The first human habitation in the
Japanese archipelago has been traced
to prehistoric times. The Jōmon period, named after its "cord-marked"
pottery, was followed by the
Yayoi in the first millennium BC, when
new technologies were introduced from continental Asia. During this
period, the first known written reference to
Japan was recorded in the
Book of Han
Book of Han in the first century AD. Between the fourth
century and the ninth century, Japan's many kingdoms and tribes
gradually came to be unified under a centralized government, nominally
controlled by the Emperor. This imperial dynasty continues to reign
over Japan. In 794, a new imperial capital was established at
Heian-kyō (modern Kyoto), marking the beginning of the Heian period,
which lasted until 1185. The
Heian period is considered a golden age
of classical Japanese culture. Japanese religious life from this time
and onwards was a mix of native
Shinto practices and Buddhism.
Over the following centuries the power of the Emperor and the imperial
court gradually declined and passed to the military clans and their
armies of samurai warriors. The
Minamoto clan under Minamoto no
Yoritomo emerged victorious from the
Genpei War of 1180–85. After
seizing power, Yoritomo set up his capital in
Kamakura and took the
title of shōgun. In 1274 and 1281, the
Kamakura shogunate withstood
two Mongol invasions, but in 1333 it was toppled by a rival claimant
to the shogunate, ushering in the Muromachi period. During the
Muromachi period regional warlords called daimyōs grew in power at
the expense of the shōgun. Eventually,
Japan descended into a period
of civil war. Over the course of the late sixteenth century,
reunified under the leadership of the daimyō
Oda Nobunaga and his
successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi. After Hideyoshi's death in 1598,
Tokugawa Ieyasu came to power and was appointed shōgun by the
Emperor. The Tokugawa shogunate, which governed from
Tokyo), presided over a prosperous and peaceful era known as the Edo
period (1600–1868). The
Tokugawa shogunate imposed a strict class
system on Japanese society and cut off almost all contact with the
Perry Expedition in 1853–54 ended Japan's seclusion;
this contributed to the fall of the shogunate and the return of power
to the Emperor in 1868. The new national leadership of the following
Meiji period transformed the isolated, feudal island country into an
empire that closely followed Western models and became a great power.
Although democracy developed and modern civilian culture prospered
Taishō period (1912–26), Japan's powerful military had
great autonomy and overruled Japan's civilian leaders in the 1920s and
1930s. The military invaded Manchuria in 1931, and from 1937 the
conflict escalated into a prolonged war with China. Japan's attack on
Pearl Harbor in December 1941 led to war with the United States and
its allies. Japan's forces soon became overextended, but the military
held out in spite of Allied air attacks that inflicted severe damage
on population centers. Emperor
Hirohito announced Japan's
unconditional surrender on 15 August 1945, following the atomic
bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Soviet invasion of
The Allies occupied
Japan until 1952, during which a new constitution
was enacted in 1947 that transformed
Japan into a constitutional
monarchy. After 1955,
Japan enjoyed very high economic growth, and
became a world economic powerhouse. Since the 1990s, economic
stagnation has been a major issue. An earthquake and tsunami in 2011
caused massive economic dislocations and a serious nuclear power
1 Geographical background
3 Prehistoric and ancient Japan
Paleolithic and Jōmon periods
Kofun period (c. 250–538)
4 Classical Japan
Asuka period (538–710)[a]
Nara period (710–794)
Heian period (794–1185)
4.3.1 Heian culture
5 Medieval Japan
Kamakura period (1185–1333)
5.2 Literary developments of the late-Heian and
Muromachi period (1333–1568)
5.3.1 Muromachi culture
6 Early modern Japan
Azuchi–Momoyama period (1568–1600)
Edo period (1600–1868)
6.2.1 Culture and philosophy
6.2.2 Decline and fall of the shogunate
7 Modern Japan
Meiji period (1868–1912)
7.1.1 Political and social changes
7.1.2 Rise of imperialism and the military
7.1.3 Economic modernization and labor unrest
Taishō period (1912–1926)
Shōwa period (1926–1989)
Manchurian Incident and the Second Sino-Japanese War
7.3.2 World War II
7.3.3 Occupation of Japan
7.3.4 Postwar growth and prosperity
Heisei period (1989–present)
8 Social conditions
9 See also
9.1 Academic journals
12 Books cited
13 Further reading
Japanese archipelago stretches northeast to southwest
3,000 km off the east of the Asian continent at the convergence of
four tectonic plates; it has about forty active volcanoes and
experiences about 1,000 earthquakes a year. The steep, craggy
mountains that cover two-thirds of its surface are prone to quick
erosion from fast-flowing rivers and to mudslides. They thus have
hampered internal travel and communication and driven the population
to rely on transportation along coastal waters. There is a great
variety to its regions' geographical features and weather patterns,
with a rainy season in most parts in early summer. Volcanic soil that
washes along the 13% of the area that makes up the coastal plains
provides fertile land, and the mainly temperate climate allows long
growing seasons, which with the diversity of flora and fauna provide
rich resources able to support the density of the population.
A commonly accepted periodization of Japanese history:
900 BC – 250 AD (overlaps)
Ashikaga shogunate and sengoku daimyōs
Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu
Early Modern Japan
Shōwa (Occupied Post-war)
Prehistoric and ancient Japan
Paleolithic and Jōmon periods
Japanese Paleolithic and Jōmon period
Jōmon period pottery
Land bridges, during glacial periods when the world sea level is
lower, have periodically linked the
Japanese archipelago to the Asian
Sakhalin Island in the north and via the Ryukyu Islands
Taiwan in the south since the beginning of the current Quaternary
glaciation 2.58 million years ago. There may also have been a land
Korea in the southwest, though not in the 125,000 years or
so since the start of the last interglacial. The
Korea Strait was,
however, quite narrow at the
Last Glacial Maximum
Last Glacial Maximum from 25,000 to
20,000 years BP. The earliest firm evidence of human habitation is of
Paleolithic hunter-gatherers from 40,000 years ago, when
Japan was separated from the continent. Edge-ground axes dating to
32–38,000 years ago, found in 224 sites in
Honshu and Kyushu, are
unlike anything found in neighbouring areas of continental Asia,
and have been proposed as evidence for the first Homo sapiens in
Japan; watercraft appear to have been in use in this period.
Radiocarbon dating has shown that the earliest fossils in
back to around 32,000-27,000 years ago; for example in the case of
Yamashita Cave 32,100 ± 1,000 BP, in Sakitari Cave cal
31,000–29,000 BP, in Shiraho Saonetabaru Cave c. 27,000 BP among
Jōmon period of prehistoric
Japan spans from about 12,000 BC
(in some cases dates as early as 14,500 BC are given) to about 800
Japan was inhabited by a hunter-gatherer culture that reached
a considerable degree of sedentism and cultural complexity. The name
"cord-marked" was first applied by the American scholar Edward S.
Morse who discovered shards of pottery in 1877 and subsequently
translated it into Japanese as jōmon. The pottery style
characteristic of the first phases of Jōmon culture was decorated by
impressing cords into the surface of wet clay.
Yayoi period bronze bell, third century AD
New technologies and modes of living took over from the Jōmon
culture, spreading from northern Kyushu. The date of the change was
until recently thought to be around 400 BC, but radio-carbon
evidence suggests a date up to 500 years earlier, between 1,000 and
800 BC. The period was named after a district in
Tokyo where a
new, unembellished style of pottery was discovered in 1884. Though
hunting and foraging continued, the
Yayoi period brought a new
reliance on agriculture. Bronze and iron weapons and tools were
imported from China and Korea; such tools were later also produced in
Yayoi period also saw the introduction of weaving and
silk production, glassmaking and new techniques of
Yayoi technologies originated on the Asian mainland. There is
debate among scholars as to what extent their spread was accomplished
by means of migration or simply a diffusion of ideas, or a combination
of both. The migration theory is supported by genetic and linguistic
studies. Hanihara Kazurō has suggested that the annual immigrant
influx from the continent ranged from 350 to 3,000. Modern
Japanese are genetically more similar to the
Yayoi people than to the
Jōmon people—though more so in southern
Japan than in the
north—whereas the Ainu bear significant resemblance to the Jōmon
people. It took time for the
Yayoi people and their descendants to
fully displace or intermix with the Jōmon, who continued to exist in
Honshu until the eighth century AD.
