History

A Brief History of Japan

A brief history of Japan from its mythological roots to the modern era.

The Emergence of Japan - The first humans to inhabit Japan walked over from the mainland around 35,000 BCE at a time when the northwestern tip of Hokkaido was connected to the eastern extremities of Russia. Evidence of cord-marked pottery and the foundations of a basic society gave rise to Japan’s first documented period—the Jomon period. The Jomon were largely a hunter gather culture who subsisted for the best part of 10,000 years before a more advanced people, the Yayoi, sailed over the narrow sea from the Korean peninsula around 500 BCE. These new-comers gradually came to dominate the regions from the south of Japan ... continue reading
Samurai Rule & Civil War - The ebb and flow of power between various factions dictated domestic history for much of the following centuries. In the same way that an emperor relying on the loyalty of increasingly powerful and militarized families was a recipe for civil disharmony, the fact that the shogun’s power rested at least partially in the allegiance of numerous daimyo (feudal lords) precipitated a similar dissipation of control. Foreign forces, specifically the attempted invasions by Mongol forces in 1274 and 1281, also played a notable role in diluting the power of the shoguns: whereas the victors in inter-clan warfare could distribute lands and ... continue reading
The Edo Period - Tokugawa Ieyasu installing himself as shogun did not wash away the grievances felt by those daimyo with ambitions for power or who thought Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s son, Hideyori, the legitimate successor. Ieyasu exacerbated such tensions by rewarding those daimyo who had sided with him at the Battle of Sekigahara (fudai daimyo) with land taken from those who had not (tozama daimyo). It was only with Ieyasu’s victory at the Siege of Osaka in 1615, which ended with Hideyori committing seppuku, that the Tokugawa clan could concentrate on government. No chances were taken: Hideyori’s 8-year-old son, Kunimatsu, was captured and beheaded in ... continue reading
The Meiji Restoration & Imperial Japan - The relative ease with which power shifted back to the emperor stood in contrast to the huge task of nationalization which lay ahead. While Tokugawa rule had unified the country, governance was still semi-feudal in nature and the social structure remained based on the shinokosho hierarchy. The emperor moved from Kyoto to Edo in 1868 and the city became the official capital (and subsequently renamed Tokyo, “Eastern City”). The task of day-to-day governance, however, was carried out by a select group of advisors, men of standing from the southern clans of Satsuma and Choshu who had played a significant role ... continue reading
The Post-War Era & Modern Japan - General Douglas MacArthur, who had been commander of the United States Army Forces in the Far East, landed at Atsugi in Kanagawa Prefecture on 30 August, 1945. As Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) he was responsible for steering a war-ravaged Japan on a course to recovery. The Instrument of Surrender was signed on 2 September, 1945, aboard the USS Missouri. The same flag that had flown on Commodore Perry’s ship in 1853 was borrowed from the U.S. Naval Academy Museum for the occasion, a symbol made all the more poignant by the fact that MacArthur was a blood-relative ... continue reading