Historical Perspective

Historical Perspective

Minna-san, konbanwa!

Today, I’ll be talking about history!

Not really one of my favorite things, but I want you to know more about my home and the events that shaped it. There are many significant events that shaped today’s Japanese culture and the world, but I don’t want to put you to sleep so here’s the three major and minor events that I think shaped today’s Japan!

3 major historical events from Japan’s history

    October, 1868: Meiji Restoration

The Meiji government carried out a series of reform, such as politics, economy, and law. The Meiji Restoration transfigured Japan into the modern state which had the first Western nation-state organization in East Asia.

(Global History Regents Review, 2013)

(Global History Regents Review, 2013)

(Pictured above is a wood cutout representation of the changes that the Meiji Restoration brought about.)

In 1868 the Tokugawa shôgun (“great general”), who ruled Japan in the feudal period, lost his power and the emperor was restored to the supreme position. The emperor took the name Meiji (“enlightened rule”) as his reign name; this event was known as the Meiji Restoration.

The Reign of the Meiji Emperor

When the Meiji emperor was restored as head of Japan in 1868, the nation was a militarily weak country, was primarily agricultural, and had little technological development. It was controlled by hundreds of semi-independent feudal lords. The Western powers — Europe and the United States — had forced Japan to sign treaties that limited its control over its own foreign trade and required that crimes concerning foreigners in Japan be tried not in Japanese but in Western courts. When the Meiji period ended, with the death of the emperor in 1912, Japan had

· a highly centralized, bureaucratic government;
· a constitution establishing an elected parliament;
· a well-developed transport and communication system;
· a highly educated population free of feudal class restrictions;
· an established and rapidly growing industrial sector based on the latest technology; and
· a powerful army and navy.

Japan had regained complete control of its foreign trade and legal system, and, by fighting and winning two wars (one of them against a major European power, Russia), it had established full independence and equality in international affairs. In a little more than a generation, Japan had exceeded its goals, and in the process had changed its whole society. Japan’s success in modernization has created great interest in why and how it was able to adopt Western political, social, and economic institutions in so short a time.

One answer is found in the Meiji Restoration itself. This political revolution “restored” the emperor to power, but he did not rule directly. He was expected to accept the advice of the group that had overthrown the shôgun, and it was from this group that a small number of ambitious, able, and patriotic young men from the lower ranks of the samurai emerged to take control and establish the new political system. At first, their only strength was that the emperor accepted their advice and several powerful feudal domains provided military support. They moved quickly, however, to build their own military and economic control. By July 1869 the feudal lords had been requested to give up their domains, and in 1871 these domains were abolished and transformed into prefectures of a unified central state.

The feudal lords and the samurai class were offered a yearly stipend, which was later changed to a one-time payment in government bonds. The samurai lost their class privileges, when the government declared all classes to be equal. By 1876 the government banned the wearing of the samurai’s swords; the former samurai cut off their top knots in favor of Western-style haircuts and took up jobs in business and the professions.

The armies of each domain were disbanded, and a national army based on universal conscription was created in 1872, requiring three years’ military service from all men, samurai and commoner alike. A national land tax system was established that required payment in money instead of rice, which allowed the government to stabilize the national budget. This gave the government money to spend to build up the strength of the nation.


In an effort to unite the Japanese nation in response to the Western challenge, the Meiji leaders created a civic ideology centered around the emperor. Although the emperor wielded no political power, he had long been viewed as a symbol of Japanese culture and historical continuity. He was the head of the Shintô religion, Japan’s native religion. Among other beliefs, Shintô holds that the emperor is descended from the sun goddess and the gods who created Japan and therefore is semidivine. Westerners of that time knew him primarily as a ceremonial figure. The Meiji reformers brought the emperor and Shintô to national prominence, replacing Buddhism as the national religion, for political and ideological reasons. By associating Shintô with the imperial line, which reached back into legendary times, Japan had not only the oldest ruling house in the world, but a powerful symbol of age-old national unity.

