Prehistoric and Early History
Still, it has to be investigated, who the ancestors of the Japanese were and where they came from. The oldest traces of their culture originate from the Jômon period (ca. 7500 B.C. – 300 B.C.). This period was named after several archaeological discoveries: pottery that was decorated with “shearing patterns”. The people of that period – hunter-gatherers, and fishermen – lived in den like homes with very little contact to the outside world.
Archaeological discoveries prove that the Yayoi period (ca. 300 B.C. – 300 A.D.) had been more than a simple onward development of the Jômon period. Besides having stone tools, people of this period were already utilizing bronze and iron tools. Presumably, these tools served as applicatory implements only to a lesser extend. These tools were in fact ceremonial equipment, which assured their owners of initial privileges. It is assumed that the knowledge of metal processing came from China via Korea to Japan. Chinese immigrants also introduced the technique of wet rice cultivation to the Japanese islands. Ultimately, rice became the major nourishment of the people, who in the meantime started to live together in hierarchically organised village communities and settlements.
The first martial conflicts between individual clans were initiated at the beginning of the third century. According to Chinese references, the leaders of the Yamato clan managed to gain the local predominance and to extend it to the central power until the end of the sixth century. The Kofun period (300 A.D. - 710 A.D.) was named after the huge graves (Kofun) which were built for the monarchs of the Yamato Empire after their deaths.
Due to the intensive exchanging connections to the continent established since the sixth century, in particular the Chinese influence on the cultural and spiritual life of the Yamato Empire increased. Subsequently, the ruling elite introduced a multitude of economic and social reforms to establish a strongly centralised state with the emperor at the top, modelled on the Chinese standard. Not until the so called Taihô code of 701/2 A.D. was this aim was achieved and henceforth a tightly structured magistrate device ruled the country in the name of the emperor.
Around 710 A.D. the imperial residence was relocated to Nara. Architects built a capital modelled on the Chinese metropolis Chang’an in the perimeter of the court. Chinese was also the language of administration, science, religion and literature. During the Nara period (710 – 784 A.D.) the imperial dynasty managed to stabilize their power. The centrally organised magistrate state was expanded further and strengthened the predominance of influential noble families. The Buddhist clergy was strengthened and developed in the beginning of the 8th century to a political force factor as a result of the intense encouragement by the emperor. Especially the noble families were followers of the Buddhist sects, as they built gorgeous temples and endowed financial support. In the end of the Nara period some of the monks finally had managed to influence the regime’s decisions due to the spatial proximity of the temples to the emperor’s court. These circumstances of political power and the rising economic problems required again a relocation of the imperial capital. However, for the Buddhist sects it was forbidden to move to the new capital - Heian-kyô (today: Kyôto) – so that Nara remained as the centre of the Buddhist power.
The Heian period (794 – 1185 A.D.) was an era of extremes: apparently unaffected by the chaotic political balance of power in the provinces and the capital, the courtiers of the middle and lower classes were living behind thick palace walls, isolated from the outside world. In their illusory world taste and elegance of poetic arts, painting, fashion, and appearance decided on their credit at the court.
Until the middle of the Heian period the emperors could rely on an efficient bureaucracy and therefore was able to reign undisputedly. Gradually, though, the emperors lost their power to the benefit of the Fujiwara family. Fujiwara family members had run Japanese affaires of state for several Japanese emperors as regents over a period of about 200 years. With the advancement of the newly arisen sword nobility in the provinces in the end of the 11th century, however, the court aristocracy lost their influence at the court step by step. Furthermore, 1068 A.D. for the first time an emperor was crowned, who had no kinsman like relationships to the Fujiwara family. To irrevocably destroy the Fujiwara family’s influence on important political decisions, the emperor abdicated after only four years and manipulated the ruling emperors as a monk from the background. This “indirect emperor authority” continued for about 100 years and finally promoted the decay of the centrally organised state system. In the end of the Heian period powerful warrior families raised claim to political command.
In 1185 A.D. the Minamoto family took control over Japan after having conquered the Taira clan in the Gempei war. The Minamoto did not question the existing system, but established their own centre of power in Kamakura. The emperor carried on living in his residence at Heiankyô without any politcal power. Minamoto Yoritomo let the emperor award him the title of a Shôgun and from then on he was officially considered as a vassal of the emperor.
