Origins and tradition

Migration by sea in the north Pacific: from 8000 BC

It is not known when human beings first make the crossing from the Asian mainland to the islands of Japan. However the first human traces reveal a society capable of producing neolithic wares but still living by hunting and gathering.

This society is known as the Jomon culture from the cord design of the pottery, which has similarities with archaeological finds in eastern Siberia. It is probable that people make the first crossing to the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido in about 8000 BC, either from Sakhalin or along the line of the Kuril Islands.

From about 250 BC a different neolithic community is found in Japan. It is known as the Yayoi culture, from the street in Tokyo where the first traces of it are discovered. These people cultivate rice and are therefore assumed to have reached Japan from the south, along the line of the Ryukyu Islands.

A century or two later another wave of immigrants arrives. They come through Korea, bringing the bronze culture of China, soon to be followed by iron. From this time onwards there are constant links with Korea, including Japanese invasions of the mainland.

Sumo: 23 BC

In this year, according to tradition, Japan's spectacular national sport of sumo wrestling has its first contest. It is won by a legendary figure, Sukune, regarded ever since as the patron saint of sumo wrestlers.

The date is too precise and too early, for this is still a prehistoric period in Japan. But sumo tradition also tells of dramatic events in early historic times. In AD 858, for example, two sons of the emperor Buntoku wrestle for the throne, and the winner succeeds his father. In subsequent centuries sumo is closely linked with the training of the Samurai, the military caste.

4th - 7th century AD

The Yamato clan: from the 4th century AD

The first clear political structure to emerge in Japan is based on large independent clans (or uji) with powerful leaders. By the 4th century the clan occupying the Yamato plain (the region now known as Nara, south of Osaka) establishes sufficient ascendancy for its chieftain to be seen as emperor. The status of a 4th-century emperor, Nintoku, can be judged by the scale of the earth mound at Sakai which is his tomb; more than 500 yards long and 35 yards high, it is surrounded by a great triple moat.

The leader of any clan, and above all of the imperial dynasty, has much more than a secular role. He has an important function in Japan's indigenous religion, Shinto.

Shinto: from the 4th century AD

The first inhabitants of Japan, migrating from the mainland, bring with them their own version of the Shamanism which prevails in prehistoric Asia. To the pantheon of the spirits and forces of nature, the Japanese add famous people, significant places or any other phenomena seeming worthy of reverence. The result is a profusion of local deities or kami, the worship of whom is given the name Shinto, meaning roughly the 'way of the gods'.

With the emergence of a strong clan system, each clan gives special honour to one particular god considered to be the ancestor of all members of the group - and particularly, in the most direct line, ancestor of the clan leader.

By the 4th century AD, when the Yamato clan has achieved an imperial pre-eminence, their forebear has a similarly prominent place among the gods. The Yamato claim as ancestor the Sun empress, who shines above all others in the heavens. A Creation story is commissioned to chronicle the descent of the emperors from the sun.

Thus begins the imperial family's political use of Shinto, an issue of importance in the 20th century. At a deeper level this very ancient religion remains a thriving popular cult. Lacking an official ritual or sacred text, Shinto is able to absorb elements of Buddhism, a later arrival in Japan, without losing its own sense of conviction.

The Soga family and Buddhism: 6th - 7th century AD

The Soga, a minor branch of the imperial family, do much to further the cause of Buddhism. Soga Iname becomes minister to the crown in536. In 538 a present arrives for the emperor from the Korean state of Paekche. It is a Buddhist image, together with some Buddhist texts in Chinese.

Accompanying this missionary gift is a letter emphasizing that Buddhism is the proper religion for any civilized state. Soga Iname takes this message to heart. He builds a Buddhist temple, the first in Japan, in his own home.

During the rest of the 6th century the members of the Soga family steadily increase their power. They also pioneer a pattern of reducing the emperor to a figurehead, in a system of divided rule which becomes characteristic of Japan - particularly in later centuries under the shoguns.

In 592 Soga Umako has the emperor assassinated and replaced with his more biddable younger sister. Umako then appoints as regent a junior member of the imperial family, Prince Shotoku Taishi - who in this case proves to be a ruler with ideas of his own.

Shotoku and Confucianism: AD 593-622

Shotoku, himself a scholar, sees the Chinese pattern of government as the right way forward for Japan. He attempts to introduce Confucian bureaucracy, based on merit, in place of the more warlike rivalries of Japanese clan society. He also sponsors Buddhism, even more actively than the Soga family. His superb Horyuji temple and pagoda in Nara, dating from 607, still survive.

Shotoku is associated with a famous constitution of seventeen articles, attempting to establish a centralized imperial administration on the Chinese pattern. It is debatable how many of his reforms are effective, but the direction is continued later in the 7th century after the fall of the Soga family.

In 645 the two leading members of the Soga family are assassinated by a group of nobles, including a member of a future dynasty of regents - the Fujiwara.

A new regime announces a new imperial programme, known as the Taika reforms. These continue the trend towards absolute rule by the centralized bureaucracy of the imperial court. Promotion, however, does tend to be more by hereditary rank than merit - a Japanese preference against which the Chinese tradition of examinations can make little headway.

8th century

Nara: AD 710

Until the early 8th century the Japanese court has been peripatetic, moving from town to town. But the increasing weight of imperial bureaucracy now suggests the need for a capital city. In 710 the empress decrees that one shall be built in the Yamato plain.

Nara is closely modelled on the T'ang capital at Xi'an; the fashion for all things Chinese is now at its peak. So is the influence of Buddhism. It has been decreed in 685 that every household shall have a Buddhist family shrine, and the avenues of Nara are lined with magnificent monasteries. Nara remains the capital city for less than a century before the next move (to Kyoto), but it sees the first flowering of Japanese culture.

Printed Buddhist texts in Korea and Japan: AD 750-768

The invention of printing is a striking achievement of Buddhists in east Asia. Korea takes the lead. The world's earliest known printed document is a sutra printed on a single sheet of paper in Korea in750.

This is closely followed in Japan by a bold experiment in mass circulation (precisely the area in which printed material has the advantage over manuscript). In768, in devoutly Buddhist Nara, the empress commissions a huge edition of a lucky charm or prayer. It is said that the project takes six years to complete and that the number of copies printed, for distribution to pilgrims, is a million. Many have survived.

