Japan is a country that deceives. On one hand Japan feels so close, so familiar, that American may easily assume we know much more about it than we actually do. So much of Japanese culture has entered the world’s psyche–who among us hasn’t ever sung karaoke, eaten sushi, watched anime, done a karate chop or pranced around the living room our flabby belly hanging out, bouncing into our unsuspecting cousin Rosco like a sumo wrestler? On the other hand,, what of these elements of Japanese art and culture do non-Japanese really appreciate, let alone fully understand? Just because we use Japanese DVD players, drive Japanese cars and have mastered Dance Dance Revolution, does that mean we truly know Japan?

Sometimes with all the ultra-modern electronic gear that comes our way from Japan we in the U.S. forget not only that Japan has a storied tradition as a gritty military empire, but that as recently as 1945 Japan was a nation in tatters, reeling from the devastation of World War II. So let’s step back in to history for a relatively brief look at Japan’s expansive past. After we work our way back to the present we’ll have fun by exploring some of the Japanese cultures and traditions that have become ubiquitous in the west.

Japanese empires have existed for at least two thousand years, which is when they first appear in histories written by the Chinese. (The Japanese have long refered to their nation as “Nippon,” which means “sun-origin,” or, “Land of the Rising Sun.”) From its beginning Japan remained relatively isolated from the rest of Asia. Yes, Chinese Zen Buddhism and other elements of Chinese culture spread to Japan, but for almost two whole millennia, first through a series of dynastic empires and then throughout a long feudal era during which a class of warriors known as samurai dominated the nation, waging war at the behest of emperors or wealthy land owners (1185-1868), Japan stayed more or less out of the global fray. With so little interaction beyond its borders, Japan became remarkably homogeneous; even today almost 99% of Japan’s permanent residents are ethnically
Japan. This degree of homogeneity is especially notable because Japan is an archipelago composed of 6,852 islands, a fact which one may think would lead to there being a wealth of distinct local cultures. (Indonesia and the Philippines, archipelagos consisting of 17,000 and 7,000 islands respectively, are both much more diverse.) True, four of Japan’s islands do account for 97% of the nation’s land area:

The primary Japanese island, often called “the mainland,” is the 7th largest island in the world, and the 2nd most populous after Indonesia’s Java. Honshu is home to metro Tokyo and its 30 million residents and also to the iconic active volcano, Mt. Fuji. (The recent earthquake/tsunami/nuclear crisis is playing out primarily on the northeastern coast of Honshu.)

The northernmost of Japan’s main islands, and also the least developed. Hokkaido has harsh winters, temperate summers and attracts many skiers, snowboarders and nature lovers.

The third-largest of Japan’s main islands and the furthest to the south, it has several active volcanoes and often weathers typhoons and heavy rains. The port of Nagasaki was uniquely welcoming to Dutch and Portuguese traders, and therefore Japan’s gateway to Asia and the Western world, and

Japan’s fourth-largest island, it features the Awa Odori festival, and the Shikoku Henro, a yearly pilgrimage of over a hundred thousand white-clad Buddhists who visit 88 temples on the island in a fixed route.

The era of Japanese isolation started to come to a close with the 1854 arrival of U.S. Naval Commodore Matthew Perry who was determined to “open” the nation to the outside world. Japan’s newfound connection with the West helped spur the 1868 Meiji Restoration, during which imperial rule returned, and inspired the subsequent Meiji period during which Japan industrialized and militarized. Within two generations the once-isolated Empire of Japan had spread beyond its island borders to conquer Taiwan and Korea and had waged wars against both China and Russia.

When Emperor Yoshihito passed away in 1926 his son, Hirohito, assumed the throne. Emperor Hirohito (known in Japan as Emperor Shōwa), expanded Japanese influence as a global power by invading Manchuria, a region in northeast China, in 1931, signing a pact in 1936 with Hitler’s Germany to work together in case of an attack on either by the Soviet Union, invading other parts of China in 1937, occupying French Indochina (Vietnam) in 1940 and then, on December 7, 1941, by attacking the United States at the Pearl Harbor naval base.

The Japanese military fought fervently throughout World War II to support Hirohito, who many Japanese, especially believers in the Shinto religion, believed was a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu and therefore divine. After four years of vicious battle Japan fell to the Allied forces. (The nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in an estimated 200,000 casualties, played a substantial, though forever-controversial role, in Hirohito’s decision to surrender.)

After the War ended the United States occupied Japan and decided, on the whole, not to punish but to rebuild. America’s ruling General Douglas MacArthur was especially convinced that Hirohito must remain Emperor as a way to ensure continuity. This support of Hirohito went as far as absolving him for war crimes, accusing Japanese war era Prime
Minister Hideki Tōjō, who was hanged in 1948, of the worst of them. (The U.S. did compel Hirohito to explicitly reject the notion that he was divine.) Historians claim Hirohito also attempted to apologize to MacArthur for the harm he caused the U.S.–a very important statement in a society that places so much value on honor–but MacArthur rebuffed him. A weakened Hirohito remained Emperor until his death in 1989.

Japan’s modernization and eventual rise to become the world’s second largest economy after the U.S. is truly extraordinary. In 1945 much of Japan lay in ruins. In 1947 Japan adopted a liberal democratic constitution which included Article 9, a provision that allows Japan to field an army, but only for the purpose of defense. (How is that working out for Japan? View this 2008 PBS documentary on the recent state of Japan’s Self-Defense
Force to see.) After the Allied occupation ended in 1952 Japan’s economy took off like a shot, modernizing rapidly (featuring electronics and auto companies such as Sony and Toyta) and didn’t stop expanding until it faced a deep recession in mid-’90, an era known in Japan as “the Lost Decade.” Japan eventually found itself, and today its economy–the world’s third largest now, after the U.S. and China–is relatively stable despite the after-effects of “the Great Recession” of 2008-2009. Politically, though Emperor Akihito still receives respect, real power in Japan lies in the hands of the Prime Minister and other members of the nation’s parliament, “the Diet.”

While Japan is still an economic powerhouse, not to mention the home of such uber-successful multinational corporations that influence American life like Toyota, Honda, Sony, Toshiba, Hitachi, Mitsubishi and many more, Americans are less likely to fear Japanese economic dominance (as was often the case in the ’80s) and embrace Japan as the land of outrageous video games, Akira Kurosowa films and toys that don’t do anything except get us to buy them.

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