Japan today is a harmonious blend of the old and the new. Alongside the most modern buildings and stores are ancient temples, shrines and castles. The newer parts of Japan are the result of an effort to modernize after World War II. Many of the older traditions of the Japanese culture can be traced through thousands of years of Japan’s rich history. To fully understand the Japan of today, one must first take a brief look at its ancient culture.
The Japanese people are descendants of races from Micronesia and the Asian Continent who began settling the chain of islands off the east coast of Asia more than ten thousand years ago. As these early inhabitants intermarried, they began to form local tribes and clans. The spoken language which developed has no close relatives although the present method of writing has Chinese origins. As the various groups living in Japan vied for power, a number of clans gradually came under the control of a single person. Legend has it that the first ruler of Japan, Emperor Jimmu, ascended the Imperial throne in 660 B.C. and was a direct descendant of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu. Even though all subsequent emperors claimed to be direct descendants of the first Emperor, they very rarely exercised real political power.
Shintoism, the only religion indigenous to Japan, grew out of the folk myths and beliefs of the primitive Japanese people. Natural objects such as rocks and trees were believed to hold spiritual forces (or kami) so that the number of Shinto gods is extremely large. The divine nature of the Emperor became one of the basic beliefs of Shintoism. This belief eventually expanded to include the worship of ancestors and heroes. Over the centuries Shintoism gradually became an integral part of Japan’s cultural heritage. Even today many Japanese families are associated with a local Shinto shrine.
Being an island nation has helped protect Japan from invasion. During much of its early history Japan remained relatively isolated from the Asian continent. As a result, social and cultural developments took place relatively independent of events occurring on the mainland. As the Emperor began to consolidate his power during the fourth century A.D., the Japanese began to look beyond their own borders. Before long, Japan came under the influence of China and, to a lesser extent, Korea. This occurred at a time when China was perhaps the richest, most powerful, and most technologically advanced nation in the world. By 500 A.D. Japan’s desire to learn more about this wealthy nation became almost insatiable. The government sent many of Japan’s youth to the continent to spend several years studying China’s philosophy, laws, arts, sciences, architecture and governmental structure. The knowledge brought back by these young people greatly influenced Japanese arts, crafts, and learning in general. This organized effort by the Japanese to absorb ideas from another country into their culture established a precedent for later, similar experiences.
Buddhism was just one of the things Japanese scholars brought home with them during the sixth century A.D. Buddhism emphasizes resisting one’s own selfish desires and placing little importance on the material things in life. It became quite popular first among the ruling class and then among the common people. Even though many Buddhist temples were constructed during the ensuing centuries, it has never completely replaced Shintoism. Today, both Shintoism and Buddhism play an influential role in the daily lives of many Japanese. In fact, it is not uncommon for a family to practice both religions. As a result of this dual religious heritage, the Japanese show a greater concern for nature, are more interested in their ancestors, and place less importance on the material things in life than most Americans do.
The Heian Period (794-1191)
China’s influence on Japan was not limited to its religion. In 645 the Japanese restructured their system of laws and governmental organizations to more closely resemble the Chinese model. This transformed Japan from a society of loosely associated clans into a more closely-knit monarchy. The land reform which accompanied this transformation brought the people under the control of the state rather than the powerful families in Japan. Each farmer, for example, received a half acre of land and in return was taxed by the state and required to devote some of his time to defending the nation. Direct rule by the Emperor was short-lived, however. Beginning in the 800s and lasting for a thousand years, Japan was ruled for all practical purposes first by the nobility and then by warriors called shoguns. In spite of their differences, all of these governments had one thing in common – they based the legitimacy of their rule on the sovereign rights conferred upon them by the Emperor.
During this Golden Age, Kyoto reached its height of power and wealth as the capital of Japan. By 1000 A.D. its population of a half million was larger than most European cities of the same period. In Kyoto, the ruling class lived a life of luxury which increasingly isolated them from the rest of Japan. Even though the ruling class lived in such elegance, the ordinary Japanese received some benefits. The first Japanese university, for example, was founded around 900 and a system of provincial schools was established.
Just as it occurred in the courts of Europe, political intrigue became common place in Kyoto. As the Emperor became increasingly interested in the extravagances of his court, he became less capable of administering the complexities of the government and came to rely more and more upon the noble families to run Japan. By strengthening its ties with the Emperor, the Fujiwara family eventually became the most powerful family in Japan. While this struggle for power was going on in Kyoto, the nobility gradually regained control over the land and began the practice of employing warriors to control the peasants. This resulted in the rise of several military clans, including the Minamoto and Taira families. As the Heian Period drew to a close, the Taira replaced the Fujiwara as the most powerful family in Japan.