The first Japanese texts: 8th century AD

A powerful influence reaching Japan from China (along with Buddhism, the bureaucracy of Confucianism and even the game of Go) is Chinese literature and the Chinese script. When the first texts reach Japan, perhaps in the 4th century AD, the Japanese language has not yet been written down. The first Japanese scribes adapt the Chinese characters to the needs of a very different language, in an unnatural alliance which has remained awkward ever since.

The earliest surviving works in Japanese date from the flowering of court life at Nara in the 8th century. There are compilations of legend and history, and a magnificent anthology of early Japanese poems.

The historical works are the Kojiki, or 'Records of Ancient Matters', compiled in712, and the Nihongi, or 'Written Chronicles of Japan', which follows in 720. Both are gathered from oral sources by court scholars, who read them to the emperor when required. Kojiki deals mainly with legend, whereas Nihongi brings Japanese history up to697.

From about759 a group of poets compile the Manyoshu, an anthology of some 4500 poems by more than 450 authors. The verses are simple, direct and powerful - particularly in the short 5-line form known as the tanka, which becomes an important and lasting part of the Japanese Literary tradition.

Heian or Kyoto: from AD 794

The new capital city, to which the court moves in 794, is - like its predecessor, Nara - closely modelled on the Chinese example of Xi'an. But it differs in one significant respect. This time the imperial palace does not have monasteries and temples for its immediate neighbours. The rulers of Japan remain fervently Buddhist. But they have learnt a valuable lesson - not to allow too much influence, in matters of state, to rich monks and abbots.

The new city is first called Heian-kyo ('capital of peace and tranquillity'), but soon becomes known by the simpler name Kyoto ('capital').

A new title, of great significance in later Japanese history, emerges briefly at the end of the 8th century. The government in Kyoto has difficulty in controlling a more primitive people, the Ainu, who live beyond the northern border of the imperial territory. A general sent to subdue them is given the resounding title sei-i-tai-shogun ('great general for the subjugation of the barbarians').

After a successful mission, he resigns his title. It will be revived, and made familiar in the shortened form of 'shogun', by feudal lords in later centuries exercising a military dictatorship.

Relations with China: AD 607 - 894

Japanese admiration for all things Chinese results in a long sequence of missions to the T'ang capital at Xi'an. The first ambassador sails from Japan in 607, returning the following year with a Chinese envoy. The twelfth mission departs in 838. But there is then a gap of more than fifty years before another ambassador is appointed in 894.

He declines to go, arguing that the T'ang dynasty is in trouble (he is right), that Buddhists in china are being persecuted, and that Japan should have no more to do with its erstwhile mentor. His report is accepted. Japan will continue to be influenced by China, but it will more confidently adapt foreign themes to local needs.

9th - 12th century

The Fujiwara: 9th - 11th century

The most significant development in the early centuries at Kyoto is the rise to power of the Fujiwara family. An ancestor has been prominent in the ending of the line of Soga regents in 645. Now, two centuries later, his descendants acquire the same powerful role at court. In 877 they create for themselves a new office called kampaku, usually translated as 'chancellor'.

In this role they exercise hereditary power by a simple device. They reserve for their family the right to provide brides for the imperial house. For two centuries almost every emperor is either son-in-law or grandson of a Fujiwara chancellor.

A skilful manipulator of this system is Fujiwara Michinaga, who controls the court for more than thirty years (995-1027). During that time he is father-in-law to four emperors and grandfather to another four.

In normal circumstances this would imply a high rate of mortality among males of the imperial family. But it has no such implication, because the Fujiwara have introduced another useful custom. Emperors are encouraged to retire early, to a life of ease in a monastery. Since their imperial duties mainly consist of wearisome ritual, most are happy to do so. The chancellors are free to select a succession of royal youths, susceptible to control by Fujiwara mothers or wives.

The success of the Fujiwara clan in maintaining this system depends partly on the brilliance of the court life over which they preside in Kyoto. Nobles are enticed into the role of courtiers, preferring to live in the capital on funds drawn from their distant estates.

High society in Kyoto is sophisticated, elegant and more concerned with standards of taste than of sexual morality. The court life of the time is brilliantly depicted in two of the greatest works of Japanese literature, both written by women.

The Japanese classics: 10th - 11th century

The Heian period, with the Japanese capital at Kyoto, is distinguished by literature as elegant and subtle as the style of the court itself. As in China, poetry is here considered an essential element of civilized life. The competitive writing of verses is a social pastime. A good poet can expect preferment at court. Messages from a lover to his mistress are welcome in poetic form, preferably attached to an arrangement of flowers.

In905 the emperor commissions an anthology of poems, in the tradition of the manyoshu of earlier times. The new collection, the Kokinshu, consists almost entirely of short tanka. It is more artificial than its predecessor - and more restricting in its subsequent influence.

The greatest glory of this classical period is works in prose, many of them by women. One important strand is the journals of court life. The earliest to survive, written in 974-7 by a noblewoman, is Kagero nikki (translated into English with the title 'The Gossamer Years'). But by far the best known is the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon.

Sei Shonagon serves as a lady-in-waiting to the empress during the 990s. Her delightful text is more like a commonplace book than a journal. It consists of unlinked passages recording her impressions and thoughts. Many are vivid tone poems, conveying the visual impact of a scene with a brightness and clarity which seems to prefigure the Japanese colour print.

The most distinguished writer of the Heian period, and indeed in the whole of Japanese literature, is another lady of the court. Known only by her pseudonym, Murasaki Shikubi, she is widowed in 1001 and is in the retinue of the empress from 1005. Her name would live in literature if she had written nothing other than the diary which she keeps of court life in the years from 1007 to 1010. But she also writes the extremely ambitious Genji monogatori ('The Tale of Genji').

This chronicle of court life, focussing with rich characterisation and psychological subtlety on the various women loved by Prince Genji, has a good claim to be considered the world's first novel.

