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This period, roughly spanning 14,000 BC until c.300 BC covers the earliest history of human civilisation in Japan. The people who lived in Japan during this period are credited with creating some of the earliest known pottery. The Jomon peoples are believed to be ancestors of the native Ainu People, who are considered to the aboriginal inhabitants of Japan.
Creation of the Japanese State
The origins of the Japanese state are surrounded in mystery and legend. According to myth, the era preceding the legendary first emperor, Jimmu was known as ‘the Age of the Gods’ (lasting from the time of the world’s creation until 660 BC), during which time gods lived amongst humans. Jimmu was supposedly the grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu, and this is the origin of the belief in the divine status of the Japanese emperors. The earlier Japanese emperors are difficult to verify as having existed and the true years of their reign are unknown. The first verifiable Japanese Emperor is Emperor Kimmei, who reigned from 539-571 AD. Traditionally, the Emperor Kimmei is the 29th Japanese Emperor.
It was sometime during this legendary and unverifiable period that the Yamoto people (Japan’s dominant ethnic group) emerged, formed from later settlers from the Asian mainland who combined to form the Yamoto race.
In 710 AD, the capital of the Japanese Empire was moved from Asuka to Nara, leading to the establishment of the so –called ‘Nara Period’ lasting until 794 AD. By now, Japan had emerged as a centralised absolute monarchy similar to that of Imperial China. However, the monarchy’s power was not uncontested, and a powerful Buddhist clergy (Buddhism existed and still exists syncretically with Shintoism, Japan’s traditional religion). Between the 8th and 12th Centuries, the Fujiwara clan also exercised an enormous level of influence over the Imperial Family through the judicious use of intermarriage and appointing themselves as regents governing Japan in the name of the Emperor. The Fujiwara clan retained its dominance until late into the 12th Century.
The Establishment of Feudalism in Japan
As the influence of the Fujiwara declined, other clans rose to challenge them for power and influence over the Emperor. These included the Taira, Tachibana and the Minamoto.
The Emperor Go-Sanjo, whose familial connections with the Fujiwara were weaker than those of his predecessors (his mother was, unlike his recent predecessors, not a patrilineal descendent of any of the Fujiwara) stepped up to challenge Fujiwara dominance. He took advantage of an internal division within the Fujiwara clan, and began to replace Fujiwara officials with those of the Minamoto clan. He also instigated a new policy, called insei, whereby emperors could retire and exert political influence in the name of their successors as emperor, undermining the power of the Fujiwara regents. However, this system, whilst undermining the regency, also led to a power struggle within the Imperial Family when the Emperor Go-Shirakawa found himself facing a rebellion instigated by the retired Emperor Sutoku in 1156.
The Hogen Rebellion was put down with the assistance of Taira no Kiyomori and Minamoto no Yoshitomo (heads of the Taira and Minamoto clans respectively). However, the former allies became bitter rivals when Kiyomori became the most powerful man in Japan, governing the country in the name of the Emperor with the assistance of Samurai, a warrior class that had gradually risen in status to form part of a new ruling elite. Kiyomori successfully defeated the Minomoto clan in 1160 during the Heiji Rebellion, when the Minamoto attempted to rebel against Tara domination.
The Minamoto gained their opportunity for revenge in 1180, when Kiyomori placed his own grandson Antoku on the imperial throne, instead of Prince Mochihito, who believed that the throne was rightfully his. Mochihito and the Minamoto forged an alliance, leading the Genpei War, lasting until 1185. The Minamoto emerged victorious, and founded the Kamakura Shogunate in 1185.
During the time of the Kamakura Shogunate, Kublai Khan, leader of the Mongols, sent emissaries to Japan ordering them to surrender to him and become a tribute-paying vassal state of the Mongol Empire. The Hojo Clan (who by this point controlled the Kamakura Shogunate) repeatedly rebuffed the Khan’s emissaries, and so in 1274, a vast Mongol invasion fleet was assembled and dispatched to conquer Japan, consisting of 700-800 ships carrying 23,000 Mongol, Chinese and Korean troops.
