Recent archaeological discoveries revealed the existence of paleolithic humans in Japan when the islands were connected to the Asian continental landmass. Little is known about the origins of the earliest Japanese beyond the fact that they migrated from the continent. The first distinctive Neolithic culture, the Jõmon, existed in Japan from 11,000 BC to 300 BC . The Jõmon was displaced by the Yayoi culture, which introduced new agricultural and metallurgical skills from the continent. Tradition places the beginning of the Japanese nation in 660 BC with the ascendance to the throne of the legendary Emperor Jimmu. It is generally agreed, however, that as the Yayoi developed, the Yamato clan attained hegemony over southern Japan during the first three or four centuries of the Christian era and established the imperial family line. Earlier contacts with Korea were expanded in the fifth century to mainland China, and the great period of cultural borrowing began: industrial arts were imported; Chinese script was introduced (thereby permitting the study of medical texts), the Chinese calendar and Buddhism also arrived from China. Japanese leaders adapted the Chinese governmental organization but based power upon hereditary position rather than merit. The first imperial capital was established at Nara in 710. In 794, the imperial capital was moved to Heian (Kyoto), where it remained until 1868, when Tokyo became the nation's capital.
Chinese influence waned as native institutions took on peculiarly Japanese forms. Outside court circles, local clans gained strength, giving rise to military clan influence over a weakening imperial system. The Minamoto clan gained national hegemony as it defeated the rival Taira clan in 1185, and its leader, the newly appointed Yoritomo, established a military form of government at Kamakura in 1192, a feudal system that lasted for nearly 700 years. Under the shogunate system, all political power was in the hands of the dominant military clan, with the emperors ruling in name only. The Kamakura period was followed by the Ashikaga shogunate (1336–1600) which saw economic growth and the development of a more complex feudalism. For over 100 years, until the end of the 16th century, continuous civil war among rival feudal lords ( daimyo ) ensued. During this time, the first contact with the Western world took place with the arrival in 1543 of Portuguese traders, and with that, the first guns were imported. Six years later, St. Francis Xavier arrived, introducing Christianity to Japan.
By 1590, the country was pacified and unified by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a peasant who had risen to a top military position. Hideyoshi also invaded Korea unsuccessfully, in 1592–93 and in 1598, dying during the second invasion. Ieyasu Tokugawa consolidated Hideyoshi's program of centralization. Appointed shogun in 1603, Tokugawa established the Tokugawa shogunate, which was to rule Japan until the imperial restoration in 1868. Tokugawa made Edo (modern Tokyo) the capital, closed Japan to foreigners except Chinese and Dutch traders (who were restricted to Nagasaki) and occasional Korean diplomats, and banned Christianity. For the next 250 years, Japan enjoyed stability and a flowering of indigenous culture, although from the end of the 18th century onward, Japan came under increasing pressure from Western nations to end its isolationist policy.
The arrival of Commodore Matthew C. Perry from the United States in 1853—with his famous "black ships"—started a process that soon ended Japanese feudalism. The following year, Perry obtained a treaty of peace and friendship between the United States and Japan, and similar pacts were signed with Russia, Britain, and the Netherlands based on the principle of extraterritoriality. A decade of turmoil and confusion followed over the question of opening Japan to foreigners. A coalition of southern clans led by ambitious young samurai of the Satsuma and Choshu clans forced the abdication of the Tokugawa shogun and reestablished the emperor as head of the nation. In 1868, Emperor Mutsuhito took over full sovereignty. This Meiji Restoration, as it is known, signaled the entry of Japan into the modern era.
Intensive modernization and industrialization commenced under the leadership of the restoration leaders. A modern navy and army with universal military conscription and a modern civil service based on merit formed the foundation of the new nation-state. The government undertook the establishment of industry, by importing technological assistance. In 1889, a new constitution established a bicameral legislature (Diet) with a civil cabinet headed by a prime minister responsible to the emperor.
By the end of the 19th century, irreconcilable territorial ambitions brought Japan into open conflict with its much larger western neighbors. The Sino-Japanese War (1894–95) was fought over the question of control of Korea, and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05) over the question of Russian expansion in Manchuria and influence in Korean affairs. Japan emerged victorious in both conflicts, its victory over the Russians marking the first triumph of an Asian country over a Western power in modern times. Japan received the territories of Taiwan and the southern half of Sakhalin Island, as well as certain railway rights and concessions in Manchuria and recognition of paramount influence in Korea. The latter became a Japanese protectorate in 1905 and was annexed by Japan in 1910.
