The history & society of Japan

Torii Mountains, Japan

Japan's history

Japan’s first residents crossed the land bridge from Korea to the west and Siberia to the north around 10,000 years ago.  In the 4th century AD the Yamato clan established loose control over much of Japan, laying the foundation for the Japanese state. 

By 300 AD the only area that remained inhabited by hunter-gatherers was northern Honshu.  Contact with China and Korea influenced the country, and Chinese practises were adopted to support the Yamato rule.  Buddhism was introduced in the mid-6th century, causing rivalry with the traditional religion, Shinto.  Shintō deities were presented as manifestations of Buddha in order to diffuse this.

The rise of the shogun
Military expeditions were sent to subdue northern Honshu in the 7th century, and the commanders of these would come to be known as shogun.

The Yamato emperors increasingly came under the control of powerful aristocratic families.  As the emperors power declined, local lords became more independent and power went to the Samurai.  Fighting between major families in the 12th century led to the prominence of the Minimato clan who gave themselves the title of Shogun in 1185.

The Minimato were eventually overthrown and later replaced by a new shogun.  A new class of local lord, the daimyo, emerged and by 1603 the most powerful of these established the Tokugawa Shogunate.

The Tokugawa set about changing the society of Japan, ruling alongside 250-300 daimyo.  The emperors remained but were nothing but civil monarchs.  Japan became very isolated as the Tokugawa forbid guns, limited contact with foreigners (only Dutch and Chinese traders were allowed) and stamped out Christianity.  The country was almost in a ‘feudal time warp’ which established in the Japanese a trait of unquestioning obedience to authority, which some would say still lingers.

Modern history of Japan
Support for a corrupt Tokugawa government slowly dwindled until the ruling shogun resigned in 1868.  Emperor Meiji took over and went full-steam ahead with westernisation, adopting a western-style constitution in 1889.  Japan’s defeat of China and Russia firmly established the country as a major power in Asia.  The economy expanded through shipping and trade during WWI as the Japanese sided with the allies, until the onslaught of the Great Depression.

Japan allied with Germany and Italy during WWII as they shared similar nationalist ambitions, and because it allowed Japan to continue expansion in China. America was worried about this and stopped trading with them. What the Japanese felt the most was the loss of oil and petroleum but rather than halt their military expansion the Japanese army decided to attack America, and in 1941 they pounded the American navy at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.  The Americans retaliated with the atomic bomb in 1945, a sad addition to Japan's history which saw the Japanese surrender.

The US occupied the country to dismantle the power of the emperor, but at the same time put a recovery programme in place.  Japan became the world’s most successful export economy – especially in the realm of car production and electronics.

Society, culture and religion

Japan is a real mix of the modern and the traditional.  Sushi, sake, sumo, samurai, geishas, gardens, bonsai, karate, kabuki and Zen are just some of the world-renowned icons of Japanese culture.

You can spend weeks soaking up traditional culture from Japan’s many temples and shines, kabuki theater, tea ceremonies, and museums.  On the other hand if you’re into the modern – especially high technology – there are plenty of futuristic wonders in the cities from shimmering skyscrapers and pumping discos, to spirited sake and sushi houses.

Shinto and Buddhism are Japan's two major religions, which have co-existed for several centuries. Most Japanese consider themselves Buddhist, Shintoist or both.

*The Small Print
We’ve tried to make this destination guide as accurate as possible but please double check the essentials like visas, health and safety, airport information etc with the relevant authorities before you travel.  STA Travel takes no responsibility for loss, injury or inconvenience caused as a result of this guide.  All prices listed are in the currency of the destination, unless otherwise stated.


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