Archaeological finds show that the region was inhabited as early as 30,000 B.C., but it wasn't until the 6th century that Japan began spreading its cultural wings. Taking its cues from China, its great neighbor to the west, Japan adopted Buddhism, the character system of writing, and Chinese art forms and architecture, and molded them into a style of its own.
In A.D. 794, the Japanese Imperial family established a new capital in Heiankyo (present-day Kyoto), where it remained for more than 1,000 years. The arts flourished, and extravagant temples and pavilions were erected. Noh drama, the tea ceremony, flower arranging, and landscape gardening developed. But even though Kyoto served as the cultural heart of the nation, it was often the nation's capital in name only. Preoccupied by their own luxurious lifestyle, the nobles and royal court of Kyoto were no match for rebellious military clans in the provinces.
The Feudal Period
The first successful clan uprising took place at the end of the 12th century, when a young warrior named Minamoto Yoritomo won a bloody civil war that brought him supremacy over the land. Wishing to set up his rule far away from the Imperial family in Kyoto, he made his capital in a remote and easily defended fishing village called Kamakura, not far from today's Tokyo. He created a military government, a shogunate, ushering in a new era in Japan's history in which the power of the country passed from the aristocratic court into the hands of the warrior class. In becoming the nation's first shogun, or military dictator, Yoritomo laid the groundwork for the military governments that lasted for another 700 years in Japan -- until the Imperial court was restored in 1868.
The Kamakura Period, from 1192 to 1333, is perhaps best known for the unrivaled ascendancy of the warrior caste, called samurai. Ruled by a rigid code of honor, the samurai were bound in loyalty to their feudal lord and would defend him to the death. If they failed in their duties, they could redeem their honor by committing ritualistic suicide, or seppuku. Spurning the soft life led by the noble court in Kyoto, the samurai embraced a harsher and simpler set of ideals and a spartan lifestyle, embodied in the tenets of Zen Buddhism's mental and physical disciplines.
The Kamakura Period was followed by 200 years of vicious civil wars and confusion as daimyo (feudal lords) staked out their fiefdoms throughout the land and strove for supremacy. Not unlike a baron in medieval Europe, a daimyo had absolute rule over the people who lived in his fiefdom and was aided in battles by his samurai retainers.
The Rise of Tokugawa
In the second half of the 16th century, several brilliant military strategists rose to power, but none proved as shrewd as Tokugawa Ieyasu, a statesman so skillful in eliminating his enemies that his heirs would continue to rule Japan for the next 250 years. It was with him that Tokyo's history began.
For centuries, present-day Tokyo was nothing more than a rather obscure village called Edo, which means simply "mouth of the estuary." Then, in 1590, Tokugawa acquired eight provinces surrounding Edo, much of it marsh and wilderness, with little fresh water available. Undaunted, Tokugawa chose Edo as his base and immediately set to work correcting the area's shortcomings by reclaiming land, building a conduit for fresh water, and constructing a castle surrounded by moats.
By 1603, Tokugawa had succeeded in defeating every one of his rivals in a series of brilliant battles, becoming shogun over all of Japan. He declared the sleepy village of Edo the seat of his shogunate government, leaving the emperor intact but virtually powerless in Kyoto. He then set about expanding Edo Castle to make it the most impressive castle in the land, surrounding it with an ingenious system of moats that radiated from the castle in a great swirl, giving him access to the sea and thwarting enemy attack.
The Edo Period
Edo grew quickly as the shogunate capital. For greater protection, and to ensure that no daimyo in the distant provinces could grow strong enough to usurp the shogun's power, the Tokugawa government ordered every daimyo to reside in Edo for a prescribed number of months every other year, thus keeping the feudal lords under the watchful eye of the shogunate. Furthermore, all daimyo were required to leave their families in Edo as permanent residents, to serve as virtual hostages. There were as many as 270 daimyo in Japan in the 17th century, with each maintaining several mansions in Edo for family members and retainers, complete with elaborate compounds and expansive landscaped gardens. Together with their samurai, who made up almost half of Edo's population in the 17th century, the daimyo and their entourage must have created quite a colorful sight on the dusty streets of old Edo. By expending so much time and money traveling back and forth and maintaining residences in both the provinces and Edo, a daimyo would have been hard put to wage war against the shogun.
