School in a Book: History of Japan


Ancient Times (3500 BCE to 500 CE)

Classical Japan: The period of Japanese history that took place from approximately 300 BCE to 800 CE and that was characterized by technological advancements such as bronze and iron; the introduction of rice and barley from neighboring countries; and greater cultural unity that included Shintoism. During this time, Japan began the process of unification.

Shinto: The classical religion of Japan featuring nature spirits and the worship of ancestors

Priestess Hiiko: A tribal priestess who, during the 100s CE, used her religious influence to unite about thirty Japanese tribes, creating the first united Japanese state. She then sent ambassadors to China to learn about their culture and modeled her combined tribe after it.

The Golden Age of Japan: The Japanese era that took place during the 700s during which Shinto and Buddhism co-existed peacefully, Nara became the capital city, the emperor gradually became a ceremonial figure and the government came to be controlled by officials and monks.

The Middle Ages (500 CE to 1500 CE)

Fujiwara Dynasty: The Japanese dynasty that came to power approximately 800 CE and lasted till approximately 1200 CE. The Fujiwara family were regents, not emperors. They gained their right to rule by marrying their daughters to the emperors. Eventually, the Fujiwara regents became more powerful than the emperors. During their reign, art and literature flourished, but infighting led to civil war and, eventually, their downfall.

Shogun Japan: The rigid feudal system of government that arose in Japan around 1200 CE and ended in the late 1800s. It included the emperors, shoguns and daimyos in the ruling class; the samurai class; and the peasants, craftsmen and merchant classes.

Shoguns: Ruthless military dictators who led Shogun Japan and held more power than the traditional emperors (though the emperors remained as ceremonial figures). Their reigns (called shogunates)

Daimyos: The ruling-class lords of feudal shogun Japan who served under the emperors

Samurai: Specially trained and highly respected warriors who fought on behalf of their daimyos, especially during the first half of the Shogun era. The samurai class developed as a response to the jostling for power that occurred between the shoguns, daimyos and emperors during Shogun Japan. In addition to fighting techniques, samurai studied religion, arts, and more. They followed a code of honor and many detailed rituals. Many became Zen Buddhists.

Hara-kiri: The honorable act of suicide by a samurai after defeat by an enemy

Nobleman Yoritomo: The first shogun of Japan

Early Modern Times (1500 CE to 1900 CE)

Portugese invasion: The invasion of Japan by Portugese sailors in the mid-1500s that introduced guns and Christianity to the area. Though Japanese viewed guns as as weapons of cowards, they adopted them out of necessity.

Oda Nobunaga: A daimyo who, in the late 1500s, overcame other daimyos and reunited Japan after a long period of instability and fragmentation. He was aided by his use of Western style guns.

Hideyoshi: The chief imperial minister following Nobunaga. Hideyoshi planned to expand Japan into China and Korea, but failed to capture Korea after invasion. A believer in a strong central control, he banned foreigners, Christianity and overseas travel.

Tokugawa shogun era/Edo period: The era of Japanese history spanning the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s and the final era to feature traditional Japanese government, culture and society. It was led by the Tokugawa dynasty of shoguns and was known for its isolationist policies and a turn from feudalism to a trading economy. It featured a strong central government, increased stability and prosperity, a population expansion, improved education, advanced ideas about hygeine, reduced military conflict, the persecution of Christians, the new capital city of Edo (Tokyo) and more. During this time, once-respected daimyos and samurai became less relevant and important, while merchants and farmers expanded their businesses and began to thrive. During the latter part of this era, Japan responded to increasing Western pressure to open trade, allowing foreign ships to trade on nearby islands (not on the mainland).

Tokugawa Ieyasu: The first Tokugawa shogun

Nijo castle: The palace built by the daimyos during the Tokugawa shogun era and the largest castle in the world at that time

The Meiji Restoration: The toppling of the Tukugawa shogunate in the late 1800s which ended the Edo period and brought Japan into the modern era

President Fillmore: The U.S. president who sent four warships to Japan in order to intimidate them into opening trade. The effort succeeded and was followed by additional trade agreements with foreigners.

Matthew Perry: The commander of the warships sent by the U.S. to Japan to force trade

The Modern Era (1900 CE to the present)

Wars with China and Russia for Korea: The wars that Japan fought during the early 1900s in an effort to expand into Korea and China–efforts that were resisted by Russia and the U.S. Japan won both wars and annexed Korea, becoming the most powerful nation in Asia for a time.

Chinese-Japanese war: The war that Japan initiated against China in the 1930s. Due largely to China’s weakened position during its ongoing civil war, Japan was not defeated until 1945.

Rape of Nanking: The 1930s invasion of Nanking by the Japanese, during which they massacred 100,000 Chinese.

Emperor Hirohito: The ceremonial leader of Japan from 1901 to 1989 who aggressively opposed foreign nations during his entire reign.

Pearl Harbor: The December 7, 1941 attack on the U.S. by the Japanese which spurred the U.S. to officially join the Allies. It followed Japan’s 1940 alliance with Germany.

Battle of Midway: The World War II sea battle during which Japan overtook Hong Kong, Burma, Indonesia and more, but was successfully resisted by the U.S. Much of the fighting took place off aircraft carriers in the Pacific Ocean. The victory by the U.S., which happened after they cracked Japanese radio codes, became a turning point of the war.

Kamikaze attacks: The air attacks made by Japan on U.S. ships during World War II, which were named for the Japanese word meaning “divine wind”–a word also used for the two successive storms that kept westerners out of Japan for a time before President Fillmore broke through.

Atomic bomb attacks: The 1945 attacks wherein the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These attacks occurred after the U.S. secured Okinawa and Iwo Jima. They were followed by Japan’s almost immediate surrender. Almost one million Japanese were killed, followed by another million as radiation spread. 100 Japanese cities were destroyed.

Post-war rebuilding of Japan: The rebuilding process that took place in Japan after World War II. With the financial help of the U.S., Japan rebuilt itself as a capitalist, industrial nation. They improved their education system, started holding democratic elections, built factories, incorporated modern technology and modernized their infrastructure. Eventually, Japan became a technological giant, with its people among the best educated in the world. It helped spread modernization to South Korea, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore.


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