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History of Japan

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Background Information

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The written history of Japan begins with brief references in the 1st century AD Twenty-Four Histories, a collection of Chinese historical texts. However, archaeological evidence indicates that people were living on the islands of Japan as early as the upper paleolithic period. Following the last ice-age, around 12,000 BC, the rich ecosystem of the Japanese Archipelago fostered human development. The earliest-known pottery belongs to the Jōmon period.

Japanese pre-history


Polished stone axes, excavated at Hinatabayashi B site, Shinano city, Nagano. Pre-Jōmon (Paleolithic) period, 30,000 BC. Tokyo National Museum.

The Japanese Paleolithic (旧石器時代, kyū-sekki-jidai) covers a period starting from around 100,000 to 30,000 BC, when the earliest stone tool implements have been found, and ending around 12,000 BC, at the end of the last Ice-age, corresponding with the beginning of the Mesolithic Jōmon period. A start date of around 35,000 BC date is most generally accepted. The Japanese archipelago was disconnected from the continent after the last ice age, around 11,000 BC. After a hoax by an amateur researcher, Shinichi Fujimura, had been exposed, the Lower and Middle Paleolithic evidence reported by Fujimura and his associates has been rejected after thorough reinvestigation. Only some Upper Paleolithic evidence not associated with Fujimura can be considered well established.

Jōmon Period

A Middle Jōmon vessel ( 3000- 2000 BC).

The Jōmon period (縄文時代 Jōmon-jidai) lasted from about 14,000 BC to 300 BC. The first signs of civilization and stable living patterns appeared around 14,000 BC with the Jōmon culture, characterized by a mesolithic to neolithic semi-sedentary hunter-gatherer lifestyle of wood stilt house and pit dwelling and a rudimentary form of agriculture. Weaving was still unknown and clothes were often made of fur. The Jōmon people started to make clay vessels, decorated with patterns made by impressing the wet clay with braided or unbraided cord and sticks (Jōmon means "patterns of plaited cord"). Some of the oldest surviving examples of pottery in the world may be found in Japan, based on radio-carbon dating, along with daggers, jade, combs made of shells, and other household items dated to the 11th millennium BC, although the specific dating is disputed. Clay figures ( dogu) were also excavated. The household items suggest trade routes existed with places as far away as Okinawa. DNA analysis suggests that the Ainu, an indigenous people that lived in Hokkaidō and the northern part of Honshū are descended from the Jōmon and thus represent descendants of the first inhabitants of Japan.

Yayoi Period

A Yayoi period Dōtaku, 3rd century AD.

The Yayoi period (弥生時代 Yayoi jidai) lasted from about 400 or 300 BC to 250 AD. It is named after Yayoi town, the subsection of Bunkyō, Tokyo where archaeological investigations uncovered its first recognized traces.

The start of the Yayoi period marked the influx of new practices such as weaving, rice farming, shamanism and iron and bronze-making brought from Korea or China. For example, some paleoethnobotany researches show that wet-rice cultivation began about 8000 BC in the Yangtze River Delta and spread to Japan about 1000 BC.

Japan first appeared in written records in AD 57 with the following mention in China's Book of Later Han: Across the ocean from Luoyang are the people of Wa. Formed from more than one hundred tribes, they come and pay tribute frequently. The Book of Wei written in the 3rd century noted the country was the unification of some 30 small tribes or states and ruled by a shaman queen named Himiko of Yamataikoku.

During the Han Dynasty and Wei Dynasty, Chinese travelers to Kyūshū recorded its inhabitants and claimed that they were the descendants of the Grand Count (Tàibó) of the Wu. The inhabitants also show traits of the pre-sinicized Wu people with tattooing, teeth-pulling and baby-carrying. The Book of Wei records the physical descriptions which are similar to ones on Haniwa statues, such men with braided hair, tattooing and women wearing large, single-piece clothing.

The Yoshinogari site is the most famous archaeological site in the Yayoi period and reveals a large, continuously inhabited settlement in Kyūshū for several hundreds of years. Excavation has shown the most ancient parts to be around 400 BC. Among the artifacts are iron and bronze objects, including those from China. It appears the inhabitants had frequent communication with the mainland and trade relations. Today some reconstructed buildings stand in the park on the archaeological site.

Ancient and Classical Japan

The Yamato polity was the main ruling power in Japan from the middle of the 3rd century until 710. The Kofun period (mid 3rd century – mid 6th century), is defined by a period in which many keyhole-shaped tumuli were constructed. At the beginning of the Asuka period (mid 6th century – 710), the capital was moved in Asuka, southernmost part of Nara Basin. The main difference between the Yayoi period and the Kofun-Asuka periods is the development from a sedentary and agricultural culture to a more advanced and militaristic culture from China via the Korean peninsula. This was replaced by Tang Dynasty Chinese influences during the Nara period which introduced centralized imperial government, aesthetics and religion instead of military advances during the Kofun-Asuka eras.

Kofun Period

Iron helmet and armor with gilt bronze decoration, Kofun period, 5th century. Tokyo National Museum.

