Modern Japan: A History in Documents

Modern Japan: A History in Documents

Modern Japan: A History in Documents

Modern Japan: A History in Documents


The civilization of Japan is an ancient one, and by the time the first Western visitors arrived in 1542, the Japanese people were as highly educated as any in the world and enjoyed a sophisticated culture. From the sixteenth century on, the country's history was shaped by a tension between its people's thirst to understand foreign institutions and customs and their determination to assert and preserve its native traditions. InModern Japan, James Huffman tells the rich and dynamic story of this history through a fascinating range of primary source documents.

A picture essay is dedicated to the tumultuous decade and a half following the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry and the U. S. Navy in 1853, which led to an unprecedented opening of Japan to the West and accompanying turmoil. While many Japanese welcomed the strangers, "men of zeal" signed blood oaths to drive out the barbarians. The picture essay explores this cultural clash, with American and Japanese portraits of Perry pointing up the differences in attitude toward this divisive figure, and a photograph of a Japanese diplomatic mission to Washington dramatically underlining the cultural differences between the Japanese and the Westerners. The essay also demonstrates the new mixture of cultures, as traditional Japanese art forms depict the lively foreign business district in Yokohama. This cultural clash led to peasant uprisings and a coup, illustrated in ink and paint, that brought an end to the stable, introverted Tokugawa rule and signaled the beginning of a new era for Japan.

Other primary sources in this collection include memoirs, school textbooks, the prison diary of a woman involved in a plot to assassinate the emperor, political speeches, a chilling eyewitness account of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and a comic book description of Adam Smith's economic theories. Taken with the author's illuminating commentary, these diverse voices trace Japan's history from its first uneasy interactions with the Western world to the point where Japanese culture, goods, and people-from sushi, ramen noodles, karaoke, videos, anime, and automobiles to major-league baseball players-have come to pervade the world as a part of the common international heritage.


Japan already possessed an ancient civilization when the first Western visitors, a group of shipwrecked Portuguese sailors, stumbled onto the coast of southern Tanegashima island in 1542. Though a young country in comparison with its neighbor China, this archipelago nation had been ruled at least nominally by emperors for more than a thousand years and had boasted a welldeveloped, community-based culture for a full two millennia. The Japanese people were as highly educated as any on the globe, and the country's literary and art worlds were sophisticated. It was little wonder that the first European arrivals called the Japanese the [best race yet discovered.] Japanese culture was, after all, well in advance of that of Europe.

Until the eighth century, Japan's central regions were ruled directly by the imperial Yamato family, a clan said to have descended from the sun goddess and to have ruled these divinely created islands since 660 BCE, when the first emperor, Jimmu, came down from the heavens. The family's rule had peaked in the eighth century at Nara, a capital city of 200,000 people where taste and elegance vied with intricate law codes, adapted from China, to make Japan a model of progress. A fifty-three-foot statue of Buddha, dedicated in 752 CE and covered in 15,000 pounds of gold, showcased the new importance of Buddhism, as well as the ruling family's wealth. Although the emperors lost much of their political power to a noble family named Fujiwara after the capital moved north to Kyoto (then called Heian) to get away from Nara's meddling Buddhist influence at the end of the century, the emphasis on taste and elegance remained. During the 400 peaceful years in which Heian dominated Japanese life, a group of women produced brilliant works of literature, including what has been called the world's first novel, the Tale of Genji, while men vied for esteem by showing off their learning, and everyone competed to be the best dressed and the most elegant calligraphers.

The mood turned darker near the end of the 1100s, when a warrior family named Minamoto took control of the country by military . . .

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