To cater to the needs of the shogun, daimyo, and their samurai retainers, merchants and craftsmen from throughout Japan swarmed to Edo. To accommodate them, hills were leveled and marshes filled in, creating what is now the Ginza, Shimbashi, and Nihombashi. By 1787, the population had swelled to 1.3 million, making Edo one of the largest cities in the world. It was a city few outsiders were ever permitted to see, however. Fearing the spread of Western influence and Christianity in Japan, not to mention daimyo growing rich through international trade, the Tokugawa shogunate adopted a policy of complete isolation in 1633, slamming Japan's doors to the outside world for more than 200 years. The shogunate forbade foreigners to enter Japan and forbade the Japanese to leave. Those who defied the strict decrees paid with their lives. The only exception to this policy of isolation was a colony of tightly controlled Chinese merchants in Nagasaki, and a handful of Dutch confined to a small trading post on a tiny island in Nagasaki.
The Edo Period (1603-1867) was a time of political stability, with all policy dictated by the shogunate government. Japanese society was divided into four distinct classes: samurai, farmers, craftsmen, and merchants. After daimyo and nobles, samurai occupied the most exalted social position and were the only ones allowed to carry two swords. At the bottom of the social ladder were the merchants. They occupied squalid tenements, which were typically long row houses constructed of wood and facing narrow meter-wide alleys, with open sewers running down the middle. Family homes were unimaginably small, consisting of a tiny entryway that also doubled as the kitchen and a single room about 9.2 sq. m (99 sq. ft.) in size. Because most of Edo was built of wood, it goes without saying that fires were a constant threat. In fact, rare indeed was the person who didn't lose his house at least several times during his lifetime. Between 1603 and 1868, almost 100 major fires swept through Edo, along with countless smaller fires. One of the most tragic fires occurred in 1657, after a severe drought had plagued the city for almost 3 months. Buffeted by strong winds, the flames ignited wooden homes and thatched roofs like tinder, raging for 3 days and reducing three-fourths of the city to smoldering ruins. More than 100,000 people lost their lives.
Despite such setbacks, the merchants of Tokyo grew in number and became so wealthy that new forms of luxury and entertainment arose to occupy their time. Kabuki drama and woodblock prints became the rage, while stone and porcelain ware, silk brocade for elaborate and gorgeous kimono, and lacquerware were elevated to wondrous works of art. Japan's most famous pleasure district was an area in northeast Edo called Yoshiwara, the "floating world of pleasure," where rich merchants spent fortunes to cavort with beautiful courtesans.
The Opening of Japan
By the mid-19th century, it was clear that the feudal system was outdated. With economic power in the hands of the merchants, money rather than rice became the primary means of exchange. Many samurai families found themselves on the brink of poverty, and discontent with the shogunate grew widespread.
In 1854, Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the U.S. Navy succeeded in forcing the shogun to sign an agreement granting America trading rights, thus ending 2 centuries of isolation. In 1868, the Tokugawas were overthrown, and Emperor Meiji was restored as ruler. The feudal era drew to an end.
The Meiji Restoration
Rather than remain in Kyoto, Emperor Meiji decided to take Edo for his own and moved his Imperial capital to its new home in 1868. Renaming Edo Tokyo, or "Eastern Capital" (to distinguish it from the "western" capital of Kyoto), the emperor was quick to welcome ideas and technology from the West. The ensuing years, known as the Meiji Period (1868-1911), were nothing short of amazing, as Japan progressed rapidly from a feudal agricultural society of samurai and peasants to an industrial nation. The samurai were stripped of their power and were no longer permitted to carry swords; a prime minister and cabinet were appointed; a constitution was drafted; and a parliament, called the Diet, was elected. The railway, postal system, and even specialists and advisers were imported from the West. Between 1881 and 1898, 6,177 British, 2,764 Americans, 913 Germans, and 619 French were retained by the Japanese government to help transform Japan into a modern society.
