The First Japanese
Human beings have lived in Japan for at least 30,000 years. During the last ice age Japan was connected to mainland Asia by a land bridge and stone age hunters were able to walk across. When the ice age ended about 10,000 BC Japan became a group of islands.
About 8,000 BC the Japanese learned to make pottery. The period from 8,000 BC to 300 BC is called the Jomon. The word Jomon means 'cord marked' because those people marked their pottery by wrapping cord around it.
The Jomon people lived by hunting, fishing and collecting shellfish. The Jomon made tools of stone, wood and bone. Between 300 BC and 300 AD a new era began in Japan. At that time the Japanese learned to grow rice. They also learned to make tools of bronze and iron. The Japanese also learned to weave cloth. This period is called Yayoi. (It was named after a village called Yayoicho). Farming meant a more settled lifestyle. Yayoi people lived in villages of wooden huts. Farming and other skills also meant society became divided into classes.
The Kofun
The Yayoi period was followed by the Kofun (from 300 AD to 710 AD). At this time Japan gradually became united. The rich and powerful men of the era were buried in vast tombs called Kofun. At that time Japan was heavily influenced by China. About 400 AD writing was introduced into Japan from China. The Japanese also learned to make paper from the Chinese. They also learned to make porcelain, silk and lacquer.
According to tradition in 552 AD the king of Paekche in Korea sent priests to convert Japan to Buddhism. The native Japanese religion is called Shinto, which means 'the way of the gods'. Shinto teaches that spirits are present everywhere in nature.
By the late 7th century Japan was a centralised and highly civilised kingdom.
At that time the capital of Japan was moved when an emperor died as people believed it was unlucky to stay in the same place afterwards. However following the Chinese custom the Japanese decided to create a permanent capital. They built a city at Nara in 710.
At that time Japan was divided into provinces. In 713 the governor of each Japanese province was ordered to write a report about his province. However in the 8th century Buddhist monks and priests began to interfere in politics. So in 784 Emperor Kammu (737-806) decided to move his capital. Eventually in 794 he moved to Heian-Kyo, which means 'capital of peace'. Later the city's name changed to Kyoto and it remained the official capital of Japan till 1868.
The Heian
The era from 794 to 1185 is called the Heian period. During this period the arts and learning flourished. About 1000 Ad Lady Murasaki Shikibu wrote the world's first novel The Tale of Genji a story about the life of a prince called Genji. Another book from that time is a diary written by a lady in waiting named Sei Shonagon. It is called the The Pillow Book.
Moreover outside Kyoto the emperor's power grew weaker. Rich landowners became increasingly powerful and they employed private armies. (Japanese warriors were called Samurai).
In feudal Japan the Samurai were hereditary warriors who followed a code of behaviour called bushido. Samurai were supposed to be completely loyal and self-disciplined. Samurai fought with long swords called katana and short swords called wakizashi.
Eventually in 1180 civil war broke out between rival powerful families. On one side were the Taira family (also called the Heike). On the other side were the Minamoto family (also called the Genepi). The Minamoto were supported by the Fujiwara. They were led by two brothers Yoritomo and Yoshitsune. The Taira were finally defeated by the Minamoto in a naval battle at Dannoura in 1185.
In 1192 the emperor gave Yoritomo the title Sei Tai Shogun, which means barbarian conquering great general. The shogun became the real power in Japan ruling in the emperor's name. After Yoritomo's death two of his sons ruled Japan in turn. However the second son was assassinated in 1219. Power then passed to Yoritomo's wife's family, the Hojo. Afterwards Japan had an emperor, who was only a figurehead, a Shogun and a Hojo regent ruling on behalf of the shogun.
Also at this time Zen Buddhism became popular. Zen emphasises meditation. Some followers meditate by trying to empty their minds of all worldly thoughts and desires. Also at this time the tea ceremony evolved. According to tradition a monk named Eisai (1141-1215) brought tea seeds from China in 1191. He believed that tea helped monks remain alert when they were meditating. To maintain the calm mood the tea was prepared slowly and carefully. Gradually the process of making and drinking tea in a peaceful and relaxing environment spread to the nobility and merchants.
In the middle of this era the Mongols tried to conquer Japan. They sent fleets in 1274 and 1281. In 1274 the Mongols landed but withdrew when their fleet was endangered by a storm. In 1281 the Mongols landed again. For seven weeks they held a bridgehead in Japan but again their fleet was scattered by a typhoon. The Japanese called it Kamikaze, which means divine wind.
The Muromachi
The era from 1333 to 1573 is called the Muromachi period because the Ashikaga family ruled from the Muromachi district of Kyoto.
During the Muromachi period Noh theatre developed. Actors were masks and perform on a bare stage with a painted backdrop. Musicians accompany the actors.
Furthermore two great monuments survive from the Muromachi period, the Kinkaku-ji and the Ginkaku-ji, (gold and silver pavilions) in Kyoto.