The people seldom saw the emperor, yet they were to carry out his orders without question, in honor to him and to the unity of the Japanese people, which he represented. In fact, the emperor did not rule. It was his “advisers,” the small group of men who exercised political control, that devised and carried out the reform program in the name of the emperor.

Social and Economic Changes

The abolition of feudalism made possible tremendous social and political changes. Millions of people were suddenly free to choose their occupation and move about without restrictions. By providing a new environment of political and financial security, the government made possible investment in new industries and technologies.

The government led the way in this, building railway and shipping lines, telegraph and telephone systems, three shipyards, ten mines, five munitions works, and fifty-three consumer industries (making sugar, glass, textiles, cement, chemicals, and other important products). This was very expensive, however, and strained government finances, so in 1880 the government decided to sell most of these industries to private investors, thereafter encouraging such activity through subsidies and other incentives. Some of the samurai and merchants who built these industries established major corporate conglomerates called zaibatsu, which controlled much of Japan’s modern industrial sector.

The government also introduced a national educational system and a constitution, creating an elected parliament called the Diet. They did this to provide a good environment for national growth, win the respect of the Westerners, and build support for the modern state. In the Tokugawa period, popular education had spread rapidly, and in 1872 the government established a national system to educate the entire population. By the end of the Meiji period, almost everyone attended the free public schools for at least six years. The government closely controlled the schools, making sure that in addition to skills like mathematics and reading, all students studied “moral training,” which stressed the importance of their duty to the emperor, the country and their families.

The 1889 constitution was “given” to the people by the emperor, and only he (or his advisers) could change it. A parliament was elected beginning in 1890, but only the wealthiest one percent of the population could vote in elections. In 1925 this was changed to allow all men (but not yet women) to vote.

To win the recognition of the Western powers and convince them to change the unequal treaties the Japanese had been forced to sign in the 1850s, Japan changed its entire legal system, adopting a new criminal and civil code modeled after those of France and Germany. The Western nations finally agreed to revise the treaties in 1894, acknowledging Japan as an equal in principle, although not in international power.

The International Climate: Colonialism and Expansion

In 1894 Japan fought a war against China over its interest in Korea, which China claimed as a vassal state. The Korean peninsula is the closest part of Asia to Japan, less than 100 miles by sea, and the Japanese were worried that the Russians might gain control of that weak nation. Japan won the war and gained control over Korea and gained Taiwan as a colony. Japan’s sudden, decisive victory over China surprised the world and worried some European powers.

At this time the European nations were beginning to claim special rights in China — the French, with their colony in Indochina (today’s Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia), were involved in South China; the British also claimed special rights in South China, near Hong Kong, and later the whole Yangtze valley; and the Russians, who were building a railway through Siberia and Manchuria, were interested in North China. After Japan’s victory over China, Japan signed a treaty with China which gave Japan special rights on China’s Liaotung peninsula, in addition to the control of Taiwan. But Japan’s victory was short lived. Within a week, France, Russia, and Germany combined to pressure Japan to give up rights on the Liaotung peninsula. Each of these nations then began to force China to give it ports, naval bases, and special economic rights, with Russia taking the same Liaotung peninsula that Japan had been forced to return.

The Japanese government was angered by this incident and drew the lesson that for Japan to maintain its independence and receive equal treatment in international affairs, it was necessary to strengthen its military even further. By 1904, when the Russians were again threatening to establish control over Korea, Japan was much stronger. It declared war on Russia and, using all its strength, won victory in 1905 (beginning with a surprise naval attack on Port Arthur, which gained for Japan the control of the China Sea). Japan thus achieved dominance over Korea and established itself a colonial power in East Asia.

