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1.What is Japan's history (early history-1600)?
2.What is Japan's history (Edo Period: 1603-1868)?
3.What is Japan's Meiji Period (1868-1912)?
4.Where can I find information on Commodore Perry/Opening of Japan?
5.Where can I find information on Japan prior to World War II?
6.Where can I find information on World War II?
7.What is Japan's post-war history?
8.Who were the Samurai? Shogun? Ninja?


1. What is Japan's history (early history-1600)?

Kofun of Emperor Nintoku, the largest burial mound all over the world (The Japan of Today)

Throughout ancient Japan, the economy was distinctly agrarian.  During the Jomon Period (13,000 BC to 300 BC), Japanese procured their food by hunting and gathering.  The Yayoi Period (300 BC to 300 AD) saw the introduction of rice from the Asian Continent, and this became the staple of Japanese agriculture.  Political power also began to concentrate during the Yayoi Period.  As agriculture widened the gap between rich and poor, the political power of the country began to center around the wealthy landowners.  The result of this was the formation of kuni (states).  Eventually, the kuni began to fight each other for political and military supremacy. 

Chinese kanji characters were introduced during the Kofun Period (300-710), and the political energies of the nation began to centralize near present day Nara.  This period is named for the type of tombs (kofun) built for politicians.  The Nara Period (710 to 794) began when Nara was established as the first permanent capital in 710.  While the emperors ruled the country,  aristocrats assumed the strongest political power during the Heian Period. (794 to 1192)  This was also the period that witnessed the rising of the samurai class. 

The Kamakura Period (1192 to 1333) began when the Minamotos ascended to political prominence.  This was the first government in Japan to be run by the samurai class (bakufu), and the emperors of Japan remained in the background, until Emperor Godaigo defeated the Kamakura Bakufu and recovered imperial rule in 1333.  However, Ashikaga Takauji set up a bakufu government in Muromachi, northern Kyoto in 1336, and a fifty-year civil war between imperial loyalists and the Muromachi Bakufu followed.  Although the Muromacho Bakufu finally unified the country in 1392, its political power gradually weakened while the power of feudal lords throughout the country steadily increased.  In 1467, a dispute over the succession of the shogun led to the Onin War and triggered battles among feudal lords for over 100 years.  It wasn't until the end of the 16th Century that warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi was able to unify Japan.  During the latter part of the same century, Jesuit Missionaries attempted to spread Christianity in Japan.

At the beginning of the 17th Century, the battle of Sekigahara allowed Tokugawa Ieyasu to assume supreme control of Japan and he was declared seii tai shogun (barbarian-subduing generalissimo and state leader) by the emperor in 1603.  This was the beginning of the Edo Period.  To learn more about the history of Japan, please visit:





2. What is Japan's history (Edo Period: 1603-1868)?

After the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu became seii tai shogun, or supreme leader of the military-based government.  This ushered in a period known as the Edo Period.  The Edo Period lasted for nearly 300 years until 1868, when Emperor Meiji assumed control and the Tokugawa bakufu government came to an end. 

During the Edo period, the emperor remained in Kyoto and had no real political power.  Daimyo (feudal lords) were given control of most of the land, and domains called han were, at times, freely exchanged by the bakufu.  The daimyo were required to spend alternate years at the capital, Edo (present-day Tokyo), in order for the seii tai shogun to monitor them.  A strict caste system was adhered to, with samurai as the top tier.  The samurai were followed by farmers, artisans and merchants (in that order) and an outcaste also developed among those who worked with things considered ritually impure, such as animal products.  Despite societal constraints, however, art forms such as kabuki and ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) flourished and became popular among the public.

