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The islands of Japan are born of the unimaginable violence of plate tectonics, arising as the Pacific Plate is ground beneath the Eurasian Plate. The result is a mountainous land of great beauty and peril, where the people live and thrive in a narrow corridor between volcano and sea.

Terrain and Climate[]

Japan is an island country, with a total landmass approximately equal to the size of the American state of Montana. Mountain ranges cover 80% of the country. Japan is made up of four main islands, Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu, plus dozens of smaller islands. The land is young in geologic terms, meaning the mountains are high and rugged and the rivers are narrow and torrential. There are many volcanoes in Japan, some quite active. Earthquakes are not uncommon.

Japan possesses a monsoonal climate – its climate is governed by wet and dry seasonal winds. In the winter the western side of the country faces cold, wet air from Siberia and the Sea of Japan, resulting in steady rain or snow. In the summer the eastern portion of the country gets steady wet air from the Pacific.


It is generally believed that settlers moved into Japan some 20,000 years ago (give or take 10,000 years) during the Paleolithic Period, the stage of human development characterized by the use of primitive stone tools. The migrants probably crossed the Sea of Japan via several land-bridges which for a time connected the islands with Korea and Asia.

While little is known about the pre-historic Japanese, it is clear that at some early point they gained enough sea-craft to travel safely and easily between islands, as Japanese culture and language is remarkably homogeneous throughout the chain. (This would not be the case if the island populations were isolated from each other for an extended period of time.)

The "Pre-Ceramic" culture was followed by the Jomon, which occurred from 7500 BC – 250 BC. (The term "Jomon" refers to a style of pottery in which cords are pressed into the clay to make artistic patterns.) In addition to the invention of pottery, this period saw the important progression from chipped to polished tools. The Jomon people were largely hunter-gatherers and fishermen.

The Jomon culture was followed by the Yayoi, which ran from roughly 250 BC - AD 250. This culture originated in Kyushu and featured advances in pottery, basic agriculture, plus utilization of iron and bronze implements. The Jomon also adopted ceremonial burial practices, irrigation, and textile weaving. Some of their technological and cultural advances were likely self-discovered, while others were probably gained from contact with China and Korea. With these advantages, the Yayoi culture quickly spread across Japan, overwhelming the more primitive Jomon culture.

Early Written History[]

The earliest surviving written accounts of Japan are found in China, dating from the Han period of that culture. It stated that in approximately AD 50 the "state of Nu in Wo" sent emissaries to the Later Han court. "Nu" was one of more than 100 states that made up "Wo" (Japan). Chinese court later states that some time after AD 250 a "Queen Himiko" ruled over a confederation of more than 30 states, with a capital at Yamatai. No one is certain where Yamatai was located, and no written Japanese records survive from that period.

The Tumulus (Tomb) Period, c. AD 250 – 550[]

Because of the scarcity of Japanese records, there is a lot of controversy on exactly when and how Japan unified. It is known that some time during the 4th century Yamatai disappeared and the Yamato kingdom arose. By the mid-4th century Japan had sent a large army on a mission of conquest to the Korean peninsula; to do so would require a great deal of central control fairly early in that century.

During the Yamatos' reign, farmers began using iron tools for cultivation, and the land saw more advanced creation and flooding of the fields used to grow rice, a tasty and highly-nutritious grain that would quickly become the cornerstone of Japanese cuisine. These advances meant that fewer farmers could grow greater amounts of food, allowing the Yamatos to dedicate surplus manpower to conquest and to the construction of large tombs for themselves. At this time the Japanese imported a number of technological advances from its neighbors, the most important of which may be writing from China; along with Chinese script came Confucianism.

The 5th century saw the Yamatos change to a more militant posture. The reasons for this are under debate. Some believe it is the result of an invasion and conquest of the kingdom by external warriors, while other historians believe that the Yamatos simply began more aggressively utilizing their advanced military and agriculture technology without any particular foreign influence. Whatever the cause, the Yamatos made use of their military to attack southern Korea, evidently in order to seize control of iron resources found in the area. The need for access to resources unavailable on the home islands would be a primary driver of Japanese foreign policy in the coming centuries.

