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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Origins and tradition
4th - 7th century AD
8th century
9th - 12th century
13th - 17th century
17th - 18th century
     The Tokugawa shogunate
     Japanese colour prints
     New rivalries in Asia
     Russo-Japanese war
     Japan's blitzkrieg
     Six months to Nagasaki

After the war
To be completed

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The Tokugawa shogunate: 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

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

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

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: 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: 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: 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: 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.


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