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A Brief History

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Founding of Japan (before 710)

According to mythology, Japan's ancient history is tied to the sun goddess, Amaterasu, who sent one of her descendants to the island of Kyushu to unify the people. Legend gives way to fact in the fourth century, when the country was unified under the Yamato Dynasty, who established court in Nara. At the core of unification was Shintoism, a religion indigenous to Japan and marked by its worship of nature, ancestors, and ancient national heroes. At one time, Shintoism also conferred divine status to the Emperor. Two of Japan's most revered shrines, said to have been built in the age of the gods, are the Ise Grand Shrines at Ise and Izumo Taisha Shrine near Matsue.

In the sixth century, Buddhism, which originated in India, was introduced to Japan via China and Korea. In the early seventh century, Prince-Regent Shotoku, a great admirer of Buddhism and a beloved figure even today, carried out political reforms, established a constitutional government, sent Japanese scholars to China to study Buddhist teachings, and constructed a multitude of temples. Most noteworthy are Horyuji Temple near Nara, said to contain the oldest wooden structure in the world, and Shitennoji Temple in Osaka.

 

The Nara Period (710-784)

Before 710, the site of the capital was moved every time a new Emperor came to the throne. In 710, however, a permanent court was established in Nara, which witnessed seven successive Emperors over the next 77 years. Buddhism flourished, and thousands of temples were constructed throughout the land. Buddhism had tremendous influence on the arts, including sculpture, painting, and lacquerware. It was during this period, in 752, that a great bronze image of Buddha was erected at Todaiji Temple in Nara. It remains the largest Buddha statue in Japan.
 

The Heian Period (794-1185)

In 794, the capital was moved to Heiankyo (present-day Kyoto). Following the checkerboard pattern of Chang'an in China, the new city's streets were laid out in grid fashion. The Heian Period ushered in a new era of prosperity and peace, allowing the noble class to attain new heights in the arts and culture. New ideas and practices flowed to Japan from abroad, mainly China, and were then modified to become uniquely Japanese. Chinese characters, for example, were used to create a new Japanese writing system that allowed for the first time a blossoming of Japanese literature and poetry. Among these were The Tale of Genji, the world's first major novel, and the PillowBook, both written by women.

Towards the end of the Heian Period, military clans in the provinces began clashing for power, pushing Japan into a series of civil wars and eventually the feudal era.
 

The Kamakura Period (Around 1185-1333)

After the Genji clan emerged victorious in battles with the Heike clan, Yoritomo, the head of the Genji clan, established a military government in a fishing village called Kamakura and became the nation's first shogun, or military leader. This marked the beginning of Japan's 700 years of shogunate rule (it was only in 1868, in the Meiji Restoration, that the Emperor was restored to power) and the ascendancy of the warrior caste, known as samurai. Bound to their feudal lord by a strict code of honor, the samurai led a Spartan lifestyle exemplified by the tenets of Zen Buddhism, introduced to Japan in 1190, which espoused mental and physical discipline and had a tremendous influence on the arts and literature.
 

Muromachi and Azuchi-Momoyama Periods (1336-1598)

With the fall of the Kamakura government, a new feudal government was established at Muromachi in Kyoto in 1336. The shogun led an extravagant life, building villas like the Golden and Silver Pavilions and the rock garden at Ryoanji Temple, which are still major attractions today. It was a time also of newfound cultural pursuits, with Noh drama, the tea ceremony, flower arranging and landscape gardening becoming the rage of the privileged class. In the provinces, however, trouble brewed as feudal lords vied for power, eventually erupting into civil wars that consumed the nation for more than a century. Mighty castles mushroomed throughout the land, built by feudal lords not only for defense but as a symbol of military strength and power.
 

The Edo Period (1603-1868)

In 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who emerged from the power struggle as the most powerful statesman in the land, established his shogunate government in Edo (present-day Tokyo). To secure his supremacy, he instituted laws that managed to keep feudal lords in check for another 260-some years. In 1639, the Tokugawa shogunate adopted a policy of isolation and banned all international trade. The sole exception was Nagasaki, where a small colony of Dutch and Chinese merchants were allowed to trade, giving Japan only a small peephole through which to view the rest of the world. For the next two centuries, Japan lived a life cut off from the modern world, with its own feudal system of samurai, farmers, craftsmen, and merchants. Kabuki theater and festivals emerged as a popular form of entertainment for the masses, while woodblock printmaking, silk for kimono, and lacquerware became status symbols for the merchant class' nouveau riche. To maintain control over the nation, the shogun required feudal lords throughout the land to travel to Edo every other year, bringing with them a seemingly endless procession of samurai. To accommodate them, Japanese inns sprang up in post towns along designated highways, some of which remain today.

By the middle of the 19th century, a budding commercial economy led by the merchants and a sophisticated urban culture had arisen to challenge the feudal system under the Tokugawa shogunate. In 1853, Commodore Perry of the U.S. Navy sailed his fleet to the port of Uraga, near Edo, eventually forcing the shogun to enter into a trade agreement with the U.S. Two ports, Shimoda and Hakodate, were opened to trade. This sudden encounter with the West and its advanced technology contributed to the downfall of the Tokugawa shogunate and ignited Japan's desire to catch up with the outside world.
 

Birth of Modern Japan

In 1868, Emperor Meiji moved his government from Kyoto to Tokyo and set Japan on a course of modernization that would transform it from a feudal society to an industrialized nation in the course of only a few decades. Western culture and influence flowed into Japan at a rapid tempo, including Western dress, food, architecture, industry, and more. Following World War II, Japan adopted a democratic constitution that, among other things, stipulated that sovereign power resided with the people, denounced war, and guaranteed human rights as eternal and inviolable. In 1964, Tokyo hosted the Summer Olympic Games, broadcasting to the world that Japan was indeed a modern, industrialized nation.