The most comprehensive record of early Japan that remains was written by the Chinese some time before A.D. 300. It portrays the Japanese as law-abiding people, fond of drink, concerned with divination and ritual purity, familiar with agriculture (including wet-rice cultivation), expert at fishing and weaving, and living in a society where social differences were expressed through the use of tattooing or other bodily markings. Among the early rulers of Japan some were women, the most famous of whom is Himiko of Yamatai. Current mythology reconstructs the first Japanese state as created around a "divine" emperor, a direct descendant of the sun goddess Amatarasu, in about 660 B.C. , in what is now known as the Kinki region. Historical records dating to about the fifth century A.D. can be accepted as reasonably reliable. Early historical society was tribal in organization, divided into a large number of family groupings established as agricultural, craft, and ritual-specialist communities, some of which were exceedingly wealthy. In the early seventh century Chinese-style centralized bureaucratic rule was adopted; later, with the Taika reform in the mid-seventh century, many more Chinese institutions were embraced, followed by the building of the Chinese-style capital city of Nara in the eighth century. Although all authority theoretically was concentrated in the hands of the emperor, throughout Japanese history until the late nineteenth century, in contrast to China, emperors were usually dominated by a succession of court families and military rulers.
After the transfer in A.D. 794 of the capital to Heian-kyo, later to become Kyōto, a period of artistic development took place until the early twelfth century. During this period contacts with China were disrupted, allowing Japan to develop its own distinctive cultural forms. The world's first novel, The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, was written at this time together with other major literary works; Buddhism not only was consolidated as a religion but also became a political force to reckon with. A succession of civil dictators, all members of the Fujiwara family, manipulated successive emperors in order to control the country. Under them taxation of peasants became oppressive, but at the same time the state entered into opulent decline, leading to an eventual loss of power over the outlying regions. Competing dominant families, notably the Minamoto and the Taira, who had been thrust temporarily into the background by the Fujiwara, returned to Kyōto to impose military control there. The Taira ruled for thirty years but eventually succumbed to Minamoto Yoritomo, who ousted them and took firm control of Japan. Yoritomo went on to establish a military government in Kamakura in eastern Honshū and persuaded the emperor to grant him the hereditary title of shogun; thus began an era of military rule that lasted for seven centuries. It was at Kamakura that the samurai code of discipline and chivalry was conceived and developed, while the imperial household remained in Kyōto, producing a succession of puppet emperors.
The groundwork for feudalism, built on the ruins of the centralized Chinese-style bureaucratic state, was laid down during the Kamakura shogunate. On the whole, the lot of the Japanese peasants was better than that of European serfs in that they often retained some rights over land and largely were protected from crippling taxes. During the fourteenth century there was a short-lived restoration of imperial rule, followed by a new military government established by the Ashikaga family in Kyōto, which lasted for two centuries. This was a time of prosperity and the full flowering of Bushidō (the way of the warrior), including the aesthetic and religious expression of this discipline. The Portuguese Jesuit Francis Xavier first arrived in Kyushu during the sixteenth century, followed by other Christian missionaries and then traders. Toward the end of the century a plague of civil wars broke out in Japan, which continued until order finally was restored by the military leader Hideyoshi Toyotomi in 1590. The pacification and unification of the country was completed by the first of the Tokugawa shoguns, Ieyasu, who then moved the seat of the shogunate to Edo, now Tokyo. As part of the process of consolidation, the shogunate virtually isolated Japan from the outside world, a situation that lasted for more than 265 years. Ieyasu and his son persecuted foreign missionaries and Japanese who had converted to Christianity. All contact with foreigners was restricted to the island of Deshima off the coast of Nagasaki.
Japanese feudalism reached a final, centralized stage under the Tokugawas, and neo-Confucianism, with its hierarchical ordering of society, was made a central part of the ideology. Strict class divisions were enforced between samurai, peasants, merchants, and artisans. Respect and obedience were the code of the day. During this period literacy and numeracy became widespread, and the foundations for a modern society were well established. A self-conscious cultivation of indigenous Japanese traditions, including Shinto, took hold among certain samurai, who would become politically active in the eventual restoration of the emperor. At the same time Japan came increasingly under pressure to open its shores to the outside world, and the resulting internal turbulence led to the collapse of the shogunate. This was followed by the Meiji Restoration of 1868, in which the emperor once again gained full sovereignty and set up the imperial capital in the city that was known from then on as Tokyo.
During the Meiji era a modern nation-state was firmly consolidated, a constitution was promulgated, a central government was established, the Tokugawa class system was abolished, a national system of education was put in place, a modern legal code was adopted, and a formidable military and industrial machine was assembled. The entire country threw itself into the process of modernization, for which purpose European—and, to a much lesser extent, American—models were initially emulated. Japan's victories in both the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 and its annexation of Korea in 1910 established Japan as a world power. Its place in the modern world order was further consolidated at the end of World War I, which Japan had entered on Britain's side under the provision of the Anglo-Japan Alliance of 1902. During the 1920s the worldwide recession affected the Japanese economy, most particularly because of its great dependence on foreign trade. By 1925 most small industries had been crushed by the monopolies of the giant corporations headed by extremely wealthy and powerful families. Faltering confidence in the government was reinforced by the exposure of a number of scandals. The military, which was suspicious of both the giant corporations and politicians, seized the moment and thus helped propel Japan toward World War II, although undoubtedly the freezing of Japanese assets by the United States and the embargo placed by the Americans on oil shipments to Japan triggered an already inflammatory situation.
The Japanese finally surrendered after two atomic bombs had been dropped, one on Hiroshima and another on Nagasaki. During the American occupation, which lasted from 1945 to 1951, Shintō was abolished as a state religion; elections, in which women could vote for the first time, were held; new political parties were established; and a new constitution was formulated. Under Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida the country made formidable strides towards democratic self-government. Japan soon entered a phase of rapid economic growth, which has since been transformed into a low-growth economy geared to "internationalization." Today the Japanese are trying to integrate economic success with what they describe as a "humanistic" and more "spiritually" oriented life-style.