Warring clans: 10th - 12th century

One of the main imports from China has been the concept of centralized rule, administered by a Confucian Bureaucracy. It is a system well suited to the plains of northern China, where large public projects (such as flood control) require a strong regime to put them into effect.

It is less appropriate in the rugged landscape and isolated valleys of Japan (similar in this respect to Greece), where the pattern is more likely to be one of strong local loyalties and endemic warfare. By the 10th century the glittering court at Kyoto is losing control of much of Japan to bands of marauding warriors.

Gradually local chieftains ally themselves with the leaders of one or other of two great clans, both claiming descent from past emperors. They are the Taira and the Minamoto. By the mid-12th century there is full-scale war between the two groups.

The first outright victory goes to the Taira, in 1160. Their leader, Kyomori, inserts himself into the power structure at Kyoto in the time-honoured fashion. He marries Taira daughters into both the imperial and the Fujiwara families, adding a new tier to the system of government perfected by the Fujiwara. But his power is short-lived.

In 1184 and 1185 the Minamoto defeat the Taira in great battles on land and sea. These victories become famous set pieces in Japanese heroic tales.

This triumph brings to power Yoritomo, a canny and unromantic member of the Minamoto clan whose relationship with his younger half-brother, Yoshitsune, is also a favourite theme of popular literature. Yoritomo, by nature a strategist, leaves the fighting and the spectacular victories to his brother. Later, in jealous self-interest, he attempts to capture him. Yoshitsune commits suicide in northern Japan when he finds himself cornered by Yoritomo's men. Yoshitune is the romantic lead in this story. But Yoritomo is the figure of significance in Japanese history.

Yoritomo and Kamakura: from AD 1185

Yoritomo conducts his campaign against the Taira clan from a seaside base at Kamakura, south of modern Tokyo. With his victory in 1185 this becomes the headquarters of a military regime exercising the real power in the country, while the emperor remains in his palace in Kyoto. Yoritomo calls Kamakura his bakufu (meaning 'military headquarters'). This becomes the term for a form of government which will prevail in Japan for almost 700 years.

The position is formalized in 1192 when the emperor gives Yoritomo the ancient high military title sei-i-tai-shogun. He is the first in the long succession of powerful shoguns.

Shoguns and samurai: 11th - 19th century AD

The military rule of the shoguns, a central thread of Japanese history, is made possible by a new warrior class known as the samurai. They emerge during the clan warfare of the 11th and 12th centuries, establishing themselves as the local aristocracy of small independent territories.

In a pattern similar to contemporary Feudalism in Europe, the samurai enhance their status by serving more powerful regional lords. The result, once warfare has given way to peace, is a pyramid of loyalty leading up to the military overlord of Japan, the shogun himself.

With oriental thoroughness, the code of honour of the samurai becomes a more absolute commitment of loyalty and discipline than is practised by any feudal warrior in Europe. It is formalized as bushido, an ideal of behaviour similar in some ways to Confucianism (in its obligations of respect and decorum) but with an added emphasis on the martial virtues of courage and physical skill.

The ultimate safeguard of samurai honour is the ritual suicide known in Japan as sepukku, but usually called hara-kiri in the west.

New sects of Buddhism in Japan: 12th - 13th century

One of Japan's most famous monuments is a vast bronze sculpture at Kamakura. Known as Daibutsu, and cast in 1252, it depicts Buddha. But this figure seated in peaceful meditation is not the historical Gautama buddha. He is Amitabha Buddha, known and revered in Japan as Amida.

The cult of Amida, also called 'Pure Land' Buddhism, is one of several new sects in Japan, mostly arriving from China, which become naturalized during the Kamakura shogunate. It is based on a sutra in which Amida, who has achieved enlightenment as Buddha, assures all those who adore him that they can live with him for ever in a pure land - a promise made in the Sukhavativyuha Sutra.

Another foreign sect of Buddhism, which the Japanese make very much their own, is known in China as Chan and in Japan as Zen (both derive from a Sanskrit word meaning 'meditation'). Zen, reaching Japan from China in the 12th century, lays great emphasis on intuition, or finding the truth within oneself, but it also stresses the importance of discipline.

It appeals to the new samurai class (several Zen masters teach sword fighting), and at periods during the shogunate it becomes almost the state religion. Zen masters encourage some of the most distinctive cultural aspects of Japanese life, including the Tea Ceremony (closely linked with the tradition of Japanese Ceramics).

The most aggressive of the Buddhist sects is the only one to have its roots entirely in Japan. It follows the teaching of Nichiren, a fiery prophet who spends much of his life in exile for his criticism of the shoguns in Kamakura. They favour the rivals on whom he pours scorn, the devotees of Pure Land and Zen Buddhism.

Like Old testament prophets, Nichiren foresees disaster befalling his misguided compatriots. The Mongol invasion of 1274 is seen by many as the fulfilment of his prophecies. His passion inspires a sect which still has a considerable following in 20th-century Japan.

13th - 17th century

Japanese pottery and the Tea Ceremony: 13th - 16th c. AD

Zen priests are linked with two very characteristic elements of Japanese culture: the exquisite simplicity of Japanese ceramics; and the polite formalities of the Tea Ceremony for which much of the pottery is designed.

In 1223 a Zen monk takes a Japanese potter, Kato Shirozaemon, to China to study the manufacture of ceramics. This is a period, in the Song dynasty, when the Chinese potters have achieved a perfection of simplicity. The Japanese, in the same vein, will evolve their own styles to rival this perfection.

The Japanese potter, returning home, establishes himself at Seto. This rapidly becomes a centre for the manufacture of pottery, with as many as 200 kilns in the district. Seto has retained ever since the status of the classical pottery region of Japan.

Much of the early Seto output is temmoku - stoneware cups and bowls with a black or iron-brown glaze, in direct imitation of the contemporary Chinese style. This becomes much in demand with the increasing popularity in the samurai class of the Tea Ceremony, in which a mood of rustic simplicity is required. But the most famous Japanese simplicity, that of raku, is the result of Korean rather than Chinese influence.

The Mongols and kamikaze: 1274-1281

Kublai khan, already in control of much of China and overlord of Korea, casts an eye on the rich islands on the other side of the Korea Strait. In 1274 a Mongol army, carried in Korean ships, sails for Japan.

