In all the countries that I live in, I study and think about their history. As the old adage goes, one cannot understand a society without understanding its past. As with my History of Serbia, this will be a work in progress and as I live in the country, I will try to find the time to edit and adapt this page. It is the goal to have a nice web site others can use to understand this fascinating country and to help me make sense of Japan. This is not an unbiased or objective history of Japan. My opinions and views are based on my personal experiences and I write about Japan in comparison to the USA and other countries I have lived in.
As I am writing this, I have not moved yet to Japan. I visited in November and since then, have been reading all that I can about the culture. See below for a bibliography of resources that helped me with this page.
I would like to thank John Boyer, a professor at Virginia Tech University, for his lectures on Japan. He is the famous “Plaid Avenger” and one of the best historians I have ever come across. His nine lectures on Japan gave me and my family a great introduction to our experience. It set the framework for the more in depth research and reflections I will be undertaking.
Japan has a distinctive culture and identity that sets it apart from every other nation. A big part of this is its island status, (put idea of Robert Kaplan here). The country has never been colonized by a foreign power, except by the USA after World War II. This protection and long periods in its history of isolationism, has helped Japan retain its unique identity.
Unlike China, the dominant nation in the region, it is not a very old civilization. The islands were settled by immigrants coming from Central Asia, to the Korean peninsula and across the Korean strait. This can be seen in the DNA of the Japanese, with the majority of genetic markers found in the population from the Mongols, Chinese, and Koreans. Japan did not form what others would call an unified civilization until approximately 600 AD. This is about the same time the Slavs (my ancestors) arrived in Eastern Europe and formed distinct cultural groups.
Sakoku Period (1633 – 1853)
I have now lived in Japan for almost 9 months and I am starting my history with what I think is the most fascinating part of Japan’s history, the Sakoku or “closed country” period. It is crazy to think that for 220 years, almost no Japanese citizen was allowed to leave the islands and no foreigners were allowed to enter Japan. 220 years – that is about the same time as the United States has been a nation. Think about it, from George Washington until now, a closed country. Amazing!
A long period of fighting and chaos preceded the Sakoku. Provincial warlords were fighting each other and security was rare. Near the end of the 16th century, a clan started to unify the nation and put control and more importantly for the population, peace and stability. The Tokugawa shogunate was a family-led, feudal military government. There was a succession of three Tokugawa leaders that took power. Most Japanese welcomed this after generations living in constant fear of attack from neighboring clans.
Perry Enters the Harbor
The end of the Tokogawa isolationist policy and the eventual downfall of the regime and they way of life in Japan came in the form for black warships. It must have been for the Japanese, like this scene in the classic sci-fi blockbuster, Independence Day, when the aliens first appear over cities in the USA.
A few people that had limited contact with the Dutch trading post in Nagasaki or with Chinese pirates know a bit about the industrial revolution and life outside Japan, but for most ordinary Japanese, it must have been a great shock!
The image of the left is painting by an American entitled, “Comm. Perry taking the GOSPEL OF GOD to the heathen, 1853. To the right is a Japanese woodblock print from 1853, which shows the exact opposite – a dark, evil force arriving.
Feudal Period (compare to Europe)
Tokungawa Dominance (isolation, Japanese Maxed)
Meiji Restoration (becomes modern)
World War II
Post War Economic Miracle
Aging Japan – Japan Today