The first thing you should know about Japanese culture is how geography shaped the thinking and attitudes of the Japanese people today. Japan the country is a collection of over 3,000 islands, collectively smaller than the state of California, with four primary islands and several major island groups.
The four main islands running from north to south are:
Hokkaido, which only houses five percent of the Japanese people and has the coldest climate since it is the furthest north.
Honshu, the largest island of the archipelago, is home to over 80 percent of the citizens of Japan, hosts its capital city Tokyo (the financial heart of Japan, as well as government seat and mother lode of most Japanese Pop Culture) and is prominently marked by Mount Fuji which is the highest mountain in Japan as well as an active volcano.
Shikoku accounts for one percent of the population and is very picturesque because of its many woodlands, rivers, lakes and ponds. It is the smallest of the four major islands and is known for farming.
Kyushu marks the southernmost island in the chain, is dotted with many volcanoes and accounts for 11 percent of the Japanese population. Okinawa Island lies nearly 400 miles southwest of Kyushu
The Japanese islands exist because of tectonic instability. The Pacific plate and the Philippine plate are constantly being pushed under the Eurasian plate, which is why there are so many islands, volcanoes, mountains and hot springs.
Also, the crescent shaped chain of islands hug the coasts of Russia, China, and the Koreas, which explains why there are so many similarities in Chinese, Korean and Japanese culture and traditions. It's almost as though the mainland countries gave birth to the Japanese islands in a series of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions or that the islands were expelled from the mainland body.
Considering the geography, it's no surprise then, that the first written references to Japan come from China. The records are dated around AD 57, and Chinese historians describe the land of "Wa" as a land of scattered tribes. By the third century, Chinese historians wrote that the Wa served raw vegetables and fish on bamboo or wood, had tax collections, ran markets and established diplomatic relations between the two countries. It seems the Japanese people came a long way in three centuries.
Japanese culture was very militaristic between the third and eighth centuries, and is called the "Kofun" period. This is the time of equestrian warlords wearing real armor, a spike in Shintoistic human and animal funerary offerings, and a development of aristocracy.
In the late 400s AD, powerful Wa families emerged, and Japanese rulers petitioned the Chinese for royal titles. The Chinese granted these and military control over parts of the Korean Peninsula. This is the period in which the islands of Wa coalesced into a more solid and unified entity. But in 646 AD, the Japanese introduced land reforms base on Chinese government and aristocracy, which forced small farmers into selling because they could not afford the taxes to support this new style of government.
Large landholders gained more land, more wealth, and more political influence. They needed warriors to help them defend their interests, and these were called bushi or bushido. The bushi believed in honor even to the point of death. A bushido warrior who died serving his master, died honorably. Any bushi who did not act honorably was expected to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide by short sword. Want to read about bushido honor surviving to modern times? Read this BBC News article, No Surrender in World War Two which illustrates how deeply this Japanese cultural philosophy of honor is instilled.
Add to this roiling pot of Japanese history the fact that the people primarily practiced Shinto mythology from as early as a few hundred centuries BC, which migrated from mainland Asia. Buddhism and Confucian philosophy arrived in the sixth century AD and caused political strife between competing power families.
On a brighter note in Japanese culture though, the first real city in Japanese history was the capital at Nara, formed in the early eighth century. Nearly ten thousand people worked for the government then no wonder the Japanese needed more taxes!
Despite the birth of this first urban center, the Japanese government became increasingly decentralized as the national treasury could not support all of its territorial obligations. Powerful families still vied for influence and struggled to gain the imperial throne. The Chinese government was also in decline, and that country lost influence in Japan.
A Shoen refers to land, usually a private, tax-free estate handed to friends of the imperial family or donated to religious factions, such as Buddhist monasteries and Shinto shrines. And since no good deed every goes unpunished, you may not be surprised to hear that these autonomous land holdings soon gained a lot of power of their own, much to the dismay of the emperors. The Shoens developed their own local military forces.
In the meantime, the Emishi people of Honshu rebelled against Emperor Kammu who sought to expand his rule. Kammu then used regional clans to subdue the Emishi, and called these clans seii taishogun, or shogun. In the early 800s, the Shogun were merely a tool used for their archery skills, and not yet a political power. When the emperor achieved his goals, he disbanded his Shogun armies, which left them to their own devices.
During this period of growing military factions in different regions, keep in mind that the artistic influences of Japanese culture flourished as well. The Buddhists made huge impressions in this regard, making poetry, calligraphy, painting and sculpture much more fashionable in the upper reaches of society. The Buddhists struggled for political power while also bringing cultural and artistic achievements.
Japanese imperial families and the central government gradually lost more and more power. When Emperor Toba died in 1156, his sons sparked a civil war for control of the throne. They both lost, and two Samurai clans rose up while the boys were fighting. The Taira clan established the first shogunate government and the emperor became a mere figurehead.
The Onin War covered a ten year period from 1467, in which various factions fought for the shogunate, and it also marked the beginning of Sengoku, or 150 years of warlords fighting for control over the various regions of Japan.
The Portuguese pirated guns into Japan in the mid 16th century and archery bows soon went by the wayside. The end of the Sengoku period came with the emergence of clear winners in the Samurai wars, near the end of the 16th century.
Over the centuries, there wasn't much interaction with western cultures, as Japan was very inwardly focused. There were diplomatic missions and wars with China and Korea, but no real effort to sail the Pacific and see what else was happening in the world.
That ended in the 19th century when Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy forced Japan to open its harbors to trade. Not long after that, the Japanese government decided to westernize it's naval forces and modernize the army. It also moved into a more industrialized society, though agriculture was still the largest industry in Japan before World War I.
Japan lost about three million citizens and nearly half of it's infrastructure and factories by the end of the Second World War. But the Japanese people proved resilient and focused their energies on rebuilding their country. They eventually became a global economic power, ranking just behind the United States in the 1980s.
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