Japan is a country that has one of the world’s longest measurable histories.
Japan also has around 1100 national treasures and 13000 items of cultural significance.
During Japan’s history since its establishment around 3000 years ago, there have been many different cultures within Japan that have been born, flourished and perished over time. In particular, there have been particular aspects of Japanese culture such as “Samurai”, “Ninja” and “Tea Ceremony” that are well known throughout the world.
In this article, we will look back at Japanese culture as it has developed over time. We will see how Japan has developed into the country that it is today by travelling back in time with this article.
Part 1 of this article can be found here - which is an overview of Japan’s history from its inception up until 1573. Part 2 covers Japan from 1573, the Azuchi Momoyama period up until the present today.
Azuchi Momoyama Period (1573-1603): Momoyama culture
The most famous warlords of Japan (later referred to as the triumvirate of heros) were "Oda Nobunaga(織田信長)" "Toyotomi Hideyoshi(豊臣秀吉)" "Tokugawa Ieyasu(徳川家康)" who rose to power and fame during this time. After the Muromachi Shogunate was overthrown primarily by the revolutionary Oda Nobunaga, the Azuchi Momoyama period(安土桃山時代) commenced.
Nobunaga Oda, leading Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, boasted the greatest power and influence at that time. In particular, Oda Nobunaga had a preference for Western culture and formed Japan's first gun squad, using gun technology that was introduced into Japan, along with Christianity. During the "Battle of Nagashino(長篠の戦い)" in 1575, using this power and influence, he defeated the Takeda family(武田家) and was hailed by the imperial court as a "man from heaven(天下人)". However, he was betrayed by Akechi Mitsuhide(明智光秀), who was of his subordinates, and committed suicide at Honnoji Temple(本能寺).
It was "Toyotomi Hideyoshi" who defeated Akechi Mitsuhide, the enemy of Oda Nobunaga, and along with "Tokugawa Ieyasu", gained further influence and built "Osaka Castle(大阪城)" in 1583. They then started to suppress the powers in the surrounding regions, from Kyushu(九州) up to the present day Tohoku(東北). They operated a weapons amnesty as well as developing agricultural land in order to create a united nation as one. In addition, they were fond of tea ceremonies and together with "Sen no Rikyu(千利休)" who referred to tea as a holy item, many tea ceremonies were held, which provided the opportunity for the meeting and exchanges of many Samurai. After the death of Hideyoshi, "Tokugawa Ieyasu" then came to hold true power, and in 1600 defeated Ishida Mitsunari(石田三成) by "the battle of Sekigahara(関ヶ原の戦い)", and the bloody battles that had continued from the Azuchi Momoyama period finally came to an end.
Edo period (1603 - 1868): Kanei culture / Genroku culture / Kasei culture
In 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu created the shogunate in "Edo(江戸)" which is now known as Tokyo(東京), and the Edo period began. The central base of Edo was "Edo castle(江戸城)" which is known as the "Imperial Palace(皇居)" in Tokyo. There were strict Samurai laws and legislations set out such as the "samurai conduct(武家諸法度)" and "bureaucratic diplomacy(参勤交代)", which promoted governance and economic revitalization throughout the country by further expansion of agricultural land and increase in food production. As a result, currency circulated to the common people, and traditional craft industries such as cotton fabrics, sake making, pottery etc. expanded. Traditional Japanese culture such as, "Kabuki(歌舞伎)", "Ukiyo-e(浮世絵)", "haiku(俳句)", "sumo(相撲)" etc. were no longer the preserves of the elite but also became known to regular people, and more significantly, education started to spread to the masses with the first of such schools known as “Terakoya(寺子屋)”. The "Nikko Toshogu Shrine(日光東照宮)" built in 1617 to worship Tokugawa Ieyasu was registered as a World Heritage Site in 1999.
