Defined as starting around 1850, modern Japan was the result of Western intrusion. The history of modern Japan is one of juggling Westernization with a selective preservation of tradition, transforming and renaming tradition in the process. In some cases, we see parallels between modern Japan and modern China. Reforms in both countries were planned by the state. And both countries initially reacted against Western intrusion with the decision to empower themselves with Western science and technology while preserving their own cultures. As time went on, both adopted substantial amounts of Western knowledge and transformed their respective cultures along Western lines to different extents. But the two countries soon parted ways. While China struggled under the wars and demands of the foreign powers, Japan quickly transformed itself into an imperial power, colonizing Korea, Taiwan, and finally, China. Post-World War II Japanese history was marked by American occupation and then rapid economic development, so that by the 1980s, Japan was widely regarded as a miracle country with the no.2 largest economy in the world.
Outline of modern Japanese history
The coming of the West (1800s).
- In 1853, two American naval ships led by Commodore Matthew Perry came to Japan asking for the opening of Japanese ports to American refueling en route to China.
- Before the coming of Perry, Japan was in a feudal state that in many ways resembled European feudalism, although there were differences.
Political reforms conducted in the name of the Meiji emperor (1868- 1890s).
- Western style constitutional government
- Modern school system.
- Abolition of the feudal system.
- Reappointments of new aristocracy.
- Land redistribution.
Military triumphs and road to imperial power:
- The Sino-Japanese War (1894)
- The Russo-Japanese War (1904)
- The 15 year war (1931-45).
Under the American occupation (1945-52):
- Revised constitution.
- Abolition of peerage.
- Equality of gender.
Japan’s economic takeoff (1950s-1990s).
Japan’s economic recession (1990s-now).
A history of paradoxes
Modern Japan has exemplified a history of paradoxes:
- Restoration of the emperor and tradition to implement Westernization.
- Constitutional monarchy with the constitution being a gift of the emperor to the people.
- Lifelong employment as a result of the conflict between management and workers in the 1920s and 1950s.
- Economic expansion that eventually led to economic recession.
The origins of the Japanese state.
- Although the Yamato Line of rulers of Japan, the first rulers to established a unified kingdom, started in the 6th and 7th centuries, they traced their origins to 660 B.C., and their ancestry to the Sun goddess Amaterasu.
- The meaning of Japan (Nihon) means the origin of the sun.
- 8th century, Japan started to have written records, when the first histories were written.
Every country has its own myth. Japan is no exception. Among its boasts, two stand out:
- It is the only country in the world that has had a continuous imperial line from around 6th century to now.
- It has never been invaded in history (except during American occupation).
Tokugawa, the Shogunate and the feudal system
- The Japanese feudal system started around the 12th century, when fiefs were given to royal princes to establish themselves. These princes also developed a large military following (the samurai).
- In 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu subdued all other samurai and had the emperor establish him as the shogun (general), with his headquarters in Edo (today’s Tokyo).
Tokugawa’s rule in comparison with European feudalism
- As in Europe, the emperor had less power than the shogun who was below.
- Unlike in Europe, the shogun was not just a local ruler, but controlled much of the country, although the rule was not always stable.
- Like in Europe, the shogun had a lot of followers who claim allegiance to him and had great control over local regions.
The Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868) and the outside world
To consolidate its rule, the Tokugawa shogunate more and more closed Japan to the outside world, forbidding foreigners to come and visit or do business in Japan except for the Chinese and the Dutch, hence the term "Dutch Learning" for the Dutch translated Western books in Japan.
In the face of Western traders, especially after 1850, the shogunate regime was deeply divided. It often tried to fight the West, but the story of China served as a reminder that it was not the way out.
Tokugawa and the introduction of Chinese Confucian learning
To consolidate his rule, Tokugawa also introduced Chinese Confucian (c. 5th c.b.c.) learning that emphasized merit rather than birth, but deference and hierarchy.
Shintoism: developed from animism that the world was alive with spirits, which were often from concrete, natural sources.
Buddhism: a negative outlook on life that treated life as the result of the reincarnation of the soul because of its material content, and the goal of life is to purge the material.
Christianity, a growing minority in the 20th century.