Japan’s History

From: The Grolier Multimedia CD-ROM Encyclopedia
Grolier Electronic Publishing, Inc.

Modern knowledge about the first peoples to inhabit the Japanese archipelago has been pieced together from the findings of archaeologists and anthropologists and from the myths of ancient Japan. Although the date of the first human habitation is not known, anthropologists have identified one of the earliest cultures in Japan as the Jomon culture, which dates from about 8000 BC. A hunting and gathering culture, it used stone and bone tools and made pottery of distinctive design. In the 3d century BC, Jomon culture was disrupted by a new people, known as Yayoi, who probably emigrated from continental Asia. They introduced rice cultivation, primitive weaving, wheel-made pottery, domesticated horses and cows, and simple iron tools. Yayoi culture overlaid and fused with the earlier Jomon culture.


The earliest written Japanese histories, the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters, 712) and the Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan, 720), include legends about the origins of the Japanese people and attribute the foundation of the state to a mythological emperor Jimmu in 660 BC. Another legend concerns the empress JINGO (AD c.169-269), who allegedly conquered Korea. These records provide more reliable chronicles of Japanese history from the 5th century.

Yamato Period

Beginning in the 3d or 4th century AD, a new culture appeared–either from within Yayoi society or from the Asian mainland. Its leaders left massive tombs with pottery, figurines, armor, jewelry, weapons, and other evidence that they were mounted warriors with long iron swords and bows. From this culture emerged rulers from the Yamato plain in the southern part of the main Japanese island of Honshu. They claimed descent from the sun-goddess, AMATERASU, and achieved political unity–apparently in the mid-4th century. By placing Amaterasu at the head of the SHINTO deities the hereditary Yamato emperor reinforced his leadership position. Initially, the emperors ruled through alliances with other tribal chieftains, but the latter were gradually subordinated by a system of court ranking. This development was influenced by Chinese concepts of statecraft, learned through Japan’s military endeavors in Korea. Japan also adopted Chinese script, and Buddhism was introduced from Korea about 538.

In the 6th century the centralized control of the Yamato court began to break down. At the end of the century, however, the regent Prince Shotoku Taishi reasserted court authority. He promulgated (604) a 17-article constitution based on the Chinese political theory of centralized imperial government, redefining the sovereign’s position in Chinese terms. Imperial authority was further asserted by the Taika reforms of 646, by which, following Chinese precedent, all land was claimed by the emperor and an elaborate taxation system was initiated. In 702 the Taiho Laws, comprising new civil and penal codes, were promulgated.

Nara Period

The first permanent capital was built at Nara in 710. In the following century tribal elites were replaced by a hereditary court aristocracy, and status became the basis for official influence. Japan was thus transformed from a tribal into an aristocratic culture. Court patronage made Buddhism a major force, which in turn reinforced state power. Nara was the center not only of government but of the major Buddhist temples; in 752 the statue of the Great Buddha (Daibutsu) was dedicated there. Buddhist priestly intrusion in state affairs provoked a reaction, however. Finally, Emperor Kammu (r. 781-806) asserted imperial independence and established a new capital at Heian (modern Kyoto) in 794.

Heian and the Fujiwaras

In Heian, safe from Buddhist interference, imperial authority increased; however, the simplification of government that accompanied the move to Heian allowed the Fujiwara family to assert great influence. The Fujiwara had the privilege of intermarriage with the imperial house, and many emperors were married to Fujiwara women or were their sons. Fujiwara men proved capable administrators, and they used their family ties to dominate the government. In 858, Fujiwara Yoshifusa (804-72) had his grandson, the infant Emperor Seiwa, placed on the throne and made himself regent. Until the end of the 11th century the Fujiwara used the position of regent to dominate the emperors, adults as well as children.

Under imperial patronage two new Buddhist sects emerged in Heian. Tendai and Shingon, more Japanese in spirit than earlier Buddhist sects, ended the monopoly of the Nara Buddhist establishment. A reassertion of tribal, or clan, authority also accompanied the move to Heian. The imperial land system established by the Taika reforms decayed, and land increasingly fell into private hands. Aristocrats and religious institutions assembled huge tax-free estates (shoen). Private armies were created, and a class of rural warriors (Samurai) emerged.