The Portuguese arrive in Japan
In 1543 the Portuguese arrived in Japan. Two Portuguese were passengers on a Chinese ship that landed at Tanegashima Island. The Portuguese were keen to trade with the Japanese and they soon returned. Very quickly the Japanese learned to make guns from the Portuguese. The Portuguese also brought tobacco and sweet potatoes to Japan. They also brought clocks. The Japanese called the Portuguese namban, which means southern barbarians because they sailed to Japan from the south.
In 1549 Jesuit missionaries led by Francis Xavier arrived in Japan and attempted to convert the Japanese to Christianity. At first the Japanese tolerated them. In 1571 Nagasaki was founded to trade with the Europeans and it became a centre of missionary activity.
Meanwhile Japanese warfare was radically changed by the introduction of handguns and cannons. A warlord called Oda Nobunaga quickly learned to use the new weapons and in 1569 he captured the port of Sakai. In 1575 he won a great victory at Nagashino. By the time he died in 1582 he controlled central Japan.
Oda Nobunaga was assassinated in 1582 but his general Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) avenged his death and continued the work of reuniting Japan. In 1587 he subdued the southern island of Kyushu and by 1590 he had also conquered eastern Japan.
In 1603 Ieyasu was made shogun and in 1615 his forces captured Osaka castle, Hideyori's stronghold. Hideyori killed himself.
Japan was now united under a strong central government and the Tokugawa family ruled as shoguns until 1868.
The Tokugawa period
During the Tokugawa period Japanese society was strictly divided. At the top were the daimyo, feudal landowners. Below them were the samurai, hereditary warriors. Below them came the farmers, the craftsmen then the merchants. (The merchants were at the bottom because they did not make anything. However in reality many merchants became very rich).
Meanwhile in 1600 a badly damaged Dutch ship landed in Japan. On board was an Englishman, William Adams (1564-1620). He was taken to Ieyasu, who questioned him. Adams showed the Japanese how to build two European style ships. He also married a Japanese woman and lived in Japan until his death.
In 1609 another Dutch ship arrived in Japan. The shogun granted the Dutch the right to trade with Japan. In 613 an English ship came the shogun gave them too the right to trade. However despite trading with foreigners the Japanese began persecuting Christians. The government feared Christians were a threat to Japan's internal security. In 1597 Toyotomi Hideyoshi had 26 Christians including 9 European missionaries, crucified in Nagasaki.
In 1612 Christianity was banned altogether and persecution of Christians grew worse and worse. Finally in 1637 Christians in the Shimbara area rebelled. However in 1638 the rebellion was crushed and Christians were massacred.
The Japanese government then shut their country off from the rest of the world. Between 1633 and 1639 laws were passed forbidding the Japanese to travel abroad or to build ocean-going ships. Only the Chinese and the Dutch were allowed to trade with Japan. In 1641 the Dutch were restricted to an island in Nagasaki Harbour called Dejima. This policy of isolating Japan was called sakoku.
The arts flourished during the Tokugawa period. So did trade and commerce. However Japan was not entirely peaceful. There were many peasant rebellions. Nevertheless samurai were less useful than in former times and many became ronin or masterless samurai.
In the late 17th century Kabuki theatre developed in Japan. Male actors play the female roles and actors are accompanied by music and singing.
In July 1853 4 American ships commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Japanese waters near Edo. Perry handed over a message asking for trading rights, coaling ports and protection for shipwrecked sailors. Perry warned he would return next year with a much larger force. He returned in February 1854 with 9 ships.
Japan's armed forces were in no state to resist so the shogun agreed to open two ports to American ships. By 1856 France, Britain, the Netherlands and Russia had also forced Japan to sign similar treaties. In 1858 the Americans forced the Japanese to open more ports to trade. Britain, France and Russia forced Japan to sign similar treaties. The treaties stated that the Japanese could only charge low import duties on imported goods.
The Meiji Restoration
Not surprisingly the humiliating treaties were bitterly resented by the Japanese who called them unequal treaties. Furthermore the shogun lost face because of his weakness. Many Japanese thought that Japan would only be strong if the shongunate was abolished and the emperor was restored to power. Some Japanese wanted to resist the foreigners. Others wanted to copy western technology. Opinion was bitterly divided.
Finally in 1868 there was a short civil war. Pro-emperor and pro-shogun forces clashed at Fushimi and the pro-emperor force won.
Afterwards the Emperor Meiji and his followers were determined to modernise Japan. And they succeeded. In an astonishingly short period of time Japan was transformed from a primitive, agricultural country to a modern industrial one.
The government encouraged industrialisation with loans and grants. Soon many new industries such as shipbuilding were flourishing.
In 1870 the first mechanised silk mill opened in Japan. Also in 1870 a telegraph was laid between Tokyo (as Edo was renamed) and Yokohama. A railway was built between them in 1872.
Meanwhile in 1871 private armies kept by daimyos were abolished. Many samurai joined the new national army. The same year the first Japanese newspaper was published.
