Since I have started practicing Aikido alomost 5 years ago, I grew a big interest in the Japanese culture and customs. In our practice we use many japanese words, and we try to maintain many of its traditions. I think Aikido is a proof that art can maintain and expand the culture of any civilization.

What I want to study about Japan? Mainly I want to know what makes it a special culture, this can be answered through a look to its history, its moral foundation, its arts,,,etc. I don’t want to go into academic details, I want to grasp the essence of its glory.

Let’s talk about HISTORY (in this page I am mainly summarizing Wikipedia’s page on history of Japan 🙂 ):

Japan’s history can be divided into:

  1. Japanese Pre-History 
  2. Ancient and Classical Japan 
  3. Feudal Japan
  4. Meiji Restoration
  5. Modern Japan (WW1, WW2, Occupation, post-occupation, contemporary era)

Japan’s pre-history can be identified with 2 periods: Jomon and Yayoi. And about ancient and classical Japan, Yamato polity was the main ruling power in Japan from the middle of the 3rd century until 710. The Kofun period (mid 3rd century – mid 6th century), is defined by a tumulus-building culture (a heap of earth placed over prehistoric tombs). The Asuka period (mid 6th century – 710), is defined as the time in which the capital was in Asuka, near present-day Nara. During the 5th and 6th centuries, there was much contact between the Baekje kingdom of the southern part of the Korean peninsula and the Yamato state. Some of the results of this contact were the introduction of Buddhism to Japan by people from Baekje, and military support given by the Yamato state to Baekje. The Nara period of the 8th century marked the first emergence of a strong Japanese state. The Heian period lasting from 794 to 1185, is the final period of classical Japanese history. It is considered the peak of the Japanese imperial court and noted for its art, especially in poetry and literature. In the early 11th century, Lady Murasaki wrote the world’s oldest surviving novel called The Tale of Genji. The end of the period saw the rise of various military clans. Towards the end of the 12th century, conflicts between those clans turned into civil war (the Hōgen and Heiji Rebellions, followed by the Genpei war), from which emerged a society led by samurai clans, under the political rule of a shogun.

Feudal Japan was dominated by the powerful regional families (daimyo) and the military rule of warlords (shogun), stretched from the twelfth through the nineteenth centuries. The Emperor remained but was (mostly) kept to a de jure figurehead ruling position. This time is usually divided into periods following the reigning family of the shogun: The Kamakura period (1185 to 1333), is a period that marks the governance of the Kamakura Shogunate and the transition to the Japanese “medieval” era, a nearly 700-year period. A traumatic event of the period was the Mongol invasions of Japan between 1272 and 1281. A famous typhoon referred to as kamikaze (translated as divine wind in Japanese) is credited with devastating the second Mongol invasion forces who invaded in the spring of 1281. Although the Japanese were successful in stopping the Mongols, the invasion attempt had devastating domestic repercussions, leading to the extinction of the Kamakura shogunate. The Muromachi period (1336 to 1573) marked the governance of the Ashikaga shogunate also called Muromachi shogunate. In about 1542, a Portuguese ship, blown off its course to China, landed in Japan. That’s when firearms were first introduced in Japan. During the following years, traders from Portugal, the Netherlands, England, and Spain arrived, as did Jesuit, Dominican, and Franciscan missionaries. The Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568 to 1600) marks the military reunification and stabilization of the country under a single political ruler. During the Edo Period, the administration of the country was shared by over two hundred daimyo. The Tokugawa clan, leader of the victorious eastern army in the Battle of Sekigahara, was the most powerful of them. The shogunate placed the samurai class above the commoners: the agriculturists, artisans, and merchants. They enacted sumptuary laws limiting hair style, dress, and accessories. During the early part of the 17th century, the shogunate suspected that the traders and missionaries were actually forerunners of a military conquest by European powers. This caused the shogunate to place foreigners under progressively tighter restrictions. This policy of isolation lasted for more than 200 years, until, on July 8, 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy with four warships: the Mississippi, Plymouth, Saratoga, and Susquehanna, steamed into the bay at Edo, old Tokyo, and displayed the threatening power of his ships’ cannon. He demanded that Japan open to trade with the West. These ships became known as the kurofune, the Black Ships. The following year, at the Convention of Kanagawa on March 31, 1854, Perry returned with seven ships and forced the Shogun to sign the “Treaty of Peace and Amity,” establishing formal diplomatic relations between Japan and the United States. Within five years Japan had signed similar treaties with other western countries. The Harris Treaty was signed with the United States on July 29, 1858. These treaties were widely regarded by Japanese intellectuals as unequal, having been forced on Japan through gunboat diplomacy, and as a sign of the West’s desire to incorporate Japan into the imperialism that had been taking hold of the rest of the Asian continent.

During the Meiji Restoration, the shogun resigned and soon after the Boshin War of 1868, the emperor was restored to power, the feudal system was abolished, and numerous Western institutions were adopted, including a Western legal system and a quasi-parliamentary constitutional government, based on Great Britain’s Parliament. Japanese intellectuals of the late-Meiji period espoused the concept of a “line of advantage”. According to this principle, embodied in the slogan fukoku kyōhei, Japan would be vulnerable to aggressive Western imperialism unless it extended a line of advantage beyond its borders which would help to repel foreign incursions and strengthen the Japanese economy. It was tensions over Korea and Manchuria, respectively, that led Japan to become involved in the first Sino-Japanese War with China in 1894-1895 and the Russo-Japanese War with Russia in 1904-1905. The war with China made Japan the world’s first non-Western modern imperial power, and the war with Russia proved that a Western power could be defeated by a non-Western State. The aftermath of these two wars left Japan the dominant power in the Far East, with a sphere of influence extending over southern Manchuria and Korea, which was formally annexed as part of the Japanese Empire in 1910.