(Asia for Educators | Columbia University, 2013)


    September 18, 1931: Military conflict occurred between Japan and the Republic of China. This is called the “Manchurian Incident” (Mukden Incident). Bordering on this military conflict, “Second Sino-Japanese War” in 1937 – 1945 occurred.

On September 18, 1931, near the city Mukden in Manchuria (today Shenyang), a railroad owned by Japan’s South Manchuria Railway was blown up (which was totally not a false flag operation). The Japanese military generals accused Chinese terrorists of this act, and used it as an excuse for the full-scale invasion of Manchuria. The civilian government in Tokyo was not consulted at all in this matter, but Emperor Hirohito quickly gave up on the idea of punishing the offenders, since at this point the civilian government was just a puppet of the Imperial Japanese Army.

The Japanese generals then decided to set up a puppet government in the occupied north, called Manchukuo (“the Manchu State”) and placed the last emperor Pu Yiback on the throne.

The League of Nations demanded that Japan withdraw its armies from Manchuria, but the Japanese public fully supported a war of expansionism in Asia. So the Japanese gave the international community the middle finger by withdrawing from the Security Council. This set the stage for an inevitable war, even though the Sino-Japanese War did not break out until 1937.

(TV Topes, 2013)

On September 18, 1931, at approximately ten o’clock, Japanese soldiers detonated an explosive on the Southern Manchurian Railway in the area of Liutiaohu. In response, Chinese soldiers retaliated with gunfire, playing perfectly into the hands of a covert Japanese plot to secure their interests in Manchuria. Colonel Itagaki Seishiro andLieutenant Colonel Kanji Ishiwara planned that day’s events and are largely responsible for the fall of Mukden. The conflict that remains is that the explosion occured about twenty-five miles away from the walled city of Mukden. Japanese soldiers came to reinforce their troops, but after settling the conflict in Liutiaohu, they continued North to Mukden where 10,000 Chinese soldiers resided in the military barracks. Attacks on the walled city lasted until 3:40 AM the next day when at that time Japanese soldiers had won control of the city.

(Wake Forest University, 2013)

(Wake Forest University, 2013)

*Manchuria sits to the Northeast of China and is important
strategically because it gives Japan a foothold in Asia and
provides a buffer from Russia.

Starting around September 12, nearly a week before the incident, there were several reports of foul play. Japanese had been receiving a large amount of munitions and the Chief of Police in Mukden reported that there may be more troops needed to protect the Japanese in Mukden.

The reports were relayed on to the Foreign Minister who grew suspicious of the safety in Mukden. He immediately organized a meeting where he appointed General Tatekawa to stop the Mukden plot. General Honjo who was in command of the forces in Manchuria, but at the time stationed in Port Arthur, appointed Itagaki to be Tatekawa’s escort. Itagaki needed to bring Tatekawa to his side, or the plot would have to be cancelled. When Tatekawa arrived on the 18th, Itagaki took him out drinking and the two retired around 9:00 p.m.


The part of the railway that was
 destroyed in the explosion.

The two were later woken up at around 10:30 when the word came back about the explosion. At this time Japanese and Chinese were fighting in retaliation. The howitzers proved to be effective, as no Chinese planes were able to take flight. Japanese troops moved north along the railway and by early the next morning, Mukden was under Japanese control.

One Lieutenant Kawamoto of the Kwantung Army was on night patrol with six other officers when they heard an explosion in the distance. The company ran to the site of the explosion and found that about 31 in. of the track had been destroyed. Upon inspection, the officers were fired upon and in response to the firing, pursued their aggressors about two hundred yards into the woods before being met with a larger group of Chinese soldiers.

In response, Kawamoto called for back ups from another company a couple hundred yards away, and in awaiting for their arrival noticed an incoming train on the railway. The train, missing warnings from the Japanese forces continued over the scene of the incident, swayed, and continued on its course.