However, the house of Tokugawa weakened due to repeated serious famines that struck Japan, and at this time, the industrial revolution was taking place in Europe during the 19th century, with foreign ships arriving in Japan. At that time, due to the occurrence of the great revolt of Shimabara(島原の乱) caused by Christian in 1637, the shogunate forbade trade with foreign countries other than Dejima of Nagasaki(長崎), and adopted an "isolation policy(鎖国政策)". But, in 1853, the US Navy Assistant "Matthew Perry" arrived in Yokohama port(横浜港), and concluded the Japan-U.S. Treaty in 1854, the following year, which made it possible to open the country’s doors to foreign visitors again.
Due to this the credibility of the shogunate is was severely compromised and society became more and more unstable. However, this era was witness to the success of the revolutionary "Sakamoto Ryoma(坂本龍馬)", the "Satsuma-Choshu Alliance(薩長同盟)" linking "Saigo Takamori(西郷隆盛)" of Kagoshima Prefecture, Satsuma(薩摩) which was then one of the two main powers at the time along with "Takayoshi Kido(木戸孝允)" of Yamaguchi Prefecture, Choshu(長州). In addition, "Okubo Toshimichi(大久保利通)" joined this alliance, and these three people were later called "The restoration triumvirate". Then, in 1868, with these three individuals at the centre, and the "Boshin War(戊辰戦争)" was started in order to establish the Meiji(明治) New Government, and the Edo shogunate disappeared. Edo Castle was then handed over to the new government, and this marked the end of the Edo period. This series of events is known as the "Meiji Restoration(明治維新)".
Meiji period (1868 - 1912): The start of modern civilization
Along with the beginning of the Meiji period, Emperor Meiji(明治天皇) moved from the Kyoto Imperial Palace(京都御所) to the Imperial Palace(皇居), with Toshimichi Okubo changing "Edo(江戸)" to "Tokyo(東京)" and "Edo Castle" to "Imperial Palace". The Meiji government implements new ruling whereby all the country’s land becomes the property of the emperor, and a change of place designations from clans to prefectures, and in doing so, becoming a de facto centralized state.
In 1871, a mission was developed for visiting overseas countries, mainly for the purpose of visiting developed countries in Europe and the United States, and introducing cultural, industrial, administrative and judicial systems in Japan, which marked the beginning of Japan’s modern civilisation. For example, the solar calendar was adopted in 1872 and Keio University(慶應義塾大学) was founded, primarily by Fukuzawa Yuichi(福澤諭吉), in 1873, and “Meirokusha(明六社)” was established in order to spread modern academia.
In addition, the "Tomioka Silk Mill(富岡製糸場)" was built in Gunma(群馬) Prefecture in 1873, and in 1901, "Yahata Steel Works(八幡製鉄所)" in Fukuoka(福岡) Prefecture which facilitated increased industrial production and manufacturing. The Tomioka Silk mill is registered as a World Heritage Site in 2014 and Yahata Steel Works was similarly registered in 2015.
Furthermore, in 1885, "Hirofumi Ito(伊東博文)" took office as the first Prime Minister of Japan, established the Diet / Cabinet Office, and in 1889 the first constitution of Japan "Constitution of the Empire of Japan(大日本帝国憲法)" was promulgated. At this time, Japan also strengthened its military capabilities, winning the "Sino-Japanese War(日清戦争)" with China in 1894 and the war "Russo-Japanese War(日露戦争)" with Russia in 1904. When the Meiji emperor died in 1912, the Meiji period came to an end.
Taisho period (1912-1926)
As the Taisho period(大正時代) started World War I broke out shortly afterwards in 1914. Japan joined the Allied Forces through the Japan - UK alliance, and declared war on the German empire. After the end of the war, in 1920 it joined the League of Nations and due to the Meiji Restoration started to be able to compete with Western countries as a developed nation. However, in 1923 the Great Kanto Earthquake(関東大震災) occurred, more than 100,000 people died mainly in Tokyo. Although the old buildings of the Edo period collapsed due to the earthquake, Western-style skyscrapers stand in their place, particualrly in Ginza(銀座), Shibuya(渋谷), Shinjuku(新宿). Also, as railways were hit hard by the earthquake, the use of cars increased and spread to common people. When Emperor Taisho passed away in 1926, the Taisho period ends and gives way to the Showa period.
