The evidence of chipped stone tools suggests that humans inhabited Japan at least 30,000 years ago. “Neolithic” cultures called “Jomon” (that still retained stone tool traits of earlier periods), date to at least 10,000 BC. The Jomon people were hunters and gatherers who lived upon the rich resources of game, fish, and wild plants native to post-Ice Age Japan. One of the unusual features of Jomon culture is pottery—the oldest reliably dated on earth. By 8,000 BC a type of cord-wrapped pottery—with decorated lines made by wrapping or laying cords on wet clay – developed. Other clay objects are the so-called dogu (“earth god”) figurines. These are small statues that look something like “extra-terrestrials” (or Pokemon cartoon figures!) that may have been used in fertility worship. Always few in number, the Jomon peoples seem to have been centered on the Kanto plain area of Honshu island. Nara is regarded as the first permanent capital in Japan. Before that time the capital was relocated at the demise of each ruler due to taboos involving pollution of the living site by death. Following the Chinese model of a permanent seat of government, the new capital was modeled on the capital of Tang China, Chang’an (today’s Xi’an city).
The earliest part of the city (which was on a much smaller scale than Chang’an and without a wall) was based on a rectangle of eight squares, built on a north to south axis with streets running through them in a neat grid pattern. The city was divided into two halves: the Left Capital and the Right Capital. The new palace was placed to the north. A major causeway, called the Scarlet Phoenix Avenue, ran down the middle of the city, leading to the palace. After its establishment in 710 AD, Nara would become a city renowned even today for its architecture and tradition of Buddhist art. Although the structures remaining in Nara today were built in later centuries, many were constructed on sites dating to the earliest years of the kingdom. Some of the best descriptions of these early sites come from a huge tourist guidebook compiled by a poet and printed in 1681. Much of what is known about life in the Nara period centers on the lifestyles of the elite in the capital cities. The use of Chinese as a literary language increased throughout the Nara period. An example of the sustained influence of Chinese culture on the elite was the first collection of Japanese poems, known as the Ten Thousand Leaves, or Manyoshu. Buddhism became an important force in the capital and was patronized by the government. Statues of Buddha were commissioned, 48 temples built within Nara and many more throughout the land, and Buddhist scriptures were mass-produced and spread everywhere. A scandal late in the period involved a powerful Buddhist monk who manipulated the ruling empress and nearly took control of the throne. Although a number of women had ruled in Japan (usually after the death of their husbands), this custom was brought to an end because of the scandal.
Although the capital city and other upper-class echelons were developed under the influence of imported Chinese culture, the rural villages and farmsteads were much more conservative. Farmers in some areas lived in pit houses partially underground and farmed wet-rice. Dry land fields were still cleared by swidden agricultural techniques that involved burning off brushy and forested areas and planting in the ash-rich soil. The Nara period was characterized by continued importation of Chinese culture and the spread of Buddhism. In the next period, the Heian period, the Chinese influences would be “re-made” with Japanese characteristics, in some cases preserving aspects of Chinese culture that were long out of fashion in China.
Although fate intervened to save Japan from the Mongols, the Mongol invasions brought instability to the emerging Japanese feudal system, which eventually descended into a state of turmoil and incessant fighting between local warlords. No one leader managed to gain firm control over the entire realm at this time. Though Kyoto continued as a grand capital, the base of military power was in Kamakura.
During this period feudalism developed further. The emperor (dwelling in Kyoto) was the divine leader of the land, though functioned more as a figurehead who gave legitimacy to the rule of the shogun. The shogun, who usually resided in the court at Kamakura (near modern-day Tokyo), held the reigns of true power over the regional lords. The regional lords all employed armies of samurai, and below them were the townspeople and peasant farmers. The samurai code of service demanded loyalty to lord and one’s family name as well as self-discipline and perfection in the martial arts. Dishonor was the occasion for ritual suicide by sword.
During this period a new literature emerged, often on martial themes. The aesthetic of such works is that of sabi, which reflected a deep melancholy or sadness over the brevity of existence. The Tale of Heike is the best-known of these martial works. In this era a samurai might contemplate the beauty of a meadow flower in one instant, and engage in mortal combat in another (as exemplified in a famous scene in the Akira Kurosawa film, Seven Samurai).
More popular forms of Buddhism like the Pure Land (Jodo) and Nichiren sects were spread throughout the populace. Zen Buddhism, which arrived from the mainland in 1191 via a monk named Eisai (who also introduced the tea ritual), became of great interest to the samurai warrior class in part because of its stress on the exacting discipline of the meditation process.