Individual samurai, gallant though they are, prove no match for the disciplined lines of Mongol cavalry, armed with lances, javelins and bows and arrows as well as swords. Victory for the Mongols seems inevitable, when a great storm blows up and destroys much of their fleet. Stranded in a very hostile place, they suffer massive losses.

Seven years later Kublai khan, by now the emperor of China, launches another great expedition against Japan, sailing from both China and Korea. With protective sea walls in place, and better organized troops, the Japanese are this time able to hold the Mongols at bay for several months until the onset of the typhoon season.

Once again much of the Mongol fleet is destroyed by the forces of nature. The Japanese coin a name for the storms which twice have saved them - kamikaze, 'divine wind'. A similarly dramatic human version of intervention from the heavens is attempted, with blind courage, in World War II.

Ashikaga shogunate: 1338-1573

The shoguns at Kamakura retain power for only a couple of generations after the Mongol invasions. A civil war results in one of their vassals, Takauji, winning power in 1338. He moves the bakufu, or military headquarters, to Kyoto - already the residence of the imperial family.

Takauji is a member of the Ashikaga family, so the new administration at Kyoto is known as the Ashikaga shogunate. It lasts from 1338 to 1573. In describing Japanese culture the era is more commonly called Muromachi, from the district of Kyoto in which the Ashikaga establish their government.

The Ashikaga shoguns are never as firmly in control of Japan as their predecessors in Kamakura. From 1467 the country is in an almost permanent state of civil war, until their shogunate is brought to an end in 1573. But the Ashikaga make a great contribution to the cultural life of Japan.

They create Zen temples and gardens, with areas specially designed for the Tea Ceremony. The famous Golden Pavilion in Kyoto is built in 1397 by the shogun Yoshimitsu as a villa for his own retirement (it is adapted after his death to become a Buddhist temple). Theatre is another Ashikaga passion. A key moment in the story of No drama is a performance by the 11-year-old Zeami for Yoshimitsu in 1374.

Noh theatre: from the 14th century AD

A father and his 11-year-old son, Kanami and Zeami Motokiyo, perform in 1374 before the Shogun, Yoshimitsu, at the Imakumano shrine in Kyoto. Kanami has made innovations in a traditional form of theatre, deriving originally from China and known as sarugaku-noh. The Shogun likes what he sees, and particularly likes the performance of the talented young Zeami. He takes the family into his service.

With the name reduced to the more simple noh, this is the beginning of the Noh theatre of Japan - and the beginning of some five centuries of patronage by the shoguns of this most refined of theatrical styles.

The style of Noh production and performance, and almost the entire repertoire of Noh plays, is established within a few decades of that day in 1374. Kanami is the author of the first plays in the new style; Zeami writes the bulk of those which survive; a few more are the work of Zeami's son-in-law, Zenchiku. Only a small number of Noh plays have been written since Zenchiku's death in the 15th century.

In Noh the all-male actors, accompanied by a small chorus and orchestra, sing and dance scenes from legend with an immense slowness and solemnity which can nevertheless imply great passion. The dimensions of the cypress-wood stage, and the placing of certain scenic props, are invariable.

This is a form of art so exquisite that it almost seems to begin life as a classic, a rare national treasure. In fact, in its first two or three centuries, it does reach a reasonably wide audience. But then, in the 17th century, an offshoot of Noh adopts a more popular style.

Known as Kabuki, this new departure soon becomes the vigorous mainstream of Japanese theatre. The earlier form of Noh, fossilized in its perfection, is henceforth the preserve of the court and nobility.

Christians in Japan: AD 1543-1550

The first European arrival in Japan is an accident. A Portuguese merchant vessel, bound for China, is blown in a storm to the southern tip of Kyushu. The strangers are welcomed. Particular interest is shown in the Muskets which they have on board, soon to be successfully copied in Japan.

This accidental visit brings other Europeans for purposes of trade and, in 1549, for evangelization. In that year a Chinese junk brings Francis Xavier together with anjiro, his Japanese convert, to the island of Kyushu. Anjiro takes the Jesuit to his home town of Kagoshima and introduces him to the important people of the district.

There turns out to be a natural affinity between the Japanese ruling class and the Jesuits. Loyola's new order is in essence, and in its recruitment policy, an aristocratic elite - intensely hierarchical, valuing obedience and honour, and applying to spiritual campaigns the ideals of a warrior caste. The Japanese recognize much that they can admire.

The Jesuits are lucky also in that their early years in Japan coincide with the rise to power of a warlord, Oda Nobunaga, who resents the local influence of Buddhism. When Xavier sails away from Japan, after a year, he leaves behind about 1000 Converts to christianity. His success is only the beginning of a much stronger trend of Christian success in Japan.

Raku: AD 1588

Tanaka Chojiro, one of a family of Korean potters living in Japan, is making bowls of a very recognizable kind. They are moulded by hand rather than thrown on a wheel, so their shape is uneven. They have a thick lead glaze, usually dark in tone but sometimes dappled or enlivened with a flash of colour. They seem primitive, but their apparently accidental beauty is of a kind to excite a connoisseur. They are perfect for the Tea Ceremony.

One such bowl is shown in 1588 to the influential Tea Master of the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The Tea Master awards its makers a gold seal inscribed with the single word raku ('felicity'). The bowls have found their name. And the Tea Ceremony has its best-known ware.

Kakiemon porcelain: 17th century AD

In the following century Japan makes another major contribution to the history of ceramics. In about 1644 Sakada Kakiemon, a member of a family of potters with kilns at Arita in northwest Kyushu, introduces to Japan the Chinese system of overglaze painting. In the 1670s his two sons, known as Kakiemon II and Kakiemon III, are producing exquisite wares of milky white porcelain, often square or hexagonal in shape, decorated with elegant and brightly coloured motifs of plants and birds. The decoration, covering relatively little of the surface, stands out with a special intensity against the white background.

