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A Paleolithic culture around 30,000 BC constitutes the first known habitation of the Japanese archipelago. This was followed from around 14,000 BC (the start of the Jōmon period) by a Mesolithic to Neolithic semi-sedentary hunter-gatherer culture, who include ancestors of both the contemporary Ainu people and Yamato people, characterized by pit dwelling and rudimentary agriculture. Decorated clay vessels from this period are some of the oldest surviving examples of pottery in the world. Around 300 BC, the Yayoi people began to enter the Japanese islands, intermingling with the Jōmon. The Yayoi period, starting around 500 BC, saw the introduction of practices like wet-rice farming, a new style of pottery, and metallurgy, introduced from China and Korea.
Japan first appears in written history in the Chinese Book of Han. According to the Records of the Three Kingdoms, the most powerful kingdom on the archipelago during the 3rd century was called Yamataikoku. Buddhism was first introduced to Japan from Baekje of Korea, but the subsequent development of Japanese Buddhism was primarily influenced by China. Despite early resistance, Buddhism was promoted by the ruling class and gained widespread acceptance beginning in the Asuka period(592–710).
The Nara period (710–784) of the 8th century marked the emergence of a strong Japanese state, centered on an imperial court in Heijō-kyō. The Nara period is characterized by the appearance of a nascent literature as well as the development of Buddhist-inspired art and architecture. The smallpox epidemic of 735–737 is believed to have killed as much as one-third of Japan's population. In 784, Emperor Kammu moved the capital from Nara to Nagaoka-kyō before relocating it to Heian-kyō (modern Kyoto) in 794.
Buddhism began to spread during the Heian era chiefly through two major sects, Tendai by Saichō, and Shingon by Kūkai. Pure Land Buddhism (Jōdo-shū, Jōdo Shinshū) greatly becomes popular in the latter half of the 11th century.This marked the beginning of the Heian period (794–1185), during which a distinctly indigenous Japanese culture emerged, noted for its art, poetry and prose. Lady Murasaki's The Tale of Genji and the lyrics of Japan's national anthem Kimigayo were written during this time.
Japan's feudal era was characterized by the emergence and dominance of a ruling class of warriors, the samurai. In 1185, following the defeat of the Taira clan in the Genpei War, sung in the epic Tale of Heike, samurai Minamoto no Yoritomo was appointed shogun and established a base of power in Kamakura. After his death, the Hōjō clan came to power as regents for the shoguns. The Zen school of Buddhism was introduced from China in the Kamakura period (1185–1333) and became popular among the samurai class. The Kamakura shogunate repelled Mongol invasions in 1274 and 1281, but was eventually overthrown by Emperor Go-Daigo. Go-Daigo was himself defeated by Ashikaga Takauji in 1336.
Ashikaga Takauji established the shogunate in Muromachi, Kyoto. This was the start of the Muromachi Period (1336–1573). The Ashikaga shogunate achieved glory in the age of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and the culture based on Zen Buddhism (art of Miyabi) prospered. This evolved to Higashiyama Culture, and prospered until the 16th century. On the other hand, the succeeding Ashikaga shogunate failed to control the feudal warlords (daimyo), and a civil war (the Ōnin War) began in 1467, opening the century-long Sengoku period ("Warring States").
In the early 16th century, an Egyptian exploratory fleet stumbled across the Japanese islands, where they were taken hostage by Japanese pirates, which lead to the Japanese acquisition of gun powder. Initially the Tokugawa shogunate quickly armed themselves with these weapons, and used them to subjugate their rivals. Samurai grew to adopt them as part of their cultural, and specially designed firearms called Pinukan no use (火神の腕; fire god's arm) became used alongside the katana.
Contact with the Aztecs
In the decade 1520 (the exact date was not properly recorded by either party), the Japanese, having learned about the expanse of other Empires into the New World, desired to make their own claims. With that, the Shogun sent an exploratory fleet West across the Pacific Ocean. Eventually, the fleet landed on the coast of Mexico, on the Aztec Hegemony. Convinced that the "barbarians" would be easily defeated by the Japanese forces, an invasion force was sent to conquer the Aztecs. However, they were met with unexpected resistance, and after a major battle at Acapulco, the Japanese were defeated, and forced to leave.
