation, enabling the implementation of a prefectural system. The four-tier class system was scrapped, and people were now free to choose their occupation and place of residence. This included even the samurai class, phased out by 1876 to pave the way for a more efficient conscript army – though there was some armed resistance to this in 1877 under the Satsuma samurai (and oligarch) Saigō Takamori, who ended up committing seppuku when the resistance failed.

To help relations with the Western powers, the ban on Christianity was lifted, though few took advantage of it. Nevertheless numerous Western ideologies entered the country, one of the most popular being ‘self-help’ philosophy. This provided a guiding principle for a population newly liberated from a world in which everything had been prescribed for them. But at the same time, too much freedom could lead to an unhelpful type of individualism. The government quickly realised that nationalism could safely and usefully harness these new energies. People were encouraged to become successful and strong, and in doing so show the world what a successful and strong nation Japan was. Through educational policies, supported by imperial pronouncements, young people were encouraged to become strong and work for the good of the family-nation.

The government was proactive in many other measures, such as taking 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 combines known as zaibatsu. The government’s actions in this were not really democratic, but this was typical of the day. Another example is the ‘transcendental cabinet’, which was not responsible to the parliament but only to the emperor, who followed his advisers, who were members of the same cabinet! Meiji Japan was outwardly democratic but internally retained many authoritarian features.

The ‘state-guided’ economy was helped by a workforce that was well educated, obedient and numerous, and traditions of sophisticated commercial practices such as futures markets. In the early years Japan’s main industry was textiles and its main export silk, but later in the Meiji period, with judicious financial support from the government, it moved increasingly into manufacturing and heavy industry, becoming a major world shipbuilder by the end of the period. Improvement in agricultural technology freed up surplus farming labour to move into these manufacturing sectors.

A key element of Japan’s aim to become a world power with overseas territory was the military. Following Prussian (army) and British (navy) models, Japan soon built up a formidable military force. Using the same ‘gunboat diplomacy’ that Perry had used on the Japanese shōgunate, in 1876 Japan was able to force on Korea an unequal treaty of its own, and thereafter interfered increasingly 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 tricked Japan into renouncing the peninsula and then promptly occupied it itself, leading to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, from which Japan again emerged victorious. One important benefit was Western recognition of its interests in Korea, which it proceeded to annex in 1910.

By the time of Mutsuhito’s death in 1912, Japan was indeed 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. Western-style structures were in place. The economy was world ranking. The Meiji period had been a truly extraordinary half-century of modernisation. But where to now?

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Growing dissatisfaction with the West

Mutsuhito was succeeded by his son Yoshihito (Taishō), who suffered mental deterioration that led to his own son Hirohito (1901–89) becoming regent in 1921.

On the one hand, the Taishō period (‘Great Righteousness’, 1912–26) saw continued democratisation, with a more liberal line, the extension of the right to vote and a stress on diplomacy. Through WWI Japan was able to benefit economically from the reduced presence of the Western powers, and also politically, for it was allied with Britain (though with little actual involvement) and was able to occupy German possessions in East Asia and the Pacific. On the other hand, using that same reduced Western presence, in 1915 Japan aggressively sought to gain effective control of China with its notorious ‘Twenty-One Demands’, which were eventually modified.

In Japan at this time there was a growing sense of dissatisfaction towards the West and a sense of unfair treatment. The Washington Conference of 1921–22 set naval ratios of three capital ships for Japan to five US and five British, which upset the Japanese despite being well ahead of France’s 1.75. Around the same time a racial equality clause that Japan proposed to the newly formed League of Nations was rejected. And in 1924 the US introduced race-based immigration policies that effectively targeted Japanese.

This dissatisfaction was to intensify in the Shōwa period (Illustrious Peace), which started in 1926 with the death of Yoshihito and the formal accession of Hirohito. He was not a strong emperor and was unable to curb the rising power of the military, who pointed to the growing gap between urban and rural living standards and accused politicians and big businessmen of corruption. The situation was not helped by repercussions from the World Depression in the late 1920s. The ultimate cause of these troubles, in Japanese eyes, was the West, with its excessive individualism and liberalism. According to the militarists, Japan needed to look after its own interests, which in extended form meant a resource-rich, Japan-controlled Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere that even included Australia and New Zealand.