The population of
Japan began to increase rapidly, perhaps with a
10-fold rise over the Jōmon. Calculations of the population size have
varied from 1.5 to 4.5 million by the end of the Yayoi. Skeletal
remains from the late
Jōmon period reveal a deterioration in already
poor standards of health and nutrition, in contrast to Yayoi
archaeological sites where there are large structures suggestive of
grain storehouses. This change was accompanied by an increase in both
the stratification of society and tribal warfare, indicated by
segregated gravesites and military fortifications. Yoshinogari
site, a large moated village of the period, began to be excavated by
archaeologists in the late-1980s.
Yayoi period, the
Yayoi tribes gradually coalesced into a
number of kingdoms. The earliest written work of history to mention
Book of Han
Book of Han completed around 82 AD, states that Japan,
referred to as Wa, was divided into one hundred kingdoms. A later
Chinese work of history, the Wei Zhi, states that by 240 AD one
powerful kingdom had gained ascendancy over the others. According to
the Wei Zhi, this kingdom was called Yamatai, though modern historians
continue to debate its location and other aspects of its depiction in
the Wei Zhi.
Yamatai was said to have been ruled by the female monarch
Kofun period (c. 250–538)
Daisenryō Kofun, Osaka
During the subsequent
Kofun period, most of
Japan gradually unified
under a single kingdom. The symbol of the growing power of Japan's new
leaders was the kofun burial mounds they constructed from around 250
onwards. Many were of massive scale, such as the Daisenryō
Kofun (ja), a 486 m-long keyhole-shaped burial mound that
took huge teams of laborers fifteen years to complete. The kofun
were often surrounded by and filled with numerous haniwa clay
sculptures, often in the shape of warriors and horses.
The center of the unified state was Yamato in the
Kinai region of
central Japan. The rulers of the Yamato state were a hereditary
line of Emperors who still reign as the world's longest dynasty. The
rulers of the Yamato extended their power across
military conquest, but their preferred method of expansion was to
convince local leaders to accept their authority in exchange for
positions of influence in the government. Many of the powerful
local clans who joined the Yamato state became known as the uji.
Territorial extent of Yamato court during the
These leaders sought and received formal diplomatic recognition from
China, and Chinese accounts record five successive such leaders as the
Five kings of Wa. Craftsmen and scholars from China and the Three
Korea played an important role in transmitting continental
technologies and administrative skills to
Japan during this
Asuka period (538–710)[a]
Main article: Asuka period
Asuka period began in 538 AD with the introduction of the Buddhist
religion from the Korean kingdom of Baekje. Since then, Buddhism
has coexisted with Japan's native
Shinto religion, in what is today
known as Shinbutsu-shūgō. The period draws its name from the de
facto imperial capital, Asuka, in the
Soga clan took over the government in 587 and controlled
Japan from behind the scenes for nearly sixty years. Prince
Shōtoku, an advocate of
Buddhism and of the Soga cause, who was of
partial Soga descent, served as regent and de facto leader of Japan
from 594 to 622. Shōtoku authored the Seventeen-article constitution,
a Confucian-inspired code of conduct for officials and citizens, and
attempted to introduce a merit-based civil service called the Cap and
Rank System. In 607, Shōtoku offered a subtle insult to China by
opening his letter with the phrase, "The sovereign of the land where
the sun rises is sending this mail to the sovereign of the land where
the sun sets" as seen in the kanji characters for
Japan (Nippon) thus
indicating that sun's full strength originates with
Japan and China
receives the waning sun. By 670 a variant of this expression,
Nihon, established itself as the official name of the nation, which
has persisted to this day.
In 645, the
Soga clan were overthrown in a coup launched by Prince
Naka no Ōe and Fujiwara no Kamatari, the founder of the Fujiwara
clan. Their government devised and implemented the far-reaching
Taika Reforms. The reforms nationalized all land in Japan, to be
distributed equally among cultivators, and ordered the compilation of
a household registry as the basis for a new system of taxation.
Jinshin War of 672, a bloody conflict between Prince
Ōama and his nephew Prince Ōtomo, two rivals to the throne, became a
major catalyst for further administrative reforms. These reforms
culminated with the promulgation of the Taihō Code, which
consolidated existing statutes and established the structure of the
central government and its subordinate local governments. These
legal reforms created the ritsuryō state, a system of Chinese-style
centralized government that remained in place for half a
Nara period (710–794)
Main article: Nara period
In 710, the government constructed a grandiose new capital at
Heijō-kyō (modern Nara) modeled on Chang'an, the capital of the
Chinese Tang dynasty. During this period, the first two books produced
Japan appeared: the
Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, which contain
chronicles of legendary accounts of early
Japan and its creation myth,
which describes the imperial line as descendants of the gods. The
latter half of the eighth century saw the compilation of the
Man'yōshū, widely considered the finest collection of Japanese
During this period,
Japan suffered a series of natural disasters,
including wildfires, droughts, famines, and outbreaks of disease, such
as a smallpox epidemic that killed over a quarter of the
Emperor Shōmu (r. 724–49) feared his lack of
piousness had caused the trouble and so increased the government's
promotion of Buddhism, including the construction of the temple
Tōdai-ji. The funds to build this temple were raised in part by
the influential Buddhist monk Gyōki, and once completed it was used
by the Chinese monk
Ganjin as an ordination site. Japan
nevertheless entered a phase of population decline that continued well
into the following Heian period.
Heian period (794–1185)
Main article: Heian period
Miniature model of Heian-kyō
In 784, the capital moved briefly to Nagaoka-kyō, then again in 794
Heian-kyō (modern Kyoto), which remained the capital until
1868. Political power within the court soon passed to the Fujiwara
clan, a family of court nobles who grew increasingly close to the
imperial family through intermarriage. In 858, Fujiwara no
Yoshifusa had himself declared sesshō ("regent") to the underage
Emperor. His son
Fujiwara no Mototsune
Fujiwara no Mototsune created the office of kampaku,
which could rule in the place of an adult reigning Emperor. Fujiwara
no Michinaga, a skilled statesman who became kampaku in 996, governed
during the height of the Fujiwara clan's power and had four of his
daughters married to Japanese Emperors. The
Fujiwara clan held on
to power until 1086, when
Emperor Shirakawa ceded the throne to his
Emperor Horikawa but continued to exercise political power,
establishing the practice of cloistered rule, by which the
reigning Emperor would function as a figurehead while real power was
held by a retired predecessor behind the scenes.
Throughout the Heian period, the power of the imperial court declined.
The court became so self-absorbed with power struggles, and with the
artistic pursuits of court nobles, that it neglected the
administration of government outside the capital. The
nationalization of land undertaken as part of the ritsuryō state
decayed as various noble families and religious orders succeeded in
securing tax-exempt status for their private shōen manors. By the
eleventh century, more land in
Japan was controlled by shōen owners
than by the central government. The imperial court was thus deprived
of the tax revenue to pay for its national army. In response, the
owners of the shōen set up their own armies of samurai warriors.
Two powerful noble families that had descended from branches of the
imperial family, the Taira and Minamoto clans, acquired large
armies and many shōen outside the capital. The central government
began to employ these two warrior clans to help suppress rebellions
and piracy. Although Japan's population stabilized during the
Heian period after hundreds of years of decline, this was
accompanied by the growth of a new class of slaves composed of poor
farmers, debtors, and criminals sold into bondage.
During the early Heian period, the imperial court successfully
consolidated its control over the
Emishi people of northern
Ōtomo no Otomaro was the first man the court granted the
title of seii tai-shōgun ("Great Barbarian Subduing General"). In
802, seii tai-shōgun
Sakanoue no Tamuramaro
Sakanoue no Tamuramaro subjugated the Emishi
people, who were led by Aterui. By 1051, members of the Abe clan,
who occupied key posts in the regional government, were openly defying
the central authority. The court requested the
Minamoto clan to engage
the Abe clan, whom they defeated in the Former Nine Years War. The
court, thus, temporarily reasserted its authority in northern Japan.