Notable among the samurai class were the Taira and Minamoto families. Initially local military leaders, both clans were drawn into court politics. In 1156 they applied military force to settle a court dispute, and a war in 1159-60 left the Taira as the effective rulers. The Taira dominated court politics by force and by marital ties with the imperial line. In 1180, Taira Kiyomori placed his grandson Antoku on the throne, briefly reviving the Fujiwara practice of using the regency to dominate the government.


In 1180 the Minamoto revolted against the Taira and in the Gempei War (1180-85) defeated them and established the Kamakura shogunate, the first of the military governments that would rule Japan until 1868.

Kamakura Period

The shogun Minamoto Yoritomo (r. 1192-99) created a system of military governors and military land stewards to supplement the civil governors and estate officials. While establishing military authority, however, Yoritomo failed to ensure the effective succession of his own family. His sons were first dominated, then eliminated, by the Hojo clan, which from 1203 held the position of shikken (shogunal regent).

After 1221, when the retired emperor Go-Toba failed in his attempt to overthrow the shogunate, military authority was increased. Warriors, while largely illiterate and unskilled in administration, proved effective governors. The Hojo upheld the military virtues on which the shogunate had been founded and proved apt successors to Yoritomo.

In 1274 and 1281 the shogunate was tested by two Mongol invasions (see MONGOLS). The Japanese warriors, assisted by storms that came to be described as divine winds (kamikaze), drove away the invaders. The Kamakura period was also one of spiritual awakening. Buddhism was simplified, and new sects–Pure Land Buddhism, True Pure Land, and Lotus –guaranteed salvation to all believers.

By the early 14th century, however, political and social stability were breaking down. In 1334 the Kamakura shogunate was destroyed when Emperor Go-Daigo reasserted imperial authority (the Kemmu Restoration). Many powerful military families such as the Ashikaga flocked to assist the emperor. He failed to reward them properly, however, and in 1336 he was driven from Kyoto and replaced by another puppet emperor. Go-Daigo established a rival court in Yoshino, and for 56 years there were two imperial courts.

Ashikaga Period

In 1338, Ashikaga Takauji was made shogun, creating the Ashikaga shogunate. The Ashikaga reached the height of their power under the third shogun, Yoshimitsu (r. 1368-94). He controlled the military aspirations of his subordinates and ended (1392) the schism within the imperial house.

The shogunate rested on an alliance with local military leaders (shugo), who gradually became powerful regional rulers. The great shugo, however, became increasingly involved in the politics of the shogunate, and by the mid-15th century many had lost control of their provincial bases. Their weakness became apparent in the Onin War of 1467-77. Beginning as a dispute over the shogunal succession, it turned into a general civil war in which the great shugo exhausted themselves fighting in and around Kyoto, while the provinces fell into the hands of other shugo and eventually under the control of new lords called daimyo. The war effectively destroyed Ashikaga authority. The shogun Yoshimasa (r. 1440-73) simply turned his back on the troubles; he retired (1473) to his estate on the outskirts of Kyoto, where he built the Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku) and became the patron of a remarkable artistic flowering.

The Onin War marked the beginning of a century of warfare called the “Epoch of the Warring Country.” In the provinces new feudal lords, the daimyo, arose. Independent of imperial or shogunal authority, their power was based on military strength. They defined their domains as the area that could be defended from military rivals. Ties were fixed by vassalage, and land holdings were guaranteed in return for military service. The daimyo concentrated their vassals in castle towns and left the villagers to administer themselves and pay taxes. The castle towns became market and handicraft industrial centers, and a new style of urban life began to develop.

This was the Japan found by the Europeans who began to visit the country after 1543. The Portuguese began trade in 1545, and in 1549 the Jesuit missionary Saint Francis Xavier introduced Roman Catholicism. Christianity conflicted with feudal loyalties, however, and was completely banned after 1639. At that point all Europeans, except the Dutch, were also excluded from Japan.

