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The Japanese people we know today however were not the original inhabitants. As in places all around the world, there were indigenous hunter-gatherers that had made its way to the Island of Japan in prehistoric times. These people were called the "Jomon" after the patterns found on the clay pottery found in archeological sites. These people are believed to be the distant ancestors of an ethnic minority in Japan called the "Ainu" that now inhabit the Northern Islands of Japan, mainly in Hokkaido. by 300 B.C. however a dramatic shift in the archeological evidence took place from these hunter-gatherer culture. It is speculated a new wave of immigrants from Korea arrived onto the Japanese islands that had been locked off from the mainland since the ice age. Everything from farming, architecture, metalwork, manufactured goods to culture and religions that reflect origins from Northern China and Korea mixed with some southern pacific elements began to emerge. This period is called the Yayoi period in Japanese history. It lasted until 250 A.D. It is during this time in 57 A.D. that Japan was first described by outside sources. Chinese sources described Japan as a collection of tribal communities that had some level of provincial organization, taxation, had master and vassal relationships between different groups, and worshipped a religion called Shinto. This or any connections that implied a Korean derivation, however contradicts Japanese traditions that saw their foundation as a unified state in 660 B.C. Also how much these later immigrants mixed with the indigenous Jomon culture is another controversial point in Japan's early history.

The mythology of ancient Japan is contained within the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) which records the creation myth of Japan and its lineage of Emperors to the Sun Goddess Amaratsu. Large portions of this book are Chinese mythology and the distinction of what is truly Japanese and what is Chinese is continually questioned. In the myth of Japan's creation the two gods Isanagi and Isanami swirled the primordial soup below the bridge of heaven with a rod and when retrieving the rod the drops of liquid that formed and dropped created the first islands of Japan.

What this shows, however is that history, Japan received immense cultural influences from China and Japan. elements of the cultures of both were modified to fit Japanese needs, or in most aspects simply absorbed wholesale. Some include chopsticks, the Chinese writing system and Chinese-style poetry, and there is evidence suggesting that Japanese architecture is a time capsule of what Tang Chinese architecture may have looked like. Buddhism also arrived in Japan via Korea.

The Nara periodEdit

"I really think that among barbarous nations there can be none that has more natural goodness than the Japanese. [...] Honour with them is placed above everything else. There are a great many poor among them, but poverty is not a disgrace to any one. [...] The nobles, however poor they may be, receive the same honour from the rest as if they were rich."

— St Francis Xavier

By the early 8th century, Japan was a unified and peaceful nation, with its capital of Nara a thriving urban and business centre, with strong times to Tang China. Peace and prosperity would continue well after the "Nara period" (when the Japanese sovereigns ruled from Nara) but in the late 9th century, decentralisation, corruption and economic collapse began to take its toll, and as the central government, now based at Heian (present-day Kyoto) weakened, feudalisation and a return to self-sufficient agrarianism began to take hold in Japan, leading to political power being usurped by local strongmen who eventually coalesced into a military aristocracy headed by military dictators called Shogun. Although Japan experienced some recovery and even renewed prosperity under the Kamakura and Ashikaga shogunates, a new breed of warrior caste, the saburai, would continue to dominate Japan and her history for at least six centuries thereafter.

Rise of the SamuraiEdit

The growing decentralised nature of Japan, also saw the rise of a military class called the Saburai or Samurai, who followed bushido, or the "way ('-do') of the warrior ('bushi')", and soon the Saburai became the mainstay of provincial and local power holders, and even civil and religious institutions had independent control of private samurai guard units to protect themselves. Several clans of these samurai naturally arose to prominence. The period between the 8th century until the 12th century saw the Fujiwara, the Taira and the Minomoto clans vying for control and power over Japan and over one another. By 1185 the Minamoto clan emerged as strongest of the three, signaling the Kamakura period, named after their headquarters in Kamakura in the northern part of Japan's main island, south-west of modern Tokyo. This period essentially made official the role of Saburai in politics for the next 700 years where the Emperors based in Kyoto were no more then figureheads relegated to ceremonial functions, while civil, military, and judicial functions were exercised by Saburai class, with the most powerful Saburai clan being the de factor ruler, the head of which was given the title shogun (in Japanese, "general" or "warlord").

The Minamoto did not continue to hold power for long, and by 1199 lost power to the Hojo Clan which was a branch of the Taira Clan. Under the Hojo clan the military governing body known as the bakufu in turn also became ineffectual, making the title of shogun a purely ceremonial one as well. The title was passed to many different people including members of the Fujiwara clan or even to Imperial Princes until 1221, when the Hojo clan that was supposed to be the official protector of the Imperial family went to war against them to regain power. However they managed to reform the governing body to allow other military lords to exercise judicial and legislative power at Kamakura with the Hojo presiding over a council of these lords. Military law was codified known as the "Joei" code and Japan fell under official martial law.