Following another civil war – the Later Three-Year War –
Fujiwara no Kiyohira
Fujiwara no Kiyohira took full power; his family, the Northern
Fujiwara, controlled northern
Honshu for the next century from their
Between 812-814 CE, a small pox epidemic killed almost half of the
In 1156, a dispute over succession to the throne erupted and the two
rival claimants (
Emperor Go-Shirakawa and Emperor Sutoku) hired the
Taira and Minamoto clans in the hopes of securing the throne by
military force. During this war, the
Taira clan led by Taira no
Kiyomori defeated the Minamoto clan. Kiyomori used his victory to
accumulate power for himself in
Kyoto and even installed his own
grandson Antoku as Emperor. The outcome of this war led to the rivalry
between the Minamoto and Taira clans. As a result, the dispute and
power struggle between both clans led to the
Heiji Rebellion in 1160.
Taira no Kiyomori
Taira no Kiyomori was challenged by an uprising led by
Minamoto no Yoritomo, a member of the
Minamoto clan whom Kiyomori had
exiled to Kamakura. Though
Taira no Kiyomori
Taira no Kiyomori died in 1181, the
Genpei War between the Taira and Minamoto families
continued for another four years. The victory of the
Minamoto clan was
sealed in 1185, when a force commanded by Yoritomo's younger brother,
Minamoto no Yoshitsune, scored a decisive victory at the naval Battle
of Dan-no-ura. Yoritomo and his retainers, thus, became the de facto
rulers of Japan.
A handscroll painting dated c. 1130, illustrating a scene from the
"Bamboo River" chapter of The Tale of Genji
During the Heian period, the imperial court was a vibrant center of
high art and culture. Its literary accomplishments include the
Kokinshū and the Tosa Diary, both associated with
the poet Ki no Tsurayuki, as well as Sei Shōnagon's collection of
miscellany The Pillow Book, and Murasaki Shikibu's Tale of Genji,
considered the supreme masterpiece of Japanese literature.
The development of the kana written syllabaries was part of a general
trend of declining Chinese influence during the Heian period. The
Japanese missions to
Tang dynasty of China, which began in the year
630, ended during the ninth century and thereafter more typically
Japanese forms of art and poetry developed. A major architectural
achievement, apart from
Heian-kyō itself, was the temple of
Byōdō-in built in 1053 in Uji.
Kamakura period (1185–1333)
Upon the consolidation of power,
Minamoto no Yoritomo
Minamoto no Yoritomo chose to rule in
consort with the imperial court in Kyoto. Though Yoritomo set up his
own government in
Kamakura in the
Kantō region located east of Japan,
its power was legally authorized by the Imperial court in
several occasions. In 1192, the Emperor declared Yoritomo seii
tai-shōgun (征夷大将軍; Eastern Barbarian Subduing Great
General), abbreviated shōgun. Later (in
Edo period), the word
bakufu (幕府; originally means a general's house or office,
literally a "tent office") came to be used to mean a government headed
by a shogun. The English term shogunate refers to the bakufu.
Japan remained largely under military rule until 1868.
Legitimacy was conferred on the shogunate by the Imperial court, but
the shogunate were the de facto rulers of the country. The court
maintained bureaucratic and religious functions, and the shogunate
welcomed participation by members of the aristocratic class. The older
institutions remained intact in a weakened form, and
the official capital. This system has been contrasted with the "simple
warrior rule" of the later Muromachi period.
While the Ise branch (ja) of the Taira, which had fought against
Yoritomo, was extinguished, other branches, as well as the Hōjō,
Chiba, Hatakeyama and other families descended from the Taira,
continued to thrive in eastern Japan, with some (notably the Hōjō)
attaining high positions in the Kamakura
shogunate.[better source needed] Yoshitsune was
initially harbored by Fujiwara no Hidehira, the grandson of Kiyohira
and the de facto ruler of northern Honshu. In 1189, after Hidehira's
death, his successor Yasuhira attempted to curry favor with Yoritomo
by attacking Yoshitsune's home. Although Yoshitsune was killed,
Yoritomo still invaded and conquered the
Northern Fujiwara clan's
territories. In subsequent centuries, Yoshitsune would become a
legendary figure, portrayed in countless works of literature as an
idealized tragic hero.
After Yoritomo's death in 1199, the office of shogun weakened. Behind
the scenes, Yoritomo's wife
Hōjō Masako became the true power behind
the government. In 1203, her father, Hōjō Tokimasa, was appointed
regent to the shogun, Yoritomo's son Minamoto no Sanetomo. Henceforth,
the Minamoto shoguns became puppets of the Hōjō regents, who wielded
The regime that Yoritomo had established, and which was kept in place
by his successors, was decentralized and feudalistic in structure, in
contrast with the earlier ritsuryō state. Yoritomo selected the
provincial governors, known under the titles of shugo or jitō,
from among his close vassals, the gokenin. The
allowed its vassals to maintain their own armies and to administer law
and order in their provinces on their own terms.
In 1221, the retired
Emperor Go-Toba instigated what became known as
the Jōkyū War, a rebellion against the shogunate, in an attempt to
restore political power to the court. The rebellion was a failure, and
led to Go-Toba himself being exiled to Oki Island, along with two
other Emperors, the retired
Emperor Tsuchimikado and Emperor Juntoku,
who were exiled to
Tosa Province and
Sado Island respectively. The
shogunate further consolidated its political power relative to the
A samurai battling Mongol forces
The samurai armies of the whole nation were mobilized in 1274 and 1281
to confront two full-scale invasions launched by
Kublai Khan of the
Mongol Empire. Though outnumbered by an enemy equipped with
superior weaponry, the Japanese fought the Mongols to a standstill in
Kyushu on both occasions until the Mongol fleet was destroyed by
typhoons called kamikaze, meaning "divine wind". In spite of the
Kamakura shogunate's victory, the defense so depleted its finances
that it was unable to provide compensation to its vassals for their
role in the victory. This had permanent negative consequences for the
shogunate's relations with the samurai class.
Discontent among the samurai proved decisive in ending the Kamakura
shogunate. In 1333,
Emperor Go-Daigo launched a rebellion in the hope
of restoring full power to the imperial court. The shogunate sent
Ashikaga Takauji to quell the revolt, but Takauji and his men
instead joined forces with
Emperor Go-Daigo and overthrew the Kamakura
Japan nevertheless entered a period of prosperity and population
growth starting around 1250. In rural areas, the greater use of
iron tools and fertilizer, improved irrigation techniques, and
double-cropping increased productivity and rural villages grew.
Fewer famines and epidemics allowed cities to grow and commerce to
boom. Buddhism, which had been largely a religion of the elites,
was brought to the masses by prominent monks, such as Hōnen
(1133–1212), who established Pure Land
Buddhism in Japan, and
Nichiren (1222–82), who founded
spread widely among the samurai class.
Literary developments of the late-Heian and
Waka poetry flourished in the late Heian and early
Fujiwara no Shunzei
Fujiwara no Shunzei was "the leading poet of [his]
day" and on a request from
Emperor Go-Shirakawa compiled the
Senzai Wakashū the seventh imperial collection. Donald Keene
noted that Shunzei was "the most eminent poet since Tsurayuki to have
been charged with the compilation of an imperial collection". The
anthology, commissioned in 1183 but not completed until 1188, after
the defeat of the Taira, contained poems by Taira adherents who had
been officially denounced as enemies of the throne, as a gesture to
calm the vengeful spirits of the Taira. It also contained poems by
thirty-three female poets, the most women recognized by any of the
late-Heian imperial collections. Teika, Shunzei's son, would
become even more important: his
Hyakunin Isshu made him "the arbiter
of the poetic tastes of most Japanese even as late as the twentieth
century". His later work copying manuscripts was of such
importance that Keene noted that "what we know of the literature of
Teika's day and earlier is mainly what he thought was worthy of
preservation." He also served on the committee that compiled the
eighth imperial anthology, the Shin Kokin Wakashū, and along with
the itinerant monk
Saigyō and Emperor Go-Toba, is considered one of
the best poets represented in the collection. More poems by
Saigyō were included in the collection than those of any other
poet. and centuries later
Matsuo Bashō selected him as the
representative poet of the waka genre.