Period of Unification

Between 1560 and 1600, Japan was reunified by a succession of three great daimyo: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. Nobunaga began the military process in 1560 and by 1568 had extended his influence to Kyoto. He set up a puppet shogun and established control over central Japan. After Nobunaga’s death (1582) during a rebellion, Hideyoshi continued the military unification of the country, completing the process in 1590. The use of firearms (supplied initially by the Europeans), the construction of fortified castles, the disarmament of the peasants, and a major land survey were the chief tools of pacification. When Hideyoshi died in 1598, centralized authority was secure, and the warrior class had been segregated from other members of society.

The third great unifier, Tokugawa Ieyasu, was a military leader who emerged as the guarantor of Hideyoshi’s young heir, Hideyori. In 1600, Ieyasu defeated his military rivals at Sekigahara and asserted his predominance. He was appointed shogun in 1603, but in 1605 he turned that office over to his son and devoted the rest of his life to consolidating Tokugawa control. In 1615, Hideyori was attacked and finally eliminated, and when Ieyasu died the following year, the Tokugawa held unchallenged feudal supremacy over the whole country.

Tokugawa Period

From their castle town of Edo (modern Tokyo), the Tokugawa ruled Japan as shoguns until 1867. A careful distribution of land among their vassal daimyo, relatives, and outside daimyo ensured their control of the major cities–Kyoto, Osaka, and Nagasaki–and the chief mines. Thus they controlled the main economic centers and strategic military points, while unrelated daimyo administered some 250 autonomous domains. The daimyo spent half their time in Edo attending the shogun and left their families as hostages when they returned to their domains.

The Tokugawa period saw the flowering of urban culture and a monetized commodity economy. Edo had a population of over 1 million, and both Kyoto and Osaka had more than 400,000 people. The samurai stood at the top of a legally established four-class system. From illiterate warriors they were transformed into military bureaucrats who served both the shogunal and daimyo governments. Below them were the peasants, artisans, and merchants. Although despised, merchants became essential to urban life. A national market system developed for textiles, food products, handicrafts, books, and other goods. Osaka was the center of the national rice market, where daimyo exchanged their rice for cash to support their Edo residences and the traveling back and forth to their domains. After 1639 the Tokugawa pursued a policy of almost total seclusion from the outside world. Nagasaki, where the Chinese and the Dutch were allowed trading quarters (the Dutch on an offshore island), was the only point of contact with foreign countries.

By the 19th century considerable ferment existed in Japanese society. Peasant uprisings had become commonplace, and the samurai and even the daimyo were badly indebted to the merchant class. Thus the old socioeconomic system had virtually collapsed, while the shogunal government displayed increasing extravagance and inefficiency. In the early 1840s the national government attempted a series of reforms to improve economic conditions, but they were largely ineffectual. The shogunate, therefore, was already in a discredited position when U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry forced Japan to abandon its seclusionist policy in 1854.

With the arrival of Perry’s ships the Tokugawa shogun turned to the daimyo for advice and thereby undermined shogunal control over foreign policy. The imperial house, long excluded from politics, was drawn into the controversy, and the slogan “revere the emperor, expel the barbarians” was soon heard in the expanding political debate. In 1858 the shogun signed disadvantageous commercial treaties with the United States and several European countries. Tokugawa leadership was questioned, and numerous samurai attacks were made on the foreigners now allowed to enter Japan. By 1864 most activists realized that the foreigners’ military power prevented their exclusion, and they turned against the Tokugawa instead. Samurai from the domains of Satsuma, Choshu, Tosa, and Hizen played major roles in pushing for reforms. In 1867 they finally forced the resignation of the shogun, and imperial government was restored under the young Meiji emperor in 1868 .


The Meiji Period

In less than half a century Japan was transformed from a secluded feudal society into an industrialized world power. During the Meiji period, corresponding to the reign (1868-1912) of Emperor Meiji, centralized bureaucracy replaced the balance of power between the Tokugawa and the autonomous domains. A conscript army replaced the military authority of the samurai. Restrictions on residence and employment were abolished, and people flocked to Edo, now renamed Tokyo and adopted as the imperial capital. The government imported foreign advisors and technology for industrial, commercial, and educational purposes. Official missions were sent to examine modern Western societies. Adopting the slogan “rich country, strong army,” Japan determined to gain a position of equality with the West.

