Japan, island nation in East Asia, located in the North Pacific Ocean off the coast of the Asian continent. Japan comprises the four main islands of Honshū, Hokkaidō, Kyūshū, and Shikoku, in addition to numerous smaller islands. The Japanese call their country Nihon or Nippon, which means “origin of the sun.” The name arose from Japan’s position east of the great Chinese empires that held sway over Asia throughout most of its history. Japan is sometimes referred to in English as the “land of the rising sun.” Tokyo is the country’s capital and largest city.
Mountains dominate Japan’s landscape, covering 75 to 80 percent of the country. Historically, the mountains were barriers to transportation, hindering national integration and limiting the economic development of isolated areas. However, with the development of tunnels, bridges, and air transportation in the modern era, the mountains are no longer formidable barriers. The Japanese have long celebrated the beauty of their mountains in art and literature, and today many mountain areas are preserved in national parks.
Most of Japan’s people live on plains and lowlands found mainly along the lower courses of the country’s major rivers, on the lowest slopes of mountain ranges, and along the sea coast. This concentration of people makes Japan one of the world’s most crowded countries. Densities are especially high in the urban corridor between Tokyo and Kōbe, where 45 percent of the country’s population is packed into only 17 percent of its land area. An ethnically and culturally homogeneous nation, Japan has only a few small minority groups and just one major language–Japanese. The dominant religions are Buddhism and Shinto (a religion that originated in Japan).
Japan is a major economic power, and average income levels and standards of living are among the highest in the world. The country’s successful economy is based on the export of high-quality consumer goods developed with the latest technologies. Among the products Japan is known for are automobiles, cameras, and electronic goods such as computers, televisions, and sound systems.
An emperor has ruled in Japan since about the 7th century. Military rulers, known as shoguns, arose in the 12th century, sharing power with the emperors for more than 600 years. Beginning in the 17th century, a powerful military government closed the country’s borders to almost all foreigners. Japan entered the 19th century with a prosperous economy and a strong tradition of centralized rule, but it was isolated from the rest of the world and far behind Western nations in technology and military power.
When Western nations, eager to trade with Japan, forced the country to open its borders in the mid-19th century, Japan’s shogun was ousted in a coup that restored the emperor to power. Under the rule of the Meiji emperor (1868-1912), Japan began a crash program of modernization and industrialization, as well as colonial expansion into Korea, China, and other parts of Asia. By the early 20th century, Japan had won a place among the world’s great powers.
Japan fought on the side of the Axis powers in World War II (1939-1945). By the time the war ended with Japan’s defeat, most of the country’s industrial facilities, transportation networks, and urban infrastructure had been destroyed. Japan also lost its colonial holdings as a result of the war. From 1945 to 1952 the United States and its allies occupied Japan militarily and administered its government. Under a revised constitution, the emperor assumed a primarily symbolic role as the head of state in Japan’s constitutional monarchy. During the postwar period, Japan rapidly rebuilt its economy and society. By the mid-1970s the country had established a lucrative trade with the United States and many other nations, and was well on its way to its present status as a top-ranking global economic power.
The portion of the Asian mainland closest to Japan is the Korea Peninsula, which is 200 km (100 mi) away at its nearest point (in South Korea). Japan does not share a land border with any other country, but nearby are far eastern Russia, located to the northwest across the Sea of Okhotsk and the Sea of Japan (East Sea); South Korea and North Korea, to the west across the Korea Strait and the Sea of Japan; and China and Taiwan, to the southwest across the East China Sea.
The introduction to this article was contributed by Roman Cybriwsky.
According to legend, the Japanese islands were created by gods, who dipped a jeweled spear into a muddy sea and formed solid earth from its droplets. Scientists now know that the islands are the projecting summits of a huge chain of undersea mountains. Colliding tectonic plates lifted and warped the earth’s crust, causing volcanic eruptions and intrusions of granite that pushed the mountains above the surface of the sea. The forces that created the islands are still at work. Earthquakes occur regularly in Japan, and about 40 of the country’s 188 volcanoes are active, a number representing 10 percent of the world’s active volcanoes.
Japan’s total area is 377,837 sq km (145,884 sq mi). Honshū is the largest of the Japanese islands, followed by Hokkaidō, Kyūshū, and Shikoku. Together the four main islands make up about 95 percent of Japan’s territory. More than 3,000 smaller islands constitute the remaining 5 percent. At their greatest length from the northeast to southwest, the main islands stretch about 1,900 km (about 1,200 mi) and span 1,500 km (900 mi) from east to west.
Japan’s four main islands are separated by narrow straits: Tsugaru Strait lies between Hokkaidō and Honshū, and the narrow Kammon Strait lies between Honshū and Kyūshū. The Inland Sea (Seto Naikai), an arm of the Pacific Ocean, lies between Honshū, Shikoku, and Kyūshū. The sea holds more than 1,000 islands and has two principal access channels, Kii Channel on the east and Bungo Strait on the west.
Japan also includes more distant island groups. The Ryukyu Islands (Nansei Shotō), made up of the Amami, Okinawa, and Sakishima island chains, extend southwest from Kyūshū for 1,200 km (700 mi). The Izu Islands, the Bonin Islands, (Ogasawara Shotō), and the Volcano Islands (Kazan Rettō) extend south from Tokyo for 1,100 km (700 mi).
Japan also claims ownership of several islands north of Hokkaidō. These include the two southernmost Kuril Islands, Ostrov Iturup (Etorofu-jima) and Ostrov Kunashir (Kunashiri-jima), as well as Shikotan and the Habomai island group. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) took control of these islands from Japan after World War II ended in 1945. Since the USSR dissolved in 1991, Russia has administered the disputed islands.
A spine of mountain ranges divides the Japanese archipelago into two halves, the “front” side facing the Pacific Ocean, and the “back” side facing the Sea of Japan. High, steep mountains scored by deep valleys and gorges mark the Pacific side, while lower mountains and plateaus distinguish the Sea of Japan side. The country is traditionally divided into eight major regions: Hokkaidō, Tōhoku, Kantō, Chūbu, Kinki, Chūgoku, Shikoku, and Kyūshū and the Ryukyu Islands.
Hokkaidō is Japan’s large northern island. Most of the island is mountainous and heavily forested. Hokkaidō has a number of volcanoes, including Asahi Dake, which stands 2,290 m (7,513 ft) high in the Ishikari Mountains and is the island’s highest peak. Hokkaidō also holds one of Japan’s largest alluvial plains, the Ishikari Plain. The island’s fertile soils support agriculture and provide the vast majority of Japan’s pasturelands. In addition, Hokkaidō contains coal deposits, and the cold currents off its shores supply cold-water fish.
Winters are long and harsh, so most of Hokkaidō is lightly settled, housing about 5 percent of Japan’s population on approximately 20 percent of its land area. However, its snowy winters and unspoiled natural beauty attract many skiers and tourists. Hokkaidō is thought of as Japan’s northern frontier because Japanese people settled it only after the middle of the 19th century. Most of the remaining Ainu people, who populated Hokkaidō before the arrival of the Japanese, live on the island. The island of Hokkaidō forms a single prefecture. Its capital, Sapporo, is an important commercial and manufacturing center.
The northern part of Honshū island is the region known as Tōhoku, meaning “the northeast.” Like Hokkaidō, Tōhoku is mountainous, forested, and generally lightly settled, although its population density is about twice that of its northern neighbor. Tōhoku’s most important flatland is the Sendai Plain, located on the Pacific Ocean side of the region. Despite a short growing season, Tōhoku is an important agricultural area. During the cold winters, many of Tōhoku’s farmers move to Tokyo and other cities for seasonal work in construction and factories. Many young people move away too, often permanently, to enter the labor market and build careers in other regions. Consequently, Tōhoku has been one of Japan’s slowest growing regions. Tōhoku includes the prefectures of Aomori, Iwate, Akita, Yamagata, Miyagi, and Fukushima. Its principal city is Sendai.
South of Tōhoku on Honshū island is the Kantō region, the political, cultural, and economic heart of Japan. It centers on Japan’s capital city, Tokyo, in east central Honshū. Kantō’s main natural feature is the Kantō Plain. Japan’s largest flatland, the plain covers 13,000 sq km (5,000 sq mi), or about 40 percent of the Kantō region. Hills and mountains surround the plain on the east, north, and west sides, while the south side opens to the Pacific Ocean. Covering most of the southern part of the plain is the Tokyo metropolitan area, which contains many small cities and satellite towns. Major nearby cities–Yokohama, Chiba, and Kawasaki–merge with Tokyo, creating one large urban-industrial zone. The population of Kantō is the largest of any of Japan’s regions. Most of the farms that once covered the Kantō Plain have been replaced by residential, commercial, and industrial construction. The prefectures of Kanagawa, Saitama, Gumma, Tochigi, Ibaraki, Chiba, and the Tokyo Metropolis make up the Kantō region.
Chūbu, meaning “central region,” encompasses central Honshū west of Kantō. This region contains some of Japan’s longest rivers, its highest mountains, and numerous volcanoes. The Japanese Alps run through the center of Chūbu, dividing the region into three districts. The central district, known as Tōsan, contains the three parallel mountain ranges that make up the alps: the Hida Mountains (Northern Alps), the Kiso Mountains (Central Alps), and the Akaishi Mountains (Southern Alps). At least ten peaks in the Alps exceed 3,000 m (10,000 ft). The highest peak is Kita Dake, which stands at 3,192 m (10,474 ft) in the northern Akaishi range. Most inhabitants of the district live in elevated basins and narrow valleys scattered among the mountains. Silk traditionally has been produced in Tōsan’s valleys, although that industry has declined in recent decades.
West of the alps lies the Hokuriku district on the Sea of Japan. It receives heavy winter snowfalls, and its rapidly flowing rivers provide bountiful hydroelectric power. Extensive rice fields cover Hokuriku’s plains, while its main cities are important manufacturing centers.
Tōkai, the district east of the alps on the Pacific coast, is sunnier and warmer. Most of Japan’s tea is produced there. Chūbu’s biggest city, Nagoya, is located on the Nōbi Plain, a densely populated agricultural and industrial region. Also located in Tōkai is Japan’s highest mountain, Fuji, a remarkably symmetrical volcanic cone that rises to 3,776 m (12,387 ft). Referred to in Japan as Fuji-san, the mountain is beloved by many Japanese and appears often in art and as a symbol of the country. Fuji last erupted in 1707. During the July and August climbing season, thousands of climbers ascend the mountain each day. Many spend the night in order to see the sun rise the next morning from the horizon on the Pacific Ocean.
Chūbu encompasses the prefectures of Niigata, Toyama, Ishikawa, Fukui, Yamanashi, Nagano, Gifu, Shizuoka, and Aichi.
The Kinki region lies west of Chūbu in west central Honshū. Kinki spans Honshū from the Sea of Japan to the Inland Sea, and occupies the Kii Peninsula, a large thumb of land with heavily indented coasts jutting south into the Pacific Ocean. Coastal plains edge Kinki’s mountainous interior. The largest of these is the Ōsaka Plain, which faces Ōsaka Bay on the Inland Sea and contains Ōsaka, the region’s largest city. Japan’s second-most populous region, Kinki holds the Hanshin Industrial Zone, noted for heavy industry and chemical manufacturing. The region is also historically and culturally important as the location of the former capital cities of Nara and Kyōto. The prefectures of Ōsaka, Hyōgo, Kyōto, Shiga, Mie, Wakayama, and Nara make up the Kinki region.
Chūgoku, which means “middle country,” lies between the Inland Sea and the Sea of Japan at the western end of Honshū. The Chūgoku Mountains run from east to west through the center of the region. The zone south of the mountains along the Inland Sea, called San’yō or “the sunny side,” has a mild climate and a relatively high population density. Its warm coastal plains support rice fields, citrus orchards, and vineyards. Also located on these plains are several major industrial and port cities, including the region’s principle city, Hiroshima. The Sea of Japan coast, called San’in or “the shady side,” is colder, lacks natural harbors, and is less urbanized. The Sea of Japan traditionally has been important for fishing and aquaculture (water animal and plant cultivation), but these activities have declined due to industrial pollution. The Chūgoku region encompasses the prefectures of Hiroshima, Okayama, Shimane, Tottori, and Yamaguchi.
The Shikoku region consists of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, and many small surrounding islands. Relatively low but steep mountains cover most of Shikoku island. The tallest peak on the island (and in the region) is Mount Ishizuchi at 1,982 km (6,503 ft). Shikoku’s mountainous terrain has limited settlement primarily to coastal plains on the northern shore along the Inland Sea. There, the towns of Matsuyama and Takamatsu serve as important regional commercial and industrial centers. The Kōchi Plain, a zone of mild winters in the southern part of Shikoku island, supports citrus fruits and various vegetables. The opening of three separate bridge systems between Shikoku and Honshū since 1988 has reduced the region’s isolation. Shikoku includes the prefectures of Kagawa, Tokushima, Ehime, and Kōchi.
The region of Kyūshū and the Ryukyu Islands consists of Kyūshū, the third largest of Japan’s four major islands; many small surrounding islands; and the Ryukyu Islands, located south of Kyūshū. Kyūshū’s interior is mountainous with numerous volcanoes, some of which are active. A notable example is Mount Aso in central Kyūshū. Its huge caldera (round or oval-shaped low-lying area that forms when a volcano collapses) measures 80 km (50 mi) in circumference. The volcanic cone on Sakurajima, a volcanic island off Kyūshū, has erupted more than 5,000 times since 1955. The tallest mountain on Kyūshū is Kujū, measuring 1,788 m (5,866 ft). Kyūshū’s volcanic mountain scenery and the resorts built around its thermal hot springs attract many tourists.
Coal deposits in northern Kyūshū have made the area an important industrial center, specializing in the production of iron, steel, chemicals, and machinery. In addition to rice and vegetables, Kyūshū’s farmers grow subtropical fruits and raise cattle. The island is connected to the mainland by a bridge and several tunnels, including one for Japan’s high-speed train, the Shinkansen. Kyūshū’s largest city is Fukuoka.
The Ryūkyū chain’s larger islands are volcanic, while the smaller ones are coral formations. Farmers grow sugarcane and pineapples in the islands’ frost-free climate. The bathing beaches of Okinawa, the largest and most populated of the Ryukyu Islands, make it an especially popular tourist destination.
The prefectures of Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Ōita, Kumamoto, Miyazaki, Saga, Kagoshima, and Okinawa make up the Kyūshū and Ryukyu Islands region.
Japan lies in a zone of extreme geological instability, where four tectonic plates—the Pacific plate, the Eurasian plate, the North American plate, and the Philippine plate—come together. As the plates push against one another, they cause violent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. As many as 1,500 earthquakes occur in Japan each year. While most of these are minor and cause no damage, typically several of them rattle buildings enough to cause dishes to break and goods to topple from shelves. Occasionally earthquakes are severe enough to cause widespread property damage and loss of life. Japan’s largest earthquakes in the 20th century have been the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, in which more than 140,000 people died in the Tokyo-Yokohama metropolis, and the 1995 earthquake in Kōbe that killed more than 6,400 people. The Kōbe quake also caused massive damage to buildings, highways, and other infrastructure in Kōbe and its vicinity. An earthquake centered offshore may cause a deadly tidal wave called a tsunami. Earthquakes pose such danger to the country that Japan has become a world leader in earthquake prediction, earthquake-proof construction techniques, and disaster preparedness by both civil defense forces and the general public.
Japan has a long and irregular coastline totaling some 29,750 km (18,490 mi). The coastlines of Hokkaidō and western and northern Honshū are relatively straight. The most prominent features of Hokkaidō’s coastline are the Oshima Peninsula at the south end of the island and the Uchiura and Ishikari bays, which flank the peninsula on opposite coasts. The western coast of Honshū on the almost tideless Sea of Japan possesses Japan’s largest sandy beaches and its tallest dunes. The only conspicuous indentations in this coastline are Wakasa and Toyama bays and one major peninsula, the Noto Peninsula. The eastern coast of Honshū north of Tokyo has few navigable inlets.
By contrast, the coastlines of eastern Honshū south of Tokyo and of Kyūshū contain deep indentations resulting from erosion by tides and severe coastal storms. Japan’s most important bays are all on the irregular Pacific coast of central and southern Honshū: Tokyo Bay at Tokyo and Yokohama, Ise Bay near Nagoya, and Ōsaka Bay at the Kōbe-Ōsaka metropolis. All of these bays have major harbors. The eastern coast of central and southern Honshū also contains several of Japan’s most prominent peninsulas: the Chiba, Izu, and Kii peninsulas. Kyūshū’s coastline is marked by the Satsuma and Nagasaki peninsulas and Kagoshima Bay.
The economic importance of Japan’s coastline is seen in its hundreds of towns and villages given to fishing, whaling, and aquaculture, as well as in its several major international ports and many huge industrial complexes. Most of Japan’s urban centers are located on or near the coast. In many urban-industrial areas, the coastline has been extended by reclamation projects to create new land for sprawling factories, oil storage tanks, expanded harbor facilities, airports, and other uses.
Most of Japan’s rivers are relatively short and swift flowing. Only a few are navigable beyond their lower courses. Japan’s longest river, the Shinano, arises in the mountains of central Honshū and flows for 367 km (228 mi) to empty into the Sea of Japan. Other major rivers are the Tone River in the northern Kantō Plain and the Ishikari River in Hokkaidō.
Rivers in Japan often have low water levels during dry seasons but may flood during rainy periods and after winter snows melt. Except in the highest mountains, the courses of almost all rivers have been altered by flood control measures such as artificial channels and levees. In addition, many rivers have multiple dams and chains of reservoirs to regulate water flow and to supply cities and farms downriver with water for industry, irrigation, and domestic use. The dams also generate electric power. Japan’s largest dam is the Kurobe Dam, standing 186 m (610 ft) high, on the Kurobe River in Toyama Prefecture.
Japan’s largest lake, Biwa, lies in central Honshū’s Shiga Prefecture. It measures 670 sq km (260 sq mi) and is 104 m (341 ft) deep at its deepest point. Biwa is a popular scenic attraction, an important source of freshwater fish, and a local transportation artery. Japan’s second-largest lake is Kasumiga-ura, located in the central Honshū prefecture of Ibaraki. It measures 168 sq km (65 sq mi) and is an important source of eel, carp, and other freshwater species. Lake Kussharo in Hokkaidō is an example of a caldera lake. It measures 80 sq km (31 sq mi) and has an island in its center formed by a volcano. The waters of this lake are acidic and barren of fish.
More than 17,000 species of flowering and nonflowering plants are found in Japan, and many are cultivated widely. Azaleas color the Japanese hills in April, and the tree peony, one of the most popular cultivated flowers, blossoms at the beginning of May. The lotus blooms in August, and in November the blooming of the chrysanthemum, the national flower of Japan, occasions one of the most celebrated of the numerous Japanese flower festivals. Various types of seaweed grow naturally or are cultivated in offshore waters, adding variety to the Japanese diet. The most common varieties of edible seaweed are laver (a purple form of red algae also known as nori), kelp (a large, leafy brown algae also called kombu), and wakame (a large brown algae).
Forests cover 67 percent of Japan’s land area. Forests are concentrated on mountain slopes, where trees are important in soil and water conservation. Tree types vary with latitude and elevation. In Hokkaidō, spruce, larch, and northern fir are most common, along with alder, poplar, and beech trees. Central Honshū’s more temperate climate supports beech, willows, and chestnuts. In Shikoku, Kyūshū, and the warmer parts of Honshū, subtropical trees such as camphors and banyans thrive. The southern areas also have thick stands of bamboo. Japanese cedars and cypresses are found throughout wide areas of the country and are prized for their wood. Cultivated tree species include fruit trees bearing peaches, plums, pears, oranges, and cherries; mulberry trees for silk production; and lacquer trees, from which the resins used to produce lacquer are derived. Potted miniaturized trees called bonsai are popular among hobbyist gardeners in Japan and are a highly evolved art form.
Japanese animal life includes at least 140 species of mammals; 450 species of birds; and a wide variety of reptiles, amphibians, and fish. Mammals include wild boar, deer, rabbits and hares, squirrels, and various species of bear. Foxes and badgers also are numerous and, according to traditional beliefs, possess supernatural powers. The only primate mammal in Japan is the Japanese macaque, a red-faced monkey found throughout Honshū. The most common birds are sparrows, house swallows, and thrushes. Water birds are common as well, including cranes, herons, swans, storks, cormorants, and ducks. The waters off Japan abound with fish and other marine life, particularly at around 36ŗ N latitude, where the cold Oyashio and warm Kuroshio currents meet and create ideal conditions for larger species.
Japan has had to build its enormous industrial output and high standard of living on a comparatively small domestic resource base. Most conspicuously lacking are fossil fuel resources, particularly petroleum. Small domestic oil fields in northern Honshū and Hokkaidō supply less than 1 percent of the country’s demand. Domestic reserves of natural gas are similarly negligible. Coal deposits in Hokkaidō and Kyūshū are more abundant but are generally low grade, costly to mine, and inconveniently located with respect to major cities and industrial areas (the areas of highest demand). Japan does have abundant water and hydroelectric potential, however, and as a result the country has developed one of the world’s largest hydroelectric industries.
Japan is also short on metal and mineral resources. It was once a leading producer of copper, but its great mines at Ashio in central Honshū and Besshi on Shikoku have been depleted and are now closed. Reserves of iron, lead, zinc, bauxite, and other ores are negligible.
While the country is heavily forested, its demand for lumber, pulp, paper, and other wood products exceeds domestic production. Some forests in Hokkaidō and northern Honshū have been logged excessively, causing local environmental problems. Japan is blessed with bountiful coastal waters that provide the nation with fish and other marine foods. However, demand is so large that local resources must be supplemented with fish caught by Japanese vessels in distant seas, as well as with imports. Although arable land is limited, agricultural resources are significant. Japan’s crop yields per land area sown are among the highest in the world, and the country produces more than 60 percent of its food.
Japan’s climate is rainy and humid, and marked in most places by four distinct seasons. The country’s wide range of latitude causes pronounced differences in climate between the north and the south. Hokkaidō and other parts of northern Japan have long, harsh winters and relatively cool summers. Average temperatures in the northern city of Sapporo dip to –5° C (24° F) in January but reach only 20° C (68° F) in July. Central Japan has cold but short winters and hot, humid summers. In Tokyo in central Honshū, temperatures average 3° C (38° F) in January and 25° C (77° F) in July. Kyūshū is subtropical, with short, mild winters and hot, humid summers. Average temperatures in the southern city of Kagoshima are 7° C (45° F) in January and 26° C (79° F) in July. Farther south, the Ryukyu Islands are warmer still, with frost-free winters.
The climate of Japan is influenced by the country’s location on the edge of the Pacific Ocean and by its proximity to the Asian continent. The mountain ranges running through the center of the islands also influence local weather conditions. The Sea of Japan side of the country is extremely snowy in winter. Cold air masses originating over the Asian continent absorb moisture as they pass over the Sea of Japan, then rise as they encounter Japan’s mountain barriers, cooling further and dropping their moisture in the form of snow. The heaviest snows are in Nagano Prefecture, where annual accumulations of 8 to 10 m (26 to 30 ft) are common. By contrast, Pacific Japan lies in a snow shadow on the sheltered side of the mountains and experiences fairly dry winters with clear skies.
From June to September this pattern reverses. Monsoon winds from the Pacific tropics bring warm, moist air and heavy precipitation to Japan’s Pacific coast. A month-long rainy season called baiu begins in southern Japan in early June, traveling north as the month progresses. Baiu is followed by hot, humid weather. In late August and September, the shūrin rains come to much of the country, often as torrential downpours that trigger landslides and floods. During this period, violent storms called typhoons come ashore in Japan, most often in Kyūshū and Shikoku. Japan’s distant tropical islands also suffer typhoon damage. Meanwhile, throughout the summer the Sea of Japan coast is protected from the Pacific influences by the mountains and is relatively dry. Northern Honshū and Hokkaidō receive relatively little summer precipitation. Average annual precipitation in Sapporo is 1,130 mm (45 in), while in Tokyo it is 1,410 mm (55 in) and in Kagoshima it is 2,240 mm (88 in).
Autumn and spring are generally pleasant in all parts of Japan. The season when cherry blossoms open (typically late March to early May, depending on latitude and elevation) is particularly festive.