When the reinforcements arrived, Japanese forces were estimated at some five hundred soldiers, and the Chinese forces 10,000. In the face of a large opposition, Japanese forces continued into the barracks trying to ensure their safety by overwhelming the unexpected forces. Fighting continued into the next morning at about 6:00 a.m. when the entire barracks were captured.

(Wake Forest University, 2013)

The two officers were fueled in their ambitions by the political and economic spectrum of Japan at the time. (1) After the Mukden Incident occurred, the Kwantung Army continued to travel west and south into the borders of China. The Japanese confronted the officers in charge, but when they did, the Kwantung Army threatened to declare their own independence from the Japanese government and establish their own. The Japanese government conceded to the army’s demands, and was now placed into a military battle with China and what would later be the rest of the world.

(Wake Forest University, 2013)

1. http://www.wfu.edu/history/StudentWork/AsiaPacificWar/asia-pacific-mike/asia-pacific/background.htm

  • For more on the Second Sino-Japanese War, go here. 


  • Go here for the timeline on how the Mukden Incident was the beginning of a series of chain events that caused World War II. 


  • If you want to read about politics, trade, etc. and all that good stuff, head here.


If you want to read very briefly about the Chinese involvement, please go to the first website. The second website tells the impact of the Mukden Incident on today’s China by citizens celebrating the 81st anniversary of the Mukden Incident.



  • As well, if you want to read in specific about the United States attempt at resolving the incident by the proposal of the Stimson Doctrine, please go to this site.


③    August, 1945: Japan accepted The Potsdam Declaration and World War II ended.

(Wikipedia, 2013)

(Wikipedia, 2013)

(Pictured above is Japanese Foreign Affairs minister Shigemitsu signing the written agreement that formalized the surrender.)

On this day in 1945, just a day after the bombing of Nagasaki, Japan submits its acquiescence to the Potsdam Conference terms of unconditional surrender, as President Harry S. Truman orders a halt to atomic bombing.

Emperor Hirohito, having remained aloof from the daily decisions of prosecuting the war, rubber-stamping the decisions of his War Council, including the decision to bombPearl Harbor, finally felt compelled to do more. At the behest of two Cabinet members, the emperor summoned and presided over a special meeting of the Council and implored them to consider accepting the terms of the Potsdam Conference, which meant unconditional surrender. “It seems obvious that the nation is no longer able to wage war, and its ability to defend its own shores is doubtful.” The Council had been split over the surrender terms; half the members wanted assurances that the emperor would maintain his hereditary and traditional role in a postwar Japan before surrender could be considered. But in light of the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, Nagasaki on August 9, and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, as well as the emperor’s own request that the Council “bear the unbearable,” it was agreed: Japan would surrender.

(History, 2013)

On 6 and 9 August, a single powerful new weapon dropped on each of the cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki had leveled those places. How many more atomic bombs the United States had in its arsenal the Japanese did not know. On the day Nagasaki was bombed, the Soviet Union, whom the Japanese had hoped would mediate a peace, declared war and launched an invasion of Manchuria. Despite the clear need to end the war, a few military leaders conspired to effect a coup d’état in order to reverse the emperor’s decision, but were foiled in the attempt.

The final words of the emperor’s recorded surrender message, broadcast to the nation by radio the next day, encapsulated the Japanese feelings about the surrender: “It is according to the dictates of time and fate that We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable.”

(Naval History Blog, 2010)


3 minor historical events 

①  1549: Francisco de Xavier (the priest of a Catholic church born in Spain Navarre, a missionary) introduced Christianity to Japan for the first time in 1549, and lead many people to the Christian faith.

