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Japan's History and Background




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It is generally believed that Japan was founded in 660 BC, with the first emperor, Jimmu.  After ascending the throne and ruling over Kyushu, Emperor Jimmu expanded his empire northward to Yamato.  During this time, Korea's influence on Japan's culture was considerable.  Korea had made great strides in their culture, significantly influenced by China, and these influences were passed on to Japan.  

By the 5th century with the help of the Paekche kingdom in Korea, Chinese writings were beginning to be used in court and around 430, historiographers were appointed in an effort to keep accurate records.  Buddhism, along with its priests, images, scriptures, etc., was brought to Japan during this time from Korea as well, which made a noteworthy impact on Japan.  Although the relationship between Korea and Japan was weakening, Buddhism was firmly entrenched in Japan's culture, with it becoming the national religion by the 7th century.

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Using China's centralized government as a model, Japan drafted their first constitution, which established court officials on a hierarchy.  In 710, Nara became the capital and in 794 the imperial residence was moved to Kyoto and remained the capital until 1868.

The 9th century brought about change with the emperors becoming private, disappearing from public life, and leaving governmental affairs with those under them.  It was during this time that the Fujiwara, the main aristocratic family, essentially became the leaders of Japan.  In 858 they took power and kept it for three centuries.  The period under Michinaga, considered to be the supreme Fujiwara leader, is considered to be Japanese literature's "classical age."   It also brought about a change from centralized government to one of dividing up the country into great estates.

Initially joining together for protection, warriors from the Taira and the Minamoto clans eventually gained recognition for the military abilities (the Taira in the southwest and the Minamoto in the east).  When these clans started broaden their power to the court, a power struggle began.  After two wars, the first in 1156 and the second in 1159-60, the Minamoto were defeated by the Taira who then took control from the Fujiwara.  In 1180, the same year the Taira leader's infant son became emperor, the Minamoto's led an revolt that sent the Taira out of the capital.  The war ended in 1185 and Yorimoto, the Minamoto leader, became Japan's leader.

One of the things Yorimoto did was create a separation of the military from the government and established a military capital in Kamakura in 1185.  It was also during this time that feudalism grew stronger until it surpassed that of the imperial organization.  When Yorimoto was appointed to the position of "shogun" (Seitaishogun), it further crystallized his power in Japan, superceding that of the emperor and his court.

The Minamoto clan was eliminated by the Hojo family, who then became the military rulers of Japan in 1219.  The Hojo's had the emperor appoint shoguns, thus allowing the Hojo's to have all the power as regents.  The Hojo's never became shoguns, in spite of this they kept their power for over one hundred years. 

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