The third shogun, Minamoto no Sanetomo, was the first distinctive new
poet of the
Kamakura period, and he studied the art under Teika's
tutelage. Among Sanetomo's admirers include Kamo no Mabuchi
and Saitō Mokichi.
Zen monks were associated with the composition of poetry in
Chinese, and at least one
Zen monk, Shōtetsu, was notable for
his contributions to the waka medium. After Shōtetsu, however,
waka composition became an oddity until modern times.
Kamakura period saw an explosion in the popularity of a new genre:
the "war tale" (gunki monogatari), whose early representative works
include the Hōgen Monogatari,
Heiji Monogatari and Heike
Monogatari. The latter work, which recounted the rise and fall of
the Taira clan, has been described as "the Japanese epic", and the
twentieth century novelist and essayist
Kafū Nagai called it "a
unique and immortal Japanese épopée." These works were at least
partly indebted to earlier Heian works such as the Shōmonki
(ja:将門記) and Mutsu Waki (ja:陸奥話記), bare historical
chronicles of battles fought against
Taira no Masakado
Taira no Masakado and the Earlier
Nine Years' War, narrated in a non-literary style of classical Chinese
as opposed to the mixed Sino-Japanese vernacular of the later Kamakura
Muromachi period (1333–1568)
Main articles: Muromachi period, Sengoku period, and Higashiyama
Portrait of Ashikaga Takauji
Takauji and many other samurai soon became dissatisfied with Emperor
Go-Daigo's Kenmu Restoration, an ambitious attempt to monopolize power
in the imperial court. Takauji rebelled after Go-Daigo refused to
appoint him shogun. In 1338, Takauji captured
Kyoto and installed a
rival member of the imperial family to the throne, Emperor Kōmyō,
who did appoint him shogun. Go-Daigo responded by fleeing to the
southern city of Yoshino, where he set up a rival government. This
ushered in a prolonged period of conflict between the Northern Court
and the Southern Court.
Takauji set up his shogunate in the Muromachi district of Kyoto.
However, the shogunate was faced with the twin challenges of fighting
the Southern Court and of maintaining its authority over its own
subordinate governors. Like the
Kamakura shogunate, the Muromachi
shogunate appointed its allies to rule in the provinces, but these men
increasingly styled themselves as feudal lords—called daimyōs—of
their domains and often refused to obey the shogun. The Ashikaga
shogun who was most successful at bringing the country together was
Takauji's grandson Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, who came to power in 1368 and
remained influential until his death in 1408. Yoshimitsu expanded the
power of the shogunate and in 1392, brokered a deal to bring the
Northern and Southern Courts together and end the civil war.
Henceforth, the shogunate kept the Emperor and his court under tight
Map showing the territories of major daimyō families around 1570
During the final century of the
Ashikaga shogunate the country
descended into another, more violent period of civil war. This started
in 1467 when the
Ōnin War broke out over who would succeed the ruling
shogun. The daimyōs each took sides and burned
Kyoto to the ground
while battling for their preferred candidate. By the time the
succession was settled in 1477, the shogun had lost all power over the
daimyō, who now ruled hundreds of independent states throughout
Japan. During this Warring States period, daimyōs fought among
themselves for control of the country. Some of the most powerful
daimyōs of the era were Uesugi Kenshin, Takeda Shingen, and Date
Masamune. One enduring symbol of this era was the ninja, skilled
spies and assassins hired by daimyōs. Few definite historical facts
are known about the secretive lifestyles of the ninja, who became the
subject of many legends. In addition to the daimyōs, rebellious
peasants and "warrior monks" affiliated with Buddhist temples also
raised their own armies.
Crest used by the daimyō Uesugi Kenshin
Amid this on-going anarchy, a Chinese ship was blown off course and
landed in 1543 on the Japanese island of Tanegashima, just south of
Kyushu. The three Portuguese traders on board were António Mota,
Francisco Zeimoto, and presumably Fernão Mendes Pinto. They were the
first Europeans to set foot in Japan. Soon European traders would
introduce many new items to Japan, most importantly the musket.
By 1556, the daimyōs were already using about 300,000 muskets in
their armies. The Europeans also brought Christianity, which soon
came to have a substantial following in Japan. The
Francis Xavier disembarked in
Kyushu in 1549.
In spite of the war, Japan's relative economic prosperity, which had
begun in the
Kamakura period, continued well into the Muromachi
period. By 1450 Japan's population stood at ten million, compared to
six million at the end of the thirteenth century. Commerce
flourished, including considerable trade with China and Korea.
Because the daimyōs and other groups within
Japan were minting their
Japan began to transition from a barter-based to a
currency-based economy. During the period, some of Japan's most
representative art forms developed, including ink wash painting,
ikebana flower arrangement, the tea ceremony, Japanese gardening,
Noh theater. Though the eighth Ashikaga shogun,
Yoshimasa, was an ineffectual political and military leader, he played
a critical role in promoting these cultural developments.
Early modern Japan
Azuchi–Momoyama period (1568–1600)
Main article: Azuchi–Momoyama period
During the second half of the 16th century
Japan gradually reunified
under two powerful warlords,
Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The
period takes its name from Nobunaga's headquarters, Azuchi Castle, and
Hideyoshi's headquarters, Momoyama Castle.
Nobunaga was the daimyō of the small province of Owari. He burst onto
the scene suddenly in 1560 when, during the Battle of Okehazama, his
army defeated a force several times its size led by the powerful
daimyō Imagawa Yoshimoto. Nobunaga was renowned for his
strategic leadership and his ruthlessness. He encouraged Christianity
to incite hatred toward his Buddhist enemies and to forge strong
relationships with European arms merchants. He equipped his armies
with muskets and trained them with innovative tactics. He
promoted talented men regardless of their social status, including his
peasant servant Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who became one of his best
Japan in 1582, territory conquered by
Oda Nobunaga in grey
Azuchi–Momoyama period began in 1568 when Nobunaga seized Kyoto
and thus effectively brought an end to the Ashikaga shogunate. He
was well on his way towards his goal of reuniting all
Japan in 1582
when one of his own officers, Akechi Mitsuhide, killed him during an
abrupt attack on his encampment. Hideyoshi avenged Nobunaga by
crushing Akechi's uprising and emerged as Nobunaga's successor.
Hideyoshi completed the reunification of
Japan by conquering Shikoku,
Kyushu, and the lands of the Hōjō family in eastern Japan. He
launched sweeping changes to Japanese society, including the
confiscation of swords from the peasantry, new restrictions on
daimyōs, persecutions of Christians, a thorough land survey, and a
new law effectively forbidding the peasants and samurai from changing
their social class. Hideyoshi's land survey designated all those
who were cultivating the land as being "commoners", an act which
effectively granted freedom to most of Japan's slaves.
As Hideyoshi's power expanded he dreamed of conquering China and
launched two massive invasions of
Korea starting in 1592. Hideyoshi
failed to defeat the Chinese and Korean armies on the Korean Peninsula
and the war ended only after his death in 1598.
In the hope of founding a new dynasty, Hideyoshi had asked his most
trusted subordinates to pledge loyalty to his infant son Toyotomi
Hideyori. Despite this, almost immediately after Hideyoshi's death,
war broke out between Hideyori's allies and those loyal to Tokugawa
Ieyasu, a daimyō and a former ally of Hideyoshi. Tokugawa Ieyasu
won a decisive victory at the
Battle of Sekigahara
Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, ushering
in 268 uninterrupted years of rule by the Tokugawa clan.
Edo period (1600–1868)
Edo period was characterized by relative peace and stability
under the tight control of the Tokugawa shogunate, which ruled from
the eastern city of
Edo (modern Tokyo). In 1603, Emperor
Tokugawa Ieyasu shōgun, and Ieyasu abdicated two
years later to groom his son as the second shōgun of what became a
long dynasty. Nevertheless, it took time for the Tokugawas to
consolidate their rule. In 1609, the shōgun gave the daimyō of
Satsuma Domain permission to invade the
Ryukyu Kingdom for perceived
insults towards the shogunate; the Satsuma victory began 266 years of
Ryukyu's dual subordination to Satsuma and China. Ieyasu led
Siege of Osaka
Siege of Osaka that ended with the destruction of the Toyotomi
clan in 1615. Soon after the shogunate promulgated the Laws for
the Military Houses, which imposed tighter controls on the
daimyōs, and the alternate attendance system, which required
each daimyō to spend every other year in Edo. Even so, the
daimyōs continued to maintain a significant degree of autonomy in
their domains. The central government of the shogunate in Edo,
which quickly became the most populous city in the world, took
counsel from a group of senior advisors known as rōjū and employed
samurai as bureaucrats. The Emperor in
Kyoto was funded lavishly
by the government but was allowed no political power.