In 1872 compulsory education was introduced in Japan. The same year conscription was introduced. In 1878 the Japanese army was reformed to be like the German army. The Japanese navy was modelled on the British navy.
In 1873 Japan adopted the Western calendar. The same year a land tax was introduced and the emperor and empress began wearing Western clothes.
In 1894 Japan and Korea quarrelled over Korea. China regarded Korea as being under its 'influence' and in 1894 sent troops into that country. The Japanese objected and went to war. The Sino-Japanese war was a stunning victory for Japan. The Japanese quickly drove the Chinese out of Korea and captured Port Arthur. By the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895 Japan gained Formosa (Taiwan) and Port Arthur. China was also forced to pay a large indemnity and to refrain from interfering in Korean politics. However Russia, France and Germany forced Japan to give back Port Arthur.
Then on 30 January 1902 Japan signed a treaty with Britain. Both agreed to help the other if they were attacked by two other countries.
Meanwhile Russia was increasing her influence in Manchuria, which brought her into conflict with Japan. On 9 February 1904 the Japanese navy sank two Russian ships at Port Arthur (Russia had leased this Chinese port in 1898). The Japanese then laid siege to Port Arthur but they took 5 months to capture it. Nevertheless the Japanese army gradually advanced in Manchuria and on 27 May 1905 the Japanese navy won a complete victory at Tsushima.
The Americans mediated between Russia and Japan and the two signed the Treaty of Portsmouth in September 1905. (Portsmouth in New Hampshire USA not Portsmouth in Britain). Japan gained Port Arthur and the southern part of Sakhalin.
Japan also gained great prestige. She was the first Asian power to defeat a European power.
Then in 1910 Japan annexed Korea. Furthermore by 1911 all foreign countries had agreed to abolish the 'unequal treaties' of the 1850s. By the time Emperor Meiji died in 1912 Japan was a power to be reckoned with.
When the First World War began Japan joined Britain's side. Japan took German colonies in Asia. However after the war Japan's growing economic and political power brought her into conflict with the USA.
In 1921 the Washington Conference was held. Britain and the USA pressed Japan to accept a naval treaty. For every 5 tons of warship Britain and the USA had in the Pacific Japan was allowed 3. So the Western powers were determined to keep Japan in her place.
In 1926 Hirohito became emperor. In the first years of Hirohito's reign the Japanese economy did well but in 1929 the world entered a severe recession.
The Japanese army gradually took control of Japan. Civilian politicians were still the nominal rulers but the army held real power. Politicians were too weak to resist them.
Many in the army pressed for expansion into China. In 1936 China was forced to accept Japanese occupation of an area of China called Fengtai near Beijing. Tension then grew between Japanese and Chinese troops in that region and on 7 July 1937 fighting broke out. Japan rushed troops to the area and soon it became a full scale invasion of China, although there was no formal declaration of war.
In December 1937 the Japanese captured Nanking and massacred civilians.
Japan sent a force of aircraft carriers and on 7 December 1941 they attacked the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbour. The Japanese sank many ships but vitally they missed several American aircraft carriers that were on manoeuvres.
At first the Japanese had amazing success. In February 1942 they captured Singapore the main British base in the Far East. In the months January to May 1942 they also captured the Philippines and most of Indonesia. However the tide turned at the battle of Midway Island in May 1942 when they lost 4 aircraft carriers. In the end Japan was defeated by the USA's overwhelming industrial strength.
From March 1945 Japanese Kamikaze pilots flew suicide missions, deliberately crashing into American ships. But it was to no avail. In June 1945 the Americans captured Okinawa. Meanwhile American bombing was destroying Japanese cities.
On 26 July 1945 Truman and Churchill demanded Japan surrender and threatened the Japanese with 'prompt and utter destruction' if they did not. Japan refused.
On 6 August 1945 an American bomber, the Enola Gay, dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. On 9 August another was dropped on Nagasaki.
Japan capitulated on 15 August 1945. An official surrender document was signed on 2 September.
Following the Japanese surrender the Americans occupied Japan. General MacArthur led the US troops. Under him 7 Japanese war criminals were hanged including wartime Prime Minister Tojo Hideki.
The emperor publicly announced that he was not divine and in 1946 the Americans drew up a new constitution for Japan. Women were allowed to vote. The constitution also contained a clause renouncing the 'threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes'. In 1955 the Liberal Democratic Party took power. This party ruled Japan until 1993.
Meanwhile during the 1950s and 1960s the Japanese economy boomed. Japanese industry exported huge numbers of electronic goods and vehicles. The Japanese people saw a great improvement in their standard of living. Rapid economic growth in Japan continued during the 1970s and 1980s while much of the rest of the world was mired in recession. However in the 1990s the period of rapid economic growth ended and a long recession began, although Japan remained a rich country.

Further Reading
Henshall, A History of Japan, Palgrave Macmillan, 2001 (ISBN 0-312-23370-1)
Jansen, The Making of Modern Japan, Belknap, 2000 (ISBN 0-674-00334-9)