replica of Yamato-era clothes
The early history of Japan is characterized by isolation from the outside world. This is understandable because of Japan’s geographic location. The Japanese archipelago is located in the Pacific Ocean and surrounded from its neighbouring countries by the sea. However, there are also periods in Japan’s history when there were strong outside influences from the mainland.

Yoshiro Hatano and Tsuguo Shimazaki wrote: “The land mass of Japan is rather small and approximately 87 percent of the land is mountainous. As a consequence, fields and basins of rather small scale are divided by mountain ranges. From the beginning, this geographic circumstance has isolated local communities - which in the early days were independent countries - producing different cultures, customs, and religious events in different areas. This situation persisted into this century. Since the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the influence of Western cultures, along with economic growth and the development and popularization of the mass media system in recent years, has promoted an increasingly shared (common) education and culture, resulting in the current unification of the Japanese culture. Cultures imported from China and Korea since the fifth century, and from the Western world since the Meiji Era, have been well absorbed by the Japanese people. The Japanese always kept a flexible attitude in accepting foreign influences to amalgamate traditional and imported cultures, forming their own specific culture. [Source: Yoshiro Hatano, Ph.D. and Tsuguo Shimazaki Encyclopedia of Sexuality, ++]

In his book The Clash of Civilizations, historian Samuel Huntington described Japanese civilization as one of the world’s eight original and unique civilizations. With the exception of a few jingoist periods, Japan has a history of tolerance. Some attribute this to the eclectic nature of the first Japanese who arrived from the Asian mainland, the islands of Southeast Asia and the islands off of Siberia.

Still, evidence of fighting goes way back in history. Many of Japan's historic hill-forts, or yama-jiro, were small enclosures, more like fortified manors than actual forts. The ramparts were built of earth rather than stone, and very little trace of them remains today.

The oldest written records in Japan date to the A.D. 8th century when Japan was already a full-fledged nation state, with an imperial palace and capital in Nara. There are three primary sources of ancient Japanese history: 1) Japanese mythology and early Japanese written records; 2) archeological sites; and 3) Chinese written sources.

Websites: Kojiki, Nihongi and Sacred Shinto Texts ; Imperial Household Agency of Emperors of Japan ; Early Japanese History Websites: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,; Essay on Early Japan ; Japanese Archeology ; Ancient Japan Links on Archeolink ; Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives ; National Museum of Japanese History ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents

Stopping the Mongol invasion of Japan

Nightmare and Defiance in Japanese History

Paul Theroux wrote in The Daily Beast: The popular notion of Japanese life is one of order, where tranquillity is the ideal made into an aesthetic, whether in poetry, gardening, flower arranging, the tea ceremony, or tittuping geishas. Yet Japanese history, a chronicle of disasters both natural and man-made, helps us understand why it is also a culture of defiance. The Japanese know that they live precariously on these steep volcanic islands. Their iconic mountain, Fuji, is a volcano. Mount Asama in central Honshu has been erupting regularly for 1,500 years — the last time in 2009. Vulcanism, an aspect of their uniqueness, is celebrated; their sense of being offshore, apart, at risk — fires, earthquakes, floods, storms, as well as catastrophic bombings — is part of their culture, not as survivors but prevailing and making themselves better.

Japan was hammered by nuclear bombs, but you could argue — many have — that it was retribution for waging a war that no one else wanted. And many Japanese are realistic about that final curtain. Seeing me tearful in Nagasaki 30 years ago, my Japanese translator, Hiroyuki Agawa, a distinguished war historian, chuckled and said, “But if we’d had the H-bomb, we would have dropped it on you!”

Vulnerable, shaken by the earthquake, flooded and massacred by the tsunami, poisoned by the damaged reactors, Japan is universally — and rightly — perceived as a victim and has attracted the sympathy of the world. Until the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in 2011, Japan had never been pitied. To the outside world it seemed unknowable, smug in its secrecies, its cult of the samurai. Even after the Kobe earthquake it remained itself, not asking for help.