This happens to be exactly the period when the Dutch are beginning to import Japanese wares to Europe, where the Kakiemon style becomes highly influential

Kakiemon plays an important part in the decorative style of the first European porcelain factories, just as Chinese blue and white determines the development of tin-glazed earthenware in Delft. In both cases the Dutch are the chief importers, and it is from the Netherlands that the fashion spreads. Meissen, leading in the quest for porcelain, is the first factory to make use of the Kakiemon style. But a craze for Kakiemon also travels early to England. When William and mary arrive, in 1689, the queen brings with her an extensive collection. And Kakiemon motifs are much imitated by the earliest English porcelain factories, particularly Chelsea.

But this is three centuries after the arrival in Europe, also from the east, of tin-glazed earthenware.

Indian and Japanese castles: 16th - 17th century AD

By a coincidence of history some of the most spectacular castles of the world date from the same period in India and Japan. These buildings of the 16th and 17th century are fortified palaces, with superbly decorated pavilions rising above secure walls.

The Indian tradition develops from the example of Hindu princes and is brought to a peak by the Moghul emperors. The Japanese castles evolve from the small fortresses of local feudal chieftains, which are a practical necessity during the civil wars of the Ashikaga shogunate.

The best early example of an Indian castle is the fortress of Gwalior, built in the early 16th century. The entrance road, climbing a steep hill, makes its way through heavy walls to an elevated plateau and an exquisite palace of carved sandstone and decorative tilework.

The great 17th-century forts of Rajasthan, such as Amber and Jodhpur, follow the same pattern of delicacy within massively strong defences. The theme is taken to its most famous conclusion in the Red forts of Delhi and Agra, where the Moghul emperors and their harems dwell in white marble pavilions surmounting vast red sandstone walls.

The greatest of the Japanese castles are created in the late 16th century by the warlords Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, who restore unified rule over Japan after the anarchy of the previous period. The splendour of their castles, richly decorated with carved and painted ornament, reflects their power.

The most impressive surviving castle of this period is at Himeji, rebuilt on earlier foundations for Hideyoshi. Five storeys of pavilions, forming a pyramid of white walls and elegant oriental roofs, seem concerned only with the pleasures of peace - until one notices the height of the sturdy walls on which they perch.

Rise of Togukawa Ieyasu: AD 1573-1603

Nearly two centuries of civil war and chaos in Japan is brought to an end by a succession of three warlords, working in conjunction in the late 16th century.

The first is Oda Nobunaga, who builds up his forces from a relatively small power base until he is able to take Kyoto. He rules for a few years through the Ashikaga shogun but then banishes him, in 1573, and takes control into his own hands. He ruthlessly reduces the great power of the Buddhists, destroying - it has been estimated - several thousand temples. To the same end, it suits his purpose to encourage the newly arrived Jesuits.

Nobunaga is followed, as the strong man of Japan, by two of his own generals. The first is Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who makes his headquarters at Osaka - building there in 1583 a castle on a great elevated terrace.

Hideyoshi's chief ally is a slightly younger man, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who has also been a supporter of Nobunaga. In 1590 Hideyoshi gives him the castle at Edo. Here, in what is now Tokyo, Ieyasu makes his base. Here he becomes powerful enough to defeat all other rivals after Hideyoshi's death in 1598.

The battle in which Tokugawa Ieyasu forcefully asserts his supremacy is at Sekigahara in 1600. Thereafter he achieves the status which has eluded his two predecessors. In 1603 the emperor accords him the title of Shogun.

The appointment begins the long period of the Tokugawa shogunate, lasting until 1867. For more than two and half centuries the all-powerful office of Shogun descends within one family, while the largely ceremonial role of emperor descends in another. It is a compromise which has already prevailed in Japan since 1192. But now the system becomes rigidly formalized, in the highly controlled social structure created by the Tokugawa shoguns.

17th - 18th century

The Tokugawa shogunate: AD 1603-1868

The shoguns of the 17th century introduce a system of social control which is ruthlessly effective and yet does not depend on terror. It is a form of Feudalism, in that the nobles (or daimyo) hold land as fiefs from the shogun, and parcel it out to their own vassals - with the vassals accepting similar obligations to the diamyo as the daimyo owe to the shogun.

In Europe such a structure reduces the strength of the monarch, as great nobles build up power bases in their own regions. But this disadvantage is avoided in Japan by a refinement which has caused the system to become known as centralized Feudalism.

The distinguishing feature of this Japanese fedalism is that nobles are required to spend every other year in Edo. Moreover when they return to their estates in alternate years, their families and heirs remain in the capital - in effect becoming hostages of the shogun.

The stark reality of the situation is softened by the ceremony and luxury of life in the capital. But the expense of maintaining establishments in the country and in town, and of travelling between them in grand state, means that the daimyo are frequently in debt to merchants and moneylenders - reducing yet further their ability to resist the shogun.

Having acquired a taste for absolute control, the Togukawa shoguns realize that foreign influence can be a potential danger. The early encouragement of the Jesuits, as a counterbalance to the Buddhists, is reversed in the 17th century - by which time the number of Japanese Christians has risen to perhaps as many as 300,000.

In 1614 an edict orders all missionaries to leave Japan and all Japanese to register themselves as members of one of the Buddhist sects. In the following decades Japanese Christians are hunted down with the thoroughness of the Inquisition, sometimes being killed with macabre ingenuity. On one occasion seventy victims are crucified upside down on a beach, to be drowned by the incoming tide.

With the same intention, of avoiding foreign contamination, it is made a capital offence in 1624 for Japanese to attempt to leave the country; those who have already done so are forbidden to return; the construction of ocean-going vessels is outlawed. The only foreigners with whom the shoguns retain any contact are the Dutch. For trading purposes they are allowed to occupy a small man-made island in Nagasaki harbour.

In broad terms this seclusion proves stultifying for Japan. But at a local level it has interesting social and cultural results. The daimyos' need for funds and luxury goods provides business for money-lenders and merchants; this concentrates wealth in the cities; and rich city life brings its own vitality in Theatre and the Arts.

Ukiyo-e the floating world: 17th - 18th century AD

The pleasure-loving urban life of Edo and Kyoto, centred on the red-light districts and the kabuki theatres, becomes known as ukiyo-e - the floating world. In origin a Buddhist term, meaning the transient existence from which Nirvana is an escape, the phrase now acquires the connotation of escape through pleasure.