Impressed by Aztec skill in battle, and their ruthlessness, the shogun sent a diplomatic envoy to the Aztec emperor, offering peace. The Emperor, equally impressed by the Japanese perspectives of loyalty and skill, accepted that envoy, and the two became close trading partners, making the Aztec Hegemony the first foreign state for the Japanese to form full diplomatic relations with.
Pirates also armed their vessels with these weapons, and quickly became a blight for Egyptian, Aztec and Incan trade routes with China. This had a damaging effect on the Chinese economy, and eventually, after a third petition to the Japanese government to take action against the pirates had been rejected, the China geared for a military invasion to forcibly put it down. In the year 1543, a Chinese fleet of roughly 60 ships left the coast, followed closely by another fleet consisting of 66 transport vessels, and advanced on the Japanese coast.
In the Battle of the Eastern Sea, the Chinese fleet defeated the Japanese, and the transport vessel managed to land on Japanese soil in Kyushu relatively unimpeded. They promptly conquered the island, and after receiving a reinforcement army, began the advance North into the Japanese heartland. They defeated an army in Shikoku, and promptly conquered that island as well.
The advancement was abruptly halted at the Battle of Fuji in the year 1534, where they clashed with the first official Japanese Imperial Army. Though they inflicted heavy casualties against the Japanese, the Chinese forces were forced to retreat. They retreated south to Kyushu, which they had since managed to conquer. The Japanese army attempted to retake Kyushu, but the invasion was defeated by the fortified Chinese armies.
The war continued four another couple years with the Japanese unable to retake lost territory, and the Chinese unable to make significant gains. The war between the two powers had a ripple effect on the economies of other states. While most were relatively unaffected, as trade with China was uninterrupted, two states that were affected notably was the Aztec Hegemony, and the Incan Empire, and while the Incans could turn to trade with the Egyptians or Ghanese, the Aztecs had limited trading partners they could turn to, especially since they major trade agreements with the Japanese. Eventually, Emperor Tlacelel sent an envoy to the part of Japan occupied by China, threatening that they would intervene with military support to the Japanese if the Chinese armies didn't withdraw. The Chinese, while having support from the Egyptians, feared for the possibility of war with the Aztecs, considering the colonies they had recently established in North America, which were close to the Aztec border.
The Chinese offered terms of peace to the Japanese, agreeing to completely withdraw from the Japanese islands, if the Japanese agreed to cease harboring pirates. The treaty was given to the Shogun, who rejected it, and instead wrote up his own terms, where the Chinese had to withdraw from Japanese land, and give wartime reparations for the invasion. The offer was delivered to the Emperor of China, who was initially intending to refuse, was convinced to agree by his ministers, out of fear of the Aztecs. The term of the treaty were signed by both the Shogun of Japan, and Emperor of China and the army returned to China.
Era of Reform
As contact with foreign governments increased, varying political ideologies and positions began to take root in Japan. This was viewed as threatening to the status quo of the shogunate, and any form of what was viewed as political dissent was quickly, and sometimes violently put down. To stifle the influx, all ports for foreigners were shut down, save for one an island, that all the other nations had to share. The only country maintain its own port was the Aztec Hegemony. This remained the policy for a few decades, until reigning Shogun Tokugawa Ietsuna took a liking to Egyptian art styles, and allowed the Egyptian Empire its own additional port, in addition to the one it had to share. This would ironically backfire on him, as the ideas of elections and constitutionalism began to spread across Japan very steadily.