Showa period (1926 - 1989)
When entering the Showa period(昭和時代), the Great Depression began in 1929, whose effects also reached Japan. Japan’s strategy was to acquire colonies to restore the economy, and therefore proceeded to China, which gave rise to the "Mukden Incident(満州事変)" in 1931, which then developed into a full-fledged "Japan-China War" in 1937, and citizens of the whole country were drafted as soldiers. Furthermore, "World War II" broke out in Europe in 1939, Japan entered into an alliance with Nazi Germany and Italy and waged a surprise attack on Hawaii in 1941. However, this action raised the hackles of the US military, who in 1945, initiated the Tokyo Air Raid, and dropped an atomic bomb to Hiroshima(広島) and Nagasaki(長崎), which resulted in Japan’s complete surrender, known as the Potsdam Declaration. By this war, Japan became the only country to have been attacked by an atomic bomb, Hiroshima's "Hiroshima Peace Memorial Atomic Bomb Dome(原爆ドーム)" became a world heritage in 1996 as a heritage to the huge loss during the war.
Following the war, Japanese regeneration began, under the management of the Allies. Firstly, in 1946 the "The Constitution of Japan(日本国憲法)" (currently still in use today) was enacted, and established the three principles of public sovereignty, respect for fundamental human rights, and pacifism. In addition, due to agricultural land reform and industrial expansion, in 20 years from 1954 to 1973, Japan enjoyed a High Economic Growth Period, and Japan became a country with economic power second only to the United States. In particular, the automotive brands TOYOTA · NISSAN · HONDA and electronics brands SHARP · PANASONIC rapidly grew in size. In 1958, "Tokyo Tower(東京タワー)" was built as a general radio tower, the "Tokyo Olympics" were held in 1964, "Osaka World Expo" in 1970, which all boosted economic growth. As a result, high-rise buildings stood side by side in urban areas, and life and culture were influenced by the United States. The popularity of the "entertainment world" also rapidly grew from this period.
Heisei period (1989 - present)
In 1989 Emperor Showa passed away and Japan entered the Heisei period(平成時代). With the opening of the Heisei period, Japan became a bubble economy, but in 1991 the collapse of this bubble economy caused another major depression. To further compound this, in 1995, in Hyogo(兵庫) Prefecture, the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake(阪神淡路大震災) broke out, claiming 6,435 lives.
Furthermore, in 2011, the "Great East Japan Earthquake(東日本大震災)" centered on Miyagi(宮城) prefecture, and in Fukushima(福島) prefecture, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear power plant was badly damaged, and 24,598 people died from earthquake damage and the subsequent tsunami.
On the other hand, in terms of culture, animation and manga such as “Pokemon” in 1996, "ONE PIECE" in 1997, "NARUTO" in 1999 were born. Idols bands such as "AKB 48" in 2005 and "Kyary pamyu pamyu(きゃりーぱみゅぱみゅ)" also started, with the increasing spread of “kawaii” (cute) culture. In 2012, "Tokyo Sky Tree(東京スカイツリー)" was built as a radio tower to replace the Tokyo Tower. Furthermore, in 2013, the "Tokyo Olympic Games" of 2020 was decided, resulting in foreign tourists visiting Japan doubling.
We hope you found this article illuminating. Part 1 introduced Japan from its inception up until the Muromachi period where Samurais were present. Part 2 covered Japan from 1573, the Azuchi Momoyama period up until present day.
Much of Japan’s culture can be traced back to its history and the series of historical events that have shaped Japan into the country that it is today. We sincerely hope that you visit Japan and visit its many national cultural treasures to truly feel and experience the history of Japan for yourself!