Crest of the Tokugawa family
Tokugawa shogunate went to great lengths to suppress social
unrest. Harsh penalties, including crucifixion, beheading, and death
by boiling, were decreed for even the most minor offenses, though
criminals of high social class were often given the option of seppuku
("self-disembowelment"), an ancient form of suicide that now became
ritualized. Christianity, which was seen as a potential threat,
was gradually clamped down on until finally, after the Christian-led
Shimabara Rebellion of 1638, the religion was completely
outlawed. To prevent further foreign ideas from sowing dissent,
the third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu, implemented the sakoku ("closed
country") isolationist policy under which
Japanese people were not
allowed to travel abroad, return from overseas, or build ocean-going
vessels. The only Europeans allowed on Japanese soil were the
Dutch, who were granted a single trading post on the island of Dejima.
Korea were the only other countries permitted to trade,
and many foreign books were banned from import.
During the first century of Tokugawa rule, Japan's population doubled
to thirty million, due in large part to agricultural growth; the
population remained stable for the rest of the period. The
shogunate's construction of roads, elimination of road and bridge
tolls, and standardization of coinage promoted commercial expansion
that also benefited the merchants and artisans of the cities.
City populations grew, but almost ninety percent of the
population continued to live in rural areas. Both the inhabitants
of cities and of rural communities would benefit from one of the most
notable social changes of the
Edo period: increased literacy and
numeracy. The number of private schools greatly expanded, particularly
those attached to temples and shrines, and raised literacy to thirty
percent. This may have been the world's highest rate at the time
and drove a flourishing commercial publishing industry, which grew to
produce hundreds of titles per year. In the area of
numeracy – approximated by an index measuring people's ability
to report an exact rather than a rounded age (age-heaping method), and
which level shows a strong correlation to later economic development
of a country – Japan's level was comparable to that of
north-west European countries, and moreover, Japan's index came close
to the 100 percent mark throughout the nineteenth century. These high
levels of both literacy and numeracy were part of the socio-economical
foundation for Japan’s strong growth rates during the following
Culture and philosophy
Edo period was a time of prolific cultural output. Haiku, whose
greatest master is generally considered Matsuo Bashō
(1644–94), rose as a major form of poetry. Forms of theatre
developed, such as the flamboyant kabuki drama and bunraku puppet
theatre, the latter of which reached its height of through the plays
Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653–1725). Members of the wealthy
merchant class who patronized this poetry and theater were said to
live hedonistic lives, which came to be called ukiyo ("floating
world"). They often paid for the services of courtesans and
geisha entertainers, most of whom also served as prostitutes in
designated red-light districts such as
Yoshiwara in Edo. This
lifestyle inspired ukiyo-zōshi popular novels and ukiyo-e art, the
latter of which were often woodblock prints that progressed to
greater sophistication and use of multiple printed colors.
Decline and fall of the shogunate
Bakumatsu and Meiji Restoration
By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the shogunate
showed signs of weakening. The dramatic growth of agriculture
that had characterized the early
Edo period had ended and the
government handled the devastating Tenpō famines poorly. Peasant
unrest grew and government revenues fell. The shogunate cut the
pay of the already financially distressed samurai, many of whom worked
side jobs to make a living. Discontented samurai were soon to
play a major role in engineering the downfall of the Tokugawa
At the same time, the people drew inspiration from new ideas and
fields of study. Dutch books brought into
Japan stimulated interest in
Western learning, called rangaku or "Dutch learning". The
physician Sugita Genpaku, for instance, used concepts from Western
medicine to help spark a revolution in Japanese ideas of human
anatomy. The scholarly field of kokugaku or "National Learning",
developed by scholars such as
Motoori Norinaga and Hirata Atsutane,
promoted what it asserted were native Japanese values. For instance,
it criticized the Chinese-style Neo-Confucianism advocated by the
shogunate and emphasized the Emperor's divine authority, which the
Shinto faith taught had its roots in Japan's mythic past, which was
referred to as the "Age of the Gods".
Samurai of the
Satsuma Domain during the Boshin War
The arrival in 1853 of a fleet of American ships commanded by
Commodore Matthew C. Perry threw
Japan into turmoil. The US
government aimed to end Japan's isolationist policies. The shogunate
had no defense against Perry's gunboats and had to agree to his
demands that American ships be permitted to acquire provisions and
trade at Japanese ports. The US, Great Britain, Russia, and other
Western powers imposed what became known as "unequal treaties" on
Japan which stipulated that
Japan must allow citizens of these
countries to visit or reside on Japanese territory and must not levy
tariffs on their imports or try them in Japanese courts.
The shogunate's failure to oppose the Western powers angered many
Japanese, particularly those of the southern domains of Chōshū and
Satsuma. Many samurai there, inspired by the nationalist
doctrines of the kokugaku school, adopted the slogan of sonnō jōi
("revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians"). The two domains
then went on to form an alliance. In August 1866, soon after becoming
shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, struggled to maintain power as civil
unrest continued. In November 1867, Yoshinobu officially tendered
his resignation to the Emperor and he formally stepped down ten days
later. The Chōshū and Satsuma domains in 1868 convinced the
Emperor Meiji and his advisors to issue a rescript calling for
an end to the Tokugawa shogunate. The armies of Chōshū and Satsuma
soon marched on
Edo and the ensuing
Boshin War led to the eventual
fall of the shogunate.
Meiji period (1868–1912)
Meiji period and Foreign relations of Meiji Japan
Emperor Meiji, the 122nd Emperor of Japan
The Emperor was restored to nominal supreme power, and in 1869,
the imperial family moved to Edo, which was renamed
capital"). However, the most powerful men in the government were
former samurai from Chōshū and Satsuma rather than the Emperor, who
was fifteen in 1868. These men, known as the Meiji oligarchs,
oversaw the dramatic changes
Japan would experience during this
period. The leaders of the Meiji government, who are regarded as
some of the most successful statesmen in human history, desired
Japan to become a modern nation-state that could stand equal to the
Western imperialist powers. Among them were
Ōkubo Toshimichi and
Saigō Takamori from Satsuma, as well as Kido Takayoshi, Ito Hirobumi,
Yamagata Aritomo from Chōshū.
Political and social changes
Meiji government abolished the Neo-
Confucian class structure
and replaced the feudal domains of the daimyōs with prefectures.
It instituted comprehensive tax reform and lifted the ban on
Christianity. Major government priorities included the introduction of
railways, telegraph lines, and a universal education system.
Meiji government promoted widespread Westernization and hired
hundreds of advisers from Western nations with expertise in such
fields as education, mining, banking, law, military affairs, and
transportation to remodel Japan's institutions. The Japanese
adopted the Gregorian calendar, Western clothing, and Western
hairstyles. One leading advocate of
Westernization was the
popular writer Fukuzawa Yukichi. As part of its Westernization
Meiji government enthusiastically sponsored the importation
of Western science, above all medical science. In 1893, Kitasato
Shibasaburō established the Institute for Infectious Diseases, which
would soon become world-famous, and in 1913, Hideyo Noguchi
proved the link between syphilis and paresis. Furthermore, the
introduction of European literary styles to
Japan sparked a boom in
new works of prose fiction. Characteristic authors of the period
Futabatei Shimei and Mori Ōgai, although the most
famous of the Meiji era writers was Natsume Sōseki, who wrote
satirical, autobiographical, and psychological novels combining
both the older and newer styles. Ichiyō Higuchi, a leading
female author, took inspiration from earlier literary models of the
Government institutions developed rapidly in response to Freedom and
People's Rights Movement, a grassroots campaign demanding greater
popular participation in politics. The leaders of this movement
Itagaki Taisuke and Ōkuma Shigenobu. Itō Hirobumi, the
first Prime Minister of Japan, responded by writing the Meiji
Constitution, which was promulgated in 1889. The new constitution
established an elected lower house, the House of Representatives, but
its powers were restricted. Only two percent of the population were
eligible to vote, and legislation proposed in the House required the
support of the unelected upper house, the House of Peers. Both the
Japan and the Japanese military were directly responsible
not to the elected legislature but to the Emperor. Concurrently, the
Japanese government also developed a form of Japanese nationalism
Shinto became the state religion and the Emperor was
declared a living god. Schools nationwide instilled patriotic
values and loyalty to the Emperor.
