In my free time lately (ha!) I've been reading up about Japanese history. It's not anything I'd ever learned much about. (I have an embarrassing memory of when the father of one of my grade school friends introduced us all to business visitor from Japan. The fellow commented, at one point, on how little most Americans know about Japan and said: "Can you name four Japanese cities?" We cheerfully piped up: "Well, there's Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and... We don't know any more." Awkward silence followed...)
However, lately between learning Go and watching a certain amount of anime, I kept running into questions: What was the Heian period? What was the Shogunate and when was it? Why was the visit of Admiral Perry such a watershed experience? What exactly was going on with the 250 year period of hiding for Christians in Japan?
So I picked up a couple books at the library, none of which I've actually been able to read all of yet, but the combination of bits has started to sketch things out.
Of the books I've read bits of so far, I'd recommend Inventing Japan by Ian Buruma. It's an at times rather opinionated history of the period from the end of the Shogunate (explanation to follow) circa 1860 to 1964. It's a short, clear, well written book, and so long as one's comfortable dealing with a source which clearly has an editorial angle, it's a good read on the period. The more general books that I found covering the whole history of the Japan were less opinionated, but also less distinctive.
The interesting aspect of the history of Japan is its continuing relationship with the outside world and (most recently) the West. The recorded history of Japan stretches back roughly 1500 years. It's plight for the first 1600 years of that period was generally be to born by civil war amount a large number of feudal nobility. The samurai warrior class made up an unusually large percentage of the population (around seven percent) in part because they were in general a much more austere warrior class than many of their Western counterparts from the same period. The emperor existed throughout this period, but the central government lacked much real power of the fuedal warlords, and generally it was the emperor's retainers or regents rather than the emperor himself who exercised what power it did have.
Around 1600, as the pressure of Western visitors, missionaries and technology were starting to make real changes in Japanese society, a single warlord finally succeeded in uniting Japan under his rule and set himself up as the first of a hereditary house of shoguns, a shogun behind a regent or protector ruling in the name of the emperor. The first shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, established a strict set of laws designed to halt contact with the west and freeze Japan at a stage of historical development which would allow the old ways of life (including rule and honorable combat by the samurai class) to remain undisturbed. Western traders were banned from the country. Christianity was outlawed and Christians were ruthlessly persecuted. (All citizens were required to register at their local Buddhist temple and demonstrate their rejection of Christianity by treading on pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.) Firearms and other modern forms of warfare were frowned upon. Foreign travel was banned, and shipwrecked foreign sailors were to be killed before they escaped the waves.
This reign lasted for 250 years, though in the later years things became increasingly restive. In 1853 when the American Admiral Matthew Perry sailed into Edo (the imperial city) bay with five modern American steam ships with long range naval guns and a message for the emperor from President Millard Fillmore, the period of isolation came to an abrupt halt. A nation very conscious of power and status suddenly realized that the self imposed isolation born of their conviction of national purity and superiority had left the centuries behind the rest of the world.
In the following fifty years, Japan attempted to build a modern nation and economy on the fast track. Embassies were sent to Europe and America to study industries and political institutions. A national government was formed, and new constitution providing for something resembling a modern parliamentary democracy (though one ruled by a divine emperor) was drafted, a national public school system was founded, and industries sprang up overnight. In a move that should perhaps have set off warning bells, the Japanese took Prussia and the unification of Germany as their model for a modern yet orderly and hierarchical modern nation.
What resulted was an odd blend of feudalism, imperialism, and hyper-modernism -- perhaps inevitable in trying to build an economy, polity and culture quickly in a desire to "catch up" with wholly different nations. In some ways, Japan is perhaps still struggling with reconciling many of the Western cultural trappings that it desires to emulate with its own cultural roots.
It's a fascinating history to read about, especially as we grapple with questions of whether democracy can be planted in the as yet infertile ground of the Middle East.