Now getting to Japan in the 20th century, Japan entered World War I and declared war on the Central Powers. Though Japan’s role in World War I was limited largely to attacking German colonial outposts in East Asia, it took advantage of the opportunity to expand its influence in Asia and its territorial holdings in the Pacific. The post-war era brought Japan unprecedented prosperity. Japan went to the peace conference at Versailles in 1919 as one of the great military and industrial powers of the world and received official recognition as one of the “Big Five” of the new international order. It joined the League of Nations and received a mandate over Pacific islands north of the Equator formerly held by Germany. During the 1920s, Japan progressed toward a democratic system of government in a movement known as ‘Taishō Democracy’. However, parliamentary government was not rooted deeply enough to withstand the economic and political pressures of the late 1920s and 1930s, during which military leaders became increasingly influential. As a result, the major parties voted to dissolve themselves and were absorbed into a single party, the Imperial Rule Assistance Association (IRAA).

Under the pretense of the Manchurian Incident, Lieutenant Colonel Kanji Ishiwara invaded Inner (Chinese) Manchuria in 1931, an action the Japanese government mandated with the creation of the puppet state of Manchukuo under the last Manchu emperor, Pu Yi. As a result of international condemnation of the incident, Japan resigned from the League of Nations in 1933. After several more similar incidents fueled by an expansionist military, the second Sino-Japanese War began in 1937 after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. Japan allied with Germany and Italy, and formed the Axis Pact of September 27, 1940. Many Japanese, including Kanji, believed war with the West to be inevitable due to inherent cultural differences and the oppression of Western imperialism (Japanese imperialism, often just as brutal, was justified as “preparing” Asia for the upcoming confrontation). tensions were mounting with the U.S. As a result of public outcry over Japanese aggression and reports of atrocities in China, such as the infamous Nanjing Massacre, the U.S. began an embargo on such goods as petroleum products and scrap iron in 1940. On July 25, 1941, all Japanese assets in the US were frozen. Because Japan’s military might, especially the Navy, was dependent on their dwindling oil reserves, this action had the contrary effect of increasing Japan’s dependence on and hunger for new acquisitions. The Americans were expecting an attack in the Philippines (and stationed troops appropriate to this conjecture), but on Yamamoto Isoroku’s advice, Japan made the decision to attack Pearl Harbor ( 7 December 1941) where it would make the most damage in the least amount of time. However, the attack proved a long term strategic disaster that actually did relatively little lasting damage to the U.S. military and provoked the United States to retaliate with full commitment against Japan and its allies. At the same time as the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese army attacked colonial Hong Kong and occupied it for nearly four years. After almost 4 years of war resulting in the loss of 3 million Japanese lives, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the daily air raids on Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Yokohama, the destruction of all other major cities (except Kyoto, Nara, and Kamakura, for their historical importance), and finally the Soviet Union’s declaration of war on Japan the day before the second atomic bomb was dropped, Japan signed an instrument of surrender on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Harbor on September 2, 1945. As a result of its defeat at the end of World War II, Japan lost all of its overseas possessions and retained only the home islands. Manchukuo was dissolved, and Inner Manchuria was returned to the Republic of China; Japan renounced all claims to Formosa; Korea was taken under the control of the UN; southern Sakhalin and the Kuriles were occupied by the U.S.S.R.; and the United States became the sole administering authority of the Ryukyu, Bonin, and Volcano Islands. After the war, Japan was placed under international control of the Allies through the Supreme Commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Entering the Cold War with the Korean War, Japan came to be seen as an important ally of the US government. Political, economic, and social reforms were introduced, such as an elected Japanese Diet (legislature) and expanded suffrage. The country’s constitution took effect on May 3, 1947. The United States and 45 other Allied nations signed the Treaty of Peace with Japan in September 1951. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty in March 20, 1952, and under the terms of the treaty, Japan regained full sovereignty on April 28, 1952. From the 1950s to the 1980s, Japan’s history consists mainly of its rapid development into a first-rank economic power, through a process often referred to as the “economic miracle”. The post-war settlement transformed Japan into a genuine constitutional party democracy, but, extraordinarily, it was ruled by a single party throughout the period of the “miracle”. By the 1980s, the sheer strength of the Japanese economy had become a sticking point. The U.S.A. had a massive trade deficit with Japan – that is, it imported substantially more from Japan than it exported to it. This deficit became a scapegoat for American economic weakness, and relations between the two cooled substantially.In the late 1980s, abnormalities within the Japanese economic system had fueled a massive wave of speculation by Japanese companies, banks and securities companies. Briefly, a combination of incredibly high land values and incredibly low interest rates led to a position in which credit was both easily available and extremely cheap. This led to massive borrowing, the proceeds of which were invested mostly in domestic and foreign stocks and securities. Recognising that this bubble was unsustainable, resting, as it did, on unrealisable land values—the loans were ultimately secured on land holdings, the Ministry of Finance sharply raised interest rates. This “popped the bubble” in spectacular fashion, leading to a major crash in the stock market. It also led to a debt crisis; a large proportion of the huge debts that had been run up turned bad, which in turn led to a crisis in the banking sector, with many banks having to be bailed out by the government. Overall, this has led to the phenomenon known as the “lost decade“; economic expansion effectively came to a total halt in Japan during the 1990s. The effect on everyday life has been rather muted, however.

As a conclusion from this long history of Japan, the two most important eras for me are the Feudal era and the post WW2 era (the building up of the strong economy and the financial crisis). For me, the samurai clan have always represented a romantic mystical image, and the second era of growing up and then going down demonstrate how a nation can be revived from a total destruction. And these are the most important issues for me for the time being…

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