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Japanese History and Culture

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An array of Japanese fans.
Kimigayo wa, Chiyo ni yachiyo ni, Sazareishi no, Iwao to narite, Koke no musu made. which translates as May the reign of the Emperor continue for a thousand, nay, eight thousand generations and for the eternity that it takes for small pebbles to grow into a great rock and become covered with moss.
- Kimigayo, the Japanese National Anthem or kokka.

Japan is an island country to the east of the Asian continent in the Pacific Ocean 36° North and 138° East. Japan has a long and at times violent history.

The Japanese are primarily the descendants of various peoples who migrated from Asia in prehistoric times; the dominant strain is North Asian or Mongoloid, with some Malay and Indonesian admixture. One of the earliest groups, the Ainu, who still persist to some extent in Hokkaido, are similar in appearance to Caucasians1.

Early History

Legend however suggests that Japonic history begins with the sun goddess and all Japanese emperors were her descendants. By law the Emperors of Japan were men but until the birth of Crown Prince Naruhito (Prince Hiro), the law nearly had to be changed to allow for a female heir. The mythical Jomon period (10,000 - 300BC) represents the earliest known Japanese culture. Jomon Japan (although the nation did not exist at the time) was home to a hunter-gatherer society, and was named after its characteristic pottery decoration. This period covers the mythical foundation of Japan by Prince Jimmu Tenno, though there is no evidence for his existence2. The following Yayoi, Yamato and Nara Periods saw Japan develop politically, economically and religiously.

Rice cultivation, metalworking, and the potter's wheel were introduced from China and Korea. Pottery arrived during the era named Yayoi (300BC - 300AD) after the place in Tokyo where wheel-turned pottery was found.

In the town of Shinto, Japan's oldest religion was established in the period 100 - 300AD. In Shinto people identify divine forces, or kami, with nature and human virtues such as loyalty and wisdom. During this period, local clans formed small political units and took control of the regions.

A unified state of Japan begins with emergence of powerful clan rulers, and Japan established close contacts with mainland Asia. Clan rulers were buried in large tomb mounds known as Kofun3, surrounded by haniwa (clay sculptures). Yamato4 clan rulers, claiming descent from Amaterasu Omikami, begin the imperial dynasty that continues to occupy the throne up to today. At this time Japan adopted the Chinese written characters now known as kanji. Shotoku Taishi (574 - 622AD) now began to shape Japanese society and government after the pattern of China. He sought centralisation of government and a bureaucracy based upon merit. He also called for reverence for Buddhism and the Confucian virtues.

A great mass of reforms called the Taika no Kaishin (Taika Reforms) was introduced. The aim of the reforms was to strengthen the emperor's power. New aristocratic families were created; especially powerful was that of Fujiwara no Kamatari, who helped push through the reforms.

A New Capital At Nara

The Imperial court built a new capital in 710, modelled upon Chang-an in China, at Nara5. Though emperors were Shinto chiefs, they patronised Buddhism in the belief that its teachings would bring about a peaceful society and protect the state.

Legends surrounding the founding of Japan were compiled as history in the Kojiki (The Record of Ancient Matters) and the Nihon shoki (The Chronicle of Japan). With the adoption of Buddhism as the state religion, its monasteries started to gain political power.

By the time of the Heian Period (794 - 1192 AD), the capital and Imperial court had moved to Heiankyo (now Kyoto), to escape domination of Nara's Buddhist establishment, and Japan's first feudal system was developed. Local authorities owed loyalty to the Emperor (tenno) who allowed them control their own domains, instead of direct imperial control of the land. The Imperial Army stopped conscription, which meant the warriors from the military clans dominated the army. As the Emperor depended on these clans for any military action, they gained more influence and importance.

Official contacts with China stopped in 838, but Buddhism, in combination with native Shinto beliefs, continued to flourish. Flowering of classical Japanese culture was aided by invention of kana (a syllabary for writing Japanese language). The women of the Imperial court produced the best of this era's literature; indeed, Murasaki Shikibu's 'Tale of Genji' (c1002) was the world's first novel. From about 1180 Japan had a fully developed feudal system similar to the European system where one was given land in exchange for military service. The Imperial court underwent decline of power with the rise of the daimyo6, lords who possessed the political power, and the provincial warrior class the bushi.

During the Warring States period and early Edo period, many samurai lost their masters. A samurai with no master became a ronin7 and had to seek alternative employment. It is estimated the Edo period was troubled by 400,000 ronin. These men were armed, out of work, and caused trouble, and so they were forced to take employment. For political reasons the ronin class became active again at the end of the Edo period. Taking ronin status allowed a samurai to act against the shogunate without putting a stain upon his lord's honour. Although there are differences, the daimyo approximate to the European nobles, and the samurai to the knights. These feudal titles and ranks were abolished in Japan in 1868.