This initial invasion force suffered heavy losses and was forced to re-embark and ultimately return to Korea due to a storm that decimated the fleet.
A second fleet was dispatched in 1281 with an even larger force; however this too was defeated and repulsed. Further Mongol hopes for landing reinforcements were similarly disappointed when another storm destroyed the Mongol fleet. The Japanese word ‘kamikaze’ (meaning ‘divine wind’) entered the Japanese lexicon to describe how Japan’s enemies had been destroyed at sea by these fortuitous storms.
Imperial authority was briefly restored under Emperor Go-Daigo between 1333 and 1336, when the Emperor’s supporters sided with him when he refused to abdicate at the behest of the Shogun and go into retirement as a ‘cloistered (retired) emperor’. Go-Daigo managed to alienate one of his largest supporters, Ashikaga Takauji however, and Go-Daigo’s power was usurped once again as a new Shogunate was established, this time under the Ashikaga clan in 1338.
The Ashikaga Shogunate started to weaken late during the 15th Century as a succession dispute arose over whether Ashikaga Yoshimasa’s younger brother, Ashikaga Yoshimi, or his unexpected son, Yoshihisa would succeed the shogun upon Yoshimasa’s death. The revolt, known as the Onin War, lasted 10 years (1467-1477), and left no clear winner between the feuding clans, despite the fact that Yoshihisa did eventually become Shogun.
Sengoku Jidai and the Rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate
The Onin War had weakened the central authority of the Ashikaga Shogunate, and the various clans of Japan had more or less become autonomous, particularly those in the outlying provinces, far from Kyoto (then the Shogunate capital). The daimyo fought amongst themselves for dominance in Japan. Eventually one of these daimyo, Oda Nobunaga of the Oda clan deposed the last of the Ashikaga Shoguns in 1573 Nobunaga was forced to commit seppuku in 1582 however, when he was betrayed and captured by one of his own generals, Akechi Mitsuhide.
He was succeeded by one of his other generals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who defeated and killed Akechi before further consolidating the Oda clan’s hold over Japan. Hideyoshi attempted to conquer Korea during his lifetime, but this attempt was a failure. Hideyoshi died in 1598, and eventually, Tokugawa Ieyasu, another former Nobunaga follower, managed to establish himself in power and after a power struggle, declared himself as Shogun in 1603.
Opening up of Japan
The years and centuries that passed under the Tokugawa Shogunate were relatively peaceful. Mindful of the failure of Hideyoshi’s attempts to conquer Korea, the Shogunate attempted to cut Japan off from the rest of the world and the destabilising effects of a foreign religion such as Christianity, the Tokugawa Shoguns banned Christianity. They also banned any subject from leaving Japan and trade with foreign lands was strictly controlled and limited.
Japan was ruled as a feudal military dictatorship, governed by the Shogun and with the Emperor reduced to a revered but essentially powerless figurehead. This was to change during the middle of the 19th Century, when it became clear to the Japanese that continued isolation would leave them vulnerable to colonial conquest. The Opium Wars fought and won by Britain and France against China indicated that western governments had access to technology far beyond that of feudal Japan and when the Americans arrived in the 1850s, they pointed this out to the Japanese. American advice was backed up by military threats to attack Japan if they did not agree to trade with the US, and so in 1858, a treaty was signed between the Shogun and the US agreeing to trade with the outside world in return for some measure of US protection.
Tensions between local Japanese and the ‘foreign barbarians’ resulted in many incidents of murder and assault. Gold was massively undervalued in Japan compared to silver, and as a result, gold flowed from Japan into the hands of foreigners and Japan’s gold-standard currency collapsed, causing further economic distress. Foreign merchants brought cholera to the shores of Japan for the first time, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths amongst the Japanese population. It seemed to many that the arrival of foreigners to Japan was more of a curse than a blessing, although this view was not universal, and many saw the potential of outside trade with the outside world.
