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History of Japan

The history of Japan begins with a race which seems out of place among in Asia. This race known as the Ainu developed a palaeolithic culture by c. 38,000 B.C. The Ainu are a caucasian race which seem to be related to primitive Siberians.

By c. 12,000 B.C. an Ainu culture known as Jomon developed. Their name is derived from their pottery, which is some of the earliest found. Beginning in the 3rd century B.C. the Jomon culture began to be displaced by the Yayoi culture. The Yayoi brought with them superior pottery, the wheel, irrigation, and rice cultivation.

Early Mongoloid inhabitants arrived in Japan from Korea and China. They used weapons of bronze to split the Ainu by driving them north and south. The Ainu in the south were eventually eradicated leaving the remaining Ainu confined to the islands of Hokkaido and Sakhalin.

The first emperor of Japan was Jimmu Tenno. According to legend Jimmu came to Yamato from Kyushu in 660 B.C., but this date is very questionable and a date of c. 300 A.D. seems more likely. It is written that Jimmu was the great grandson of Ninigi-no-Mikoto who was the grandson of the sun goddess, Amaterasu-Omikami. This is the origin of the early Japanese belief in the divinity of their emperor.

The first states appeared in Japan c. 300 A.D. The most powerful of these states was the Yamato kingdom which grew from southern Honshu. By 400 A.D. the Yamato kingdom absorbed most of the independent states.

The Chinese culture greatly influenced the growth of early Japan. By the 6th century B.C. Buddhism reached Japan from China. Around 600 A.D. Prince Shotoku presented the first Japanese constitution, which borrowed administrative and political ideas from China. The first capital of Japan was established at Nara in 710 A.D. in the imitation of a Chinese city.

The influence of the Chinese culture and Buddhist monks grew. In 794 Emperor Kammu moved the capital to Heian (modern day Kyoto) to escape the Chinese and Buddhist influences. This would usher in the Heian period which would last until 1185 A.D. This period is known for the steady growth of the power of the aristocrats.
The influence of the aristocrats grew to eventually control the court. The emperor was still in place, but the real power was now held by powerful families. The most influential of these was the Fujiwara family.

In the middle of the 12th century two other families began to rise in power. These were the Taira and Minamoto families. The Minamoto family crushed its rivals and set up a military government in Kamakura. It was during the Gempei war between the Minamoto and Taira families from 1180-1185 that the samurai first came into service.

The rise of the families led to a feudal system of government. Power was held by a shogun who was the emperor's chief military commander. Serving under the shogun were nobles with their own private samurai and armies.

In 1274 Japan came to the attention of Kublai Khan. When the Kamakura shogunate refused to submit Kublai invaded, but was defeated. He returned in 1281 and seven weeks of battle followed. Then a hurricane blew in and ravaged the attacking fleet ending the invasion.

The Mongol attacks weakened the power of the Kamakura family. Emperor Go-Daigo used this opportunity to gain support and managed to burn Kamakura to the ground in 1333. Rivals from the Ashikaga clan then betrayed Go-Daigo and had one of their own declared shogun in 1338. The Ashikaga clan was not able to maintain control and effectively ended in 1467 amid civil war.

By the 1570s Ashikaga control completely dissolved and nearly 400 independent states evolved. The emperor continued to reign from Heian, but was still powerless. In 1568 a feudal lord named Oda Nobunaga began his conquest of central Japan eventually taking control of the region.

Nobunaga was murdered in 1582 and was succeeded by one of his commanders, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi expanded his control to north and east Japan by 1590 and he then turned to foreign conquest. He wanted to invade China and asked Korea for assistance. When they refused, Hideyoshi decided to invade Korea instead. He attacked Korea twice, first in 1592 and then in 1597. Both invasions failed.

Hideyoshi died in 1598 and war between the feudal lords followed. In 1600 Tokugawa Ieyasu took control and instituted the Tokugawa shogunate which would last until 1868 A.D.

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