Religion and State: The Influence of the Tokugawa in Japan, 1600-1868

Buddhism, Shintoism, and Neo-Confucianism and how the Tokugawa state used these religions to their advantage. The Tokugawa period in Japan began in 1600 and lasted until 1868, and was an era of peace throughout the realm. Before this time, Japan had experienced years of warfare between the different provinces, with various daimyo, or lords, fighting[…]

Francis Xavier and the Arrival of Christianity in Japan in 1549

In July 1549, Francis Xavier arrived in Japan, hoping to find success converting the Japanese to Christianity. A Discovery in Takatsuki In 1920, researchers from the Kyoto Imperial University in Japan made a miraculous discovery. They found a locked chest—seemingly unopened for centuries—tied to a beam in the ceiling of an old house. When they[…]

Hokusai’s Printed Illustrated Books in 19th-Century Japan

The technology of printing had advanced rapidly as it became available to commercial publishers in the seventeenth century. Introduction Katsushika Hokusai is among the most celebrated Japanese painters in the world. His print Under the Wave off Kanagawa, or The Great Wave (1830) is instantly recognizable. While Hokusai is primarily known today for his prints[…]

Japonisme: Japanese Artistic Influence on the West in the Nineteenth Century

The Western fascination with Japanese art directly followed earlier European fashions for Chinese and Middle Eastern decorative arts. Introduction James McNeill Whistler’s Whistler’s Caprice in Purple and Gold (above) is an early example of Japonisme, a term coined by the French art critic Philippe Burty in 1872. It refers to the fashion for Japanese art[…]

Samurai: The Rise of the Warrior Class in Medieval Japan

The era of the samurai lasted for 700 years, until the emperor was restored to power in 1868. Introduction During the Heian period, Japan experienced a golden age. That period was followed by civil war. In this chapter, you will learn about the rise of a powerful warrior class in Japan—the samurai . Minamoto Yoritomo[…]

Heian-kyo: The Heart of Japan’s Medieval Government

Introduction The culture of medieval Japan was rich and varied due to exchanges with other Asian peoples. In this chapter, you will see how a unique Japanese culture flowered from the 9th to the 12th centuries. As you may know, Japan is close enough to the mainland of Asia to be affected by cultural ideas[…]

Amabie: A Disease-Fighting Mermaid of Japanese Lore

The world has become enchanted with a three-legged mermaid called Amabie, said to help fight plague. Last spring, in western Tokyo, my research assistant Payton Letko came upon an unusual treat in a small bakery: pastries in the shape of the Japanese folklore creature Amabie, a three-legged sea creature with scales and long flowing hair,[…]

Battlefield O’ahu: Japan’s Opening Attack on Pearl Harbor

The attack came with no warning, as aircraft emblazoned with red disks bore down on the moored ships from all directions. Introduction Just before 8 am on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, many of the sailors aboard naval vessels moored in Pearl Harbor were getting ready for leave and preparing for church services. In a[…]

The Path to Pearl Harbor

When Germany and Italy declared war on the United States days later, America found itself in a global war. The Roots of the Conflict While Japan’s deadly assault on Pearl Harbor stunned Americans, its roots stretched back more than four decades. As Japan industrialized during the late 19th century, it sought to imitate Western countries[…]

Fin De Siècle and the Rise of Fascism

The fin-de-siècle generation condemned the rationalistic individualism of liberal society and the dissolution of social links in bourgeois society. Defining Fascism and Its Early History Overview Fascism is a form of radical authoritarian nationalism that came to prominence in early 20th-century Europe. The first fascist movements emerged in Italy during World War I, then spread[…]

Kamuyamato Iwarebiko: Jimmu, Emperor of Ancient Japan, 660-585 BCE

According to Shinto belief, Jimmu is regarded as a direct descendant of the sun goddess, Amaterasu. Introduction Emperor Jimmu (Jinmu Tennō; also known as: Kamuyamato Iwarebiko; given name: Wakamikenu no Mikoto or Sano no Mikoto), (born according to the legendary account in the Kojiki on the first day of the first month, 660 B.C.E., and[…]

“Tree Culture”: The Ancient Japanese Jomon Period, 10,000-300 BCE

Trees were utilized in building construction and for ceremonial ornaments and daily implements. Introduction The Jomon period is the period of Japanese prehistory from about 10,000 B.C.E. to 300 B.C.E., during which the earliest major culture of prehistoric Japan developed and flourished. The word “jomon” (cord-pattern) refers to the characteristic ornamentation of clay vessels and[…]

‘Free-and-Easy,’ ‘Japaneasy’: British Perceptions and the 1885 Japanese Village

Examining press reviews and accounts of the Japanese Village in London from newspapers and periodicals in 1885. Although writers in 1885 were fairly confident that they “knew” the Japanese culture, they had only a superficial understanding of it, and they often depicted Japanese people as simple, coarse, and inferior. These writings largely reflect British feelings[…]

‘So Very Japanny’: The British Reception of ‘The Mikado’ in 1885

Examining the writings of The Mikado producers and opera reviewers in 1885, showing that the British were eager to create a quaint, picturesque, “authentic” image of Japan. In 1885 librettist William Schwenck Gilbert visited the Japanese Village, a London spectacle featuring Japanese natives performing their way of life.[1] Gilbert drew inspiration from his visit for the production[…]

Why the Axis Powers Were Called the Axis Powers

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini declared an axis between Berlin and Rome, coining a term that would be used by both sides in WWII. By Jason Daley In 1936, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini gave a speech in Milan celebrating a new treaty of friendship with Germany and a political realignment of Italy. “This Berlin-Rome protocol is[…]

