The actual settlement of the country of Japan is something that is rooted in Japanese legend. The legend maintains that Japan was likely settled about 35,000 years ago. Paleolithic people from the Asian mainland, according to legend, were the first to arrive in Japan after which another settlement arrived around 400 B.C. This second settlement (the Yayoi people) introduced metal-working, rice cultivation and weaving to Japan. There is some evidence that the Yayoi people came from Korea. There is also some debate as to the first recorded history of Japan. Some records indicate that the first era of recorded history was from 250-538 AD, during the Kofun age. The Kofun people were led by a class of aristocratic warlords. These people adopted many of their own customs from the Chinese, and also adopted many innovations from them as well. However, there are other legends that claim Japan was founded in 600 B.C. by an Emperor named Jimmu. Legend maintains that Jimmu was a descendant of the sun goddess.
However, most agree that with the introduction and development of Buddhism (between 400-600 B.C.) the Japanese culture and society began to take root. Along with the introduction of Buddhism came the Japanese writing system which was adopted from the Chinese writing system. Both of these events began what would be a long period of Chinese influence in Japan. The Japanese society was divided in to clans, or social classes and the Yamato dynasty ruled from around 710 until 1867.
The Yamato dynasty emperors were nominal rulers, at best, with power held instead by the court nobles or “shoguns”. Shoguns were military governors. These shogun rulers were the root of the first central government in Japan, and formed their first capital in Nara around 710. The Japanese aristocracy practiced mostly Buddhism, while the villager class practiced Shintoism. During the Heian era, from about 794-1185, Japan’s culture quickly developed and began to turn out art, poetry, and prose. It was during this same time that the samurai warrior class developed.
In 1331, one of the stronger emperors, Go-Daigo, attempted an overthrow of the shogunate rule. The result of this attempt was a civil war between the northern and southern courts (or shogun/military governors). The civil war ended in 1392, but gave rise to a powerful class of strong regional lords called “daimyo”. It was during this time that the Daimyo increased their power and influence and their control would last through the end of the Edo period (the time that Tokugawa was emperor) until 1868. From the beginning of Japanese settlement until this time, the shogun had ruled in the name of the Emperor. The end of the Tokygawa period in 1868 would mark the end of the shogun rule.
During this time, Japan would see the first contact with the Western world when a Portuguese ship would land in Japan instead of it’s intended destination of China. As a result of this accidental discovery, traders from the West – including Portugal, England, Spain and the Netherlands – arrived in Japan. Missionaries from these countries would arrive as well. However, the shogun rulers became suspicious of the traders and missionaries, fearing that they were actually the precipitice of a military conquest by western European countries. At this point, the shogun forced all foreigners to leave and prohibited all foreign relations with the outside world. Limited to very restricted trading contacts with some Chinese and Dutch merchants, the Japanese closed themselves off for another 200 years until a US Navy commodore by the name of Matthew Perry forced Japan to open itself to the West.
Rapidly, with this renewed contact with the West, the face of Japanese culture and society began to change. The shogunate power was broken, the shoguns resigned and the emperor took his seat in power. Reformation was at the forefront of Japanese rule; thus began a period of restoration initiated by Meiji Emperor. The influence of the West resulted in many Western institutions being adopted. Additionally, what was once an isolated, feudal state, Japan was now transformed into a new world power. In just a few decades of time, Japan modernized the social system, introducing Western legal systems and constitutional governments. The Japanese educational, economic, military and industrial systems all saw transformation at the hand of the Meiji Emperor’s reformation. With the death of Meiji Emporer, Japan was now ruled by his son Taisho Emperor. Taisho was chronically ill, which provided the opportunity for the “Diet” of Japan to further democratize the country.
It was during this time that Japan was able to extend it’s hand and begin formalized rule over Korea. During the latter part of the 19th century, Japan began to regard Korea as a threat, and it was because of this fear that Japan became embroiled in a war with the Chinese Empire and Russia. The result of this war was Japan’s establishment of domination over Korea. Once Japan took Korea, they also took what was formerly the Pescadores Islands and Formosa (now Taiwan). After defeating the Russians in 1905, Japan was awarded rights to Manchuria and souther Sakhalin. Due to the Japanese control over these areas, Japan was able to formally annex Korea in 1910.
Japan entered World War I at the request of the British government. The British required assistance in warding off the German raiders in and around China. Japan declared war on Germany in August of 1914 and was able to easily defeat German forces in the eastern seas. Through several successful international negotiations, Japan was able to further it’s influence in the Pacific. It’s power grew even further in Asia with the downfall of the Russian tsarist regime and the Bolshevik revolution. By the end of the first World War, despite Japan’s smaller role, it had emerged as a powerful force in world politics.
The end of the first World War saw Japan as a member of the League of Nations. But by 1933, Japan had resigned from the League and began the invasion of China in 1937. After signing an ‘anti-Comintern’ pact with Germany, Japan began a chain of events that would end with their attack on the United States at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
The second World War would cost Japan over 3 million lives in four years of war. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki leveled those cities and by September 2, 1945, Japan signed a surrender agreement on September 2, 1945 on the U. S. S. Missouri. At the end of the war, Japan would retain only the home islands that it started out with centuries before.
Post World War II, Japan would see unparalleled economic growth. The political system would be dominated by the Liberal Democratic Party, until around 1993 when the LDP would lose control, ending four decades of rule.
Today, Japan is still seen as one of the greatest world powers, boasting a strong economy and a population that has grown to over 127,000,000. This makes it the 10th largest country in the world, in terms of population. In the most recent years, Japan has actually experienced a net population growth after experiencing population decline, partly due to a very low birth rate, and also due to no immigration. In all, the number of foreign residents sits at about 2.8 million people.
However, the Japanese people have one of the highest life expectancies in the world, at around 81 years of age. The rate of marriage is at over 60 percent. One aspect of Japanese culture that brings the country pride is it’s literacy rate. Over 99 percent of it’s population (over the age of fifteen) can read. This number is distributed evenly between men and women and compares almost evenly with the literacy rates of many Western nations.