The Clan System[]

This period also saw the genesis of the "uji-kabane" system in Japan. The term "uji" can be translated as "clan," while kabane refers to a hereditary title of nobility. Under this system people living in an agricultural community became members of a single clan, each member of which had a specific place within the communal hierarchy. It was believed that a bountiful harvest could be assured by paying proper respect to one's ancestors and clan gods, and thus ancestor-worship became an important component of the uji-kabane system.

After Yamato: Confucianism, Buddhism and the Law[]

The 6th century saw the decline of Yamato status and influence as the military suffered reverses at home and abroad. As the Yamatos lost power, local clan leaders gained it. The loss of central authority naturally resulted in greater internal conflict, as warlords sought to fill the growing power vacuum.

The 6th century also saw the introduction of Buddhism in Japan, probably from Korea. Prince Shotoku was a proponent of Buddhism. Ruling at the turn of the century, he took the principles of peace and salvation as the ideal for his court. Interestingly, Chinese Confucianism was also gaining ground among the Japanese nobility; Shotoku apparently looked to Confucianism for guidance as well. Shotoku was in power from 592 – 628; the Yamato clan saw a temporary revival of its power and influence during his reign.

The Japanese court fell into chaos following Shotoku's death. The powerful Shoga family seized power and killed Shotoku's heirs. They in turn were overthrown in 645 by Prince Nakano Oe and Nakatomi Kamatari, who killed all of the Shoga and anyone else who opposed the imperial family. After destroying their foes they instituted political reforms which increased the strength of the central government and weakened the more powerful clans.

At about the same time that the Japanese codified their administrative laws, they instituted criminal and civil laws as well. In doing so they borrowed heavily from the T'ang Chinese codes, altering them as necessary to fit Japan's specific needs. Under the Japanese system the people were divided into free men and slaves. Less than 10% of the entire population of Japan were slaves; the majority of people were freemen engaged in farming.

The political system survived reasonably intact for several centuries, but by the 10th century flaws in the structure began to undermine the government. Several great clans gained control of important government positions, using their power to funnel huge amounts of wealth into their coffers. Taxes were increasingly high, and power and wealth continued to accrue to the central aristocracy, at the expense of the provincial clans and the farmers everywhere. Partly as a result of growing dissatisfaction with central government, a new class of warrior aristocrats known as "samurai" began to emerge.

The Rise of the Samurai[]

The tenth and eleventh centuries saw the rise of the Samurai as a major new power in Japan. Outside of court Samurai warlords conquered entire provinces; inside the court they became bodyguards and generals for the aristocracy. Towards the end of the 11th century the Samurai general Taira Kiyomori gained so much power and influence that he became the prime minister and virtually ran the Imperial court. In fact, his son Antoku ascended to the Imperial throne in 1180. Taira rule did not last long, however; in 1185 they were destroyed by the Minamoto clan in a sea battle which culminated a five-year bloody struggle for primacy known as the "Gempei War."

After the victory, Minamoto leader Yoritomo established a military government, or "shogunate," in which the shogun (short for seii taishogun, or "barbarian-quelling generalissimo") would rule Japan in the name of the Emperor. This form of government proved remarkably persistent, surviving almost 700 years before it was abolished in 1868.

Over the next several centuries power passed to the Hojo family, who in the early 12th century beat back an attempt by Emperor Go-Toba to regain actual power. At the end of the 12th century they defeated several Mongol attempts to invade Japan, helped by two fortuitous typhoons which destroyed large numbers of attackers at crucial points in the battles. The Japanese called these storms kamikaze, or "divine winds" sent by Heaven to protect them from the barbarians.

The Collapse of Central Authority[]

The Hojo clan remained in power until 1333, when Emperor Go-Daigo launched a coup to return actual power to the imperial family. He was assisted in the battle by a large group of aristocrats, plus several samurai clans and some militant Buddhist monks. A number of important allies of Go-Daigo were unhappy with their cut of the spoils, however, and in 1336 they revolted, driving the emperor north into the Yoshino Mountains. For the next 60 years there were two imperial courts, the Northern and Southern, with control of Japan split between them. The Southern emperor remained a figurehead, with real power in the hands of the Southern shogunate. In 1391 the imperial courts were reunited, with power held by the great shogun Ashikaga Takauji.

