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Brief History of Japan

Japan has a long history with the first humans arriving around 35,000 B.C.. The position of Japan relative to the Asian mainland had played a significant role in the country's development. Although the archipelago is situated near the mainland, there is still a considerable amount of open sea, which separates the two landmasses. Throughout most of Japan's history, it has been closed to the outside world refusing to open its borders to foreigners. The sakoku policy, literal translation "locked country", enacted in 1633 by the Tokugawa Shogunate prevented foreigners from entering Japan on penalty of death. The same policy also prevented Japanese from leaving Japan.

The first historical documents mentioning Japan date to around the 5th century. Japanese myth holds that Emperor Jimmu was the first emperor of an imperial line that is still in place today. However, archaeological evidence gathered by a number of researchers place the imperial rule starting later around the third to seventh centuries AD, during the Kofun period. The following Asuka regime during the mid 8th century is noted for a more centralized Japan in which Chinese culture significantly influenced Japanese traditions.

Nara was the first centralized capital of the nation established in the late 8th century. The layout of the capital city was influenced by Chang’an, the capital of China during that time. The Nara period was the last time that political power was held by the emperor. The following Heian period was characterized by an affluent aristocracy with eccentric social customs, and the moving of the capital from Nara to Kyoto. The capital city of Kyoto became the residence of Japan’s emperors until the late 19th century. Toward the end of the Heian period, the aristocracy lost their power and the Kamakura period marked the beginning of military rule. Regional warlords became powerful and often rose to become Shogun, a position that sometimes wielded more power than the Emperor. During this period, a caste system developed with the Shogun at the top. The Shogun controlled large areas of land and would divide it up and delegate responsibility to a Daimyo, or regional warlord. The Daimyo ruled with an army of Samarai who protected the land and its people. Feudal Japan did not allow for social mobility and marrying outside one’s own caste was prohibited.

After a succession of powerful Shogun, Japan fell into a state of near-anarchy as provinces declared war upon one another during the 15th century. In 1600 during the Azuchi-Momoyama period, Tokugawa Ieyasu moved to reunify the country and successfully established the Tokugawa Shogunate. Under the Tokugawa Shogunate the feudalist system was re-established. During his reign, Tokugawa ruled from Edo, the location of present day Tokyo. Under the Tokugawa Shogunate the Edo period was a time of stability for the Japanese people, but there was little or no development when compared to other nations in the rest of the world during the same period. From 1852-1854, Commodore Matthew Perry negotiated a trade agreement between Japan and the United States. The government at Tokyo was forced to agree to the demands of the United States as they were intimidated by the technologically advanced and heavily armed fleet of steam frigates under the command of Commodore Perry. The ships in Perry's fleet are now known in Japan as the "Black Ships" and have come to symbolize the threat imposed by western technology.

In 1867, the Tokugawa Shogunate collapsed, and gave way to the Meiji Restoration. The imperial capital was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo, renamed from Edo to Tokyo (Eastern Capital). Japan then directed their efforts toward industrialization and modernization. During World War I the United States and Japan fought on the same side although relations were not favorable between the two nations due to policy disagreements over China and competition for power in the Pacific. After World War I Japan's economy began to decline and hit a low point during the Showa recession in 1926. The negative impact of the recession combined with domestic political turmoil (assassination attempts on the emperor, coups d'etat attempts, terrorist violence) ultimately contributed to the increased militarism in Japan during the late 1920's and 1930's.

Japanese imperialist policy aimed to dominate China to acquire its vast material reserves and natural resources. In the early 1930's there were many small-scale military engagements in so-called "incidents" between the two sides. This culminated into a full-scale war in 1937. Western powers were reluctant to provide support to the Chinese who they thought would eventually lose the war. The United States entered the war in 1942 after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces. In 1945, atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan surrendered soon afterward. After surrendering Japan was occupied by the Allied Forces marking the first time in the nation's history it had been occupied by a foreign power. After the occupation ended in 1951, Japan's government shifted from imperial and military rule to a parliamentary democracy.

Today, despite suffering massive losses during World War II and possessing very little natural resources, Japan has become an economic and technological powerhouse.

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Anika Devi received her Bachelor’s degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University in 2012. She began freelancing for Business Solutions BD in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. She currently serves as the assistant editor.
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