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History of Japan (prehistoric to modern)

» Articles, Features, Japanese Culture and History | posted by hinatasou on 01/29/2006 [Discuss]

History of Japan

By hinatasouJapan’s past can be divided into seven parts: prehistoric, protohistoric, ancient, medieval, early modern, modern, and contemporary. All but contemporary Japan will be discussed.

Prehistoric (senshi)

Most of Japan’s earliest history is obtained from archaeological findings and from references in Chinese and Korean literature. Archaeologists divide prehistoric Japan into four major periods: Paleolithic preceramic period prior to 10,000BC; the Jomon period (10,000-300BC); with the introduction of ceramics the Yayoi period (300BC-300AD); and the Kofun period (300-710AD), the age of burial mounds and beginning political centralization.

The first inhabitants were Paleolithic hunter-gatherers who relied upon stone blades. About 13,000 years ago, sea levels began to rise. As Japan’s climate changed a new culture persisted called the Jomon (’cord marked’) named for their magnificent pottery. (The pottery also carried the cord mark, hence the name). Commonly thought of as hunter-gatherers, by 1000BC they were also cultivating the green-leaf shiso and rice, introduced by southern China.

By 300BC the Jomon culture was replaced by the Yayoi characterized by less lurid ceramics, bronze and iron tools and weapons, and the systematic development of wet-field rice agriculture. These contributed to increased stratification and the emergence of a hierarchy.

Near the end of the Yayoi period, clans were building mounded stone tombs for the burial of their chieftains.

Between 200BC and 500AD, waves of immigrants, including metal workers and artisans, from Korea and China arrived in Japan. In 405AD, a Korean scribe named Wani began to teach the Chinese script and becoming Japan’s earliest written language. However, all was not peaceful as invasions and raids broke out between Korea and Japan.

Protohistoric (genshi)

By the end of the 7th century, Japan society was restructured inspired by the Chinese centralized imperial administration. The Asuka period (593-710BC) marks the final phase of this transition. During this time the court of Empress Suiko was established with Prince Shotoku serving as her reagent. Shotoku labored extensively to elevate the power and prestige of the imperial linage. He developed a seventeen-article constitution. The Japanese court sponsored Buddhism; built temples, palaces, and capitals after Korean and Chinese models; began to write histories in Chinese characters; and laid out a Chinese style imperial state structure called the Ritsuryo system.

Ancient Period (kodai)

In 710 a new capital was established at Nara modeled after the Chinese Tang dynasty capital. During the Nara period (710-794AD), Buddhism and Confucianism were used to support political authority. In fact, the Japanese ruler claimed to rule by divine right. Centralized systems for taxation, census, and landholding were instituted as well as a road system. However, the imperial administration and the ‘equal field’ land holding system were showing signs of strain. In 784AD, Emperor Kammu tried to revive the Ritsuryo system moving the capital in 794AD to Heiankyo (Kyoto).

From 794-1185AD, the Heian Period, the imperial court became dominated by nobles of the Fujiwara family. The court had difficulty controlling private estates and maintaining control of the provinces. Warrior bands began to assume more power, first in the provinces, and then within the court when the Taira family seized power.

Medieval Period (chusei)

The Taira were overthrown in 1185 by warriors lead by Minamoto no Yoritomo, the first shogun of Japan, who established a military government called the Kamakura Shogunate (Bakufu). The shogunate assumed control of the administration of justice, imperial succession, and defense of the country against the Mongols. In 1333 a coalition by Emperor Go-Daigo overthrew the regime. After several decades of civil war, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu became the third shogun. Although Yoshimitsu won the support of provincial warriors, his successors did not. Beginning with the Onin War (1467-1477AD), the country slipped into a sporadic civil war known as the Warring States period in which local feudal lords ignored the shogunate and struggled with each other for control.

Early modern (kinsei)

[Anime reference: Samurai Deeper Kyo]

In the 16th century there was a gradual national reunification movement. In the Azuchi-Monoyama Period (1568-1600), Toyotomi Hideyoshi established military control over the country seeking to pacify Japan by confiscating swords and separating samurai from peasants. His death in 1598 left his heir vulnerable to the rival daimyo (feudal lord). Tokugawa Ieyasu after the battle of Sekigahara in 1600 assumed the title of shogun and established a powerful and enduring shogunate in Edo (Tokyo). This became known as the Edo Period (1600-1868). The Tokugawa Shogunate directly controlled Edo while the daimyo governed 250 subdomains. During this time Christianity was eradicated.

Modern (kindai)

The Tokugawa gave the country more than two centuries of peace and relative seclusion from the outside world. In 1853 Perry’s visit drew potential allies in Japan. Nobles were heavily in debt, unable to draw more income from agriculture, and were willing to embark upon foreign trade. Scholars were eager of learning Western science and medicine. There were patriots who were fearful that Japan was becoming defenseless against Western guns. Under these pressures, the shogunate in 1854 signed a commercial treaty with the United States and Europe.

The following years sowed the seeds of later resentment between Japan and the West. The first treaties provided that Japan maintain a low tariff that could not be changed without the foreign powers’ consent. Second was the idea of extraterritoriality. This meant that Europeans and Americans residing in Japan were not subject to Japanese law but remained under the jurisdiction of their homelands.

After 1854 a strong antiforeign reaction developed. Lords Satsuma, Choshu, and Tosa overthrew the shogunate in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, named after emperor Mutsuhito. They wanted to preserve, revitalize, and strengthen the country. The only way to save Japan would be to learn the secrets of Western power. Social, political, and economic institutions were reformed along Western lines. Feudalism was abolished. A national currency with decimal units was adopted as well as a national postal service and school system. Buddhism was discouraged, and monasteries were confiscated. In 1889 Japan adopted a constitution creating a two-chambered parliament.

[Anime reference: Rurouni Kenshin]

Industrial and financial modernization proceeded. In 1869 the first telegraph system connected Yokohama and Tokyo, and in 1872 the first railroad connected those two cities. Population rose to 46 million in 1902. The Taisho period (1912-1926AD) marked Japan’s acceptance as a major world power.

[Anime reference: Sakura Wars]

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