During the Taisho era (1912–26), Japan participated in a limited way in World War I, in accordance with the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902. Japan was one of the Big Five powers at the Versailles Peace Conference and in 1922 was recognized as the world's third-leading naval power at the Washington Naval Conference. The domestic economy developed rapidly, and Japan was transformed from an agricultural to an industrial nation. Economic power tended to be held by the industrial combines ( zaibatsu ), controlled by descendants of those families that had instituted the modernization of the country decades earlier. In 1925, universal manhood suffrage was enacted, and political leaders found it necessary to take into consideration the growing influence of parties.
In 1926, Emperor Hirohito ascended the throne beginning the Showa era. By the 1930s, democratic institutions atrophied and the military-industrial complex became dominant. With severe social distress caused by the great depression, an ultranationalist ideology emerged, particularly among young army officers. Acting independently of the central government, the military launched an invasion of Manchuria in 1931, eventually establishing the puppet state of Manchukuo. In 1932, a patriotic society assassinated the prime minister, bringing an end to cabinets formed by the majority party in the Diet. Japan withdrew from the League of Nations (which had protested the Manchurian takeover) in 1933, started a full-scale invasion of China (the Second Sino-Japanese War, 1937–45), and signed the Anti-Comintern pact with Germany in 1936 and a triple alliance with Germany and Italy in 1940. The military leadership, viewing the former USSR and the United States as chief barriers to Japanese expansion, negotiated a nonaggression pact with the USSR in April 1941, thus setting the stage for the attack on Pearl Harbor and other Pacific targets on 7 December of that year. Thereafter, Japanese military actions took place in the context of World War II.
With its capture of the Philippines on 2 January 1942, Japan gained control of most of East Asia, including major portions of China, Indochina, and the southwest Pacific. Japanese forces, however, could not resist the continued mobilization of the US military. A series of costly naval campaigns—including battles at Midway, Guadalcanal, and Leyte Gulf—brought an end to Japanese domination in the Pacific. By 1945, the Philippines had been recaptured, and the stage was set for a direct assault on Japan. After the US troops captured Okinawa in a blood battle, President Harry S. Truman argued that a full invasion of Japan would prove too costly and decided on aerial attacks to force Japan into surrendering. After four months of intense bombardment with conventional weapons, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 and a second bomb on Nagasaki on 9 August. An estimated 340,000 persons died from the two attacks and the subsequent effects of radiation.
On 14 August, Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration for unconditional surrender with formal surrender documents signed aboard the USS Missouri on 2 September. The subsequent occupation (1945–52), under the direction of General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, began a series of ambitious reforms. Political reforms included the adoption of a parliamentary system of government based on democratic principles and universal suffrage, a symbolic role for the emperor as titular head of state, the establishment of an independent trade union, and the disarmament of the military. Economic reforms consisted of land reform, the dissolution of the zaibatsu, and economic and political rights for women. A new constitution was promulgated on 3 November 1946 and put into force on 3 May 1947.
Heavy economic aid from the United States and a procurement boom produced by the Korean War, coupled with a conservative fiscal and monetary policy allowed the Japanese to rebuild their country. The Japanese economy rapidly recovered, and the standard of living quickly surpassed the prewar level by a substantial margin. The state of war between the Western powers and Japan was formally ended by the San Francisco Peace Treaty, signed in September 1951 by 56 nations. The allied occupation ended officially when the treaty went into effect in April 1952. Japan renounced claims to many of its former overseas territories, including such major areas as Taiwan and Korea. The Amami island group, comprising the northern portion of the Ryukyu Islands, nearest to Kyushu Island, was returned to direct Japanese control by the United States in December 1953; the remainder of the group, including Okinawa, was returned to full Japanese sovereignty in May 1972. The Ogasawara (Bonin) Islands and Kazan (Volcano) Islands were returned to Japanese sovereignty in June 1968. The former USSR never signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty, and Japan and Russia continue to dispute sovereignty over the Kurile Islands, to the northeast of Hokkaido, which the USSR occupied in 1945. In 1956, Japan and the former USSR agreed to establish diplomatic relations.
In 1956 Japan was elected to UN membership. A revision of the 1952 defense treaty with the United States, under which a limited number of troops were to remain in Japan for defense purposes, was signed amid growing controversy in 1960. On 22 June 1965, Japan signed a treaty with South Korea normalizing relations between the two countries. The US-Japanese Security Treaty was renewed in 1970, despite vigorous protest by the opposition parties and militant student organizations. In 1972, Japan moved to establish full diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China. Formal diplomatic links with the Nationalist Chinese government on Taiwan were terminated by this move, but Japan's economic and cultural links with Taiwan nonetheless have survived virtually intact.
