Cherry Blossoms, Mon Amour: A Brief Survey of the History of Japan

by Philip J. Malebranche

This survey of Japanese history was a product of a job that I acquired with the help of the New York City employment agency for those in the City’s shelter system, called the Shelter Exit Transition Program (SET), run by the City’s Human Resources Administration (HRA). I was hired as a writer in a firm that import products from Japan. The topic of this essay obviously is directly unrelated to homelessness; however, this writing shows the work of one person experiencing homelessness. The addition of this piece, here, is to demonstrate the regrettable preconceptions of many regarding the poor and unstably housed. The position, and this writing, date from 2016.

Japan’s history dates from pre-historic times. During the Ice Age a land mass permitted human access from the Asian continent to what later became a group of islands. Japan is an archipelago that spans 3,000 kilometers off the east coast of the mainland. Its location near four tectonic plates is the reason for the 1,000 earthquakes that occur there, annually. Forty active volcanoes also shape the lives of the population. Much of the terrain is mountainous and rugged. The resulting strong river currents and the flooding push the inhabitants toward the coasts for easier transportation and communication. Rich volcanic soil offers abundant vegetation, which spurs domestic consumption and foreign trade. The early historic period is known as the Jomon period.

A second phase is called the Yayoi period, during which influences from the mainland arrived from across the sea, starting in the first millennium BCE. The Yayoi people may have been migrants from the Korean Peninsula. They introduced metal-working, weaving and rice cultivation. Influences from abroad would continue throughout its history, enriching Japan’s culture—even as they sow doubts among its people about ethnic authenticity.

Buddhism is among the significant imports to the archipelago, appearing between 600 and 400 BCE. The religion arrived with a writing system—and a way to produce paper--from China, therefore sparking development. The Heian period (794-1185) ushered-in the flourishing of the arts, including the first ever novel. This appeared in the early 11th Century and was attributed to Murusaki Shikibu, a noblewoman. Titled The Tale of the Genji, the novel depicts the lives of the high courtesans of that era. The shogunate was a warrior class of Samurai that contested political power over the centuries with the Yamato family, ostensible or ceremonial rulers. Imperial influence waned, eventually shifting to the military class; the shogunate became de facto rulers. The Edo period (1600-1868) was a phase of prosperity, peace and isolation from the world. That state of affairs was interrupted by the Perry Expedition, from the United States, in 1853. It lead to a reversion of power to the emperor in 1868 and an opening to the world. With the evolution of Japanese society many of the state institutions displayed the influence of the Americans. And the nation’s economic and military prowess became robust. The latter half of the 19th Century was prosperous.

As the next century progressed, the military class maneuvered for power vis-à-vis the civilian leaders and began to overrule them.  In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria. This conflict with China escalated by 1937. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, in Hawai’i, in 1941, invited the U.S. to war. Two Japanese cities, Nagasaki and Hiroshima, were virtually levelled by nuclear bombs that eventually lead to an unconditional surrender by the Japanese in August 1945. The American military occupation of Japan lasted until 1952. A parliamentary democracy was put in place, and the military adopted an irenic stance, reducing military outlays and foregoing foreign ambitions. Waging war became unconstitutional. In the post-war period Japan gained global economic power until economic stagnation slowed Japanese international influence in the 1990s. In 2011, an earthquake, a tsunami and the nuclear plant disaster at Fukushima Dai-ichi challenged the population, again.

In 2016, the Japanese reconsider their role in the world. After the conflagrations of 1945 and a long span of peace, some favor the 2015 legislative decision to allow a more active military presence beyond the island’s shores. This idea still disturbs many compatriots who are yet haunted by the horrors of war. Where will tomorrow’s petals fall?