The Medieval Ages (1192-1867)
Near the end of the twelfth century, the internal struggles for power turned into a series of open clashes between several influential families. Finally, the head of the Minamoto clan, Minamoto Yoritomo, defeated the Taira and assumed all political power in Japan by being declared the Emperor’s shogun. Yoritomo set up his Shogunate government in Kamakura and quickly established a feudal system to assure his continued power. Feudal lords were allowed to rule over their territory and the people who lived there in exchange for a pledge of loyalty to the shogun. This arrangement resulted in Japan being ruled by a series of warrior aristocrats for the next 700 years.
An integral part of this system were the samurai-a class of warriors who set the standards for Japanese chivalry during this period. The unswerving loyalty of the samurai to their lord demanded that they commit suicide rather than surrender or accept disgrace. The samurai’s indifference to suffering and the personal loyalty of the samurai gradually became a part of the culture and are reflected in Japanese attitudes even today. Perhaps of greater importance were the samurai’s contributions toward keeping Japan a nation independent of foreign domination. These warriors were instrumental in turning back two invasions by the powerful Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan. Defeating the invaders from the mainland was a key factor in the development of the Japanese as perhaps the most homogenous race and culture of any major nation in the world today.
This period of Japanese history differed from the feudalism of Medieval Europe in one important respect. Education and the arts often thrived. During the sixteenth century, for example, the tea ceremony, flower arranging, the traditional theatrical arts of Noh and Kyogell, as well as Kabuki and other artistic endeavors like painting and sculpture increased in popularity among the common people. In addition to these cultural activities, the skills of making swords and armor were raised to the level of a high art. Many of these art forms are still practiced in Japan today, although the Japanese youth are less interested in them than their parents and grandparents would like.
Toward the middle of the sixteenth century, Japan experienced its first contacts with Europeans. The Portuguese came initially as traders to expand their vast commercial empire and then as missionaries to spread the word of Christianity. They were soon followed by the Spanish and then the Dutch and the English. As had occurred during the Heian period, Japan saw certain aspects of a foreign culture that it liked. However, this time the Japanese were more interested in the mechanical devices of the foreigners than their philosophies. Perhaps the most highly prized of these devices was the smooth bore musket, which the Japanese quickly became proficient at manufacturing.
When the Portuguese arrived, the Ashikaga Shogunate was beginning to deteriorate after ruling Japan for more than two centuries. The civil wars which began in 1573 continued until the end of the century when the Tokugawa Shogunate was established. The new Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, established his capital at Edo (now Tokyo) in 1603. While allowing each region to be ruled by an individual lord (or diamyo), Tokugawa controlled the entire nation through a highly centralized system which was far stronger than any of the previous shogunates. The peace which existed for over 200 years under the Tokugawa Shogunate spurred the development of an improved transportation system of new roads and bridges throughout Japan. As a result, commerce flourished and a wide variety of cultural activities quickly spread across the country.
One of the first problems faced by the Tokugawa Shogunate was what to do about the European traders and missionaries who had become increasingly active in Japan. Although they welcomed the foreigners with a cool friendliness, the Japanese were greatly disturbed by the religious quarrels between Protestants and Catholics, even between Jesuits and Dominicans-all of whom claimed to be Christians. Fear of the European galleons with their powerful cannons added to Japan’s apprehensions concerning the true motives of these foreigners. The Tokugawa Shogunate learned in 1614 of a plot by Japanese Christians to overthrow the government with the help of the Europeans. Shortly afterwards, all foreigners were expelled from Japan, with the exception of a few Dutch and Chinese traders who were restricted to a small island in Nagasaki. In essence, Japan remained isolated from the rest of the world for the next two hundred and fifty years.
The Meiji Restoration
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Tokugawa Shogunate faced ever increasing pressure to open Japan to foreign traders. Commodore Perry’s arrival in Tokyo Bay in 1853 set in motion a series of events which resulted in the downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and led to Japan becoming a world power. Shortly after the Shogunate collapsed in 1867, the emperor was restored to power and became the head of a constitutional monarchy consisting of independent legislative, executive, and judiciary branches. Emperor Meiji is considered to be the founder of modern Japan.
After more than 200 years of isolation, Japan was ready to rush into the modern age. Major political, economic, social and military changes took place rapidly. As had occurred during the Heian Period, in 1871 the best of Japan’s youth were sent as part of the iwakura mission to selected Western countries-which included the United States, England, France, Sweden and Germany. Their task was to learn as much as possible about Western civilization and its superior technology. The observations of the iwakura mission were published in 100 volumes during 1878. The government then chose what it felt was the best each country had to offer.
With the knowledge gained from the Western world, the Japanese reworked their government, their economy, and their social institutions. During the 1880s, for example, the government sought to establish an authoritarian Imperial state patterned after that of Prussia. This was accomplished despite the development of a popular rights movement which demanded a democratic parliament.
