Japan - From Tradition to World War I
November 10, 1988
from pages 401 - 433, Focus on Nations

Traditional Japanese society

The first Japanese probably got to the Japanese islands via the land bridge in between Korea and the islands themselves. They originated from China, and spread out among the islands of Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. At first they lived tribally, with many leaders, but eventually merged under one leader - the Emperor, supposed to have been descended from the Sun-Goddess Amaterasu. Because of this the Imperial family was greatly respected and never even challenged, let alone overthrown, by a rival family.

There were four main groups in Japanese society. The first was the daimyo. These were feudal lords, and they controlled territory and the workers on it. Their territory was called a feif, and within it their word was law. Traditionally, the strongest daimyo in the land became Shogun - this is person that carries out the Emperor's wishes. The Emperor himself had no real political power.

The second group were the sumarai. These were professional warriors, and they belonged to one specifc daimyo. They behaved in accordance with the code of behaviour known as bushido, which bound them to be completely loyal to their daimyo, and be willing to kill themselves instead of suffering disgrace. When one daimyo went to war against another it was the sumarais that actually fought.

The third group were the peasants. They paid high taxes to pay for the extravagances of the daimyo and sumarai. Sometimes they revolted, angered by the taxes. The fourth and last group were the merchants. Although they were of the lowest status, they often became quite wealthy - they increased their social status by marrying into sumarai families.

European intrusion

It was in 1543 that the first Europeans came into contact with the Japanese. These were some Portugese traders which were blown off course. Six years later Francis Xavier, a Jesuit missionary, arrived to introduce Christianity. They made friends with powerful daimyo and this let the religion prosper - this it did, and at one stage had 300 000 converts.

One of the daimyo who had "taken in" the Jesuits became suspicious of them, seeing them as the advance guard of an invasion. This feeling he gave to the Shogun, who thought that they were going to overthrow the Emperor and the Shogunate. He issued edicts to prevent the practising of Christianity in 1612 and 1613, but did not enforce them. He died in 1616, and it was his son that had to do the job. He did not either, that is, until 1637, when the city of Shimabara rebelled. Many of its inhabitants were Christians, and the Shogun thought that the Portugese and their religion were to blame. This resulted all nations except the Dutch being banned from trading, and then they were only allowed to call once a year.

This had the effect of cutting Japan off from the rest of the world, and this isolationism was to last for 250 years. The Shogunate were worried that the Europeans would invade, or that some of their subject daimyo would get hold of foreign weapons and rebel. The Shogunate also banned Japanese citizens from leaving the country, and if they got away, came back, and were caught, then they were put to death. This isolationism was called the "bamboo curtain".