The first phase of the Middle Ages, the Kamakura period (1192 – 1333 A.D.), was affected by power struggles between the powerful warrior families of the Taira and the Minamoto. It was an important inflection point for the development of the country. After the centralised regime of the emperor, which was later on replaced by the court nobility with the Fujiwara being in the fore, a feudal state arose in these times. Henceforth the Samurai, the warriors, became all-dominant. Minamoto no Yoritomo, the leader of the victorious Minamoto clan, appointed himself 1192 A.D. as the very first person to a Shogun, the supreme commander of the army and grew to an absolute ruler. He left the emperor at his court in Kyoto and organised the novel, independent military regime Bakufu, which was based on the stratum of the Samurai. As seat of government he chose the little coastal town Kamakura, which later on grew to a huge city under the Samurai regime. Thus also the epoch 1185 – 1333 A.D. was named after Kamakura. The system of Bakufu existed until 1868 A.D.
However, the Minamoto dynasty soon died out. Its lordship passed over to the holds of the regents from the Hojo dynasty. Important incidences occurred during their administration: Mongolians attacked the southern island Kyushu twice. The first attack was 1274, the second one 1281 A.D. Both times the Japanese island kingdom was rescued by a natural phenomenon: a Kamikaze (“wind of the gods”) destroyed the Mongolian Chinese fleet each time and forced the military superior Kublai-Khan troops to a fallback.
Despite of the victory, the successfully repelled incursion of the Mongolians was an extensive financial burden and led to an aggravation of interior discrepancies of the Shogun regime. More and more vassal commanders started to turn away from the central government in Kamakura. The emperor Godaigo, who had gathered several rebellious peers and Buddhist monasteries, took advantage of this circumstance and forged ahead the revolt against the Kamakura government. The government of the Hojo regents was brought down 1333 A.D., but the reconstitution of the imperial power could not be achieved by Godaigo. 1336 A.D., one of the emperor’s confederates from the Ashikaga dynasty seized Kyoto and placed an emperor to the throne who was docile. For this reason Godaigo was divested of his power and banished from Kyoto.
The Shoguns of the Ashikaga dynasty did not choose Kamakura but Kyoto as their seat of government. By this means, Kyoto regained its status of being the real capital of the country. The Muromachi period (named after the district of Kyoto, Muromachi, which was seat of the Shoguns) continued until 1573 A.D. Though, already in the end of the 15th century, the power of the Ashikaga was debilitated. As a consequence of this deprivation of the Ashikaga Shoguns’ authority the governmental power was devolved. The Daimyo (local sovereigns) in the provinces gained more and more major influence. The climax of this crisis was the Onin war 1467 A.D. A series of long and bloody civil wars began, lasting over 100 years and several groupings of the feudal lords were formed (this was the so called era of the combating empires “Sengoku Jidai”).
In the second half of the 16th century, the process of reunification began with the takeover of Oda Nobunaga, the sovereign of Owari at the pacific coast of Honshu. Together with his general Toyotomi Hideyoshi he succeeded in capturing the capital Kyoto and banished the last Ashikaga Shogun. After his death, caused by treason through his confederates, Hideyoshi continued with the military unification process. The basic principals of the later Japanese administration originated in this period, e.g. the survey of the country 1582 – 1588 A.D. About 1590 A.D. the unification of the empire was completed. After the death of Hideyoshi, a committee of five persons took over the government. Among them Tokugawa Ieyasu, who took over the sole authority shortly after the battle of Sekigahara 1603 A.D. and then was appointed Shogun by the emperor.
Early Modern Period
The Shoguns regime out of the Tokugawa dynasty lasted over 250 years. Named after the little town Edo (today: Tokyo), which was the residence of the Tokugawa, this epoch is known in history as the Edo period. From the beginning of their authority, the Tokugawa Shogunate strived for political stability which also helped to ensure their power. The reforms from the Edo period led to extensive social changes and a new political, economic and social system which persisted over two centuries. One of the first important steps was the change of attitude towards Christianity and foreigners. The rising influence of Christianity and of foreigners was identified as a danger by the Shogunate. Thus a banishment of foreigners from the country began. At the same time a sanguinary pursuit of Christians was initiated with its climax in the middle of the 17th century when a revolt of the Christian peasants in Nagasaki broke out and was mercilessly repressed by the Shogunate. The interdiction for foreigners to enter the country was followed by an interdiction to leave the country for the Japanese on pain of death. The country was completely separated and isolated from the outside world.