The Kofun period (古墳時代), beginning around AD 250, is named after the large burial mounds ( kofun) that appeared at the time. The Kofun period saw the establishment of strong military states centered around powerful clans, and the establishment of the dominant Yamato polity centered in the Yamato and Kawachi provinces, from the 3rd century to the 7th century, origin of the Japanese imperial lineage. The polity, suppressing the clans and acquiring agricultural lands, maintained a strong influence in the western part of Japan. Japan started to send tributes to Imperial China in the 5th century. In the Chinese history records, the polity was called Wa and its five kings were recorded. Based upon the Chinese model, they developed a central administration and an imperial court system and its society was organized into occupation groups.

Most scholars believe that there were massive transmissions of technology and culture from China and Korea via Korea to Japan which is evidenced by material artifacts in tombs of both states in the Proto-Three Kingdoms of Korea and Kofun eras, and the later wave of Baekje immigrants to Yamato.

Close relationships between the Three Kingdoms of Korea and Japan began during the middle of this period, around the end of the 4th century. According to a controversial part on the Gwanggaeto Stele, Japan actively participated with large armies on the Korean Peninsula during the late 4th and early 5th centuries. According to the Book of Song, of the Liu Song Dynasty, the Liu-Song emperor formally awarded the king of Yamato, which he considered to be his vassal, the title of military sovereignty over Silla and the Gaya confederacy. The Samguk Sagi (Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms) recorded Baekje and Silla sent their princes as hostages to the Wa to ensure military support; King Asin of Baekje sent his son Jeonji in 397 and King Silseong of Silla sent his son in 402.

Asuka period

Mural painting on the wall of the Takamatsuzuka Tomb, Asuka, Nara, 8th century

The Asuka period (飛鳥時代) is when the proto-Japanese Yamato polity gradually became a clearly centralized state, defining and applying a code of governing laws, such as the Taika Reform and Taihō Codes. The introduction of Buddhism led to the discontinuing of the practice of large kofun.

Buddhism was introduced to Japan in 538 by Baekje, to which Japan provided military support, and it was promoted by the ruling class. Prince Shotoku devoted his efforts to the spread of Buddhism and Chinese culture in Japan. He is credited with bringing relative peace to Japan through the proclamation of the Jūshichijō kenpō (十七条憲法), often referred to in Japan as the Seventeen-article constitution, a Confucian style document that focused on the kinds of morals and virtues that were to be expected of government officials and the emperor's subjects.

In a letter brought to the Emperor of China by an emissary from Japan in 607 stated that the Emperor of the Land where the Sun rises (Japan) sends a letter to the Emperor of the land where Sun sets (China), thereby implying an equal footing with China which angered the Chinese emperor.

Starting with the Taika Reform Edicts of 645, Japanese intensified the adoption of Chinese cultural practices and reorganized the government and the penal code in accordance with the Chinese administrative structure ( Ritsuryo) of the time. This paved the way for the influential Confucian philosophy in Japan until the 19th century. This period also saw the first uses of the word Nihon (日本) as a name for the emerging state.

Nara Period

The Great Buddha at Nara, 752 AD.

The Nara period (奈良時代) of the 8th century marked the first emergence of a strong Japanese state. Following an Imperial rescript by Empress Genmei the move of the capital to Heijō-kyō, present-day Nara, took place in 710. The city was modelled on the capital of the Chinese Tang Dynasty, Chang'an (now Xi'an).

During the Nara Period, political developments were quite limited, since members of the imperial family struggled for power with the Buddhist clergy as well as the regents, the Fujiwara clan. Japan did enjoy friendly relations with Silla as well as formal relationships with Tang China. In 784, the capital was moved again to Nagaoka to escape the Buddhist priests and then in 794 to Heian-kyo, present-day Kyoto.

Historical writing in Japan culminated in the early 8th century with the massive chronicles, the Kojiki (The Record of Ancient Matters, 712) and the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan, 720). These chronicles give a legendary account of Japan's beginnings, today known as the Japanese mythology. According to the myths contained in these 2 chronicles, Japan was founded in 660 BC by the ancestral Emperor Jimmu, a direct descendant of the Shinto deity Amaterasu, or the Sun Goddess. The myths recorded that Jimmu started a line of emperors that remains to this day. Historians assume the myths partly describe historical facts but the first emperor who actually existed was Emperor Ōjin, though the date of his reign is uncertain. After the Nara period, actual political power has not been in the hands of the emperor, but in the hands of the court nobility, the shoguns, the military and, more recently, the prime minister.

Heian Period

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

The Heian period (平安時代), lasting from 794 to 1185, is the final period of classical Japanese history. It is considered the peak of the Japanese imperial court and noted for its art, especially in poetry and literature. In the early 11th century, Lady Murasaki wrote the world's oldest surviving novel called The Tale of Genji. The Man'yōshū and Kokin Wakashū, the oldest existing collections of the Japanese poetry were compiled in the period.

Strong differentiations from Asian mainland culture traits emerged (such as an indigenous writing system, the kana). Chinese influence had reached its peak, and then effectively ended with the last Imperial-sanctioned mission to Tang China in 838, due to the decline of the Tang Dynasty, although trade expeditions and Buddhist pilgrimages to China continued.