As the nation's capital, Tokyo was hardest hit by this craze for modernization. Ideas for fashion, architecture, food, and department stores were imported from the West -- West was best, and things Japanese were forgotten or pushed aside. It didn't help that Tokyo was almost totally destroyed twice in the first half of the 20th century: In 1923, a huge earthquake, measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale and known as the Great Kanto Earthquake, struck the city, followed by tsunami (tidal waves). More than 100,000 people died and a third of Tokyo was in ruins. Disaster struck again during World War II, when incendiary bombs laid more than half the city to waste and killed another 100,000 people.
World War II & Its Aftermath
Japan's expansionist policies in Asia during the 1930s and early 1940s spread the flag of the rising sun over Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Burma, Malaysia, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, and Guam. World War II, however, halted Japan's advance. Shortly after the United States dropped the world's first atomic bombs -- over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and over Nagasaki 3 days later -- surrender came, on August 14, 1945.
The end of the war brought American occupation forces to Japan, where they remained until 1952. It was the first time in Japan's history that the island nation had suffered defeat and occupation by a foreign power. The experience had a profound effect on the Japanese people. Emerging from their defeat, they began the long effort to rebuild their cities and economy. In 1946, under the guidance of the Allied military authority, headed by U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, they adopted a new, democratic constitution that renounced war and divested the emperor of his claim to divinity. A parliamentary system of government was set up and in 1947 the first general elections were held. The following year, the militarists and generals who had carried out the Pacific War were tried, and many of them were convicted. To the younger generation of Japanese, the occupation was less a painful burden that had to be suffered than an opportunity to remake their country, with American encouragement, into a modern, peace-loving, and democratic state.
A special relationship developed between the Japanese and their American occupiers. In the early 1950s, as the Cold War between the United States and the communist world erupted into hostilities in Korea, that relationship grew into a firm alliance, strengthened by a security treaty between Tokyo and Washington. In 1952, the occupation ended and in 1956 Japan joined the United Nations as an independent country.
Perhaps unsurprising in a city trained in natural calamities, Tokyo was so adept at rebuilding that a decade later not a trace of wartime destruction remained. Avoiding involvement in foreign conflicts, the Japanese concentrated on economic recovery. Through a series of policies that favored domestic industries and shielded Japan from foreign competition, the country achieved rapid economic growth. By the mid-1960s -- only a century after Japan had opened its doors to the rest of the world and embraced modernization -- the Japanese had transformed their nation into a major industrial power, with Tokyo riding the crest of the economic wave. In 1964, in recognition of Japan's increasing importance, the Summer Olympic Games were held in Tokyo, thrusting the city into the international limelight.
As their economy continued to expand, the Japanese sought new markets abroad; by the early 1970s, they had attained a trade surplus, as Japanese products -- cars and electronic goods -- attracted more and more foreign buyers. By the 1980s, "Japan, Inc." seemed on the economic brink of ruling the world, as Japanese companies bought prime real estate around the globe, books flooded the Western market expounding Japanese business principles, and Japan enjoyed unprecedented financial growth. With the exception of a top tier of the very wealthy, virtually everyone in Japan considered him- or herself a member of the middle class.
