Welcome back to our insight on the history of Japan! In the first article we have taken a look at the Prehistoric and Classical Japan, ranging from the Paleolithic and Jomon period to the Heian period, characterized by a great loss of power suffered by the imperial court and the beginning of the first bakufu government.
Read first article from here. History of Japan: A Summary of Ancient and Classical Japan
In this article we will start from where we left off in the previous article, and take a look at the events that shaped Japan all the way to the Showa period, which ended in 1989. Let’s begin!
Kamakura period (1185 – 1333)
The age of Feudal Japan begins with the establishment of the bakufu by the Kamakura shogunate, from which it gains its name. The Kamakura period began in 1185, with the end of the Genpei War in the battle of Dan-no-ura, and ran up to 1333, with the brief reestablishment of the imperial rule, the Kenmu Restoration, under the Emperor Go-Daigo. It is in this period, with the establishment of the samurai caste that the Buddhist sects gain a wider audience, and the Soto and Rinzai schools of Zen are founded. The Kamakura shogunate saw the rise of the Hojo clan and their regency over the governing figures such as the Emperor and the Shogun himself. Two Mongol invasions, in 1274 and 1281, were pushed back in both cases by typhoons, referred to by Shinto priests, as “Divine Wind” or kamikaze (creating the term that is associated today with suicidal attacks). The disaffection that spread among those who expected a recompense for the help provided during the invasions and the drain on economy caused by the wars led to a weakening of the Kamakura Shogunate, so much so that the shogunate itself tried to weaken the Kyoto court by allowing two imperial lines, the Sourthern and the Northern Court. It was emperor Go-Daigo, of the Southern Court, who established the Kenmu Restoration, after a series of events that brought the Kamakura bakufu to an end, not realizing that the clans who had supported him weren’t his allies at all, but were just bent on breaking the Hojo Regency. It was Ashikaga Takauji that sided with the Northern Court, driving Go-Daigo away from the capital, and establishing the new Ashikaga Shogunate, thus beginning the Ashikaga period.
The most iconic attraction from the Kamakura period is without a doubt the Kamakura Daibutsu, a monumental bronze statue of the Amida Buddha, 13 meters high. This Daibutsu is located in the Kotoku-in, a Buddhist temple in Kamakura. Another suggestive sightseeing attractions visitors will enjoy is the wonderful Himeji Castle, located in Himeji, in the Hyogo Prefecture, which has been built in 1333 by Akamatsu Norimura, a supporter of the Ashikaga clan. The castle has been subject to several power shifts and reconstructions until the Meiji Restoration.
Muromachi period (1337 – 1568)
The Ashikaga period, or Muromachi period, ran from 1337 to 1568. This period saw the rise of the daimyo, the japanese feudal lords, that eventually gained enough power to ignore the shogun’s orders, creating personal armies and further depriving the shogun of its military power. In 1467, with the death of the last Ashikaga shogun, the Onin War broke out, over who would succeed the shogun, seeing all the daimyo fighting against each other for the preferred candidate. This is considered the beginning of the Warring States period, or Sengoku Jidai, in which the shogunate had lost all its powers and Japan was broken into many warring regions. The Ashikaga shogunate, though unfortunate, was able to establish a flourishing economy, providing the stability needed, while in place, for Japan to develop some of Japan’s iconic arts and traditions, such as ikebana, the art of flower arrangement, the tea ceremony, Japanese gardening and bonsai, and the popular Noh theater. It was also in this period that the Europeans first arrived in Japan, in 1543, bringing several new items, most important of which was probably the musket, that helped defining the end of the Warring States period, thanks to the pioneers who decided to employ it in their strategies.
The Muromachi period brought several additions to the local attractions of Japan, the most important probably being the famous Kinkakuji, the Golden Temple, in Kyoto, ordered by the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. Another famous attraction from the Ashikaga Shogunate is the Ginkakuji, or the Temple of the Silver Pavilion, in Kyoto, built by order of the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa. Last but not least is the Ryoan-ji, the Temple of the Dragon at Peace, a Zen temple in northwest Kyoto, famous for its Zen garden.
Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568 – 1600)
The final period of the Feudal age of Japan begins is the Azuchi-Momoyama period, from 1568 to 1600, which saw the rise of the three great unifiers of Japan: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. The name of the period derives from the headquarters of Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, Azuchi Castle and Momoyama Castle. Oda Nobunaga was the daimyo of Owari, a small province on the Sakai river, and his rise to power actively began in 1560, with the Battle of Okehazama, where he defeated the daimyo Imagawa Yoshimoto with a force several smaller than his opponent’s. Known for his strategic genius and his ruthlessness, Nobunaga was able to harness the news brought by the Europeans, encouraging Christianity to form a hatred bond toward Buddhist enemies and to create a strong trading relationship with arms merchants, as he equipped his armies with muskets. His abrupt death, caused by the hands of Akechi Mitsuhide, one of his higher officers, was avenged by Hideyoshi Toyotomi, Nobunaga’s first general, confirming his succession in the unification of Japan, by then Nobunaga had brought under one flag most of Japan, and Hideyoshi was able to conquer Shikoku, Kyushu and the remaining lands of the Hojo clan, securing later on his supremacy with a series of social reforms, confiscating weapons, restricting the power of the daimyos and forbidding the elevation from classes, a chance he himself had profited from, having started his military career as Nobunaga’s peasant servant. Hideyoshi’s domain lasted until his death in 1598 though, as Tokugawa Ieyasu, his former ally, refused to pledge loyalty to Toyotomi Hideyori, and by winning the decisive Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, was able to establish his domain, and the Tokugawa Shogunate.