In a Japanese 17th-century novel, Ukiyo monogatari (Tales of the Floating World), it is defined as: 'Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current; this is what we call the floating world.'

Kabuki: from the 17th century AD

The origins of kabuki, Japan's popular theatre, lie in the ukiyo-e or floating world of the cities. In about 1600 a young Shinto priestess, O-Kuni, forms a troupe in Kyoto to perform dances and mimes. She is so successful that the city's courtesans follow her example, as a way of displaying themselves to potential customers. Their performances are indiscreet, and the response of their admirers violently enthusiastic. As a result a decree, in about 1629, bans all female performers from the stage.

The prohibition lasts more than two centuries, until the Meiji period. But male performers, adopting the No tradition of taking the female parts themselves, step in to satisfy the new audience's appetite for theatre.

During the 17th and 18th centuries kabuki (from ka singing, bu dancing, ki art) develops into an immensely successful form of café entertainment. Actors perform in spectacular costumes, among stylized scraps of scenery, on a stage surrounded on three sides by a convivial audience. The spectators sit in small box-like compartments where food and drink can be served.

The new form of theatre at first borrows plots and scripts from Japan's already thriving puppet theatre (known as 'joruri'). But soon plays are being specially written for the kabuki theatre. Many become lasting favourites, continually in demand from audiences through the centuries.

An outstanding example is Chushingura, a play of 1748 based on a dramatic real-life incident of some forty years earlier. Forty-seven loyal retainers (or ronin) are outraged when their lord is slighted by another. They plot a careful revenge which ends in the offending noble's death. The shogun sympathises with this honourable vendetta, but in 1703 orders all forty-seven to commit hara-kiri. The event causes a sensation in Japan, and the actors have the skill to make it sensational on their stages.

The kabuki actors acquire devoted fans. And Japan has the printing skills to satisfy the demand for coloured images of the stars in their roles.

Japanese colour prints: 18th - 19th century AD

Japan, playing a very early role in the story of printing, has for many centuries provided Buddhist pilgrims with simple woodcut images of holy figures. The technology is therefore in place to supply the more secular demand for images of Kabuki actors and courtesans. From about 1740 the protraits begin to be printed in colour. Intead of colouring a print by hand, the printers now cut an extra wood block for every colour in the image. Each block is inked with its own colour and then pressed against the sheet of paper.

With this development, Japan becomes the first region of the world to provide colour prints of a high quality at a popular price.

The demand which makes this possible is linked to ukiyo-e, the floating world. Actors and courtesans are the two most popular subjects. Stylized designs, built up with areas of flat colour, are well suited to depicting their flowing costumes. The resulting Japanese style greatly influences European art in the late 19th century.

There are many individual masters of the ukiyo-e school, each with numerous followers. In the late 18th century Utamaro is particularly well known for his woodcuts of courtesans, while Toyokuni is the leading specialist in prints of actors. His Yakusha butai no sugata-e (Views of Actors on Stage) is published in 1794-6.

In the early 19th century a new interest in landscape is pioneered by Hokusai, the greatest master of the ukiyo-e school. Hokusai is responsible for the best known of all Japanese images, the stylized and intensely dramatic views of Japan's holy mountain which he publishes over several years from about 1830 under the title Fugaku sanju-rokkei (Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji).

The other great Japanese master of landscape, Hiroshige, is much younger than Hokusai but is publishing at the same time. He makes his name with Toto meisho (Famous Places of the Capital) in 1831. He brings a new element of subtlety in the depiction of weather affecting the tone of a landscape.

The art of ukiyo-e, like the inward-looking Japanese society which it depicts and depends upon, cannot long survive the unwelcome intrusion of Commodore Perry and the outside world in 1853.

Yet the new links with the west, causing such an upheaveal in Japan, also carry abroad the Japanese colour prints. ukiyo-e lives in the studios of the French impressionists and post-impressionists when its day is already over in Japan.

Sections are as yet missing at this point.

Sections are as yet missing at this point.

New rivalries in Asia: AD 1891-1904

During the 1890s it becomes evident that a struggle is developing in northeast Asia between two powers, both in expansionist mood and both eager to profit from the continuing weakness of China. One of the contenders is a vast but incompetent European empire, Russia. The other is an emerging and already fighting-fit Asian empire, Japan.

Russia has won Vladivostok from China some decades previously, in 1858, but it is in the 1890s that Russian interest in the far east grows most visibly. In 1891 the heir to the throne, the future Nicholas II, is sent on a high-profile tour of the region.

In the same year work begins on a vast Russian engineering project to open up the far east. At Chelyabinsk in the Urals, and at Vladivostok on the Pacific coast, construction gangs lay the first sleepers of what will eventually be completed, in 1905, as the trans-Siberian railway.

During these years Japan's expansionist tendencies become mainly evident in relation to Korea, its nearest neighbour and a rich source of iron and coal. Korea is also of great interest to Russia. But it is, by long tradition, a 'Tributary kingdom' of China.

Japanese interference in the affairs of Korea causes successive crises, but these are resolved by diplomatic means until 1894 - when an uprising provides an excuse for both Chinese and Japanese armies to enter the kingdom, to assist the Korean ruler in putting it down.

The result is warfare between China and Japan, and an overwhelming victory for Japan. When peace is agreed, in the 1895 treaty of Shimonoseki, China accepts punitive terms - a huge indemnity, and the ceding to Japan of Taiwan and the strategically important Liaotung peninsula to the west of Korea. But Japanese control of this peninsula is more than tsar Nicholas II, with his own ambitions in the region, is willing to accept.

Russia persuades France and Germany to join diplomatic forces in the so-called Triple Intervention, which insists upon Japan returning the Liaotung peninsula to China. China, in recompense, is to pay an even larger indemnity to Japan - for which Russia provides the necessary loan.

Nicholas II builds on this success by concluding, in 1896, a treaty with China. In return for guaranteeing the integrity of Chinese territory, he is granted the right to build, and to defend with Russian troops, an important section of the trans-Siberian railway through Manchuria.

Any Japanese doubts as to Russian intentions are dispelled in 1898, when Nicholas II seizes Lü-shun (or Port Arthur), the strategically important harbour at the southern tip of the Liaotung peninsula - the very area which Russia has, three years previously, denied to Japan.