Japan experienced severe environmental pollution during its push to industrialize in the late 19th century and again during the rush to rebuild the economy after World War II. Some of the worst pollution incidents caused great human suffering. One of the first episodes began in the late 19th century, when copper mining operations released effluents that contaminated rivers and rice fields in the mountains of central Honshū, sickening much of the local population. Crusading legislator Tanaka Shōzō led citizen protests that represented an important first step in the creation of a Japanese environmental movement and also provided an early example of grassroots political organization. Nevertheless, more environmental disasters followed. In the early 20th century cadmium poisoning caused an outbreak of a painful bone disease, called itai-itai, in Toyama Prefecture. From the 1950s to the 1970s, mercury contamination in fishing waters caused Minamata disease, an affliction of the central nervous system named after the town in Kyūshū where thousands became ill and hundreds died. Smog, arsenic poisoning, and polychlorobiphenyl (PCB) poisoning produced by industry in the 1970s caused other health problems.
Since that time, Japan has enacted some of the world’s strictest legislation for environmental protection and has become a world leader in environmental awareness and cleanup. The government took important steps to improve environmental quality in the late 1960s and early 1970s in response to pressure by citizens’ groups. It passed successive laws to combat pollution and compensate victims of pollution. In 1971 it established the Environmental Agency to monitor and regulate pollution.
Nevertheless, significant problems remain. Continued pollution of bays and other coastal waters have caused losses to the fishing and aquaculture industries. Emissions by power plants and heavy industry have resulted in acid rain (a type of air pollution) and increasing acidity of freshwater lakes. Despite improvements in recent years, smog continues to plague traffic-choked urban areas. Finally, despite successes in promoting recycling and reuse, the total amount of garbage produced per person has increased sharply since the mid-1980s, and waste disposal is a mounting problem in Japan’s urban areas.
The Land and Resources section of this article was contributed by Roman Cybriwsky.
Japan ranks as the world’s seventh most populous nation, with a population of 125,931,533) (1998 estimate). It is also one of the most crowded, with an average population density of 333 persons per sq km (863 per sq mi). The population is distributed unevenly within the country. Densities range from very low levels in the steep mountain areas of Hokkaidō and the interior of Honshū island to extraordinarily high levels in the urban areas on Japan’s larger plains. The most crowded area is central Tokyo, where overall population density is about 13,000 persons per sq km (about 33,000 per sq mi). About 78 percent of Japan’s people are concentrated in urban areas, making Japan one of the most heavily urbanized nations in the world.
Although Japan is one of the world’s most populous and crowded countries, it is also one of the slowest growing. At present, the annual population growth rate is 0.20 percent. At this rate the population will take 354 years to double. The slow rate of increase is due to low birthrates (10.3 births per 1,000 people in 1998) and a relatively low rate of foreign immigration. Birthrates are now less than one-third what they were in Japan before the 1950s, when it was common for couples to have three or more children. The average number of children per couple in Japan is now less than 1.5. The total population of the country is expected to begin declining soon because Japan’s net reproduction rate has been below 1.0 for a number of years (meaning that the Japanese population is not replacing itself). Projections call for population totals of about 120 million in 2025 and about 101 million in 2050. The prospect of such significant decline raises worries in Japan about whether the country will have a sufficient labor force to meet economic needs and enough people of working age to support the growing proportion of the population that is elderly.
The age structure of Japan’s population has changed tremendously in recent decades. The segment of the population between the ages of 0 and 14 declined from 35.4 percent in 1950 to 15.2 percent in 1998, while the number of people aged 65 or older increased from 4.9 percent to 16.0 percent. In 1995 Japan’s elderly outnumbered its youth for the first time in the country’s history. Life expectancy increased over the same period, largely due to improved health conditions, and is now 83 years for females and 77 years for males, in both cases the highest expected longevity in the world. The number of people in Japan aged 85 or over has increased from 134,000 in 1955 to an estimated 4.3 million in 1998.
Japan’s largest city is Tokyo, the national capital. In addition to being the center of government, Tokyo is Japan’s principal commercial center, home to most of the country’s largest corporations, banks, and other businesses. It is also a leading center of manufacturing, higher education, and communications. Japan’s second largest city is Yokohama, located near Tokyo in Kanagawa Prefecture. Originally a small fishing village, the settlement became a major port and international trade center after it was opened to foreign commerce in 1859. It grew quickly and continues to be Japan’s largest port, a busy commercial center, and along with Tokyo and neighboring Kawasaki, a hub of Japan’s preeminent Keihin Industrial Zone (an area of industrial concentration). The third largest city in the country is Ōsaka. Even in Japan’s feudal era, Ōsaka was an important commercial center and castle town, and it was known as “Japan’s kitchen” because of its role in warehousing rice for the nation. Today it is the leading financial center of western Japan and the principal city of the Hanshin Industrial Zone.
Other major cities are Nagoya, the focus of the Chūkyō Industrial Zone and a major port on Ise Bay; Sapporo, Hokkaidō’s capital and an important food-processing center; and Kōbe, a major port and shipbuilding center. Kyōto, Japan’s seventh-largest city, is especially famous as an ancient capital of Japan and the site of many historic temples, shrines, and traditional gardens. It is also known for manufacturing silk brocades and textiles.
Most of these major cities are crowded into a relatively small area of land along the Pacific coast of Honshū, between Tokyo and Kōbe. This heavily urbanized strip is known as the Tōkaidō Megalopolis, named for a historic highway that connected Tokyo with Kyōto. The cities are now interconnected by expressways and Japan’s high-speed Shinkansen railway.
The overwhelming majority of Japan’s population is ethnically Japanese. Closely related to other East Asians, the Japanese people are believed to have migrated to the islands of present-day Japan from the Asian continent and the South Pacific more than 2,000 years ago. The Ainu are Japan’s only indigenous ethnic group. Japan is also home to comparatively small groups of Koreans, Chinese, and residents from other countries. All told, the non-Japanese portion of the population totals no more than 2 percent, making Japan one of the most homogeneous countries in the world in terms of ethnic or national composition.
Although the origins of the Ainu are uncertain, traditional belief holds that they descended from the earliest settlers of Japan, who arrived long before the first Japanese. Their physical characteristics suggested to early anthropologists that they were Caucasoid (ultimately originating in southeastern Europe) or Australoid (originating in Australia and Southeast Asia). More recent scholarship suggests that they are related to the Tungusic, Altaic, and Uralic peoples of Siberia. The Ainu once inhabited a wider area of northern Japan but are now concentrated in a few settlements on Hokkaidō, the Kuril Islands, and Russia’s Sakhalin island. Speakers of the Ainu language number about 15,000. The Ainu have a distinct language and religious beliefs, and a rich material culture. Many engage in agriculture, fishing, and logging, or in tourism in their distinctive villages.
Koreans are the largest nonnative group in Japan, numbering 645,000. When the Japanese colonized Korea in the early 20th century, they forced many Koreans to move to Japan to work in Japanese mines and factories. Many Koreans living in Japan today are the children of these unwilling immigrants. They have permanent resident status in Japan and most rights of citizenship, but they face roadblocks to full citizenship and often suffer discrimination. Koreans make up more than 51 percent of all foreign residents in Japan. The next-largest group is the Chinese, some of whom were likewise forcibly relocated during Japan’s occupation of Taiwan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sizeable communities of Brazilians, Filipinos, and Americans also live in Japan. Since the 1980s workers from Asian countries such as China, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Iran have come to Japan on temporary visas to work in construction and industry doing so-called “3K” jobs (kitsui, kitanai, and kiken, or “difficult, dirty, and dangerous”) that Japanese workers avoid. These foreign workers often live in inferior conditions and are generally shunned by many Japanese.
Japanese is the official language of Japan. The Japanese language is distinctive and of unknown origin. However, it has some relation to the Altaic languages of central Asia and to Korean, which may also be an Altaic language. Linguists also find similarities between Japanese and the Austronesian languages of the South Pacific.
Japanese has a number of regional dialects. Standard Japanese, the form heard most commonly on national television and radio, is traditionally the dialect of educated people in Tokyo but is now understood everywhere in Japan. Although standard Japanese has begun to replace some regional accents, many of these remain quite strong and distinctive. For example, dialects spoken in southern Japan—most notably on Kyūshū and Okinawa—are virtually incomprehensible to speakers of other dialects. Residents of western Japan around Ōsaka, Kyōto, and Kōbe also speak with distinctive accents.
Japanese speech is sensitive to social relationships. Several degrees of politeness and familiarity exist to distinguish between superiors, equals, and inferiors based on factors such as age, sex, and social status.
Japanese was solely a spoken language before the Chinese writing system was introduced to Japan in about the 5th century. By the 9th century, Japanese people had adapted Chinese writing to their own language and assimilated many Chinese words. Modern Japanese writing combines Chinese characters (kanji) with two syllabaries (alphabets in which each symbol represents a syllable), hiragana and katakana. Kanji are used to write native Japanese nouns and verbs, as well as the many Japanese words that originated in Chinese. Although there are tens of thousands of kanji, the government has identified about 2,000 for daily use. The hiragana syllabary is used for grammatical elements and word suffixes, while non-Chinese foreign words are written using katakana. Japanese includes many such loan words taken from Portuguese, Dutch, German, and increasingly, English. An example from English is kompūtā, the Japanese word for computer. The Roman alphabet also is used commonly in advertisements and for emphasis and visual impact. It is not uncommon to see kanji, katakana, hiragana, and roman letters all used in the same sentence.
Japanese is usually written vertically and from right to left across a page. Thus, the first page of a Japanese book is what readers of English would normally think of as the last page. In modern times, Japan has adopted the Western style of writing horizontally and from left to right for some publications, such as textbooks. Written or printed Japanese has no spaces between words.
Ainu is Japan’s only other indigenous language. It is apparently unrelated to Japanese and is now nearly extinct. Korean and Chinese residents of Japan usually speak Japanese as their first language. Many Japanese students study foreign languages, most commonly English.
Japan is primarily a secular society in which religion is not a central factor in most people’s daily lives. Yet certain religious traditions and practices are vitally important and help define the society, and most Japanese people profess at least some religious adherence.
The dominant religions in Japan are Shinto and Buddhism. Shinto is native to Japan. Generally translated as “the Way of the Gods,” Shinto is a mixture of religious beliefs and practices, and its roots date back to prehistory. It was first mentioned in 720 in the Nihon shoki, Japan’s earliest historical chronicle. Unlike most major world religions, Shinto has no organized body of teachings, no recognized historical founder, and no moral code. Instead, it focuses on worship of nature, ancestors, and a pantheon of kami, sacred spirits or gods that personify aspects of the natural world. From 1868 to 1945, under the Japanese imperial government, Shinto was Japan’s state religion. After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the occupation government separated Shinto from state support.
Buddhism originated in India, arriving in Japan in the 6th century by way of China and Korea. In the centuries that followed, numerous Buddhist sects took root in Japan, among them Zen Buddhism. Zen was introduced from China in the 12th century and quickly became popular among the dominant warrior class under the rule of Japan’s first shogunate (military government), the Kamakura. Today the largest Buddhist sect in Japan is the Nichiren school.
Shinto and Buddhism have been intertwined in Japanese society for centuries, and about 85 percent of the population identify themselves as members of one or both of these religions. Indeed, most Japanese blend the two, preferring attendance at Shinto shrines for some events—such as New Year’s Day, wedding ceremonies, and the official start of adulthood at age 20—and Buddhist ceremonies for other events, most notably Obon (a midsummer celebration honoring ancestral spirits) and funerals. Confucianism and Daoism, which came to Japan from China by way of Korea, have also profoundly influenced Japanese religious life.
More than 20 million Japanese are members of various shinkō shūkyō, or “new religions.” The largest of these are Sōka Gakkai and Risshō Kōseikai, offshoots of Nichiren Buddhism, and Tenrikyō, an offshoot of Shinto. Most of the new religions were founded by charismatic leaders who have claimed profound spiritual or supernatural experiences and expect considerable devotion and sacrifices from members. Although it is very small in comparison to other religions, one of Japan’s new religions, Aum Shinrikyo, gained considerable notoriety when some of its members released nerve gas into the Tokyo subway system in 1995, killing 12 people and injuring more than 5,000.
Japan also has a significant minority of Christians, estimated at about 1 million. Portuguese and Spanish missionaries introduced Christianity to Japan in the 16th century. The religion made strong inroads there until the Japanese government banned it as a potential threat to the country’s political sovereignty from the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century. Today, about two-thirds of Japan’s Christians are Protestants, and about one-third are Roman Catholics. Small communities of followers of other world faiths live in Japan as well.
With an adult literacy rate exceeding 99 percent, Japan ranks among the top nations in the world in educational attainment. Schooling generally begins before grade one in preschool (yōchien) and is free and compulsory for elementary and junior high school (grades 1 through 9). More than 99 percent of elementary school-aged children attend school. Most students who finish junior high school continue on to senior high school (grades 10 through 12). Approximately one-third of senior high school graduates then continue on for higher education. Most high schools and universities admit students on the basis of difficult entrance examinations. Competition to get into the best high schools and universities is fierce because Japan’s most prestigious jobs typically go to graduates of elite universities.
About 1 percent of elementary schools and 5 percent of junior high schools are private. Nearly 25 percent of high schools are private. Whether public or private, high schools are ranked informally according to their success at placing graduates into elite universities. In 1998 there were 604 four-year universities in Japan and 588 two-year junior colleges. Important and prestigious universities include the University of Tokyo, Kyōto University, and Keio University in Tokyo.
The school year in Japan typically runs from April through March and is divided into trimesters separated by vacation holidays. Students attend classes five full weekdays in addition to half days on Saturdays, and on average do considerably more homework each day than American students do. In almost all schools, students wear uniforms and adhere to strict rules regarding appearance.
In addition to their regular schooling, some students—particularly students at the junior high school level—enroll in specialized private schools called juku. Often translated into English as “cram schools,” these schools offer supplementary lessons after school hours and on weekends, as well as tutoring to improve scores on senior high school entrance examinations. Students who are preparing for college entrance examinations attend special schools called yobikō. A disappointing score on a college entrance examination means that a student must settle for a lesser college, decide not to attend college at all, or study for a year or more at a yobikō in preparation to retake the examination.
The early history of education in Japan was rooted in ideas and teachings from China. In the 16th and early 17th centuries, European missionaries also influenced Japanese schooling. From about 1640 to 1868, during Japan’s period of isolation under the Tokugawa shoguns, Buddhist temple schools called terakoya assumed responsibility for education and made great strides in raising literacy levels among the general population. In 1867 there were more than 14,000 temple schools in Japan. In 1872 the new Meiji government established a ministry of education and a comprehensive educational code that included universal primary education. During this period, Japan looked to nations in Europe and North America for educational models. As the Japanese empire expanded during the 1930s and 1940s, education became increasingly nationalistic and militaristic.
After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the educational system was revamped. Changes included the present grade structure of six years of elementary school and three years each of junior and senior high school; a guarantee of equal access to free, public education; and an end to the teaching of nationalist ideology. Reforms also sought to encourage students’ self-expression and increase flexibility in curriculum and classroom procedures. Nevertheless, some observers still believe that education in Japan is excessively rigid, favoring memorization of facts at the expense of creative expression, and geared to encouraging social conformity.
A largely homogeneous society, Japan does not exhibit the deep ethnic, religious, and class divisions that characterize many countries. The gaps between rich and poor are not as glaring in Japan as they are in many countries, and a remarkable 90 percent or more of Japanese people consider themselves middle class. This contrasts with most of Japan’s previous recorded history, when profound social and economic distinctions were maintained between Japan’s aristocracy and its commoners. Two periods of social upheaval in the modern era did much to soften these class divisions. The first was the push for modernization under the Meiji government at the end of the 19th century; the second was the period of Allied occupation after World War II. Among the most profound of the transformations that took place in the modern era was the empowerment of individuals rather than extended families and family lines as the fundamental units of society. As a result of this change, Japanese men and women experienced greater freedom in making personal decisions, such as choosing a spouse or career.
Nevertheless, some significant social differences do exist in Japan, as evidenced by the discrimination in employment, education, and marriage faced by the country’s Korean minority and by its burakumin. Burakumin means “hamlet people,” a name that refers to the segregated villages these people lived in during Japan’s feudal era. Burakumin are indistinguishable from Japanese racially or culturally, and today they generally intermingle with the rest of the population. However, for centuries they were treated as a separate population because they worked in occupations that were considered unclean, such as disposing of the dead and slaughtering animals. Despite laws to the contrary, their descendants still suffer discrimination in Japan. The number of burakumin is thought to be about 3 million, or about 2 percent of the national population. They are scattered in various parts of the country, usually in discrete communities, with the largest concentrations living in the urban area encompassing Ōsaka, Kōbe, and Kyōto.
Despite the shift toward individual empowerment, Japanese society remains significantly group-oriented compared to societies in the West. Japanese children learn group consciousness at an early age within the family, the basic group of society. Membership in groups expands with age to include the individual’s class in school, neighborhood, extracurricular clubs during senior high school and college, and, upon entering adulthood, the workplace. All along, the individual is taught to be dedicated to the group, to forgo personal gain for the benefit of the group as a whole, and to value group harmony. At the highest level, the Japanese nation as a whole may be thought of as a group to which its citizens belong and have obligations. The form of character building that instills these values is called seishin shūyō.
Most groups are structured hierarchically. Individual members have a designated rank within the group and responsibilities based on their position. Seniority has traditionally been the main qualification for higher rank, and socialization of young people in Japan emphasizes respect and deference to one’s seniors.
Historically, most Japanese people lived in agricultural villages or small fishing settlements along the coast. Now, most of the population resides in metropolitan areas. Japan’s agricultural population, which has been declining since the 1950s, constituted only about 5 percent of the total population in 1996. A disproportionate fraction of the population that has remained to live and work in Japan’s agricultural areas is elderly because the majority of migrants to cities are young.
Everyday life for most urban Japanese involves work in an office, store, factory, or other segment of the metropolitan economy. Daily commutes by bus, train, or subway are typically long, particularly in Tokyo. The commute is also extraordinarily crowded. During rush hours, some commuter lines employ “pushers” to shove riders into jam-packed train or subway cars before the doors slide closed.
Most houses and apartments are small in comparison to those in many other developed countries because of the country’s high population density and costly land. Nevertheless, many Japanese enjoy a high standard of living and comforts such as the latest fashions in clothing, new appliances and electronics, and new models of automobiles. Sundays are the busiest shopping days in Japan. During the afternoon hours, department stores and shopping malls are jammed with crowds of bargain hunters. Japanese also enjoy travel and often go abroad or to popular domestic resorts during holidays. Between 1968 and 1994 the number of Japanese traveling abroad each year increased from 344,000 to 13.5 million. Among the most popular destinations are Hawaii and the West Coast of the United States, New York City, Australia, Hong Kong, and the major capitals of Europe.
Japanese life blends traditions from the past with new activities, many borrowed from other cultures. The Japanese diet, for example, emphasizes rice, seafood, and other items that have been staples in the society for centuries, but also includes international cuisine such as Italian and Chinese dishes, and American-style fast-food hamburgers and french fries. Likewise, Japanese sports fans give equal weight to sumo, Japan’s traditional style of wrestling, as to baseball, imported from the United States in the late 19th century. Contemporary weddings in Japan often combine traditional Shinto ceremonies, such as ritual exchanges of sake (rice wine), with Western-style exchanges of wedding bands. Arranged marriages, common in Japan before World War II, have declined in favor of so-called love marriages based on a couple’s mutual attraction. Nevertheless, the tradition of family involvement in selecting a mate endures, and arranged marriages still occur.
Major holiday celebrations in Japan include Obon, a traditional midsummer honoring of ancestral spirits, and the New Year, when people eat special foods, visit Shinto shrines, and call on family and friends. When Japan’s cherry trees blossom, signaling the arrival of spring, people celebrate with picnics under the trees. Each year on May 5 the Japanese celebrate Children’s Day, when families with young boys fly giant carp (a symbol of success) made of cloth or paper from the roofs of their houses. Adult’s Day, on January 15, is celebrated to honor all young people who turned 20 in the past year, and Respect for the Aged Day is observed on September 15. The emperor’s birthday is also a national holiday. During Golden Week, a time in late April and early May when several holidays come together, many Japanese enjoy travel and leisure activities, such as golf, tennis, and hiking.
Japanese engage in ritual gift giving during New Year’s and at midsummer. Strong social obligations dictate who must give gifts to whom, and selecting a gift involves elaborate rules and customs about what kinds of gifts are appropriate in the precise situation. The total cost of gifts exchanged is high, causing the gift-giving tradition to become a significant financial support for Japan’s manufacturing sector, the country’s retail enterprises, and its package delivery services.
For the most part, Japan is a stable country with a high degree of domestic tranquility. Yet the country faces a number of social problems, some of them new and worsening, others long-term and slowly improving. Some of the most difficult recent troubles arose from the economic recession that began in Japan in the 1990s. Until recently, unemployment was virtually unknown in Japan to all but the oldest citizens who lived through the economic chaos of the years immediately after World War II. However, during the 1990s unemployment rose as companies and financial institutions that were once thought to be financially solid cut back on their workforces or closed altogether. Lifetime job security, once a hallmark of Japan’s economy, no longer exists in many companies, and experienced workers now find themselves competing for inferior jobs with younger people looking for entry-level positions. The younger generation in turn is finding it hard to enter the economy because jobs that were once plentiful for high school and college graduates are now in short supply.
The prolonged recession is one of the chief causes of an increase in homelessness in Japan. Tokyo and other cities have thousands of homeless people, mostly middle-aged and older men. Quite a few of them were brought to these circumstances by alcoholism or mental illness, but the number of people who are homeless because of unemployment has risen. Sometimes people who lose their jobs or suffer the failure of a business feel too ashamed to face their families in Japan’s tradition-bound society. These people exile themselves to one of the many communities of newly homeless people.
Crime is another growing problem. Although Japan is one of the safest countries in the world, Japanese are greatly concerned about recent increases in violent crime and crimes against property. Some fault the growing number of foreigners in Japan for rising crime, but most attribute the problem to the combination of economic recession and the high desirability of consumer goods among the younger generation. A particularly disturbing aspect of the problem reported widely in the Japanese media has been the large increase in prostitution among high school girls. These girls are seeking money for the latest clothing fashions, expensive concert tickets, and other desired items. Organized crime by mobsters known as yakuza continues to be a strong force in Japan, controlling prostitution, pornography, and gambling.
An important long-term social problem in Japan concerns the status of women. The Japanese constitution forbids discrimination on the basis of sex, and Japanese law affords women the same economic and social rights as men. Nevertheless, fewer women than men attend four-year universities, and in general women do not have equal access to employment opportunities and advancement within the ranks of a company or along a career path. Efforts to increase women’s opportunities have enabled more women to succeed in business or professions. However, the attitude that women should stay home to be wives and mothers remains more pervasive in Japan than in many other industrialized countries and is a roadblock to many women who opt for other challenges.
Japan has a well-developed social welfare system designed to protect the quality of life of legal residents against a broad range of social and economic risks. The system has four principal components. First, through public assistance it provides a basic income for people unable to earn enough on their own for subsistence. Second, it provides citizens with social insurance in the form of health and medical coverage, unemployment compensation, and public pensions. Most social insurance programs are funded by contributions from employers and employees, as well as by subsidies from government funds. Third, the system provides social welfare services to address various special needs of the aged, the disabled, and children. And finally, it provides public health maintenance to attend to sanitation and environmental issues and to safeguard the public from infectious diseases.
The cost of social welfare has risen in Japan and accounted for nearly 20 percent of the national budget in 1995. The recession of the 1990s, which added to the number of people receiving public assistance, has posed major challenges for Japan’s welfare system. Furthermore, with the country’s rapidly aging population, providing for the needs of the elderly is becoming harder for the government. Subsidized nursing homes, regular health examinations, low-cost medical care, home care, and recreational activities at community centers are services for the elderly that may be impossible to provide in the future. The problem is made worse because the time-honored tradition of family members taking care of aged relatives is declining in Japan, putting more of the burden for care on government.
The People and Society section of this article was contributed by Roman Cybriwsky.
Japanese cultural history is marked by periods of extensive borrowing from other civilizations, followed by assimilation of foreign traditions with native ones, and finally transformation of these elements into uniquely Japanese art forms. Japan borrowed primarily from China and Korea in premodern times and from the West in the modern age.
