A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present

By Andrew Gordon | Go to book overview

Introduction
ENDURING IMPRINTS OF THE LONGER PAST

The rulers who took power in 1868 initiated changes that amounted to a modern revolution in Japan. To understand this time of transformation one must first pay close attention to the political, social, and cultural order that came together in the 1600s and to the many changes of the 1700s and 1800s. That history, of what is called the Tokugawa era (after the name of the ruling family), is the focus of Part 1. Before examining this fascinating period, however, newcomers to the study of early modern and modern Japan must be introduced to key features of geography, politics and international relations, and culture stretching back much further in time, all of which remained important in the modern era.


GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE

The territory of present-day Japan consists of a long, thin chain of islands about one hundred miles from the Korean peninsula at the closest point and five hundred miles from the coast of China. The four main islands are Kyushu, Honshu, Shikoku, and Hokkaido (Japanese rulers did not control the land or people of Hokkaido until the nineteenth century). This archipelago extends diagonally from the northeast to southwest for about twelve hundred miles, roughly the length of the eastern coast of the United States. One is never far from the ocean; the most inland point in the country is no more than eighty miles from the coast. The total area of Japan is just under 150,000 square miles, roughly the size of Montana. The area covered by lowland plains does not exceed 13 percent of total land; that occupied by plateau adds another 12 percent. Over two-thirds of the total land surface is made up of steep mountain districts. Rain is plentiful. A rainy season in June and early July comes between spring and a hot humid summer. The rainy season produces less intense downpours than the monsoons of other parts of Asia, but it has sufficed to enable irrigation and rice cultivation to succeed.

Several aspects of this geographic situation are relevant to Japan's modern history. The distance from the southern island of Kyushu to the Asian mainland was close enough to allow sea journeys more than two thousand years ago, but it was far enough to have made this a perilous journey. Until modern times this distance made it possible but unusual to launch military invasions from the continent or expeditions of conquest from Japan. This moderate distance also allowed people living in present-day Japan, both before the modern era and more recently, to hold an ambivalent sense of their relation to the cultures of the Asian continent. The Japanese people have been alternatively proud of their Chinese inheritance and defiantly assertive of an independent identity.

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