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History of Japan

Traditionally, Japan dates from 660 BC. The earliest surviving records of Japanese history, aside from Chinese accounts, are contained in two semimythical chronicles, the Koji-ki and the Nihon shoki (or Nihongi), the former compiled in AD 712 and the latter in AD 720. These chronicles purport to concern events from about the 7th century BC to the 7th century AD. The chronicles and other collections of legends were the basis of the traditional accounts of the history of Japan. The Nihon shoki gives 660 BC as the year in which Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan, ascended the throne, thereby founding the Japanese Empire.

Early Settlement

Archaeological and historical research has shown that the Ainu, a tribal people whose origins are unknown, were probably the earliest inhabitants of the Japanese Archipelago. They may have populated all the Japanese islands in the 2nd and 1st millennia BC. Invading peoples from nearby areas in Asia began expeditions of conquest to the islands. Gradually, the Ainu were forced to the northern and eastern portions of Honshu by the invaders. According to the chronicles, Emperor Jimmu, having established his rule on Kyushu, led his forces northward and extended his domains to Yamato, a province in central Honshu, which gave its name to the imperial house and eventually to all ancient Japan.

The Imperial Clan

The ruling Yamato chieftain consolidated his power by making a primitive form of Shinto the general religion and, thus, a political instrument. In the early centuries of the Christian era the Yamato chieftains exerted indirect control over various autonomous tribal units known as uji. Each uji had its own clan gods and its own domain. The most important of the uji were the Omi, who claimed divine descent, and the Muraji, who were said to be descended from nobles of the pre-Yamato era. The rule of the imperial clan, regarded as the head clan, was more nominal than actual, although its principal deity, the sun goddess, was worshiped nationally. About AD 363 Empress Jingo, a legendary ruler who came to be considered a goddess, took over the government at the death of her husband, Emperor Chuai. The warrior empress is said to have equipped an army and invaded and conquered a portion of Korea. Korean culture, greatly influenced by adjacent China, had already advanced to a comparatively high level. During the next several centuries intercourse between Japan and Korea, including the movement of people, considerably stimulated the developing civilization of the islands. Chinese writing, literature, and philosophy became popular at the court of Yamato. At the beginning of the 5th century the Chinese script came into use at the Yamato court. About 430 the imperial court appointed its first historiographers, and more dependable records were kept. The most important event of the period was the importation of Buddhism. This is usually dated to 552, when the king of Pakche, in southwestern Korea, sent Buddhist priests to Japan, together with religious images, Buddhist scriptures, calendars, and methods of keeping time. The imported culture soon became strongly rooted in the archipelago, and while contacts between the two countries weakened after the Japanese were driven out of Korea in 562, it made little difference; by the early 7th century Buddhism had become the official religion of Japan. In 604, the first Japanese constitution, comprising a simple set of maxims for good government, was drafted. It was strongly influenced by the centralized government of China. Originally 12, and later 8, hierarchical ranks of court officials were established. A great council, the Dajokan, ruled the realm through local governors sent out from the capital. Nara in Yamato became the fixed capital in 710; in 794 Kyoto was made the imperial residence and, with few interruptions, remained the capital until 1868. By the 9th century the Yamato court had come to rule all the main islands of Japan except Hokkaido.

Fujiwara Leadership (858-1160)