Political power in the Imperial court was in the hands of powerful aristocratic families, especially the Fujiwara clan who ruled under the titles Sessho and Kampaku (regents).

The end of the period saw the rise of various military clans. Four very important clans were the Minamoto clan, the Taira clan, the Fujiwara clan, and the Tachibana clan. Towards the end of the 12th century, conflicts between those clans turned into civil war, such as the Hōgen and Heiji Rebellions, followed by the Genpei war, from which emerged a society led by samurai clans, under the political rule of a shogun.

Feudal Japan (12th - 19th century)

The " feudal" period of Japanese history, dominated by the powerful regional families ( daimyo) and the military rule of warlords ( shogun), stretched from the 12th through the 19th centuries. The Emperor remained but was mostly kept to a de jure figurehead ruling position. This time is usually divided into periods following the reigning family of the shogun.

Kamakura Period

The Kamakura period (鎌倉時代), 1185 to 1333, is a period that marks the governance of the Kamakura Shogunate and the transition to the Japanese "medieval" era, a nearly 700-year period in which the Emperor (天皇 tennō), the court, and the traditional central government were left intact but were largely relegated to ceremonial functions. Civil, military, and judicial matters were controlled by the bushi (samurai) class, the most powerful of whom was the de facto national ruler, the shogun. This period in Japan differed from the old shōen system in its pervasive military emphasis.

In 1185, Minamoto no Yoritomo defeated the rival Taira clan. And in 1192, Yoritomo was appointed Seii Tai- Shogun by the emperor, and has established a base of power in Kamakura. Yoritomo ruled as the first in a line of Kamakura shoguns. However, after Yoritomo's death, another warrior clan, the Hōjō, came to rule as regents for the shoguns.

Japanese samurai boarding Mongol ships in 1281.

A traumatic event of the period was the Mongol invasions of Japan between 1272 and 1281, in which massive Mongol forces with superior naval technology and weaponry attempted a full-scale invasion of the Japanese islands. A famous typhoon referred to as kamikaze, translating as divine wind in Japanese, is credited with devastating both Mongol invasion forces, although some scholars assert that the defensive measures the Japanese built on the island of Kyūshū may have been adequate to repel the invaders. Although the Japanese were successful in stopping the Mongols, the invasion attempt had devastating domestic repercussions, leading to the extinction of the Kamakura shogunate.

The Kamakura period ended in 1333 with the destruction of the shogunate and the short reestablishment of imperial rule (the Kemmu restoration) under the Emperor Go-Daigo by Ashikaga Takauji, Nitta Yoshisada, and Kusunoki Masashige. The Kamakura period is also said to be the beginning of the "Japanese Middle Ages", which also includes the Muromachi period and lasted until the Meiji Restoration.

Muromachi Period

The Muromachi period (室町時代 Muromachi-jidai) is a division of Japanese history running from approximately 1336 to 1573. The period marks the governance of the Ashikaga shogunate, also called Muromachi shogunate, which was officially established in 1336 by the first Muromachi shogun Ashikaga Takauji, who seized political power from Emperor Go-Daigo, ending the Kemmu restoration. The period ended in 1573 when the 15th and last shogun Ashikaga Yoshiaki was driven out of the capital in Kyoto by Oda Nobunaga.

The early years of 1336 to 1392 of the Muromachi period is also known as the Nanboku-chō or Northern and Southern Court period, as the Imperial court was split in two.

The later years of 1467 to the end of the Muromachi period is also known as the Sengoku period, the "Warring States period", a time of intense internal warfare, and corresponds with the period of the first contacts with the West, with the arrival of Portuguese " Nanban" traders.

A group of Portuguese Nanban foreigners, including the missionary Francis Xavier 17th century, Japan.

In 1543, a Portuguese ship, blown off its course to China, landed on Tanegashima Island Japan. Firearms introduced by Portuguese would bring the major innovation to Sengoku period culminating in the Battle of Nagashino where reportedly 3,000 arquebuses (the actual number is believed to be around 2,000) cut down charging ranks of samurai. During the following years, traders from Portugal, the Netherlands, England, and Spain arrived, as did Jesuit, Dominican, and Franciscan missionaries.

Azuchi-Momoyama Period

The Azuchi-Momoyama period (安土桃山時代 Azuchi-Momoyama-jidai) runs from approximately 1568 to 1600. The period marks the military reunification and stabilization of the country under a single political ruler, first by the campaigns of Oda Nobunaga who almost united Japan, achieved later by one of his generals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The name Azuchi-Momoyama comes from the names of their respective castles, Azuchi castle and Momoyama castle.

After having united Japan, Hideyoshi invaded Korea in an attempt to conquer Korea, China, and even India. However, after two unsuccessful campaigns toward the allied forces of Korea and China and his death, his forces retreated from the Korean peninsula in 1598.

The short period of succession conflict to Hideyoshi was ended when Tokugawa Ieyasu, one of the regents for Hideyoshi's young heir, emerged victorious at the Battle of Sekigahara and seized political power.