Government stability was crucial to this objective. In 1873 a new tax system provided a secure revenue base and abolished the feudal land system. In 1877 the conscript army defeated a major samurai revolt led by Saigo Takamori, a leading figure in the imperial restoration. Inflation reduced the value of government revenues, and between 1881 and 1885 a rigorous deflation policy initiated by Matsukata Masayoshi stabilized the currency. Education was basic to Japan’s emergence. Beginning with 40 percent male and 15 percent female literacy, the Meiji government required primary education for all children and established (1872) a centralized school system.

In 1881 domestic political pressure forced the oligarchical government to promise a constitution by 1889 and representative government by 1890. The statesman Ito Hirobumi took charge of drafting the new constitution. A cabinet was established in 1885, a peerage was created, and in 1889 the constitution was promulgated as a gift from the emperor.

Japan thus became a constitutional monarchy, with a bicameral legislature (Diet) composed of a house of peers and an elected lower house. Suffrage was very limited, however; only 1 percent of the population was eligible to vote in the 1890 election. Moreover, the prime minister and cabinet were responsible only to the emperor, who was still regarded as a divine figure. Representative government evolved slowly, but the Diet had some control of the budget and gradually increased its authority.

Conflict between the Diet and the government leaders ceased during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, in which Japan displayed its military superiority over the Chinese and secured control of Korea. The victory added to Japanese prestige, and in 1902, Japan concluded an alliance with Britain as an equal power.

In 1904-05, Japan and Russia fought over Manchuria and Korea. Victorious in this Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese added southern Sakhalin to their empire of Taiwan and the Ryukyu Islands; and in 1910 they formally annexed Korea. By 1905, therefore, Japan was a major military power in East Asia and an industrialized nation. When Japan entered World War I as an ally of Britain, the strains of industrialization were apparent in Japanese society.

World War I and the Interwar Years

During World War I, Japan seized several of the German holdings in East Asia, including the Chinese territory of Kiaochow. When the Chinese demanded the return of Kiaochow, the Japanese government responded with the Twenty-one Demands of January 1915, forcing Chinese acceptance of extended Japanese influence in China. In 1917, Japan extracted further concessions of rights in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia, setting the stage for its later open aggression against China.

In 1918, Hara Takashi became prime minister in the first cabinet based on a party majority in the Diet. Although the political parties were essentially controlled by business interests, they were a major step toward more democratic forms of government–a trend that was continued by the expansion of the electorate in 1925 to include all males over 25.

Although repressive toward the growing labor movement, the party governments of the 1920s and after attempted modest reforms, cutting back the army and enacting some social legislation. They also pursued a less aggressive foreign policy than that of prewar Japan. At the Washington Conference of 1921-22, Japan signed a naval arms limitation treaty that replaced the Anglo-Japanese alliance and established a balance of power in the Pacific. In 1930 further naval limitations were agreed to at the London Naval Conference.

The Japanese military felt, however, that the politicians were compromising the nation’s security and the emperor’s right to supreme command. As the World Depression of the 1930s set in, the discontented began to rally to the cry of the militarists that the civilian governments were corrupt and that military expansion and the acquisition of new markets and sources of raw materials would cure Japan’s economic ills. Right-wing terrorism increased (3 of Japan’s 11 prime ministers between 1918 and 1932 were assassinated), and in 1931 Japanese officers in Manchuria acted without government authorization in precipitating the Mukden Incident and occupying Manchuria. Unable to stop the army, the civilian government accepted the establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo in February 1932. Three months later military and civilian bureaucrats replaced party politicians in leading the government. From then until August 1945, the succession of cabinets and the young emperor Hirohito, who had succeeded to the throne in 1926, were essentially the tolls of the military extremists.

World War II

Japanese economic and political penetration of northern China proceeded against minimal Chinese resistance until 1937. In July 1937, however, the Second Sino-Japanese War began with a clash at the Marco Polo bridge near Peking. By 1940 the Japanese controlled eastern China and had established a puppet regime at Nanking. In the same year Japan allied with the Axis powers of Germany and Italy, which were already at war in Europe.

