issue 231 - May 1992
A history of Japan and its neighbours
From Ainu to emperor
The Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan, probably came from the east Asian coast. They were driven from southern Japan by waves of invading armies who also migrated from the mainland. According to nationalist legend the first emperor of the Japanese was Jimmu Tenno, the great grandson of the god Ninigi. After defeating the Ainu he set up a capital near Kyoto in 660 B.C. The prestige of the emperor is rooted in the ancient chronicles of Kojiki and Nihon Shoki that claim god-like ancestry for the imperial family and the Japanese themselves. But the power of the emperors has always been largely mythical. Real control lay in the hands of the Fujiwara family and then other shoguns (feudal lords) who maintained it through the astute application of military force. It was in this era that the traditions of the samurai and shoguns flourished.
Colony of convenience
In the fourth century AD the Empress Jingu sent the first of many Japanese armies to Korea and established a colony. For 200 years Japan played a central role in Korean affairs. In 1592 the Japanese feudal lord Hideyoshi invaded again - partly to prevent rebellious warriors from causing trouble at home. The invasion imposed appalling misery on the people of Korea. In 1877 Japan tried once again to turn Korea into an economic colony. The Koreans resisted but were gradually overcome and annexed outright by 1910. During the Second World War, Japan took some 200,000 Korean, Chinese and Burmese women as slave labour - tens of thousands of whom were forced to provide sexual services to Japanese troops. A legacy of Korean contempt for all things Japanese continues to this day.
Biting the hand that feeds
Chinese ideas and influences have helped shape Japanese culture more than any other. Japan adopted the Chinese script for its own use. Both Confucianism and Buddhism were imported into feudal Japan. From the 7th to the 10th century, the rulers of Japan were deeply impressed by the magnificence of the T'ang Dynasty. This period marked the first great 'borrowing' by the Japanese from an outside culture - adapting what they took to their own needs. The system of centralized, hierarchical Chinese government was also adopted. But the Ashikaga shogunate (1338-1573) witnessed over 3,000 peasant revolts and much local resistance. By the 16th century Japanese seafarers, traders and pirates were the scourge of the Chinese coast. Japan took an increasingly proprietorial interest in China. Starting with the 1931 seizure of Manchuria the Japanese whittled away at Chinese territory. In 1937 they launched a full-scale invasion of northern China culminating in the ruthless sacking of Nanking in December of that year.
Revolution from above
Portuguese traders first ma e contact with Japan in the early 1540s. But Westerners were barred from entry. Foreign pressure to get at Japanese coal and other raw materials increased. In 1854 the American Commander Perry arrived with seven warships in Yokahama and forced the Japanese to sign a trading treaty under threat of annexation. In 1868 a group of Japanese reformers under the Emperor Meiji seized power. They believed that the best way to resist Western pressure was for Japan to exploit western ideas to its own advantage: the second great 'borrowing'. In 1871 feudalism was abolished. Modern - if authoritarian - systems of education and administration were set up and industrial expansion took off. The Imperial Russian Navy was routed in 1905. The Meiji restoration shaped the remarkable future economic successes of Japan while severely distorting its democratic development.
The Japanese experienced their own version of the roaring twenties - the late Taisho and early Showa periods - known as the era of Ero, guro, nansensu, (eroticism, grotesquerie and nonsense). 'Dangerous thoughts' were suppressed by police. In 1923 there was a mass round-up of known communists, anarchists and socialist sympathisers. A militaristic form of state Shintoism promoted emperor worship, ethnocentric ideals and imperial ambitions. Japanese aggression in Manchuria and then China as a whole foreshadowed the totalitarian revision of the Japanese constitution and the fateful attack on Pearl Harbour the following year. Japanese troops swept across Asia from Manila to Rangoon and Japanese bombs even fell on Darwin on the north Australian coast. But the war was brought to an end by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Despite its appalling cost, the Japanese war effort destroyed the myth of white supremacy, and hastened the birth of the new nations of South and South East Asia.
A Pacific Giant Emerges
The post-war US occupation of Japan I brought the so-called Peace Constitution. This re-enforced the power of democratic institutions, ended all forms of feudalism, and greatly increased the rights of women. The power of the Japanese military was severely restricted and the emperor was reduced to a purely symbolic role.
These reforms were imposed by the US but supported by most democratic movements in Japan. The nationalist Right still objects to what it calls an 'unJapanese' constitution. By 1948 the objective of the US occupation shifted to rebuilding Japan as a trusted ally in the Cold War. Several Japanese war criminals were rehabilitated back into key positions. The 1950s and the Korean war saw an enormous influx of aid into Japan. By the 1960s Tokyo was the world's largest city and Japan came to dominate the global car and electronics industries. In the 1980s industrial strength turned into financial clout as Japanese banks dominated global capital markets. But the ultimate meaning of Japanese economic success remains a big question - both for the Japanese and the rest of the world.
Illustrations by Mo Choy