An island country in East Asia, consisting of four major islands (from north to south: Hokkaidō, Honshū, Shikoku, and Kyūshū) and thousands of smaller ones, Japan (Japanese: 日本; Nippon or Nihonnote ) is probably Asia's second-most famous nation, right after the Middle Kingdom. Known principally as the land of Shintoism, samurai, electronic Mega Corps, manga, anime, an interesting fusion of Orientalist and Western architecture, innovation, cutesy things, earthquakes, and two cities that once witnessed the full power of atomic bombs. With a population of 125 million, it is the 6th most populous country in Asia and the 11th most populous in the world.
Japan is a free-market, developed democratic country, with the world's 3rd largest economy, and a very high standards of living. While many countries in Asia (and especially East Asia) are today considered developed and high-economic, Japan has the quirk of having experienced industrialization and development predating them by decades. Within the span of 30 years, Japan transformed from a poor, feudal agricultural society into an industrial and military powerhouse, enabling it to pursue a campaign of exploration and colonialism abroad and participating in two world wars as key players. For a long time, it was the only Asian country that could "stand on equal footing" with Western Europe and the Anglophone countries in terms of economy and development; it is the only Asian member of the G7, which grouped the world's seven largest economies when it was created in the 1970s. Until the asset price bubble and resulting economic crisis of the 1990s, Japan was even considered to have the potential to upstage the United States as top superpower, because it seemed to have everything penetrated, from electronic goods, automobiles, and an entertainment sector which has a large commercial exposure worldwide.
During the Yamato period, the titular state, located in present-day Nara Prefecture and which might or might not be related to the aforementioned Yamataikoku, rose as a regional player by unifying other states in the islands. In the process, its name became synonymous with Japan itself; "Yamato" today is a poetic word for Japan (as in terms like Yamato Nadeshiko). Relations with China and Korea reached new heights, with Japan importing Chinese characters to write records (although all of them have been lost), a legal system based on Confucianism (Ritsuryō), and a series of reforms, including land redistribution, designed to further centralize the state and increase the power of the Yamato court (the Taika reforms). Buddhism was imported via Baekje, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, and after Baekje was destroyed in the 660s, a wave of refugees from the former kingdom escaped to Japan by virtue of strong family ties; a prince of Baekje previously settled in Japan to found a clan, a member of whom married into the Japanese imperial family (which also had its earliest verified emperors in this period) in the following Nara period.
Two principal clans vied for power in the Yamato court in this time: the Buddhist-inclined Soga and the Shinto-inclined Mononobe. The former prevailed and, under the auspices of Prince Shōtoku, disseminated Buddhism, which was quietly merged with Shinto as the dominant faith of Japanese people. The Soga were in turn usurped by the Nakatomi clan, whose founding member, Nakatomi no Kamatari, enacted the Taika reforms. In recognition of his efforts to unify the country, the emperor bestowed him the new clan name "Fujiwara".
While previous history was provided by foreign sources, during the Nara period, Japan started to actively engage in records writing. The first indigenous written works appeared in this time: the Kojiki, an account of Japanese mythology and its association with the imperial family, and Nihon Shoki, which had much the same content but followed it up with history of the imperial court until the contemporary era. Both were written in Classical Chinese, but another work, Man'yōshū, a poem collection, was the first work written entirely in Japanese, using a phonetic system called Man'yōgana, wherein Chinese characters were used to phonetically write Japanese syllables.note Cultural exchanges with China continued, with Japan modeling Heijō-kyō after the Tang capital of Chang'an.
In 794, the court moved to Heian-kyō, present-day Kyōto. The emperor would not move again until a whopping 1074 years later, when Emperor Meiji moved to Edo. The period that followed, Heian, is considered the "golden age" of Japan, as traditional arts and culture flourished in the court, which put an emphasis on high culture. Buddhism further developed along the teachings of the monk Kūkai, who founded Shingon Buddhism. With the end of the Tang and the ensuing period of civil war in China, exchanges with China ground to a halt, allowing indigenous Japanese culture to show its teeth. The kana writing systems appeared during this period from the aforementioned Man'yōgana, albeit through different channels; hiragana developed out of a cursive script that was used by Japanese women, who were forbidden to use kanji, while katakana was created in Buddhist monasteries to abbreviate written works. Famous writers and poets such as Murasaki Shikibu, Sei Shonagon, and Ariwara no Narihira lived in this time, and works such as The Tale of Genji, The Pillow Book, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, and Iroha (a poem used as the main alphabetical rendering of the kana system until the Meiji Restoration) also appeared. Finally, the period produced Japan's national anthem, "Kimigayo", one of the poems in the Kokin Wakashū anthology.