View through Waves off the Coast of Kanagawa: from "Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji"
by Katsushika Hokusai
Edo period, 19th century
(Tokyo National Museum)

At the same time, Christianity, which was introduced to Japan in the mid 16th century, was forcefully suppressed in accordance to sakoku, the bakufu's policy of strictly limiting foreign relations.   This policy was implemented in reaction to the fear that European powers would use Christianity to subdue and colonize the Japanese people.  Despite such policies, the Tokugawa leadership gradually became weaker with each generation.  By the time U. S. Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Uraga Bay in 1853 and pressed for the opening of several Japanese ports and the start of diplomatic intercourse with the Japanese, the bakufu's power was severely undermined due in part to ruling samurais' failure in solving serious fiscal problems.  Perry's visit accelerated the changes that brought the era of samurai  to an end, and in 1868, Meiji Restoration officially ushered in a new era.  To learn more about the Edo Period, please visit:




3. What is Japan's Meiji Period (1868-1912)?

In 1853, U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Uraga Bay in 1853 and pressed for the opening of several Japanese ports and the start of diplomatic intercourse with the Japanese.  In the years following, the bakufu's leadership was further weakened by inflation and frequent riots.  In 1867, the 15th Tokugawa seii tai shogun renounced his authority and a government centered around the emperor was established.  The nation's capital was moved from Kyoto to Edo, and renamed Tokyo.  Facing the territorial ambitions of the western states, the new central government wanted to modernize and industrialize Japan as quickly as possible.  The government instituted major reforms throughout the government and society. (Meiji Restoration)  A constitution was established based on the Prussian model.  This constitution imbued great power to the emperor.  A two-house Diet (legislature) was also established, but its powers were weak in comparison to the emperor's.  Undergoing its own industrial revolution, Japan amassed large and prosperous industries.  Such progress included the first rail line being laid between Tokyo and Yokohama and the founding of universities.  Two phrases were popular among Japanese government officials of the time: bunmei kaika (civilization and enlightenment) and fukoku kyohei (rich country and strong army).  Japan defeated China in 1894 and became the first Asian State to defeat a European power when it overpowered Russia in 1904.  Japan fashioned itself on the military prowess of Great Britain, and the Meiji period of modernization saw Japan quickly rise to become a world naval power.  Japanese people in those days also absorbed different influences from around the world in areas such as literature and science.  This was also the time when trains established themselves as the center of Japanese transportation.  To learn more, please visit:



4. Where can I find information on Commodore Perry/Opening of Japan?

For more than two hundred years (during the Tokugawa Era), Japan shut the door to the outside world (with the exception of China, Korea, and the Netherlands) and nearly had any interactions with foreign countries.  Those few foreigners who disembarked on Japan's shores did so near Nagasaki. Commodore Matthew Perry ignored the edict, and in 1853, Perry's black ships landed near Uraga in Edo Bay.  Once in Edo, Perry strongly demanded and achieved the opening of Japan to the world.  One year later, the Kanagawa Treaty was signed between the United States and Japan, ushering in the end of Japan's isolationist policies.  However, crisis followed since many continued to oppose westernization and argued to expel foreigners. Economic disorder ensued, caused by the influx of foreign products and the drain of gold from Japan, resulting in severe inflation.  As a result, the political power of the bakufu further weakened and, in 1867, the 15th Tokugawa seii tai shogun, Yoshinobu, finally abdicated his position.  Emperor Meiji was given full authority to run the nation one year later, and Japan began the process of modernization, industrial revolution and social progress.  To learn more about Commodore Perry and the Opening of Japan, please visit:




5. Where can I find information on Japan prior to World War II?

The period between the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912 and Japan's entry into WWII in 1941 is divided into two periods: the period of Emperor Taisho's rule of Japan from 1912 to 1926, and the period following the ascension of Emperor Showa (whose birth name was Hirohito) to the throne in 1926. 

Japan entered the war on the Triple Entente side during WWI because of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance.  After the victory in the world war, Japan became a permanent member of the Council of the League of Nations and was recognized as a major power.  Japan also achieved rapid economic growth during WWI.  This was partly due to the expansion of Japanese exports to the colonies of European countries since they had to spend their resources and industries to produce goods necessary to fight the war and could not satisfy the demands from their colonies.

The Taisho era was also a period of democratic movements known as "Taisho Democracy."  This was a period when rice riots and labor disputes occurred and many called for the expansion of voting rights.

However, the Japanese economy was severely harmed by the Great Depression, and Japan increasingly turned into a militarist state.  The Japanese Army tried to expand its control in China, which was vulnerable to foreign invasion because of civil war.  Neglecting the foreign policies of the government at that time, the Japanese Army occupied Manchuria in 1931 and established an independent state there.  However, the League of Nations did not recognize the state, and Japan withdrew from the League in 1932. 

