Japan: A Brief History


As I toured just a part of this beautiful country, I found the people to be very kind, attentive, efficient, and energetic. Their concern about health, the environment, transportation, aesthetics, education, shopping, work, culture, and so much more are ALL important to practically everyone I met. It just wasn’t limited to one person to one thing. I, along with my fellow teacher companions, were treated with the utmost respect and courtesy whether we were “on the clock” or not. It was constant and consistent. In the back of mind, I really did wonder how Americans would be treated in Japan. Afterall, even though it was 50 years ago, the serious bombings that took place from the US onto many Japanese cities and the use of nuclear bombs on Japan, there might have been some feelings that would be acted out upon us. So I traveled to Japan with some reservations, but with excitement to see and learn about a completely different culture than where I live, and to share and exchange ideas, going with an open mind. As I began this paragraph, it was amazing how kind and generous The People of Japan were/are. As I am now home writing this thought, I look forward to and hope to have the opportunity to return to such a wonderful country.

Japan is comprised of 3000 islands that are on the western edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire. This is the western boundary of the Pacific and Asian plates of the earth. There are frequent earthquakes and 60 active volcanoes in Japan due to this very sensitive boundary. The country has lots of mountains, but the greater Tokyo area is a giant flat plain along the Pacific coast that houses the world’s largest urban population (70% of Japan’s 120 million people). Deep lakes are found throughout the country, especially in mountain regions. Flatter areas and shallower that hold water are perfect conditions for growing rice. In the spring, the cherry blossoms start in the south of Okinawa and continue the blooming front to the north of Hokkaido.

Even though there is hustle and bustle, especially in the cities, there seems to be time carved out to light and burn incense to the dead, take a moment for contemplation, take time for a hot volcanic water foot bath, nap on tatami grass mats, have a cup of green tea, eat some red bean paste in ice cream or in a special pastry, or just sit in the park and contemplate the flowers in the garden or rippled sand around some rocks.

Shinto is considered to be the native religion, however, it seems that most Japanese practice Shintoism along with Buddhism, and in some cases Christianity. Some say that Confucianism is the third religion. Many homes will have alters to both Shinto and Buddha practices. Shinto “The Way of the Gods” is devoted more towards nature-living, dead, inanimate. There are lesser and greater kami (deities) shrines (jinja) all over Japan, along the roads, in the mountains, etc. The entrance ways to these shrines are normally marked by a structure that looks like “TI” or a pi sign called a “tori” with two rails or crossbars at the top and normally painted red. This structure might be enormous!  I was told that Shinto was used more for the “natury” types of things, Buddhism for more serious things like very blessings for a birth, serious illness, deaths and funerals, and Christianity for fun celebrations like weddings. Buddhism actually started in India, and traveled through China and Korea before arriving in Japan in the 6th Century. The complex “cosmological beliefs and morality of Buddhism” are found deeply rooted in today’s Japanese society. When approaching a temple and the name is written in English characters, sometimes you don’t know if you are coming to a Buddhist temple or a Shinto shrine. Well, here’s a way to tell the difference. Shinto are shrines. Buddhist are temples and the name ends in –ji or –dera. The temple usually will include a main hall (hondo), and the grounds may have a pagoda, cemetery or other buildings used by the monks (and oddly a Shinto shrine as well). In the cemeteries you will usually find stones, normally comprised of five stacked or carved stones (or cement). These memorial stones are known as gorin-to. A pagoda, found in the temple complex, might contain a relic of Buddha. The relic might be a fragment of bone. This relic according to what I have learned, is placed by a center pillar of the pagoda, but hidden from view. Pagodas are three or five storied, but access to the levels is rarely permitted. Level 1 is for the Earth. 2 for water; 3 for wood; 4 for air and wind; and 5 for sky. I am not sure what gets left out in a 3 level pagoda! I also understand there is not 100% agreement amongst “pagoda scholars” that this is indeed what the levels stand for! The original idea of a tower structure came from India’s “ Buddhist stupa”, which was redeveloped in China and then Japan created their own versions. Whatever the case, pagodas are interesting and beautiful, especially just after a rain at night when they are illuminated!

1868 is when Tokyo became capital of Japan when imperial rule had been reinstituted in 1868. This took place at the beginning of the “Meji Period” (1852-1912). The previous capital had been Kyoto. At this time military conscription and elimination of the samuri class was taking place to create a modern fighting force. It was also established as a goal for universal literacy.   In 1894 a war broke out between Japan and Korea over control of the Korean peninsula. Japan defeated China in this, but the strength of the fighting force would have to be improved if they were to contend with the West. In 1904 the Russo-Japanese war broke out and Korea became sectioned. In 1929 attempts to seize land from China and Russia would help to secure raw materials and improve national security took place. The Japanese domination (or what appeared to be to the Chinese at the time) lead to war in 1937 which was unwinnable for Japan. This lead to Japan becoming isolated from the world The US cut off Japanese access to oil, so the government implemented a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, USA in December of 1941. A few months later Japan took southeast Asia. By 1944 US bombers were striking heavily on Japan’s cities. 1945 led to the dropping at atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Russia entered the Pacific battle as well. At the end of the war, the emperor had renounced his divine status. The occupation by Allied Forces ended in 1952, and an industrial boon was taking place. Prosperity was on its way due to the export of electronics, cars, and other sophisticated technological devices all made in Japan. Japan, historically, has been isolated from the rest of the world. In the 1600’s English, Dutch, Spanish and other governments were making offers to trade. Other information indicates that these overtures were not well accepted. Dutch trade was allowed to some extent, but Japan pretty well isolated for the next two hundred years.