However, the Heian period also saw the first cracks of the centralized Japanese state that would grow into a full-blown civil war at the end of the period. Since the court spent so much time being cloistered in the palaces, they left the care of the country to regional clans to police the country. The Fujiwara, who had been the most important clan in Japan since their ascendancy in the 7th century, became even powerful in the court, gaining the ire of the other three high clans of Japan: the Minamoto (also known as Genji), the Taira (also known as Heishi), and the Tachibana. In 1156, the first two briefly allied to support a potential emperor in a succession crisis against the Fujiwara — who were defeated and subsequently lost much of their power — before turning on each other. With the breakdown of centralized rule, many feudal lords (daimyō) hired the samurai, originally civil servants turned paramilitary units to help them consolidate their lands (which they previously gained in the shōen system, under which the lords were allowed to claim the lands as their private properties in exchange for loyalty towards the emperor) against rival clans.
Eventually, the Taira clan seized power after a war with the Minamoto, who barely fled with most of their clansmen killed. After 20 years, the Minamoto returned and declared rebellion against the Taira, triggering the Genpei War. When the war ended, the Taira were destroyed, the Minamoto assumed control, the emperor lost his powers and became mostly symbolic, the samurai were formally recognized, the country turned into a military dictatorship (bakufu, or in Western translations, "shogunate"), and, though the emperor stayed in Kyōto, the administrative capital moved to the eastern Kantō region. In 1185, the age of feudalism began.
However, even after unification, it became apparent that the Ashikaga were not as strong as the Kamakura bakufu. After the death of the third shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the daimyō regained power and could back candidates of the shoguns. This culminated in the 1460s, when a succession crisis over the shogunate escalated into a war that completely obliterated Kyōto, leaving the winner, the Hosokawa clan, to install their preferred candidate as the rest of Japan descended into total chaos, with the country being split into dozens of competing lands ruled by daimyō. This period, from the start of the war in 1467 until 1600, is better known by another name: the "Warring States" (Sengoku, after an unrelated period in Chinese history). For more information about it, see this page. This period saw the first contact between Japan and Europeans, as the Portuguese and the Dutch established trading posts in the country, and some cultural and technological exchanges were conducted (notably firearms).
The last years of the Warring States period, from 1568 to 1600, were known as the Azuchi-Momoyama period. During this time, the shogunate was hijacked by a certain warlord named Oda Nobunaga, who campaigned for a unification of Japan and almost succeeded until he committed seppuku during a coup. Before his death, Nobunaga first attempted to install a shogun of his choice before scrapping the shogunate completely in 1573. Afterwards, his retainer, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, ascended as leader and resumed the works of his master, finally uniting Japan in 1590. After a failed invasion of Korea, Hideyoshi died of illness, triggering a succession crisis between his son and Tokugawa Ieyasu, who had played the long game to become ruler. The Battle of Sekigahara confirmed Tokugawa's power, resulting in the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate, the last feudal period of Japan.
Tokugawa was kind of right in the minds. Without war or foreign interference, Japan experienced an economic growth not seen since the breakdown of social order two centuries earlier, as well as a stable population growth. Culture and arts flourished in the cities, including Geisha and Kabuki. During this period, Japan annexed the Ryūkyū Islands (present-day Okinawa and some parts of Kagoshima Prefectures) to the southwest of Kyūshū, which up to 1609 was ruled by an independent kingdom. The kingdom however continued to exist until 1879, when it was absorbed by Imperial Japan. Culturally, the Ryūkyū people are more influenced by China (practically next door) compared to Japan, though their languages are part of the Japonic family, albeit mutually unintelligible to Japanese or even to each other. A notable cultural import from the Ryūkyū Islands is Karate, often mistaken to be Japan's quintessential martial art (Judo is more apt to the title).
However, the period was also notorious for its Confucian-inspired rigid social order. Power was inherited rather than gained and everyone were basically stuck in their assigned status from their birth until death. There's also the neverending rivalries between feudal lords, some of whom were on the losing side of the Battle of Sekigahara and as a result were demoted to the lowest of the low, causing deep-held resentment. And though economic growth gained, Japan remained an agricultural country all the way to 1800s, with no industrialization of any kind. As a result, when Commodore Perry arrived offshore Edo in steam-powered ships to force Japan to end sakoku, people were understandably scared.
