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Medieval Japanese History

Dejima IslandDuring the Edo Period (1600~1868), the most famous Shogun of them all, Tokugawa Ieyasu got rid of the decentralized feudal system and installed the bakufu (military government) in the city of Edo, better known to us all as Tokyo (even today, people born in Tokyo are known as Edo-ko, or children of Edo).

Japan had experienced its first contact with European culture and religion some 60 years before. And although one of his advisors was an Englishman, Will Adams, Ieyasu saw European influence as a threat to the newly-found national stability and decided on a closed-door policy. He prohibited virtually all cultural and diplomatic contact with the outside world. Those who dared to venture abroad were executed on their return to prevent any form of 'contamination'. The only trade allowed was with the Dutch, who were confined to the small island of Dejima (left) in Nagasaki, and the only people allowed into contact with them were merchants and prostitutes. In the strict class structure, chonin (merchants) were considered the lowest, although in subsequent years they were to prosper. The once strong samurai class lost most of their relevance amidst the peace and stability while the military leaders held complete power and expected total and unwavering obedience.

The cultural renaissance of the time can probably be linked to the extremely rigid codes of behavior governing clothing, social activities and whom one should marry. Culturally, the Edo Period produced much of what we recognize today as uniquely Japanese. Kabuki, ukiyo-e, porcelain and lacquer-ware, for example, were all born and thrived during this time. Advances in printing and education led to a highly literate population for its day although kabuki and ukiyo-e were more pop culture than high art.

Everything began to change with the arrival of US Navy Commodore Matthew C. Perry and his 'black ships' in 1853. He came demanding trade and was soon followed by British and other westerners. Some years later and after a show of force in 1864, the Tokugawa Shogunate was losing the support of the daimyo (barons). They were unhappy about the foreign intrusions and wanted to expel all foreigners by force. The Shogunate surrendered power to the emperor Meiji in 1867 and subsequent rebellions were quashed.

Matthew C. Perry
Matthew C. Perry
Emperor Meiji
Emperor Meiji
Ito Hirobumi
Ito Hirobumi

The Meiji Period (1868~1912) began with this so-called Meiji Restoration in 1868, and the Imperial court was moved from Kyoto to Edo, which was renamed Tokyo, meaning the Eastern Capital. The days of feudalism were over and the new centralized government was left in the hands of those in favor of westernization. The emperor made Shinto the state religion, thereby establishing himself and his heirs as living gods. He also set out to create a modern and industrialised country in a fraction of the time it had taken the countries of the West. Western styles were hurriedly adopted and traditional ones often abandoned. The military and industrial bases were considerably strengthened. Foreign Minister and later Prime Minister Okuma Shigenobu successfully renegotiated treaties with the West. A new constitution was adopted in 1889 under the guidance of Prince Ito Hirobumi and Japan's modernisation was well underway. With this surge of development and change came an increased desire to dominate the rest of Asia. Successful campaigns in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-5) and Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) and the annexation of Korea (1910) certainly made Japan the major force in the region at the beginning of the 20th century.


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