When Asahi Shimbun asked scholars to pick the top 50 books decade 2000-2010, the No. 1 spot went to "Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies" by Jared Diamond, an American scientist. The book examines the history of the human race since the end of the last ice age 13,000 years ago and discusses why some societies prosper more than others. In "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," a sequel to "Guns, Germs and Steel," Diamond postulates that Japan successfully maintained its densely populated society — one of the densest in the advanced world — because of its favorable natural and geographical features and the efficient management and revival of forests during the Edo Period (1603-1867).

Things said by Koreans to have been introduced by Koreans to Japan

Outside Influences and the Development of Japan’s Culture

"Nothing similar may be found in foreign lands," wrote Kitabatake Chikafusa when he described Japan in his fourteenth century Jinno sh t ki (Chronicle of the Direct Descent of the Divine Sovereigns). Although Japan's culture developed late in Asian terms and was much influenced by China and later the West, its history, like its art and literature, is special among world civilizations. As some scholars have argued, these outside influences may have "corrupted" Japanese traditions, yet once absorbed they also enriched and strengthened the nation, forming part of a vibrant and unique culture. [Source: Library of Congress]

Early in Japan's history, society was controlled by a ruling elite of powerful clans. The most powerful emerged as a kingly line and later as the imperial family in Yamato (modern Nara Prefecture or possibly in northern Kyushu) in the third century A.D., claiming descent from the gods who created Japan. An imperial court and government, shaped by Chinese political and social institutions, was established. Often, powerful court families effected a hereditary regency, having established control over the emperor. The highly developed culture attained between the eighth and the twelfth centuries was followed by a long period of anarchy and civil war, and a feudal society developed in which military overlords ran the government on behalf of the emperor, his court, and the regent. Although the Yamato court continued control of the throne, in practice a succession of dynastic military regimes ruled the now-decentralized country. In the late sixteenth century, Japan began a process of reunification followed by a period of great stability and peace, in which contact with the outside world was limited and tightly controlled by the government.

Confronted by the West--inopportunely during the economically troubled late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries--Japan emerged gradually as a modern, industrial power, exhibiting some democratic institutions by the end of World War I. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, phenomenal social upheaval, accompanied by political, military, and economic successes, led to an overabundance of nationalist pride and extremist solutions, and to even faster modernization. Representative government was finally replaced by increasingly authoritarian regimes, which propelled Japan into World War II. After the cataclysm of nuclear war, Japan rebuilt itself based on a new and earnest desire for peaceful development, becoming an economic superpower in the second half of the twentieth century.

Comparison Between Japan and Britain

Tetsuo Yamaori, a former professor of the history of religion at the Kyoto-based International Research Center for Japanese Studies, wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Japan often has been compared to Britain. For instance, both countries are considered to have experienced similar types of feudalism before modernization and followed identical paths of economic development. Some people see similarities between Japan and Britain because they are island nations. Parallels are often made between the Imperial family of Japan and the British royal family.

“In reality, however, the two countries are totally dissimilar. Britain has a long history of colonial rule and intense wars with other countries to expand its empire, whereas Japan does not. Perhaps this is why Japan's foreign policy is so passive and irresolute and its diplomacy wishy-washy, while Britain's is shrewd in its international affairs and has tenacious diplomatic skills.”

Thriving with a Weak and Poor Government in Japan

Meiji Emperor
James Huffman, a professor emeritus at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio and the author of several books on Japan, including Japan in World History and Creating a Public: People and Press in Meiji Japan , said Japan had turned inward many times throughout its history and has a tradition of poor leaders and week governments. Huffman told the Daily Yomiuri: “You go back to Ashikaga [Muromachi period, 1336-1573], there was no central government worth talking about. You go back to the Heian period [794-1192] and we talk about how totally incompetent the government was. And I began thinking, "Was there ever a time when there was a competent government?"[Source: Cameron McLauchlan, Daily Yomiuri, January 1, 2011]

“The Japanese people have always had an entrepreneurial spirit. They have always been highly innovative. That spirit may spring partly from the fact that government control has been lacking, or at least highly ineffective, in some periods. And the weak central control may explain why the towns and villages are where everything was happening in those periods. I think this energy comes from qualities in the common person, whether it's business or whatever, almost regardless of government. I don't get so upset when the government is doing badly, because they always have.

