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The history of Japan is long and complex. There is great debates over the origins of Japanese culture and how it came along. This is why so many people take such a great interest in Japanese history and culture. Any travelling experience to Japan will be greatened by knowing how the history blends with the people and surroundings.
The first signs of people living in the Japanese Islands appeared with stone age cultures around 30,000 BC. This continued for about six thousand years when the Jōmon period began, a mesolithic to neolithic semi sedentary-hunter-gather culture. Many scholars believe that the Jōmon are the ancestors of the current day Ainu, a minority group who live on the northern island of Hokkaido. In the third century BC the Yayoi period began, which was a major shift in the culture.
During the Yayoi wet-rice farming, iron and bronze making and more advance pottery appeared in Japan. Many believed these major developments were brought over by migrants and settlers from China and Korea. The result of these major developments was Japan shifts to a predominantly agricultural society with an emphasis on rice.
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When Buddhism was first introduced to japan from Korea there was limited resistance. Although by the Askuka period (538 AD to 710) it gained general acceptance. Most of the Buddhist art was primarily influenced by China and the ruling class gave Buddhism their full approval. The blending of Shinto and Buddhism was in full swing.
The Nara Period (710 AD to 794) was when the first strong central Japanese state emerged. There imperial court was the modern day city of Nara. Although not the first capital it was the first centralized states and the government borrowed heavily from Chinese administrative practices. In 784 the Emperor Kammu relocated the capital to present day Kyoto where it was stay for more then a thousand years.
During the Heian period (794 to 1185) is when a distinctly Japanese culture started to appear. Heavy borrowing from China was still happening although a unique Japanese culture started to split off. This was mainly done in creating unique art, poetry and literature. Lady Muraskaki's The tale of the Genji, which is considered one of the most important pieces of Japanese literature was written during this period.
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The main feature of Japan's feudal period is the emergence of a ruling class of warriors called samurai. The samurai were a warrior class that were tied to specific house and went under intense training. If the leader of the house, who himself was an ex-samurai, was killed by a different house the samurai had two options. The first was to kill himself or two bring great shame to himself and family by running away and becoming a ronin or a houseless samurai. Ronin became hired guns at best and bandits at worst, roaming the country side looking for work.
The samurai slowly came to power over the period of several hundred years as the central government took less and less interest in the military. The government would employ the different houses at first, then the different samurai houses learned to work together to take control of the government. The samurai class came to full power during the Kamakura period (1185 to 1333). During this time Zen Buddhism was introduced to Japan from China, which was very popular among the samurai. Also the Kamakura shogunate was able to repel two Mongolian invasions one in 1274 and the other in 1281, aided by a storm which the japanese call the kamikaze or Divine Wind.
After the Kamakura shogunate fell several other powers rose and fell quickly, which eventually lead to a century long civil war in 1467. During the 16th century traders and Jesuit missionaries, primarily from Portugal, starting to make contact with Japan. Oda Nobunaga conquered a large area of Japan using European technology and firearms almost unifying the nation when he was assassinated in 1582. Toyotomi Hideyoshi succeeded in unifying Japan in 1590 and tried to invade Korea but both invasions failed because Ming Chinese and Korean forces were too great, he withdrew his army in 1598.
In 1639 the Tokugawa Shogunate came to power in present day Tokyo. After unifying Japan again they began a period of isolation known as sakoku or closed country. This closed period lasted for two and half centuries. There was limited contact with the west in the Dutch enclave in present day Nagasaki. On March 31, 1854 this all changed when Commodore Matthew Perry and his coal powered ships steamed into Tokyo and forced open Japan with the Convention of Kanagawa.
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After Commodore Perry arrived in Japan some of the leaders of Japan knew they had to change if they wanted to remain in power. Many of the lesser samurai instilled a movement to move power back to the emperor again. Emperor Meiji was young and easy to influence. Many samurai resisted many of the new laws, which included removing the special status of the samurai. They organized a rebellion that led to the Bosin war (1868 to 1869). The samurai trying to fight with traditional weapons and tactics were slaughtered by the conscripted army of peasants using modern fire arms and cannons.
The Meiji Restoration led to a massive westernization of Japan and resulting in a very quick industrialization process. Japan went from a feudal farming society to an industrial power house with a modern army in under 20 years. Japan's military might was proved to the world in the Russo-Japanese War (1904 to 1905). When the Japanese army overwhelm the Russian army. Also during this time the Japanese annexed the Korean peninsula and Taiwan from China.
Militarization and expansionism where the made motives behind Imperial Japan in the first half of the 20th century. In 1931 Japan occupied Manchuria which resulted in Japan resigning from the League of Nations two years later. In 1936, Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact with Nazi Germany and eventually joined the other Axis powers in 1941.
In 1937 Japan continued its invasion of China by plunging into other parts of the country. The United States placed an oil embargo on Japan because of its invasion of China. On December 7, 1941 the Japanese bombed the United States naval base in Pearl Harbor, which brought the United States into the war. After a countless long and bloody battles the war ended with the United States dropping two atomic bombs, one on Hiroshima and the other on Nagasaki. Along with the Soviet Union joining the war against Japan, the Imperial government was forced to sign an unconditional surrender on August 15, 1945.
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Japan was in ruins after the war physically, culturally and emotionally. Every single city had been bombed into dust and no one knew what to believe in. The occupying powers forced the Japanese to adopt a pacifist constitution in 1947 which has never been changed. This pushed forward a modern democracy. The United States fearing the spread of communism quickly rebuilt the country and instilled new leaders. Many of the famous companies that the world knows today were the old war companies that the occupying powers helped rebuild after the war.
The Allied occupation of Japan ended in 1952 with the signing of the Treaty of San Francisco. As part of the treaty the United States is pledged to protect Japan against any military attack. In 1956 Japan reentered the world scene again with gaining membership to the United Nations. With hard work, government support and cleverness the Japanese people rebuilt there nation at a stunning speed and once again becoming a world power. This time with economic power, not with the barrel of a gun. The country experienced annual growth averaging around 10% for four decades eventually becoming the second largest economy in the world.
In the mid 1990s Japan suffered from a major recession. In recent years the economy has been slowly growing again. This being partly fueled by linking their economy with China's soaring growth. With growing concerns over Japan's aging population many people wonder what is in the future for Japan.
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