Cultural imports began to arrive in Japan from continental East Asia around 300 BC, starting with agriculture and the use of metals. These new technologies eventually helped build a more complex Japanese society, whose most remarkable and enduring structures were huge, key-shaped tombs. Named for these tombs, the Kofun period endured from the late 3rd to the 6th century AD.
In the middle of the 6th century, Japan embarked on a second phase of extensive cultural borrowing from the Asian continent—largely from China. Among the major imports from China were Buddhism and Confucianism. Buddhism was particularly important, not only as a religion but also as a source of art, especially in the form of temples and statues. Although Buddhism eventually became a major religion of Japan, some evidence indicates that the Japanese initially were drawn more to its architecture and art than to its religious doctrines.
In Japan’s first state, the arts were almost exclusively the preserve of the ruling elite, a class of courtiers who served as ministers to the emperor. For most of the 8th century the court was located at Nara, the first capital of Japan, which gave its name to the Nara period (710-794). At the end of the 8th century the capital moved to Heian-kyō (modern Kyōto), and Japan entered its classical age, known as the Heian period (794-1185). By the beginning of the 11th century, the emperor’s courtiers had developed a brilliant culture and lifestyle that owed much to China but was still uniquely Japanese. Poetry flourished especially, but important developments also took place in prose literature, architecture (especially residential architecture), music, and painting (both Buddhist and secular).
As the Heian court reached its height of cultural brilliance, however, a class of warriors (samurai) emerged in the provinces. In the late 12th century the first warrior government (known as a shogunate) was established at Kamakura. Japan entered a feudal era of frequent wars and samurai dominance that would last for nearly four centuries, first under the Kamakura and then under the Ashikaga shoguns.
The culture of the Kamakura period (1185-1333) is noteworthy particularly for its poetry, prose, and painting. Although the Kyōto courtiers lost their political power to the samurai, they continued to produce outstanding poetry. Warrior society contributed to the national culture as well. Anonymous war tales were among the major achievements in prose. Painters produced narrative picture scrolls depicting military and religious subjects such as battles, the lives of Buddhist priests, and histories of Buddhist temples and of shrines of Japan’s native religion, Shinto.
The Kamakura shogunate ended with a brief attempt to restore imperial rule. Then in 1338 the Ashikaga shoguns established their seat near the emperor’s court in the Muromachi district of Kyōto. During the reign of the Ashikaga (known as the Muromachi period), which lasted until 1573, Japan again sent missions to China. This time they brought back the latest teachings of Zen Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism, as well as countless objects of art and craft. Zen Buddhism, which had been introduced to Japan during the Kamakura period, contributed to the development of Muromachi-period artistic forms. Chinese monochrome ink painting became the principal painting style. Dramatists created classical nō theater, performed for the upper classes of society. And beginning in the 15th century, the tea ceremony, a gathering of people to drink tea according to prescribed etiquette, evolved. The poetic form of renga, or linked verse, also developed at this time. The linked verse style, in which several poets take turns composing alternate verses of a single long poem, became popular among all classes of society.
In 1603 a third warrior government, the Tokugawa shogunate, established itself in Edo (present-day Tokyo), and Japan entered a long period of peace that historians consider the beginning of the country’s modern age. During this era, known as the Tokugawa period (1603-1867), Japan adopted a policy of national seclusion, closing its borders to almost all foreigners. Domestic commerce thrived, and cities grew larger than they had ever been. In great cities such as Edo, Ōsaka, and Kyōto, performers and courtesans mingled with rich merchants and idle samurai in the restaurants, wrestling booths, and brothels of the areas known as the pleasure quarters. These so-called chōnin, or townsmen, the urban class dominated by merchants, produced a new, bourgeois culture that included 17-syllable haiku poetry, prose literature of the pleasure quarters, the puppet and kabuki theaters, and the art of the wood-block print.
Japan’s seclusion policy ended when Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States sailed into Edo Bay in 1853 and established a treaty with Japan the following year. The Tokugawa shogunate was overthrown in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, and Japan entered the modern world. During the early years of the new order, known as the Meiji period (1868-1912), Western culture largely overwhelmed Japan’s native heritage. Ignoring many of their traditional arts, the Japanese set about adopting Western artistic styles, literary forms, and music. By the end of the Meiji period, however, the Japanese not only had resuscitated many traditional art forms but also were making impressive advances in modern styles of architecture, painting, and the novel.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, Japan has moved steadily into the stream of international culture. Japan’s influence on that culture has been especially pronounced since the end of World War II (1939-1945). Japanese movies, for example, have received international recognition and acclaim, and Japanese novels have been translated into English and other languages. Meanwhile, traditional Japanese culture has flowed around the world, influencing styles in design, architecture, and various crafts, such as ceramics and textiles.
Throughout most of their history, the Japanese people have written poetry and prose in both Chinese and Japanese. This section deals mainly with literature written in the Japanese language.
Japan’s earliest literary writings are simple poems found in the country’s oldest existing books, the Koji-ki (Records of Ancient Matters, 712) and the Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan, 720) of the early Nara period. The mid-Nara period witnessed the compilation of Manyōshū (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), an anthology of some 4,500 poems written in the 7th and 8th centuries. Courtiers wrote most of the poems in Manyōshū, the great majority of them in the 5-line, 31-syllable waka (or tanka) form. Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, the best known of the poets, also wrote in a longer form that makes up a small percentage of the poems in the anthology. Some of the poems are celebrations of public events, such as coronations and imperial hunts, but even at this early time Japanese poetry was primarily personal. Its two main subjects were the beauties of nature, especially as found in the changing seasons, and heterosexual romantic love.
During the Heian period, court poets, using the waka form exclusively, reduced the range of poetic topics. Proper subjects had to meet the poets’ ideal of courtliness (miyabi) and demonstrate a sensitivity to the fragile beauties of nature and the emotions of others, an aesthetic known as mono no aware. The Kokinshū (Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems, begun in 905) set the standard for all future court poetry. Meanwhile, the invention of the kana syllabary (in which each symbol represents a syllable) enabled the Japanese to write freely in their own language for the first time. (Previously, most writing was in Chinese.) The invention of kana also stimulated the development of a prose literature. Court women took the lead in writing prose, using forms such as the fictional diary and the miscellany, a collection of jottings, anecdotes, lists, and the like. The two greatest Heian prose writings were the work of court women: Makura no sōshi (Pillow Book), a miscellany by Sei Shōnagon;, and Genji monogatari (Tale of Genji, 1010?) by Murasaki Shikibu, a lengthy novel evoking court life during the mid-Heian period.
The early Kamakura period saw the production of two great works of literature: Shin kokinshū (New Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems, 1205?) and Hōjōki (An Account of My Hut, 1212). Shin kokinshū, which ranks with Kokinshū as the finest of the court poetry anthologies, stresses achieving “depth” in verse through the application of aesthetic values such as yūgen (mystery and depth). Hōjōki describes the attempts of its author, former courtier and priest Kamo no Chōmei, to divest himself of all but the most minimal material possessions to prepare himself, upon death, to enter the Pure Land paradise of the Amida Buddha.
The Heike monogatari (Tale of the Heike, begun 1220?) recounts the story of the war between the Taira clan (also known as the Heike) and the Minamoto clan during the late 12th century. It ranks second only to the Tale of Genji among the great Japanese prose writings of premodern times. The tale evokes the lives of both the warrior and the courtier elites during the transition from the ancient courtly age to the feudal age. The product of more than a century and a half of textual development, Heike monogatari was not completed until the late 14th century.
One of the most important literary developments of the middle and late Muromachi period was linked verse poetry (renga). As the creative potential of the classical waka declined, linked verse gained great popularity. Renga masters, such as Sōgi in the late 15th century, became famous not only for their poetry but also as traveling teachers who spread the linked verse method throughout the country.
In the Tokugawa period, townsmen living in the great cities produced most of Japan’s major literature. Haiku, consisting of just the first seventeen syllables of the waka, became a means for expressing emotional insights, or enlightenments, especially when composed by a master such as Bashō. Even today, haiku enjoys enormous popularity in Japan, and over the years countless non-Japanese have tried their hands at composing haiku. The last years of the 17th century and the first years of the 18th century saw an epoch of cultural flourishing known as the Genroku period. Much of Genroku culture focused on the pleasure quarters of the great cities. Prose writer Saikaku gained fame for his stories about the affairs of the pleasure quarters, especially about courtesans and prostitutes and the merchants and samurai they entertained.
Although the modern age has seen important developments in poetry, the novel is the literary medium that has enjoyed the most artistic success. Since Futabatei Shimei published Ukigumo (The Drifting Cloud, 1887-1889), considered Japan’s first modern novel, Japanese writers have steadily gained international prominence. Inspired both by their native literary traditions and by writings in European languages, including English, French, German, and Russian, Japanese writers have created a corpus of fine novels. One of Japan’s most acclaimed novelists is Tanizaki Junichirō, author of Sasameyuki (1943-1948; translated in English as The Makioka Sisters, 1957), a re-creation of the life of an Ōsaka family in the years just before World War II. Another is Kawabata Yasunari, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. In his novels, Kawabata draws heavily on traditional Japanese literary styles, and his own style has been characterized as haiku-like. Prominent late 20th-century writers include Ōe Kenzaburō, the second Japanese recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature, and Abe Kōbō. See also Japanese Literature.
Japan’s oldest indigenous art is handmade clay pottery, called Jōmon, or cord pattern, pottery. Produced beginning about 10,000 BC, it marked the beginning of a rich ceramic-making tradition that has continued to the present day. During the Kofun period, sculptors fashioned terra cotta figurines called haniwa that depicted a variety of people (including armor-clad warriors and shamans), animals, buildings, and boats. The figurines were placed on the tombs of Japan’s rulers.
When Buddhism arrived in Japan, its architecture and art profoundly influenced native styles. Hōryūji temple, built near Nara in the early 7th century, has the world’s oldest wooden buildings, as well as an impressive collection of Buddhist paintings and statues. During the Nara period, many new temples were erected in and around the city. The most famous temple is Tōdaiji, where an approximately 16-m (53-ft) Daibutsu (Great Buddha) statue is housed in the world’s largest wooden building. Possibly inspired by the temples of Buddhism, a distinct style of Shinto architecture began to develop. Drawing on native traditions such as raised floors and thatched roofs with deep eaves, Shinto produced artistically fine structures such as the Ise Shrine and the Izumo Shrine.
After the emperor’s court moved to Heian-kyō in 794, the construction of Buddhist temples continued. Many were now built in remote areas, where they were designed to blend harmoniously with their natural settings. The esoteric Shingon sect of Buddhism arrived from China creating a demand among Heian courtiers for the visual and plastic arts of Shingon. These included mandalas (diagrams of the spiritual universe used for meditation) and paintings and statues of fantastic beings, sometimes fierce with extra limbs or heads. Beautifully appointed residences (called shinden residences) also began to appear at this time. These rambling structures opened onto raked-sand gardens, which featured ponds fed by streams that often flowed under the residences’ raised floors. Although no examples of shinden residences exist today, narrative picture scrolls from the late Heian period depict these residences of the courtier elite. These scrolls, known as emakimono, represent one of the first forms of indigenous, secular painting in Japan. One of the most impressive examples of emakimono is an illustrated version of the 11th century prose epic, the Tale of Genji.
During the early Kamakura period, Nara-era traditions of realistic sculpture inspired a sculptural revival that produced dynamic, individualized figures. But probably the finest products of Kamakura art were narrative picture scrolls. Indeed, with the notable exception of the earlier Tale of Genji scroll, most of the finest surviving emakimono date from the Kamakura period. These include the Ippen scroll, which depicts the journeys of Ippen, an evangelist of Pure Land Buddhism. The scroll portrays landscape scenes, towns, Buddhist temples, and Shinto shrines throughout Japan.
Architecturally, the Muromachi period is best remembered for the construction of Zen temples. Notable examples are the so-called “Five Mountains” temples of Kyōto, which were situated mainly around the outskirts of the city to take advantage of the mountain scenery that borders Kyōto on three sides. These temples became the settings for most of the best dry landscape gardens (waterless gardens of sand, stone, and shrubs) constructed in Muromachi times. Two of Japan’s most famous buildings, the Golden and Silver pavilions, are on Zen temple grounds. The creation of the tea ceremony accompanied the development in the 15th century of the shoin style of room construction, featuring rush matting (tatami) for floors, sliding doors, and built-in alcoves and asymmetrical shelves. In painting, the Muromachi period is best known for a monochrome ink style that originated in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The landscape paintings of masters such as Shūbun and Sesshū exemplify the adaptation of the style in Japan.
Many schools of painting flourished during the Tokugawa period, including one that used Western techniques such as shading and foreshortening to produce the illusion of space and depth. The most popular by far, however, was genre art, or art depicting people at work and play. From mid-Tokugawa times, the most popular medium for genre art was the wood-block print. Artists often used the wood-block print technique to create ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world” (referring to the pleasure quarters of Japan’s great cities). Among the favorite subjects of ukiyo-e artists were courtesans and kabuki actors. The artist Utamaro is particularly known for his tall, willowy courtesans, while Sharaku famously captured the spirit and emotions of kabuki actors. In the late Tokugawa period, genre art was dominated by two artists, Hokusai and Hiroshige. Hokusai became famous throughout the world for The Wave (1831), a view of Mount Fuji through a huge, curling wave. Hiroshige created the print series Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō (1833), which is considered a masterpiece and is well known outside Japan.
One of the greatest architectural works of the Tokugawa period was the Katsura Detached Palace, built in the 17th century. Its clean, geometric lines had a powerful influence on post-World War II residential architecture in many foreign countries. By contrast, the mausoleum of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu at Nikkō, built during the same period, is extraordinary for its elaborate decoration.
Among Japan’s best-known modern architects is Tange Kenzō. His buildings won international fame and include the Hall Dedicated to Peace at Hiroshima and the main Sports Arena for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Japanese Art and Architecture.
The earliest reported form of music and dance in Japan was gigaku, imported from China by a Korean performer sometime in the early 6th century. In gigaku, masked dancers performed dramas to the accompaniment of flute, drum, and gong ensembles.
The ancient music and dance of Shinto is called kagura. In kagura, performers danced for the pleasure of the gods and expressed prayers asking for prolonged or revitalized life. Drums, flutes, and sometimes cymbals provided music, and as in gigaku, the dancers often wore masks.
The ritual music of the emperor’s court, gagaku, accompanied dancing called bugaku. In addition to the instruments already mentioned, gagaku employed a type of double-reed pipe or oboe (hichiriki) and a mouth organ (shō). Of all the musical sounds of Japan, the exotic tones of these two instruments are probably the most unusual to Western ears.
Sometime in the late 16th century, Japanese musicians began playing a three-stringed, banjolike instrument called the samisen, which had originated in the Ryukyu Islands. Both the kabuki and puppet theaters adopted the instrument as an accompaniment, and it was also played frequently by geisha, a class of professional female entertainers that emerged in Tokugawa times. No sound is more symbolic of the Tokugawa “floating world” than the notes of the samisen. Even today it commonly accompanies classical dance recitals.
In the modern era the Japanese wholeheartedly embraced Western classical music. Japan has produced some of the world’s leading classical performers, conductors, and composers. Well-known Japanese musicians of the 20th century include Ozawa Seiji, an internationally renowned conductor, and Tōru Takemitsu, who gained fame for composing modern music using traditional Japanese instruments. Modern Japanese dance draws on both traditional and Western styles, and includes the avant-garde butō dance form. See also Japanese Music.
Theater developed in close conjunction with music and dance in premodern Japan. Thus gigaku, bugaku, and kagura were early forms of theater. Later, various other elements were added to Japan’s theatrical repertoire, including juggling, acrobatics, and magic. By the Kamakura period, two major forms of theater incorporating all of these elements had evolved: sarugaku and dengaku. In the late 14th century the classical drama form of nō (meaning “ability”) was created out of the dramatic elements of sarugaku and dengaku. Historians attribute this transformation largely to the efforts of two dramatists, Kanami and his son Zeami. Kanami and Zeami changed the straightforward, plot-oriented style of earlier dramatic forms into a style of performance emphasizing symbolic meanings and graceful movements.
A nō play has been described as a dramatic poem that is based on remote or supernatural events and centers on a dance by the main actor. The movements and dance in nō are highly stylized, even ritualistic. Actors frequently use masks and wear resplendent robes, presenting a sumptuous visual display to audiences. Nō plots are usually very simple. There is little of the conflict between characters that is a cornerstone of Western theater. Rather, the emotional or psychological problems of the main character provide the theme of most nō plays. For example, in a typical play, a person from the past returns as a ghost, and a Buddhist priest assists him or her in overcoming worldly passions and achieving salvation in Amida Buddha’s Pure Land paradise. The main character might be a warrior still fighting ancient battles or a court lady from the Heian period still agonizing over a lost love. A small orchestra of flutes and drums accompanies the actors, and a chorus narrates the story and shares dialogue with the actors.
Kyōgen (“mad words”) are humorous, fast-paced prose plays that developed along with nō. The earliest kyōgen served as interludes in nō plays to provide background information about the characters and their settings. But actors also performed kyōgen as unrelated comical or farcical skits. In contrast to nō, which is usually serious and gloomy, kyōgen skits provided medieval audiences with at least a measure of broad, slapstick humor. In a common kyōgen plot, clever servants outwit their warrior masters.
The townsman culture of the Tokugawa period produced two new forms of theater, kabuki and puppet theater, in the 16th and 17th centuries. Kabuki means off-balance and was used to describe novel or eccentric behavior. Although it drew upon the traditions of nō and kyōgen, kabuki evolved primarily out of dances and skits performed by troupes of female actors. Women performers were later banned from kabuki for engaging in prostitution, and kabuki became all male. This led to the creation of the onnagata, a man who plays women’s parts. Kabuki plays are composed of numerous episodes and feature spectacular fights and dances, quick costume changes, heroic sacrifices, and star-crossed lovers. The text of the plays is less important than the acting, and kabuki actors embellish or alter scenarios as they see fit. To reveal emotions, they display exaggerated facial expressions and strike dramatic poses.
Japanese performers have used puppets to entertain audiences at least since the Heian period. However, puppet theater developed its characteristic form in the 16th century. In this form, puppet theater brings together puppets that enact stories, chanters who narrate the stories, and the playing of the samisen as accompaniment to the performance. Puppet theater reached its high point in the plays of Chikamatsu Monzaemon, whose best-known works focus on the conflict between duty and human feelings. One plot, for example, follows a love affair between a merchant, already committed by his family to another woman, and a prostitute. Often the lovers in such plays commit double suicide. See also Japanese Drama; Asian Theater.
Japan has a vital modern theater, which often combines elements of traditional Japanese dramatic forms with Western themes and theatrical devices. Yet contemporary Japanese drama has probably achieved its greatest success in film. Japan produced its first movies in the 1890s, and in the 20th century the Japanese film industry evolved into one of the most prolific and respected in the world. Japanese film reached its golden age in the period immediately before and after World War II. Among the masterpieces of that time are the films of director Akira Kurosawa, whose most famous films include Rashomon (1950) and The Seven Samurai (1954). The quintessential Kurosawa actor was Mifune Toshirō, who made 16 films with the director. Toshirō also performed in several American movies.
Whereas Kurosawa is probably best known for his samurai stories, including some based on Shakespeare such as Ran (1985; the story of King Lear, set in 16th-century Japan), other Japanese directors have gained fame for the aesthetic qualities of their work. One of the finest such directors was Mizoguchi Kenji, whose beautiful film Ugetsu monogatari (1953; Ugetsu, 1954), the story of an enchanted romance in medieval Japan, earned wide acclaim and was one of the first films to draw international attention to the quality of the Japanese film industry.
For a country of its size, Japan has a large number of museums, with important collections in virtually every major city. Two of the country’s finest museums are located in Tokyo: the Tokyo National Museum, specializing in traditional Japanese art, and the National Museum of Modern Art, housing both Japanese and foreign art. The Kyōto National Museum, another of Japan’s major museums, contains Chinese and Japanese fine arts, handicrafts, and archeological items. The great variety of other Japanese museums include archaeological, ethnographic, and ceramics museums. Moreover, many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines maintain collections of art.
Tokyo outranks all other Japanese cities in number of major libraries. Among the most important is the National Diet Library, Japan’s national library. It serves as an international book exchange and an information center for Japan. Among the important university libraries in Tokyo are the University of Tokyo Library, Meiji University Library, and Nihon University Library. Major collections are housed in the libraries of the provinces, such as the Ōsaka Prefectural Nakanoshima Library and the Kōbe City Library. There are also many important university libraries outside of Tokyo, such as the one at Kyōto University.
The Arts and Culture section of this article was contributed by Paul Varley.
Japan is the world's second largest economy after the United States. In 1997 Japan's gross domestic product (GDP) was $4.19 trillion, compared to $8.40 trillion for the United States. Japan also has one of the world’s highest living standards. Economists compare living standards in different countries using a measure called purchasing power parity. This measure takes into account the countries’ differing costs of living. By this measure, Japan's per capita GDP rose from 21 percent of the U.S. level in 1955 to 56 percent in 1970. By 1992 per capita GDP had reached $19,920, 86 percent of the U.S. level. Despite the overall strength of the Japanese economy, in the late 1990s Japan was mired in its longest recession since World War II. GDP, which had grown slowly in the early 1990s, fell 0.4 percent in 1997 and another 2.8 percent in 1998. This was the first time in the postwar era that Japan’s GDP declined two years in a row.
As is typical in a mature economy, services make up the largest part of Japan’s economy. In 1996 services (such as trade, government, and real estate) accounted for 60 percent of Japan’s GDP, while industry (mining, manufacturing, and construction) made up 38 percent, and agriculture (including forestry and fishing) contributed 2 percent.
Japan’s economy experienced two periods of rapid development in modern times. The first began in the late 19th century after a long interval of national seclusion, and the second followed the end of World War II in 1945. After recovering from the war, Japan experienced three and a half decades of prosperity and generally steady growth, although problems began to surface in the 1970s. Recession plagued Japan in the 1990s, spurring leaders to reevaluate the structure of the economy.
In 1868 a group of disaffected feudal lords, court aristocrats, and samurai responded to the threat of foreign domination by overthrowing Japan’s military government and replacing it with a new imperial government under the Meiji emperor. The Meiji Restoration, as it came to be known, ended 250 years of self-isolation for Japan and introduced an era of rapid economic change. The country's new rulers adopted the slogan "Rich Country, Strong Army." They wanted Japan to become economically and militarily powerful so it could retain its independence. Yet Japan had no modern machinery, steel mills, steam engines, telegraphs, railroads, postal system, or newspapers. It had few natural resources aside from coal and silk. Nor did it have modern business institutions, such as banking and public corporations. Its main resource was a population that was highly literate for a preindustrial country. At that time, 43 percent of boys and 10 percent of girls had some schooling.
The country’s takeoff was explosive. From 1890 through 1938, Japan's GDP grew 3.3 percent each year, far faster than the United States and the countries of Western Europe at a similar stage of development. Manufacturing grew especially rapidly, soaring from 8 percent of GDP in 1888 to 32 percent by 1938.
Before the Meiji Restoration, Japan had conducted almost no trade. After the restoration, Japan welcomed foreign advisers and sent missions to the United States, Germany, France, and Britain to learn the best techniques in economy and government. Between 1885 and 1900 foreign trade grew to 18 percent of GDP. Still, to avoid dependence, Japan restricted foreign investments and loans.
Initially, the government had to fill the vacuum in promoting industrialization because business was so weak. The government owned few industries, but from 1868 to 1900, government agencies supplied more than one-third of all financial capital and encouraged modern industries. By the turn of the century, business replaced government as the leading economic force. Topping the corporate pyramid were a dozen large corporate groups known as zaibatsu, which were headed by rich families such as Mitsui, Iwasaki (operating under the company name Mitsubishi), and Sumitomo.
The worldwide economic slump of the 1930s, combined with other factors, led Japan to increasingly centralize and militarize its economy. The government passed laws giving itself control over imports, power to direct private bank loans to priority industries and firms, and authority to promote heavy industries needed by the military, such as petroleum, machine tools, aircraft, iron and steel, and automobiles. Industries were organized into cartels (groups of business firms acting in concert to reduce economic competition in a particular market). Heavy industry rose from 35 percent of manufacturing in 1930 to 65 percent by 1940. The legacy of this period was a pattern of corporate organization and government-business relations that remains influential today.