“One other thing, and this is more abstract, I think Japanese people balance concern for the self and concern for the society. Our stereotype is Japan is group-oriented, but I think that is oversimplified. I think there's an interesting balance — and you can see it far back — between this looking out for yourself but always doing it within the context that "I'm part of a bigger community."

Outward- and Inward-Looking Japan

On Japan being inward-looking, Huffman said: “If you look at history, the outward turns have always come after some sense of crisis, or some sense of deficiency. In the Nara period [710-784], you could probably argue that a lot of it came because they became keenly aware of China's power and technological, cultural — by the standards of the day — and philosophical development, but also because a lot of foreigners came to Japan, Chinese and Koreans especially, and fed into the great development then. Certainly in the Meiji period [1868-1912], it's that sense of threat from the imperialist world. It's always been some kind of a perceived threat or opportunity from the outside world.” [Source: Cameron McLauchlan, Daily Yomiuri, January 1, 2011]

Nagasaki, the only place in Japan
that allowed foreigners for 300 years
Japan has had periods of “dynamism and interacting with, learning from and adapting things from the rest of the world... followed by periods in which it pulled in, and stopped looking outward. You go way back to the Jomon period [ca 10,000 B.C.-ca 300 B.C.], when Japan is the first country in the world to have ceramics, and yet for whatever reason the early Japanese people didn't develop bronze, didn't develop any of the things that developed in China until way afterward. When you reach the fifth, sixth, seventh centuries and get to the Nara period, in which there is a wave of adapting Chinese things that is every bit as frenetic as the Meiji period trying to catch up with the West?

“The decision to go to war was caused by another inward turn. The Great Depression occurred, and the Japanese were hurt badly by the international markets. They found that every country turned inward because of the Depression and looked out for itself. And so there was a decision to develop an empire that's economically self-sufficient. To me, that's probably the most important precipitating event — I think there are other long-range factors — so that, in a sense, is a turn inward, even though on the surface it looks like a turn outward.?

“I think World War II and Article 9 of the Constitution have had a powerful impact. I'm struck with the fact that Japan remains an amazingly pacifist nation, compared with every other economic power in the world. “

Japan’s Long Periods of Peace

Japan’s very long periods of peace — including a 350 year period during the Heian period (794-1192) and a 250 years period during the Edo period (1603-1867) — some have argued are unique in the civilized world Tetsuo Yamaori, a former professor of the history of religion at the Kyoto-based International Research Center for Japanese Studies, wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “The 3-1/2 centuries of peace in the Heian period began with Emperor Kanmu's (737-806) relocation of the ancient capital to Heiankyo (Capital of Peace), which now is Kyoto, and lasted until the Hogen and Heiji rebellions in 1156 and 1159, respectively. Before these power struggles, the Heian period was not totally free from insurgency in some regions, but the foundation of the aristocratic regime in Heiankyo was not seriously affected. [Source: Tetsuo Yamaori, Yomiuri Shimbun, February 18, 2011]

“In the Edo period, the 250 years of peace started when Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) established the shogunate in Edo, now Tokyo, and lasted until the outbreak of a series of upheavals that eventually led to the restoration of Imperial rule. Indeed, with the exception of the Shimabara rebellion of 1637-38 in Kyushu, the nation was at peace during that time.