In 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria on a pretext, and presently set up a puppet government. When the League of Nations objected, Japan promptly left the League. It soon turned its attention to China, and in 1937 launched a brutal invasion that saw atrocities such as the notorious Nanjing Massacre of December that year. Casualty figures for Chinese civilians at Nanjing vary between 340, 000 (some Chinese sources) and a ‘mere’ 20, 000 (some Japanese sources). Many of the tortures, rapes and murders were filmed and are undeniable, but persistent (though not universal) Japanese attempts to downplay this and other massacres in Asia remain a stumbling block in Japan’s relations with many Asian nations, even today.

Japan did not reject all Western nations, however, for it admired the new regimes in Germany and Italy, and in 1940 entered into a tripartite pact with them. This gave it confidence to expand further in Southeast Asia, principally seeking oil, for which it was heavily dependent on US exports. However, the alliance was not to lead to much cooperation, and since Hitler was openly talking of the Japanese as untermenschen (lesser beings) and the ‘Yellow Peril’, Japan was never sure of Germany’s commitment. The US was increasingly concerned about Japan’s aggression and applied sanctions. Diplomacy failed, and war seemed inevitable. The US planned to make the first strike, covertly, through the China-based Flying Tigers (Plan JB355), but there was a delay in assembling an appropriate strike force.

So it was that the Japanese struck at Pearl Harbor on 7 December that year, damaging much of the US Pacific Fleet and allegedly catching the US by surprise, though some scholars believe Roosevelt and others deliberately allowed the attack to happen in order to overcome isolationist sentiment and bring the US into the war against Japan’s ally Germany. Whatever the reality, the US certainly underestimated Japan and its fierce commitment, which led rapidly to widespread occupation of Pacific islands and parts of continental Asia. Most scholars agree that Japan never expected to beat the US, but hoped to bring it to the negotiating table and emerge better off.

The tide started to turn against Japan from the battle of Midway in June 1942, which saw the destruction of much of Japan’s carrier fleet. Basically, Japan had over-extended itself, and over the next three years was subjected to an island-hopping counterattack from forces under General Douglas MacArthur. By mid-1945 the Japanese, ignoring the Potsdam Declaration calling for unconditional surrender, were preparing for a final Allied assault on their homelands. On 6 August the world’s first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, with 90, 000 civilian deaths. On 8 August, Russia, which Japan had hoped might mediate, declared war. On 9 August another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, with another 75, 000 deaths. The situation prompted the emperor to formally announce surrender on 15 August. Hirohito probably knew what the bombs were, for Japanese scientists were working on their own atomic bomb and seem to have had both sufficient expertise and resources, though their state of progress is unclear.

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Recovery & beyond

Following Japan’s defeat a largely US occupation began under MacArthur. It was benign and constructive, with twin aims of demilitarisation and democratisation, and a broader view of making Japan an Americanised bastion against communism in the region. To the puzzlement of many Japanese, Hirohito was not tried as a war criminal but was retained as emperor. This was largely for reasons of expediency, to facilitate and legitimise reconstruction – and with it US policy. It was Americans who drafted Japan’s new constitution, with its famous ‘no war’ clause. US aid was very helpful to the rebuilding of the economy, and so too were procurements from the Korean War of 1950–53. The Occupation ended in 1952, though Okinawa was not returned till 1972 and is still home to US military bases. And Japan still supports US policy in many regards, such as in amending the law to allow (noncombatant) troops to be sent to Iraq.

The Japanese responded extremely positively in rebuilding their nation, urged on by a comment from the postwar prime minister Yoshida Shigeru that Japan had lost the war but would win the peace. Certainly, in economic terms, through close cooperation between a stable government and well organised industry, and a sincere nationwide determination to become ‘Number One’, by the 1970s Japan had effectively achieved this. It had become an economic superpower, its ‘economic miracle’ the subject of admiration and study around the world. Even the Oil Shocks of 1973 and 1979 did not cause serious setback.