When World War II ended in 1945, one-quarter of Japan's buildings lay in ashes. GDP was only one-third of its prewar level. Riots broke out among people who were barely surviving on 1,000 calories worth of food per day. To get recovery started, the government instituted a "priority production" system, subsidizing the manufacture of basic products such as coal, fertilizer, steel, and electricity. Japan’s economy did not return to its prewar GDP levels until 1955.
The United States, one of Japan’s opponents in the war, occupied Japan militarily and controlled economic policy from 1945 to 1952. At first, the occupation authorities embraced economic democratization as their first priority. They introduced land reform and permitted workers to unionize. They also broke up the zaibatsu, which owned 40 percent of all equity (stock) in Japanese companies. By the late 1950s, however, the zaibatsu were reforming. The groups of affiliated companies were now called keiretsu, and banks, rather than rich families, stood at their core.
The rise of the Cold War in the late 1940s pitted a bloc of countries led by the United States against another bloc led by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). With the new international situation, occupation authorities adopted a new priority: to make Japan into a strong ally for the United States. The change in policy became known as the reverse course. To promote economic growth, the United States provided financial assistance and opened its markets to Japanese goods. In 1950 the Korean War broke out, and the U.S. military began buying supplies from Japan, creating enormous demand for Japanese goods. Economic recovery exploded to 12 percent growth per year from 1950 to 1952. In 1952 Japan regained its sovereignty and the U.S. occupation of Japan ended.
Japan’s GDP grew an average of 9 percent annually from the end of postwar reconstruction in 1955 until the oil crisis of 1973 (called the oil shock in Japan), when international oil prices rose dramatically. While countries often grow quite rapidly during their industrial takeoff, Japan's takeoff was unparalleled. In its years of highest growth, from 1965 to 1970, Japan’s GDP grew an average of 12 percent a year.
By 1973 Japan’s economy, five times as large as in 1955, was the third largest in the world. People began speaking of the "Japanese economic miracle." Instead of exporting easily broken toys and cheap blouses, Japan was now renowned for its high quality steel, ships, cars, and televisions.
The fruits of growth were widely spread among the Japanese people. During this period, real (inflation-adjusted) wages per person increased between 7 and 8 percent per year. By 1970 living standards had tripled. Whereas in the 1950s few households enjoyed piped-in water, a refrigerator, a car, a washing machine, or a color television, virtually every household does today. Throughout the era of high growth—and into the 1990s—Japan maintained one of the world's most equal distributions of income as well as consistently low unemployment and no permanent underclass.
Economists attribute Japan’s growth during this period to a number of factors. One important element was high rates of saving and investment. Traditionally, Japan's household saving rates, about 7 to 9 percent of income, were not high by international standards. However, huge tax incentives, increasing prosperity, and other factors gradually raised saving rates to 20 percent of income by 1973. As a share of GDP, business savings from growing corporate profits were even more important. Household and business savings provided capital for high levels of investment in things such as new factories and machinery that fed economic growth.
New technology and education also stimulated growth. Japan invested heavily in technology imports in the 1950s, and in several industries Japanese firms were among the first to adapt or commercialize technology invented elsewhere. Acting before their U.S. counterparts, Japanese steel makers built new plants with electric arc furnaces that helped them to produce quality alloy steels more efficiently, and Japanese television makers adopted solid-state technology that allowed them to produce televisions that were more compact, powerful, and reliable.
The process of industrialization itself accelerated growth, as many workers moved from low-productivity farming and textile production into modern industries enjoying higher efficiency and economies of scale (factors decreasing costs of production while increasing output). In 1950 farmers outnumbered factory workers; by 1970 farmers and fishers accounted for only 17 percent of all workers while the manufacturing workforce had risen to 40 percent. Equally important, production of higher-demand, higher-value goods, such as machinery, gradually replaced lower-demand items, such as textiles. By 1970 much of Japan’s industrial output consisted of products that had not even existed in the Japanese market 20 years earlier, such as color televisions, petrochemicals, and air conditioners.
An export boom was also a critical factor. From 1955 to 1971 Japanese exports increased 15 percent per year. Without exports, Japan could not have paid for all the imports of raw material and food it needed. Until the mid-1960s, Japan imported more goods than it exported (a trade deficit) nearly every year. However, as a result of the industrial shift to higher-demand goods, the country began to export more than it imported (a trade surplus). The increase in exports accelerated industrialization. Although industries such as steel, cars, and television got their start serving the domestic market, all soon began relying on the export market for growth.
Economists disagree about how important government economic policy was in fostering Japan’s growth, but much of the evidence indicates that it played a crucial role. Governmental measures helped accelerate savings and investment, the absorption of new technologies, and the shift to modern industries and high-value exports. Virtually every key export industry enjoyed protection and promotion during their early stages. For example, in 1953 Japan's young automobile industry was almost wiped out by cheap European car imports. In response, the government allowed only negligible imports of foreign cars until 1965, when Japan’s auto industry was able to compete on its own. In addition to protecting emerging industries, the government provided special tax credits to favored industries and directed banks to provide low-interest loans to targeted sectors. While some industries that received aid were notable failures, such as petroleum refining and aviation, the overall success rate was high. Without government industrial policy Japan would still have industrialized, but perhaps not at "miracle" rates.
In the fall of 1973 the first oil shock set off a global recession. Japan's GDP declined for the first time since postwar recovery. Then, from 1975 to 1990, Japan’s economy grew at 4 percent, just half of its pre-1973 rate.
While the oil shock triggered the end of high growth, fundamental trends were slowing Japan's growth anyway. Most importantly, once a country's industrial takeoff is completed, growth always slows dramatically. In addition, the fixed exchange rate system, which had held the value of the yen (Japan’s basic unit of currency) steady since the end of the 1940s, ended in 1971. The value of the yen rose, raising the price of Japanese exports, which caused sales of Japanese goods overseas to slow. From 1972 to 1990, exports grew at half the rate they had during the high-growth era.
In response to the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979, Japan conserved on energy. It also shifted much of its manufacturing from resource-intensive products such as steel to more capital-intensive and knowledge-intensive products such as cars, consumer electronics, and computer chips.
Despite the economic setbacks of the 1970s and 1980s, Japan seemed to be doing very well. Its growth rate was the highest of the major industrialized countries. It consistently ran huge trade surpluses despite a rising yen. Some analysts predicted that Japan would overtake the United States as the world's largest economy.
However, Japan suffered from a dual economy that made the growth of the 1980s unsustainable. Its export sectors, spurred by competition with other countries, were superbly efficient. But the sectors that produced goods for domestic consumption—farming, retailing, construction, and materials industries such as glass and cement making—were shielded from both domestic and foreign competition and thus were much less efficient. Moreover, far more Japanese people worked in domestic than in export sectors.
By the 1980s Japan no longer openly protected its domestic industries from competition with foreign imports. The government had begun to reduce overt trade restrictions such as quotas (limits on the quantity of imports) and tariffs (taxes on imports) in the 1960s, and most restrictions were eliminated by the end of the 1970s. Nevertheless, Japan imported few industrial products that would compete with ones manufactured in Japan. This was due in part to government-organized recession cartels. Japanese industries that had excess capacity (that is, they could make more goods than they could sell) formed associations to control production, allocate market share, raise prices, and, some observers believed, block imports in hidden ways. After 1987 official recession cartels were stopped, but some industry associations continued these practices on their own.
Some foreign exporters who had difficulty selling their products in Japan believed that Japan also maintained invisible barriers to trade, such as collusion among members of keiretsu groups, and government regulations that slowed the import process and made it more expensive. Japan argued that its market was fully open and that foreign exporters were not trying hard enough. Tensions over trade in the 1980s gave rise to a series of negotiations between Japan and its trading partners, particularly the United States. By the end of the 1980s Japan began to import more manufactured goods, and by the late 1990s frictions over trade became less prominent.
Government influence over private business decisions also continued in an indirect manner. In the high-growth era, the government guided the economy through clear laws and powers, such as the open import restrictions of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) or the official list of favored industries for bank loans of the Ministry of Finance (MOF). In recent decades, ministries have tended to use informal "administrative guidance" (gyōsei shidō) instead. This guidance takes the form of suggestions or directives that do not have the force of law. Businesses generally comply voluntarily with administrative guidance; if they do not, ministries may punish them indirectly by enforcing unrelated regulations. MITI used administrative guidance in the 1980s to encourage Japanese auto manufacturers to cooperate with voluntary export restrictions requested by the United States. The effectiveness of administrative guidance varies widely from industry to industry. In general, its power has diminished over time.
In the 1980s Japan compensated for its domestic inefficiencies—and thereby temporarily hid them—by greatly increasing investment. But its investment was also inefficient. Japan needed to invest 35 percent of GDP (private plus government investment) just to get the same growth that a more efficient economy could have gotten from 25 percent. This was like running on a treadmill that keeps going faster. Unless Japan devoted ever-larger portions of national income to investment, growth would inevitably slow.
The structural flaws in Japan’s economy came to a head in the late 1980s, first generating a five-year period of financial euphoria known as the bubble, and then bringing on a collapse. After the value of the yen rose sharply in 1985, Japanese exports fell and economic growth slowed. In 1986 a report by the government-appointed Maekawa Commission recommended fundamental structural reforms to avoid long-term stagnation. Instead, the Bank of Japan (BOJ) cut interest rates to stimulate investment and growth. This raised the price of stocks and real estate, which began to escalate in a self-feeding spiral. By 1989 the average stock was valued at 100 times the annual corporate earnings, an overvaluation of 400 to 500 percent. Rising stock and real estate prices stimulated an investment boom that led to rapid economic growth.
Fearing a crash, the BOJ steadily raised interest rates in 1989 and 1990, hoping that the economy would slow gradually. Instead, the bubble burst abruptly, as Japanese stocks lost nearly 70 percent of their value between 1989 and 1992. The financial bust ended the economic boom. From 1992 to 1994 growth averaged a meager 0.5 percent a year.
Presuming that Japan was just suffering from a normal recession, the government responded with standard recipes to stimulate the economy. The BOJ once again lowered interest rates, and the MOF increased government spending. The economy appeared to respond, with growth rebounding significantly in 1995 and 1996. Anxious to balance Japan’s budget and calculating that it was safe to ease stimulus measures, the MOF reduced government spending in 1996 and raised Japan’s consumption tax (a tax added to the price of goods and services) in 1997. A few months later, the value of several Southeast Asian currencies fell sharply, triggering a regional economic crisis and jeopardizing Japanese trade and investments in the region.
Had Japan’s economy been healthy, it could have absorbed these setbacks. Instead, a new recession began in April 1997. Within a year and a half of its 1997 peak, Japan’s GDP fell 5 percent. In the late 1990s Japan’s stock market was still 65 percent below its 1989 peak, and commercial real estate prices remained 80 percent below their highest levels.
The combination of financial collapse and recession meant that many companies could no longer repay their debts to banks. Over time, the size of the unpayable debt kept increasing. By 1998 the MOF said that bad debts amounted to about 80 trillion yen ($600 billion), or about 15 percent of GDP. Many private estimates were twice as high.
In 1998 the government reversed itself again and created three large spending packages. It also addressed the banking problem with a series of bills that authorized the nationalization of failed banks and the sale of bad assets, and provided funds to protect depositors and inject government funds into the banks. The government hoped to spark recovery by 1999, although some private analysts were less optimistic.
Government ownership of business enterprises is very low in Japan. Since the early 1980s, the government has steadily sold off the few big enterprises that it did own, such as Nippon Telephone and Telegraph (NTT) and Japan National Railway (JNR). It still owns the major television network, Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai (NHK).
In banking, the government plays a big role. In 1996 one-quarter of all banking assets were in Japan’s government-controlled postal savings system, in which post offices accept deposits into various types of savings accounts. Postal savings are turned over to the MOF's Trust Fund Bureau, which lends the money to businesses.
In addition, through extensive formal regulations as well as administrative guidance, government ministries influence private business activities. Japanese policymakers have begun calling for deregulation of sectors including telecommunications and transportation, and the Japanese government launched a series of moves to deregulate banks. Known as the Big Bang, the banking reforms are scheduled to be completed by the year 2001.
In 1997 Japan’s labor force totaled 68.1 million workers. The biggest employers were services (23.5 percent); manufacturing (22.3 percent); wholesale and retail trade (16.7 percent); construction (10.6 percent); agriculture, forestry, and fishing (7.1 percent); government (6.0 percent); transportation and communications (5.7 percent); finance, insurance, and real estate (4.6 percent); and utilities (0.7 percent).
Traditionally, Japan has had a low unemployment rate. It was 3.3 percent in 1996 and rose to a postwar height of 4.8 percent by early 1999. In 1997 men comprised 59 percent of the labor force and women 41 percent. Japan's famed lifetime employment system, in which firms employ workers for their entire career, covers about 30 percent of the workforce, mainly full-time male workers in big companies.
In 1945 only 3.2 percent of Japanese workers were unionized. That year a law was passed establishing workers’ right to organize, and by 1946 unionization had exploded to 41.5 percent. Initially, most unions were controlled by Japan’s Socialist and Communist parties. A pattern of frequent strikes, often violent, continued for years. Companies set up their own company unions, which resulted in violent clashes with the leftist unions. Union membership peaked at 50 percent of the workforce in the early 1950s.
Japan is now well-known for harmony between labor and management, but it did not achieve this harmony until rapidly rising living standards made union militancy unnecessary. Unionization fell to 33 percent of the workforce by 1964 and then to 23 percent by the mid-1990s. Over time, many unions cut their ties to leftist political parties and became less militant. In 1989 the nation's leading federations of private trade unions merged into a single group, the Japan Trade Union Confederation, known as Rengō. While strike activity was in line with international norms in the 1950s and 1960s, by the mid-1990s it was comparatively low.
As of 1990, agriculture employed 7 percent of Japan’s labor force, down from 21 percent in 1970. In 1996 agriculture (along with forestry and fishing) constituted 2 percent of GDP.
Due to Japan’s many mountains, only 11.5 percent of the country’s total land area is cultivated or used for orchards. Although farms are found in all parts of Japan, commercial farming is concentrated in Hokkaidō, northern and western Honshū, and Kyūshū. Rice is the most important crop, and more than 40 percent of farmland is devoted to rice production. The government encourages farmers to convert rice fields to other crops because Japan produces more rice than it needs. In addition to rice, wheat and barley are important grain crops. Other leading crops include sugar beets, potatoes, cabbages, and citrus fruits. Relatively little acreage is used for livestock.
Although agricultural productivity increased dramatically in Japan after World War II, Japan still imports much of its food. In 1946 and 1947, U.S. occupation authorities confiscated land from absentee landlords and resold it to former tenant farmers at low prices. Japan also embarked on a program to modernize farming with new crop strains, fertilizers, and machinery. These measures raised rural living standards and elevated farm productivity. However, as farm plots remained small, averaging 1.4 hectares (3.5 acres), productivity leveled off. To help maintain farmers’ incomes, the government eventually restricted food imports and granted subsidies to farmers amounting to as much as 75 percent of their incomes. Nevertheless, most farmers work part-time in industry in addition to running their farms. Despite the subsidies and quotas, Japan imported 36 percent of its food in 1995.
Japan’s annual timber harvest in 1997 was 23.3 million cu m (821 million cu ft). Japan imports more than 70 percent of its lumber needs, mostly in the form of logs and raw lumber rather than as finished products.
Japan’s fishing industry is one of the largest in the world, with a total fish catch of 6.8 million metric tons in 1996. Coastal fishing by small boats, set nets, or breeding techniques contributes about one-third of the industry’s total production, while offshore fishing from medium-sized boats accounts for more than half of the total. Deep-sea fishing by large vessels operating far from Japan makes up the remainder. Among the species caught are sardines, bonito, crab, shrimp, salmon, pollock, mackerel, squid, clams, saury, sea bream, tuna, and yellowtail. Japan is also among the world’s few remaining whaling countries. Although it officially outlawed commercial whaling in 1986 in conformance with an international ban on whaling, Japan continues to hunt minke whales in waters near Antarctica, saying this is for scientific purposes.
Fish is second only to rice as a staple in the Japanese diet. Japan's fishing fleet provides most of the fish consumed domestically, although due to rising demand and decreasing catches, fish imports exceed exports.
Japan's mineral resources are tiny, and the country is almost entirely dependent on imports. Among the minerals mined in Japan are limestone, coal, copper, lead, and zinc.
As in all maturing modern economies, Japan’s manufacturing sector has decreased in importance. Manufacturing also suffered from the stagnation of the 1990s. Between the early 1990s and 1996, 850,000 manufacturing jobs were eliminated; it was estimated that at least one million more were lost by 1998. As of 1996, automobile production had fallen by 17 percent and ship production by 24 percent. That year, manufacturing output comprised 25 percent of GDP, down from 28 percent in 1990 and 36 percent in 1970. Factory workers represented 24.4 percent of the labor force, down from 26.3 percent in 1990 and 28.7 percent in 1970.
In 1996 Japan's leading manufacturing industries included general and electrical machinery, food and beverages, transportation equipment, chemicals, fabricated metal products, iron and steel, and publishing and printing. Japan is among world leaders in production and export of automobiles, steel, ships, machine tools, and electronic equipment.
Services have gained in importance for Japan’s economy. Their contribution to GDP has increased from 48 percent in 1966 to 55 percent in 1981, to 60 percent in 1996.
The most important service sectors in 1996 were real estate, wholesale and retail trade, personal services (such as hairdressing and health care), business services (such as business accounting and legal services), transportation and communications, and finance and insurance.
In 1997 4.2 million foreigners visited Japan, spending $33 billion, less than 1 percent of Japan’s GDP. Popular destinations include Tokyo and the historic capitals of Nara and Kyōto, with their many ancient temples. In 1998 the bulk of Japan’s foreign visitors came from Taiwan, South Korea, the United States, the United Kingdom, and China.
Japan depends almost entirely on imports for oil, natural gas, and coal. Following the oil shocks of the 1970s, Japan developed effective ways of conserving energy. In 1994 its energy use per person was 3.5 metric tons, compared to 8.0 for the United States and 3.8 for Germany. Japan also moved away from using petroleum. As a source of energy, petroleum fell from 75 percent of total energy consumption in 1973 to 57 percent in the early 1990s.
In 1997 Japan consumed 905 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, amounting to 7,197 kilowatt-hours per person. Japan generates most of its electricity in thermal plants using coal or petroleum, nuclear power plants, and hydroelectric plants.
Japanese depend heavily on rail transport. In 1996 Japanese train passengers traveled 403 billion km (250 billion mi) compared to 22 billion km (14 billion mi) for U.S. passengers. Railroad track in 1995 totaled 20,134 km (12,511 mi), of which about 71 percent was electrified. In the late 1950s Japan began constructing the Shinkansen, a high-speed rail network linking major cities. The Shinkansen runs sleek trains known as bullet trains. The first branch, linking Tokyo and Ōsaka, began operating in 1964. By the late 1990s the Shinkansen extended from Fukuoka on the island of Kyūshū in the south to Morioka in the north and Nagano and Niigata in the west.
Japan has 1,148,000 km (713,000 mi) of roads, of which 5,054 km (3,140 mi) are expressways. In 1996 Japan had 373 cars for every 1,000 people. Bridges or tunnels link all of Japan’s main islands. In 1998 Japan completed construction of the world's longest suspension bridge, the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge. Linking Kōbe and Awaji Island over the Akashi Strait, the bridge has a center span of 1,990 m (6,529 ft).
Japan has one of the world's largest merchant fleets, with 8,957 vessels totaling 18 million gross registered tons in 1998. Japan Air Lines, established in 1951, provides international air service, while All Nippon Airways, primarily a domestic service, has expanded its international operations in recent years. Tokyo is the nation’s major hub for both domestic and international flights. Ōsaka is the second largest center for air travel, and important airports are also located in Nagoya, Sapporo, and Fukuoka.
All media enjoy freedom of communication in Japan. Daily newspapers published in the country number 122. Their combined circulation exceeds 73 million, one of the highest in the world. The largest dailies are Asahi Shimbun and Yomiuri Shimbun, which are circulated nationally. The Japan Broadcasting Corporation, Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai (NHK), dominates the broadcasting industry, operating 2 public television networks and 3 radio networks nationally. NHK programs are financed by viewer subscriptions. Several commercial broadcasters also offer television and radio programs, and subscriptions to television cable services increased during the 1990s. In 1996 Japan had 684 television sets and 957 radios for every 1,000 people.
Japan has one of the world’s best telecommunications systems and high per capita telephone ownership. Until the mid-1980s the government-owned Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) provided all telephone service. In 1985 NTT became a private company, and other companies were permitted to enter the field. However, despite the somewhat increased competition, phone call rates in Japan remain high by international standards. Since new carriers offering digital mobile phone services entered the Japanese market in the mid-1990s, cellular phone usage has grown rapidly. Personal computers in use in 1997 totaled 202 per 1,000 people, and Japan had the second largest number of computers linked to the Internet, after the United States.
In 1996 Japan's merchandise exports totaled $411 billion, the third highest national figure after the United States and Germany. Its imports totaled $349 billion. As a share of total world trade, Japanese exports accounted for 7.8 percent of global exports, and its imports accounted for 6.5 percent of global imports in 1996. As a percentage of the country’s GDP, exports amounted to 8.9 percent and imports 7.6 percent.
Japan’s main trading partners are the United States, East and Southeast Asian countries, and the countries of the European Union (particularly Germany and the United Kingdom). In 1996 the United States purchased 27 percent of Japan's exports and supplied 23 percent of its imports.
In general Japan exports manufactured goods and imports raw materials, food, and manufactured goods; manufactures accounted for 95 percent of exports compared with 55 percent of imports in 1996. Japan’s leading exports include general and electrical machinery, automobiles, chemicals, steel, and textiles. Chief imports include machinery and equipment, food, fuels, chemicals, ores and metals, and agricultural raw materials.
As of the late 1990s, Japan had run a trade surplus (meaning its exports exceeded its imports) every year since 1965, with the exception of the oil shock years. In the 1980s and 1990s the size of the surplus fluctuated up and down depending on the yen exchange rate and the relative growth rates of Japan and its trading partners. The highest surplus was 4 percent of Japan's GDP in 1986; the lowest was 0.5 percent in 1996. In 1998 it was about 2 percent of GDP.
Japanese firms used the trade surpluses to invest heavily in overseas stocks, bonds, bank loans, real estate, and new business ventures. Beginning in the 1980s, many Japanese companies established production facilities overseas, due to both the increased value of the yen and growing resistance to Japanese exports from Japan’s trading partners. Manufacturing or assembling goods at facilities in foreign countries gave Japanese companies several advantages. The companies were able to meet the foreign countries’ domestic content requirements (which mandate that a certain percentage of an item be produced within the foreign country), avoid quotas and other restrictions, and in some cases, save money on land or labor costs. Japanese firms now produce more cars and consumer electronics outside Japan than in Japan.
In 1997 the value of several Southeast Asian currencies fell sharply, triggering an economic crisis in the region that affected Japan’s trade balance. Japan's exports to Southeast Asian countries fell significantly, while its imports from these countries fell less dramatically. Furthermore, as the Asian crisis developed, many of Japan’s overseas investments proved unprofitable. Even though Japan’s exports to other destinations continued to grow, the fall in exports to Asia meant that, on a global, price-adjusted basis, Japan's exports in the fall of 1998 were down 2 percent from the year before. At the same time, Japan’s ongoing recession caused its imports to drop 7 percent. The net result was that Japan’s global trade surplus rose, but only because imports were falling even faster than exports. Therefore, the rising trade surplus did not add any new economic vigor; it simply reflected economic weakness.
Japan is an active member of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the Asia Pacific Economic Community (APEC).
Japan’s basic unit of currency is the yen (121 yen equal U.S.$1; 1997 average). The Bank of Japan, established in 1882, is the country’s central bank and sole issuer of currency. About 140 private commercial banks constitute the heart of the financial system. The Tokyo Stock Exchange is one of the world's leading securities markets.
Japan is a parliamentary democracy. An emperor acts as functional head of state, although his official status under the constitution is the “symbol” of the Japanese nation and its people. Japan is a unitary state, in which the authority of the central government is superior to that of the country’s prefectural governments. However, Japan’s 47 prefectures and several thousand city, town, and village governments enjoy a significant degree of autonomy over local affairs.
