Prehistory and ancient history
A Palaeolithic culture around 30,000 BC represents the first known settlement of the Japanese archipelago. This was followed from around 14,000 BC (beginning of the Jōmon period) by a Mesolithic to Neolithic semi-settled hunter-gatherer culture, to which the ancestors of today’s Ainu people and Yamato people also belong, characterised by pit constructions and rudimentary agriculture. Decorated earthenware vessels from this period are among the oldest surviving examples of pottery in the world. Around 300 BC, the Yayoi people began to enter the Japanese islands and intermarried with the Jōmon. The Yayoi period, which began around 500 BC, saw the introduction of practices such as wet rice cultivation, a new style of pottery and metallurgy imported from China and Korea.
Japan first appears in written history in the Chinese Book of the Han. According to the records of the Three Kingdoms, the most powerful kingdom on the archipelago was called Yamataikoku in the 3rd century. Buddhism was first introduced to Japan from Baekje, Korea, and promoted by Prince Shōtoku, but the later development of Japanese Buddhism was mainly influenced by China. Despite initial resistance, Buddhism was promoted by the ruling class and gained wide acceptance from the Asuka period (592-710) onwards.
The Nara period (710-784) of the 8th century marks the emergence of the centralised Japanese state, centred on the imperial court in Heijō-kyō (present-day Nara). The Nara period is characterised by the emergence of a nascent literature and the development of Buddhist-inspired art and architecture. The smallpox epidemic of 735-737 is said to have killed up to a third of the Japanese population. In 784, Emperor Kanmu moved the capital from Nara to Nagaoka-kyō, before moving it to Heian-kyō (present-day Kyoto) in 794.
This marked the beginning of the Heian period (794-1185), which saw the development of a distinct indigenous Japanese culture known for its art, poetry and prose. Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji” and the text of Japan’s national anthem “Kimigayo” were written during this period.
Buddhism began to spread during the Heian period mainly through two major sects, Tendaiby Saichō and Shingon of Kūkai. Pure Land Buddhism (Jōdo-shū, Jōdo Shinshū) became very popular in the second half of the 11th century.
The feudal era of Japan was marked by the emergence and dominance of a ruling class of warriors, the samurai. In 1185, after the defeat of the Taira clan in the Genpei War, sung about in the epic Tale of Heike, the samurai Minamoto no Yoritomo was appointed shogun by Emperor Go-Toba and established a base of power in Kamakura. After his death, the Hōjō clan came to power as regents for the shoguns. The Zen school of Buddhism was introduced from China during the Kamakura period (1185-1333) and became popular among the samurai class. The Kamakura shogunate repelled Mongol invasions in 1274 and 1281, but was eventually overthrown by Emperor Go-Daigo. Emperor Go-Daigo himself was defeated by Ashikaga Takauji in 1336.
Ashikaga Takauji established the shogunate in Muromachi, Kyoto. This was the beginning of the Muromachi period (1336-1573). The Ashikaga shogunate achieved fame in the age of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and Zen Buddhist-based culture (art of Miyabi) flourished. This developed into the Higashiyama culture and flourished until the 16th century. Century. On the other hand, the succeeding Ashikaga shogunate failed to control the feudal warlords (daimyo), and a civil war (the Ōnin War) began in 1467, opening the centuries-long Sengoku (“Warring States”) period.
In the 16th century, traders and Jesuit missionaries from Portugal reached Japan for the first time and initiated a direct commercial and cultural exchange between Japan and the West. This enabled Oda Nobunaga to obtain European technology and firearms, which he used to conquer many other daimyo. His consolidation of power began what became known as the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1603). After he was assassinated in 1582, his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi unified the nation in 1590 and launched two unsuccessful invasions of Korea in 1592 and 1597.