Edo Period (1603 - 1876 A.D.)

Stone foundation of the main tower at Edo Castle.

During the Edo Period (江戸時代), the administration of the country was shared by over two hundred daimyo. The Tokugawa clan, leader of the victorious eastern army in the Battle of Sekigahara, was the most powerful of them, and for fifteen generations monopolized the title of Sei-i Taishōgun (often shortened to shōgun). With their headquarters at Edo (present-day Tokyo), the Tokugawa commanded the allegiance of the other daimyo, who in turn ruled their domains with a rather high degree of autonomy.

The shogunate carried out a number of significant policies. They placed the samurai class above the commoners: the agriculturists, artisans, and merchants. They enacted sumptuary laws limiting hair style, dress, and accessories. They organized commoners into groups of five, and held all responsible for the acts of each individual. To prevent daimyo from rebelling, the shoguns required them to maintain lavish residences in Edo and live at these residences on a rotating schedule; carry out expensive processions to and from their domains; contribute to the upkeep of shrines, temples, and roads; and seek permission before repairing their castles.

A 1634 Japanese Red seal ship, during the Edo period.

Many artistic developments took place during the Edo Period. Most significant among them were the ukiyo-e form of wood-block print, and the kabuki and bunraku theaters. Also, many of the most famous works for the koto and shakuhachi date from this time period.

Throughout the Edo Period, the development of commerce, the rise of the cities, and the pressure from foreign countries changed the environment in which the shoguns and daimyo ruled. In 1868, following the Boshin War, the shogunate collapsed, and a new government coalesced around the Emperor.


Japan's first treatise on Western anatomy, published in 1774, an example of Rangaku.

During the early part of the 17th century, the shogunate suspected that the traders and missionaries were actually forerunners of a military conquest by European powers. Christianity spread in Japan, especially among peasants. The shogunate suspected the loyalty of Christian peasants towards their daimyos and severely persecuted them. This led to a revolt by persecuted peasants and Christians in 1637 known as the Shimabara Rebellion which saw 30,000 Christians, samurai, and peasants facing a massive samurai army of more than 100,000 sent from Edo. The rebellion was crushed at a high cost to the shogun's army. After the eradication of the rebels at Shimabara, the shogunate placed foreigners under progressively tighter restrictions. It monopolized foreign policy, and expelled traders, missionaries, and foreigners, with the exception of the Dutch and the Chinese merchants restricted to the man-made island of Dejima in Nagasaki Bay and several small trading outposts outside the country. However, during this period of isolation ( Sakoku) that began in 1635, Japan was much less cut off from the rest of the world than is commonly assumed, and some acquisition of western knowledge occurred under the Rangaku system.

Russian encroachments from the north led the shogunate to extend direct rule to Hokkaidō, Sakhalin and the Kuriles in 1807, but the policy of exclusion continued.

End of seclusion

Landing of Commodore Perry, officers & men of the squadron, to meet the Imperial commissioners at Yoku-Hama ( Yokohama?) July 14 1853. Lithograph by Sarony & Co., 1855, after W. Heine.

The policy of isolation lasted for more than 200 years. In 1844, William II of the Netherlands sent a message urging Japan to open her doors, which resulted in Tokugawa shogunate's rejection. On July 8, 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy with four warships — the Mississippi, Plymouth, Saratoga, and Susquehanna — steamed into the bay at Edo, old Tokyo, and displayed the threatening power of his ships' cannons. He requested that Japan open to trade with the West. These ships became known as the kurofune, the Black Ships.

The following year, at the Convention of Kanagawa on March 31, 1854, Perry returned with seven ships and requested that the Shogun sign the "Treaty of Peace and Amity," establishing formal diplomatic relations between Japan and the United States. Within five years Japan had signed similar treaties with other western countries. The Harris Treaty was signed with the United States on July 29, 1858. These treaties were widely regarded by Japanese intellectuals as unequal, having been forced on Japan through gunboat diplomacy, and as a sign of the West's desire to incorporate Japan into the imperialism that had been taking hold of the rest of the Asian continent. Among other measures, they gave the Western nations unequivocal control of tariffs on imports and the right of extraterritoriality to all their visiting nationals. They would remain a sticking point in Japan's relations with the West up to the turn of the century.

Meiji Restoration

Samurai of the Satsuma clan, during the Boshin War period. Photograph by Felice Beato

Renewed contact with the West precipitated profound alteration of Japanese society. The shogun resigned and soon after the Boshin War of 1868, the emperor was restored to power. The subsequent " Meiji Restoration" initiated many reforms. The feudal system was abolished, and numerous Western institutions were adopted, including a Western legal system and a quasi-parliamentary constitutional government, outlined in the Meiji Constitution. While many aspects of the Meiji Restoration were adopted directly from Western institutions, others, such as the dissolution of the feudal system and removal of the shogunate, were processes that had begun long before the arrival of Perry.