The 14th century saw growth in the power of the farming families and communities, and concomitant increase in resistance to the warlords. Large uprisings broke out in 1428, 1429 and 1441, and almost yearly afterwards. In 1467 civil war broke out over who should succeed the shogun Ashikaga; this war would drag on for some 10 years and see the destruction of many large temples and the displacement of great numbers of civilians. Although the war ended in 1477 central authority was badly eroded, and the era saw numerous local rebellions and the rise of a new class of local warlords known as "daimyo."

The Warring States Period[]

The years 1338-1573 are known as the "Warring States period." This period saw near-incessant warfare, as the shogunate and the imperial family were both nearly powerless, and battles for primacy among the daimyos raged across the countryside. Many castles were constructed during these years, and Japanese warriors grew quite adept at siege warfare, especially after European traders taught them how to manufacture muskets.

Oda Nobunaga and The Unification of Japan[]

In 1549 the father of a young nobleman named Oda Nobunaga died, leaving his son some land, some money, and a group of samurai retainers. Within eleven years he had defeated all opposition and taken control of Owari province. A brilliant visionary and military leader, Oda quickly adopted the new musket firearms, using them with deadly efficiency against those who stood against him. In 1562 he allied with Tokugawa Ieyasu, a neighboring feudal lord who would turn out to be one of the great leaders of all time.

In the 1560s Nobunaga marched on and captured Kyoto, the historical center of power of Japan. In 1573 he deposed the Shogun, consolidating his actual and ceremonial power. By the time of his death by assassination in 1582 Oda had unified nearly half of Japan. See Oda's Civilopedia entry for more details on this remarkable leader's life.

Oda was succeeded by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the son of a peasant who rose to prominence as a warrior and later commander in Oda's service. By 1590 Hideyoshi had unified all of Japan. As part of his policy to strengthen the central government, he disarmed the peasantry and instituted tax reform. He also instituted a feudal system, forcing farmers to stay in their villages and artisans and merchants to remain in the cities. Hideyoshi died in 1598, and Tokugawa Ieyasu took his place. In 1603 he assumed the title of shogun.

Having happily utilized western weapons and personnel to achieve the unification of Japan, Tokugawa quickly came to see them as potential threats to his rule. He (and his heirs) all but obliterated Christianity in Japan, ousted virtually all westerners from the islands, and forbid the use of muskets to any but his warriors. In 1638 the Japanese closed all ports to Foreign traders. For the next two centuries Japan remained stubbornly isolated from the west, a state that probably saved it from the humiliating European occupation and colonization suffered by so many of its Asian neighbors.

The Opening of Japan and the Meiji Restoration[]

In the 19th century the Netherlands were the only European power trading with Japan, and their contact was quite limited. By mid-century several attempts had been made by various European powers to establish diplomatic relations with Japan, but with no success. Seeking ports to fuel its merchant and fishing fleet, the United States decided to press the issue, sending a modern fleet under the command of Commodore Matthew C. Perry into Uraga Bay in 1853. The shock of foreign military power displayed right at Japan's hitherto inviolate shores destroyed the ancient Tokugawa shogunate, and power at long last reverted to the Emperor.

The young Meiji emperor, who succeeded to the throne in 1867, began a policy of radical reform in Japan, seeking to make it militarily and economically equal to the western powers whose modern warships ruled the seas around it. The so-called "Meiji Restoration" was an extraordinary effort in which in a period of less than a century Japan abolished feudalism, almost entirely disbanded the samurai class, and returned ownership of land to the farmers who worked it. The government initiated a program of industrialization, which proved remarkably successful in a very short period of time. In the late 19th century Japan adopted a constitution roughly based upon European models.

By the early twentieth century, Japan had emerged as a major power – the great power in the Pacific, save for the United States – though other countries were slow to recognize it, much to their misfortune.

The Sino-Japanese War[]

In 1894, China went to war with Japan over who would control Korea. Japan won easily, gaining nominal independence for Korea from China, plus Formosa, the Liaotung Peninsula, the Pescadores Islands, and several other pieces of territory for itself. Japan also extorted unfair trade agreements from China. The western powers insisted that Japan return the Liaotung Peninsula to China, who then leased it and its important naval base to Russia. This infuriated Japan.

The Russo-Japanese War[]

In the Boxer Rebellion (1900), Chinese citizens rose up against all of the foreigners busily selling them opium and robbing their country blind. The western powers and Japan responded by sending in troops who slaughtered the Chinese citizens and occupied yet more Chinese terrain. Russia occupied Manchuria, which Japan saw as a threat to its Korean and Chinese possessions. In 1904 the Japanese attacked the Russian fleet without warning (a strategy which they would reemploy later against other inattentive westerners with great effect). The Japanese were spectacularly successful against the Russians, proving to an astonished world that they could take on a major western power and defeat it.