The Tokugawa Bakufu introduced a tight system for all social strata. The basic principals of this political system were the relationships between the Shogun and his vassals, who were divided into two groups since the battle of Sekigahara. One group consisted of all those who had been on side of the Bakufu already before the battle and the other group consisted of those who had pledged loyalty only in the face of the superiority of the Tokugawa. The distribution of the acreages was performed in a way that made any attempt of a formation of coalitions against the Shogun impossible. The power over the Daimyo entailed the obligation to be present at the court of the Shogun. When the Daimyo went back to their provinces, their wives and children had to stay at the court virtually like hostages.
The Edo period was an era of peace, an epoch of interior reforms and changes. The society was divided into four social basic classes strictly following the Confucian rules. The highest position was occupied by the Samurai. The other classes; peasants, manufacturers and merchants were subordinated to the Samurai. Although the peasants occupied the second position, in reality they were living in poverty and rebelled often. The situation of the manufacturers and merchants was different. The rapid development of the towns and of trade affected the social changes. Some of the merchants became so rich that they were supporting even the Daimyo and the Samurai with loans whereby they enforced also several privileges.
In the end of the 18th century the power of the Shogun started to become instable. Rising discrepancies in the country, political and religious movements (especially the movement for the restoration of power to the emperor and the reincarnation of Shintoism) led to a difficult situation for the feudal bureaucratic government of the Tokugawa, and a collapse seemed to be inexorable. The arrival of the Americans (Commodore Perry 1853 – 1854 A.D.) with the navy and the enforced opening of the country induced the expiration of the Shogunate.
The Americans were followed by other forces: Great Britain, Netherlands, Russia and France. Japan was forced to sign a series of “unequal treaties” which ensured a privileged position for foreigners in Japan. The revision of these contracts later was the most important task of the Japanese foreign policy over several decades.
The compliant attitude of the Shogunate towards foreigners, initiated a general dissatisfaction among the population. The western provinces Satsuma and Chosu formed an alliance with the emperor’s court. The opposition grew stronger and stronger. Finally, 1867 the Shogun abdicated, his followers continued to fight first for several months but finally retreated to the North of the country. With the coming into power of 14 year old Tenno Mitsuhito in 1868, the new Meiji era began, one of the most important inflection points of Japanese history.
The arrival of the western forces was a demonstration of their power, their modern comforts and progress. It became clear that Japan would only be able to preserve its independence by drastic changes and rapid modernisation. The aim of the reforms was to remove the elements of the old society and to modernise the unprogressive feudal state to a civil state. Japan started to reform and renew all areas of the political, economical and social life by focussing a lot on western models. In the first years a lot was invested into a strong army, the industries developed rapidly. In the end of the Meiji period Japan had adapted itself to the western powers and had changed to a potent and consistent country.
After having solved the first interior difficulties, the Japanese interests turned to the outside world. To secure its interests in Korea, Japan waged two successful wars against China (1894 A.D.) and Russia (1904 – 1905 A.D.). 1910 A.D. Korea was completely annexed. Further capture of lands was achieved during the First World War. Only a few days after the outbreak of war, Japan called on the German empire to assign transfer of its territories around the Chinese town of Tsingtau. Since the ultimatum remained unanswered, a declaration of war followed and Tsingtau as well as several other German colonies were invaded. After the October revolution Japan started to engage military action against Russia again, since it was feared that the revolutionary spark could jump over on to the own country.
1926 A.D. with the official coming into power of Hirohito the Showa era began. By and by the influence of the armed forces on politics grew and the claim arose that Japan should liberate Asia from western influence. The relationship towards the USA changed for the worse and an isolation of the country followed. 1933 A.D. Japan opted out of the League of Nations.
During the Second World War, Tokyo, Berlin and Rome signed a three power pact in which the signees assured mutual military, political and economic support. Japan expected to gain support for its further predominance pursuit in East Asia.
As its partners, Tokyo was one of the defeated of the war. Two atomic bombs which were dropped forced the government finally to sign the unconditional capitulation.
After the war a democratisation of the country was initiated under American command. Japan became the most important pacific alliance partner of the USA and ascended to an economic global power.