Art and Architecture of Japan, Medieval to Renaissance Periods

There was new development toward life-likeness and a form of idealized realism. Kamakura Period (1185-1333): New Aesthetic Directions The Insei rule gave way to an extra-imperial, although imperially sanctioned, military government, known in Japanese as bakufu. Military leaders—called shōguns—first came from the Minamoto family (whose headquarters in Kamakura gave the name to the period), then power[…]

Art and Architecture of Japan, Ancient Jomon to Medieval Heian Periods

The arts of Japan are profoundly intertwined with the country’s long and complex history. Introduction Japan’s arts are often in dialogue with artistic and cultural developments in other parts of the world. From the earliest aesthetic expressions of the Neolithic period to today’s contemporary art—here is a brief survey to get you started. Please note[…]

Woodblocks in Wonderland: The Japanese Fairy Tale Series

From gift-bestowing sparrows and peach-born heroes to goblin spiders and dancing phantom cats — in a series of beautifully illustrated books, the majority printed on an unusual cloth-like crepe paper, the publisher Takejiro Hasegawa introduced Japanese folk tales to the West. Christopher DeCou on how a pioneering cross-cultural endeavour gave rise to a magnificent chapter[…]

Strangers in the Sacred Grove: The Changing Meanings of Okinawan ‘Utaki’

The changing significance of sacred groves (utaki) from medieval to contemporary Okinawa. Abstract This article discusses the changing significance of sacred groves (utaki) in contemporary Okinawa. Until recently, utaki were the domain of female ritual practitioners (kaminchu or noro), and men were not allowed to set foot in them. In many places, such taboos have faded away, if not[…]

The History and Meaning of the Japanese Tea Ceremony

Tea drinking in Japan became nothing less than an art form. By Mark CartwrightHistorian Introduction The Japanese Tea Ceremony (chanoyu or chado) is a cultural tradition involving very particular places, procedures, and equipment for drinking green tea. Originating as a habit of Chinese Buddhist monks to aid their meditation, tea-drinking in Japan and other parts of East Asia became such a[…]

Martial Arts in Medieval Japan

Several of the martial arts which became popular in medieval Japan were introduced from China. By Mark CartwrightHistorian Introduction There were 18 martial arts (bugei or bujutsu) in medieval Japan, and these included use of weapons, unarmed self-defence techniques, swimming, and equestrian skills. Initially designed to hone the skills of warriors for greater success on[…]

Feudalism in Medieval Japan

Feudalism (hoken seido) began to be widespread in Japan from the beginning of the Kamakura Period (1185-1333 CE). By Mark CartwrightHistorian Introduction Feudalism in medieval Japan (1185-1603 CE) describes the relationship between lords and vassals where land ownership and its use was exchanged for military service and loyalty. Although present earlier to some degree, the feudal system in Japan was[…]

Woodblock Prints of the Sino-Japanese War, 1894-1895

The Sino-Japanese War provided something very new—a modern and highly mechanized war against a foreign foe. Prints and Propaganda The Sino-Japanese War began in July 1894 and ended in China’s shattering defeat in April 1895. It involved battles on land and sea; began with fighting in Korea that spilled over the Yalu River into Manchuria;[…]

Life in a Japanese Buddhist Monastery

Buddhism was first introduced to Japan from mainland Asia in the 6th century CE, and monasteries were built from the 7th century CE. By Mark CartwrightHistorian Introduction Buddhist monasteries have been part of the Japanese cultural landscape ever since the 7th century CE, and they remained both powerful and socially important institutions right through the[…]

The Shōsōin Repository and Its Treasure

Shōsōin repository held nine thousand artifacts from China, Southeast Asia, Iran, and the Middle East—connecting ancient Japan to the cultural trade of the Eurasian continent. Introduction In the Japanese city, Nara, on the northwest rear corner of Tōdai-ji Temple’s Daibutsuden Hall stands a building largely unaltered since the 8th century. Of age-darkened cypress and deceptively plain, its distinctively ribbed[…]

Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Medieval Japanese Unification

His restructuring of the state would establish the social and political norms which endured in Japan until the 19th century CE. By Mark CartwrightHistorian Introduction Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598 CE) was a Japanese military leader who, along with his predecessor Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582 CE) and his successor Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616 CE), is credited with unifying Japan[…]

Medieval Japan, 1185 to 1603 CE

The was a busy period of development and population growth. By Mark CartwrightHistorian Introduction The medieval period of Japan is considered by most historians to stretch from 1185 to 1603 CE. Stand out features of the period include the replacement of the aristocracy by the samurai class as the most powerful social group, the establishment of shogun military rulers and their[…]

The Japanese-American Officer Who Helped Take Down and Then Rebuild Japan

Born in Seattle in 1920, Harry Fukuhara was fully bicultural, bilingual, and binational. When I first met Harry Fukuhara, in 1994, he was orchestrating a Tokyo press conference for Japanese Foreign Ministry officials, former Jewish refugees from the Holocaust, and veterans of the Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The groups were there to commemorate the[…]

An Immigrant Family that Bridged Japanese and American Worlds in Hawaii

How siblings torn between two sides of the Pacific forged identities in the aftermath of war. I still remember them at the dining table after dinner each night in our Honolulu home. Three elegant sisters, styled out of Vogue magazine, their jet black hair in neat chignons and pixie haircuts, each savoring a cigarette and lingering over[…]

The ‘Good War’: Concentration Camps and Japanese America

Exploring current struggles of memory and history within and beyond the Japanese American community. For many Americans, World War II has become entrenched, solidly and nostalgically, in the national narrative as “The Good War” fought by “The Greatest Generation.” Increasingly, and disturbingly, this formulation appears to have won acceptance even by an American minority group[…]