In 1992, recession hit Japan, bursting the economic bubble and plunging the country into its worst recession since World War II. Bankruptcies reached an all-time high, Tokyo real-estate prices plummeted 70% from what they were in 1991, the Nikkei (Japan's version of the American Dow) fell a gut-churning 63% from its 1989 peak, and the country was rocked by one political scandal after another. Public confidence was further eroded in 1995, first by a major earthquake in Kobe that killed more than 6,000 people and proved that Japan's cities were not as safe as the government had maintained, and then by an attack by an obscure religious sect that released the deadly nerve gas sarin on Tokyo's subway system during rush hour, killing 12 people and sickening thousands. The nation had another scare in 1999 when an accident at a nuclear power plant only 113km (70 miles) from Tokyo exposed dozens to radiation; two workers subsequently died from the radiation. But the worst blow of all was in 2001, when a knife-wielding man stormed into an elementary school in Osaka Prefecture, fatally stabbing eight children and wounding 15 others. For many Japanese, it seemed that the very core of their society had begun to crumble.
Since 1999, Tokyo has been led by outspoken governor Ishihara Shintaro, a nationalist writer who, together with former Sony chairman Morita Akio, penned the 1989 best-selling The Japan That Can Say No. His election was regarded as a clear rejection of the status quo and a belief that change in Japan must come from within, with Tokyo clearly at the forefront. In 2001, that desire for change ushered in long-haired, 59-year-old Koizumi Junichiro as the new prime minister, long considered a maverick for his battles against the established power brokers and his cries for reform.
While Koizumi instigated policies that helped decrease the number of bad loans at major banks -- once considered a financial time bomb -- to half what they were in 2002, public opinion polls eventually turned sour over his achievements. In addition, relations with Japan's closest neighbors, China and North and South Korea, hit rock bottom, with disputes that included island territorial claims; North Korea's admission to abducting young Japanese decades earlier to teach its spies Japanese language and customs; Japan's lack of accountability in school textbooks of atrocities it committed during World War II; and Japan's denial of sex slavery in neighboring countries during the war. Koizumi further outraged his neighbors with repeated visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, vilified by critics for honoring Japanese war dead, including those executed for wartime atrocities in Asia.
After more than a decade of recession, the economy seemed to be on the mend by mid-2000. Tokyo property prices rose for the first time in 2004, spurring investors to return. In fact, after years of no new attractions, few new hotels, deflated prices, and only a handful of new developments, Tokyo experienced something of a development boom in the latter half of the last decade, led by auctions of massive land tracts once owned by Japan Railways near train stations, especially Tokyo Station. Several major urban developments mushroomed, most notably the Marunouchi district east of Tokyo Station, with its spanking-new skyscrapers and tree-lined shopping street; Omotesando Hills, a posh residential and shopping center designed by renowned architect Tadao Ando; Roppongi's Tokyo Midtown, which boasts Tokyo's tallest building along with shops, restaurants, an art museum, apartments, and offices; and leader of the pack Roppongi Hills, which stretches over 12 hectares (30 acres) and contains 230 shops and restaurants, offices, luxury apartments, and an art museum (my favorite part of the Roppongi Hills story: It took developer Mori Minoru 18 years of negotiation with 500 property owners to secure the land for development).
In or near these new developments was a blitz of foreign-owned luxury hotels, including the Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo; Grand Hyatt Tokyo; Ritz-Carlton, Tokyo; and The Peninsula Tokyo. In 2007, Tokyo witnessed the development of new major museums in more than a decade: The National Art Center, Tokyo, and Suntory Museum of Art, which, together with Roppongi Hills' Mori Art Museum, formed the new Art Triangle Roppongi.
But then came the 2008 international financial meltdown, and Japan, whose foremost trading partner had shifted from the United States to China, was left reeling from a downward spiral in foreign trade. Furthermore, after Koizumi's rare 5-year term ended in 2006, Japan once again suffered a revolving door of prime ministers, with three coming and going over the next 3 years.
In August 2009, widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo brought a landslide victory for the opposition Democratic Party of Japan and defeat for the business-friendly Liberal Democratic party, which had ruled for more than a half-century. Under the helm of the new prime minister, Hatoyama Yukio, the DPJ has pledged to cut government waste; provide support for farmers, fishermen, and small and medium-size businesses; and boost disposable household income in an attempt to bolster Japan's middle class.