The Constitution of Japan became effective in 1947 as an amendment to the 1889 Constitution of the Empire of Japan (also called the Meiji constitution for the emperor Meiji, who promulgated it). The 1947 constitution was created during the military occupation of Japan by the Allied Powers following World War II and reflects reforms proposed by the occupation authorities. Occupation officials produced a draft constitution, which was revised by American and Japanese officials. The draft was then debated in Japan’s parliament, where Japanese legislators added nearly four dozen amendments. The resulting constitution made several fundamental changes to Japan’s government, the most significant of which involved the structure of government.
The Meiji constitution was adopted not long after Japan opened its borders to the West. It attempted both to preserve the authority of the centuries-old imperial line and to introduce a parliamentary government, which necessarily limited the power of the emperor. The result was a sometimes-ambiguous delegation of powers. The Meiji constitution enshrined the emperor at the top of government, granting him the authority to declare war, make peace, conclude treaties, command the military, and promulgate all laws. However, in practice and by tradition, the emperor remained passive, allowing others to act in his name.
The Meiji constitution also failed to provide an effective mechanism for resolving conflicts between the executive and legislative branches of government. Any new legislation, including the annual budget, required the approval of both the emperor’s executive cabinet of ministers and the legislature. Yet the politically powerful cabinet was not responsible to the relatively weak legislature. This situation led to frequent battles between the branches, as lawmakers used their power over the budget to obtain leverage in other matters. The constitution did not contain express limitations on the legislature’s powers, so the judiciary had no occasion to review statutes for their constitutionality—and thereby to check legislative overreaching. The constitution did, however, significantly restrict the scope and substance of administrative enactments. Thus the courts, which were fully independent of the political branches, played an important role in enforcing these constraints. The military was able to exploit this standoff between the branches to take effective control of the government during the years leading up to World War II. Military leaders claimed that they were not subject to civilian control because the emperor—the nation’s absolute sovereign—was the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
The postwar constitution corrected most of these structural shortcomings. The emperor continues to function as head of state, but only as a symbol of the nation. His duties now are primarily ceremonial, such as receiving ambassadors and convening legislative sessions. All law-making authority is vested in the Diet, a bicameral (two-house) legislature. The executive cabinet is fully accountable to the legislature, with the majority party (or coalition) in the Diet selecting a prime minister, who then appoints a cabinet. The judiciary has the authority to rule on the constitutionality of all legislation.
The postwar constitution also expanded and more fully protected the political and social rights of Japanese citizens. The Meiji constitution had granted a number of rights to subjects of the emperor, including the right to trial by judges and freedom of religion, speech, and assembly. None of these rights were absolute, however. All could be modified by statute. By contrast, the postwar constitution guarantees more than 25 specific rights and freedoms of Japanese citizens. Among the rights protected by the constitution are the rights to minimum standards of living and equal education, the right to work, and the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively. Constitutionally protected freedoms include freedom from discrimination on the basis of “race, creed, social status or family origin,” freedom of occupation, and academic freedom. Most of these rights and freedoms can be limited by legislation if necessary for the public welfare.
The most controversial aspect of the postwar constitution is Article 9, which demilitarized Japan. By its provisions, Japan renounces war or the threat of war as a means of settling international disputes and is prohibited from maintaining military forces. Although its origins are disputed, Article 9 was included in the constitution at the insistence of the occupation authorities.
Japan’s constitution has not been amended since 1947, although from time to time proposals are introduced to revise some of its provisions, particularly those on demilitarization and the status of the emperor. Public support for constitutional revision is weak, as acceptance of the constitution and its fundamental principles has broadened over time.
Executive power in Japan is vested in a cabinet, headed by a prime minister. The prime minister is elected by the Diet and typically is the leader of the majority party in the Diet. The prime minister has the power to appoint and dismiss other cabinet members. If the Diet passes a vote of no confidence, the prime minister must either resign or dissolve the lower house of the Diet and hold a new general election in hopes of winning majority support in the legislature. In addition to the prime minister, the cabinet consists of the heads of 12 ministries and the directors of 9 administrative agencies.
Japan’s ministries and agencies are staffed primarily by career civil servants. Most ministries have only two politically appointed posts—the minister and one of two vice ministers. The influence of career ministry and agency officials is enhanced by several features of the organization of Japan’s government. First, the size of the national civil service is relatively small compared to most other industrial democracies. The civil service also is highly professional, with potential employees subject to strict national examinations. Finally, nearly all civil servants in Japan spend their entire careers within a single ministry or agency. Although temporary transfers to other agencies have become common, there is little opportunity for permanent career change among public agencies or, until retirement, into private enterprises. Japanese officials thus develop a strong sense of identification and loyalty to the single ministry or agency in which they work. Each of these factors contributes to the cohesion and stability of Japan’s ministries and agencies and thereby their political influence.
Some ministries wield more influence within the government than others. The Ministry of Finance (MOF) initially formulates the annual budget, which ensures its preeminence among all the ministries. The Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), which has jurisdiction over export and import policies as well as domestic industrial policy, is also very influential. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) is another top organization. The prestige of these ministries makes them highly sought-after places of employment and draws some of Japan’s best minds to public service.
As is the case in other parliamentary democracies, Japan’s ministries and administrative agencies play a relatively active role in creating legislation. A law is often drafted initially by bureaucrats in the ministry or agency with jurisdiction and technical expertise over its subject matter. Nevertheless, the majority party in the Diet ultimately controls all legislative enactments, primarily through cabinet oversight. Before the law is sent to the Diet for a vote, the cabinet’s Legislation Bureau may review or revise it. Therefore, all legislation in Japan reflects policies that are either determined or approved by the cabinet.
In addition to cabinet oversight, the ministries are also constrained by the need for broad consensus among those affected by proposed legislation. Ministries incorporate the views of academic specialists and private interests through special advisory commissions. The drafting ministry also takes into account the views of career officials in other ministries or agencies affected by the legislation. The final product of Japan’s legislative process generally reflects the views of the leaders of the majority party in the Diet, individual members of the Diet whose support is politically significant, and influential private interests.
Japan’s legislature, the National Diet, comprises two houses—a lower House of Representatives and an upper House of Councillors. Under the electoral system that came into effect in January 1994, the House of Representatives has 500 members, 300 of whom are elected in single-member districts (geographical areas that each have one representative). The remaining 200 are elected by proportional representation from a list of candidates selected by the political parties. The maximum term of office for representatives is four years. Their term may be shorter, however, if the prime minister or members of the House of Representatives decide to dissolve the house before the term is up in order to hold a general election. The House of Councillors has 252 members, of whom 100 are elected by proportional representation from a national constituency and 152 are elected from Japan’s 47 prefectures. Councillors’ term of office is six years, with one-half of the members elected every three years. The upper house is not subject to dissolution.
A bill becomes law if a majority in each house approves it. However, if a bill does not receive upper-house approval, it can still be passed into law if two-thirds of the lower house approve it on a second vote. If the upper and lower houses disagree over approval of the budget, the selection of the prime minister, or adoption of treaties with foreign countries, the decision of the lower house becomes law after 30 days without a second vote. For this reason the House of Representatives is the more powerful of the two bodies.
Japan’s court system is organized in four tiers. At the top is the Supreme Court. Its 15 justices have jurisdiction to hear appeals on issues of law (those involving legal interpretation, as opposed to the determination of facts). Below the Supreme Court are eight high courts with jurisdiction to hear appeals on issues of both law and fact. District courts serve as the principal courts of first instance, where ordinary civil and criminal cases are first brought to trial. In the bottom tier are summary courts; their jurisdiction is restricted to civil cases involving claims of 900,000 yen or less and minor criminal cases. For every district court there is also a separate family court with jurisdiction over domestic relations cases, including contested divorces, succession, and other family matters, as well as juvenile offenses. Domestic relations cases in the family court must be submitted to a panel of court-appointed lay conciliators who try to reconcile the parties.
The postwar constitution provides explicitly for the power of judicial review. As in the United States, courts at all levels may rule on the constitutionality of any statute or other formal government measure. As in Germany, Japan’s appellate courts also have the power of revision, or the power to enter new judgments on appeal. Japan does not have a jury system. Most first instance district court cases are tried by a three-judge panel. Japan has relatively few judges, and judicial caseloads tend to be extraordinarily heavy.
The Japanese judiciary is notable for its autonomy and public trust. Judicial candidates receive extensive training at a government institute, then serve a ten-year term as assistant judge before being promoted to full judgeship. As a matter of law, the cabinet appoints all judges except the chief justice, who is appointed by the emperor at the direction of the cabinet. In practice, however, the cabinet accepts the recommendations of the Supreme Court in the appointment and promotion of lower court judges, and the advice of nominating agencies and senior judges in appointing justices to the Supreme Court. Lower court judges serve ten-year terms, which are almost always renewed. All judges may be removed by impeachment, and Supreme Court justices may also be removed by popular vote when their names appear on the ballot in the first election after their appointment and every ten years thereafter.
The Supreme Court, in addition to nominating lower court judges and hearing appeals, also sets judicial procedures and manages the judicial system. By convention, 5 of the 15 Supreme Court justices are career judges, 5 are former practicing lawyers or prosecutors, and 5 are former government officials or scholars. Japan’s most senior career judges tend to share markedly conservative attitudes toward the role of the courts and the foundations of public trust. Their influence in the administration of the judiciary has thus ensured a cautious judiciary that generally follows rather than leads judicial and public consensus.
Japan is divided into a total of 47 prefectures. In addition to 43 regular prefectures, including Okinawa, there are four special prefectures: Tokyo, which constitutes a metropolitan prefecture; Kyōto and Ōsaka, both urban prefectures; and Hokkaidō, a special prefectural district. Below the prefectural level are cities, towns, and villages.
Under the postwar constitution, local units of government have significantly greater autonomy than they did under the prewar system. Each prefecture is governed by a popularly elected governor and a unicameral (single-house) prefectural assembly. Cities, towns, and villages also have popularly elected mayors and legislative assemblies. Local governments have authority to levy taxes, but they still depend on the national government for grants and subsidies. The national government exercises control over local governments through their fiscal dependency and through national legislation, which local authorities must implement.
Political parties have existed in Japan since the 1870s, but they began to develop more fully when the first national legislature was created in 1890, following the adoption of the Meiji constitution.
In post-World War II Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) became the dominant political party. The LDP was created in 1955 from the union of the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party, two conservative parties that emerged in the aftermath of the war. The party’s philosophy is not well defined, but traditionally it emphasized economic development and close ties with the United States. In recent years it has also focused on administrative reform and economic liberalization. For many decades, the party was dominated by relatively stable factions grouped around politically powerful leaders. However, the factions recently have become more volatile. The LDP and its predecessors governed Japan from 1946 until 1993, with the exception of a brief period in 1947-1948, when Socialist Party prime minister Tetsu Katayama formed a coalition government that lasted for ten months. Ashida Hitoshi, leader of the Democratic Party, succeeded Katayama as prime minister and kept the left-center coalition together for another five months.
In 1993 the LDP again lost control of the government. A series of corruption scandals in the late 1980s and early 1990s caused the LDP to lose its majority in the upper house, and the party began to fracture. For several years the LDP was able to maintain control of the Diet through its hold on the more powerful lower house. However, by mid-1993 a number of leading politicians and their supporters had withdrawn from the party, causing the LDP to lose its majority in the lower house on the eve of national elections. The elections produced a one-seat gain for the LDP, but the party did not regain a majority.
An eight-party coalition of opposition parties governed Japan from 1993 to 1996, but the LDP remained the largest single party in the Diet. It returned to power in 1996 when it formed a coalition government with two opposition parties, the Social Democratic Party of Japan (SDPJ) and New Party Sakigake. In 1997 the LDP regained a small majority in the lower house, and the three-party coalition fell apart the following year. To improve its ability to pass legislation in the Diet, the LDP again entered a coalition in 1999, this time with the Liberal Party, a group of former LDP members.
Until recently, Japan’s leading opposition party was the SDPJ (known as the Japan Socialist Party until 1991). For many years the party embraced a leftist platform, advocating socialist revolution and military neutrality. With other opposition parties, it also championed various social welfare issues, such as national health insurance. In the late 1980s the SDPJ began to move to the right, dropping the goal of socialist revolution from its party platform. Two of the party’s leaders have served as prime minister: Tetsu Katayama in 1947-1948, and Murayama Tomiichi from 1994 to 1996. In the late 1990s the SDPJ lost its former prominence as a variety of new parties emerged as the LDP’s principal opposition.
Japan has several other major long-standing opposition parties. The Japan Communist Party (JCP) advocates unarmed neutrality and a peaceful transition to socialism. Kōmeitō (the Clean Government Party) is a centrist party that was initially affiliated with a religious organization known as Sōka Gakkai but officially severed its ties to the group in 1970. The Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) was formed by a right-wing group that split from the SDPJ in 1960.
With the fracturing of the LDP in the early 1990s, several new opposition parties were formed by LDP defectors. The most important of these was the Japan New Party, which advocated government reform. Its leader, Hosokawa Morihiro, became prime minister at the head of the eight-party coalition government in 1993. After the coalition fell apart in 1994, the Japan New Party merged with several other reform groups to form the New Frontier Party (NFP; in Japanese, Shinshinto). The NFP split apart in 1997, giving rise to a number of new parties, including the Liberal Party, which entered into a coalition with the LDP in 1999. The Liberal Party embraces a conservative platform that includes limiting government size and power and introducing free market economic reforms. Other parties held a significant number of seats in the Diet in the late 1990s. One was the Democratic Party, a centrist group that advocates reforms including decentralizing government power and reducing and simplifying government regulations. Another was the New Liberal Club, a group of conservative former LDP politicians. And finally, the New Party Sakigake, a progressive conservative party, calls for administrative reform and greater protection of the environment.
Japanese politics have long been characterized by strong political factions. During the years of LDP dominance, many observers felt that political competition among the LDP factions was more significant than that among the different parties. Factions have been accused of creating negative effects such as raising the cost of elections, fostering influence-peddling, and promoting individual politicians rather than beneficial public policies.
Many political analysts believed that Japan’s pre-1994 electoral system contributed to the strength of factions. From 1925 to 1994 voters elected Diet members from medium-sized, multimember districts (geographical areas that have more than one representative). Most parties put forward candidates for more than one of the available seats, but each voter could vote for only one candidate. Under this system it was possible for a single popular candidate to win such a large percentage of the vote that the party’s remaining candidates might lose to minority party candidates. In this case, the number of seats the party controlled in the Diet would not reflect its popular support within the district. Parties were thus forced to organize intensively at the local level during elections in order to encourage voters to distribute their votes evenly among the party’s candidates. Furthermore, in order to win votes, candidates had to distinguish themselves from their party’s other candidates, often by developing a personal following, or faction. Although the system was thought to ensure greater representation for minority parties, the cost of local organization and factionalism was great.
In 1994 the Diet adopted a number of electoral reforms. These included restrictions on the fundraising activities of individual politicians and the introduction of a mixed system of single-member electoral districts and proportional representation. The reforms give the party power, at the expense of factions, over political candidates. The effect of the reforms on factions nevertheless remains uncertain. The turmoil of party politics since the early 1990s largely reflects the instability of factions, rather than that of parties or politicians. Many of the newly created conservative parties were factions within the LDP before 1993. Since then they have been reconstituted as separate political parties. These parties continuously change and realign themselves, but they are dominated by a relatively constant group of leaders.
Article 9 of the postwar constitution renounces war and the maintenance of military forces. It also establishes both legal and political restraints for all government decisions related to defense. Within these parameters Japan maintains the technologically most advanced military establishment in East Asia. Although Japan spends more on defense than any of its neighbors, it still spends less than half of the amount spent by the United States (measured as a percentage of gross domestic product).
Known today as the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF), Japan’s military was first established as the National Police Reserve in 1950. The creation of the SDF has been legally justified on the basis that all nations possess an inherent right of self-defense. As its name implies, the SDF’s stated purpose is to defend the country from attack rather than to fight aggressive wars. It also carries out domestic disaster relief operations. Service in the SDF is voluntary. In 1997 the SDF consisted of about 242,600 members. These comprised an army (151,800), a navy (43,800), an air force (45,600), and a central staff. The country also has a coast guard. All police forces in Japan are controlled by the central government.
Legal and political constraints prevent Japan from participating fully in collective international military actions. Japan’s government has long interpreted Article 9 as prohibiting the deployment of the SDF outside of Japan. Thus, under the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States, still in effect, both nations pledge to resist any attack on Japanese territory, but Japan has no obligation to defend the United States from attack. In 1997 a controversial revision to the guidelines for U.S.-Japan military cooperation extended the scenarios for cooperation to include emergencies “near Japan.”
Japan’s constitution also limits its participation in United Nations (UN) military and peacekeeping operations. Under substantial international pressure, Japan provided funds but not personnel in the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991). After the war, Japan sent mine sweepers to help remove mines from the gulf. In 1992 the Diet passed legislation permitting Japanese forces to participate in UN peacekeeping operations in noncombatant roles, and since then the SDF has taken part in several operations, including one to monitor a peace treaty signed in Cambodia in 1991. Japan’s ability to participate actively in regional and international security arrangements remains a significant domestic and international issue.
After World War II Japan pursued a set of international affairs policies associated with Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru. The so-called Yoshida Doctrine emphasized economic growth, dependence on the United States for security and leadership in international affairs, and avoidance of independent international political commitments. In recent years Japan has displayed greater independence, but Japanese foreign policy is still relatively passive and emphasizes caution and consensus.
While Japan rarely asserts itself independently, it does participate actively in international organizations and humanitarian efforts. Japan has been a member of the UN since 1956, and it plays a prominent role in a number of UN agencies, including the Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and the World Health Organization (WHO). Japan is currently seeking a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, the most powerful UN body. Since the 1970s Japan has become a major source of foreign aid to developing countries, particularly in Asia.
The Government section of this article was contributed by John O. Haley.
Human beings may have inhabited the Japanese island chain as early as 200,000 years ago. Very little is known about where these people came from or how they arrived on the islands. However, during the ice ages of the Pleistocene Epoch (1.6 million to 10,000 years before the present) sea levels were lower than they are today, and a land bridge temporarily linked the Japanese islands to the Korea Peninsula and eastern Siberia on the Asian continent. Historians theorize that successive waves of Paleolithic hunters from the Asian mainland may have followed herds of wild animals across these land routes. The Paleolithic culture of Japan’s earliest inhabitants produced rough stone tools and articles of bone, bamboo, and wood.
The Paleolithic culture of prehistoric Japan gave way to a Neolithic culture around 10,000 BC. Archaeological evidence suggests that a large number of Neolithic hunter-fisher-gatherers migrated to Japan before sea levels rose at the end of the last ice age. Known as the Jōmon people (after the cord markings that decorated their pottery), these immigrants used more sophisticated bone and stone tools and low-fired clay pots, but they did not know how to work metals.
The arrival of paddy rice cultivation, bronze weapons, and iron-working techniques in Kyūshū around 300 BC revolutionized the lives of the islands' inhabitants. Agriculture enabled peasant cultivators to store food surpluses from year to year and encouraged them to abandon the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle and live in fixed settlements. The use of iron farming tools as well as other implements made of wood increased peasants’ productivity, and as productivity grew, so did the population. By AD 300 the new agricultural way of life (called Yayoi culture after the archaeological site where its artifacts were first discovered) had spread to the majority of the population. The hunter-gatherer way of life persisted only in the northern part of Honshū.
Although some historians hypothesize that Yayoi culture was the result of another major migration from the Asian continent by sea, this theory is not universally accepted. DNA evidence suggests that modern Japanese people descend from both the Jōmon and the Yayoi peoples, but it is also likely that migration from the continent continued in later centuries, as the majority of the modern Japanese gene pool reflects an inflow from the continent after agriculture arrived. The Ainu inhabitants of the northern island of Hokkaidō and the inhabitants of the Ryukyu Islands to the south are the only people on the Japanese archipelago who appear to have more direct genetic links to the Jōmon people.
The earliest settlers of the islands did not have a very complex political organization. They lived in small, relatively self-sufficient village communities. Eventually, clusters of villages united in small territorial or tribal units under local chieftains. Archaeological evidence suggests that by the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD fighting broke out among these local chieftains as they sought to expand their territories. Fortified hilltop and highland village sites surrounded by moats or earthen embankments became increasingly common.
Chinese historical chronicles provide additional evidence of the state of Japanese political organization during this period. The first recorded contact between Japan and China occurred in AD 57, when emissaries of a “king” (likely a tribal chief) of a territory in “Wo” (the Chinese name for Japan) arrived at China’s imperial court and received a gold seal from the emperor. According to Chinese reports from that time, by the 3rd century the Wo people were divided into a number of small "countries," probably consisting of tribal confederations.
By the 4th century local rulers in Japan’s Yamato region, a rich and fertile plain south of the modern city of yōto, had begun to build large burial mounds (kofun). The moated earthen mounds cover stone burial chambers. The mounds often combined a round top with a square bottom in a shape that resembles a keyhole. The size and complexity of the mounds indicate that the Yamato rulers controlled considerable labor forces and other resources. The largest keyhole-shaped mound, covering 60 hectares (150 acres), dwarfed in area, if not in height, the great pyramids of Egypt. Scholars estimate that constructing this mound required the labor of l,000 or more people working full time for four years. Historical records suggest that by the 6th century the Yamato ruling family, mobilizing superior manpower, technical skills, and material resources, had brought many of the small "countries" on the Japanese archipelago under loose control.
Clay figurines (haniwa) placed around the periphery of the mounds and burial goods found within them indicate that those buried were horse-mounted warriors equipped with body armor and archery weapons. Some historians have used this archaeological evidence to hypothesize that an invasion of horse riders from the Asian continent in the 5th century brought with it the elements of Kofun culture. Most do not accept this theory. Given the state of shipbuilding technology at that time, it does not seem likely that a large invading force and their mounts could have crossed over from the Korea Peninsula.
Discoveries at the burial mounds, however, indicate that a continuous flow of new technologies, new materials, and immigrants was arriving in Japan from the Korea Peninsula. The Japanese learned how to cast bronze spearheads and bells, and historical records indicate that, by the late 5th century, Korean artisans had brought in more advanced methods of working iron, making swords and armor, firing finer and more durable ceramics, and manufacturing stirrups, bridles, and saddles. The Chinese writing system was introduced to Japan at about the same time. Writing made it possible for a new specialized class of scribes to compile and keep records, and it opened Japan to the influence of continental literary, religious, and philosophical culture.
Korea also transmitted Chinese social and religious philosophies to Japan during this period. In the late 4th century or early 5th century, the Korean kingdom of Paekche sent the Yamato court a Chinese scholar who brought with him a set of the basic writings of Confucianism. In the middle of the 6th century the ruler of Paekche sent a group of Buddhist priests to Japan (see Buddhism). The priests brought with them Buddhist religious images, scriptures, and calendars. As Japan was drawn further into the Chinese sphere of cultural influence, the Yamato rulers became increasingly aware of political developments on the Asian continent.
For all of their expanding influence, the Yamato rulers were in no sense absolute monarchs, nor were their powers clearly defined. They relied on chiefs of subordinate uji (clans) to manage local peasant populations. However, the uji controlled their own territories, and chieftains in remote parts of the country often challenged Yamato authority.
In the 7th century the Yamato rulers embarked on a massive importation of Chinese political institutions, laws, and practices to strengthen their position. The Yamato court was impressed by China’s Sui and Tang dynasties, which reunified the Chinese monarchical state after nearly 400 years of division. These dynasties ruled China from the 6th century to the 10th century. The turn toward the continent was promoted by the chiefs of the Soga clan, who managed the Yamato ruler's treasury and had become powerful patrons of Buddhism. By intermarrying with the royal family, the Soga gained increasing power at court, at times dominating the Yamato rulers.
The introduction of the Chinese political model in Japan is often attributed to Shōtoku Taishi, a member of the Yamato lineage and regent to the female ruler Suiko. Japanese tradition credits Prince Shōtoku with introducing a hierarchy of ranks for court officials in 603 and composing 17 injunctions (sometimes called the Seventeen-Article Constitution) in 604. Aimed primarily at officials, the injunctions outline the qualities necessary for good government, drawing heavily on Confucian ethical and political ideas. They emphasize, for example, that state officials should be selected on the basis of talent and virtue rather than heredity.
