Japan was originally joined to Korea and Siberia by a land bridge that allowed settlers to cross. Nomadic hunter-gatherers first roamed the islands and pre-historic gave way to Neolithic settlements(10,000 years ago). In the third century BC the inhabitants of Japan began to settle into agricultural communities. By 300 AD the only area that remained inhabited by hunter-gatherers was northern Honshu.
Settlements were generally organised around a chieftain who controlled a cluster of villages. In the fourth century AD the Yamato clan, based near Kyoto, established loose control over central and western Japan, laying the foundation for the Japanese state. Contact with China and Korea introduced new technology and ideas, and the Yamato rulers began to adopt Chinese practises to support their rule.
By the 7th century they had begun to organize Japan along the lines of the Chinese imperial state, effectively establishing the Yamatos as emperors.
Having established a base in Kyoto the Yamamoto Emperors sent military expeditions to subdue northern Honshu. The commanders on these campaigns were the first to receive the title of sei-i-tai shogun(barbarian conquering supreme general), shortened to shogun.
The rise of the shoguns
As time passed the Yamato Emperors increasingly became figureheads under the control of powerful aristocratic families. The Emperor's power declined and as it did local lords became increasingly independent and power devolved to local warriors(samurai). In the 12 th century protracted fighting between major families resulted in prominence for the Minimato clan, who gave themselves the title of Shogun in 1185.
The emperors still remained but essentially the real power was in the hands of the Shogun. The Shoguns base in Kamakara was weakened by the Mongol invasions of 1274 and 1282. Half a century later the Ashikakaga clan overthrew the Minimato's to install a new shogun.
A new class of local lord, the daimyo, emerged and by 1603 the most powerful of these established the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Having consolidated their power the Tokugawa Shoguns set about changing Japanese society. They ruled in alliance with the daimyos(of which there were 250-300) and allowed the emperors to continue as civil monarchs. They also bought peace to Japan which allowed civil and economic development. While overhauling Japanese society they also managed to isolate the country by forbidding guns, limiting contact with foreigners(only Dutch and Chinese traders were allowed) and stamping out Christianity. Their rule trapped Japan in something of a feudal time warp and also established in the Japanese a trait of unquestioning obedience to authority, which still lingers. From the late 18th century European powers began attempting to trade with Japan, their growing power and influence only served to highlight Japanese backwardness.
The Japanese population was not happy with this newly realized status quo and anti foreign sentiment grew. In 1868 the young Meiji emperor established himself as supreme power. He abolished the samurai and Shogun and embarked on a crash modernization program to enable Japan to catch up with the Great Powers. Constitutional change established the Meiji Emperor in 1889 as the main power in Japan but allowed limited political and religious freedom and also a representative assembly, the Imperial Diet.
As Japan developed its economic power it also expanded its influence in the region. In 1894 Japan confronted and defeated China over trade rights and control of Korea and in 1904 Japan took an, and beat, Russia. These victories established Japan as the major power in Asia. In the First World War they allied with Britain and enjoyed an economic boom resulting from their supplying of munitions to the allied forces. In 1918 it appeared that Japan had a prosperous future and it began to allow political reform, widening the franchise and increasing workers rights. This economic and social liberalization was bought to an end by the Great Depression which caused the world economy to slide into chaos from 1929.
Entry into WWII
Growing unemployment, industrial decline and hardship encouraged right-wing pressure for military expansion as a solution to their problems. Increasingly the army ignored the civilian government and acted according to its own agenda. In 1931 it invaded Manchuria(in China) and in 1937 it expanded into Northern China and Korea. Japan also allied with Germany and Italy who shared similar nationalist ambitions. The Second World War started in 1939 and allowed the Japanese to continue expansion in China. America was worried about this and stopped trading with them. What the Japanese felt the most was the loss of oil and petroleum. Rather than halt their military expansion the Japanese army decided to attack America and force them to recognize their supremacy in Asia. On December 7 1941 they pounded the American navy at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
By 1942 the Japanese had overrun much of South-east Asia and were threatening Australia. However they had underestimated America 's strength and were first halted and then forced back. By 1945 it was clear they had lost but the allies realized that physically taking Japan was going to cost heavy casualties. The Americans decided to use a new weapon. On August 6th they dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and on August 9th they dropped another on Nagasaki. The Japanese surrendered and the Americans moved in to occupy the islands.
Occupation bought sweeping changes as the Americans attempted to remove the factors in Japan that had allowed the military to take hold. Democratization reduced imperial power to that of a state figurehead and economic investment facilitated recovery and set Japan on course to become a leading power.
Since 1945 Japan has allied with America against communism and allowed the US to build military bases on the islands. Post war treaties banned Japan form having an army though it possesses a well equipped civil defines force. Japan is now one of the world's wealthiest and most developed countries although the last decade has been difficult. Following the economic expansion of the 1980's came economic retraction, compounded by the general Asian recession of 1997.
Further adding to the problem criticism has been directed at the leading political party, the LDP(the Liberal Democratic Party) for corruption. A massive earthquake at Kobe in 1995 also showed the government in surprisingly ineffective mode.