By the late 1980s Japan was by some criteria the richest nation on the planet, of which it occupied a mere 0.3% in terms of area but 16% in terms of economic might and an incredible 60% in terms of real estate value. Some major Japanese companies had more wealth than many nations’ entire GNP.

Hirohito died in January 1989, succeeded by his son Akihito and the new Heisei (Full Peace) period. He must have ended his extraordinarily eventful life happy at his nation’s economic supremacy.

The so-called ‘Bubble Economy’ may have seemed unstoppable, but the laws of economics eventually prevailed and in the early 1990s it burst from within, having grown beyond a sustainable base. Though Japan was to remain an economic superpower, the consequences were nevertheless severe. Economically, Japan entered a recession of some 10 years, which saw almost zero growth in real terms, plummeting land prices, increased unemployment and even dismissal of managers who had believed they were guaranteed ‘lifetime’ employment. Socially, the impact was even greater. The public, whose lives were often based around corporations and assumed economic growth, were disoriented by the effective collapse of corporatism and the economy. Many felt displaced, confused and even betrayed, their values shaken. In 1993 the Liberal Democratic Party, in power since 1955, found itself out of office, though it soon recovered its position as a sort of resigned apathy seemed to set in among the public.

The situation was not helped by two events in 1995. In January the Kōbe Earthquake struck, killing more than 5000 people and earning the government serious criticism for failure to respond promptly and effectively. A few months later came the notorious sarin gas subway attack by the AUM religious group, which killed 12 and injured thousands. Many people, such as the influential novelist Murakami Haruki, saw the ability of this bizarre cult to attract intelligent members as a manifestation of widespread anxiety in Japan, where people had suddenly experienced the collapse of many of their core values and beliefs were now left on their own – a situation postmodernists term ‘the collapse of the Grand Narrative’.

The collapse of corporatism is reflected in increasing numbers of ‘freeters’ (free arbeiters), who do not commit to any one company but move around in employment, and ‘neets’ (not in employment or education or training). More people are now seeking their own way in life, which has resulted in greater diversity and more obvious emergence of individuality. On the one hand, this has led to greater extremes of self-expression, such as outlandish clothes and hairstyles (and hair colours) among the young. On the other hand, there’s a greater ‘Western-style’ awareness of the rights of the individual, seen in the recently introduced privacy and official information laws. Direct control by government has also loosened, as seen in the 2004 corporatisation of universities.

The economy started to recover from around 2002, thanks in part to increased demand from China, and is now steady around the 2% to 3% per annum growth mark. The year 2002 was also marked by a successful co-hosting of the football World Cup with rivals Korea. However, relations with Asian nations are still far from fully harmonious. Recent bones of contention include the continued appearance of history textbooks that downplay atrocities such as Nanjing, and controversial visits by Prime Minister Koizumi Junichirō (in office 2001–06) to Yasukuni Shrine to honour Japanese war dead, including war criminals.

There are other worries for Japan. One is that it is the world’s most rapidly ageing society, with the birth rate declining to a mere 1.25 per woman, and with its elderly (65 years plus) comprising 21% of the population while its children (up to 15 years) comprise just 13%. This has serious ramifications economically as well as socially, with a growing ratio of supported to supporter, and increased pension and health costs. Along with many ageing Western nations, Japan is doing its best (for example, by introducing nursing insurance schemes), but there is no easy solution in sight, and there are serious calls to redefine ‘elderly’ (and concomitant retirement expectations) as 75 years of age rather than 65.

Other concerns include juvenile crime and a growing problem of Social Anxiety Disorder in young people, which can lead to serious withdrawal (hikikomori) from everyday life. Internationally, the threat from nuclear-capable North Korea, with which Japan has had a particularly troubled relationship, presents a major worry.

Some Japanese were also concerned about there being no male heir to the throne, but in September 2006 Princess Kiko gave birth to Prince Hisahito and allayed those fears. Polls show that most Japanese would have been happy with a reigning empress anyway. That same month Koizumi was followed as prime minister by the 52-year-old Abe Shinzō, the first Japanese prime minister to be born postwar. It remains to be seen how the country will fare under his leadership, for which public support seems somewhat limited as 2007 unfolds.

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