Russian pressure from the north appeared again after Muraviev had gained Outer Manchuria at Aigun (1858) and Peking ( 1860). This led to heavy Russian pressure on Sakhalin which the Japanese eventually yielded in exchange for the Kuril islands (1875). The Ryukyu Islands were similarly secured in 1879, establishing the borders within which Japan would "enter the World". In 1898, the last of the " unequal treaties" with Western powers was removed, signalling Japan's new status among the nations of the world. In a few decades, by reforming and modernizing social, educational, economic, military, political and industrial systems, the Emperor Meiji's "controlled revolution" had transformed a feudal and isolated state into a world power.

Wars with China and Russia

Japanese intellectuals of the late- Meiji period espoused the concept of a "line of advantage," an idea that would help to justify Japanese foreign policy at the turn of the century. According to this principle, embodied in the slogan fukoku kyōhei (富国強兵), Japan would be vulnerable to aggressive Western imperialism unless it extended a line of advantage beyond its borders which would help to repel foreign incursions and strengthen the Japanese economy. Emphasis was especially placed on Japan's "preeminent interests" in the Korean Peninsula, once famously described as a "dagger pointed at the heart of Japan." It was tensions over Korea and Manchuria, respectively, that led Japan to become involved in the first Sino-Japanese War with China in 1894-1895 and the Russo-Japanese War with Russia in 1904-1905.

The war with China made Japan the world's first Eastern, modern imperial power, and the war with Russia proved that a Western power could be defeated by an Eastern state. The aftermath of these two wars left Japan the dominant power in the Far East, with a sphere of influence extending over southern Manchuria and Korea, which was formally annexed as part of the Japanese Empire in 1910 (see below). Japan had also gained half of Sakhalin Island from Russia.

For Japan and for the moment, it established the country's dominant interest in Korea, while giving it the Pescadores Islands, Formosa (now Taiwan), and the Liaodong Peninsula in Manchuria, which was eventually retroceded in the "humiliating" Triple Intervention. Over the next decade, Japan would flaunt its growing prowess, including a very significant contribution to the Eight-Nation Alliance, formed to quell China's Boxer Rebellion. Many Japanese, however, believed their new empire was still regarded as inferior by the Western powers, and they sought a means of cementing their international standing. This set the climate for growing tensions with Russia, who would continually intrude into Japan's "line of advantage" during this time.

Anglo-Japanese Alliance

Taishō and Shōwa eras

Early Modern Japan, Marunouchi, Tokyo 1920

In a manner perhaps reminiscent of its participation in quelling the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century, Japan entered World War I and declared war on the Central Powers. Though Japan's role in World War I was limited largely to attacking German colonial outposts in East Asia, it took advantage of the opportunity to expand its influence in Asia and its territorial holdings in the Pacific. Acting virtually independently of the civil government, the Japanese navy seized Germany's Micronesian colonies. It also attacked and occupied the German coaling port of Qingdao in the Chinese Shandong peninsula.

The post-war era brought Japan unprecedented prosperity.

Japan went to the peace conference at Versailles in 1919 as one of the great military and industrial powers of the world and received official recognition as one of the "Big Five" of the new international order. It joined the League of Nations and received a mandate over Pacific islands north of the Equator formerly held by Germany. Japan was also involved in the post-war Allied intervention in Russia, occupying Russian (Outer) Manchuria and also north Sakhalin (with its rich oil reserves). It was the last Allied power to withdraw from the interventions against Soviet Russia (doing so in 1925).


During the 1920s, Japan progressed toward a democratic system of government in a movement known as ' Taishō Democracy'. However, parliamentary government was not rooted deeply enough to withstand the economic and political pressures of the late 1920s and 1930s during the Depression era, and its state became increasingly militarized. This was due to the increasing powers of military leaders and was similar to the actions European nations and the U.S. were taking leading up to WW2. These shifts in power were made possible by the ambiguity and imprecision of the Meiji Constitution, particularly its measure that the legislative body was answerable to the Emperor and not the people. The Kodoha, a militarist faction, even attempted a coup d'état known as the February 26 Incident, which was crushed after three days by Emperor Shōwa.

Party politics came under increasing fire because it was believed they were divisive to the nation and promoted self-interest where unity was needed. As a result, the major parties voted to dissolve themselves and were absorbed into a single party, the Imperial Rule Assistance Association (IRAA), which also absorbed many prefectural organizations such as women's clubs and neighbourhood associations. However, this umbrella organization did not have a cohesive political agenda and factional in-fighting persisted throughout its existence, meaning Japan did not devolve into a totalitarian state. The IRAA has been likened to a sponge, in that it can soak everything up, but there is little one could do with it afterwards. Its creation was precipitated by a series of domestic crises, including the advent of the Great Depression in the 1930s and the actions of extremists such as the members of the Cherry Blossom Society, who enacted the May 15 incident.

Second Sino-Japanese war and World War II

The Imperial Japanese Navy's Yamato, the largest battleship in history, 1941.

Under the pretext of the Manchurian Incident, Lieutenant Colonel Kanji Ishiwara invaded Inner (Chinese) Manchuria in 1931, an action the Japanese government ratified with the creation of the puppet state of Manchukuo under the last Chinese emperor, Pu Yi. As a result of international condemnation of the incident, Japan resigned from the League of Nations in 1933. After several more similar incidents fueled by an expansionist military, the second Sino-Japanese War began in 1937 after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident.

