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Traditional Japanese legend maintains that Japan was founded in 600 BC by the Emperor Jimmu, a direct descendant of the sun goddess and ancestor of the present ruling imperial family. About AD 405 the Japanese court officially adopted the Chinese writing system. During the sixth century Buddhism was introduced. These two events revolutionized Japanese culture and marked the beginning of a long period of Chinese cultural influence. From the establishment of the first fixed capital at Nara in 710 until 1867 the emperors of the Yamato dynasty were the nominal rulers but actual power was usually held by powerful court nobles regents or "shoguns" (military governors).

Heian Period 

The powerful Fujiwara family and Emperor Kammu built a new capital (modern-day Kyoto) in 794. The philosophy was one whereby all land and peoples of Japan were the emperor’s property. At this time Buddhism started to gain a foothold in the national consciousness. Gradually over the following centuries the temples became militant, and infighting became rife and the court lost control of the warring clans.  Tensions came to a head with the establishment of the first military shogunate under the Minamoto clan in 1185.

The Shogunates

The Kamakura Period (1185 - 1333) saw the unification of Japan under one ruler for the first time. Minamoto moved his capital to Kamakura, while the emperor ruled, in name only, in Kyoto. This period saw the start of a centuries-long period of feudal rule which was to last in one form or another until 1868. During this era the popularity of Buddhism spread to all levels of the populace (having previously been confined to the ruling classes) and Zen was introduced by Japanese monks returning from China.

During the late 13th Century two successive Mongol invasion fleets were destroyed in large part due to typhoons around the present-day city of Fukuoka - an event which gave rise to the term kamikaze or ’Divine Wind’. However the leadership had lost support of the the samurai classes as it could not afford to pay its soldiers. The inevitable result of this lost support was the downfall of the Kamakura Shogunate and its replacement by the Muromachi Shogunate (1333 - 1576).

Power returned to Kyoto as did a period of warring clans, each attempting to achieve ultimate power over the emperor. For generations the country reverted to a pre-Yamato situation of individual warring regions and clans. For a century from 1476 the country was ravaged by civil war and is often referred to as the Japan of the Warring States period. However, paradoxically this coincided with a flourishing of arts and crafts considered to be specifically Japanese. Formal trade was re-established with China and Korea and many of Kyoto’s best garden date from this era.

In 1568 the country was once again united under Oda Nobunaga - seen as the first of the great unifiers. He managed to bring 30 of the country’s 68 provinces under his control, including many of the militant temples but until untimely death in 1582. It was his deputy Toyotomi Hideyoshi who then completed this process, bringing Shikoku, Kyushu, Kanto as well as much of Tohoku under his control in the following decade. Hideyoshi’s legacy was a unified Japan but just two years after his death in 1598, the Tokugawa Shogunate was established following the Battle of Sekigahara.

This was a period of sakoku or national isolation when movement within the country was strictly monitored and a rigidly defined hierarchy was introduced. The relative peace which ensued saw a re-birth of the arts and kabuki and bunraku theatre was introduced while weaving, pottery, ceramoics and laquerware became increasingly popular among the populace.

It was during this period that Edo (modern day Tokyo) rose to prominence and many believe it to be the largest city in the world by 1700. However the increasingly insular Tokugawa Shogunate gradually cut all ties with the outside world and edicts restricting trade with foreign powers in 1641 heralded 200 years of isolationsim.

Contact With the West

The first contact with the West occurred in 1542 when a Portuguese ship blown off its course to China landed in Japan. During the next century traders from Portugal,  The Netherlands, England and Spain arrived as did Jesuit Dominican and Franciscan missionaries. During the early part of the 17th century Japan’s 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. Ultimately Japan forced all foreigners to leave and barred all relations with the outside world except for severely restricted commercial contacts with Dutch and Chinese merchants at Nagasaki. This isolation lasted for 200 years until Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy forced the opening of Japan to the West with the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854.