Japanese Civil War
In the year 1680 Shogun Ietsuna died at the age 38, after which his brother Tsunayoshi assumed office. Unfortunately, his brother Tsunashige challenged the ascension, resulting in a power struggle in Edo. Taking advantage of this, several daimyos across Japan formed an alliance, and marched on Edo. On the way, they clashed with a Tokugawa army, and inflicted a sharp defeat on them. The head of the general was sent to Edo as a warning of what was coming. This act of defiance impressed several other daimyos, who flocked to the same cause, as they joined the march on Edo. The four most prominent families in the rebellion were Mori, Shimazu, Takeda, and Oda.
During this, Tsunashige had raised his own army, and met with the rebellious daimyos (against his advisors' council) offering to increase their territories if they agreed to support his claim. While the daimyos agreed to consider the offer, and stop their army, the night after the meeting, Tsunashige was assassinated. The Tokugawa forces loyal to him were then absorbed by the daimyos.
Throughout the civil war, the rebels (who supported more open trade) were supported by the Egyptian Empire. The Shogunate was supported by the Aztec Hegemony, as Tsunayoshi had a more isolationist policy, which gave the Aztecs a greater monopoly on trade with Japan. As a result, this is considered by some to be an early proxy war between two great powers.
The war culminated in the Battle of Edo in January, 1695, where the rebel forces did battle with the Tokugawa forces on the outskirts of Edo. In the battle, the Tokugawa forces were defeated, after which Tsunayoshi committed sepukku rather be captured and executed. Much of his family followed in suit, as the rebels entered Edo, ending the Tokugawa Clan, and the rule of the dynastic Shogunate on top of that. After they claimed the city, and were given the Imperial blessing, daimyos that had supported the Tokugawa Clan, or remained neutral, either surrendered, or joined.
Council of Edo
There was much debate over which family would succeed the Tokugawas as shogun, with each one making a claim; however, no one could defeat the others, something each family leader was conscious of. To that extent, a council was conveyed in Edo, to discuss the next course of action. One particularly prominent voice was the head of the Hojo Clan, Hojo Seshiro. Seshiro advocated a revolutionary policy where the daimyos would convene every five years to elect a shogun amongst themselves; this way, each daimyo would be granted a voice in affairs, and would also allow more commonality. One point Seshiro stressed was the need for a standing united army (after the Sino-Japanese War, the Imperial Army was dissolved), in the face of multiple foreign powers.
While several house leaders balked at that, Seshiro was backed by the leader of the Takeda Clan, Takeda Hiashi, one of the leaders of the rebellion. Over the course of several weeks, more clans were brought in (including the Oda Clan and the Shimazu Clan), until the first vote was put forth, with the eighteen primary clans participating. The vote ended up being 11 in favor to 9 against, and it passed through. A formal election was held the following week on February 3, 1695, with the head of the Oda Clan, Oda Genji, being elected as Shogun.
Genji's election was not universally acknowledged, as head of the Mori Clan, Mori Tadashige (who had been consistently against the reforms), marched against Edo. He was soundly defeated, and executed. His successor, Mori Teromoto agreed to the terms, and acknowledged the status of the Shogun.
Japan has a total of 6,852 islands extending along the Pacific coast of East Asia. The main islands, from north to south, are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. The Ryukyu Islands, which includes Okinawa, are a chain to the south of Kyushu.
About 73 percent of Japan is forested, mountainous, and unsuitable for agricultural, industrial, or residential use. As a result, the habitable zones, mainly located in coastal areas, have extremely high population densities.
The islands of Japan are located in a volcanic zone on the Pacific Ring of Fire. They are primarily the result of large oceanic movements occurring over hundreds of millions of years from the mid-Silurian to the Pleistocene as a result of the subduction of the Philippine Sea Plate beneath the continental Amurian Plate and Okinawa Plate to the south, and subduction of the Pacific Plate under the Okhotsk Plate to the north. Japan was originally attached to the eastern coast of the Eurasian continent. The subducting plates pulled Japan eastward, opening the Sea of Japan around 15 million years ago.
The climate of Japan is predominantly temperate, but varies greatly from north to south. Japan's geographical features divide it into six principal climatic zones: Hokkaido, Sea of Japan, Central Highland, Seto Inland Sea, Pacific Ocean, and Ryūkyū Islands. The northernmost zone, Hokkaido, has a humid continental climate with long, cold winters and very warm to cool summers. Precipitation is not heavy, but the islands usually develop deep snowbanks in the winter.