During the first part of the Showa era, according to the Meiji Constitution, the Emperor had the "supreme command of the Army and the Navy" (Article 11). From 1937, Emperor Shōwa became supreme commander of the Imperial General Headquarters, by which the military decisions were made. This ad-hoc body consisted of the chief and vice chief of the Army, the minister of the Army, the chief and vice chief of the Navy, the minister of the Navy, the inspector general of military aviation, and the inspector general of military training.

Having joined the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936, Japan formed the Axis Pact with Germany and Italy on September 27, 1940. Many Japanese politicians, believed war with the Occident to be inevitable due to inherent cultural differences and Western imperialism. Japanese imperialism, was then justified by the revival of the traditional concept of hakko ichiu, the divine right of the emperor to unite and rule the world.

Tensions were mounting with the U.S. as a result of public outcry over Japanese aggression and reports of atrocities in China, such as the infamous Nanjing Massacre. In retaliation to the invasion of French Indochina the U.S. began an embargo on such goods as petroleum products and scrap iron. On July 25, 1941, all Japanese assets in the US were frozen. Because Japan's military might, especially the Navy, was dependent on their dwindling oil reserves, this action had the contrary effect of increasing Japan's dependence on and hunger for new acquisitions.

Many civil leaders of Japan, including Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaro, believed a war with America would end in defeat, but felt the concessions demanded by the U.S. would almost certainly relegate Japan from the ranks of the World Powers, leaving it prey to Western collusion. Civil leaders offered political compromises in the form of the Amau Doctrine, dubbed the "Japanese Monroe Doctrine" that would have given the Japanese free rein with regards to war with China. These offers were flatly rejected by U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull; the military leaders instead vied for quick military action.

Most military leaders such as Osami Nagano, Kotohito Kan'in, Hajime Sugiyama and Hideki Tojo believed that war with Occident was inevitable. They finally convinced Emperor Shōwa to sanction on November 1941 an attack plan against U.S., Great Britain and Holland. However, there were dissenters in the ranks about the wisdom of that option, most notably Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku and Prince Takamatsu. They pointedly warned that at the beginning of hostilities with the US, the Empire would have the advantage for six months, after which Japan's defeat in a prolonged war would be almost certain.

Planes from the Japanese aircraft carrier Shokaku preparing the attack on Pearl Harbour.

The Americans were expecting an attack in the Philippines (and stationed troops appropriate to this conjecture), but on Yamamoto Isoroku's advice, Japan made the decision to attack Pearl Harbour where it would make the most damage in the least amount of time. The United States believed that Japan would never be so bold as to attack so close to its home base (Hawaii had not yet gained statehood) and was taken completely by surprise.

The attack on Pearl Harbour, sanctioned by Emperor Shōwa on December 1 1941, occurred on December 7 ( December 8 in Japan) and the Japanese were successful in their surprise attack. Although the Japanese won the battle, the attack proved a long-term strategic disaster that actually did relatively little lasting damage to the U.S. military and provoked the United States to retaliate with full commitment against Japan and its allies. At the same time as the Pearl Harbour attack, the Japanese army attacked colonial Hong Kong and occupied it for nearly four years.

While Nazi Germany was in the middle of its Blitzkrieg through Europe, Japan was following suit in Asia. In addition to already having colonized Taiwan and Manchuria, the Japanese Army invaded and captured most of the coastal Chinese cities such as Shanghai, and had conquered French Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia), British Malaya (Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore) as well as the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) while Thailand got in a loose alliance with Japan. They had also conquered Burma (Myanmar) and reached the borders of India and Australia, conducting air raids on the port of Darwin, Australia. Japan had soon established an empire stretching over much of the Pacific.

However the Japanese Navy's offensive ability was crippled on its defeat in the Battle of Midway at the hands of the American Navy which turned the tide against them. After almost four years of war resulting in the loss of three million Japanese lives, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the daily air raids on Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Yokohama, the destruction of all other major cities (except Kyoto, Nara, and Kamakura, for their historical importance), and finally the Soviet Union's declaration of war on Japan the day before the second atomic bomb was dropped, Japan signed an instrument of surrender on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Harbour on September 2, 1945. Symbolically, the deck of the Missouri was furnished bare except for two American flags. One had flown on the mast of Commodore Perry's ship when he had sailed into that same bay nearly a century earlier to urge the opening of Japan's ports to foreign trade. The other U.S. flag came off the battleship while anchored in Tokyo Bay, it had not flown over the White House or the Capitol Building on 7 December 1941, it was "... just a plain ordinary GI flag."

As a result of its defeat at the end of World War II, Japan lost all of its overseas possessions and retained only the home islands. Manchukuo was dissolved, and Inner Manchuria was returned to the Republic of China; Japan renounced all claims to Formosa; Korea was taken under the control of the UN; southern Sakhalin and the Kuriles were occupied by the U.S.S.R.; and the United States became the sole administering authority of the Ryukyu, Bonin, and Volcano Islands. The International Military Tribunal for the Far East, an international war crimes tribunal, sentenced seven Japanese military and government officials to death on November 12, 1948, including General Hideki Tōjō, for their roles in the war.