The Kamakura Period

The Gempei war started during this period and the Minamoto family became the rulers, when they were victorious over the Taira clan.

A new military government, the Kamakura Bakufu, was set up by Seii-tai shogun Minamoto Yoritomo8 at Kamakura in 1192. Japan had been in the hands of the daimyo, with recruited private armies made up of the samurai9.

During this period, the samurai repelled invasions from the Mongols in 1274 and 1281.

The Zen sect (introduced 1191) found favour among the samurai, who gained a high social class. When Lord Yoritomo died in 1199 a struggle soon developed between the Kyoto Imperial court and the Kamakura Bakufu; the Imperial court was defeated in 1221 in battle at Kyoto.

The period known as the Muromachi Period, 1333 - 1568, is regarded as Japan's most violent period. First the Onin no Ran or Onin war destroyed centralised government, after which came the Sengoku Jidai - the time of the country at war. At this time the Europeans established contact with Japan, but the only imports from Europe were guns in 1543, and the missionary Francis Xavier who introduced Christianity in 1549.

After the century of destructive wars Oda Nobunaga (1534 - 1582) started reuniting Japan. This started with war, and this war was concluded by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536 - 1598). His plans to invade China and Korea failed, and the local armies defeated him. Today's country of Japan can trace its start to this point, the Azuchimomoya Ma Period of 1568 - 1600.

The Edo Period, or Tokugawa (1600 - 1868)

In 1603, to hold on to this hard-won power, the Tokugawa shoguns started a long period of isolation; the country would be closed to visitors for 250 years. The new Shogun Tokugawa Leyasu moved his capital to Edo (modern Tokyo) in 1635. With the capture of Osaka Castle an age of peace began and maintained by the imposition of a strict social order; at the top were the samurai, then the farmers, artisans, and finally merchants. The country became very prosperous, education and the access to books was widespread.

Isolation was ended in 1835, when Commodore Matthew C Perry arrived and Japan accepted his demands of access so that the US could operate a commercial shipping fleet in the area and use Japanese ports as a base.

The Meiji Period And Modern Japan

Emperor Mutsuhito was restored to power in 1867 and took on the name of Meiji. The Meiji lasted from 1868 to 1912 and during this emperor’s reign Japan saw the:

  • Sino-Japanese War (1894 - 95).
  • Russo-Japanese War (1904 - 05).
  • The annexing of Korea (1910).
  • First World War (1914 - 18) Japan supported The Allies; Britain, France and the USA.

Japan achieved domination of Pacific trade, and a more liberal style of government started and the population were given the vote in 1925.

World War Two

Just before and during World War II Japan attempted to take over China and joined the Tripartite Pact in 1940. This caused America to stop exporting aviation fuel to Japan and help China instead. At the beginning of 1941 Japan signed a neutrality pact with Russia and increased pressure on Britain, France and the Dutch colonies regarding economic matters. In the summer Japan invaded French Indochina and occupied its naval and air bases.

Japan then attacked Pearl Harbor, prompting America to become involved in the Second World War. During August in 1945 America dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. Japan soon surrendered and signed a formal Instrument of Surrender on the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

After the war, the Emperor lost all his powers and nothing more than a symbol of Japan. The Allied Powers, consisting mostly of American forces, occupied Japan between 1945 and 1952. In 1952 the 'Treaty of Peace with Japan' was signed, and Japan regained full sovereignty. The post-war constitution of Japan prohibited it from maintaining military forces, and going to war as an aggressor. However, they did maintain a force for self-defence purposes only. The Self Defence Force was divided into three branches: Ground Self Defence Force, Maritime Self Defence Force and Air Self Defence Force. The country made a remarkable economic recovery to the point it is now the world's second biggest economy, aided by its supply of the United Nations forces during the Korean War, and due in a large part to its political and military stability. However, Japan suffered an economic downturn during the early 1990s, with several periods of recession, forcing changes in major banking, public spending and the private sector. In the late 20th and early 21st Centuries there was tension with both China and Korea over Japan's view of its past; and the and the involvement of Self Defence Force troops in the 2003 invasion of Iraq was criticised for possibly violating the constitution.

Religion and Festivals

In Japan the search for spirituality continues every hour, every day, every month.
- Dennis Banks, American Educator

Just as the West celebrates with festivals relating to Christianity, the East celebrates with festivals relating to their own religions. The two main religions in Japan are Shinto and Buddhism, though the two co-exist, and many Japanese follow both traditions. Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism are minority religions in Japan.

Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan, reveres nature, not differentiating between the spiritual and natural worlds. Kami (loosely translated as 'spirits') including gods, ancestral spirits and natural phenomena such as oceans, mountains, storms and earthquakes can influence different aspects of life, and respond to human prayers. Shinto has no sacred texts or icons, no founder. While there is no congregational worship per se, as well as private worship rituals within the home, followers make visits to public shrines (jinja) for personal reasons - for example to request help or to give thanks - or at times of festivals.

