Ancient Japan

Ancient Japan

The history of Japan encompasses the history of the islands of Japan and the Japanese people, spanning the ancient history of the region to the modern history of Japan as a nation state. Following the last ice age, around 12,000 BC, the rich ecosystem of the Japanese archipelago fostered human development. The earliest-known pottery found in Japan belongs to the Jōmon period. The first known written reference to Japan is in the brief information given in Twenty-Four Histories in the 1st century AD. The main cultural and religious influences came from China.

The first permanent capital was founded at Nara in 710, which became a center of Buddhist art, religion and culture. The current imperial family emerged about 700, but until 1868 (with few exceptions) had high prestige but little power. By 1550 or so political power was subdivided into several hundred local units, or "domains" controlled by local "daimyō" (lords), each with his own force of samurai warriors. Tokugawa Ieyasu came to power in 1600, gave land to his supporters, set up his "bakufu" ( feudal government) at Edo (modern Tokyo). The "Tokugawa period" was prosperous and peaceful and Japan terminated the Christian missions and cut off almost all contact with the outside world.

In the 1860s the Meiji period began, and the new national leadership systematically ended feudalism and transformed an isolated, underdeveloped island country into a world power that closely followed Western models. Democracy was problematic, because Japan's powerful military was semi-independent and overruled—or assassinated—civilians in the 1920s and 1930s. The military moved into China starting in 1931 and declared all-out war on China in 1937. Japan controlled the coast and major cities and set up puppet regimes, but was unable to defeat China. Its attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 led to war with the United States and its allies. After a series of naval victories by mid-1942, Japan's military forces were overextended and its industrial base was unable to provide the needed ships, armaments and oil. Even with his navy sunk and his main cities destroyed by air, the Emperor Shōwa held out until August 1945 when two atomic bombs and a Soviet invasion forced a surrender.

The U.S. occupied Japan until 1952. After 1955 it enjoyed very high economic growth rates, and became a world economic powerhouse, especially in engineering, automobiles and electronics. Since the 1990s economic stagnation has been a major issue, with an earthquake and tsunami in 2011 causing massive economic dislocations and loss of the nuclear power supply.

Read more about Ancient JapanFeudal Japan (1185–1868), Edo ("Tokugawa") Period (1603–1868), Empire of Japan (1868–1945), Postwar Japan (1945–present), Periodization, Regnal Years

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