Meanwhile Japan and Russia have also been at loggerheads in Korea. In 1895 Japanese assassins kill the queen consort of the Korean king, who takes refuge for a year in the Russian legation in Seoul. When the king recovers his authority, he understandably is inclined to favour Russia rather than Japan. A direct clash between the two powers seems increasingly predictable. But it is not the Japanese custom to give warning.

Russo-Japanese war: AD 1904-1905

In a foretaste of Pearl Harbor nearly forty years later, a Japanese fleet launches a devastating surprise attack on Port Arthur in February 1904. Many Russian warships are destroyed. The rest are blockaded in the harbour.

In March a Japanese army lands in Korea, near Seoul, to be followed by three others elsewhere in the region before the end of June. These forces meet the Russians in a series of engagements which are either indecisive or are clear victories for the Japanese. The climax is the three-week battle for Mukden (now Shenyang) in February to March 1905, in which 270,000 Japanese prevail over 330,000 Russians.

After decades in which China has been powerless against western armies, these first Asian victories are an exhilarating experience for the Japanese. They are about to be capped by an even more convincing demonstration of Japan's new role as a modern military power.

It is obvious that Russia, with land access to the scene of war, can defeat Japan if control of the waters around Korea is recovered from the Japanese fleet. To this end the government in St Petersburg decides on a long-term strategy. The Baltic fleet, after spending the summer of 1904 in preparation, sets off in October on a journey half way round the world.

There are minor disasters on the way out (such as firing on British trawlers in the English channel under the nervous illusion that they are Japanese torpedo-boats, which creates something of a diplomatic incident), but the impressively large fleet finally reaches the China Sea in May 1905. The Russian warships head for Vladivostok through the Tsushima Strait, where a Japanese contingent of more modern and swifter ships is lying in wait.

In a two-day battle two thirds of the Russian ships are sunk; six are captured, six limp to safety in neutral ports, just four reach Vladivostok. It is a sudden and crushing end to the seven-month journey from home.

Both sides now accept an offer by the American president, Theodore Roosevelt, to mediate a peace treaty. When the diplomats gather in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, it is certain that the terms will be to Russia's disadvantage. Control of Port Arthur and the southern part of the Liaotung peninsula passes to Japan. And Russia recognizes Korea as falling within the Japanese rather than the Russian sphere of influence.

With these terms agreed, Japan's expansionist programme achieves its first international recognition. The policy will soon be pressed further. By contrast Russia's humiliation has adverse effects not only in the east but nearer home, in the turmoil of Russia's first year of revolution.

Japan's blitzkrieg: AD 1941-1942

Japan enters World War II with a ruthlessness unmatched by any other combatant, and achieves in a few months a blitzkrieg to rival anything achieved by the Germans. Even Hitler is not informed of the secret strike being prepared. It comes, literally, out of a clear sky.

In the early hours of Sunday, 7 December 1941, nearly 400 Japanese planes take off from aircraft carriers in the mid-Pacific. Their target is the American fleet at anchor, and the crews asleep, in Pearl Harbor - the deep-water port stretching inland from Honolulu, in Hawaii. All eight US battleships in the harbour are hit and five are sunk. Eleven other warships sink, 188 planes are destroyed on the ground. More than 2400 Americans die in the sudden attack.

On this same day the Japanese launch air attacks on American and British airfields in the Philippines, Guam, Midway, Hong Kong and Singapore, destroying numerous planes on the tarmac. It is a dramatic beginning to a campaign which for the next few months continues at almost the same intensity, by sea and land as well as air.

Within the next three days Japanese air strikes off the coast of Malaya sink the British battleship prince of wales (which so recently ferried Churchill across the Atlantic) and the battle cruiser Repulse. 5000 Japanese soldiers land on the US base of Guam and rapidly overwhelm it. In Thailand, Bangkok is easily taken. All this happens in the three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and even now there is little slackening in the pace.

Hong Kong surrenders on Christmas Day. By then Sarawak is already in Japanese hands. Brunei follows early in the new year. Before the end of January 1942 the Japanese hold the whole of Malaya, and February brings Singapore, Bali, Timor and the Dutch spice island of Amboina. On March 9 the Dutch surrender their prize possession in southeast Asia, the island of Java. In early May the USA loses its last foothold in the Philippines.

By this time Japanese attention is focused on Burma. The Burma road, through extremely difficult terrain, is the only route by which supplies from the west can reach Nationalist China. It is crucial to the Japanese to sever this lifeline. By the end of May all Burma is in their hands. China is in danger, and India is threatened.

The Japanese next turn their attention to Midway Island, a coral atoll some 1300 miles northwest of Honolulu which the US is developing as an air and submarine base. In early June 1942 a large Japanese fleet, including their four largest aircraft carriers, moves towards Midway. The Americans, anticipating the attack, await them with their own carriers. And for the first time, the tide begins to turn.

The assault from both sides is by planes launched at sea. On 4 June US planes succeed in sinking all four of the Japanese heavy aircraft carriers. The Americans have losses too, including one carrier. But the Japanese fleet, suffering a major reverse for the first time in this war, sails for home this same night without even coming close to the mid-Pacific atoll.

Six months to Nagasaki: AD 1945

The final stage in the US advance towards Japan has begun in February 1945. At this time the B-29 bombers heading for targets in Japan are flying a round trip of some 3000 miles from the Marianas. This distance will be halved if the small island of Iwo Jima, midway along the route, can be captured.

The island's obvious strategic importance means that it is defended by numerous heavily armed Japanese troops in a network of fortified rock shelters and caves. US marines meet fierce resistance when they land on February 19. With every yard of the US advance hotly contested, more than 20,000 men are dead or injured on each side before the island is finally in US hands on March 16.

On the second day of the engagement a US light carrier is sunk by a desperate new Japanese method of warfare - a suicide attack by a pilot flying a plane full of explosives into the side of the ship. This technique, called Kamikaze from a famous event in Japanese history, was pioneered in an attack on a US fleet in the Pacific on 25 October 1944. During the intervening four months it has become a familiar danger, with an apparently unlimited supply of Japanese pilots willing to sacrifice their lives.