Rise of imperialism and the military
History of Japanese foreign relations
History of Japanese foreign relations and
Military history of Japan
In December 1871, a Ryukyuan ship was shipwrecked on
Taiwan and the
crew were massacred. In 1874, using the incident as a pretext, Japan
launched a military expedition to
Taiwan to assert their claims to the
Ryukyu Islands. The expedition featured the first instance of the
Japanese military ignoring the orders of the civilian government, as
the expedition set sail after being ordered to postpone.
Yamagata Aritomo, who was born a samurai in the Chōshū Domain, was a
key force behind the modernization and enlargement of the Imperial
Japanese Army, especially introduction of national conscription.
The new army was put to use in 1877 to crush the
Satsuma Rebellion of
discontented samurai in southern
Japan led by the former Meiji leader
The Japanese military played a key role in Japan's expansion abroad.
The government believed that
Japan had to acquire its own colonies to
compete with the Western colonial powers. After consolidating its
Hokkaido and annexing the Ryukyu Kingdom, it next turned
its attention to China and Korea. In 1894, Japanese and Chinese
troops clashed in Korea, where they were both stationed to suppress
the Donghak Rebellion. During the ensuing First Sino-Japanese War,
Japan's highly motivated and well-led forces defeated the more
numerous and better-equipped military of Qing China. The island
Taiwan was thus ceded to
Japan in 1895, and Japan's government
gained enough international prestige to allow Foreign Minister Mutsu
Munemitsu to renegotiate the "unequal treaties". In 1902 Japan
signed an important military alliance with the British.
Japan next clashed with Russia, which was expanding its power in Asia.
Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05 ended with the dramatic Battle of
Tsushima, which was another victory for Japan's military.
laid claim to
Korea as a protectorate in 1905, followed by full
annexation in 1910.
Economic modernization and labor unrest
During the Meiji period,
Japan underwent a rapid transition towards an
industrial economy. Both the Japanese government and private
entrepreneurs adopted Western technology and knowledge to create
factories capable of producing a wide range of goods. By the end
of the period, the majority of Japan's exports were manufactured
goods. Some of Japan's most successful new businesses and
industries constituted huge family-owned conglomerates called
zaibatsu, such as
Mitsubishi and Sumitomo. The phenomenal
industrial growth sparked rapid urbanization. The proportion of the
population working in agriculture shrank from 75 percent in 1872 to 50
percent by 1920.
Japan enjoyed solid economic growth at this time and most people lived
longer and healthier lives. The population rose from 34 million in
1872 to 52 million in 1915. Poor working conditions in factories
led to growing labor unrest, and many workers and intellectuals
came to embrace socialist ideas. The
Meiji government responded
with harsh suppression of dissent. Radical socialists plotted to
assassinate the Emperor in the
High Treason Incident
High Treason Incident of 1910, after
which the Tokkō secret police force was established to root out
left-wing agitators. The government also introduced social
legislation in 1911 setting maximum work hours and a minimum age for
Taishō period (1912–1926)
Main article: Taishō period
Emperor Taishō's short reign saw
Japan develop stronger democratic
institutions and grow in international power. The Taishō political
crisis opened the period with mass protests and riots organized by
Japanese political parties. These succeeded in forcing Katsura Tarō
to resign as prime minister. This and the rice riots of 1918
increased the power of Japan's political parties over the ruling
Seiyūkai and Minseitō parties came to dominate
politics by the end of the so-called "Taishō democracy" era. The
franchise for the House of Representatives had been gradually expanded
since 1890, and in 1925 universal male suffrage was introduced.
However, the same year also saw passage of the far-reaching Peace
Preservation Law that prescribed harsh penalties for political
Japan's participation in World War I on the side of the Allies
sparked unprecedented economic growth and earned
Japan new colonies in
the South Pacific seized from Germany. After the war
Treaty of Versailles
Treaty of Versailles and enjoyed good international relations
through its membership in the
League of Nations
League of Nations and participation in
international disarmament conferences. The Great Kantō
earthquake in September 1923 left over 100,000 dead, and combined with
the resultant fires destroyed the homes of more than three
The growth of popular prose fiction, which began during the Meiji
period, continued into the
Taishō period as literacy rates rose and
book prices dropped. Notable literary figures of the era included
short story writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa and the novelist Haruo
Satō. Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, described as "perhaps the most versatile
literary figure of his day" by the historian Conrad Totman, produced
many works during the
Taishō period influenced by European
literature, though his 1929 novel
Some Prefer Nettles reflects deep
appreciation for the virtues of traditional Japanese culture. At
the end of the Taishō period, Tarō Hirai, known by his penname
Edogawa Ranpo, began writing popular mystery and crime stories.
Shōwa period (1926–1989)
Shōwa period and History of Japanese foreign relations
Emperor Hirohito's sixty-three-year reign from 1926 to 1989 is the
longest in recorded Japanese history. The first twenty years were
characterized by the rise of extreme nationalism and a series of
expansionist wars. After suffering defeat in World War II, Japan
was occupied by foreign powers for the first time in its history, and
then re-emerged as a major world economic power.
Manchurian Incident and the Second Sino-Japanese War
Empire of Japan
Empire of Japan in 1937
Headquarters of South Manchuria Railway, Dalian, c. 1940
Left-wing groups had been subject to violent suppression by the end of
the Taishō period, and radical right-wing groups, inspired by
fascism and Japanese nationalism, rapidly grew in popularity. The
extreme right became influential throughout the Japanese government
and society, notably within the Kwantung Army, a Japanese army
stationed in China along the Japanese-owned South Manchuria
Railroad. During the
Manchurian Incident of 1931, radical army
officers bombed a small portion of the
South Manchuria Railroad
South Manchuria Railroad and,
falsely attributing the attack to the Chinese, invaded Manchuria. The
Kwantung Army conquered Manchuria and set up the puppet government of
Manchukuo there without permission from the Japanese government.
International criticism of
Japan following the invasion led to Japan
withdrawing from the League of Nations.
Tsuyoshi Inukai of the
Seiyūkai Party attempted to
Kwantung Army and was assassinated in 1932 by right-wing
extremists. Because of growing opposition within the Japanese military
and the extreme right to party politicians, who they saw as corrupt
and self-serving, Inukai was the last party politician to govern Japan
in the pre-World War II era. In February 1936 young radical
officers of the
Imperial Japanese Army
Imperial Japanese Army attempted a coup d'état. They
assassinated many moderate politicians before the coup was
suppressed. In its wake the Japanese military consolidated its
control over the political system and most political parties were
abolished when the
Imperial Rule Assistance Association
Imperial Rule Assistance Association was founded in
Japanese experts inspect the scene of the 'railway sabotage' on South
Manchurian Railway, leading to the Mukden Incident and the Japanese
occupation of Manchuria.
Japan's expansionist vision grew increasingly bold. Many of Japan's
political elite aspired to have
Japan acquire new territory for
resource extraction and settlement of surplus population. These
ambitions led to the outbreak of the
Second Sino-Japanese War
Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937.
After their victory in the Chinese capital, the Japanese military
committed the infamous
Nanking Massacre. The Japanese military failed
to defeat the Chinese government led by
Chiang Kai-shek and the war
descended into a bloody stalemate that lasted until 1945. Japan's
stated war aim was to establish the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity
Sphere, a vast pan-Asian union under Japanese domination.
Hirohito's role in Japan's foreign wars remains a subject of
controversy, with various historians portraying him as either a
powerless figurehead or an enabler and supporter of Japanese
The United States opposed Japan's invasion of China and responded with
increasingly stringent economic sanctions intended to deprive
the resources to continue its war in China.