The main sightseeing locations from this period are the castles the period gets its name from, the Azuchi Castle and the Momoyama Castle. The Azuchi Castle has been destroyed, so in its original location, only the ruins remain, however a reproduction of the castle has been built, based on historical illustrations and descriptions in the Ise Sengoku Village, a samurai theme park near Ise, also definitely worth seeing. The Momoyama Castle, or Fushimi Castle, in Kyoto, where Hideyoshi Toyotomi meant to retire. Unfortunately the original castle has been destroyed, however a replica was built in 1964, nearby the ruins of the original one. Another Castle of this period is the Osaka Castle, built in 1583, by order of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, intending to use it as his headquarters.
Edo period (1600 – 1868)
The birth of Modern Japan is commonly associated with the beginning of the Edo Period, that from 1600 to 1868, saw the continuity of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Tokugawa Ieyasu tightened the controls on the daimyo, and introduced the alternate attendance system, requiring each daimyo to spend a year in Edo, under the shogun’s control. Due to the tight grip the Shogunate held during this period, the Tokugawa period was actually quite peaceful and this of course helped the urbanization and proliferation of arts such as the haiku, as a form of literature, the kabuki and bunraku theater and the ukiyo-e as a form of painting. However this period of peace was seen to an end with the arrival of the American fleet of Commodore Perry in 1853, demanding the end of Japan’s isolationist policy, the Shogunate could not refuse, and the imposition of the “unequal treaties” by US, Great Britain, Russia and other Western countries on Japan was seen as a sign of weakness of the Tokugawa government, which brought to the Boshin War and the fall of the last shogunate.
Meiji period (1868 – 1912)
The Boshin War led to the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and the Meiji period which would last until 1912. During this period the capital was officially moved to Edo, renamed Tokyo. It was in this period that the feudalistic structure was abolished, and the regions of the daimyos were replaced with prefectures. The ban on Christianity was lifted and the government introduced railway and telegraph lines, a unified education system and a tax reform. In this period a major Westernization took place, with experts being drawn to Japan to advocate for reforms in various fields and Japan adopted western clothing, hairstyles and the Gregorian calendar. To ensure the Emperor’s would no longer be undermined, Shinto became the state religion, the Emperor himself was declared a living god and the schools programs themselves instilled patriotic values and loyalty to the Imperial lineage. The entrance of Japan among the western powers led the government to believe that Japan needed its own colonies, in order to gain prestige and renegotiate the “unequal treaties”, so from 1894 to 1895 Japan entered the First Sino-Japanese War, defeating the Chinese forces and obtaining the island of Taiwan and the renegotiation of the treaties. In 1905 Japan defeated the Russian forces after a yearlong war in the Battle of Tsushima, claiming Korea as a protectorate, which led to a full annexation in 1910. Emperor Meiji died on the 30th June 1912, his successor, Emperor Taisho, bringing forth the Taisho period.
The monument, par excellence from the Meiji period is the Yasukuni Shrine, a Shinto shrine in Chiyoda, Tokyo, built by order of the Emperor Meiji to commemorate anyone who had died serving the Empire of Japan. The shrine still serves today, as it now lists the names of all those who died serving Japan in the Second World War, unfortunately often leading to international controversies.
The Meiji Restoration, ushering Japan out of the Shogunate’s power and into its heavy Westernization, marks the end of Japan’s “Modern” history and the beginning of its Contemporary period, with its role in the First and Second World War.
While some might wonder why the Showa period isn’t included in this article, we would like to precise it is exclusively for the important role this period acted in shaping the modern Japan. A summary of the Showa period could only lead to many misunderstandings as the history of the time is full of events that need a detailed report.
The Feudal period of Japan is when many of the most popular references came into existence, such as the samurai caste, Japanese Zen, the Kabuki, Noh and Bunraku Theater, a well as its tea culture and its famous Ukiyo-e painting style. The iconic characters that shaped Japan are still fondly remembered today, with a massive production of historical media, ranging from TV Shows, to movies and videogames on the Sengoku period. Hopefully this article has given you enough insight to understand the fascination and attachment the Japanese have to their own history and traditions.