Legend attributes the creation of Japan to the sun goddess,
from whom the emperors were descended. The first of
them was Jimmu, supposed to have ascended the throne
in 660 B.C., a tradition that constituted official doctrine
Recorded Japanese history begins in approximately A.D.
400, when the Yamato clan, eventually based in Kyoto,
managed to gain control of other family groups in central
and western Japan. Contact with Korea introduced Buddhism
to Japan at about this time. Through the 700s Japan
was much influenced by China, and the Yamato clan set
up an imperial court similar to that of China. In the
ensuing centuries, the authority of the imperial court
was undermined as powerful gentry families vied for
At the same time, warrior clans were rising to prominence
as a distinct class known as samurai. In 1192, the Minamoto
clan set up a military government under their leader,
Yoritomo. He was designated shogun (military dictator).
For the following 700 years, shoguns from a succession
of clans ruled in Japan, while the imperial court existed
in relative obscurity.
First contact with the West came in about 1542, when
a Portuguese ship off course arrived in Japanese waters.
Portuguese traders, Jesuit missionaries, and Spanish,
Dutch, and English traders followed. Suspicious of Christianity
and of Portuguese support of a local Japanese revolt,
the shoguns of the Tokugawa period (1603每1867) prohibited
all trade with foreign countries; only a Dutch trading
post at Nagasaki was permitted. Western attempts to
renew trading relations failed until 1853, when Commodore
Matthew Perry sailed an American fleet into Tokyo Bay.
Trade with the West was forced upon Japan under terms
less than favorable to the Japanese. Strife caused by
these actions brought down the feudal world of the shoguns.
In 1868, the emperor Meiji came to the throne, and the
shogun system was abolished.
Japan quickly made the transition from a medieval to
a modern power. An imperial army was established with
conscription, and parliamentary government was formed
in 1889. The Japanese began to take steps to extend
their empire. After a brief war with China in 1894每1895,
Japan acquired Formosa (Taiwan), the Pescadores Islands,
and part of southern Manchuria. China also recognized
the independence of Korea (Chosen), which Japan later
In 1904每1905, Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese
War, gaining the territory of southern Sakhalin (Karafuto)
and Russia's port and rail rights in Manchuria. In World
War I, Japan seized Germany's Pacific islands and leased
areas in China. The Treaty of Versailles then awarded
Japan a mandate over the islands.
At the Washington Conference of 1921每1922, Japan agreed
to respect Chinese national integrity, but, in 1931,
it invaded Manchuria. The following year, Japan set
up this area as a puppet state, ※Manchukuo,§ under Emperor
Henry Pu-Yi, the last of China's Manchu dynasty. On
Nov. 25, 1936, Japan joined the Axis. The invasion of
China came the next year, followed by the Pearl Harbor
attack on the U.S. on Dec. 7, 1941. Japan won its first
military engagements during the war, extending its power
over a vast area of the Pacific. Yet, after 1942, the
Japanese were forced to retreat, island by island, to
their own country. The dropping of atomic bombs on the
cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 by the United
States finally brought the government to admit defeat.
Japan surrendered formally on Sept. 2, 1945, aboard
the battleship Missouri
in Tokyo Bay. Southern
Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands reverted to the USSR,
and Formosa (Taiwan) and Manchuria to China. The Pacific
islands remained under U.S. occupation.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur was appointed supreme commander
of the U.S. occupation of postwar Japan (1945每1952).
In 1947, a new constitution took effect. The emperor
became largely a symbolic head of state. The U.S. and
Japan signed a security treaty in 1951, allowing for
U.S. troops to be stationed in Japan. In 1952, Japan
regained full sovereignty, and, in 1972, the U.S. returned
to Japan the Ryuku Islands, including Okinawa.
Japan's postwar economic recovery was nothing short
of remarkable. New technologies and manufacturing were
undertaken with great success. A shrewd trade policy
gave Japan larger shares in many Western markets, an
imbalance that caused some tensions with the U.S. The
close involvement of Japanese government in the country's
banking and industry produced accusations of protectionism.
Yet economic growth continued through the 1970s and
1980s, eventually making Japan the world's second-largest
economy (after the U.S.).
During the 1990s, Japan suffered an economic downturn
prompted by scandals involving government officials,
bankers, and leaders of industry. Japan succumbed to
the Asian economic crisis in 1998, experiencing its
worst recession since World War II. These setbacks led
to the resignation of Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto
in July 1998. He was replaced by Keizo Obuchi. In 1999,
Japan seemed to make slight progress in an economic
recovery. Prime Minister Obuchi died of a stroke in
May 2000 and was succeeded by Yoshiro Mori, whose administration
was dogged by scandal and blunders from the outset.Despite
attempts to revive the economy, fears that Japan would
slide back into recession increased in early 2001. The
embattled Mori resigned in April 2001 and was replaced
by Liberal Democrat Junichiro Koizumi〞the country's
11th prime minister in 13 years. Koizumi enjoyed fleeting
popularity; after two years in office the economy remained
in a slump and his attempts at reform were thwarted.