Japan seems to be synonymous today with the ultra-high-tech, the futuristic and the progressive. Its 6,000 islands house the largest city in the world, a sprawling metropolis that put even Beijing and Delhi to shame, as well as an electronics industry to rival California’s and the nearly the best life expectancy on the planet. Even their dates look ultramodern – the western world counts from a date some 2012 years ago in a year that technically didn’t exist. In Japan, it’s the year 24, one of the only countries in the world where the majority of the population are older than the calendar. For centuries, it endured a reputation for isolation, for independence and nationalism at the very eastern edge of the world – never invaded, never conquered, never fully understood by outsiders. While that was true for a remarkable 250 years, the result of a foreign policy decision that preserved Japan as a peaceful and medieval country until the 1860s, the other 1500 or so years of recorded history paint a different picture. Japan was never conquered by war, but the infectious cultures of China, South-East Asia, and later Europe would prove to shape everything we think of as Japanese. Japan was never split between smaller nations and eventually united, but it was constantly and bitterly divided – between daimyo and shogun, shogun and emperor, emperor and parliament. It’s been the ancient empire and the feudal backwater. It’s been the symbol of enlightenment philosophy and it’s been the greatest threat to democracy the Eastern Hemisphere’s ever known. And, most important of all, it invented the freaking ninja and the coolest military tactics since some guy crossed the Alps on elephants. And, best of all, Japan screams of holism all the way.
I guess the best place to start is in the 300AD, with a migration, because…well, everything about Holistic History seems to start with a migration, be it the Celts, the Polynesians or, as in this case, the awesomely named Yayoi. The Yayoi were a collection of tribes from Eastern China who, thanks to China’s so-ahead-of-its-time-it’s-just-not-fair credentials (they were a Roman Empire style superpower by then) brought with them bronze, iron, religion and foreign trade. Now, I’m not going to grossly generalise here, but if I had to name four things that turned a prehistoric tribal society into a classical civilisation, it would be bronze, iron, religion and foreign trade. That and military might, at least, and – what do you know – the first tribe to master that became Japan’s first imperial warlords, the Yamato. The Yamato, in an ironic twist for the founders of a nation that would go on to be so vastly different from them, loved the Chinese, and in a series of incidents somewhere in-between diplomacy and spying managed to steal Chinese technology, systems of government and law in one fell swoop. They even converted to Buddhism and started paying tribute to the Chinese – although one of the largest and richest armies in the world may have had something to do with the latter. In short, Japan had gone in only 300 years from a collection of stone-age tribes to a fully-fledged and powerful empire. Ironically, that empire would go on outlast its Chinese counterpart – a Yamato emperor still rules today.
This explosion of imported culture national unity brought Japan a Golden Age. Military leaders called Shogun became heroes, conquering the islands and mountains that divide Japan. Art and culture was developed, and the idea of being Japanese grew ever stronger. Europe’s dark ages never affected Japan (or, indeed, anywhere outside Europe), and it created a vastly different – and if anything more successful – society. Which makes it even stranger that it developed in such a similar way.
By the 1100s Japan was no longer a centralised, peaceful empire. It was something else entirely, something oddly European despite a complete lack of contact between the two cultures: Japan was feudal. It wasn’t exactly the same as their occidental counterparts – instead of the organised Christianity and god-given rights, Japanese feudalism was based on a secular philosophy called Confucianism which, amongst other things, installed a system of government that was somewhere in-between the Chain of Command and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – the Emperor was at the top, then his advisors, but then farmers because food was the most important resource, then craftsmen because they did honest work. At the bottom of the chain were the merchants, who were not deserving because they only moved and sold other people’s wares to make money. The urge to make a joke about merchant bankers in our time is almost killing me, but there’s history to do. Anyway, the system created a whole new class-system in Japan, and no-one would change Japanese history more than the newly-created warrior class – the Samurai. The Samurai were the semi-nobility of Japan, about 10% of the population, and guided more than anyone by Confucian philosophy, following Bushido – the Way of the Warrior. This combined art and killing, justifying the warfare with haiku poetry and calligraphy, the examples of honour and wisdom. They even allowed women, in a lot of cultures at the time the “weaker sex” to join their ranks – troupes of female samurai caught the attention of foreigners as a terrifying prospect. And samurai were the brute force behind the introduction of the longest lasting era in Japanese history – the Bakufu, or feudal dictatorship.
As the emperor relied more and more on the feudal lords for power under the new system, those lords became more and more influential. The top post was that prestigious military job – the Shogun, supreme commander of the kill-you-then-write-you-a-poem samurai. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that when you have so much power over the military in a feudal system, you get so much more power in the government. The Emperor was reduced to a kind of figurehead status – the real rulers of Japan became the Shogun and his advisors, the Bakufu. With their strong military focus, the Bakufu saw off Chinese aggression, Korean attempts at invasion, even the onslaught of the Mongols with the help of a typhoon that was promptly subbed the “Divine Wind”. But the system was unstable to its very core. The lords fought constantly to try and install their own family members to the Bakufu, even Shogunate, and the constant conflict combined with a series of earthquakes and even an ice age (There was a mini ice age in the 1400s. Seriously.) plunged Japan into a Civil war that would last almost two centuries. It would isolate Japan from the world once again as it engulfed the country in bloodshed, but from it would emerge its most famous exports – ninjas, poetry, and the government that would truly define what it was to be Japanese.
In the midst of the war, the best was yet to come.