The 1972 reversion of Okinawa completed the United States' return of control of these islands to Japan. Japan continues to protest for the corresponding return of the Kuril Islands (Northern territory or 'Hoppou Ryoudo') from Russia.

Defeat came for a number of reasons. The most important is probably Japan's underestimation of the industro-military capabilities of the U.S. The U.S. recovered from its initial setback at Pearl Harbour much quicker than the Japanese expected, and their sudden counterattack came as a blow to Japanese morale. U.S. output of military products also skyrocketed past Japanese counterparts over the course of the war. Another reason was factional in-fighting between the Army and Navy, which led to poor intelligence and cooperation. This was compounded as the Japanese forces found they had overextended themselves, leaving Japan itself vulnerable to attack. Another important factor is Japan's underestimation of resistance in China, which Japan claimed would be conquered in three months. The prolonged war was both militarily and economically disastrous for Japan.

Occupied Japan

General MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito.

After the war, Japan was placed under international control of the American-led Allied powers in the Asia-Pacific region through General Douglas MacArthur as Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers. This was the first time since the unification of Japan that the island nation was successfully occupied by a foreign power. Some high officers of the Shōwa regime were prosecuted and convicted by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. However, Emperor Shōwa, all members of the imperial family implicated in the war such as prince Asaka, prince Chichibu, prince Takeda, prince Higashikuni, prince Hiroyasu Fushimi, as well as Shiro Ishii and all members of unit 731 were exonerated from criminal prosecutions by MacArthur. .

Entering the Cold War with the Korean War, Japan came to be seen as an important ally of the US government. Political, economic, and social reforms were introduced, such as an elected Japanese Diet (legislature) and expanded suffrage. The country's constitution took effect on May 3, 1947. The United States and 45 other Allied nations signed the Treaty of Peace with Japan in September 1951. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty in March 20, 1952, and under the terms of the treaty, Japan regained full sovereignty on April 28, 1952.

Under the terms of the peace treaty and later agreements, the United States maintains naval bases at Okinawa and at Yokohama. A portion of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, including one aircraft carrier (currently USS George Washington (CVN-73)), is based at Yokohama. This arrangement is partially intended to provide for the defense of Japan, as the treaty and the new Japanese constitution imposed during the occupation severely restrict the size and purposes of Japanese military forces in the modern period.

Post-Occupation Japan 1952-1990

After a series of realignment of political parties, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the leftist Social Democratic Party (SDP) were formed in 1955. The political map in Japan had been largely unaltered until early 1990s and LDP had been the largest political party in the national politics. LDP politicians and government bureaucrats focused on economic policy. From the 1950s to the 1980s, Japan experienced its rapid development into a major economic power, through a process often referred to as the Japanese post-war economic miracle.

Japan's biggest postwar political crisis took place in 1960 over the revision of the Japan-United States Mutual Security Assistance Pact. As the new Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security was concluded, which renewed the United States role as military protector of Japan, massive street protests and political upheaval occurred, and the cabinet resigned a month after the Diet's ratification of the treaty. Thereafter, political turmoil subsided. Japanese views of the United States, after years of mass protests over nuclear armaments and the mutual defense pact, improved by 1972, with the reversion of United States-occupied Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty and the winding down of the Second Indochina War.

Japan had reestablished relations with the Republic of China after World War II, and cordial relations were maintained with the nationalist government when it was exiled to Taiwan, a policy that won Japan the enmity of the People's Republic of China, which was established in 1949. After the general warming of relations between China and Western countries, especially the United States, which shocked Japan with its sudden rapprochement with Beijing in 1971, Tokyo established relations with Beijing in 1972. Close cooperation in the economic sphere followed. Japan's relations with the Soviet Union continued to be problematic long after the war. The main object of dispute was the Soviet occupation of what Japan calls its Northern Territories, the two most southerly islands in the Kurils ( Etorofu and Kunashiri) and Shikotan and the Habomai Islands, which were seized by the Soviet Union in the closing days of World War II.

Throughout the postwar period, Japan's economy continued to boom, with results far outstripping expectations. Given a massive boost by the Korean War, in which it acted as a major supplier to the UN force, Japan's economy embarked on a prolonged period of extremely rapid growth, led by the manufacturing sectors. Japan emerged as a significant power in many economic spheres, including steel working, car manufacture and the manufacture of electronic goods. Japan rapidly caught up with the West in foreign trade, GNP, and general quality of life. These achievements were underscored by the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games and the Osaka International Exposition in 1970. The high economic growth and political tranquility of the midto late 1960s were tempered by the quadrupling of oil prices by the OPEC in 1973. Almost completely dependent on imports for petroleum, Japan experienced its first recession since World War II. Another serious problem was Japan's growing trade surplus, which reached record heights during Nakasone's first term. The United States pressured Japan to remedy the imbalance, demanding that Tokyo raise the value of the yen and open its markets further to facilitate more imports from the United States.