The largest Kamikaze attack awaits the Americans as they take the next step towards Japan. With Iwo Jima secure, attention turns to the island of Okinawa - at a distance of only about 300 miles from Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main islands of Japan.

US troops land on Okinawa on 1 April 1945. Five days later no fewer than 355 Kamikaze planes are launched against them, while on April 12 the US destroyer Abele is sunk by a further development of the Kamikaze weapon. This is the baka, in effect a human guided missile. It takes the form of a glider, packed with explosives and powered by rockets, which is carried by a bomber to near its target. When released, the rockets ignite and the pilot of the baka steers it to the appointed site of his death.

Okinawa is in US hands by the end of June, after the most costly battle in the entire Pacific campaign. US deaths are in the region of 12,000, and the Japanese equivalent is possibly more than 100,000.

The intended target for the next wave of invasion has been Kyushu. But Japanese defence of such courage and ferocity at every stage makes it more attractive to contemplate bombing Japan into submission. In this context there have been devastating successes, partly thanks to a new US weapon first used in the assault on Iwo jima - napalm.

On 9 March 1945 napalm is used in a raid on a crowded part of Tokyo where the buildings are of timber. In the resulting fire storm some 80,000 people die and a million are made homeless, with a quarter of Tokyo's buildings burnt. In the next few weeks there are similarly heavy raids on all the major cities of Japan. But as with the Blitz on britain and Germany, there is no sign that these horrors increase the likelihood of Japan surrendering.

Japan's surrender is now deemed to require the use of an even more terrifying new US weapon, the atom bomb. No response is received to the declaration from Potsdam, demanding unconditional surrender (it is later discovered that the emperor, Hirohito, has pressed the case for surrender but has failed to persuade his generals). So President Truman authorizes the dropping of the new bomb.

On 6 August 1945 a specially adapted B-29 takes off from Tinian Island, in the Marianas, with the bomb on board. It explodes over Hiroshima at 8.15 a.m., demolishing some four square miles of the city and bringing instant death to about 80,000 people (many more die later from the effects of radiation). Even this does not bring immediate surrender, partly through the rigidity of the Japanese imperial system and partly because the scale of the horror is not immediately realized in Tokyo.

A mere three days later a second bomb is dropped on Nagasaki. Between the two events, on August 8, Stalin declares war on Japan and launches a predatory attack on occupied Manchuria. On August 10 Japan announces that the surrender terms specified at Potsdam are accepted.

The use of the atom bombs has remained the subject of intense controversy. Would Japan have surrendered if the force of the weapon had been demonstrated on a deserted island? Would conventional warfare have eventually prevailed? Or would either of these courses have led to even greater loss of life by prolonging the war? These are questions which cannot be answered. And on the other side it may be argued that the evidence of Hiroshima made the Cold War, paradoxically, a period of world peace.

After the war

Postwar occupations

A delay of some three weeks separates the Japanese surrender from its formal acceptance by General MacArthur on 2 September 1945 in a ceremony in Tokyo Bay on board the US battleship Missouri. In the interim the Allies have already celebrated victory in Japan with V-J Day, on August 15, as the equivalent of V-E Day three months earlier.

The intervening weeks are a practical necessity in preparing the Japanese people to accept the disaster which has befallen them. Their traditional faith in the god-like invincibility of their emperor has first to be disabused. When Hirohito himself speaks on radio to explain the situation, and to say that defeat must be accepted, it is a shock to many to discover that the emperor has an ordinary human voice. They must also accept the fact that after defeat comes foreign occupation.

The government of occupied Japan is placed in the hands of Douglas MacArthur. Although in name an Allied undertaking, the occupation is in fact an almost entirely US concern. MacArthur's first task is to complete the demilitarization of the country, followed by the introduction of democratic institutions to replace imperial rule.

By 1950, with the Korean war under way and Mao Ze Dong in control in China, the emphasis changes. By now the most important requirement seems to be building up Japan as a bulwark against Communism. An independent, democratic, capitalist Japan emerges with the end of the Allied occupation in 1952.

In Europe the only territories occupied by the Allies after the war are Germany and Austria. The other nations which were on Germany's side for at least part of the war - Italy, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria and Finland - all have their independence immediately restored, though in practice the three east European nations are already under the dark shadow of Russia.

The occupation arrangements for Germany and Austria have been agreed by the western powers at Potsdam. Both are to be divided into four zones separately controlled by the USSR, the USA, Britain and France. But Austria is to be treated leniently, as a country liberated from the German Occupation of 1938.

This History is as yet incomplete.

The intention therefore is to restore Austria to democratic independence as soon as possible. In the event the occupying forces remain in place for ten years because the Russians quibble over the frontier agreements required for the eventual peace treaty - which is not finally signed until May 1955. With this achieved, Austria at last returns to independence within approximately her prewar boundaries.

The occupation of Austria, even if unduly prolonged, has been relatively uneventful. The opposite is true in Germany, where the agreement at Potsdam has provided for four zones of occupation, as for Austria, but with Berlin itself similarly divided between the four powers - even though it is deep inside the Russian zone.

Friction between the three western powers and the USSR escalates until in March 1948, in an effort to impose their will, the Russians block the access corridor from the western zones to Berlin. The blockade of Berlin, to which the Allies respond with the Berlin airlift, lasts for more than a year before the corridor is opened to traffic again in June 1949.

The western intention, after removing the remains of the Nazi system and restoring democracy, has been to return Germany to independence as a single nation. But this aim is frustrated by the Cold War and the descent of the Iron Curtain across Europe.

On 23 May 1949, some ten days after the ending of the Berlin blockade, the western powers hand over the administration of their three zones to the government of a new Federal Republic of Germany. The troops remain in place. But now they are part of the western defence against the eastern bloc, rather than an occupying force.

A week later, on May 30, the Russians follow the same logic and proclaim a constitution for a new German Democratic Republic. The heart of Hitler's Reich is thus split into two nations, with the rigid division reflected in miniature in the two increasingly isolated parts of Berlin. Germany and Berlin will remain divided in this way for forty years, until the symbolic battering down of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
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