Japan reacted by
forging an alliance with Germany and Italy in 1940, known as the
Tripartite Pact, which worsened its relations with the US. In July
1941, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands froze
all Japanese assets when
Japan completed its invasion of French
Indochina by occupying the southern half of the country, further
increasing tension in the Pacific.
World War II
Main article: Pacific War
Planes from the
Japanese aircraft carrier Shōkaku
Japanese aircraft carrier Shōkaku preparing the
attack on Pearl Harbor
In late 1941, Japan's government, led by Prime Minister and General
Hideki Tojo, decided to break the US-led embargo through force of
arms. On December 7, 1941, the
Imperial Japanese Navy
Imperial Japanese Navy launched a
surprise attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. This
brought the US into World War II on the side of the Allies. Japan
then successfully invaded the Asian colonies of the United States, the
United Kingdom, and the Netherlands, including the Philippines,
Malaya, Hong Kong, Singapore, Burma, and the Dutch East Indies.
In the early stages of the war,
Japan scored victory after victory.
The tide began to turn against
Japan following the
Battle of Midway
Battle of Midway in
June 1942 and the subsequent Battle of Guadalcanal, in which Allied
troops wrested the
Solomon Islands from Japanese control. During
this period the Japanese military was responsible for such war crimes
as mistreatment of prisoners of war, massacres of civilians, and the
use of chemical and biological weapons. The Japanese military
earned a reputation for fanaticism, often employing banzai charges and
fighting almost to the last man against overwhelming odds. In
Imperial Japanese Navy
Imperial Japanese Navy began deploying squadrons of kamikaze
pilots who crashed their planes into enemy ships.
Atomic cloud over Hiroshima, 1945
Japan became increasingly difficult for civilians due to
stringent rationing of food, electrical outages, and a brutal
crackdown on dissent. In 1944 the US Army captured the island of
Saipan, which allowed the United States to begin widespread bombing
raids on the Japanese mainland. These destroyed over half of the
total area of Japan's major cities. The Battle of Okinawa, fought
between April and June 1945, was the largest naval operation of the
war and left 77,166 Japanese soldiers and more than 140,000 Okinawans
dead, suggesting that the planned invasion of mainland
Japan would be
even bloodier. The Japanese superbattleship Yamato was sunk
en route to aid in the Battle of Okinawa.
However, on August 6, 1945, the US dropped an atomic bomb over
Hiroshima, killing over 90,000 people. This was the first nuclear
attack in history. On August 9 the
Soviet Union declared war on Japan
and invaded Manchukuo, and Nagasaki was struck by a second atomic
bomb. The unconditional surrender of
Japan was announced by
Hirohito and communicated to the Allies on August 14, and
broadcast on national radio on the following day, marking the end of
Imperial Japan's ultranationalist ideology, and was a major turning
point in Japanese history.
Occupation of Japan
Main article: Occupation of Japan
General MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito
Japan experienced dramatic political and social transformation under
the Allied occupation in 1945–1952. US General Douglas MacArthur,
the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers, served as Japan's de facto
leader and played a central role in implementing reforms, many
inspired by the
New Deal of the 1930s.
The Japanese government releases members of the
Japan Communist Party
on October 10, 1945.
The occupation sought to decentralize power in
Japan by breaking up
the zaibatsu, transferring ownership of agricultural land from
landlords to tenant farmers, and promoting labor unionism.
Other major goals were the demilitarization and democratization of
Japan's government and society. Japan's military was disarmed,
its colonies were granted independence, the Peace Preservation
Law and Tokkō were abolished, and the International Military
Tribunal of the Far East tried war criminals. The cabinet became
responsible not to the Emperor but to the elected National Diet.
The Emperor was permitted to remain on the throne, but was ordered to
renounce his claims to divinity, which had been a pillar of the State
Shinto system. Japan's new constitution came into effect in 1947
and guaranteed civil liberties, labor rights, and women's
suffrage, and through Article 9,
Japan renounced its right to go
to war with another nation.
San Francisco Peace Treaty
San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951 officially normalized relations
Japan and the United States. The occupation ended in 1952,
although the US continued to administer a number of the Ryukyu
Islands, with Okinawa being the last to be returned in 1972.
The US continues to operate military bases throughout the Ryukyu
Islands, mostly on Okinawa, as part of the US-
Postwar growth and prosperity
Post-occupation Japan and Japanese post-war economic
US Secretary of State
Dean Acheson signing the Treaty of Peace with
Japan, September 8, 1951
Shigeru Yoshida served as prime minister in 1946–47 and 1948–54,
and played a key role in guiding
Japan through the occupation.
His policies, known as the Yoshida Doctrine, proposed that Japan
should forge a tight relationship with the United States and focus on
developing the economy rather than pursuing a proactive foreign
policy. Yoshida's Liberal Party merged in 1955 into the new
Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which went on to dominate
Japanese politics for the remainder of the Shōwa period.
Though the Japanese economy was in bad shape in the immediate postwar
years, an austerity program implemented in 1949 by finance expert
Joseph Dodge ended inflation. The
Korean War (1950–53) was a
major boon to Japanese business. In 1949 the Yoshida cabinet
Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) with a
mission to promote economic growth through close cooperation between
the government and big business. MITI sought successfully to promote
manufacturing and heavy industry, and encourage exports. The
factors behind Japan's postwar economic growth included technology and
quality control techniques imported from the West, close economic and
defense cooperation with the United States, non-tariff barriers to
imports, restrictions on labor unionization, long work hours, and a
generally favorable global economic environment. Japanese
corporations successfully retained a loyal and experienced workforce
through the system of lifetime employment, which assured their
employees a safe job.
By 1955, the Japanese economy had grown beyond prewar levels and
it had become the second largest in the world by 1968. The GNP
expanded at an annual rate of nearly 10% from 1956 until the 1973 oil
crisis slowed growth to a still-rapid average annual rate of just over
4% until 1991. Life expectancy rose and Japan's population
increased to 123 million by 1990. Ordinary
Japanese people became
wealthy enough to purchase a wide array of consumer goods. During this
Japan became the world's largest manufacturer of automobiles
and a leading producer of electronics.
Japan signed the Plaza
Accord in 1985 to depreciate the US dollar against the yen and other
currencies. By the end of 1987, the Nikkei stock market index had
doubled and the
Tokyo Stock Exchange became the largest in the world.
During the ensuing economic bubble, stock and real-estate loans grew
Japan became a member of the
United Nations in 1956 and further
cemented its international standing in 1964, when it hosted the
Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Japan was a close ally of the United
States during the Cold War, though this alliance did not have
unanimous support from the Japanese people. As requested by the United
Japan reconstituted its army in 1954 under the name Japan
Self-Defense Forces (JSDF), though some Japanese insisted that the
very existence of the JSDF was a violation of Article 9 of Japan's
constitution. In 1960, hundreds of thousands protested against
amendments to the US-
Japan Security Treaty.
normalized relations with the
Soviet Union in 1956, despite an ongoing
dispute over the ownership of the Kuril Islands, and with South
Korea in 1965, despite an ongoing dispute over the ownership of the
islands of Liancourt Rocks. In accordance with US policy, Japan
Republic of China
Republic of China on
Taiwan as the legitimate
government of China after World War II, though
Japan switched its
recognition to the People's
Republic of China
Republic of China in 1972.
Among cultural developments, the immediate post-occupation period
became a golden age for Japanese cinema. The reasons for this
include the abolition of government censorship, low film production
costs, expanded access to new film techniques and technologies, and
huge domestic audiences at a time when other forms of recreation were
Heisei period (1989–present)
Main article: Heisei period
Emperor Akihito's reign began upon the death of his father, Emperor
Hirohito. The economic bubble popped in 1989, and stock and land
prices plunged as
Japan entered a deflationary spiral. Banks found
themselves saddled with insurmountable debts that hindered economic
recovery. Stagnation worsened as the birthrate declined far below
replacement level. The 1990s are often referred to as Japan's
Lost Decade. Economic performance was frequently poor in the
following decades and the stock market never returned to its
pre-1989 highs. Japan's system of lifetime employment largely
collapsed and unemployment rates rose. The faltering economy and
several corruption scandals weakened the LDP's dominant political
Japan was nevertheless governed by non-LDP prime ministers
only in 1993–96 and 2009–12.