Attempts to Expel the Foreign Barbarians
Emperor Komei, breaking with a tradition stretching back centuries, intervened in political affairs and issued an edict ordering the expulsion of foreigners in 1863, and the Shogun was forced to agree to this demand. However, this policy was based on complete ignorance of the disparity in military power between the feudal Japanese and Western militaries, and the navies of France, the Netherland, US and Britain bombarded Japanese forces into submission, finally demonstrated to the Japanese that they were no match for the outside world unless they industrialised on western lines.
Many Japanese nobles had grown dissatisfied with what they perceived as the Shogun’s weakness in handling the foreigners and many sided with the growing ‘Imperial’ faction that advocated the overthrow of the Shogunate and the restoration of Imperial power. The Shogunate, for its part, was acutely aware of Japan’s weakness compared to the west and was trying to pursue a policy of rapid modernisation at the same time as pursuing humiliating and submissive policies towards the west until Japan was capable of challenging western power.
Nevertheless, discontent led to an uprising, during which the Satsuma domain, governed by the Shimazu former allies of the Shogunate, switched sides, allied themselves with the pro-imperial Choshu and supported the imperial faction during the Boshin War. This war, lasting between 1868 and 1869, led to the downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate.
The Emperor Meiji was formally ‘restored’ to power in 1868. Feudalism was gradually abolished and the lands that had been the basis of the power of the daimyo were returned to the Emperor. Japan was to be governed centrally in the name of the Emperor (who was only restored in name, in practical terms, Japan was still governed by politicians).
Despite the Imperial Faction arising out of hostility towards the foreigners, the Meiji government made it clear that it intended to adhere to Japan’s treaties with foreign governments and to remain open to foreign trade. It also accelerated Japan’s program of modernisation and industrialisation.
The Samurai class was abolished during the 1870s, leading to the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, amongst a series of other, smaller samurai revolts elsewhere in Japan. This rebellion was utterly crushed by the new Imperial Army, which had been trained and equipped with modern weapons and methods. The samurai were left in no doubt that Japan had changed forever and their role as an elite warrior class within Japanese society had now passed into history.
However, many former samurai established themselves in new roles in industry, finance, and politics, as well as within the new Imperial military as Japan transformed itself with astonishing speed from a medieval-style backwater into a country that rivalled some of the most advanced powers in Western Europe and North America.
Japan as a World Power
Japan exploded on to the world stage as a global force early in the 20th Century, when it won a shock victory over the Russians during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Russia had sought to expand its holdings by taking control of Port Arthur in China, as well as expand into Korea. Which Japan viewed as too close to Japan to by entrusted in foreign hands. The resulting war proved that Japanese military technology and tactics where every bit equal to those of a major power such as Russia, and Japan came to be viewed differently by powers that not more than a few generations ago might have seen Japan as ripe for colonisation.
During World War One, Japan sided with Britain and its allies, and attacked German forces in China and the Pacific. During peace negotiations at Versailles, Japan was recognised as one of the 5 Great Powers amongst the victorious allies.
Japanese Fascism and Militarism
The rise in Japanese power and influence in East Asia, coupled with its increasing prosperity and industrial importance made it hungry for expanding its role in the area. The onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s created an economic and political crisis. Parliamentary democracy, never strongly rooted in Japan was eventually supplanted by a military fascist government operating on the principle of extreme nationalism, emperor worship and imperial expansion.
Japan’s aggressive inter-war policy in East Asia alienated the Americans, who considered the area to be part of their sphere of influence. They were also concerned about Japanese militarisation. These relations deteriorated further during the 1930s, following the Mukden Incident and the Nanjing Massacre.
Relations between Imperial Japan and Britain had traditionally been excellent before, during and immediately after World War One, but deteriorating relations between the US and Japan had forced Britain to choose between them. Britain decided to choose to maintain cordial relations with the US, and in 1923, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was discontinued. The outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937 was a source of grave concern to both Britain and the US.
