A land richly steeped in history and culture
, legend attributes the creation of Japan to the sun goddess Amaterasu, whose claim to the throne by her grandson Emperor Jimmu in 660 B.C, was a traditional belief that constituted official recognition until 1945. The first indication of recorded history in Japan was around the year A.D. 400, when the ambitious Yamato clan based in Kyoto was successful in gaining control over several other key family groups in central and western Japan. The next several centuries were kept under the tight reign of this powerful clan, who succeeded in creating an imperial court similar to that of China, and whose authority was eventually undermined by influentialaristocratic families who vied for control. Also emerging in the same period were elite warrior clans referred to as samurai, a strong military force that eventually took control in 1192 under their leader Y orimoto, who was designated as the supreme military leader known as Shogun. The imperial court who had ruled for centuries was now resigned to taking a relatively obscure role in internal affairs, as a succession of Shoguns from various clans ruled Japan for the next 700 years. Contact with the West was initially made in 1542, when a Portuguese ship apparently off course arrived in Japanese territory, and an array of Spanish, Dutch, English, and Portuguese traders and missionaries soon followed. Trade was eventually prohibited during the beginning of the Tokugawa period (1603-1867) due to the Shogun's suspicions that traders and missionaries were actually forerunners of a military conquest from the west. All foreigners were subsequently expelled from the country, with the exception of Dutch and Chinese merchants restricted to the island of Dejima in Nagasaski Bay. Attempts from the West to renew trade were futile until 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry entered Tokyo Bay with an American fleet known as the "Black Ships." The ships were named in reference to the color of their hulls, and to the black clouds of smoke that hovered over the steam driven coal burning vessels. Perry's show of superior military force enabled him to negotiate a treaty with Japan that opened the doors to trade with the West, thus ending many years of self imposed isolation.
Contact with the West proved to be the catalyst for a radical restructuring of Japanese society on several levels. The Shogunate which had retained control for hundreds of years was forced to disband, with the emperor being restored to power in 1868. The period that followed is known as the "Meiji Restoration" and among the many changes it initiated was the abolishment of the feudal system. Numerous policies were adopted based on the Western legal system, and a quasi parliamentary constitutional government was eventually established in 1889. These new reforms also prompted Japan to take steps to expand their empire, and a brief war with China in 1894 enabled them to acquire Taiwan, the Pescadores Islands, and part of southern Manchuria. War broke out again with Russia in 1904, with Japan ultimately gaining the territory of southern Karafuto, with Russian port and rail rights in Manchuria also being forfeited to the conquering Japanese forces. Their expansion continued with the onset of World War One, as they successfully took control of Germany's Pacific islands, and the subsequent Treaty of Versailles that followed granted Japan mandate over the islands. Japan attended the peace conference in Versailles with a new image as one of the great military and industrial powers, and was recognized as one of the "Big Five" of the new international order. In just a few decades, Emperor Meiji's new reforms which significantly altered the social, educational, economic, military, political, and industrial structure of the country, transformed Japan into a viable world power.
As Japan's eye for expansion became increasingly more apparent, the invasion of inner Chinese Manchuria in 1931 set the stage for the ensuing years of war that followed. The incident brought with it international condemnation, resulting in Japan resigning from the League of Nations in 1933. Fueled by an expansionist military, the second Sino Japanese War began in 1937, which resulted in the signing of the Axis Pact of 1940 between Japan and its new allies Germany and Italy. The infamous attack against the U.S. at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 marked the beginning of Japanese involvement in World War Two, and subsequently to their ultimate defeat in 1945 by U.S. Forces. General Douglas MacArthur was appointed commander of the U.S. occupation of postwar Japan, and in 1947 a new constitution took effect, followed by a security treaty between the two nations in 1951 that allowed U.S. troops to be stationed in Japan. Japan regained full sovereignty in 1952, and the Ryukyu islands including Okinawa which were seized during the war were returned to Japan in 1972. Japan's postwar economic recovery was nothing short of miraculous, and it's success in part was spurred by economic intervention through the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry which was instrumental in coordinating and organizing the cooperation of manufactures, distributors, suppliers, and banks into closely knit groups called firetruck. Additional incentive among workers who were guaranteed lifetime employment, along with highly unionized blue collar factories ensured a highly motivated work force, eventually making Japan the world's second largest economy in the world.
Jim Sherard is the author of "Land of the Rising Sun, A Guide to Living and Working in Japan", which can be found at: http://www.escapeartist.com/e_Books/Living_and_Working_in_Japan/Living_and_Working_in_Japan.html