From Imperialist Empire to economic power, Japan has a complicated and fascinating history. Join Active Minds as we trace the evolution of the modern Japanese state from its ancient roots to the present. We will cover the impact of Japan's involvement in World War II as well as their economic collapse in the 1990s and the rescheduled 2020 Summer Olympics.

Key Lecture Points

  • Japan is an archipelago slightly smaller than California. It holds a strategic location in Asia with relative proximity to Russia, China, Taiwan and the Philippines.
  • Because it is an island nation, Japan has had opportunities for isolation over the course of several thousand years. Throughout its history, Japan has repeatedly undertaken dramatic opening to outside influence followed by retrenchment and isolationism. Japan’s opening to the West in 1854 was only the most recent of many re-openings in the country’s history.
  • The first Chinese ambassador arrived in Japan in 57 CE. After that initial contact, Japan began to intentionally import Chinese culture and methods of governing, as well as the Chinese writing system.
  • Commodore Matthew Perry and his steam frigates arrived in Japan in 1853. The US hoped to use Japanese ports as supply bases for its commercial fleets. The “opening of Japan” was fatal to the shogunate government of Japan and lead to the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Japan rapidly modernized and industrialized under the Meiji government. By the end of the 19th century, Japan began a process of imperial expansion very much like European imperialism, including invasions of Korea and later China.
  • Japan was one of the Axis Powers during WWII. The Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor opened the Pacific Theater of the war. Over the course of four years, US forces slowly drove the Japanese out of its imperial holdings. WWII ended shortly after the US dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, killing over 90,000 people.
  • The American occupation of Japan ushered in a period of democratic reform and dramatic economic growth that lasted until 1989. That year, an economic crisis much like the American financial crisis of 2008 significantly disrupted the Japanese economy. The 1990s are sometimes called “the Lost Decade” for Japan.
  • China and North Korea continue to threaten Japan’s security and influence abroad. Domestically, one of Japan’s most significant challenges is a population that is expected to shrink by 16% by 2040.
  • Because of COVID, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were delayed to a scheduled start of July 23, 2021.  Although Japan has kept COVID infection and death rates low, a spike in cases in 2021 coupled with a low vaccination rate in Japan has lead many in Japan to call for the Tokyo Olympics to be cancelled.

Exploration Questions

  • How should we compare Japan with its Axis ally, Germany?
  • How should Japan interact with its important international peers—China and the United States?

Reflective Questions

  • When you think of Japan, what comes to mind? Is it the traditional, ancient culture, or the more modern events, such as Pearl Harbor?
  • How do you feel about the American bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Inose, Naoki. The Century of Black Ships: Chronicles of War Between Japan and America. Viz Media, 2009. 450 pages. A look at the military history between Japan and the United States.
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  • Hastings, Max. Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45. Knopf Publishing Group, 2008. 656 pages. By the summer of 1944 it was clear that Japan's defeat was inevitable, but how the drive to victory would be achieved remained to be seen. The ensuing drama--that ended in Japan's utter devastation--was acted out across the vast stage of Asia, with massive clashes of naval and air forces, fighting through jungles, and barbarities by an apparently incomprehensible foe. In recounting the saga of this time and place, Max Hastings gives us incisive portraits of the theater's key figures--MacArthur, Nimitz, Mountbatten, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin.
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  • Young, R.J. Japan Rising: The Iwakura Embassy to the USA & Europe. Cambridge University Press, 2009. A look at Japanese foreign policy.
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  • Nimura, Janice P. Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back. Norton , 2016. 352 pages. The true story of 5 girls sent to the United States to learn Western culture.
    Click here to order