During the 9th century the emperors began to withdraw from public life. Delegating the affairs of government to subordinates, they went into seclusion and, in time, came to be regarded as abstractions in the national life rather than its directors. The retirement of the emperors was accompanied by the rising power of the Fujiwara, the leading family of court nobles. In 858 the Fujiwara became virtual masters of Japan, maintaining their power for the next three centuries. In that year a Fujiwara prince, Yoshifusa, became regent for his grandson, then less than one year old. The Fujiwara monopolized most of the court and administrative offices. In 884 Fujiwara Mototsune became the first official civil dictator (kampaku). The greatest of the Fujiwara leaders was Michinaga, whose five daughters married successive emperors, and who was the leading figure at the court from 995 to 1027. The period of Fujiwara supremacy was marked by a great flowering of Japanese culture and by the growth of a civilization greatly influenced but no longer dominated by the Chinese one, which had been its fountainhead. The dictatorship of Michinaga is regarded as the classical age of Japanese literature. The character of the government also changed under the Fujiwara ascendancy. The centralized administration, which became rife with corruption, weakened, and the country in time was divided up into large, hereditary estates, owned by the nobles as tax-free emoluments for their official positions.
Most peasants were only too willing to attach their lands to such estates in order to escape the heavy burden of taxes on the public lands that had been meted out to them. Thus, great private estates became characteristic of landownership throughout the empire. In the provinces, local groups of warriors banded together for protection, forming protofeudal groups of lords and vassals. The leaders of these groups were often members of the Taira and the Minamoto clans, both of which had been founded by imperial princes. The Taira warriors acquired their military renown and power in the southwest; the Minamoto, in the east. In the 12th century both great military clans started to extend their power to the court itself, dominated by the Fujiwara, and a struggle for control of Japan ensued. In 1156 a civil war was waged between the forces of two rival emperors, and, after a second war, in 1159 and 1160, the Taira crushed the Minamoto and seized control of Japan from the Fujiwara.
The Taira leader, Kiyomori, was named prime minister in 1167, and, modeling his policies on those of the Fujiwara, married his daughter to an imperial prince, their infant son becoming emperor in 1180. In the same year the Minamoto leader, Yoritomo, led an uprising in eastern Japan, and the Taira were driven from the capital (see Minamoto Yoritomo). The civil war endured five years, ending in 1185 with the naval battle of Dannoura, near present Shimonoseki on the Inland Sea. Yoritomo became the leader of Japan, ending the era of imperial administration and inaugurating a military dictatorship that ruled Japan for the next seven centuries.

Early Shoguns (12th Century to 16th Century)

Stressing the almost complete division between the civil and military phases of government, Yoritomo established a separate military capital at Kamakura, near Tokyo, in 1185. During the Kamakura period, which lasted from 1185 to 1333, Japanese art flourished. Also, from that time forward, Japanese feudalism developed until it was stronger than the imperial administration had ever been. In 1192 Yoritomo was appointed to the office of Seiitaishogun ("barbarian-subduing great general"), usually shortened to shogun, the military commander in chief. Through his military network, Yoritomo was already the virtual ruler of Japan, and his shogunate made him titular leader as well. The emperor and court were largely powerless before the shogun.
Kamakura became the true court and government, while Kyoto remained a titular court, without power. In 1219 the Hojo family, by means of a series of conspiracies and murders that eliminated Minamoto heirs and their supporters, became the military rulers of Japan. No Hojo ever became shogun; instead, the family prevailed on the emperor to appoint figurehead shoguns, sometimes small children, while a Hojo leader governed as the shikken, or regent, with the actual power. For more than 100 years the Hojo maintained their rule. In 1274 and again in 1281 the Mongols, then in control of China and Korea, attempted to invade Japan, each time unsuccessfully. The invasions were a serious drain on Hojo resources, and the Hojos were unable to reward their vassals for support during the invasions. An able emperor, Daigo II, led a rebellion that was climaxed in 1333 with the capture of Kamakura and the downfall of the Hojo. For the next two years Daigo tried to restore the imperial administration. One of his vassals, Ashikaga, revolted and, driving Daigo from Kyoto, set up his own candidate for emperor in 1226. Daigo and his supporters fled to Yoshino, a region south of Nara in Honshu, and established a rival court.
For the next 56 years civil war between Daigo and his successors and the emperors controlled by the Ashikaga, who became shoguns, ravaged Japan. At length, in 1392, an Ashikaga envoy persuaded the true emperor at Yoshino to abdicate and relinquish the sacred imperial regalia. With their nominees acknowledged as rightful emperors, the Ashikaga shoguns felt empowered to establish their own feudal control over all Japan. By this time, however, a class of hereditary, feudal lords, called daimyo, had developed in all parts of Japan. The Ashikaga shoguns were never able to exercise absolute control over the powerful daimyo. In general, the period of Ashikaga ascendancy was one of great refinement of manners, of great art and literary endeavor, and, notably, of the development of Buddhism as a political force. For some centuries Buddhist monasteries had been so wealthy and powerful that they were great forces in the country. Buddhist monks, clad in armor and bearing weapons, often turned the tide of medieval battles with their strong organizations and fortified monasteries. Local wars among feudal lords became common by the 16th century, which is still known in Japanese history as the Epoch of a Warring Country.
Three great contemporary warlords finally established order in the strife-torn empire. Oda Nobunaga, a general of Taira descent, broke the power of the monasteries between 1570 and 1580, destroying Buddhism as a political force. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a follower of Oda, united all Japan under his rule by 1590. Using his power to its greatest extent, the dictator marked out the boundaries of all feudal fiefs. Finally, in 1603, the successor to Hideyoshi, Ieyasu, became the first of the Tokugawa shoguns; they ruled Japan for the succeeding two and a half centuries.

The Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867)

Tokugawa Ieyasu made Edo (later named Tokyo) his capital. In a short time the city became the greatest in the empire, developing culturally and economically as well as politically. Tokugawa brought the feudal organization that had been planned by Hideyoshi to fulfillment. The daimyos and administrators, as well as the emperor and his court, were put under the strict control of the shogunate. Social classes became rigidly stratified. The form of feudalism established by Tokugawa and the succeeding Tokugawa shoguns endured until the end of the feudal period in the late 19th century. Another result of Tokugawa domination was the imposed isolation of Japan from the Western world. The first Europeans to visit Japan were Portuguese traders who had landed on an island near Kyushu about 1543. Saint Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary, had brought Christianity to Japan in 1549. During the remainder of the century about 300,000 Japanese were converted to Roman Catholicism, despite disapproval and persecution by Hideyoshi. Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch traders visited Japan more and more frequently. The shoguns became convinced that the introduction of Christianity was designed to serve as a preliminary to European conquest. In 1612 Christians became subject to Official persecution, and various massacres occurred. The Spanish were refused permission to land in Japan after 1624, and a series of edicts in the next decade forbade travel abroad, prohibiting even the building of large ships. The only Europeans permitted to remain in Japan were a small group of Dutch traders restricted to the artificial island of Dejima in the harbor of Nagasaki and continually subjected to indignities and limitations on their activities. During the succeeding two centuries the forms of Japanese feudalism remained static. Bushido, the code of the feudal warriors, became the standard of conduct for the great lords and the lesser nobility, the professional warriors called samurai. Japanese culture, closed to outside influence, grew inward and received intensive development resulting in extreme nationalism. During the 18th century, however, new social and economic conditions in the islands began to indicate the inevitable collapse of rigid feudalism. A large, wealthy merchant class rose in great strength. At that time, too, peasant disturbances became more frequent because of the impoverishment of the landless peasantry. Japan's awakening consciousness of the outside world was formally acknowledged in 1720, when the Tokugawa shogun Yoshimune repealed the proscription on European books and study. By the early 19th century, visits from Europeans, mostly traders and explorers, became comparatively frequent, although the ban was still officially in force. The United States was particularly anxious to make a treaty of friendship and, if possible, one of commerce with Japan. One of the objects behind this American policy was to secure the release of American whalers from ships wrecked on the Japanese coast. In 1853 the American government sent a formal mission to the emperor of Japan; this mission was headed by Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, who arrived with a squadron of ships. Following extended negotiations, Perry and representatives of the emperor signed a treaty on March 31, 1854, establishing trade relations between the United States and Japan. In 1860 a Japanese embassy was sent to the United States, and two years later Japanese trade missions visited European capitals to negotiate formal agreements. The opening of Japan was achieved more through the show of superior force by Western nations than by an actual desire for foreign relations on the part of Japanese leaders. The Japanese warlords, equipped with medieval weapons and trained in small-scale warfare, were dismayed by Western military equipment and dared not, at first, resist. Nevertheless, a militant antiforeign faction immediately developed, and attacks on foreign traders became common in the 1860s. The leaders of the antiforeign movement were the great clans that had always resented Tokugawa rule from Edo. They rallied around the emperor at Kyoto and, with imperial support, initiated military and naval attacks on foreign ships in Japanese harbors. The antiforeign movement was short-lived, however; it ended in 1864, following a show of force by the Western powers, but it resulted in the decline of the shogunate and the restoration of imperial administration.