Having occupied the northern part of French Indochina in 1940, Japanese troops moved into southern Indochina in July 1941. The United States and Britain reacted to this move by imposing a total trade embargo on Japan. Faced with economic strangulation, Japan had the choice of withdrawing from Indochina, and possibly China, or continuing its expansion in order to secure oil supplies from the Dutch East Indies. The latter alternative would mean war with the United States, and Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaro negotiated to avoid that contingency. In October 1941, however, Konoe was replaced by the more militant Gen. Tojo Hideki. On Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese forces launched simultaneous attacks on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Malaya. The United States immediately declared war, and World War II entered its worldwide phase.

At first the Japanese forces achieved great success, conquering the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, Malaya and Singapore, and Burma. The tide turned in June 1942, however, with the defeat of a Japanese fleet by the U.S. Navy at Midway Island in the Pacific. A war of attrition now began to force the Japanese back to their home islands. Japanese merchant shipping was distrupted, and industlrial production declined as industries and cities were subjected to Allied bombing raids. Shortages of food and supplies increased along with military defeats. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9 and the Soviet declaration of war on Aug. 8, 1945, were the final blows. Emperor Hirohito intervened and ordered the army to surrender unconditionally on Aug. 14, 1945.

Postwar Japan

The Allied occupation, under the command of U.S. Gen. Douglas Macarthur, lasted from 1945 to 1952 and resulted in political, social, and economic reforms. The emperor denied his divinity and was placed in a symbolic role. Government was democratized, and a new constitution with a bill of rights went into effect in 1947. Women received the vote and rights to property and divorce. The peerage was abolished, war criminals punished, and a massive purge of right-wing extremists (and later of Communists) conducted. The great zaibatsu concentrations of economic power were broken up, a major land reform was carried out, and education was liberalized. Article 9 of the constitution renounced the right to use force in foreign policy.

As millions of soldiers and civilians were repatriated from overseas, the devastated country experienced acute shortages of food, housing, clothing, and other goods and services. The government under Yoshida Shigeru worked to implement reforms and achieve economic recovery. The outbreak of the Korean War (1950-53) aided that recovery by increasing Japanese exports. It also prompted the United States to press for rapid conclusion of a Japanese peace treaty. In 1951, Japan signed not only a peace treaty but a mutual defense treaty with the United States. It resumed full sovereignty in 1952 but continued to be very much under U.S. protection.

From 1954 to 1972 the Japanese economy expanded rapidly. Building on its prewar industrial base, Japan imported modern technology and machinery and made economic development the main focus of national policy. Labor, resources, and capital were allocated to areas where the growth potential was greatest, and by the early 1970s, Japan was the world’s largest producer of ships and a leader in the production of cars, steel, and electronic equipment.

The 1972 return to Japan of Okinawa, which had been under U.S. occupation since 1945, signaled the end of Japanese subordination to the United States. Japan handled the U.S. rapprochement with Communist China by establishing its own diplomatic ties with that longtime enemy in 1972. In the 1980s, Japan played an increasingly visible role in global affairs, becoming the largest provider of development aid in 1988. In 1992, Japan agreed to send troops abroad for the first time since World War II as part of UN peacekeeping operations.

The death of long-reigning Hirohito in January 1989 marked the end of an era. He was succeeded by his son Akihito.

The conservative Liberal-Democrats (LDP), an agrarian-based party emphasizing economic growth, dominated Japanese politics from 1955 to 1993 and rejoined the government in 1994. Scandals led to the resignations of prime ministers Takeshita Noboru and Uno Sosuki in 1989. That year, the LDP lost its majority in the upper house of parliament, although it retained control of the lower house in 1990 elections under Prime Minister Kaifu Toshiki. In October 1991, Kaifu was replaced as party leader and prime minister by Miyazawa Kiichi. Amid rising demands for an end to political corruption, the LDP lost control of the lower house in the July 1993 elections to a seven-party opposition coalition. Hosokawa Morihiro, who became prime minister on August 6, resigned and was replaced by Hata Tsutomu on Apr. 26, 1994. Hata’s government collapsed soon after the Socialists withdrew from the coalition. The Socialists then joined forces with the LDP; on June 29, Murayama Tomiichi became Japan’s first Socialist prime minister since 1946.

William B. Hauser

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