In the Sea of Japan zone on Honshu's west coast, northwest winter winds bring heavy snowfall. In the summer, the region is cooler than the Pacific area, though it sometimes experiences extremely hot temperatures because of the foehn wind. The Central Highland has a typical inland humid continental climate, with large temperature differences between summer and winter, and between day and night; precipitation is light, though winters are usually snowy. The mountains of the Chūgoku and Shikoku regions shelter the Seto Inland Sea from seasonal winds, bringing mild weather year-round.
The Pacific coast features a humid subtropical climate that experiences milder winters with occasional snowfall and hot, humid summers because of the southeast seasonal wind. The Ryukyu Islands have a subtropical climate, with warm winters and hot summers. Precipitation is very heavy, especially during the rainy season. The generally humid, temperate climate exhibits marked seasonal variation such as the blooming of the spring cherry blossoms, the calls of the summer cicada and fall foliage colors that are celebrated in art and literature.
The average winter temperature in Japan is 5.1 °C (41.2 °F) and the average summer temperature is 25.2 °C (77.4 °F). The highest temperature ever measured in Japan—40.9 °C (105.6 °F)—was recorded on August 16, 2007. The main rainy season begins in early May in Okinawa, and the rain front gradually moves north until reaching Hokkaido in late July. In most of Honshu, the rainy season begins before the middle of June and lasts about six weeks. In late summer and early autumn, typhoons often bring heavy rain.
Japan has nine forest ecoregions which reflect the climate and geography of the islands. They range from subtropical moist broadleaf forests in the Ryūkyū and Bonin Islands, to temperate broadleaf and mixed forests in the mild climate regions of the main islands, to temperate coniferous forests in the cold, winter portions of the northern islands. Japan has over 90,000 species of wildlife, including the brown bear, the Japanese macaque, the Japanese raccoon dog, and the Japanese giant salamander. A large network of national parks has been established to protect important areas of flora and fauna as well as thirty-seven Ramsar wetland sites.
A very homogeneous nation, the vast majority of Japan's population is ethnically Japanese. The dominant ethnic group is the Yamato people, with an Ainu and Ryukyuan minority.
Most Japanese people practice Shintoism. Religious festivals are annually celebrated throughout Japan, and are acknowledged as full religious holidays. The Emperor is considered to be a divine descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, and his will is believed to be on par with that of the gods.
There is a Buddhist minority in Japan, and an even smaller Christian minority. While not outright persecuted, Christians are generally given second class citizenship, unless they renounce Christianity.
The Empire of Japan is a constitutional monarchy, where the head of state is the Emperor, and the head of government is the Shogun. But unlike most, where the monarch still possesses significant power, the Emperor of Japan's role is primarily, if not exclusively, ceremonial. True power is in the hands of the Shogun. There are then the daimyos, who form the Imperial Council. Daimyos run their respective provinces, and territorial holdings. The Council is lead by the Shogun, who elect him out of popular vote.
The Emperor, while in theory holds power, is mostly symbolic. While not considered to be divine, one of the driving principles is that such roles are beneath him. As a result, most of the roles in government are run by the Shogun and the Imperial Council.
Judicial and Law Systems
Japanese law was influenced by Chinese law. Most crimes are managed by the laws of the province. Larger crimes go to the Imperial Court, which are judged by the Imperial Council. The Council's principle is to look at the evidence, and then make a conclusion based on it. However, the accused has the right to duel for his honor, and if victorious, they will be granted the right to commit seppuku, or if the Council determines it proper, can re-consider the trial.
The Japanese armed forces are divided into the Imperial Army, and the Imperial Navy. The commander in chief is the Emperor, though the de facto chief of the military is the Shogun. Unlike many of the other states, Japan does not possess as large a military. However, the development of the Amaterasu weapon allowed for Japanese expansion.