Restoration of Imperial Rule

In 1867 the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, resigned, and the emperor, Mutsuhito, regained the position of actual head of the government, with the support of the southwestern clans. Mutsuhito took the name Meiji ("enlightened government") to designate his reign, and this became his imperial title. The royal capital was transferred to Edo, renamed Tokyo ("eastern capital"). In 1869 the lords of the great Choshu, Hizen, Satsuma, and Tosa clans surrendered their feudal fiefs to the emperor, and, after a succession of such surrenders by other clans, an imperial decree in 1871 abolished all fiefs and created centrally administered prefectures in their stead. Under the direction of such farsighted statesmen as Prince Iwakura Tomomi and Marquis Okubo Toshimichi, the Japanese remained untouched by the European imperialism that, at the time, was engulfing other Asian countries. By concerted imitation of Western civilization in all its aspects, they set out to make Japan itself a world power. French officers were engaged to remodel the army; British seamen reorganized the navy; and Dutch engineers supervised new construction in the islands. Japanese were sent abroad to analyze foreign governments and to select their best features for duplication in Japan. A new penal code was modeled on that of France, and a ministry of education was established in 1871 to develop a system of universal education based on that of the United States. Universal military service was decreed in 1872, and four years later the samurai class of professional warriors was abolished by decree. Changes in the Japanese political system were imposed from the top and were not the result of political demands by the people. In 1881 the emperor promised formally to establish a national legislature, and in 1884, preparing for an upper house, he created a peerage with five orders of nobility. A cabinet modeled on that of Germany was organized in 1885 with Marquis Ito Hirobumi as the first prime minister, and a privy council was created in 1888, both being responsible to the emperor. The new constitution, drafted by Marquis Ito after constitutional research in Europe and the United States, was promulgated in 1889. A bicameral diet was designed to have a house of peers of 363 members and a 463-member lower house elected by citizens paying direct annual taxes of not less than 15 yen. The emperor's powers were carefully safeguarded; he was permitted to issue decrees as laws, and only he could decide on war or the cessation of war. Moreover, the lower house could be dissolved and the upper one adjourned by imperial decree. Rapid industrialization, under government direction, accompanied this political growth. The empire also embarked on an aggressive foreign policy. In 1879 Japan had taken over the Ryukyu Islands, a Japanese protectorate since 1609, designating them the prefecture of Okinawa. The struggle for control of Korea became the next step in Japanese expansion. Conflict with China in Korea resulted in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 and 1895, in which the modernized Japanese forces completely and easily defeated the Chinese army and navy. By the terms of the Treaty of Shimonoseki in April 1895, China gave Japan Taiwan (Formosa), the P'eng-hu Islands, and a large monetary indemnity. The treaty had originally also awarded the Liaodong Peninsula (southern Manchuria) to Japan, but intervention by Russia, France, and Germany forced Japan to accept an additional indemnity instead. The decisive Japanese triumph indicated to the world that a new, strong power was rising in the East. As a preliminary to negotiating full equality with the great powers, Japan, in 1890, had completely revised its criminal, civil, and commercial law codes on Western models. Thus, the empire was in a position to demand the revocation of extraterritoriality clauses from its treaties. By 1899 all the great powers had signed treaties abandoning extraterritoriality in Japan. In 1894 the United States and Great Britain were the first nations given the freedom of the entire empire for trade.