The Onin Wars (1467-77 AD) was the most bloody and chaotic moment of the period, and destruction was widespread. Kyoto was largely destroyed in the feuds between two great families that spilled into other parts of the realm. The devastating war signaled the beginning of over a hundred years of chaos and strife. Due to a breakdown in what central control there was, social mobility increased between classes and regional overlords competed for soldiers and labor to further their interests. Armies of foot soldiers amassed from the peasantry were now used in warfare. At first armed with spears and pikes, by the end of the era massed contingents of foot soldiers with firearms were used decisively in battle. The latter period of the era (1568-1600 AD) is known as the Age of Reunification. During this period the number of local lords lessened, though those remaining in the struggles grew in power. These “super-lords” were known as daimyo. The three great daimyo in the final decades were Oda Nobunaga (1534-82 AD), the commoner Hideyoshi (1536-98 AD), and a somewhat younger leader in Oda Nobunaga’s retinue named Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616 AD). All three men attempted to unify Japan by creating (or forcing) alliances among the powerful daimyo of the land.
Oda Nobunaga was known as a fierce and relentless warrior whose armies were equipped with matchlock firearms introduced by shipwrecked Portugeuse sailors around 1543. Oda managed to extend his rule over a number of the contending daimyo until his assassination at the hands of a rival whom he light-heartedly struck on the head with a fan at a banquet.
Known as the namban (“southern barbarians”), the Portuguese were later followed by the Spanish. The newcomers had similar goals: trade and conversion of souls to Christianity—an attitude different from the Dutch and British who wanted only trade and plunder. Jesuit priests from Portugal and Spain soon brought Christianity to Japan where it had a mixed reception. Although at one point a following of an estimated two million was gained, unlike Buddhism, the new faith demanded the forsaking of all other beliefs and required allegiance to a foreign and far away leader in the Vatican. Some Japanese leaders like Oda Nobunaga attempted to use Christianity as a political force (in his case, against the rich Buddhist factions), while others like Tokugawa Ieyasu saw it as a destabilizing force. The new religion was virtually eliminated from Japan in a series of intense purges around 1630 when thousands of leaders and followers were crucified. Some aspects of the contradictions between these competing foreign and native forces were included in the plot of the novel Shogun, and the film of the same name. Hideyoshi was a former peasant and vassal of Oda Nobunaga who managed to consolidate an even greater number of daimyo than his former lord. As part of his bid for control of Japan, he decreed that townspeople were to remain in towns and peasants were to remain in rural areas, thus lessening mobility between classes. Class divisions were starkly re-emphasized by a great “sword hunt” in which arms were collected from the common people and melted into Buddhist statues. The superior status of the samurai warriors (even lower level ones) was demonstrated by allowing them to continue wearing two swords in public (one long and one short).
In an attempt to display his power, in the late 1500s Hideyoshi twice sent forces up the Korean peninsula in attempts to conquer the declining Ming dynasty in China that had been constantly pestered by attacks from Japanese pirates. The Japanese fleet was devastated by the armored turtle boats of Korean General Yi Soon-sin and huge numbers of Chinese soldiers that were sent across the northern borders of Choson Korea during the second attack. The mad plans to invade China ended (for the time being) with Hideyoshi’s sudden death in 1598. As the 16th century came to a close, a great battle between contending daimyo took place at Sekigahara in 1600 on the southwest coast. The forces of the patient and methodological Tokugawa Ieyasu won the day, and he soon unified the contending daimyo realms under a new form of centralized feudal state.
In 1853 Commodore Matthew C. Perry (grandson of Admiral Oliver Hazard Perry, the hero of the Battle of Lake Erie in 1812) sailed into Tokyo Bay with a small fleet of “black ships” and demanded that Japan open its ports to trade. Aware of the defeat of China at the hands of the British in the recent Opium War, Japan signed treaties with the United States of America in 1854, and a host of other countries including Great Britain, France, Holland, and Russia soon after. Clauses for “most-favored nation” status were demanded in these treaties, which allowed any privileges extended to any one of the foreign powers to be extended to them all. Townshend Harris (played by John Wayne in the 1960s film “The Barbarian and the Geisha”), the first American diplomat to live on Japanese soil, gradually improved relations between the US and Japan. Nevertheless, as foreign legations were established throughout the land, humiliating incidents occurred, and a movement began to “Revere the Emperor; expel the barbarian!” Eventually an event involving the murder of a British merchant stimulated Britain to fire on a Japanese port. Seeing the power of British guns first-hand, the local daimyo befriended the British captain, and Japan was on its way to imitating the British navy.Ultimately, the Tokugawa shogunate was blamed for signing treaties with the foreigners, and a movement among the nobles (many of them the descendants of the “outer” daimyo sent to the fringes by Tokugawa Ieyasu 250 years earlier) eventually swept the last shogun from power. In 1868, a young emperor, aged 16, was set on the throne and with a group of enlightened advisors set out to beat the foreigners at their own game. The new reign was called Meiji. From this time on, Japanese history would be divided into periods in accord with the reign of an individual emperor.