In the peace treaty with Russia, Japan received primacy in Korea, plus it acquired Russia's possessions in China. President Roosevelt received the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering the treaty. (There were not many Chinese or Koreans on the Nobel committee at that time.)

Imperial Japan[]

Bolstered by its success against China and the west, Japan seized the opportunity to increase its power in East Asia. It tightened its grip on Korea and its portion of China, and in World War I it seized Germany's possessions in Asia and the Pacific. In the post-war period a series of military treaties between European powers, the United States and Japan sought to limit Japanese expansion while assuring Japan of its independence.

In the 1930s the militarists came to power in Japan, in part as a response to the hardships the country faced during the Great Depression. Western and Chinese tariffs (and anti-Japanese racism) limited Japan's ability to earn money through exports, money it needed to purchase food for its growing population. The militarists argued that the only way to open foreign markets was through force. That, plus fear of communists and growing anger with the government caused the Japanese military to seek to expand its power structure. In the late 1920s the military increased operations in Manchuria without government approval, and the government was too weak to stop them.

In May 1932 naval officers murdered the prime minister, and in 1936 several important politicians were assassinated as rebellious military units took over central Tokyo. Though the rebellion was quickly put down, it was clear that the government survived only at the military's pleasure. The new young Emperor Hirohito was believed to be a progressive, but he remained silent over fears that the throne itself would be imperiled if he spoke out. It was clear that the Japanese military was in charge of the country, in fact if not in name.

The Slide into World War II[]

By the 1930s Japan's relations with the USSR, Britain and the United States were bad, and getting worse. The USSR resented its defeat by Japan in the last century, and it also hoped that the Japanese government would be overthrown and the country would become a workers' paradise just like Russia. Britain and the US were opposed to Japan's brutal policies in China and Korea, and feared that Japan's growing naval might would threaten their own considerable interests in Asia and across the Pacific. Attempting to counter the British/American pressure, in 1936 Japan signed a mutual defense pact with Germany and Italy, and another in 1940. Facing a growing German threat on the west, the USSR sought to shore up its eastern borders by signing a non-aggression pact with Japan in 1940.

After the Nazis attacked Russia in 1941, Japan occupied northern Indochina, seeking to block British supply routes into China, where it supported the Nationalist Chinese forces against Japan. In response the United States froze Japanese assets and, worst of all, implemented an oil embargo against Japan. Japan had two choices: agree to US terms and retreat from Indochina and possibly China itself, or seize the rich oil fields of the Dutch East Indies. Negotiations between the US and Japan went nowhere, and the Japanese government decided upon war.

World War II[]

World War II started out remarkably, shockingly well for Japan, with hugely successful surprise attacks on the US bases at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and in the Philippines. The Japanese Navy nearly drove the battered US forces right out of the Pacific Ocean, but they were never quite able to deliver the final killing blow. Over the next few years the United States industry built ships, planes, guns, and submarines, more than replacing their early losses. The US Navy and Army learned quickly and soon began the grindingly, heartbreakingly difficult task of driving the tenacious Japanese back across the Pacific.

In August 1945 the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, largely destroying the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japanese surrender followed quickly.


After the war Japan lost all of its overseas possessions. In addition, it was subject to United States occupation, and the USSR occupied some northern islands (the ownership of which still remains under dispute).

American occupation was relatively benign, as these things are judged. The Americans imposed a democratic constitution on Japan and barred Japan from possessing a military. The US also helped (forced) Japan to dismantle the remnants of its feudal system and institute a vast program of land reform. It also helped Japan to rapidly rebuild its infrastructure and monetary system. The US hoped that Japan would become a vital, thriving democracy and capitalist nation, a counterbalance to the growing Communist power in Asia. In this it has succeeded far beyond its wildest dreams.

Japan Today[]

Benefitting from the terms imposed upon it by the victors of World War II, Japan has used the money other nations have had to spend on militaries on more beneficial and profitable endeavors. Japan today is indeed a thriving democracy and an economic powerhouse. Although it has suffered from government/business cronyism which led to a collapse of the Japanese banking system in the '90s, overall Japan has enjoyed a meteoric rise in economic power since the war. Its people are highly educated and motivated and quite technologically advanced.

