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Japan’s recorded history begins in AD 400 with one group, the Yamato clan, controlling much of the central and western lands in the country. The Yamato clan conquered its rivals and also introduced the concept of an imperial court similar to China’s court. Buddhism was introduced to Japan by way of neighboring Korea at about this time. Much of the country’s early history prior to the Tokugawa period, which began in 1603, is a story of harsh warlords, each controlling his own small area and fighting frequently with neighbors or intruders.
Japan, like many of its Asian neighbors, was changed by the waves of foreigners who came seeking trade and riches. Before the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japan was a closed and secretive society with the warlords struggling with each other. Foreign influences came first from China and Korea, then from Western nations.
In 1543, Portuguese ships brought traders and missionaries to Japan; Spanish, Dutch, and English traders soon followed. The Tokugawa were a particularly successful family of shoguns who managed to take control over most of the country in the early 17th century. They became distrustful of the foreigners and banned Christianity; for the next 250 years (1603-1867), Tokugawa shoguns sealed off Japan from all outsiders. Only the Dutch were allowed to trade at the port of Nagasaki. During this period of isolation, the shoguns controlled the country and divided the people into four classes: samurai (warriors), farmers, craftsmen, and merchants. A rigid system dictated how each class dressed, lived, and worked. The samurai were at the top of this class structure and were both feared and fearsome. The merchants were at the bottom and soon resented their status.
In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry sailed an American fleet into Tokyo Bay and forced the Japanese to open the country to trade. From that point, the country quickly developed into a modern power with a large imperial army.
Throughout the latter part of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, Japan was often at war with neighboring China and Russia over territorial claims. A militaristic society dominated Japanese life. In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria and followed this with an invasion of China in 1936. On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan launched a sneak attack on American forces at Pearl Harbor and initiated a war with the United States. By 1942, Japanese military successes in the Pacific were waning. Forced to retreat island by island back to Japan, the Japanese military finally surrendered after the United States dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Soviet Union declared war on Japan in 1945.
After a post World War II occupation under United States general Douglas MacArthur, Japan regained full sovereignty in 1952. In 1972, the United States returned the Ryuku Island including Okinawa to Japan thus restoring Japan to its original boundaries. Beginning in the 1970s, Japan grew into a great economic power of worldwide banking, industry, and automotive industry.