No significant institutional changes occurred, however, until 645. In that year, the Yamato prince Naka no Oe (later the ruler Tenji) engineered a coup that ended the power of the Soga at court. Naka no Oe then set about consolidating the power of the central government, drawing up a series of reforms in 645 and 646 with the help of scholars and monks who had studied in China. The Taika reforms, as they came to be known, were intended to undercut the influence of the powerful clan chieftains. To do this, the reforms abolished the clan chieftains’ control over local land and people, dispatched provincial officials to supplant them, and promulgated a new system of ranks, taxation, and administration. These reforms marked the beginning of the conversion of the Yamato ruler from a great lord (taikun) to an emperor (tennō).
In 710 the reorganized imperial court established a new Chinese-style capital at Heijō-kyō (the modern city of Nara). Laid out in a rectangular grid, it housed the ministries and offices of a new Chinese-style bureaucracy. The Taihō Code of 701 and the Yōrō Code of 718, elaborate sets of laws modeled on those of China’s Tang dynasty, established a penal code and outlined administrative organization and procedures. Japan’s new imperial state was highly centralized. Appointed officials, organized into eight hierarchical ranks, administered the government. The country was divided into provinces managed by governors who were dispatched from the capital.
The economic base of the imperial court, with its expanded bureaucracy and new capital, was a land and tax system modeled on the Chinese system. The government surveyed all cultivated land in the country and took a population census. It then granted an allotment of land to every man and woman over the age of six. The codes specified that every six years a new census was to be taken, and land was to be reallocated based on any population changes. The purpose of the land redistribution was to provide the adult population with enough land to feed itself. In return, landholders were obliged to pay taxes in the form of rice, labor, or some local product. The Japanese government seems to have conducted regular surveys throughout the country during most of the 8th century.
The imperial government continued to maintain contacts with the Asian continent through diplomatic embassies sent to China’s Sui and Tang courts. Between 701 and 777 the Japanese court dispatched seven missions to China, each comprising 500 to 600 people. Many students and scholars accompanied these missions and often remained in China for years. The flow of people reinforced the flow of culture. Students, scholars, and monks returned to Japan with new forms of Buddhist practice, new ideas about writing history, and new styles of literature. Indirect contact with India, Central Asia, and western Asia also enriched the higher culture at Japan’s imperial court. An imperial treasure house that still exists in Nara, the Shōsōin, is filled with ceramics, lacquerware, silk cloths, and other luxury goods brought in from all over Asia.
The capital at Heijō-kyō was also the site of many large and powerful Buddhist temples and monasteries, a number of them financed by the new imperial state. The most impressive was Tōdaiji, built between 743 and 752 as the centerpiece of a nationwide system of temples. It housed a huge statue of the Buddha, estimated to have required 338 tons of copper and 16 tons of gold. The Buddhist priesthood acquired enormous political influence, especially during the reigns of several female emperors in the mid-8th century. The emperor Kammu, hoping to escape the influence of the Buddhist temples, moved the capital in 784 to Nagaoka, and then in 794 to Heian-kyō (the modern city of Kyōto), where the imperial palace remained almost without interruption until 1868.
After the move to Heian-kyō, Yamato emperors expanded their rule over all of the main islands of Japan except Hokkaidō. During the course of the 7th and 8th centuries Japanese settlers had pushed north as far as the modern city of Sendai on Honshū island. Beginning in the late 8th century, the court dispatched a series of military expeditions to northern Honshū to conquer the land still occupied by indigenous tribal groups, known collectively as Ezo (now called Ainu). The campaigns began to achieve success by the early 9th century, and their commanders were the first to receive the title of sei-i-tai shogun (“barbarian-conquering supreme general”), usually shortened to shogun. By the middle of the 9th century, the Ezo of northern Honshū had been largely subdued.
Despite such signs of imperial power, the political role of the emperor shrank in importance during the 9th century. Often the emperor was a child or youth, without the personal character, skills, and experience needed to play a strong political role. Emperors thus became figureheads whose main function was to preside over official ceremonies and religious rituals. Political power in the imperial court shifted into the hands of influential aristocratic families, most of whom descended from the clan chieftains who had been allied with the Yamato rulers in the 6th and 7th centuries.
The aristocrats held the highest official ranks and occupied the most important bureaucratic offices. They usually inherited their positions, and they paid no taxes. In place of a salary, aristocratic officials were given official land, residences, household servants, and agricultural workers. Secure in their inherited wealth and position, aristocratic families accumulated huge amounts of land and power over the generations. They dominated both the politics and cultural activities of the imperial court until the 12th century.
The most powerful of the aristocratic families were the Fujiwara, descendants of a clan chieftain who had played a central role in the Taika reforms. Beginning in 858 the heads of the Fujiwara family married their daughters into the imperial family, then served as regents (kampaku) or chancellors (sesshu), exercising powers delegated to them by infant or minor emperors. The most successful of the Fujiwara leaders was Fujiwara Michinaga, who married four daughters to successive emperors in the late 10th and early 11th centuries. Two emperors were his nephews and three were his grandsons. The influence of the Fujiwara family remained strong until the middle of the 11th century, when Fujiwara regents were displaced by retired emperors who dominated their minor successors. Thereafter, the Fujiwara continued to hold high office, but their power diminished.
Culture flourished in the era of aristocratic rule, a period often considered Japan’s classical age. After 838 the court no longer sent diplomatic missions to China, and with the end of direct contacts, the Japanese developed their own forms of artistic and literary expression. In literature, the development of kana, a new phonetic writing system, encouraged new forms of poetry and a native prose literature. In painting, a style depicting scenes of court life, landscapes, and literary works became popular. [For more information, see the Culture section of this article.]
Aristocratic domination of the imperial court signaled the decline of the Chinese-model state. The official bureaucratic structure ceased to have anything to do with the actual functioning of government. Rank and office were sold to aristocrats hungry for more land or prestige, and eventually most positions became purely hereditary. The elaborate land and tax system instituted in the 8th century fell into decay as regular population censuses, land surveys, and land redistribution were abandoned because the imperial government lacked the number of educated people needed to manage such a system. Provincial officials stopped forwarding tax revenues to the capital and instead used their official powers to enrich themselves. At the same time, more and more landholdings escaped the public tax registers, reducing the inflow of official income.
The imperial family, the aristocratic families, and the great Buddhist temples at the capital gradually came to depend on a system of private estates (shōen) for revenue. These large hereditary estates, located in every part of Japan, were tax-free. Many peasants and small landholders commended their land to such estates to escape the heavy burden of taxes levied on public land. The estates’ aristocratic proprietors shared the income from the land with local estate managers, who supervised the peasant farmers.
As the effective influence of the imperial court gradually waned from the 9th century through the 12th century, power in the provinces devolved to local warriors (bushi or samurai). The warriors were typically landholders, usually small estate proprietors or estate managers. They lived in small, fortified compounds, surrounded by palisades or earthen fortifications, and they dominated the surrounding peasant communities. Often warriors served as local district officials, responsible for collecting taxes on remaining public lands. Much of their time was devoted to the cultivation of martial skills–archery, horsemanship, and swordsmanship. With their land holdings, military skills, and access to local office, the warriors constituted a powerful local elite.
Local warrior families often banded together for protection into larger groups based on kinship ties. These warrior bands were effective in settling disputes over land and protecting their local communities from brigands and bandits. The imperial court, which maintained no standing army of its own, often relied on regional alliances of warrior bands to put down local rebellions or to deal with piracy. The court appointed members of distinguished provincial families, many of them descended from the imperial family or aristocratic families, to command these regional alliances. Particularly important were two warrior families descended from early 9th-century emperors: the Seiwa Minamoto, based in eastern Japan, and the Ise Taira, based in the southwest.
By the mid-12th century the Minamoto and the Taira had been drawn into political disputes at the capital. In 1156 an attempt by a Fujiwara official to regain power sparked an imperial succession dispute at the court, with each faction recruiting military leaders to its cause. The Taira and one branch of the Minamoto together defeated the Fujiwara faction, but Taira Kiyomori emerged as the dominant figure at court. His authority was briefly and unsuccessfully challenged in 1160 by an alliance between the Minamoto and the Fujiwara. Thereafter, Kiyomori continued to build his influence at court, placing relatives in key offices at the capital and in the provinces, and marrying one of his daughters into the imperial family. His infant grandson became emperor in 1180.
That same year Minamoto Yoritomo, a Minamoto leader, led an uprising against the Taira. The ensuing civil war, known as the Gempei War, ended five years later in 1185 when the Taira forces were finally defeated at the Battle of Dannoura near the modern city of Shimonoseki on the Inland Sea.
During the course of the civil war, Minamoto Yoritomo created a new set of governmental institutions at Kamakura in eastern Japan as an alternative to the decrepit central imperial government. By the end of the war, Yoritomo's government had extended its control beyond Kyōto to Kyūshū. The imperial court empowered Yoritomo to appoint two new kinds of officials: provincial constables(shugo), charged with maintaining law and order in the provinces, and land stewards (jitō), who were assigned to private estates to protect the rights of their proprietors.
In 1192, after Yoritomo's forces subdued a powerful branch of the Fujiwara family based in northern Honshū, the imperial court granted Yoritomo the title of shogun. This made him the country's supreme military commander with powers to preserve domestic peace. In effect, Yoritomo had become a feudal warrior monarch, sharing power with the civil imperial monarch at Kyōto. The new style of military government was called a bakufu, often referred to in English as a shogunate. Yoritomo ruled through a network of personal vassals (gokenin) who pledged complete and unconditional loyalty to him. These personal vassals held offices at Kamakura or were appointed as constables or land stewards. Their influence in the provinces was usually greater than that of the provincial governors and district chiefs appointed by the imperial court.
After Yoritomo's death in 1199, real power in the Kamakura shogunate passed to his widow's family, the Hōjō. No Hōjō ever became shogun; instead the family prevailed upon the imperial court to appoint figurehead shoguns, often children, while a Hōjō leader served as regent. In 1221 the Hōjō succeeded in crushing a rebellion led by the retired emperor Go-Toba, who attempted to take back the reins of government.
In 1232 the Kamakura shogunate promulgated a new 51-article legal code, now known as the Jōei Code. It laid out the rights of the warrior class and clarified the duties of constables and other Kamakura officials. The code also attempted to restrain and discipline unruly warriors by enjoining them to respect the rights of other groups, including those of the religious establishments attached to temples and shrines. A set of practical laws based on local customs and practices, this new legal code replaced the elaborate Chinese-modeled codes adopted by the imperial government in the 8th century.
The era of Hōjō rule also witnessed the spread of new forms of popular Buddhism. The large Buddhist monasteries and temples in the capital catered to the needs of the aristocratic families who patronized them, but the new schools of Pure Land Buddhism stressed personal salvation for ordinary believers. Two great religious leaders, Honen and Shinran, preached reliance on the power of the Amida Buddha. According to these teachers, all believers could enter paradise by simply repeating the chant namu amida butsu, an invocation to the Buddha. Nichiren, another influential but contentious Buddhist leader, insisted that believers should instead invoke the name of the Lotus Sutra, a central Buddhist text. The Zen sect, stressing meditation and intense self-discipline, also took hold among the warrior class, and the warrior leaders at Kamakura patronized its monasteries and temples.
While the Hōjō enjoyed a reputation for fairness and efficiency, their authority was seriously shaken by two attempted Mongol invasions. In the 13th century the Mongol Empire stretched across the entire Eurasian landmass, from Central Asia to China and Korea, just off Japan’s shores. After the Kamakura government brusquely refused the Mongols’ demand that Japan acknowledge the suzerainty of the Mongol leader, Khublai Khan, a Mongol invading force of about 40,000 landed in northern Kyūshū in 1274. The Japanese had prepared extensive defensive fortifications, but before they were fully tested against the battle-wise Mongols, a sudden storm (later known as "the divine wind," or kamikaze) destroyed much of the invading fleet. A second invasion force of 140,000 met a similar fate seven years later, in 1282.
The defeat of the Mongols had a high political cost. Warrior families who had mobilized men, weapons, and other resources to defend Kyūshū demanded rewards for their efforts, but the Kamakura government had no confiscated land or booty to satisfy their claims. As a result, confidence in the Hōjō declined, and warrior discontent grew in the provinces.
In 1333 the retired emperor Go-Daigo, who had been exiled for having defied the shogunate, organized a rebellion against the Hōjō. Known as the Kemmu Restoration, the uprising was spearheaded by Ashikaga Takauji, a powerful warrior leader in eastern Japan. Kamakura fell to the rebel forces and the Hōjō were ousted from power, bringing the Kamakura shogunate to an end. For the next two years, Go-Daigo attempted to restore the authority of the imperial throne.
In 1336 Ashikaga Takauji turned against Go-Daigo and drove him from the capital at Kyōto. Takauji set up his own candidate for emperor, who in turn appointed Takauji as shogun. Go-Daigo and his supporters fled south to Yoshino, near Nara, to establish a rival court. For the next 56 years, civil war between the Northern Court (at Kyōto) and the Southern Court (at Yoshino) divided the country. The dispute was eventually resolved in 1392, when the third Ashikaga shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, persuaded the emperor at Yoshino to abdicate and worked out a compromise over the imperial succession.
During the civil war, the Ashikaga shoguns had established their political base in Kyōto, where they could keep an eye on the Northern Court. By the time the war ended, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu had built a splendid Palace of Flowers in the Muromachi section of Kyōto, near the imperial palace. Holding lavish gatherings for emperors, aristocrats, and high-ranking warrior leaders, Yoshimitsu tried to establish the shogunal court at the center of culture as well as of politics. Under his patronage, new art forms such as nō drama and Chinese-style ink painting flourished. Yoshimitsu is also remembered as the builder of the Golden Pavilion at his elegant retreat in the Kitayama section of Kyōto.
Despite the splendor of the shogunal court, the Ashikaga shoguns were never able to assert as much control over the country as the Kamakura shogunate had. The long civil war between the Northern and Southern courts had contributed to a growing independence of the local warrior class. The dispute over dynastic succession was of little importance to the warriors who joined the armies of the two imperial courts. For them, civil war had provided an opportunity to expand their land holdings at the expense of their neighbors and the aristocratic owners of private estates. The cumulative effect of the civil war was therefore to accelerate the drift toward feudal anarchy.
The shogunate delegated increasing power to the constables responsible for maintaining order in the provinces, but instead of protecting landholders’ rights, the constables gradually acquired large, nearly autonomous domains for themselves. By the early 15th century, central political authority was in rapid decline. Local warrior families, many headed by constables, were fiercely attached to their land and concerned only with their local power. They paid little heed to orders from above that did not serve their interests. As a result of their steady inroads on the estate system, local warriors undermined the remaining economic base of the Kyōto aristocracy.
A major turning point came with the outbreak of a new civil disorder, the Ōnin War of 1467-1477. The war began with a dispute between two candidates for the shogunal succession, each backed by a coalition of warrior leaders. Most of the fighting took place in Kyōto, which was left in ruins after being fought over, looted, and burned time after time. Many court aristocrats, already impoverished by the collapse of the estate system, took refuge in the provinces, and the authority of the Ashikaga shoguns completely collapsed.
The century following the Ōnin War is usually known as the era of warring states, when the country was plunged into more or less constant internal warfare. During this period, a new breed of feudal lords, known as daimyō, rose to power. Some were former constables, while many more were their vassals or independent warrior leaders who fought both the constables and each other to build regional domains under their complete and absolute control. As these upstart warlords expanded their territories, they overran weaker neighbors or bullied them into alliances.
The daimyō abandoned any semblance of loyalty to central authority. Instead they built territorial regimes that were centered on castles and relied on the support of local warrior followers. Administration was likewise local: the daimyō raised their own feudal armies; levied taxes directly on the peasantry; issued their own legal codes; and promoted local economic development through land reclamation, new irrigation systems, and other public works.
The most ambitious daimyō aspired to dominate the whole country. Although the powers of the shogun and emperor had been eclipsed, the existence of the imperial capital at Kyōto was a potent reminder that the country had once been unified. Oda Nobunaga, son of a minor daimyō in central Japan, began the process of reunifying the country by building up a strong domain in central Japan across the main trade route linking the eastern and western parts of the country. In 1568 he secured military control over Kyōto, and by 1573 he was confident enough of his own power to depose the last Ashikaga shogun. Before Nobunaga could consolidate his rule, however, he met a premature death at the hand of one of his principal vassals.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a man of humble origins who had become one of Nobunaga's leading generals, continued the process of unification. After a series of successful campaigns in the 1580s and early 1590s, Hideyoshi succeeded in establishing political sway over the entire country. He also launched two unsuccessful invasions of Korea. When he died in 1598, leaving an infant heir, his leading generals fell to fighting among themselves for control of the consolidated realm. In 1600 Tokugawa Ieyasu, who had been an ally of both Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, emerged victorious over his rivals at the Battle of Sekigahara, near the modern city of Gifu. Ieyasu established a new capital at Edo (modern Tokyo) in eastern Japan, and in 1603 assumed the title of shogun.
Meanwhile, during the era of warring states the Japanese had their first contacts with Westerners. In 1543 Portuguese traders arrived at Tanegashima, a small island off the southern coast of Kyūshū, and in 1549 Francis Xavier, a Jesuit missionary, brought Roman Catholicism to Japan. With the arrival of the Portuguese, the Japanese learned the use of firearms, which they soon began to manufacture themselves. Firearms decisively changed the face of Japanese warfare, rendering obsolete the horse-riding warrior who had dominated the battlefield for centuries. The Portuguese traders were also an important source of goods from China, Southeast Asia, and other parts of Asia, and they introduced the Japanese to the practices of smoking tobacco and deep-frying foods. The Jesuit missionaries, offering the lure of trade as bait, were extremely successful in making converts. By the time of the Battle of Sekigahara, several hundred thousand Japanese, including a number of daimyō in Kyūshū and western Japan, had become Roman Catholics.
The Tokugawa shogunate consolidated its power during the reigns of Ieyasu (1603-1605), his son Hidetada (1605-1623), and his grandson Iemitsu (1623-1651). The Tokugawa shogunate was the most effective government that Japan had experienced so far in its history, but it was not a centralized monarchy like the old imperial government at Kyōto. The shogun shared power and authority with the local daimyō in a system known as bakuhan (a combination of the bakufu, which functioned as the central government, and the han, feudal domains under the control of the daimyō). The Tokugawa family had direct control over only about one quarter of the productive land in the country. The rest was dominated by the daimyō, who had their own governments, castle towns, warrior armies, tax and land systems, and courts. Altogether there were about 250 to 300 daimyō. The emperor continued to rule as the civil monarch in Kyōto, but he had little actual power.
Many daimyō had survived military unification with their existing domains intact, while other domains were newly created by Ieyasu and his heirs. In redistributing land, Ieyasu made a distinction between the daimyō who had fought with the Tokugawa at the Battle of Sekigahara (known as fudai, “hereditary vassals”), and those who had fought against them (known as tozama, “outside lords”). The tozama were assigned domains on the periphery of the islands and were generally excluded from positions in the central government. All daimyō, however, were required to pledge their personal feudal loyalty to the shogun in return for the right to rule their domains.
As a feudal ruler, the shogun imposed many duties on the daimyō to keep them in line. First, the daimyō were required to spend half their time in Edo and to keep their wives and children there all the time. This practice, known as the sankin kōtai ("alternate attendance") system, enabled the shogunate to keep the daimyō under constant surveillance. Second, the daimyō were required to provide materials, labor, and funds for the construction of large public works, such as the shogun's castles and the mausoleum for Ieyasu at Nikkō. Finally, the daimyō had to secure the shogun’s permission to build new castles, repair military fortifications, or contract marriages with other daimyō families. If a daimyō committed some infraction of bakufu laws or died without an heir, the shogun had the right to confiscate his land or reassign him to a new domain. Under the first three shoguns, such transfers and confiscations were quite common.
While consolidating their domestic position, the first three shoguns also restricted Japan’s contacts with the outside world. The Tokugawa welcomed foreign traders but were concerned about the spread of Christianity. They feared that the missionaries were simply a prelude to European conquest. Further, they regarded Christianity, which demanded that the highest loyalty be given to God, as a subversive religion that would undermine authority within society and the family. In 1614 Ieyasu, announcing that Christianity was a "pernicious doctrine," ordered the expulsion of Christian missionaries, and in the 1620s Japanese converts to Christianity endured persecutions and massacres.
In the 1630s the shogunate issued a series of decrees forbidding imports of Christian books, prohibiting travel or trade outside the country, and forbidding the construction of ocean-going vessels. The only Westerners permitted to trade in Japan were the Dutch, who were confined to Deshima, an artificial island in the harbor of Nagasaki on Kyūshū. But the Japanese continued to trade with their Asian neighbors. Chinese merchants were permitted to live in their own quarter in Nagasaki, and the Japanese carried on trade with the Ryukyu Islands and with Korea through the island of Tsushima in the Korean Strait.
The Tokugawa political system, bolstered by its policy of limited isolation from the outside world, successfully maintained domestic peace until the mid-19th century. Several major local rebellions occurred in the 17th century, but none threatened the existence of the regime.
The Tokugawa shoguns also attempted to impose a rigid status system on the country that made a sharp distinction between the samurai warrior elite, who constituted between 5 and 6 percent of the population, and the commoners—peasant farmers, town merchants, and artisans—who made up the rest. The samurai, who wore two swords as a mark of status, enjoyed the highest prestige in Tokugawa society and were subject to different laws and punishments than were the commoners.
Society did not remain rigidly frozen, however. On the contrary, domestic peace set in motion forces of social change. With the endemic warfare of previous centuries at an end, the samurai class underwent a transformation. The daimyō, seeking to prevent their vassals from plotting against them, had already begun to move the samurai off the land into castle towns in the 16th century, and they completed the process in the 17th. The samurai were no longer a landed class but an urbanized one. Their income came not from rents collected from peasant cultivators but from stipends paid by the daimyō. No longer needed as warriors, the samurai instead served as officials in the shogunal or daimyō governments, where reading, writing, and arithmetic were more important skills than horsemanship, swordsmanship, and archery.
Even though the samurai were now civil bureaucrats rather than battle-scarred warriors, they set themselves apart from the commoners by maintaining a different set of values, later known as Bushido. Young samurai were trained to prize not only the martial values of physical courage and loyalty to their lord but also the social values of obedience to superiors, piety toward parents, personal self-control, frugality, and hard work. Many of these values rested on the older warrior tradition, but they were also influenced heavily by Confucianism, the major source of elite political and social ideas during the Tokugawa period.
Peace also brought in its wake a spurt of economic development. The daimyō and the shogun were able to devote their human and material resources toward reconstruction, and a burst in population growth in the 17th century stimulated production and trade. Under the impact of the sankin kōtai system, the shogun's capital and local castle towns grew rapidly. By the end of the 17th century Japan was probably one of the most urbanized societies in the world. To meet growing urban demand, agricultural production grew steadily, as did the production of many consumer goods. Even in rural villages, many peasant farmers began to buy goods and utensils that they had once made for themselves.
The growth of the economy brought with it changing patterns in the distribution of wealth. While the daimyō and samurai class remained dependent on agricultural taxes collected from the peasants, many commoners became more affluent through the expanding commercial market. By the 18th century a class of wealthy merchants had emerged in Japan’s major cities and castle towns. The shogunate and the daimyō, who borrowed heavily from merchants to finance their elegant lifestyles, found themselves increasingly burdened with debt, and in some domains merchants served as financial advisers to the daimyō. As a result, the boundaries of the official status hierarchy began to blur.
Affluent merchants and commoners in the cities patronized a new urban culture centering on theaters and pleasure quarters (entertainment districts). In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the kabuki and puppet (bunraku) theaters flourished, and short stories about denizens of the pleasure quarters proliferated. Poets perfected a new form of poetry, the 17-syllable haiku, and by the early 19th century readers devoured popular novels and stories. In the realm of visual arts, wood-block prints portraying courtesans, actors, and other scenes from urban life became extremely popular. Urban commoners, particularly the wealthy merchant class, consumed all these new art forms, which also found an audience among the samurai elite.
Economic growth brought increasing unrest in the countryside. A gap developed between the mass of the peasantry, who were either small landholders or tenant farmers, and a well-to-do landlord class. The landlords, who used their wealth to invest in activities such as money-lending and rural industry, took advantage of their less fortunate neighbors. More and more land became concentrated in landlords’ hands.
Beginning in the 18th century, peasant riots became more and more frequent, especially in times of bad harvest, such as the 1780s and the 1830s. The samurai elite, who saw the rural wealthy class beginning to copy their own lifestyle, were deeply disturbed by this social turmoil. By the early 19th century many conservative samurai scholars and intellectuals called for a return to the good old days, when everyone knew his or her proper place in society.