The result of the Meiji Restoration was a harmonious blending of Western ideas with the traditional Japanese culture. The Japanese undertook this crash program of modernization as much from the fear of a Western takeover similar to that which had occurred in China as from a desire to improve conditions in Japan.
Becoming A World Power
Within the surprisingly short time of a few decades, Japan transformed itself from a country isolated from the outside world to a major world power. Following the example of Western imperialism and in an effort to protect itself from the Russian presence on the Asian mainland, Japan slowly began to expand its sphere of influence. At the end of the Sino-Japanese War in 189495, Japan gained control over Korea, Formosa, and the Pescadores.
The Japanese learned two important lessons from that war. First, military strength meant international respect and independence. Second, Japan learned to distrust Western nations. When China ceded Port Arthur, Dairen, and the peninsula of Liaotang to Japan as a part of the agreement ending the war, France, Germany, and Russia presented the Japanese with an ultimatum to return these prizes to China. As soon as Japan complied with the ultimatum, Russia appropriated the territory for itself. The memories of this and similar incidents still linger in Japan today.
From the Japanese point of view, Russia posed a clear threat to Japan itself and to its new imperial possessions. When war broke out in 1904, Japan appeared to be militarily inferior. However, the Japanese army won a major victory at Mukden and the navy, under the command of Admiral Togo, destroyed Russia’s Baltic fleet off Tsushima. When the war ended, Japan gained control over the southern half of Manchuria. Perhaps more important than the new territorial gains was the knowledge that a small oriental nation could defeat a major Western power.
Even though the United States and Japan entered the twentieth century as friends who shared a great deal of mutual respect, events on both sides of the Pacific began to push the two nations apart and paved the way to that fateful day in 1941. Historian John Toland described the road leading to war as being paved with, “mutual misunderstanding, language difficulties and mistranslations, as well as Japanese opportunism, gekokujo irrationality, honor, pride, and fear-and American racial prejudice, distrust, ignorance of the Orient, rigidity, self righteousness, honor, national pride and fear.” (See End Note #1)
At the turn of the century, the Japanese viewed China as the key to their becoming a world power and to future economic growth. As Japan’s industries began to expand and foreign trade increased, it soon became evident that the domestic resources of this small island nation were insufficient to support such growth. An ever increasing population placed added pressures on Japan’s natural resources. China’s vast deposits of iron, coal, and other minerals promised to provide the resources necessary to support Japan’s industrial growth. In addition, China’s market was potentially the largest in the world and offered the prospect of increasing prosperity for an indefinite period into the future. Japan’s designs on China were quickly condemned by America, an attitude which seemed peculiar to the Japanese. After all, wasn’t the United States doing exactly the same thing in Mexico and the Caribbean?
A significant event which contributed to increased frictions between the two countries was the passage of the Immigration Law by Congress in 1924. This law prohibited Japanese living in the United States from owning land. To make matters worse, some states prohibited Japanese from marrying Caucasians and forced Japanese children to attend segregated schools. From this point on, a growing number of Japanese suspected that many of America’s actions on the international scene were racially motivated.
By the 1920s, the rapid industrialization of the previous decades had begun to split the Japanese people into industrial workers living in the cities while the more traditional rural population lived in the countryside. Since most of the enlisted men and officers in the Army and Navy came from the more traditional rural stock, they took a dim view of the liberal direction of social and political events in Japan’s major cities.
Because of the tremendous importance of foreign trade, the protectionist measures adopted by Western nations during the 1930s had a devastating effect on Japan’s economy, particularly its agricultural sector. Many of the officers in Japan’s military viewed China as the solution to the nation’s economic dilemma. It could simultaneously provide the raw materials Japan needed and act as a market for Japanese goods. During the early 30s Japanese militarists gained political prominence and gradually increased their control over the nation’s domestic and foreign policies. While the civilian government’s control over the military continually declined, the military used its newly acquired power to increase the Japanese presence in China. War finally broke out in 1937. By July, 1941, Japanese troops occupied the southern half of Indochina. In response, the United States and Great Britain placed an embargo on all shipments of essential raw materials to Japan. The United States insisted that Japan withdraw its troops from China before any settlement could be discussed. The blow to national pride which resulted from such a withdrawal of Japanese troops was unacceptable to the military-particularly the Army. The only recourse to economic strangulation left to Japan was to further expand its empire. As history notes, the military chose to attack Pearl Harbor-a decision that was not popular among all Japanese. Even today many Japanese feel their country was forced into World War II by a small group of its military officers who had grown too powerful. This experience is an important factor in understanding current anti-military feelings in Japan and the widespread reluctance to increase defense spending.