Political and Economic Reform since 1990s

1989 marked one of the most rapid economic growth spurts in Japanese history. With a strong yen and a favorable exchange rate with the dollar, the Bank of Japan kept interest rates low, sparking an investment boom that drove Tokyo property values up sixty percent within the year. Shortly before New Year's Day, the Nikkei 225 reached its record high of 39,000. By 1991, it had fallen to 15,000, signifying the end of Japan's famed bubble economy. Unemployment ran reasonably high, but not at crisis levels. Rather than suffer large scale unemployment and layoffs, Japan's labor market suffered in more subtle, yet no less profound effects that were none-the-less difficult to gauge statistically. During the prosperous times, jobs were seen as long term even to the point of being life long. In contrast, Japan during the lost decade saw a marked increase in temporary and part time work which only promised employment for short periods and marginal benefits. This also created a generational gap, as those who had entered the labor market prior to the lost decade usually retained their employment and benefits, and were effectively insulated from the economic slowdown, whereas younger workers who entered the market a few years later suffered the brunt of its effects.

In a series of financial scandals of the LDP, a coalition of led by Morihiro Hosokawa took a power in 1993. Hosokawa succeeded to legislate new plurality voting election law instead of the stalemated multi-member constituency election system. However, the coalition collapsed the next year as parties had gathered to simply overthrow LDP and lacked a unified position on almost every social issue. The LDP returned to the government in 1996, when it helped to elect Social Democrat Tomiichi Murayama as prime minister.

The Great Hanshin earthquake hit Kobe on January 17, 1995. 6,000 people were killed and 44,000 were injured. 250,000 houses were destroyed or burned in a fire. The amount of damage totaled more than ten trillion yen. In March of the same year the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo attacked on the Tokyo subway system with sarin gas and killed 12 and hundreds were injured. Later the investigation revealed that the cult was responsible for dozens of murders that occurred prior to the gas attacks.

Junichiro Koizumi was elected president of the LDP and Prime Minister of Japan in April 2001. Koizumi Enjoyed high approval ratings and won some general elections. He pushed ahead with economic reforms and consolidation of the inefficient governmental organizations such as the national postal system. Koizumi also had an active involvement in the War on Terrorism, sending 1,000 soldiers of the Japan Self-Defense Forces to help in Iraq's reconstruction after the Iraq War, the biggest overseas troop deployment since World War II.


The current government is led by Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda. The ruling coalition was formed by the conservative LDP and the New Komeito Party, a theocratic Buddhist political party based on the controversial Buddhist sect Soka Gakkai. The opposition was formed by the liberal Democratic Party of Japan, the largest party in the upper house. Other parties are the staunchly communist Japanese Communist Party, the leftist Social Democratic Party and the conservative People's New Party.


One commonly accepted periodization of Japanese history:

Dates Period Period Subperiod Major Government
30,000 BC – 10,000 BC Japanese Paleolithic   tribal governments
10,000 BC – 3000 BC Ancient Japan Jōmon   local clans
900 BC – 250 AD (overlaps) Yayoi   local clans
c. 250 – 538 AD Yamato Kofun   Yamato clans
538 – 710 AD Classical Japan Yamato Asuka
710 – 794 Nara   Imperial Court in Nara
794 – 1185 Heian   Imperial court in Heian
1185 – 1333 Feudal Japan Kamakura   Kamakura shogunate
1333 – 1336 Kemmu restoration   Emperor of Japan
1336 – 1392 Muromachi Nanboku-cho Ashikaga shogunate, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi,
1392 – 1573 Sengoku period
1573 – 1603 Azuchi-Momoyama
1600 – 1867 Early Modern Japan Edo   Tokugawa shogunate
18681912 Modern Japan Meiji   limited monarchy ( Emperor Meiji)
19121926 Taishō Taisho democracy limited monarchy ( Emperor Taishō)
19261945 Shōwa Expansionism limited monarchy (Emperor Shōwa)
19451952 Occupied Japan Supreme Commander Allied Powers
19521989 Post-occupation parliamentary democracy; Emperor is symbol of state
1989 – present Heisei  

Japanese era names

Era Name ( Nengō) in Japan (after Meiji)

Nengō are commonly used in Japan as an alternative to the Gregorian calendar.
For example, in censuses, birthdays are written using Nengō.
Dates of newspapers and official documents are also written using Nengō.
Nengō are changed upon the enthronement of each new Emperor of Japan (Tennō).
Meiji (18581912)
Taishō (19121925)
Showa ( December 25, 1925 January 6, 1989)
Heisei ( January 7, 1989 – present)
For example :
1945 was the 20th year of Shōwa.
2005 was the 17th year of Heisei.
1989 was the 64th year of Shōwa through January 6, but on January 7, it became the 1st year(Gan-nen) of Heisei.
Before World War II ended, Imperial era ( Kōki) is also used in common that the year of enthronement of first emperor (Jimmu-Tennō) is defined as First Year. (= 660 BC)
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