Internal social changes might eventually have brought about the downfall of the Tokugawa shogunate, but they were overtaken by new pressures from the outside. In the late 18th century Westerners began to challenge the Tokugawa policy of limiting trade and other contacts. The first to do so were Russians, who made probes into the northern island of Hokkaidō (then called Ezo) in the 1790s hoping to open up trade. Further breaches of the seclusion policy soon followed, as British, French, and other foreign ships began to appear in Japanese harbors with increasing frequency. Although the shogunate issued orders to rebuff any attempt by the ships to land, Japanese defenders, with their outdated weapons and organization, could offer little resistance to modern warships.
The threat to the shogunate from foreign intrusion was twofold: On one hand, the central government’s power and authority had been maintained for more than two centuries through the policy of seclusion, and to abandon it now would place the shogun’s dominant position at risk. On the other hand, predatory Western powers presented a real danger to Japan’s sovereignty. Britain’s victory over China in the first Opium War in the early 1840s and the subsequent forced opening of Chinese trading ports provided an alarming example of what might happen to Japan. Many daimyō were not sympathetic to the shogunate’s predicament, however. They wanted to maintain the policy of seclusion at all costs.
The arrival of a United States gunboat expedition led by Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry in 1853 threw Japan’s leadership into turmoil. The United States had become interested in opening Japan to normal trading and diplomatic relationships in the 1840s, largely in order to secure good treatment for U.S. whalers plying the northwest Pacific and U.S. merchants involved in the China trade. Now Perry used the implied threat of his warships to pressure the shogunate to sign a treaty of friendship with the United States. Failing to achieve consensus after unprecedented consultations with the daimyō, the shogunate reluctantly agreed to sign the treaty in 1854.
Foreign demands for further concessions followed rapidly. In 1858 the United States, represented by Townsend Harris, successfully negotiated a second, commercial treaty that opened more Japanese ports to trade, fixed tariffs (government taxes on trade), and guaranteed Americans extraterritorial rights (which extended U.S. laws and jurisdiction to U.S. citizens in Japan). Other Western powers soon followed suit by demanding similar treaties, which came to be called “unequal treaties” because they placed Japan in a subordinate diplomatic position.
The opening of the country under foreign pressure undermined the authority and legitimacy of the Tokugawa shogunate. The Tokugawa leaders had shown themselves to be too weak to fend off the "Western barbarians," and they had defied the wishes of the emperor at Kyōto, who opposed the 1858 trade treaty. In the late 1850s and early 1860s, antiforeign sentiments swept through the samurai class. Antiforeign activists sought to rally the country around the emperor under the slogan "Revere the emperor, expel the barbarians" (sonnō jōi). Foreign residents in the newly opened ports were attacked, and in 1863 the domain of Chōshū fired on foreign vessels sailing through the Straits of Shimonseki. Although it was obvious that the Westerners could not be expelled by military force, this did not prevent the antiforeign movement from further eroding the position of the shogunate.
The antiforeign movement was particularly strong in the large domains of the tozama daimyō of western Japan, who as “outside lords” had always resented Tokugawa rule. During the 1860s many of these domains, including Satsuma, Chōshū, Tosa, and Saga, began to build up their own military strength by importing Western weapons and ships, hiring Western military instructors, and training Western-style military units. The shogunate, which had sent an unsuccessful military expedition against Chōshū to punish its antiforeign activities, began its own military modernization program as well.
Leaders of the western domains, however, feared that the shogunate's main goal was not to protect the country but to preserve its own dynastic interests. Chōshū and Satsuma, coming together through the mediation of Tosa, agreed to put an end to the shogunate and establish a new imperial government in its place. In late 1867 leaders from Tosa convinced the shogun to resign in order to assume a leading role in a restructured government. Before this government could be established, however, in January 1868 a palace coup in Kyōto, backed by the military forces of Satsuma and Chōshū, brought to power the young emperor Meiji. The emperor abolished the office of shogun, ordered the Tokugawa family to surrender their ancestral lands, and announced the creation of a new imperial government. The following month, in a brief battle outside of Kyōto, the new imperial army rolled back the only serious military challenge made by Tokugawa forces. Sporadic fighting followed in isolated pockets of Japan. Known as the Boshin Civil War, the conflict ended with the surrender of pro-Tokugawa forces in Hokkaidō in 1869.
The overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate was described as a restoration of imperial authority, but the new imperial government soon launched a sweeping program to transform Japan into a modern nation state. The core government leaders were younger samurai from Chōshū, Satsuma, Tosa, and Hizen who had plotted to bring down the Tokugawa. These leaders were united in their belief that the shogunate was not up to the task of strengthening the country or renegotiating the unequal treaties imposed by the foreign powers. However, they were divided in their views of what kind of change was needed. Some, like Saigō Takamori of Satsuma, wished to preserve as much of the old social and political order as possible; others, such as Ōkubo Toshimichi of Satsuma and Kido Takayoshi of Chōshū, advocated more radical reform. The radicals prevailed. In April 1868 the new regime proclaimed its reform goals in the Charter Oath, promising to base its decisions on wide consultation, to seek knowledge from the outside world, and to abandon outmoded customs. The emperor’s main function was to legitimate the new regime and symbolize a united nation.
The division of Japan into independent domains made it difficult to deal with foreigners in a concerted way or to fully mobilize national resources. Thus, the Meiji government’s first task was to unify the country territorially. In late 1868 the imperial capital was moved to Edo (which was renamed Tokyo), where the emperor took up residence in the shogun's former castle. In 1869 the daimyō of Chōshū, Satsuma, Tosa, and Hizen surrendered their lands and census records to the imperial government and asked that their domains’ laws, institutions, and regulations be placed under unified control. Other domains soon followed suit. In 1871 all the daimyō domains were abolished by imperial decree and were replaced by a system of centrally administered prefectures governed by imperially appointed officials.
From 1871 to 1873 the new Meiji leaders felt confident enough to send half of their number on a diplomatic mission around the world. Under the leadership of Iwakura Tomomi, they were to learn about the institutions, laws, and customs of economically and technologically advanced countries of the West, such as the United States and Britain. The Iwakura mission's direct observation of the West left them feeling challenged but hopeful. Much of the progress that Western countries had made in military science, industry, technology, education, and society had occurred only within the past two generations, and a number of the European nations, such as Germany and Italy, were quite new themselves. It did not seem impossible that Japan could catch up with the Western nations very quickly.
During the 1870s the imperial government enacted reform after reform to dismantle the Tokugawa system. The goal was to create a new population of imperial subjects who all shared the same obligations to the state, regardless of their social origins. Laws enforcing the status system were abolished between 1869 and 1871, elementary education was made compulsory in 1872, a military conscription system requiring service of young adult males was promulgated in 1873, and new national land and tax laws replaced the old domain-based tax system in 1873. The final blow to the old order came in 1876, when the government stopped paying stipends to the former samurai class and abolished their privilege of carrying swords. The result was a series of local samurai rebellions, culminating in the Satsuma (or Kagoshima) Rebellion led by Saigō Takamori in 1877. The government's new conscript army successfully crushed all of the uprisings.
In the 1870s the Meiji government also consolidated and expanded its control over outlying islands. It launched a program to colonize Hokkaidō, asserted control of the Ryūkyū and Bonin islands to the south, and made an agreement with Russia for control of the Kuril Islands to the north.
During the 1880s a new emperor-centered state structure took shape. After the Satsuma Rebellion, disgruntled former samurai started a popular rights movement demanding a national legislature. Meiji leaders were not opposed to constitutional government; indeed, their contacts with the West had convinced them that it would unify and strengthen Japan as well as improve its international standing by conforming to Western ideas of “civilized” government. Thus, in 1881 the emperor declared his intention to grant the country a constitution. In preparation, the government leadership created a strong executive branch run by professional bureaucrats dedicated to the national good rather than sectional or partisan interests. During the 1880s the government made several steps in this direction. It created a new nobility of five ranks from the former court aristocracy and daimyō, established a cabinet system modeled on that of imperial Germany, created a new privy council of imperial advisers, and instituted a civil service examination system for recruiting high officials.
The constitution, drafted by a small bureaucratic committee working under statesman Itō Hirobumi, was promulgated in 1889 as a “gift of the emperor” to the people. It came into effect the following year. The constitution placed most of the powers of state in the hands of the emperor, who was declared "sacred and inviolable." It guaranteed the emperor's subjects certain basic political and religious freedoms "within the limits of the law." It also established a bicameral (two-chamber) national legislature, the Imperial Diet. The upper chamber, called the House of Peers, was composed of members of the newly created nobility and imperial appointees. The lower chamber, the House of Representatives, was elected by a small percentage of the population—only adult males paying more than 15 yen (Japan’s basic unit of currency) in taxes could vote. While a relatively conservative document, very similar to the constitution of imperial Germany, the Meiji constitution was a remarkable departure from a long tradition of authoritarian politics in Japan. It provided a foundation for the eventual development of representative government.
Nevertheless, for many years a small ruling group made up of the Satsuma and Chōshū leaders continued to monopolize executive power. The emperor, although constitutionally the country’s highest political authority, did not participate in administration. Until the late 1910s, prime ministers and most cabinet members were drawn from the ranks of the Satsuma-Chōshū clique, their protégés, and members of the civil and military bureaucracies. However, political parties gradually grew stronger during this period, eventually winning positions in the cabinet.
In addition to restructuring the government, the Meiji leaders worked diligently to build up a modern economic sector by acquiring new manufacturing technology. In the 1870s the government imported a mechanized silk-reeling mill, cotton-spinning mills, glass and brick factories, cement works, and other modern factories. They also brought in foreign workers and technicians to get the factories started and train Japanese workers. The government hired hundreds of foreign teachers, engineers, and technicians to build up modern infrastructure, such as railroads and telegraph lines, and dispatched hundreds of bright ambitious young men to study science, engineering, medicine, and other technical specialties in the United States and Europe. In the 1880s the government set up a modern banking system.
By the 1890s the beginnings of industrialization were well underway. A railroad network linking the major cities of Honshū had expanded into Kyūshū and Hokkaidō; coal mines were producing fuel needed for new steam-driven factories; the cotton-spinning industry had reduced the country's dependence on foreign imports; and a domestic shipbuilding industry was developing. Except for the railroad system, however, the government no longer played a direct role either in financing or managing these enterprises. It had sold off its imported factories to private entrepreneurs and had adopted a policy of encouraging private enterprise.
The dramatic changes during the three decades after the Meiji government took power were driven by government initiatives from above, but other classes of society were not simply passive recipients of change. Many former samurai, although stripped of their traditional privileges, made a successful transition to the new society. Highly educated, trained for public service, and imbued with the values of ambition, hard work, and perseverance, they played an important role in many areas, including government, business, science, education, and culture. The same was true of the well-to-do elements in the countryside, who introduced innovations in agriculture, worked to develop local schools, and were active in the movement to establish a national legislature. Even the sons of poor peasant farmers conscripted into the army returned home with new skills, ideas, and habits that they spread to fellow villagers. And by the 1890s, when most school-age children were attending elementary school, Japan’s educational system became a formidable vehicle to promote enthusiasm for change. See Meiji Restoration.
By the mid-1890s the Meiji leaders had succeeded in convincing the Western powers to renegotiate the unequal treaties, returning full diplomatic equality to Japan. Extraterritoriality ended in 1899, and treaty tariffs, in 1910. The Meiji leaders sought to buttress their new international position by building a colonial empire. Their motives were mixed: First, in the competitive climate of global imperialism, they wanted to improve Japan’s national security by building a defensive buffer of colonial territories. In addition, only "civilized" countries, such as Britain and France, possessed colonial empires, so the acquisition of colonies was a marker of international prestige. Finally, having built up their own national wealth and strength, many Japanese felt that they had a mission to spread modernization among their Asian neighbors.
Initially, the Meiji government was most concerned about Korea. Korea had for centuries been a tributary of China. However, in 1876 Japan had used gunboat tactics to force Korea to open trade with Japan, a move that challenged China’s dominance in Korea. The Meiji leaders feared that a weak and backward Korea, under the influence of a weak and backward China, would be easy prey for a predatory Western power, probably Russia, thus putting Japan itself at risk. In 1894 both China and Japan sent troops to Korea to deal with a peasant rebellion in the south. Once it had been suppressed, the Japanese decided to resolve the ongoing tension with China by going to war. The newly modernized Japanese army and navy won a quick victory over the larger but less prepared Chinese forces. The First Sino-Japanese War was over in just nine months.
Japan’s victory surprised the Western powers, which had expected China to defeat its much smaller neighbor. Under the terms of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, signed in April 1895, China ceded Taiwan and the P’enghu Islands to Japan, gave Japan a huge monetary indemnity, and allowed Japan to trade in China under the same unequal treaty privileges that the Western powers enjoyed in China. The Chinese also ceded to Japan the Liaodong Peninsula in southern Manchuria (as the northeastern region of China was then called), but the Russians, backed by Germany and France, forced Japan to accept additional indemnity money instead.
In the wake of the war, popular resentment against Russia ran high. It grew more intense when the Russians tried to expand their own influence in Korea and in Manchuria. In 1898, for example, Russia secured a lease of the very territory it had prevented the Japanese from acquiring—the Liaodong Peninsula with its important ice-free naval base of Port Arthur (now part of the municipality of Dalian)–and began building a railroad line in southern Manchuria. Japanese leaders saw this as a direct threat to Japan’s own national security. Russia took advantage of the Boxer Uprising of 1900, a popular peasant revolt against foreigners in northeastern China, to send an occupation force into Manchuria and begin a military build-up on the Chinese-Korean border.
When diplomatic negotiations failed to dislodge the Russians, the Japanese decided to go to war. In 1904 the Japanese navy attacked the Russian fleet at Port Arthur. The Russo-Japanese War that followed was more daunting to the Japanese leaders than the First Sino-Japanese War had been. While Japanese armies won a series of early battles, the land war bogged down by early 1905. Only the complete annihilation of a vast Russian fleet at the May 1905 Battle of Tsushima finally brought the Russians to the negotiating table. The Treaty of Portsmouth, mediated with the help of U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt, gave Japan control over the Liaodong Peninsula, the railroad line in southern Manchuria, and the southern half of the island of Sakhalin (later known as Karafuto). The Russians also recognized Japan's paramount interests in Korea.
Shortly after the end of the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese established a protectorate over Korea. The Korean court and the traditional Korean elite resisted the Japanese political intrusion. When the Japanese ousted the Korean king from the throne in 1907, anti-Japanese guerrilla activities spread quickly throughout the Korea Peninsula. In 1910, after three years of often brutal fighting, the Japanese finally annexed Korea to Japan under the name Chosen. The Japanese colonial government adopted a harshly repressive policy toward the Korean population, but it also embarked on a program of introducing modern institutions and developing the agricultural economy.
With the acquisition of Korea, the Meiji leaders rounded out a defensive perimeter of colonial possessions stretching from Taiwan in the south, through Korea in the west, to Karafuto in the north. They had also established Japan as one of the world's great powers, side by side with the United States and the major European countries. The Western powers were quick to accept the Japanese colonial sphere in East Asia, and they regarded Japan's military and naval prowess with admiration as well as concern. By the time of his death in 1912, the Meiji emperor, whose reign had begun when the humiliation of Japan's unequal diplomatic status was still fresh, stood among the ranks of the world's leading monarchs.
Japan joined World War I (1914-1918) on the side of Britain and its allies. Japan’s military actions were limited to taking over the German-leased territory of Jiaozhou, located on the Shandong Peninsula in northeastern China, and its industrial port city of Qingdao, and occupying the German-held Marshall, Caroline, and Mariana islands in the western Pacific. After the Russian Revolution of 1917 ended the Russian Empire and destabilized Russia, Japan also joined an Allied expeditionary force to aid anti-Bolshevik forces in Siberia in 1918. Contrary to Allied agreement, Japan maintained troops in Siberia until 1922.
Despite the country’s limited participation, the war in Europe brought economic boom times to Japan, as Japanese industry sold munitions and other goods to the Western countries fighting the war and advanced into Asian markets left open by the decline of Western trading activity. Nearly every sector of the Japanese economy expanded, but heavy industry grew especially fast, creating a new and increasingly large male industrial labor force. The war also brought with it social unrest, as rapid inflation sparked wage disputes between management and workers.
In 1918 an outbreak of nationwide rioting over inflated rice prices, along with calls for political reform, forced the sitting cabinet to resign, and for the first time a commoner and political party leader, Hara Takashi, became prime minister. An astute former official, Hara built political power by catering to local economic interests. For the next decade and a half, except for the years from 1922 to 1924, political parties based in the lower house of the Imperial Diet dominated the political scene. Just as it did in Britain, power in Japan passed back and forth between two major political parties, the Seiyūkai (Liberal Party) and the Rikken Minseitō (Constitutional Democratic Party). Many observers concluded that an era of “normal constitutional government” based on parliamentary control had arrived in Japan.
Public demands for democratic reforms became increasingly vocal at the end of World War I. The outbreak of democratic revolutions in Germany and Russia signaled a change in world trends. At first the public drive for democratization in Japan centered on expanding the right to vote to include all adult males. In 1925, after several years of debate, a universal manhood suffrage law finally passed the Imperial Diet, and the electorate expanded from 3 million to nearly 14 million.
But radical political elements in Japan, including an emerging Marxist left, demanded more sweeping social reforms, including protection for labor unions, laws guaranteeing improved working conditions, public health insurance, and other social welfare laws. By the late 1920s representatives from a small group of left-wing parties had been elected to the Diet. The demand for more social legislation had support from liberal-minded government bureaucrats and from moderate party politicians, but conservative forces blocked passage of such sweeping social reforms.
Japan’s foreign policy became less expansionist after World War I, also in response to trends among the Western powers. Japan joined the League of Nations (an international alliance for the preservation of peace) at its founding in 1920 as one of the “big five” most powerful nations. At the Washington Conference of 1922, Japan agreed with other major naval powers in the Pacific to respect one another’s colonial territories and to limit naval development at a fixed ratio of ships. Nine countries, including Japan, also agreed to respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of China, ruled since 1911 by a republican government. Finally, in 1928 Japan, along with 14 other countries, signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which denounced war as a means of solving international disputes.
In 1920 Japan’s wartime economic boom collapsed, and the country suffered a series of recessions. Bad economic conditions were aggravated by the great Kantō earthquake of 1923, which devastated the Tokyo-Yokohama region. Agricultural prices plunged, and the rural economy stagnated. A major bank panic in 1927 set off alarm bells, but conditions grew much worse with the onset of the Great Depression—the global economic slump that began at the end of 1929. Japan’s manufacturing production fell, workers were laid off, a new wave of strikes began, and the rural economy went into a tailspin.
These deteriorating economic conditions undercut the fragile growth of Japan’s democracy. Public opinion laid blame for the country's economic troubles at the door of the political party leaders, who reacted slowly and conservatively to the economic crisis. Public distrust of the parties was heightened by revelations of political scandals involving the bribery of Diet members, cabinet members, and other leading politicians. Tight links between political parties and big business firms, known as zaibatsu, also deepened public suspicions.
By the early 1930s radical right-wing groups had formed, seeking to end party rule through terrorism. Extreme nationalists, these radicals sought to preserve traditional Japanese values and culture and eradicate what they saw as Western influences: party government, big business, and recent cultural imports. Many junior military officers, often from conservative rural backgrounds, shared these ultranationalist views. To achieve their aims, the radicals, with their sympathizers in the military, plotted to assassinate leading business and political figures. In May 1932 the era of party cabinets ended when a terrorist group assassinated Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi. From 1932 until 1945, Japan was governed by military and bureaucratic cabinets whose members claimed to stand above partisan politics.
Against a background of economic distress, social discontent, and political instability, the Japanese military launched a new phase of political expansion on the Asian continent in the early 1930s. Their primary motive was to protect Japan's existing treaty rights and interests in Manchuria and other parts of China against a militant new Chinese nationalist movement. This movement, led by Chiang Kai-shek, called for an end to foreign imperialist privileges. Because the Chinese nationalists cooperated for a time with the Chinese Communist Party, many Japanese military leaders feared an alliance between a radicalized China and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, the Communist successor to the Russian Empire). Others saw Japan’s expansion into Manchuria as a way of dealing with economic crisis and rural distress at home. Vast tracts of undeveloped land in the region offered opportunities for Japanese rural migrants, and its natural resources could supply raw materials, such as iron ore and coal, for Japanese industry.
On September 18, 1931, officers of Japan’s Kwangtung Army (the military force stationed on the Liaodong Peninsula) blew up a section of track on the South Manchuria Railway outside of Mukden (Shenyang). Claiming the explosion was the work of Chinese saboteurs, Japanese forces occupied key cities in southern Manchuria. Within a few months they controlled the entire region. Although the Kwantung Army acted without authorization from the Japanese government, its decisive action was popular at home, and political leaders accepted it as an accomplished fact. Rather than create a new colony, the Japanese decided to set up the nominally independent state of Manchukuo under Emperor Henry Pu Yi, who had been the last emperor of China. Real control over Manchukuo remained in the hands of Japanese advisers and officials.
The United States and Britain condemned Japan for its violation of the Kellogg-Briand Pact but did little to stop the occupation. An inquiry commission dispatched by the League of Nations placed blame for the so-called Manchuria Incident on Japan, and in 1933 the League Assembly requested that Japan cease hostilities in China. The Japanese government instead announced its withdrawal from the league. Japanese military forces took over the Chinese province of Jehol as a buffer zone and threatened to occupy the cities of Beijing and Tianjin as well. Unable to resist the superior Japanese forces, in May 1933 the Chinese signed a truce that established a demilitarized zone between Manchuria and the rest of China.
Success in Manchuria emboldened the Japanese military to intervene in domestic politics. In February 1936 young, ultranationalist army officers staged a military insurrection in Tokyo to end civilian control of the government and put a military regime in its place. Army leaders put down the coup but in its aftermath acquired greater political influence as the country embarked on a new military buildup. In 1936 Japan signed an anti-Communist agreement with Germany, and one year later it signed a similar pact with Italy. Aggression and expansion now seemed inevitable.
On July 7, 1937 a Chinese patrol and Japanese troops on a training exercise clashed near the Marco Polo Bridge on the outskirts of Beijing. When the Chinese nationalist government sent reinforcements to the area, the Japanese responded with a mobilization of their own, launching the Second Sino-Japanese War. By the end of 1937 the Japanese had overrun northern China, capturing Shanghai, Beijing, and the Chinese capital at Nanjing. The Chinese government under Chiang Kai-shek, however, refused to negotiate an armistice. Instead it retreated to the interior province of Sichuan (Szechwan), where high mountainous terrain protected it against Japanese land attack. By the end of 1938 the Japanese had occupied northern China, the lower valley of the Yangtze River beyond Hankou, and enclaves along the south China coast, including Guangzhou (Canton). However, the fighting had reached a stalemate. Instead of confronting regular Chinese forces, the Japanese army had to fend off constant guerrilla attacks, even in territory they occupied.
The outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939 encouraged the Japanese leadership to consider expanding military and political influence into Southeast Asia. Japan urgently needed the region’s natural resources, including oil and rubber, for its war effort. In 1940, after France and the Low Countries (Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) had fallen to the Germans, the government of Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaro announced Japan's intention to build a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere," a self-sufficient economic and political bloc under Japanese leadership. In September 1940 the Konoe cabinet concluded the so-called Axis Pact, an alliance with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, and received permission from the Nazi-backed Vichy government in France to move troops into northern French Indochina (the area that is now Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos). The Japanese also tried to negotiate an economic and political foothold in the Dutch East Indies, whose colonial government had declared itself independent of the fallen home government of the Netherlands.
Escalating Japanese aggression created friction with the United States, the only major nation not yet involved in war. In 1937 U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt called for a “quarantine” against the “disease” of international aggression. The United States sympathized with the Chinese nationalists and wished to keep the resources of Southeast Asia available for the embattled British. Japan was heavily dependent on the United States for vital strategic material, such as petroleum, steel, and heavy machinery, so the Roosevelt administration gradually imposed embargoes on such goods. Negotiations aimed at settling differences between the two countries began in April 1941, but when the Japanese moved troops into southern Indochina in July, the United States responded by placing a complete embargo on oil. Britain, countries belonging to the Commonwealth of Nations (an association of states that gave allegiance to the British Crown), and the Dutch East Indies followed suit.