Bukkyo buddhism10, specifically Zen Buddhism, spread to Japan in the 12th Century BC, and is a mixture of Indian Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism. Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, Buddhists try to achieve enlightenment through practice and development of morality, meditation, and wisdom via the Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths. Similar to Shinto, worship can be at home or at temples (tera).

Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu!
- 'Happy New Year!' in Japanese

Japan celebrates New Year's Day over three days, which are classed as Bank Holidays and unlike the West celebrates with a special meal called 'Osechi Ryori'11 rather than fireworks and dancing. Calendars are also different!

Japan's other major festivals include Valentines Day, Setsubun, Hina Matsuri (the doll/girls festival), Hana Matsuri (flower festival), Golden Week, White Day, Children’s Day and Aoi Matsuri (Aoi Festival). For travellers in search of festivals it is probably best to go during July to August, when the Tanabata Matsuri (Star Festival), Gion Matsuri, Hanabi Taikai and O Bon (the festival of the dead) take place. Hanabi Taikai and O Bon occur on water but Hanabi Taikai also uses fireworks, while O Bon uses little lanterns. Around the same time rival firework companies in Tokyo come together and produce Sumida-gawa. The best place to see this display is on the river or from Asakusa's Sumida Park, one of 28 national parks in Japan. Two other festivals worth mentioning are Jidai which occurs in Kyoto during October and the Mount TsukubaToad Festival in August, which commemorates the toads that are used to make toad grease, which is used in the healing of cuts and wounds. It is traditionally believed to provide protection against spears and swords.

The Arts

Japanese literature, bungaku, dates back to the Nara period (710 - 94) when Japanese was written with Chinese characters in the chronicles Kojiki, Records of Ancient Matters, and Nihongi Chronicles of Japan.

The World's First Novel

The Heian period saw the world's first true novel in the form of The Tale of Gengi by Murasaki Shikibu (973 - 1014). Shintokinshu originated during the Kamakura period between 1185 and 1335.

Noh Plays

This was followed by Noh plays in the 15th Century, which are based on the Buddhist belief of detachment. Noh plays are still acted out today and consist of four types of dance representing ritual, comedy, worship and warriors. Music, hogaku, played during Noh performances is called nogaku. It basically consists of a chorus, the hayashiflute, the tsuzumidrum, and other instruments. Other types of performance such as the Bunraku (puppet plays, usually accompanied with shamisen music) and kabuki are also popular today and date back to the 16th and 17th Centuries. Kabuki plays and dances feature male actors in all of the roles, colourful make up, rhythmical/poetic lines and elaborate sets. Kabuki actors have similar status in Japan to rock stars and footballers.


Haiku is a mode of Japanese poetry, developed from the older hokku style by Masaoka Shiki (1867 – 902). It was popular during the Tokugawa period (1603 - 1867) taking over from tanka and was written in calligraphy (shodoh). Matsuo Basho (1644 - 94) demonstrated this style magnificently. The fine novel was brought about in the 17th Century and is reflected in Ihara Saikaku (1642 - 93). Then in 1887 - 89 The Drifting Cloud came into being by Futabatei Shime.


Anime (animated cartoons) and Manga (comics/graphic novels) are one of the more modern types of Japanese art, and cover a wide variety of genres, ages and themes.

Japanese Music

There are several types of traditional Japanese music such as gagaku, which is ancient court music from China and Korea and is the oldest type of Japanese, traditional music, Biwagaku, Sokyoku, Shakuhachi, Shamisenongaku and Minyo. These can be split into different categories of folk music and art music. Folk music is reflective of work, dance, ceremony and feasts and is sometimes accompanied by hand clapping and instruments, such as the biwa, koto or zither, shamisen and shakuhachi (flute). Art music reflects the court and Shinto ceremonies and is accompanied by a male choir and musical instruments.


Dancing takes place in festivals, plays and various other events. In some of these there is even audience participation. Ballet, kabuki, awa odori (Tokushima Prefecture) and eisa are just some of the dances on offer in Japan.


Geisha - gei means 'of the arts' and sha means 'person' so ultimately Geisha translates as a person of the arts - are not prostitutes but women specially trained in the arts such as nihon-buyoh (Japanese dance), playing the shamisen, ikebana, poetry, etiquette, conversation, social graces and the tea ceremony. In the past there were male geisha, but the term has evolved to refer specifically to women.

