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While geography is not destiny, the fact that Japan is located on islands on the outermost edge of Asia has had a profound influence on its history. Just close enough to mainstream Asia, yet far enough to keep itself separate, much of Japanese history has been the alternation of periods of closure and openness.
Until recently, Japan had been able to turn on or off its connection to the rest of the world, internalizing foreign cultural influences in fits and starts. It is comparable with the relationship between Britain and the rest of Europe, but with a much wider channel.
Recorded Japanese history begins in the 5th century, although archaeological evidence of settlement stretches back 500,000 years and the mythical Emperor Jimmu is said to have founded the current Imperial line in the 7th century BC. The first Japanese state was centered in Nara (8th c.). It later moved to Kyoto and Kamakura until Japan fell into the anarchy of the Warring States period of the 15th century.
Tokugawa Ieyasu eventually reunited the country in 1600 and founded the Tokugawa shogunate. This was a feudal state ruled from Edo, or modern-day Tokyo. The imposition of a strict caste system took place, where the Shogun and his samurai warriors were the highest ranked, and no social mobility was permitted.
Tokugawa rule kept the country relatively stable with its policy of total isolation, but the world around them was rushing ahead. U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry's Black Ships arrived in Yokohama in 1854, forcing the country to open up to trade with the west. The resulting shock led to the collapse of the shogunate in the Meiji Restoration of 1867.
Japan then launched itself full force towards industrialization and modernization. This quickly turned into a drive to expand its borders and colonize its neighbors, culminating in the catastrophic Second World War that ended with 1.86 million Japanese and well over 10 million Chinese and other Asians dying from battle, bombings, starvation and massacres. After being forced to surrender in 1945 following the nuclear attacks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan became occupied by the victorious Allies for the first time in its history.
The Emperor kept his throne, but the country was turned into a constitutional monarch. Thus converted to pacifism and democracy, with the U.S. taking care of defense, Japan now directed its prodigious energies into peaceful technology and proceeded to conquer the world's marketplaces with an endless stream of cars and consumer electronics, rising from the ashes to attain the second-largest gross national product in the world.
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