The last years of the Tokugawa shogunate were a chaotic one. With the country opened, foreign countries were free to trade in Japan. The Shimazu and Mōri clans, who ruled the southern domains of Satsuma and Chōshū, respectively, were on the aforementioned losing side and were furious by the Tokugawa's handling of the opening, surmising that it would subject Japan to unequal treaties as what were happening in other Asian countries at the time. These domains courted the young Emperor Meiji to regain control of the country and reassert Japan's position. In 1867, Tokugawa Yoshinobu abdicated his position and named no heir, ending the shogunate. However, supporters of the Tokugawa refused to accept the new government and fled north to Hokkaidō, where they established a short-lived republic. In response, with the support of Britain, the imperial government launched a war against them and secured the country. Emperor Meiji permanently moved from Kyōto to Edo, now renamed Tōkyō ("Eastern Capital"). Japan entered a new era of modernization and Nothing Is the Same Anymore.
Under a new constitution, the Allies had planned to demilitarize Japan completely and prevent it from being able to wage war by stripping it of its industry. However, the Cold War stymied that plan; after mainland China fell to the communists, Japan suddenly became an important bulwark in Asia against communism in China and the Soviet Union, both of which are only a short distance away. Although the constitution prohibited Japan from creating a standing army, it was allowed to exploit a loophole by creating the so-called "Japanese Self-Defense Forces", originally a police force that later morphed into an army. It was from Japan that the US launched its Eighth Army in defense of South Korea during the Korean War. The country subsequently received generous funding from the US, in a similar way to Western Europe's Marshall Plan, enabling it to recover quickly from the war devastation and basically returned it to pre-war levels at the end of the 1950s. The Japanese postwar economic miracle reached its peak in the 1960s, when the country shockingly became the world's second biggest economy in a very short time. This continued in the next few decades, but began winding down come the 1990s, when an asset price bubblenote popped, causing an economic stagnation that lasted for an entire decade and whose influence is still felt in many places today.
In the face of a huge rival in China, Japan's influence is not really as strong as it was in the 20th century, but it's still a force to be reckoned with, being the world's fifth largest exporter and having the third biggest economy and fifth largest military strength and ninth by expenditure. An issue plaguing Japan today is its aging problem: with people aged 65 and above forming a quarter of the population, Japan has the oldest population in the world. Thanks to better education about health, the legalization of abortion, and changing social norms, many people are marrying later, if at all. This is the same case with many developed countries, including those in Europe, but Japan is a special case because unlike Europe or North America, Japan (and East Asia in general) is infamously xenophobic when it comes to the treatment of foreigners, who are always treated as the "other", causing it to adopt a very low quota for immigrants each year, preventing the population from growing even more. Another issue is the rising ultranationalism among the population since the 1970s, especially in regards to China and Korea. The latter two feel that Japan doesn't do enough to fess up to their crimes during WWII, which, to their credit, isn't unfounded. Unlike Germany, Japan has no equivalent policy of denazification and never truly educates its population about its role in WWII. It doesn't help that the government (led mainly by the conservative and right-wing Liberal Democratic Party since the 1950s) tends to avoid the issue when asked and sometimes delibrately aggravates it (e.g. the repeated visitations of the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines several A-Class war criminals, by politicians).
The current emperor is Hirohito's grandson, Naruhito, who succeeded his father, Akihito, after the latter abdicated in 2019 so he could focus on his ailing health. Every emperor carries a specific era name, a relic from when an emperor's reign was classified into periods based on a particular event (e.g. floods, high agricultural productivity, etc.). Before the Meiji Restoration, three era names were accorded per emperor, but today, each only has one. The date of an emperor's ascension marks the start of a new calendar, so for example the year "Heisei 13" means the year 2002 in the Gregorian calendar, since it is 13 years after the ascension of Akihito in 1989. The name is official; all formal Japanese documents must carry an era name and year. Naruhito's era name, as revealed in a highly publicized event on 1 April 2019, is "Reiwa". The emperors traditionally sat in a throne called the "Chrysanthemum Throne" (kōi), now kept as a relic in Kyōto, the former imperial capital. Still in use to enthrone new emperors, the throne has been used metonymically to refer to the Japanese imperial family itself (much like how "The Crown" is used to refer to the British monarchy).