Within a few years, Western-styled navy (copying Britain), army (copying Prussia), industry, banking, legal, and parliamentary systems were eventually introduced. The government also moved to set up railroads, textile mills, and other industries that were in some cases later turned over to the private sector. These changes were largely financed by increasing the tax burden on the peasants and merchants, rather than taking out huge foreign loans. Though Neo-Confucianism was for a time influential in promoting the role of the emperor, Shinto was adopted as a state religion in that the emperor was literally seen as descending from the early kami. In a backlash to these sudden changes, a group of samurai staged the so-called Satsuma Rebellion in 1877. This rebellion was an attempt to save the faltering status of the samurai class, which was being made irrelevant by the new conscript army armed with repeating firearms and modern cannon. The leader, the once-loyal adviser Saigo Takamori, committed suicide on the battlefield in a final fray between modern troops and mounted samurai warriors – an event similar to that in the recent film, “The Last Samurai.”
By 1895 Japan had defeated China in a series of land and sea battles around the Korean peninsula known as the Sino-Japanese War. The victory allowed Japan to gain a foothold in Korea and influence on the nearby Liaodong Peninsula of China. In 1905, the Japanese won a major war against imperial Russia on the Liaodong Peninsula, fought over a new railroad, timber, and seaports in Manchuria—a very strategic corner of East Asia. Casualties were extremely high (over 20,000 in some battles) on both sides due to mechanized firearms and mass, suicidal charges by Japanese troops still motivated by samurai ethics that regarded surrender as dishonorable. Beginning with a surprise attack on the Russian navy, the deciding battle in the Tsushima straits between Korea and Japan resulted in a crippling Russian loss of 33 out of 35 ships sunk—effectively neutering Russian naval influence in East Asia. In many ways this war was a harbinger for Japanese military actions up through the end of World War II and in part explains the calculation to attack Pearl Harbor. As a result of their 1905 victory and the impending collapse of the Qing dynasty in China, Korea was colonized by the Japanese in 1910. Although a democratic, parliamentary society was being created in Japan in the early decades of the 20th century (universal male suffrage was established in 1925), the Great Depression in the early 1920s helped a radical wing of the Japanese military rise to power. Powerful government-supported companies called zaibatsu aided in creating an effective and modern war machine, unlike anything seen outside of Europe and the United States in World War I.
By the mid-1920s, imperial Japan had extended itself further into Manchuria, and a full-scale invasion in China was underway by the mid-1930s. By the early 1940s the powerful Japanese navy, army, and air forces had enabled Japan to secure most of the former European colonies in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. They were also positioned to threaten Australia. Repeating a miscalculation reminiscent of Hideyoshi’s attempted invasions of China in the 16th century, during late 1941 Japan launched a surprise naval and aerial attack on the United States territory at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The attack was triggered in response to US embargos over oil and the materials that fueled Japan’s war machine. Though its naval forces were weakened by the Pearl Harbor attack, the US forces fought back with unexpected resolve all across the Pacific islands. Despite fierce and bloody resistance from the Japanese military (employing in the final stages masses of suicide planes known as kamikaze), Japan’s ambitions of empire were ended in August 1945, as the US and the Soviet Union competed to accept the Japanese surrender in northeast East Asia. The final outcome was decided by the controversial use by the United States of the newly created atomic bomb on the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, with massive civilian casualties. Post-War Japan was occupied for seven years (1945-1952) by Allied Forces under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur of the United States. During this period a new, democratic constitution (ending Japan’s military role the world) was adopted, business re-oriented to peacetime objectives, and the country re-built itself (like other areas in East Asia) after the devastating war. In an interesting twist, the economy was stimulated by the Korean War, when the US forces took out contracts for military goods. Groups of Japanese engineers visited US companies in a systematic effort to modernize production, much as they had learned earlier from China and the West in earlier periods.
Through hard work and determination, Japan re-invented itself in the latter-half of the twentieth century as a consumer-oriented producer. It early on took the lead in transistor electronics and innovative automobile design (which benefited from traditional Japanese aesthetics), and by the late 1980s was the largest creditor nation on earth, while the US was the largest debtor. With the spread of film, radio, computer games and other electronic devices, Japanese popular culture has a worldwide influence.
Japan’s growth became a model and stimulus for Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Southeast Asia, and eventually the People’s Republic of China (and possibly North Korea, in the future). Although old wounds sometimes still surfaced, a new age of growth and prosperity had arrived in East Asia by the late 1980s. Though plagued with a stagnant economy since the burst of the “economic bubble” in 1989 and increasingly cognizant of the problems of a “graying society” in which over 21% will soon be over age 65, Japan remains a unique and vibrant culture, now dealing with the dynamic cultures of China and Korea as the history of East Asia continues to unfold.