In the late 13th century the Mongols who had established the Yuan Dynasty in China turned their attention towards Japan, demanding tribute from Japan but were steadfastly refused. The Yuan Emperor Kublai Khan ordered an invasion of Japan in 1274, consisting of 600 ships, and a force of 23,000 troops of mixed Mongol, Chinese and Korean origins, along with siege engines and early rocket artillery. In battle these troops fought in close cavalry formations, in contrast to the strict bushido code of honoured single combat. The Japanese fought bravely but couldn't really defend themselves against this massive force fighting in a way alien to them. It was a miracle that after the first day of fighting that a typhoon swept in, and wrecked the invaders' ships. Seven years later, the Mongols would attempt a second invasion, this time fighting lasted for seven weeks as the Japanese no longer stuck to their practice of single combat against these foreigners until again a typhoon struck, destroying the Mongol fleet. The Shinto priests attributed the Mongols' defeat to the typhoon and pronounced its divine nature. Yet, the war against the Mongols had cost a lot economically. There were not enough rewards to go around to the clans that helped contributed to the defence of Japan, and civil war eventually broke out. The Emperor Go-Daigo eventually emerged victorious over the previous Hojo government intent on reviving imperial authority and Confucian practices, but in turn was defeated by the Ashikaga clan in 1336. However, Go-Daigo would flee Kyoto to establish a separate Imperial court south, while the Ashikaga clan installed their choice for emperor from a rival line. This dual existence of Imperial courts was to last for over the next 50 years.

Sengoku JidaiEdit

The Ashikaga clan ushered in the Muromachi period during which Zen Buddhism developed. Trade with the Ming Chinese was established, sowing the seeds of Japanese cultural and economic development. By the middle of the 16th century, however, the Ashikaga government lost control of Japan. Once more, the provincial lords called Daimyo who had exerted the actual control over the regions began to fight with each other in what became known as the Sengoku Jidai or Age of the Civil Wars. With the erosion of Ashikaga hegemony, Japan was in a state of political anarchy. Natural disasters and weak government contributed to the destruction of the 200-year-old Ashikaga shogunate, and the Japanese islands were in a state of civil war for the first time in two centuries.

During this transitional period, known as the Sengoku Jidai, Japan's fate would be determined by the destinies of three different men of three different generations. Amongst the provincial warlords or daimyo (Japanese for "great name"), one arose to eminence: Oda Nobunaga. The Oda clan, despite not being truly descendents of samurai, managed to take advantage of new European-style gunpowder tactics introduced by the Portuguese, and so Nobunaga made big strides in reunifying Japan — by the time he fell, almost half of the entire Japanese nation was unified under Oda control. However, his eccentric behaviour, brutual means and adoption of Christianity alienated many around him and in 1582, Oda was forced to commit sepukku. One of his most loyal retainers, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, succeeded him and managed to completely reunify Japan.

In order to gain absolute control, Hideyoshi destroyed many castles that had been built around the country during the Sengoku Jidai, and forbade the samurai class from farming, and forced them to move into castle towns. Seeing Christians as a threat to his reunification process, and suspicious of the intentions of the Spanish and the Portuguese, he also began to expel Christians missionaries in 1587. Further conversions to Christianity were forbidden and the persecution intensified culminating with the execution of 26 Franciscans in 1597 as a warning.

Rise of the Tokugawa ShogunateEdit

To further solidify his legimacy, Hideyoshi chose to invade the Asian mainland through Korea, and began the Imjin War in 1592. Although the invasion was initially successful at first, eventually the Koreans rallied and with Chinese support, drove the Japanese to the sea. He would die later that year to be supplanted by Tokugawa Ieyasu. From its seat at Edo (present-day Tokyo) the Tokugawa shogunate established firm political and military power, with Tokugawa being nominated as shogun by the Emperor in 1603. The shogun was able to redistribute the wealth he acquired in a way as to satisfy the Daimyos but also instituted a practice that required them to spend every other year at Edo, resulting in a huge financial burden for the Daimyos and moderated their power at home.