Expansionist Period

In pursuing its interests in Korea, Japan inevitably came into conflict with Russia. Resentment against Russia was already high, because that country had been the principal agent in depriving Japan of the Liaodong Peninsula after the Chinese war. The two countries signed a treaty pledging the independence of Korea in 1898, but allowing Japanese commercial interest to predominate. In 1900, following the Boxer Rebellion in China, Russia occupied Manchuria and, from bases there, began to penetrate northern Korea. In 1904, after repeated attempts to negotiate the matter had failed, Japan broke off diplomatic relations with Russia and attacked Russian-leased Port Arthur (now part of Dalian) in southern Manchuria, beginning the Russo-Japanese War. Japan won its second modern war in less than 18 months. The peace treaty, mediated by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, was signed in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on September 5, 1905. Japan was awarded the lease (to 1923, later extended to 1997) of the Liaodong Peninsula, including the Guangdong (Kwangtung) territory, and the southern half of Sakhalin, thereafter known as Karafuto. Moreover, Russia acknowledged the paramount interest of Japan in Korea. Five years later (1910) Korea was formally annexed to Japan and named Chosen. Japanese-American relations had for some years been strained by difficulties over Japanese immigration to the United States. Thousands of Japanese had settled in the states of California, Oregon, and Washington, and the American residents of these states demanded the exclusion of the Japanese by legislation similar to the Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882, 1892, and 1902. This agitation was led by American labor unions, resenting the fact that Japanese laborers were willing to work for lower wages and longer hours than those called for by American labor policies. Formal protests against the treatment of Japanese in Pacific Coast states were delivered by the Japanese ambassador in Washington in 1906, and, after a series of negotiations, Japan and the United States concluded a so-called gentleman's agreement in 1908. By this extralegal agreement, confirmed in 1911, Japan consented to withhold passports from laborers, and the U.S. Department of State promised to disapprove anti-Japanese legislation. The problem, however, was never fully resolved, and it contributed to anti-American feeling in Japan, which increased in the following three decades.

World War I (1914-1918)

In August 1914, following the outbreak of World War I, Japan sent an ultimatum to Germany, demanding the evacuation of the German-leased territory of Jiaozhou (Kiaochow) in northeastern China. When Germany refused to comply, Japan entered the war on the side of the Allies. Japanese troops occupied the German-held Marshall, Caroline, and Mariana islands in the Pacific Ocean. In 1915 the empire submitted the Twenty-One Demands to China, calling for industrial, railroad, and mining privileges and a promise that China would not lease or give any coastal territory opposite Taiwan to a nation other than Japan. These demands, some of which were quickly granted, were the first statement of the Japanese policy of domination over China and East Asia. A year later, in 1916, China ceded commercial rights in Inner Mongolia and southern Manchuria to Japan. As a result of the World War I peace settlement, Japan received the Pacific Islands, which it had occupied as mandates from the League of Nations, the empire having become a charter member of that organization. The leased territory of Jiaozhou was also awarded to Japan, but the empire restored it to China in 1922 as a result of an agreement, the Shandong (Shantung) Treaty, made during the Washington Conference in 1922. This conference also resulted in the replacement of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance by the Four-Power Treaty, by which Japan, France, Great Britain, and the United States pledged themselves to respect one another's territories in the Pacific Ocean and to consult if their territorial rights were threatened. The Nine-Power Treaty (Belgium, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Portugal, Japan, France, Italy, China, and the United States) bound the signatories to respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of China. An additional treaty between Great Britain, the United States, Japan, France, and Italy dealt with naval disarmament on a 5-5-3-1.67-to-1.67 ratio, respectively, with the Japanese navy being limited to 315,000 tons of capital ships. With the adoption of the Shandong and Nine-Power treaties, Japan demonstrated a conciliatory attitude toward China. Nevertheless, Japanese commercial interests in China were still regarded as paramount over Chinese interests. Russo-Japanese relations, which had become strained after the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the subsequent invasion of Siberia and northern Sakhalin by the Japanese in 1918, became more amicable after Japan recognized the Soviet regime in 1925. This less aggressive attitude on the part of Japan was due partly to a surge of political liberalism stimulated by the victory of the democratic nations in World War I. Beginning in 1919 the government was assailed with increasing demands for universal male suffrage, an issue that occasioned rioting in the cities. In answer to these demands the government passed in 1919 a reform act doubling the electorate (to 3 million). The protests became even more intense, however, and universal male suffrage was granted in 1925. The electorate increased sharply, to 14 million. Reflecting the rising interest in popular government, the political trend during the 1920s was toward party cabinets and away from oligarchic rule by the nobility, the military leaders, and the so-called elder statesmen. This movement was short-lived, however.

