Japanese History In a NutshellAlthough unquestionably a modern country, Japan is a nation deeply rooted in the past. Many of the customs and practices which dictate Japanese culture hearken back to centuries ago. Time, for instance, is still divided into eras which correspond to the reigns of emperors. The year 2000, therefore, is often displayed simply as "12" - because it is the 12th year of the Heisei Era (that of the current emperor, Akihito).
Japan's history can be traced back at least 2,000 years to the first Japanese state and the founding of the Shinto religion. By the fifth century CE, Japan had adopted the Chinese calendar, Chinese sciences, Chinese arts, and the good-manners teachings of Confucius. Buddhism was introduced in the 6th century with increased trade between China, Korea and Japan.
Nara became the first permanent capital in the 8th Century, but was supplanted by Kyoto in 794, where it remained for over 800 years. The emperor and imperial family rarely played an active role in politics - nor did they bother themselves with the rivalries between feudal warlords that encompassed this period. Local clans, centered around different samurai, built their own private armies and fought for the reins of government.
Portuguese traders were the first Westerners to arrive in 1543 and missionaries followed - tens of thousands of Japanese were converted to Catholicism during the 16th century. In 1603, under the new shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the government expelled all Westerners and persecuted Japanese converts. The only trade between Japan and the Dutch, Chinese and Koreans took place near Nagasaki. The last leader of the Tokugawa shogunate was overthrown in 1868 and the return of power to the emperors heralded the start of the Meiji Restoration period. The young emperor Mutsuhito established his residence in the shoguns’ former capitol at Edo. The city was renamed Tokyo, the "eastern capital."
Under a strong, deified monarchy and the new open door policy, there followed rapid change and much emphasis on building a strong military power. As a result of emerging victorious in wars against China (1894-95) and against Russia (1904-05), Japan gained Taiwan and Karafuto in 1895, Korea in 1910, and a strong sense of national destiny.
Emperor Hirohito (the Showa emperor) succeeded to the throne in 1926. During his reign, various militarist factions caught the ear of the government and emperor, and full scale war broke out with China in 1937. Entrenched in a culture of infallibility and god-given ascendancy, the nation soon had designs on the entire Pacific Rim. Intent to lure the United States into a Pacific War led to the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941.
A member of the Axis powers, with Italy and Germany, Japan captured all of East and Southeast Asia, as well as some of the American Aleutian Islands, prior to 1942. The nation’s resolve began to dissipate soon after the navy's defeat at the Battle of Midway in 1942, although the war raged on for three years until the August 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In post-war times, Japan worked hard to regain its economic strength and stability in an incredibly short space of time. The Japanese sense of duty towards the group (whether community, work, or family) played a strong part in this rapid rebuilding. So, too, did their strong feelings for religion and culture.
Shinto and Buddhism are the two main religions and the two faiths coexist peacefully (most people observe both religions). Thousands of shrines and temples dot the landscape of Japan - some large and historic complexes, others a simple shrine set up and maintained as a neighbourhood co-operative project.
In accordance with the Shinto belief in the sanctity of nature, the Japanese have always had a great reverence for the natural world. They celebrate the beauty of their environment in art, in literature and poetry, and in cultural events and festivals throughout the year.
There is an inconsistency between the Japanese’s love for the beauty of their surroundings and the destruction of the same by the 'progress' of modern times. Japanese cities are by no means compact, and have eaten up nearly all of the flat land between Tokyo and Kobe. The vast sprawl also commands the construction of huge hydroelectric projects, industrial cities, and water supply developments. The oceans surrounding the nation are nearly fished out, wildlife is rare on the islands, and Japan is one of two nations on earth which refuses to abandon the practice of whaling.
Surprisingly, though, there is still a great deal of countryside that has not been overtaken by industrialisation. Since hikers and tourists are in abundance in most rural and mountainous locations, it would be a stretch to classify it as 'unspoiled', but there is still incredible beauty when you travel out of the urban areas. In the waters off Yonaguni, the southernmost island of Japan, lies a beautiful stone monument which looks like ceremonial terraced platforms just 60-100 feet beneath the surface.