The Sword

Today in Japan, the sword is not considered a weapon but rather a unique cultural artefact and art form. The curved, single edged katana is distinctly Japanese item, probably best known due to Hollywood’s love affair and deification of it above all other edged weapons, and the legends of the samurai and ninja. Swords were made in over 50 areas of Japan, but there were five main areas of volume production. These were:

  • Bizen
  • Mino
  • Soshu
  • Yamashiro
  • Yamato

Several different craftsmen will work on the sword: the smith, the polisher, a hilt maker who makes the habaki - a collar that fits around the blade, just above the tsuba (guard), the tsuka or grip, which is usually wrapped with silk cord; and the kashira or pommel cap and a scabbard (or saya) maker. The distinctive curve of the blade comes from the differential hardening process that gives the blade a hard edge and a softer spine. In Japan only a licensed sword smith can make a nihonto a traditionally made sword with a hamon and a mekugi ana (a hole in the nakago or tang which secures the tsuka to the sword via a bamboo peg), made from traditional material (tamahagane – a specific type of steel) and using traditional methods of forging. A maximum number of blades may be made in any one month. Some smiths attain the status of 'living national treasure'.


Ukiyo-e are the 'pictures of the floating world', woodblock printing/paintings, from the Edo period and onwards - typically featuring landscapes, geisha, samurai, sumo, probably one of the most famous of which is 'In the Well of the Great Wave of Kanagawa' from Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji by Katsushika Hokusai. Other well known artists in this style include Suzuki Harunobu and Ando Hiroshige.

The Language

Although Japanese speech has always differed a lot from Chinese speech and Japanese grammar has differed from Chinese grammar; the Japanese writing system kana was originally derived from China. Over 2,000 kanji, making up kana, are created from complex symbols, to create words and parts of words. Kanji began as pictures and over time look less like the original kanji. Historically, only very limited people like aristocracy and educated men could read Chinese (kanji), but today children are taught about a thousand kanji at elementary level and another thousand at intermediate level. The biggest kanji dictionary contains 50,300 kanji. Newspapers contain 3328 kanji, while to be considered able to read most newspapers and magazines, you will need to learn the most common 2000.

The Japanese language is made even more difficult by two sets of phonetic scripts called hiragana and katakana, which originate from kanji. A very ancient poet invented hiragana as Japan’s own written language. Primarily, hiragana was supposed to be written by well-educated and aristocratic women, but there were very few Japanese women who could write Japanese. Then, the ancestors of the Japanese people developed a written language, which combined hiragana and the original kanji.

Hiragana and katakana are each made up of 46 characters, which stand for syllables (usually including a consonant and a vowel, like 'ka'). Hiragana is usually used for Japanese words, such as konnichiha. Katakan is used for all foreign words. For example, names of foreign people are written in katakana and so are words introduced from other languages, places, sounds, and animal noises. Dots are also used to show a difference from the original sounds.

Although basic Japanese is simple, lacking such complications as distinctions between singular and plural, it has a complicated system of 'honorifics', where words change depending on the relative status in society of the speaker and the listener. This can be difficult for westerners to grasp.

There are many different local dialects, or hogen, in Japanese. Each of them using different words to mean the same things as well as using different endings, intonations and accents. Therefore, people in Japan use standard Japanese, but because of this derivations of Japanese are dying out and are no longer being taught to younger generations.

Historically, only very limited people like aristocracy and educated men could read Chinese Kanji. Today children are taught about a thousand kanji at elementary level and another thousand at intermediate level. The biggest kanji dictionary contains 50,300 kanji. Newspapers contain 3328 kanji, while to be considered able to read most newspapers and magazines, you will need to learn the most common 2000.

1A term sometimes used to refer to people who have a European ancestry.2A bit like King Arthur in Britain.3The Kofun Period lasted from 300 - 645 AD.4The first Yamato Emperor and Japanese tradition gives the founding year of the country as 600BC.5Located in the south of the main island and due east of Osaka. This capital lasted until 794.6The feudal system developed over time, with land given in recognition for military service. The daimyo (landowning nobles, literally translated 'great name') took the political power and raised private armies made up of the samurai (an elite warrior class). The daimyo Lords held the power and without a unified central government the country was ravaged by civil war during the 15th and 16th Centuries.7Ronin is the term for a masterless samurai and is written with the characters for 'floating' and 'man', ie a warrior adrift who had no lord to serve.8who became Seii-tai shogun in 1192 after his victory over the Taira clan.9The original samurai were palace guards, though the term is now synonymous with the ruling class of warriors who dominated Japan. Their rule lasted from the Kamakura Bakufu to when the Tokugawa Shogunate lost all power during the during the Meiji Restoration in 1867 and 1868.10Buddhism breaks up into subdivisions such as Jodo, shingon (which emphasises the mystical symbolism of mudras and mantras and believes in the Buddha's ideal which is inexpressible), Nichiren and Soka Gakkai. Some Japanese also believe in a philosophical approach to life developed by Confucius (jukyo), which stresses the hierarchical relationships in life.11Ryori means 'cook'.

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