Ascendancy of the Militarists

In 1926 Hirohito, the unassuming grandson of Emperor Meiji, succeeded to the throne. He adopted Showa ("enlightened peace") as the official designation for his reign, but when General Baron Tanaka Giichi became prime minister in 1927, he declared the resumption of an aggressive policy toward China. The impelling force in this change of policy lay in the expansion of Japanese industry, which had begun with the start of World War I in 1914 and was still continuing at a rapid pace, requiring new markets for the increased output.

Occupation of Manchuria

In the late 1920s Japan, in effect, gained domination of the administrative and economic affairs of Manchuria. The Chinese, however, increasingly resented Japanese interference in what was, technically, part of China. On September 18, 1931, the Japanese army in Guangdong, claiming that an explosion on the Japanese-owned South Manchuria Railroad had been caused by Chinese saboteurs, seized the arsenals of Shenyang (Mukden) and of several neighboring cities. Chinese troops were forced to withdraw from the area. Entirely without official sanction by the Japanese government, the Guangdong army extended its operations into all Manchuria and, in about five months, was in possession of the entire region. Manchuria was then established as the puppet state of Manchukuo; Henry Pu-Yi (Hsüan T'ung as last emperor of China) was crowned emperor of Manchukuo in 1934 as K'ang Te. All pretense of party government in Japan was abandoned as a result of the occupation of Manchuria.
Viscount Saito Makoto formed a so-called national cabinet composed chiefly of men who belonged to no party. The international repercussions of the Manchurian incident resulted in an inquiry by a League of Nations commission, acting by authority of the Kellogg-Briand Pact. In 1933, when the League Assembly requested that Japan cease hostilities in China, Japan instead announced its withdrawal from the league, to take effect in 1935. To consolidate its gains in China, Japan landed troops in Shanghai to quell an effective Chinese boycott of Japanese goods. In the north the Japanese Manchurian army occupied and annexed the province of Chengde (Jehol) and threatened to occupy the cities of Beijing and Tientsin. Unable to resist the superior Japanese forces, China, in May 1933, recognized the Japanese conquest by signing a truce. The independent action of the army indicated the power of the military leaders in Japanese politics. In 1936 the empire signed an anti-Communist agreement with Germany and, one year later, a similar pact with Italy. The establishment of almost complete military rule, with the cooperation of the Zaibatzu, or family trusts, made aggression and expansion the avowed policy of the empire.

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Additional History of Japan sites:
  • The Japanese Roots, Jared Diamond, Source: Discover, June 1998 Vol. 19
  • Who Are the Japanese?, Lee Wha Rang
  • Introduction - Asian Studies Network Information Center, Univ of Texas at Austin
  • Origins of the Japanese - Asian Studies Network Information Center, Univ of Texas at Austin
  • Paekche of Korea and the Origin of Yamato Japan
    My Thanks to David Lee who sent me these "other points of view regarding Yamato. Thanks again, David!

    Commodore Perry
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