While Japan defined its new role in East Asian affairs, its remarkable economic expansion raised it to the level of a major trading power. Based on strong government support of export industries, political stability under the Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP), and public policy guidance from a powerful bureaucracy, Japan experienced a dramatic rise from the ruins of World War II. From 1955 to 1965, Japan experienced a nominal growth rate of 10–20% annually and real growth rates (adjusted for inflation) of 5–12%. In 1968, it surpassed the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) to stand second after the United States among non-Communist nations in total value of GNP. The oil crisis of 1973—a combination of shortages and rising prices—revealed the crack in Japan's economic armor, the lack of domestic petroleum resources. A second oil crisis during the late 1970s, was met by a reappraisal of Japan's dependence on foreign fuels and the institution of long-range programs for energy conservation and diversification.
The yen declined in value in the early 1980s, causing Japanese exports to become cheaper in overseas markets and leading to huge trade surpluses with the United States and other leading trading partners, who began to demand that Japan voluntarily limit certain exports and remove the barriers to Japan's domestic market. During 1985–87, the yen appreciated in value against the dollar and, by 1994, the dollar had hit a post-World War II low, but Japan continued to register substantial trade surpluses.
Political stability, maintained since the 1950s by the majority LDP, began to unravel in the 1970s, following the retirement from politics of Prime Minister Eisaku Sato in 1972. Sato's successor, Kakuei Tanaka, was forced to resign in December 1974 amid charges of using his office for personal gain in the Lockheed Corporation bribery scandal. Takeo Miki succeeded Tanaka and Takeo Fukuda became prime minister when Miki resigned in December 1976. Fukuda was defeated in intraparty elections by Masayoshi Ohira in 1978. When Ohira died in June 1980, he was succeeded by Zenko Suzuki. Suzuki stepped down as prime minister in November 1982 and was replaced by controversial and outspoken Yasuhiro Nakasone. Noboru Takeshita became prime minister in November 1987.
Policy regarding military force has been a major political issue in the postwar years. According to Article Nine of the 1947 constitution, Japan renounced the belligerency of the state but soon developed a Self-Defense Force with US encouragement. In 1986, breaking a long-standing policy, the government increased military spending to over 1% of the GNP. The Diet (parliament) approved a bill allowing the deployment of troops abroad for international peacekeeping in 1992 (with the United Nations in Cambodia).
Emperor Hirohito died of cancer on 7 January 1989, at the age of 87. He was succeeded by the Crown Prince Akihito, who was enthroned as the Heisei emperor in a formal ceremony in November 1990. The sense of entering a new era brought increased controversy over the assessment of Japan's role in the earlier part of the century, particularly during World War II. Some denied that Japan had committed atrocities during the war and there were attempts to further soften the wording of school textbooks. In March 1989, Prime Minister Takeshita apologized to North Korea (DPRK) for the suffering Japan caused over the 36 years of occupation of Korea (1910–45) and Emperor Akihito expressed similar regrets to President Roh Tae Woo of South Korea (ROK) in May 1990. In the same month, the government removed the requirement for fingerprinting of people of Korean descent living in Japan. In 1992, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa apologized for the forced prostitution of Korean, Chinese, and Japanese women in Japanese military brothels during World War II.
The 1980s ended with a major scandal involving illegal stock trading and influence peddling by the Recruit Cosmos Company. Between the summer of 1988 and the closing of the case in May 1989, the scandal led to the implication and resignations of prominent business people and politicians in top government positions, among them then-finance minister Kiichi Miyazawa, and the former prime minister, Yashuhiro Nakasone. Scandals continued into the 1990s with stock rebates for politicians in 1991 and then in 1992, contributions to politicians from a trucking company linked to organized crime became public knowledge.
The economy entered a period of major stagnation and distress in the early 1990s. In 1990, the stock market declined more than 25% from January to April. Then, during the spring of 1992, the stock index fell rapidly again, until by the summer, the index was at its lowest point in six years at 62% below the record high of 1989. By the end of 1993, Japan was in the midst of its worst economic downturn in at least 20 years.
Against the background of scandals and an economic recession, the political landscape began a major change. Taking responsibility for political problems caused by the Recruit scandal, Noboru Takeshita resigned as prime minister in April 1989, to be succeeded in May by Sosuke Uno, who abruptly resigned when a sex scandal became public amidst the LDP loss of its majority in the upper house of the Diet. The next prime minister, Toshiki Kaifu, served his term from August 1989 to October 1991, but the LDP did not support him for a second term. Instead, Kiichi Miyazawa became prime minister in November 1991. When the lower house gave Miyazawa a vote of no confidence in June 1993 for abandoning electoral reform bills, Miyazawa dissolved the lower house and called for elections.