By the summer of 1941, the US had decided to freeze Japanese assets and place an embargo on oil to force the Japanese to withdraw from China. The Americans were joined by Britain and the Netherlands. As Japan got 80% of its oil from the embargoing Empires and Nations, Japan considered this to be an act of war. Faced with a choice between a humiliating withdrawal from China or declaring war on the allies, Japan chose war.
World War II
Japan launched a surprise attack on the American Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii on December 7th 1941. The attack failed to do as much damage as the Japanese had hoped, but the US declared war. Concurrently, Japan launched attacks on American, British and Dutch colonies. The Japanese succeeded in occupying the Philippines, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and parts of Burma, as well as several small islands in the Pacific.
A protracted struggle between Imperial Japan and the allies was fought by land, sea and air in Asia and the Pacific that was fought concurrently to that fought by the allies in Europe and the Mediterranean against Nazi Germany.
Eventually, the superior manpower and industrial strength of the allies, joined in the middle of 1945 by the USSR overcame the Japanese and their will to resist the inevitable was crushed by the dropping of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans in August 1945.
As the result of the peace treaty, Japan was forced to relinquish all of its overseas possessions and to submit itself to American occupation. Emperor Hirohito was permitted to remain as Emperor, but most of Japan’s leadership was convicted of war crimes, leading to the execution of many, including Hideki Tojo, Japan’s Prime-Minister throughout most of the war.
Japan was occupied by the Americans until 1952, during which a new Japanese constitution was issued, a key feature of which was the prohibition of military intervention outside of Japan.
Japan nevertheless recovered quickly during the post war period, and during the 1980s, was still growing so rapidly that many thought that she would soon overtake the US to become the world’s largest economy.
This did not happen, however in 1991 what turned out to be an economic bubble finally popped. Since then, Japan has struggled to regain economic growth and hopes for an economic recovery received a further setback in 2011 when Japan was hit by a massive earthquake, followed by a related tsunami along parts of the Pacific coastline. The effects of this natural disaster were further exacerbated when a nuclear plant at Fukushima was badly damaged, resulting in a series of meltdowns that forced local residents to evacuate the area. These disasters have caused the equivalent of hundreds of billions of pounds worth of damage.
Coinage of Japan
It is not known precisely when the first coins were used in Japan, but it is thought that the first coins used there were imported from China or Korea some time during the first century AD or possibly earlier. Coins used in ancient Japan were typical ‘cash’ coins struck in bronze (or less commonly, silver) that were round in shape with a square hole, surrounded by Kanji or other script on one side and blank on the other. Japan struck its own coins based on these cash coins between the 8th and the 10th Centuries AD. Following this period however, coin production was stopped and not resumed until late into the 16th Century, late into the ‘Warring States’ period. Coins imported from the Asian mainland continued to be used however.
During the Tokugawa Period, a standardised system of currency was developed, with the ryo used as a standard of currency. The ryo was divided into 4 bu, each of which was worth 4 shu. The smallest unit of currency was the mon, 4,000 of which made up a ryo.
Mon coins were struck in bronze, copper and iron. Other denominations were struck in gold, although silver bu and shu coins were introduced later. Semi-rectangular gold slabs, known as the oban (worth 10 ryo) and the koban (worth 1 ryo) were also issued. Gold disappeared rapidly from circulation once trade with the west was firmly established in the 1850s-60s due to the disparity between the official value of gold and its global value.
Mexican 8 reale coins were used as trade coins, counter stamped with Japanese characters for local use.
Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, a new, modern currency and coinage was issued (replacing the ‘cash’ type coins that had been used in various forms for thousands of years). This new currency was based around the Spanish dollar and known as the yen. The yen was subdivided into 100 sen (cents). Coins were typically dated based around the year of the Emperor’s reign, rather than by the year of the Gregorian Anno Domini (or Common Era) system.
Not surprisingly, the Yen has devalued considerably since it was first introduced, and the sen subdivision has not been used since 1953. The aluminium 1 yen coin is still in circulation however and has existed in its current form since 1955. Other coins currently in circulation include the copper-zinc 5 yen, the bronze 10 yen and the cupro-nickel 50, 100 and 500 yen.
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