Tokugawa Ieyasu served as regent for Hideyoshi’s son and used his position to gain political and military support. When open war broke out, he defeated rival clans at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. Tokugawa Ieyasu was appointed shogun by Emperor Go-Yōzei in 1603 and established the Tokugawa Shogunate in Edo (present-day Tokyo). The Tokugawa shogunate enacted measures such as buke shohatto, a code of conduct to control the autonomous daimyo, and in 1639 the isolationist sakoku (‘closed country’) policy, which spanned the two and a half centuries of tentative political unity known as the Edo period (1603-1868). The study of Western science, known as rangaku, continued through contact with the Dutch enclave at Dejima in Nagasaki. The Edo period also saw the emergence of kokugaku (“national studies”), the study of Japan by the Japanese.
On 31 March 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry and the Black Ships of the United States Navy forced the opening of Japan to the outside world with the Kanagawa Convention. Subsequent similar treaties with Western countries in the Bakumatsu period brought economic and political crises. The abdication of the shogun led to the Boshin War and the establishment of a centralised state nominally united under the emperor (the Meiji Restoration).
The cabinet adopted Western political, legal and military institutions, organised the Privy Council, introduced the Meiji Constitution and assembled the Diet. The Meiji Restoration transformed the Empire of Japan into an industrialised world power that expanded its sphere of influence through military conflict. After victories in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), Japan gained control of Taiwan, Korea and the southern half of Sakhalin. Japan’s population grew from 35 million in 1873 to 70 million in 1935.
The First World War enabled Japan to expand its influence and territorial possessions in Asia on the side of the victorious Allies. The early 20th century saw a brief period of “Taishō democracy (1912-1926)”, but in the 1920s the fragile democracy buckled under a political shift towards fascism, the passing of laws against political dissenters and a series of coups. The subsequent “Shōwa period” initially saw the power of the military grow, bringing Japanese expansionism and militarisation together with the totalitarianism and ultra-nationalism that are part of fascist ideology. In 1931, Japan invaded and occupied Manchuria. Following international condemnation of this occupation, Japan withdrew from the League of Nations in 1933. In 1936, Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany, and the Tripartite Pact of 1940 made it one of the Axis powers. After its defeat in the short Soviet-Japanese border war, Japan negotiated the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact in 1941, which lasted until the Soviet invasion of Manchuria in 1945.
The Empire of Japan invaded other parts of China in 1937, triggering the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). The Imperial Japanese Army quickly captured the capital Nanjing and perpetrated the Nanking Massacre. In 1940, the Empire then invaded French Indochina, after which the United States imposed an oil embargo on Japan. On 7 and 8 December 1941, Japanese forces carried out surprise attacks on Pearl Harbor and British forces in Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong, declaring war on the United States and the British Empire, leading the US and Britain into World War II in the Pacific. After Allied victories in the Pacific over the next four years, culminating in the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Japan agreed to unconditional surrender on 15 August. The war cost Japan, its colonies, China and the other belligerents tens of millions of lives and left much of Japan’s industry and infrastructure destroyed. The Allies (led by the US) repatriated millions of ethnic Japanese from colonies and military camps across Asia, largely eliminating the Japanese Empire and restoring independence to the conquered territories. The Allies also convened the International Military Tribunal for the Far East on 3 May 1946 to try some Japanese leaders for war crimes. However, the bacteriological research units and members of the imperial family involved in the war were exempted from prosecution by the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Powers, despite calls for both groups to be tried.
In 1947, Japan adopted a new constitution that emphasised liberal democratic practices. The Allied occupation ended in 1952 with the Treaty of San Francisco, and in 1956 Japan was granted membership in the United Nations. Later, Japan achieved rapid growth and became the world’s second largest economy until it was overtaken by China in 2010. This ended in the mid-1990s when Japan suffered a major recession. At the beginning of the 21st century, positive growth signalled a gradual economic recovery. On 11 March 2011, Japan experienced the strongest earthquake in its history, triggering the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, one of the worst disasters in the history of nuclear power.