“These periods of peace are historical phenomena peculiar to Japan and can justly be called miraculous. Nothing like this occurred in European, Chinese or Indian history. The terms "Pax Romana" and "Pax Britannica" often strike our ears, but when do we ever hear "Pax Japonica" — Latin for "Japanese Peace.” Given the historical evidence, I think this is the term we should use to define Japan's periods of peace.:

How did this occur? Yamaori wrote: “I believe that what I call Pax Japonica was viable because of one major factor: the emergence of harmonious relations between religion and state. When this relationship ruptured, the nation entered periods of civil war and upheavals. Most typical of these was the 400-year period from the Kamakura period (1192-1333) to the Nanbokucho, or the Southern and Northern Dynasties, period (1336-1392), and the Sengoku (Warring States) period in the 15th and 16th centuries.

“What does a harmonious relationship between religion and state specifically mean? Firstly, it refers to the polytheistic system allowing the omnibus presence of Shintoism and Buddhism and secondly to the nation's unique governing system under the symbolic emperor system. The former interpretation relates to the peaceful coexistence of Buddhism, a foreign religion, and the ethnic religion of Shintoism. It should be particularly noted that the fusion of two religions is extremely rare in the world.

“As for the existing symbolic emperor system, it is my longstanding belief that its original model was formulated during the Heian period when the Fujiwara family controlled the Imperial court by acting as regents and advisers. In short, the distinguishing aspect of this system was a mutually complementary governing regime with the political and religious establishments refraining from infringing upon each other's turf. As I mentioned earlier, the nation was thrown into chaos with civil wars raging in the Kamakura period and a span from the Meiji era (1868-1912) to the first two decades of the Showa era...In any debate on Pax Japonica, we should note that capital punishment existed during the Heian period although no executions were carried out and that Japanese were prohibited from owning firearms during the Edo period.

an episode from 47 Ronin

Upheaval, Change and Defeat in Japanese History

Sawa Kurotani wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: The Ako incident in 1703, in which the former retainers of the Ako clan avenged their lord's unjust death, marked an important moment in which the roles of samurai shifted from professional warriors to bureaucrats and administrators. The former Ako retainers' adherence to the outdated code of conduct and obsolete wartime ethos has solicited popular sympathy ever since its first theatrical adaptation in the late Edo period, but gained new significance in the 1960s and '70s when the old was rapidly replaced by the new. [Source: Sawa Kurotani, Daily Yomiuri, December 27, 2011]

The Sengoku period, with its chaotic social environment of gekokujo--the "bottom" overthrowing the "top" in bloody battles, turning social hierarchy upside down overnight--seems far removed from a postwar Japan ruled by social order and peacefulness. Yet, the "battle and conquer" ideology of Sengoku warlords appealed to postwar generations of sarariiman who saw themselves as warriors fighting and winning in a fierce economic battle to catapult Japan to a position of great power and global influence. The three most famous warlords of the period--Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu--are also known for their distinct leadership styles, which resonated with corporate managers who identified with one of the three leaders.

The turbulent period toward the end of the 19th century, when the long rule of the Tokugawa shogunate collapsed and political control of Japan was "returned" to the emperor, represents another moment of upheaval when established social order broke down and competing world views clashed against one another. Key actors of this era, such as Tokugawa Yoshinobu, Sakamoto Ryoma and Saigo Takamori, had to set aside ingrained prejudices, shake hands with age-old enemies and embrace foreign ideas and new technologies to strengthen a newly emerging nation. They had also forsaken their personal well-being and ignored individual gain for the sake of a larger cause.

In his recent book, economist Taichi Sakaiya identifies the three most significant moments of "defeat" in Japan's modern history: the end of the Tokugawa shogunate, World War II and the two decades following the collapse of "bubble" economy. After the first two defeats, Japan came up with new paradigms to reinvent itself and move forward. Now that Japan is facing its third defeat, he implores its political and economic leaders to devise a new way of thinking and show a clear course of action so Japan can once again rise from the ashes.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, MIT Education

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, Daily Yomiuri, Japan Times, Mainichi Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2016

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