Japan is a large, highly industrialized island nation located off the eastern shore lines of Asia. Japan’s captivating history includes samurai warriors, the Bushido code, the Meiji Restoration, the Nanking Massacre and much more.
During the 1500’s, power was decentralized in Japan, which was torn apart by warfare between competing feudal lords (Daimyo) for nearly a century.
During the Heian Period (794-1185), the samurai were the armed supporters of wealthy landowners–many of whom left the imperial court to seek their own fortunes after being shut out of power by the powerful Fujiwara clan.
The word “samurai” roughly translates to “those who serve.” (Another, more general word for a warrior is “Bushi,” from which Bushido is derived; this word lacks the connotations of service to a master.)
The Samurai, members of a powerful military caste in feudal Japan, began as provincial warriors before rising to power in the 12th century with the beginning of the country’s first military dictatorship, known as the shogunate.
As servants of the Daimyos, or great lords, the samurai backed up the authority of the shogun and gave him power over the mikado (emperor). The Samurai would dominate Japanese government and society until the Meiji Restoration of 1868 led to the abolition of the feudal system.
Despite being deprived of their traditional privileges, many of the samurai would enter the elite ranks of politics and industry in modern Japan.
More importantly, the traditional samurai code of honor, discipline and morality known as Bushido–or “the way of the warrior”–was revived and made the basic code of conduct for much of Japanese society.
The prestigious but largely powerless imperial court named Ieyasu as shogun (or supreme military leader) in 1603, beginning a dynasty that would rule Japan for the next two-and-a-half centuries.
Japan’s Tokugawa (or Edo) period, which lasted from 1603 to 1867, would be the final era of traditional Japanese government, culture and society before the Meiji Restoration of 1868 toppled the long-reigning Tokugawa shoguns and propelled the country into the modern era.
Tokugawa Ieyasu’s dynasty of shoguns presided over 250 years of peace and prosperity in Japan, including the rise of a new merchant class and increasing urbanization. To guard against external influence, they also worked to close off Japanese society from Westernizing influences, particularly Christianity.
But with the Tokugawa shogunate growing increasingly weak by the mid-19th century, two powerful clans joined forces in early 1868 to seize power as part of an “imperial restoration” named for Emperor Meiji.
The Meiji Restoration spelled the beginning of the end for feudalism in Japan, and would lead to the emergence of modern Japanese culture, politics and society.
In late 1937, over a period of six weeks, Imperial Japanese Army forces brutally murdered hundreds of thousands of people–including both soldiers and civilians–in the Chinese city of Nanking (or Nanjing).
The horrific events are known as the Nanking Massacre or the Rape of Nanking, as between 20,000 and 80,000 women were sexually assaulted.
Nanking, then the capital of Nationalist China, was left in ruins, and it would take decades for the city and its citizens to recover from the savage attacks.
Following a bloody victory in Shanghai during the Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese turned their attention towards Nanking.
Fearful of losing them in battle, Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek ordered the removal of nearly all official Chinese troops from the city, leaving it defended by untrained auxiliary troops.
Chiang also ordered the city held at any cost, and forbade the official evacuation of its citizens. Many ignored this order and fled, but the rest were left to the mercy of the approaching enemy.
A small group of Western businessmen and missionaries, the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone, attempted to set up a neutral area of the city that would provide refuge for Nanking’s citizens.
The safety zone, opened in November 1937, was roughly the size of New York’s Central Park and consisted of more than a dozen small refugee camps.
On December 1, the Chinese government abandoned Nanking, leaving the International Committee in charge. All remaining citizens were ordered into the safety zone for their protection.
There are no official numbers for the death toll in the Nanking Massacre, though estimates range from 200,000 to 300,000 people.
Soon after the end of the war, Matsui and his lieutenant Tani Hisao, were tried and convicted for war crimes by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East and were executed. Anger over the events at Nanking continues to color Sino-Japanese relations to this day.
The true nature of the massacre has been disputed and exploited for propaganda purposes by historical revisionists, apologists and Japanese nationalists. Some claim the numbers of deaths have been inflated, while others have denied that any massacre occurred.
In the Land of the Rising Sun, ancient temples sit alongside neon wonderlands and shinto shrines offer pockets of peace amid metropolises. Add tea ceremonies, snow monkeys, sushi, kimonos, and karaoke to the mix, and you’ve got one of the world’s most fascinating countries.
Japan is an island country in East Asia made up of 6.852 islands, the largest four of which make up about 97% of the population.
Reconsider travel to Japan due to Covid-19. Read the Department of State’s Covid-19 page before you plan any international travel. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a Level 4 Travel Health Notice for Japan due to Covid-19.
ABC Flash Point Travel & History News 2021.