The U.S. oil embargo threatened to bring the whole Japanese military apparatus to a halt when its limited oil reserves were used up. Rather than face the humiliation of giving in to U.S. economic pressure, in early September the Konoe cabinet decided to continue negotiations while at the same time preparing for war. All attempts to reach a diplomatic accommodation with the United States failed, including a proposal for a summit meeting between President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Konoe. In October Konoe resigned, and General Tōjō Hideki, Japan’s minister of war, became prime minister. Tōjō formed a cabinet in preparation for war.
On December 7, 1941 (December 8 in Japan) a Japanese naval and air task force launched a devastating surprise attack on the major U.S. base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The Japanese also launched simultaneous attacks in the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, Midway Island, Hong Kong, British Malaya, and Thailand. The following day the United States declared war on Japan, as did all the other Allied powers except the USSR. Nevertheless, Japan maintained the offensive in Southeast Asia and the islands of the South Pacific for the next year. By the summer of 1942, Japanese forces had occupied the targets of their first attack, as well as Burma (now known as Myanmar), Borneo, the Dutch East Indies, and several islands in the Aleutians off Alaska. Japan’s forces were also striking toward Australia and New Zealand through New Guinea, New Britain, and the Solomon Islands.
Japanese leaders were aware of America's immense economic and technological strength, but they gambled that the American public and politicians would not have the stomach to fight to the finish. Japanese war plans envisaged a limited war that would lead the United States to a negotiated peace that recognized Japan's dominant position and territorial gains in East Asia. The plans assumed that Japan would be able to hold a strategic defensive perimeter of island bases stretching through the central and South Pacific against American counterattack, and that Nazi Germany would complete its military conquest of Europe. These sobering realities would then force the United States to the negotiating table.
In actuality, the United States decided to wage an all-out "total war" that would end only with Japan’s “unconditional surrender.” Although the U.S. Pacific Fleet had been heavily damaged by the Pearl Harbor attack, American aircraft carriers had escaped unscathed, and they inflicted heavy damage on the Japanese at the Battle of Midway in June 1942. The Americans adopted an island hopping strategy of striking behind bases on Japan's outer perimeter and cutting them off from their logistical support. The Americans also used submarine warfare to sink Japanese merchant marine vessels and cut the sea lanes linking the Japanese home islands to the resources of the Dutch East Indies and Southeast Asia. In July 1944 the American capture of Saipan, a major Japanese base in the Mariana Islands, put the Japanese home islands within range of American long-range B-29 Superfortress bombers. Beginning in the early fall of 1944, Japanese cities and their civilian populations were subjected to increasingly frequent bombing raids.
Although Tōjō was forced to resign as prime minister after the fall of Saipan, military setbacks did not change the basic policies of the Japanese government. A number of Japanese civilian politicians, ranking bureaucrats, and a few former generals were aware that the tide of the war had turned against Japan. They urged the opening of peace talks with the United States through an intermediary such as the USSR. However, despite steady military and naval losses, the destruction of Tokyo, Ōsaka, and other major cities, and the surrender of their German allies, Japan’s military and naval leaders were determined to fight to the end. Furthermore, despite increasing shortages of food, clothing, and other necessities, the civilian population showed few signs of declining morale. Many farm women and housewives were even trained to meet an American invasion force on the beaches with bamboo spears.
When in late July 1945 the Japanese cabinet rejected the Potsdam Declaration, a renewed Allied demand that Japan surrender unconditionally or face utter destruction, the United States decided to use its new atomic weapons (see Potsdam Conference). On August 6 the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Two days later the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, and on August 9 the United States dropped a second bomb on the city of Nagasaki. Faced with such an utterly hopeless situation, the Japanese leadership finally agreed to surrender on August 14 (August 15 in Japan). Japanese emperor Hirohito, speaking for the first time on the radio, broadcast the news to the nation.
Beginning with Japan’s formal surrender on September 2, 1945, the Allies placed the country under the control of a U.S. army of occupation. An international Allied Council for Japan, sitting in Tokyo, was created to assist the Americans, who presided over the dissolution of the Japanese colonial empire and the disbanding of all Japanese military and naval forces. In 1946 an 11-nation tribunal convened in Tokyo to try a number of Japanese wartime leaders, including Tōjō, for war crimes. American occupation policy aspired to more than a simple demilitarization of Japan. It aimed at destroying the social, political, and economic conditions that had made Japan an aggressor nation, and transforming Japan into a peaceful democratic nation that would never again threaten its neighbors or world peace. Under the guidance of U.S. general Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander for the Allied powers, the Japanese were subjected to the most sweeping program of reform they had experienced since the Meiji Restoration.
Political democratization centered on a revised constitution, promulgated in 1947. The new constitution stripped the emperor of the enormous powers granted to him by the Meiji constitution, making him instead the symbol of the Japanese nation and restricting his official functions to largely ceremonial duties. It placed the National Diet, formerly the Imperial Diet, at the center of the political process. The constitution provided for a British-style parliamentary system, with a cabinet elected by and responsible to the House of Representatives. The electorate was expanded to include all adults, including women. The constitution also guaranteed basic civil and political rights, including a number of rights not included in the U.S. constitution, such as the right of labor to bargain collectively. But the most radical article of the new constitution was Article 9, under which Japan renounced war and the use of force to settle international disputes, and pledged not to maintain land, sea, or air forces to that end. Although this “peace constitution” was originally drafted in English by American occupation officials, it was debated and ratified by the Japanese Diet.
To build a rural base for democracy, occupation officials promoted a land reform program that allowed tenant farmers to purchase the land they farmed. In cities, the occupation encouraged the growth of an active labor union movement. By the end of 1946 about 40 percent of Japan’s industrial labor force was unionized. To weaken the power of big business, the occupation adopted a program of economic deconcentration, breaking up the large conglomerates known as zaibatsu. Occupation authorities also purged the business community of those leaders thought to have cooperated with wartime militarists.
On the whole, the Japanese population welcomed these changes. The Americans encouraged an atmosphere of free public debate and discussion on nearly every kind of issue, from politics to marriage to women's rights. After years of wartime censorship and thought control, most Japanese appreciated their new freedom. At first the Americans also encouraged the emergence of a vital and active left wing, including a legal Japanese Communist Party, in the hopes that it would play the role of a strong democratic opposition.
Nevertheless, conservative parties, with agendas aimed at rebuilding Japan’s economy and strengthening its international position, dominated domestic politics in postwar Japan. After the first postwar elections, held in 1946, conservative politician Yoshida Shigeru became prime minister. Divisiveness within the conservative ranks gave an election victory to the Japan Socialist Party in 1947, but in 1948 Yoshida returned to power, continuing to serve as prime minister until 1954.
With the rise in the late 1940s of the Cold War (the struggle between the United States and its allies and the USSR and its allies), the American desire to reform Japan was overtaken by a desire to turn the country into a strong ally. The resulting change in occupation policy is often called the “reverse course.” In 1947 and 1948 the U.S. government in Washington decided to actively promote the recovery of Japan’s devastated economy. The American occupation reversed its policy of breaking up big business concerns, and it encouraged the Japanese government to adopt anti-inflation policies and to stabilize business conditions through fiscal austerity. Conservative political leaders like Yoshida, who hoped to restore Japan's position in the world as an economic power, welcomed the change in direction. With assistance from the United States, the Japanese government also began to crack down on the domestic Communist movement and curb the activities of radical labor union groups.
In September 1951, after more than a year of consultation and negotiation, Japan, the United States, and 47 other countries signed a peace treaty in San Francisco returning Japan to full sovereign independence. Japan renounced all claims to Korea, Taiwan, the Kuril Islands, Sakhalin, and the country’s former mandates in the Pacific as well as all special rights and interests in China and Korea. The treaty also established U.S. trusteeship of the Ryukyu Islands, including the island of Okinawa, which the United States had occupied during the war. In return, Japan was not subjected to punitive economic restrictions. In light of its fragile economic position, it was permitted to make reparation payments to the countries it had invaded and occupied in goods and services rather than in cash.
The San Francisco treaty, however, failed to resolve Japan’s relations with the Communist adversaries of the United States—the USSR and China. The USSR refused to sign the peace treaty, maintaining that it would lead to a resurgence of Japanese militarism. And neither the government in Beijing, ruled by the Communists, nor the Nationalist government on Taiwan, ruled by the Kuomintang (which had retreated to the island after the Communists gained control of the mainland in 1949), were invited to the peace conference because of international dissent over which government legitimately ruled China. Nevertheless, the United States made Japan’s recognition of the government on Taiwan as China’s legitimate government a condition of its own acceptance of the treaty; thus, in a separate agreement Japan promised to deal only with the Nationalists.
Finally, to ensure Japan’s defense and secure it as an ally of the United States, the two countries signed a bilateral mutual security treaty that allowed the United States to maintain military bases and forces in Japan. The peace treaty and the collateral agreements had the effect of aligning Japan firmly with the Western bloc of nations. On April 28, 1952 the peace treaty became effective, and full sovereignty was restored to Japan.
During the course of the 1950s Japan reestablished normal diplomatic relations with most of the countries that had not signed the peace treaty, and negotiated reparations agreements with the countries it had invaded. In 1956 the USSR and Japan agreed to end the technical state of war that had existed between the two countries since 1945; however, they did not formally conclude a peace treaty. A continuing source of conflict was the question of ownership of the Kuril Islands. The San Francisco peace treaty had not specified which islands were included in the Kurils, and Japan continued to claim three islands and one island group occupied by the USSR. The USSR agreed to return the islands nearest Hokkaidō after a peace treaty was signed between the two countries, but the issue of the other two islands was left open. With the USSR no longer blocking the way, in 1956 the United Nations (UN), an international organization founded in 1945 to promote peace, security, and economic development, admitted Japan to its membership.
Nevertheless, Japan’s postwar international role remained a subject of domestic political debate in the 1950s. The mutual security treaty, along with the Yoshida government’s commitment to rearm Japan by creating a new National Self-Defense Force (SDF), caused bitter disagreement between the right and the left. The conservative political parties, which became unified as the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 1955, favored close ties with the United States. They supported limited rearmament but hoped to revise the security treaty to provide for greater equality between the two countries. The left wing, including the Socialist and Communist parties, opposed the security treaty. They called for Japan to maintain a position of neutrality in the Cold War, allied with neither the United States nor the USSR.
The Japanese public, fearful that Japan might be pulled into a war between the U.S. and Soviet blocs, also harbored doubts about the treaty. In the spring of 1960 the debate over ratification of a revised security treaty occasioned massive popular demonstrations and riots in Tokyo and other large cities. The sitting prime minister, Kishi Nobusuke, was forced to resign. To many it seemed that Japan’s postwar democracy was facing a major crisis. But the revised treaty was ratified by the LDP-dominated Diet, and by the end of summer political calm had been restored. For the next three decades the LDP continued to govern the country, and its policies of cooperation with the United States abroad and economic development at home set the course for postwar Japan.
By the early 1960s the focus of public attention had shifted from international issues to domestic economic ones. Prime Minister Ikeda Hayato, who took office in July 1960, announced a plan to double household incomes over the next decade. This dramatic announcement was welcome news to the public. After decades of economic depression, wartime hardship, and postwar austerity, ordinary Japanese were more interested in a secure and comfortable future than in grand political issues.
The recovery of the economy had already begun during the Korean War (1950-1953), when UN fighting forces had used Japan as a logistical base. Procurement of military supplies and repair of damaged military equipment stimulated Japan’s manufacturing sector. The Korean War boom was followed by a series of new growth spurts in the late 1950s. Indeed, from 1955 to 1973 Japan’s gross national product (a measure of a country’s total economic output) grew at an annual average rate of 9 percent, much faster than any other industrial economy was growing at that time. By 1968 Japan had become the third largest economy in the world. To be sure, the whole world economy was expanding during this period, but Japan's success seemed to be an “economic miracle.”
The reasons why the Japanese economy grew so fast are complex. First, a bureaucracy with jurisdiction over economic matters, based in the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), the Ministry of Finance (MOF), and the Bank of Japan (BOJ), had considerable administrative power to promote industrial growth through tax breaks, import and export licenses, and direct subsidies. The economic bureaucracy backed high tech industries that could supply the domestic market and compete in international markets as well. Second, corporate leaders were more interested in company growth and market share than in short-term profits, and thus they constantly reinvested their gains in updating and improving technology. Third, corporate policy stressed the need to develop and hold on to loyal and highly skilled workers. Large corporations guaranteed their workers lifetime employment, wage and salary increases based on seniority, and corporate welfare benefits. Fourth, the Japanese work force was well educated, driven by a strong work ethic, and disinclined to strike or carry out work stoppages. Fifth, Japanese consumers, responding to the new availability of high quality consumer goods such as refrigerators and automobiles, eagerly bought up industrial output. This expansion of the domestic market was the driving force behind rapid growth. And finally, the Japanese economy was not burdened by heavy military expenditures and the taxes needed to pay for them because Japan depended on the United States for its basic national defense.
The era of rapid economic growth ended in the early 1970s, when Japan’s economy underwent a sudden slowdown brought on in part by two external events. In 1971 the United States abandoned the system of fixed foreign exchange rates that had been in place since World War II. This change caused the value of the yen to rise, and consequently, Japanese exports fell. In 1973 an increase in crude oil prices caused recessions in countries around the world; in Japan it inspired panic buying by consumers who feared shortages and price increases, double-digit inflation, and a sudden slowdown in the growth rate. Timely government and corporate policies, including a drive to expand Japanese exports, soon overcame these difficulties, but growth continued only at a much slower and steadier rate of 4 to 5 percent, about half what it had been during the high growth years of the economic miracle.
The social impact of rapid economic growth was enormous. The most obvious effect was rapid urbanization, especially along the industrial corridor stretching from Tokyo-Yokohama in the east along the Pacific coast through the Inland Sea to northern Kyūshū. Between 1955 and 1970, people were pouring into Japan’s six major cities (Tokyo, Yokohama, Ōsaka, Nagoya, Kyōto and Kōbe) at an average rate of 1 million per year. Just before hosting the 1964 Olympic Games, Tokyo became the first city in the world to claim a population of 10 million. At the same time, Japan’s rural population shrank rapidly. By the 1980s less than 10 percent of the workforce was engaged in agriculture.
Rising household incomes and savings produced by the economic miracle transformed Japan into a middle-class society. Compared to other industrial countries, Japan had a relatively equal distribution of income, and few pockets of extreme poverty remained, even in the countryside. To most Japanese the ideal social status was that of the “salary man”—the white-collar middle-class employee of a large corporation. Since access to white-collar status depended on education, high school completion rates rose rapidly, as did attendance at colleges and universities.
But rapid economic growth had a downside. The Japanese had built the world's third-largest economy with a population half that of the United States, in a country whose territory could fit comfortably within the boundaries of Montana. The results were predictable: overcrowded cities and suburbs, air and water pollution, huge accumulations of solid waste and garbage, overloaded highway and public transportation systems, and a disintegrating natural environment. During the 1960s and 1970s local citizens' movements fought against the worst cases of industrial pollution. Under increasing public pressure, the LDP governments passed legislation setting tough automobile and noise pollution standards and providing compensation for pollution-related health problems. But difficulties such as crowded urban housing, lengthy commutes, and traffic problems were less easy to deal with.
Despite the domestic problems accompanying rapid economic growth, the other advanced nations recognized that Japan had emerged as an economic superpower. When the first economic summit was convened at Versailles, France, in 1975, Japan was invited to join as one of the "big five" nations. With international recognition came a recovery in national self-confidence. During the 1970s and 1980s books explaining the secrets of Japan's economic success became bestsellers abroad, while at home a new cultural nationalism found expression in a proliferation of books explaining the distinctive strength and virtues of Japanese society.
In the 1960s and 1970s Japan’s major diplomatic initiatives were aimed at improving relations with its Asian neighbors. In 1965 Japanese prime minister Sato Eisaku hosted South Korea’s foreign minister at the first meeting of the two governments since World War II. The meeting produced a far-ranging agreement on mutual relations. After the United States suddenly reestablished relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1971, surprising and exasperating the Japanese government, Japanese prime minister Tanaka Kakuei visited China in 1972. The two countries agreed to resume diplomatic relations immediately, and Japan severed official diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Finally, in 1972 Japan regained sovereignty over the Ryukyu Islands, although the United States continued to maintain military bases on Okinawa.
In domestic politics, the LDP continued to hold the reins of government throughout the 1970s, although the party’s cabinets changed frequently, due largely to factional infighting. Six LDP politicians succeeded one another as prime minister in the ten years that passed between the cabinet of Tanaka Kakuei in 1972 and that of Nakasone Yasuhiro in 1982.
Factionalism and the growing expense of elections led politicians to become increasingly involved in dubious financial dealings, and during this period the first of a series of influence-pedaling scandals involving the LDP came to light. In 1974 Tanaka had been forced to resign amid accusations of improprieties, and in 1976 he was arrested for taking bribes from the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, a U.S. firm. The scandal widened as it became clear that Lockheed had paid at least $10 million in bribes and fees to Japanese politicians and industrialists since the 1950s.
Tanaka’s trial and judicial appeals lasted for more than a decade. National voting rates declined steadily, and public opinion polls showed a rising indifference to politics.
In the aftermath of the scandals, the LDP lost its absolute majority in the lower house between 1976 and 1980. During the mid-1980s, Nakasone, a conservative who supported rearmament and a more active international role for Japan, revived the fortunes of the LDP. Under his leadership the party won its largest electoral victory in 1986, but this success owed much to the continuing influence of the Tanaka faction.
In the latter half of the 1980s Japan experienced a period of financial euphoria that came to be known as the bubble. The bubble was triggered in 1985 by a sudden rise in the value of the yen. As Japanese goods became more expensive overseas, Japan’s exports decreased and its economy slowed. To stimulate economic growth, the LDP government increased public spending and eased interest rates. Real estate and stock prices soared, and even middle-class Japanese began to speculate. In addition, the high value of the yen encouraged Japanese investment overseas. In Southeast Asia, where labor costs were lower, Japanese companies built new production facilities. In the United States they invested not only in electronics factories and automobile assembly plants but also bought highly visible assets such as Rockefeller Center in New York City. In early 1990, however, the economic bubble burst suddenly when the government raised interest rates to dampen speculation.
The collapse of the bubble ushered in a period of prolonged economic slowdown. Large corporations attempted to deal with the slowdown through downsizing, but many large banks and financial institutions remained saddled with huge amounts of bad loans left over from the economic boom period. In 1997 an economic downturn in Southeast Asia harmed Japanese trade and investment in the region and further undermined the strength of Japan’s economy. Public confidence in the economy steadily deteriorated as the economic bureaucracy appeared unable to deal with the country's economic problems. By the late 1990s Japan remained mired in its longest recession since World War II.
Blame for the continuing economic slowdown was laid at the door of the MOF, which did little despite strong domestic and foreign demands for economic deregulation and greater market freedom. In May 1997 the MOF announced plans for a "Big Bang" to deregulate banking and finance, but daily newspaper and television news continued to headline stories about bureaucratic inflexibility, incompetence, and corruption. In 1998 the Diet passed a series of bills intended to initiate economic recovery by increasing government spending and authorizing measures to address the banking problem.
In January 1989 Emperor Hirohito died after a 62-year reign. His son Akihito succeeded him as emperor, inaugurating what was officially called the reign of Heisei, which means "achieving peace." However, the years that followed were marked by domestic political turmoil.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s a new set of scandals shook the LDP. In 1988 it was revealed that the Recruit Company, a Japanese data services and real estate firm, had bribed many top LDP leaders. Scandal brought down the administrations of prime ministers Noboru Takeshita and Uno Sosuke in rapid succession in 1989. In national elections held that year, the LDP lost its majority in the upper house for the first time in more than three decades. Kaifu Toshiki, elected by LDP Diet members as a “clean” candidate to improve the party’s image, unsuccessfully tried to push through political reform. Unable to cope with economic malaise and lacking the confidence of prominent party members, Kaifu was replaced in late 1991 by a veteran politician, Miyazawa Kiichi.
In 1993 younger LDP leaders, led by Hata Tsutomu and Ozawa Ichiro, became frustrated by the party's inertia and broke away to form new parties of their own. The loss of these members deprived the LDP of its majority in the lower house, and national elections held that year did not restore it. A coalition of eight opposition parties formed a cabinet under Prime Minister Hosokawa Morihiro, putting an end to the LDP's long political hegemony.
The political situation continued to deteriorate, however, as the new parties maneuvered for position. Amid allegations that he had accepted an illegal loan in 1982, Hosokawa stepped down in 1994, and the coalition chose Hata as prime minister. Soon afterward, the largest of the eight parties withdrew from the coalition, leaving Hata without a majority in the lower house of parliament. He resigned after only two months in office.
Meanwhile, the power of the political left had dwindled substantially during the late 1980s. After decades in the opposition, the Social Democratic Party of Japan (SDPJ; formerly the Japan Socialist Party) moved to gain more support among voters by adopting a more pragmatic platform. The party even abandoned long-standing positions such as opposition to the mutual security treaty with the United States and the maintenance of the SDF.
In 1994 a coalition cabinet came to power made up of the LDP and its former rival, the SDPJ, electing Murayama Tomiichi Japan’s first socialist prime minister since 1948. But the political parties continued to combine, split, and recombine into new political factions and parties. Murayama, whose coalition government was weak, resigned in January 1996, and the Diet elected LDP leader and former trade minister Hashimoto Ryutaro to the post. Hashimoto formed a coalition government with the SDPJ and Sakigake, a progressive conservative party.
In late 1997 the LDP regained a majority in the lower house when a key opposition member returned to the party. Political maneuvering and a stubborn opposition, however, made it difficult for Hashimoto’s cabinet to confront the country's many economic and political problems. The following year, the coalition of the LDP, SDPJ, and Sakigake broke up. Unhappy with the state of the economy, Japanese voters inflicted a defeat on the LDP in elections for the upper house in July 1998. Accepting responsibility for the defeat, Hashimoto resigned as prime minister. LDP politician Keizo Obuchi replaced him as prime minister, and the LDP entered a new coalition in 1999, this time with the Liberal Party, a group of former LDP members led by Ozawa.
The end of the Cold War in the late 1980s brought new uncertainties in Japan's relations with the outside world. Although the mutual security treaty remained in force, the United States pressured Japan to assume responsibility in international politics commensurate with its economic power. A country with a large stake in international stability, the Americans argued, should take some responsibility for maintaining it.
Japanese political leaders, aware that public sentiment strongly supported the peace constitution, remained reluctant to take a more active role in international military efforts. During the Persian Gulf War in 1992, the Japanese government provided $13 billion to help reimburse the expenses of the anti-Iraq coalition, but sent no troops. In 1992 the Diet passed a law allowing noncombatant SDF personnel to take part in UN peacekeeping operations, but the law required Diet approval in every case. And the Japanese public expressed concern in 1997 when a new U.S.-Japanese security plan committed Japan to cooperate with U.S. forces in conflicts occurring in areas around Japan.
In the 1990s Japan and Russia took steps towards resolving the ongoing territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands. A 1993 declaration called for resolution of the problem “on the basis of historical and legal facts,” a reference to the 1956 normalization agreement in which the USSR promised to return some of the islands upon the signing of a peace treaty. Since then Japan has provided Russia with economic and humanitarian aid, which it had previously made conditional on the return of the islands. Meetings between Russian president Boris Yeltsin and Japanese prime ministers in the late 1990s produced renewed statements of commitment to resolving the dispute.
In the 1990s the Japanese also confronted hostility among their Asian neighbors despite growing trade, investment, and other economic ties. Memories of Japan's wartime activities remained alive in Korea and China. In the early 1990s, for example, South Koreans and other Asians demanded that Japan admit responsibility for forcefully recruiting women to serve as "comfort women," or prostitutes, for Japanese soldiers during the war. On August 15, 1995, the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, Prime Minister Murayama expressed "deep remorse" for war victims, particularly in Asia. But leading LDP politicians continued to make statements that appeared to defend or justify Japan's actions as an imperialist and military power.
Despite its considerable problems, however, in the late 1990s Japan remained one of the world’s healthiest and most highly educated, affluent, and productive countries.
The History section of this article was contributed by Peter Duus.
Roman A. Cybriwsky
John O. Haley