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History of Japan

Although Japanese history goes back millennia, the first steps towards modern Japan began in about 300 BC as people emigrated from China into modern day Japan. These people also brought rice with them, a staple in Japanese cuisine ever since. From this point on, the islands of Japan were occasionally visited as some of these people stayed and contributed to the modern day Japanese ethnicity.

In the 500s Buddhism entered Japan from the Korean peninsula and spread quickly. Prior to this time Shintoism was the primary guiding philosophy, and today the two have merged in many ways as the Japanese commonly identify as both, while rarely separating the two. It was also during this time period that the Japanese integrated a number of influential aspects of Chinese culture including many parts of their governing system.

Through the 600s and 700s Japan made a number of huge improvements as communication expanded and technology advanced farming and agriculture. In 794 the capital was moved to the city of Kyoto and this city became Japan's cultural, academic, and political center for the next couple centuries.

In the late 1100s Japan's government was faltering and there was a series of uprisings. These uprisings eventually led to a new structure within Japan's political and social ranks. The Emperor maintained nominal power, but a new leader, known as a "Shogun" truly led the country in most spheres and directly worked with, and arose from, the samurai class, which was growing in power as the regional, family, or tribal leaders. This created a system in which the samurai worked for the Emperor and Shogun, but most control was held locally so each was given much freedom to rule over his territory.

The 1200s and 1300s were devastating for the Japanese as the Mongols under Kublai Khan invaded, then there were debates among the royal family and between the royal family and the shoguns. After a series of battles and wars, the shoguns proved their superiority over the emperors with the help of the Samurai. As things settled back down in the late 1300s, relations with China improved and Japan opened up as a more significant trading hub.

Unfortunately, the decentralize rule in Japan led to more internal strife in the 1400s and with the Europeans' introduction of guns to Japan in the 1500s, the country was again unstable. As stability returned, Europeans settled Japan, then were forced to leave as the government struggled to find a balance between domestic and international agendas, which eventually resulted in focusing almost entirely on internal affairs.

Fortunately, from the early 1600s to the late 1800s stability existed as the shoguns firmly led the country. They improved the standard of living, allowed economic and religious freedoms, and improved communication. However, this system was rigid and class-based that neglected international affairs and intentionally isolated itself from the world.

By the mid- to late-1800s Asian trading routes were prized by many European and North American nations so Japan was forced to open up. After the United States threatened Japan and other countries followed suite, the shogun was removed from power as the people viewed him as a weak failure. This directly led to the establishment of the Empire of Japan (1868), which was again directly ruled by the Emperor.

Once freed of the shogun's rule and more open to the world, Japan quickly became a player on the international stage. They improved economically and technologically, gaining enough power to take many islands in the Far East, including Taiwan. They challenged and warred with both China and Russia, taking Manchuria in China and the Korean peninsula.

For decades the Japanese pushed their borders with no consequences, but by the 1930s many countries viewed their advances into China with condemnation. In 1940, one year after the outbreak of World War II (WWII), Japan joined forces with Germany and Italy, sparking tensions with much of the world, particularly the United States, who supported China at the time and was vocal about Japan's advances into that country.

In 1941 Japan attacked the United States, the American-held Philippines, and British-held Hong Kong among other places. After these surprise attacks and a quick sweep over much of the Far East, the Japanese fell back as their production, supplies, and army could not keep pace with the expanding American and British military spending and high output levels. The war for Japan ended with tragedy as the United States dropped two atomic bombs on the country; first on Hiroshima and days later on Nagasaki.

Since WWII, Japan has focused on opening up diplomatic relations and economic advancements as they were demilitarized. Ironically, the United States has become one of Japan's closest trading partners and today Japan is an economic and political world leader.

This page was last updated: March, 2013