Foreign relations still proved a thorny problem, however. Concerned with the expansionism of the Spanish and Portuguese empires in Asia and the welfare of Japanese citizens abroad, Ieyasu initiated a series of policies suppressing Christianity, forbidding Japanese to travel abroad and limiting contact with the outside world, which would eventually be called sakoku or "locked-country policies". This was not to say that Japan had no contact with the outside world, it was only that foreign access to Japan would be strictly and severely controlled by the shogunate authorities. Trade in fact did prosper during this era, especially with Korea, Holland and Britain. In this isolated space, the general peace and stability that Tokugawa rule brought resulted in a cultural flourishing The samurai class began to branch out from martial arts to the appreciation and practice of the finer Japanese arts, while new forms of art such as Kabuki theatre and Ukiyo-e printing developed among the commoners. Japanese society however also became more firmly entrenched in a caste system where social classes were not allowed to change from one to the other. The Samurai class was at the top, followed by peasants, artisans and merchants and the outcast class known as the eta at the bottom.

Coming of the Gaijin (1800–1869)Edit

Towards the end of the 18th century, however, Japan's sakoku policy began to unravel the structure of Tokugawa domination while the Tokugawa government began to stagnate, combined with natural disasters that led to worsening financial conditions and social unrest.

The first event to show how weak Tokugawa power actually was came during the rule of Tokugawa Ienari (1773-1841). At that time, Europe was embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars and when Napoleon subjugated the Dutch, a British warship, the HMS Phaeton, took hostages and bombarded Nagasaki harbour in 1808. Although the Phaeton left of its own accord eventually, the slow and phlegmatic response of the Tokugawa authorities showed just how inadequately equipped Japan was in dealing with the outside world.

The second major visit from a Western power to Japan had far more serious consequencies. Between 1852 and 1854, two naval expeditions led by Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry forced Japan to open up to the world. Perry extorted an agreement for commerce and non-agression at gunpoint by randomly shelling a few waterfront buildings in Tokyo Bay, an action which would later earn the infamous epithet of "gunboat diplomacy" and emulated later on by the colonial powers against equally weak opponents. Anti-Western sentiment was directed at the Tokugawa authorities (who were scrambling to modernise in the wake of the Perry Expedition), open trade led to further proliferation of foreigners in Japanese streets, and an economic crisis which exacerbated peasant uprisings. Individual daimyos in the south seceded from the Tokugawa regime, in what would be known as the Boshin War (called so for having started in the lunar year of the Dragon, 1868). Rallying behind the Japanese emperor, the rebels drove the Tokugawa to Hokkaido, who then the set up the Republic of Ezo. By 1869, the Ezo Republic was no more and so were the last of the Tokugawa too, and a new era — the era of "enlightened rule" (in Japanese, rendered as Meiji — had begun.

A New Empire (1870–1926)Edit

Although the Japanese were incensed with the existence of foreigners or iteki as they called them, the nobles who rose up to overthrow the Tokugawa were pragmatic enough to realise that the methods and tactics of the Western powers were materially superior, if not culturally, to their own indigenous ones. Thus, once the shogunate was done away with, a new state centred around the emperor was created, which was nominally democratic but in reality was a de facto oligarchy dominated by the victors in the Boshin War. The caste system was abolished, and while economic, military and educational reforms were vigorously pursued and structured after western models to close the gap between Japan and western nations, taking what were at the time the best western models in each area at the time. For instance, Japan turned to France for assistance in modernising the land army, but then turned to Prussia instead after the Franco-Prussian War. Emperor worship, initially ignored by past regimes, was also increasingly emphasised to bring focus to the nation as opposed to individual clans.

When the transformation was complete, Japan again turned its attention again back to mainland Asia, believing that just as how the European powers were supported by overseas empires, Japan also needed one of its own too. Conflicting interests in Korea between Japan and China lead to the Sino-Japanese War in 1894. where China was forced to cede Taiwan over to the Japanese. Western intervention had actually forced Japan to return some captured territory, so Japan continued to intensify military development. Then in 1904, conflicts with Russia developed over Korea and Manchuria. In a stunning victory, Japan defeated the Russian Pacific fleet gaining new territory from Russia and respect from the Western powers, albeit grudgingly. Six years later, Korea was annexed completely. Of these wars, however, the Russo-Japanese War was the most significant. Hitherto, Asians had been seen as weak and powerless before the threat of Western domination, but by the time the Treaty of Portsmouth was signed, the world was entirely changed. The victories Japan scored proved that the non-Western peoples of the world were capable of achieving the same power and prestige which Western nations hitherto had commanded.

From that point on, Asian patriots from China to the Middle East would begin their struggle to modernise and to gain independence from the Western powers. The Japanese were aware of this, and during the 20s and 30s following the First World War did all they could to increase anti-Western sentiment globally, particularly in Asia.

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