U.S. State Department Geographic Bureaus: East Asia and Pacific Bureau

History of Japan

Fact sheet released by the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs,
U.S. Department of State, July 31, 1997.

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Premodern Japan

While reliable records date only to about 400 A.D., legend has it that Japan was founded in 600 B.C. by Emperor Jimmu, a direct descendent of Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, and ancestor of the present ruling dynasty. In the early fifth century, the Japanese court officially adopted the Chinese writing system, and Buddhism was introduced to Japan during the sixth century. These two events revolutionized Japanese culture and marked the beginning of a long period of strong Chinese cultural influence in Japan.

The foundations of a centralized imperial state were well in place by the eighth century, but the rise of a warrior class known as the samurai and the establishment of military rule under the shogun in the twelfth century soon undermined the authority of the emperor. After prolonged civil war between rival warrior clans, the country was unified in 1600 under the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, whose family ruled over Japan for more than 250 years. During the peaceful and prosperous Tokugawa period, a wealthy and powerful merchant class developed in Japan's urban centers, where a rich culture of ink paintings, woodblock prints and haiku poetry flourished.

Contact with the West

Japan's first contact with the West occurred in 1542, when a Portuguese ship headed for China was blown off course and landed in Japan. During the next century, traders from Portugal, the Netherlands, England and Spain arrived, along with Jesuit, Dominican and Franciscan missionaries. During the early part of the seventeenth century, growing suspicions of the Europeans' motives led Japanese leaders to tighten restrictions on foreigners in Japan.

This tightening of restrictions ultimately led to the expulsion of foreigners from Japan and the severing of all relations with the outside world, save limited commercial contacts with Dutch and Chinese merchants at Nagasaki. This period of isolation, or sakoku ("closed country"), lasted for more than two hundred years, until the U.S. Navy's Commodore Matthew Perry forced the opening of Japan to the West in 1853.

Renewed contact with the West profoundly altered Japanese society. In the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the shogunate collapsed and the emperor was restored to power. The feudal system was subsequently abolished, and Western institutions were adopted, including a Western legal system and constitutional government along parliamentary lines. The Meiji Constitution of 1889 initiated many social, educational, military and industrial reforms. This "controlled revolution" laid the basis for Japan's transformation from a feudal and isolated state into a modern world power.

Rise to International Prominence

It was over control of the Korean peninsula that Japan became embroiled in wars with both the Chinese and the Russians around the turn of the century. Japan's victory over China in 1894-95 established the nation's dominant interest in Korea, and granted it control over the Pescadores Islands and Formosa as well. Japan defeated Russia in 1904-05, and the resulting Treaty of Portsmouth awarded the Japanese rights in Manchuria and in southern Sakhalin. Russia's defeat gave Japan a free hand in Korea, which it formally annexed in 1910. An Anglo-Japanese alliance was established in 1902.

World Wars I and II

World War I permitted Japan, which fought on the side of the victorious allies, to expand its influence in Asia and its territorial holdings in the Pacific. The interwar period brought unprecedented prosperity to the country, and Japan arrived at the Versailles peace conference in 1919 one of the world's great military and industrial powers. While the country moved towards the establishment of full democracy, parliamentary government was not yet deep-rooted enough to withstand the economic and political pressures of the 1930s. Military leaders became increasingly influential during this period, and quickly led the nation down the road to war.

Japan invaded Manchuria and established a puppet state there in 1932. Two years later, it withdrew from the League of Nations. The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 followed Japan's signing of the "anti-commintern pact" with Nazi Germany, part of a chain of developments that culminated in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941--and the United States' subsequent entrance into World War II. Three years and nine months later, after the loss of three million Japanese lives and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan signed an instrument of surrender on September 2, 1945.

Postwar Period

After World War II, Japan lost all of its overseas possessions, retaining only the home islands. Manchuria was returned to China, Japan renounced all claims to Formosa, Korea was granted independence, and the United States became the sole administering authority of the Ryukyu, Bonin and Volcano Islands. The U.S. returned to Japan the administration of the Bonins in 1968 and the Ryukyus, including Okinawa, in 1972.

Japan was occupied following the war by the United States, under the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, General Douglas MacArthur. The objectives of the occupation were to ensure that Japan would become a peaceful, prosperous and democratic member of the international community.

Under the American occupation, political, economic, and social reforms were introduced, and a new constitution was passed in 1947. Central to the constitution is Article 9, which reads, "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes." MacArthur's method of ruling through Japanese officials and a freely elected legislature assisted in the transition from the stringent controls immediately following the surrender to the restoration of full sovereignty when the peace treaty went into effect on April 28, 1952.

In 1960, the two governments signed the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, which provided the basis for a close relationship between the two governments and their defense establishments. Under the terms of the treaty, U.S. troops stationed in Japan today contribute to the defense of the nation and to the maintenance of international peace and security in the region.

Japan has experienced unprecedented economic growth in the years since the American occupation. During the 1960s, Japan's GDP grew by a rate of over 10%, and Japan soon became the second-largest economy in the world. The political situation in postwar Japan has been remarkably stable: the conservative Liberal Democratic Party enjoyed nearly 38 years of uninterrupted rule, from 1955 until 1993, and was soon returned to power under a coalition government with its long-time political adversaries, the socialists.

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