Japan's dealing with its war legacy has strained international
relations. China and
Korea have found official apologies, such as
those of the Emperor in 1990 and the
Murayama Statement of 1995,
inadequate or insincere. Nationalist politics have exacerbated
this, such as denial of the
Nanking Massacre and other war
crimes; revisionist history textbooks, which have provoked
protests in East Asia, and frequent visits by Japanese
politicians to Yasukuni Shrine, where convicted war criminals are
enshrined. Legislation in 2015 expanding the military's role
overseas was criticized as a "war bill".
Wreckage at a railway station destroyed during the 2011 earthquake and
In spite of Japan's economic difficulties, this period also saw
Japanese popular culture, including video games, anime, and manga,
become worldwide phenomena, especially among young people.
On March 11, 2011, one of the largest earthquakes recorded in Japan
occurred in the northeast. The resulting tsunami damaged the
nuclear facilities in Fukushima, which experienced a nuclear meltdown
and severe radiation leakage. In the 21st century there have been
increasing reports on the prevalence of sexlessness among the
Japanese, including its byproducts such as a decreasing population,
the increasing popularity of sexbots and the herbivore men
Social stratification in
Japan became pronounced during the Yayoi
period. Expanding trade and agriculture increased the wealth of
society, which was increasingly monopolized by social elites. By
600 AD, a class structure had developed which included court
aristocrats, the families of local magnates, commoners, and
slaves. Over 90% were commoners, who included farmers, merchants,
and artisans. During the late Heian period, the governing elite
centered around three classes. The traditional aristocracy shared
power with Buddhist monks and samurai, though the latter became
increasingly dominant in the
Kamakura and Muromachi periods.
These periods witnessed the rise of the merchant class, which
diversified into a greater variety of specialized occupations.
Women initially held social and political equality with men, and
archaeological evidence suggests a prehistorical preference for female
rulers in western Japan. Female Emperors appear in recorded history
Meiji Constitution declared strict male-only ascension in
1889. Chinese Confucian-style patriarchy was first codified in
the 7th–8th centuries with the ritsuryō system, which
introduced a patrilineal family register with a male head of
household. Women until then had held important roles in
government which thereafter gradually diminished, though even in the
Heian period women wielded considerable court influence.
Marital customs and many laws governing private property remained
For reasons that are unclear to historians the status of women rapidly
deteriorated from the fourteenth century and onwards. Women of
all social classes lost the right to own and inherit property and were
increasingly viewed as inferior to men. Hideyoshi's land survey
of the 1590s further entrenched the status of men as dominant
landholders. During the US occupation following World War
II , women gained legal equality with men, but faced
widespread workplace discrimination. A movement for women's rights led
to the passage of an equal employment law in 1986, but by the 1990s
women held only 10% of management positions.
Hideyoshi's land survey of the 1590s designated all who cultivated the
land as commoners, an act which granted effective freedom to most of
Social structure of the
Tokugawa shogunate rigidified long-existent class divisions,
placing most of the population into a Neo-
Confucian hierarchy of four
occupations, with the ruling elite at the top, followed by the
peasants who made up 80% of the population, then artisans, and
merchants at the bottom. Court nobles, clerics, outcasts,
entertainers, and workers of the licensed quarters fell outside this
structure. Different legal codes applied to different classes,
marriage between classes was prohibited, and towns were subdivided
into different class areas. The social stratification had little
bearing on economic conditions: many samurai lived in poverty and
the wealth of the merchant class grew throughout the period as the
commercial economy developed and urbanization grew. The Edo-era
social power structure proved untenable and gave way following the
Meiji Restoration to one in which commercial power played an
increasingly significant political role.
Although all social classes were legally abolished at the start of the
Meiji period, income inequality greatly increased. New
economic class divisions were formed between capitalist business
owners who formed the new middle class, small shopkeepers of the old
middle class, the working class in factories, rural landlords, and
tenant farmers. The great disparities of income between the
classes dissipated during and after World War II, eventually declining
to levels that were among the lowest in the industrialized world.
Some postwar surveys indicated that up to 90% of Japanese
self-identified as being middle class.
Populations of workers in professions considered unclean, such as
leatherworkers and those who handled the dead, developed in the 15th
and 16th centuries into hereditary outcast communities. These
people, later called burakumin, fell outside the Edo-period class
structure and suffered discrimination that lasted after the class
system was abolished. Though activism has improved the social
conditions of those from burakumin backgrounds, discrimination in
employment and education lingered into the 21st century.
Wikivoyage has a travel guide for History of Japan.
Economic history of Japan
Historiography of Japan
History of East Asia
History of Japanese art
History of Japanese foreign relations
Foreign relations of Meiji Japan
Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, 1930–1945
History of Japan–
History of Sino-Japanese relations, China
Japanese foreign policy on Southeast Asia
Soviet Union relations
Soviet Union relations
Japan–United Kingdom relations
Japan–United States relations
History of manga
History of Tokyo
List of Emperors of Japan
List of Prime Ministers of Japan
List of World Heritage Sites in Japan
Military history of Japan
Politics of Japan
Timeline of Japanese history
Bulletin of the National Museum of Japanese History, in Japanese
Japanese Journal of Religious Studies
Journal of Japanese Studies
Monumenta Nipponica, Japanese studies, in English
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Further information: Bibliography of Japanese history
Akagi, Roy Hidemichi. Japan's Foreign Relations 1542–1936: A Short
History (1936) online 560pp
Allinson, Gary D., The Columbia Guide to Modern Japanese History (New
York: Columbia University Press, 1999)
Allinson, Gary D., Japan's Postwar History (London: UCL Press, 1997)
Beasley, William G., The Modern History of
Japan (New York: Praeger,
Beasley, William G, Japanese Imperialism, 1894–1945 (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1987)
Borton, Hugh. Japan's modern century (1955), since 1850; university
Clement, Ernest Wilson, A Short History of
Japan (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1915)
Cullen, Louis, A History of Japan, 1582–1941: Internal and External
Worlds (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003)
Drea, Edward J. Japan's Imperial Army: Its Rise and Fall, 1853–1945
Duus, Peter, ed. The Cambridge history of Japan: The twentieth century
(vol 6 1989)
Edgerton, Robert B., Warriors of the Rising Sun: A History of the
Japanese Military (New York: Norton, 1997)
Friday, Karl F., ed.,
Japan Emerging: Premodern History to 1850
(Boulder: Westview Press, 2012)
Gordon, Andrew, A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the
Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003)
Hall, John Whitney, Japan: From Prehistory to Modern Times (New York:
Delacorte Press, 1970)
Hane, Mikiso, Modern Japan: A Historical Survey (Boulder: Westview
Huffman, James L., ed., Modern Japan: An Encyclopedia of History,
Culture, and Nationalism (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998)
Hunter, Janet, Concise Dictionary of Modern Japanese History (U of
California Press, 1984)
Morley, James William, ed. Japan's foreign policy, 1868–1941: a
research guide (Columbia UP, 1974), covers military policy, economic
policy, cultural policy, and relations with Britain, China, Germany,
Russia, and the United States; 635pp
Reischauer, Edwin O., Japan: The Story of a Nation (New York: Alfred
A. Knopf, 1970)
Shimamoto, Mayako, Koji Ito and Yoneyuki Sugita, eds. Historical
Dictionary of Japanese Foreign Policy (2015) excerpt
Stockwin, JAA, Dictionary of the Modern Politics of
Japan (New York:
Tipton, Elise, Modern Japan: A Social and Political History (New York:
Varley, Paul. Japanese Culture. 4th Edition. (Honolulu: University of
Hawaii Press. 2000)
Wray, Harry, and Hilary Conroy, eds.
Japan Examined: Perspectives on
Modern Japanese History (1983), historiography
Empire of Japan
House of Councillors
House of Representatives
Deputy Prime Minister
Agriculture, forestry, fishing
Anime / Manga
Onsen / Sentō
History of Asia
East Timor (Timor-Leste)
United Arab Emirates
British Indian Ocean Territory
Cocos (Keeling) Islan