(Blogspot, 2010)

(Blogspot, 2010)

On this day in 1549, St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552) reached Japan. Francis had a major impact in Japan. He was the first Jesuit to go to Japan as a missionary. He brought with him paintings of the Madonna and the Madonna and Child. These paintings were used to help teach the Japanese about Christianity. There was a huge language barrier as Japanese was unlike other languages the missionaries had previously encountered. Artwork continued to play a role in Francis’s teachings in Asia. For several decades the Jesuits were the only missionaries in Asia. The folliowing is from a 1552 letter he sent to the Jesuits in Europe:



②  1853: The American navy east India fleet which Matthew Calbraith Perry commands arrived at Japan. Convention of Peace and Amity between the United States of America and the Empire of Japan was concluded in March, 1854 of the next year. Japan which was closing the country according to this treaty was made to open the country to foreign interaction.

(Griffiths World Headquarters, 2013)

(Griffiths World Headquarters, 2013)

(Pictured above is first visit of Perry’s ships.)

Japan chose to isolate itself in the 1600’s when the Tokugawa Shogunate took control. A Shogun is a military leader in Japan. The Tokugawa Shogunate was a family who controlled Japan for about 200 years. Tokugawa took control after defeating all the opposing feudal lords. After Tokugawa got control of the power, the powerless emperor gave him the title of Shogun. Tokugawa promptly replaced all the feudal lords with friends and allies. Each lord had to spend one year in the capital every two years so the Shogun could keep an eye on them.

No Europeans were allowed into Japan except the Dutch who were allowed to land a ship every year. The Dutch had enough political pull to make sure that no foreign nations except themselves were allowed to trade at all with Japan.

(Griffiths World Headquarters, 2013)

On July 8, 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy, commanding a squadron of two steamers and two sailing vessels, sailed into Tôkyô harbor aboard the frigate Susquehanna. Perry, on behalf of the U.S. government, forced Japan to enter into trade with the United States and demanded a treaty permitting trade and the opening of Japanese ports to U.S. merchant ships. This was the era when all Western powers were seeking to open new markets for their manufactured goods abroad, as well as new countries to supply raw materials for industry. It was clear that Commodore Perry could impose his demands by force. The Japanese had no navy with which to defend themselves, and thus they had to agree to the demands.

Perry’s small squadron itself was not enough to force the massive changes that then took place in Japan, but the Japanese knew that his ships were just the beginning of Western interest in their islands. Russia, Britain, France, and Holland all followed Perry’s example and used their fleets to force Japan to sign treaties that promised regular relations and trade. They did not just threaten Japan — they combination their navies on several occasions to defeat and disarm the Japanese feudal domains that defied them.

(Asia for Educators | Columbia University, 2013)


③ History of Manga

(Lambiek, 2013)

(Lambiek, 2013)

(Pictured above is the manga Norakuro mentioned below.)

Ganbatte! The Fight for Children’s Hearts

In the years leading up to World War I, Japan’s leaders had ambitious plans. Once isolated from the world, the island nation set its sights on extending its influence into Asia, especially nearby Korea and Manchuria.

Against this backdrop, magazines inspired by Western comics including Shonen Club for boys and Shojo Club for girls were established in 1915 and 1923. These popular publications included illustrated stories, photo features and light-hearted fun for young readers.

However, by the 1930’s, these same magazines featured heroic tales of Japanese soldiers, and showed its cheerful characters holding guns and preparing for battle. Manga characters such as Suiho Tagawa’s Norakuro (Black Stray) the dog took up arms, to instill values of sacrifice on the home front and valor on the battlefield in even the youngest Japanese reader. “Ganbatte”, meaning “do your best” became the rallying cry for manga created in this period, as Japan and its people prepared for the conflict and sacrifices ahead.

(DESUAU | Blogspot, 2013)

(DESUAU | Blogspot, 2013)

(Pictured above is Taro Yashima.)

Paper Warriors and Propaganda Messengers

With Japan’s entry in to World War II in 1937, government officials cracked down on dissident artists and artwork that was counter to the party line. Cartoonists were required to join a government-supported trade organization, Shin Nippon Mangaka Kyokai (The New Cartoonists Association of Japan) to even be published in Manga Magazine, the only comics magazine to be published regularly amidst wartime paper shortages.