Constitutional monarchy (in the sense that monarchs don't rule) has always been a fact of life in Japan for hundreds of years: traditionally, emperors do not rule. This is not always the case; emperors did in fact rule until near the end of the Heian period circa 12th century (it was considered the time when imperial power was at its peak), when court politics, several backstabbings, and a nasty war relegated the power over the government to hereditary military dictators called the shogun. After this, the monarchy became completely symbolic and at times even dirt-poor, since it didn't actually rule anything. Things briefly changed after the Meiji Restoration, which abolished the shogunate and the feudal system and gave some actual decision-making powers to the emperors, only to be stripped from them again after WWII, as Japan transitioned into a modern constitutional monarchy. Despite this, emperors are seen as a symbol of Japan's unity. Unlike in, say China, where imperial families regularly came and went as the popular mandate fluctuated, the fact that Japan has been ruled by the same family for over a thousand years is a sign that, in spite of constant conflicts and wars, Japan never truly disintegrated as a country. Warlords, samurai, and feudal lords fought each other all the time, but they always paid respects to the imperial family. This is also the reason why the Allies opted not to abolish the monarchy after Japan lost WWII, because it is a cornerstone of Japan, so if it's gone then so is Japan's stability.
Settings and Useful Notes related to Japan
Works and Tropes from Japan
Japan in popular culture
- Most Manga, Anime, Japanese Literature and Kaiju works are set in Japan, obviously.
- Samurai / Jidaigeki films, most of which are set in feudal Japan.
- A lot of US war time cartoons ridicule the Japanese due to their affiliation with the Axis, including The Ducktators, Tokio Jokio and Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips.
- American comics from the time did the same thing, as the Action Comics cover in Propaganda Machine can attest.
- The Simpsons: In "30 Minutes Over Tokyo" the family travels to Japan where they reference about every Japanese stereotype and/or reference point possible.
- South Park: The episode "Chinpokomon" has the makers of ''Pokémon" use the show to brainwash the youth so they can take over the world.
- Deep Purple recorded their best known Live Album in Osaka: Made In Japan. Many other hard rock/metal bands afterwards have had live albums recorded in concerts in Japan, such as Scorpions (Tokyo Tapes) and Judas Priest (Unleashed in the East).
- Sarah Vaughan also recorded a Live Album in Japan, though in her case in Tokyo: Live in Japan.
- All but one of Mr. Big's live albums were recorded in Japan. (They were hugely popular over there but in their native America they're remembered as a One-Hit Wonder for "To Be With You".)
- Some Western bands have also recorded music videos in Japan, like The Police's "So Lonely" and The Killers' "Read My Mind".
- Lost in Translation, a Hollywood movie taking place entirely in Tokyo, where an American movie star does some Japandering to make a living and meets an American girl he likes.
- In the first half of Kill Bill (i.e. the first of the two films), the Bride travels to Japan to act revenge on O-Ren Ishii.
- Most of the action in The Wolverine is set in Japan, as a reference to Logan's backstory there (as told in his 80s comics phase).
- The 1980 mini series Shogun with Richard Chamberlain and Toshiro Mifune is set in Japan.
- Gilbert and Sullivan's operette The Mikado is set in feudal Japan.
- Part of the James Bond film You Only Live Twice takes place in Japan.
- Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini is an opera about a Japanese geisha and her love for an American lieutenant.
- The song "The Japanese Sandman" is about a sandman who exchanges yesterdays for tomorrows.
- history of japan (which can be viewed here) is a 2016 video that presents the entire history of Japan in exactly nine minutes. Due to the way it's presented, it's become famous as a Fountain of Memes on Tumblr and other sites.
- Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory brings Third Echelon agent Sam Fisher to Japan for several levels, including a private retreat in Hokkaido, a bathhouse in Tokyo and a fictional Ministry of Defense location, Kokubo Sosho, with an elaborate base under the Tokyo Bay. A fictional new Japanese counter-intelligence agency, Admiral Toshiro Otomo's ISDF, cooperates with Third Echelon. And turns out to be the real enemy.
- Sayonara is a 1957 Hollywood film that takes place in Japan and was filmed on-location (although in Kyoto, when it's set in Kobe). The director was inspired to make it after visiting Japan and seeing various forms of performing arts (two major characters are theatre performers).
- The Kanto, Johto, Hoenn and Sinnoh regions of Pokémon are all based on regions of Japan, specifically Kanto, Kansai, Kyushu and Hokkaido respectively.
The Japanese flag