In the election for the 511 seats of the House of Representatives on 18 July 1993, the LDP, for the first time since its own formation in 1955, failed to secure the 256 seats needed for a majority. Without a majority, the LDP was unable to form a government and the new prime minister, Morihiro Hosokawa (JNP), was chosen on 29 July 1993, by a seven-party coalition of LDP defectors, Socialists, and conservatives. Hosokawa, too, was tainted by questions regarding personal finances and stepped down as prime minister to be replaced by Tsutomu Hata (Shinseito) in April 1994. Just as Hata took office, the Socialist Party left the governing coalition, leaving the prime minister as the head of a minority government for the first time in four decades. Hata soon resigned and, in a surprise move, the LDP and the Socialist Party, traditionally opponents, allied to form a new coalition, which also included the Sakigake. The coalition selected as prime minister Tomiichi Murayama, the head of the Socialist Party and the first Socialist prime minister since 1948. Within the coalition, the LDP was the dominant factor, but the decades of LDP rule appeared to be over and the nature of the LDP itself changed. The dissolution of the House of Representatives and the ensuing election on 18 July 1993 marked a major turning point for Japanese politics as the LDP lost its political dominance as new parties formed. One new party, the Japan New Party (JNP), was formed by Morihiro Hosokawa, a former LDP member, in May 1992. On 21 June 1993, 10 more members of the LDP, led by Masayoshi Takemura, left to form the Sakigake (Harbinger Party) and another 44 LDP members quit two days later to create the Shinseito (Renewal Party) with Tsutomu Hata as its head. By 28 June, one-fifth (57 members) of the LDP bloc of the dissolved lower house left the party.
In June 1994, Tomiichi Murayama became prime minister in a coalition consisting of the LDP, the Social Democratic Party of Japan (SDPJ), and Sakigake. In an unprecedented move, Murayama recognized the legal right for the existence of the Japanese Self-Defense force, much to the disapproval of left-leaning party members. The tumultuous reign of Murayama included the Kobe earthquake and political scandals which led to the resignation of the Justice Minister and the director of the Management and Coordination Agency. Elections in October 1996 resulted in a victory for the LDP, but the party still failed to obtain a majority of seats, only capturing 239 of 500. The Sakigake and Democratic Party of Japan agreed to support Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. In July 1998, Hashimoto resigned after a poor performance of the LDP in the House of Councilors election and was replaced by Keizo Obuchi. During the Obuchi regime, the Japanese economy showed signs of recovering with major fiscal stimuli including a massive public works program. The LDP also orchestrated and implemented a plan to bail out failed and ailing banks with taxpayers funds.
In April 2000, Obuchi suffered a stroke, entered into a coma, and was replaced by Yoshiro Mori who called summarily for elections. On 25 June parliamentary elections were held for the House of Representatives. Mori was re-elected prime minister, with a ruling coalition of the LDP, the Buddhist-backed New Komeito, and the New Conservative Party (NCP). In early 2001, the Nikkei stock average fell to its lowest level since 1985 and unemployment rates reached 4.9%, the highest since the end of World War II. Plagued by scandal and the depressed economy, Mori resigned in April 2001. Junichiro Koizumi won control of the LDP and became prime minister on 26 April, promising to reinvigorate Japanese politics and radically reform the economy. He appointed members of his cabinet without seeking nominations from major factions of the LDP, as had been the practice in the past.
Koizumi immediately raised controversy by making a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine. Dedicated to Japan's war dead, it served as a symbol of nationalism during World War II and has been a lightning rod for anger among Asian nations that suffered under Japan's military aggression. He visited the shrine again in April 2002. Japan was also the target of international criticism over its Education Ministry's approval of junior high-school textbooks that allegedly glossed over Japan's aggresssion in China and its annexation of the Korean Peninsula.
Koizumi's coalition dominated the July 2001 elections for the House of Councilors, with the LDP taking 65 of the 121 contested seats, its best performance in the House of Councilors since 1992. The victory was seen as a mandate for Koizumi. However, the economy remained in recession throughout 2002, which reduced his popularity.
In 2002, Japan began a diplomatic initiative to improve relations with North Korea. In September 2002, North Korean President Kim Jong Il apologized to Koizumi for North Korea's kidnapping of Japanese citizens during the 1970s and 1980s. Japan pledged a generous aid package to North Korea in return. However, in October, North Korea revealed that it had ongoing a uranium-enrichment program for the making of nuclear weapons. This was widely seen as a violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and a 1994 US–North Korea nuclear pact signed during the Clinton administration. On 10 January 2003, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and on 23 January, North Korea and South Korea agreed to find a peaceful solution to the crisis.