As the United States' position in the Pacific has weakened and other powers have grown, Japan has cautiously begun to rebuild its military. It still relies on the US for the bulk of its defenses, but for how long it can continue to do so remains unknown.

Assuming that Japan can maintain cordial relations with its neighbors, Russia, China and South Korea – and assuming that North Korea doesn't implode – Japan's future is bright.

Japanese Trivia[]

There are 5 million vending machines (jidohanbaiki) in Japan. That's one for every 25 people.

The oldest festival in the world is reputed to be the Aoi Matsuri, held every May 15th or 16th in Kyoto. It originated during the reign of Emperor Kinmei, sometime between 539 and 571 AD.

The longest suspension bridge in the world is the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge connecting Kobe with Awaji Island. Opened in 1998, the central span is 1,991 metres in length - about 1.5 times the size of the Golden Gate Bridge, and 4 times the size of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The oldest novel in the world was written in Japan over a thousand years ago. The Tale of Genji was written in the 11th century by Murasaki Shikibu, a member of the Imperial Court. Her lengthy (over 500,000 words) novel concerns the romantic and sexual exploits and intrigues of the Imperial Court centered on the main character of Genji.



Meiji, in full Meiji Tenno, personal name Mutsuhito, (born Nov. 3, 1852, Kyoto—died July 30, 1912, Tokyo), emperor of Japan from 1867 to 1912, during whose reign Japan was dramatically transformed from a feudal country into one of the great powers of the modern world.

The second son of the emperor Komei, Mutsuhito was declared crown prince in 1860; following the death of his father in 1867, he was raised to the throne. In 1868 his coronation ceremony was carried out, and he took the name Meiji, by which the era of his reign is also known. Meiji's accession to the throne coincided with the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and the restoration to the emperor of supreme executive authority in the country. Unlike Komei, he supported the growing popular consensus on the need for modernization of Japan along Western lines that had developed as a result of the country's resumption of contact with other nations after a 250-year period of cultural and economic isolation. In 1868 Meiji took the “Charter Oath of Five Principles,” which launched Japan on the course of westernization. As emperor he formally ordered, though he did not initiate, the abolition of the feudal land system (1871), the creation of a new school system (1872), adoption of the cabinet system of government (1885), promulgation of the Meiji Constitution (1889), and opening of the Diet (1890). He played active roles in the prosecution of the Sino-Japanese War (1894–95) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05). In 1910 he issued an edict proclaiming the annexation of Korea to Japan.

Meiji himself epitomized the superimposition of Western ideas and innovations onto a base of Japanese culture; he wore Western clothes and ate Western-style food but also managed to compose 100,000 poems in the traditional Japanese style during his lifetime.

"Meiji: Emperor of Japan," Encyclopedia Britannica.

Unique Components[]


The daimyo were the powerful feudal lords in pre-modern Japan who ruled most of the country from their vast, hereditary land holdings. In the term, "dai" literally means "large", and "myo" stands for myoden, meaning private land. Subordinate only to the shogun, daimyo were the most powerful feudal rulers from the 10th century to the middle 19th century in Japan. From the shugo of the Muromachi period through the Sengoku to the daimyo of the Edo period, the rank had a long and varied history. The term "daimyo" is also sometimes used to refer to the leading figures of such clans, also called "lord". It was usually, though not exclusively, from these warlords that a shogun arose or a regent was chosen. Daimyo often hired samurai to guard their land and they paid the samurai in land or food. Relatively few daimyo could afford to pay samurai in money. The daimyo era came to an end soon after the Meiji restoration when Japan adopted the prefecture system in 1871.


Mikasa is a pre-dreadnought battleship built for the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) in the late 1890s, and was the only ship of her class. Named after Mount Mikasa in Nara, Japan, the ship served as the flagship of Admiral Togo Heihachiro throughout the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, including the Battle of Port Arthur on the second day of the war and the Battles of the Yellow Sea and Tsushima. Days after end of the Russo-Japanese War, Mikasa '​s magazine accidentally exploded and sank the ship. She was salvaged and her repairs took over two years to complete. Afterwards, the ship served coastal defence during World War I and supported Japanese forces during the Siberian Intervention in the Russian Civil War.