Within several years renewed contact with the West profoundly altered Japanese society. The shogunate was forced to resign and the emperor was restored to power. The Meiji restoration of 1868 initiated many reforms. The feudal system was abolished and numerous Western institutions were adopted including a Western legal system and constitutional government along quasi-parliamentary lines.

In 1898 the last of the "unequal treaties" with Western powers was removed signaling Japan’s new status among the nations of the world. In a few decades by creating modern social educational economic military and industrial systems the Emperor Meiji’s "controlled revolution" had transformed a feudal and isolated state into a world power.

Wars With China and Russia

Japanese leaders of the late 19th century regarded the Korean Peninsula as a "dagger pointed at the heart of Japan." It was over Korea that Japan became involved in war with the Chinese Empire in 1894-95 and with Russia in 1904-05. The war with China established Japan’s dominant interest in Korea while giving it the Pescadores Islands and Formosa (now Taiwan). After Japan defeated Russia in 1905 the resulting Treaty of Portsmouth awarded Japan certain rights in Manchuria and in southern Sakhalin which Russia had received in 1875 in exchange for the Kurile Islands. Both wars gave Japan a free hand in Korea which it formally annexed in 1910.

World War I to 1952

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 postwar 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. However parliamentary government was not rooted deeply enough to withstand the economic and political pressures of the 1930s during which military leaders became increasingly influential.

Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and set up the state of Manchukuo. In 1933 Japan resigned from the League of Nations. The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 followed Japan’s signing the "anti-Comintern pact" with Nazi Germany the previous year and was part of a chain of developments culminating in the Japanese attack on the United States at Pearl Harbor Hawaii on December 7 1941.

After almost 4 years of war resulting in the loss of 3 million Japanese lives and including the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan signed an instrument of surrender on the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Harbour on September 2 1945. As a result of World War II Japan lost all of its overseas possessions and retained only the home islands. Manchukuo was dissolved and Manchuria was returned to China; Japan renounced all claims to Formosa; Korea was granted independence; 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. The 1972 reversion of Okinawa completed the United States' return of control of these islands to Japan.

After the war Japan was placed under international control of the Allies through the Supreme Commander General Douglas MacArthur. U.S. objectives were to ensure that Japan would become a peaceful nation and to establish democratic self-government supported by the freely expressed will of the people. Political economic and social reforms were introduced such as a freely elected Japanese Diet (legislature). The country’s Constitution took effect on May 3 1947. The April 28 1952 Treaty of Peace with Japan afforded a progressive and orderly transition to the restoration of full sovereignty from the stringent controls immediately following the surrender.

Recent Political Developments

The post-World War II years saw tremendous economic growth in Japan with the political system dominated by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). That total domination lasted until the Diet Lower House elections on July 18 1993. The LDP in power since the mid-1950s failed to win a majority and saw the end of its four-decade rule. A coalition of new parties and existing opposition parties formed a governing majority and elected a new Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa in August 1993. His government’s major legislative objective was political reform consisting of a package of new political financing restrictions and major changes in the electoral system. The coalition succeeded in passing landmark political reform legislation in January 1994.

Under the 1994 legislation the lower house electoral system was changed to one in which 300 members are elected in single-member districts and another 200 members on proportional slates in 11 regions. The new electoral system also reduced the number of seats in overrepresented rural areas and shifted them to some urban areas.

In April 1994 Prime Minister Hosokawa resigned. Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata formed the successor coalition government Japan’s first minority government in almost 40 years. Prime Minister Hata resigned less than 2 months later. Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama formed the next government in June 1994 a coalition of his Japan Socialist Party (JSP) the LDP and the small Sakigake Party. The advent of a coalition containing the JSP and LDP shocked many observers because of their previously fierce rivalry. Prime Minister Murayama served from June 1994 to January 1996. He was succeeded by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto who served from January 1996 to July 1998. Prime Minister Hashimoto headed a loose coalition of three parties until the July 1998 Upper House election when the two smaller parties cut ties with the LDP. Hashimoto resigned due to a poor electoral showing by the LDP in those Upper House elections. He was succeeded as party president of the LDP and Prime Minister by Keizo Obuchi who took office on July 30 1998


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