Japan launched another military attack against China in 1937 and occupied the major regions.  However, China continued to resist with the assistance of foreign countries, and the Japanese Force was stuck in a relentless guerilla war.  To cut off the supply lines of the Chinese Force, the Japanese Force invaded French Indochina, which induced U.S. economic sanctions against Japan.  Refusing demands to withdraw from China and Indochina, Japan entered a war against the United States.

To learn more, please visit:



6. Where can I find information on World War II?

War between the United States and Japan began on December 7th, 1941, when Japan attacked United States Naval forces in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  War raged on between the United States and Japan until August of 1945.  In the August of 1945, the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were devastated by the atomic bombs dropped by the U.S. Forces.  The Emperor Showa decided to make an unconditional surrender to the Allied Powers.  To learn more about World War II, please visit your local library, or visit websites such as these:





7.  What is Japan's post-war history?

Japan was occupied by the U.S. Forces from 1945 to 1952. General Douglas MacArthur administered the occupation as the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers (SCAP).  A new constitution promulgated in 1947 renounced war and democratized the political system of the nation.  The Emperor Showa (whose birth name was Hirohito) renounced his divinity and retained a solely symbolic position in Japan.  The San Francisco Peace Treaty ended the occupation in 1952, and Okinawa was finally returned to Japan in 1972.  The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has dominated Japanese politics for more than 50 years, supplying all but four prime ministers since 1945.  Japan remarkably recovered from the devastation of World War II in a speedy way, and hosted the Summer Olympics in Tokyo in 1964, and achieved the OECD membership same year.  Japanese industry and technology excelled in the post-war era and Japanese cars and electrical equipment became industry standards.  By the 1980's, Japan's economy grew to become the second largest in the world.  During the early 1990's Japan's economic bubble burst and the country remains in the midst of a decade long recession.  To learn more about recent Japanese history, please visit your local library or browse:



8. Who were the Samurai? Shogun? Ninja?

Armor of Domaru with Black Leather Lacing in Katatsumadori Style
Muromachi period, 15th century
(Tokyo National Museum)

Samurai were the military and ruling elite for most of Japan's history.  Beginning in the Heian Period (794-1192 AD), samurai assumed high positions within Japan's social structure.  Often the most learned and cultured of society, the samurai lost all status and privileges after the Meiji Restoration of 1868.  Kendo, the Japanese art of fencing, comes from the ancient samurai sword fighting arts.  Bushido, the ways of the warrior, is part of the extreme code of ethics and strict honor inherent in the samurai class.  A samurai maintained the highest respect and piety to the lord whom he served.   The honor and responsibility passed down from the samurai have always had a great impact on the Japanese people.  A samurai's weapon was the katana (sword).  To learn more about samurai, please visit:




The military leaders of Japan before the Meiji Era were called seii tai shogun.  The seii tai shogun was the supreme leader of the government and military forces.  For nearly 700 years, shogun ruled the islands of Japan.  In 1192, Yoritomo Minamoto assumed the title and established the first military centered government in Kamakura, south of Tokyo.  The final shogun, in the 19th Century, were from the Tokugawa family.  Shogun led feudal lords called daimyo in the feudal Japanese system prior to 1868.  Both shogun and daimyo were samurai.  To learn more about shogun, please visit:




Shuriken, Ninjya's Weapon cUeno City Tourist Associaton

Ninja(also called shinobi) were masters of the arts of invisibility and stealth, known as ninjutsu. Often invaluable to the leading generals, ninja executed commando, reconnaissance or assassination missions.  In the centuries before the Edo Period, ninja reached their peak in numbers.  During the peace that reigned during the Tokugawas' rule, ninjutsu was codified.  The techniques and weapons were written down in manuals like the Mansen Shukai in 1676 in order to protect the traditions of the ninja.  Famous ninjutsu schools still exist in the Mie and Shiga Prefectures of Japan.  The ninja lacked the need for strict adherence to a code of honor similar to the samurai's.  Therefore, the ninja was free to execute a mission without being strictly honor bound.  Ninja were often poor and of no social rank, but their expert skills demanded high prices.  To learn more about ninja please visit your local library for books such as:

The Ninja and Their Secret Fighting Art by Stephen K. Hayes.  Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1995.

Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, Volume 2.  Kodansha, 1993.

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