Mangaka who weren’t fighting on the front lines, working in the factories, or banned from cartooning drew comics that followed the government’s guidelines for acceptable content. Manga that appeared in this period included gentle, family-style humor making light of the shortages and ‘make-do’ inventiveness of wartime housewives or images demonizing the enemy and glorifying bravery on the battlefield.

Manga’s ability to transcend language and cultural barriers also made it a perfect medium for propaganda. As Tokyo Rose’s radio broadcasts encouraged allies to give up the fight, illustrated leaflets created by Japanese cartoonists were also used to undermine the morale of the Allied soldiers in the Pacific arena. For example, Ryuichi Yokoyama, the creator of Fuku-chan (Little Fuku) was sent to the war zone to create comics in service of the Japanese military.

But the Allied forces also fought this war of images with manga, thanks in part to Taro Yashima, a dissident artist who left Japan and resettled in America. Yashima’s comic, Unganaizo (The Unlucky Soldier) told a tale of a peasant soldier who died in the service of corrupt leaders. The comic was often found on the corpses of Japanese soldiers in the battlefield, a testament to its ability to affect the fighting spirit of its readers. Yashima later went on to illustrate several award-winning children’s books, including Crow Boy and Umbrella.

(Wikipedia, 2013)

(Wikipedia, 2013)

(Pictured above is a comic strip from Sazae-san.)

Post-War Manga: Red Books and Rental Libraries

After Japan’s surrender in 1945, American armed forces began their post-war occupation, and the Land of the Rising Sun picked itself up and began the process of rebuilding and reinventing itself once again. While the years immediately following the war were filled with hardship, many restrictions on artistic expression were lifted and manga artists found themselves free to tell a variety of stories once more.

Humorous four-panel comic strips about family life such as Sazae-san were a welcome reprieve from the harshness of post-war life. Created by Machiko Hasegawa, Sazae-san was a light-hearted look at daily life through the eyes of a young housewife and her extended family. A pioneering female mangaka in a male-dominated field, Hasegawa enjoyed many years of success drawing Sazae-san, which ran for almost 30 years in the Asahi Shinbun (Asahi Newspaper)Sazae-san was also made into an animated TV series and radio serial.


(Pictured above is kamishibai.)

The shortages and economic hardships of the post-war years made purchasing toys and comic books a luxury that was out of reach for many children. However, manga was still enjoyed by the masses through kami-shibai (paper plays), a kind of portable picture theater. Traveling storytellers would bring their mini-theater to neighborhoods, along with traditional sweets that they’d sell to their young audience and narrate stories based on the images drawn on cardboard.

Many prominent manga artists, such as Sampei Shirato (creator of Kamui Den) and Shigeru Mizuki (creator of the Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro) made their mark as kami-shibai illustrators. The heyday of kami-shibai slowly came to an end with the arrival of television in the 1950’s.

Kamishibai: http://www.kamishibai.com/history.html

Another affordable option for readers were kashibonya or rental libraries. For a small fee, readers could enjoy a variety of titles without having to pay full-price for their own copy. In the typically tight-quarters of most urban Japanese homes, this was doubly convenient, since it allowed readers to enjoy their favorite comics without taking up extra storage space. This concept continues today with the kissaten or manga cafes in Japan.


After the war, hardback manga collections, once the backbone of mainstream comics publishing in Japan were too expensive for most readers. Out of this void came a low-cost alternative, akabonAkabon or ”red books” were named for their prominent use of red ink to add tone to black and white printing. These cheaply-printed, pocket-sized comics cost anywhere from 10 to 50 yen (less than 15 cents US), and were sold at candy shops, festivals and by street vendors, making them very affordable and accessible.

Akabon were most popular from 1948-1950, and gave several struggling manga artists their first big break. One such artist was Osamu Tezuka the man who would forever change the face of comics in Japan.


Hope you enjoyed this!

Ja ne! (Bye!)





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