The islands of Japan are so rich in fauna and flora that they were a natural for human development which started as far back as 12,000 BC. The Jōmon period covers all of this period to around 300 BC and was a period dominated by semi-sedentary hunter gatherers.
There then followed a succession of periods each of which moved civilisation forward. The Yayoi period from 300BC to 250 AD is distinct for its first written records about Japan dating from around 57AD.
The Kofun period followed from 250 AD to 600 AD during which time military states centred on powerful clans became the norm and relations with China and Korea began. The Asuka period from 538 to 710 AD was a period when the centralised state was formed and Buddhism was introduced. In the 700s the short lived Nara period saw a new aristocracy develop and an efficient form of tax collection as well as a system of land tenure was introduced.
The Heian period from 794 to 1185 AD saw the high point of the Japanese imperial court and is noted as a period that was rich in culture, arts, poetry and literature.
Following the decline of the imperial court Japan entered into the ‘feudal period’ with powerful families and military warlords taking over. This period lasted from 1185 to 1868 and was dominated by Shoguns, hereditary military dictators of Japan, the first of which was Minamoto no Yoritomo of the Kamakura shogunate which lasted until 1333.
That in turn was replaced by the Kemmu restoration which lasted until 1338 and which was followed by the Muromachi period (1338 – 1573), Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568 – 1603) and the Edo or Tokugawa period (1603 – 1868).
The Edo period was largely peaceful and a time when prosperity grew as the islands kept themselves well away from world affairs; it was also a period of cultural development. Christian traders and missionaries had started to come to Japan prior to the 17th century but the Christian converts were persecuted by the shogunates who feared a military conquest by the European powers. This led to the Shimbara Revolution in 1637 which in turn increased Japanese isolation from the rest of the world.
The isolation ended when Japan was forced through gunboat diplomacy by Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy with four warships in 1853 to open up to the world. By 1868 Japan had signed a number of treaties with Western nations which were not beneficial to Japanese trade.
From 1868 Japan transformed itself away from the shogunates and into an imperial power, the Empire of Japan. During this period known as the Meiji Restoration the old system was dismantled and a modern military, westernised legal and banking system and a form of constitutional government were introduced.
From here Japan became a colonising power in Korea and Taiwan. It fought and won wars, including the Sino-Japanese war of 1894/95 and the Russo-Japanese war 1904/05 leaving it the dominant power in the Far East.
In World War One Japan sided with the United Kingdom with whom it had signed a treaty in 1902. Throughout the war Japan attacked and took over German territories and assets leaving it strong and prosperous by the end of the war.
The period from 1912 to 1926 was a rare period of strong democratic development largely because of a weak emperor, Emperor Taishō. It was, however, short lived and greater militarism and a rejection of the political system led to the Sino-Japanese war in 1931. The Japanese established a puppet state of Manchukuo in Inner Mongolia and by 1940 the major parties in Japan had voted to dissolve themselves and merged into the Imperial Rule Assistance Association.
World War Two saw the Japanese join the Axis powers of Germany and Italy and start their expansion across the Pacific and into South East Asia, reaching the borders of India the northern perimeters of Australia and most Pacific islands before they were beaten back by the Allied forces. Defeat came after the dropping of the first two atomic bombs onto Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6th and 9th August 1945 respectively.
Following World War Two Japan was occupied for the first time with an American occupation force determined to bring democracy to the country. A new constitution was written and Japan’s industries were rebuilt. It was not until September 1951 that America and its allies signed a Treaty of Peace with Japan and the country only regained its sovereignty on 28th April 1952.
The post war political parties were tenuous affairs and it wasn’t until 1955 that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Japan Socialist Party (JSP), now the Social Democratic Party (SDP) emerged as strong political movements.
The LDP won the 1958 general election, taking 298 of the 467 seats in the House of Representatives. The LDP went on to win the next eleven general elections. It was only in 1993 that they failed to win a majority of seats due to a series of political finance scandals and for eleven months were removed from power. In 1994 they returned to office but in a coalition and until 2005 were not able to win a majority of seats in any election and thus having to form coalitions.
In 2005 the LDP did win an overall majority but in 2009 they were defeated by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) which had grown increasingly strong since its foundation in 1996. In the 2009 election the DPJ took 308 of the 480 seats in the House of Representatives but did not hold a majority in the upper House of Councillors. As a result they formed a coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the People’s New Party (PNP).
Since 2009 the DPJ has suffered a number of setbacks including defections from their ranks and has gone through three prime ministers. An earthquake off the east coast of Japan and subsequent tsunami on Friday, 11 March 2011 devastated large parts of the coastline and led to the failure of the cooling system at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, resulting in nuclear fallout from the plant. The disaster has had a massive impact upon the economy and psyche of Japan.
In 2012 the DPJ prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda was able to pass a number of financial laws including increases in sales tax but only with the support of the opposition LDP. The LDP support came with a price tag, the early calling of an election which the DPJ is expected to lose.
Emperor Akihito is Head of State but has no powers related to government.
Japan has a bicameral legislature. The lower house or House of Representatives has 475 members, 295 of which are elected from single seat constituencies FPTP and 180 are elected from 11 regional blocs under a party list system. The upper chamber or House of Councillors consists of 242 members who serve six year terms. 146 are elected in multi-seat constituencies and 96 by proportional representation. Half are re-elected every three years.
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places Japan at 20th out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 72 (where 100 is least corrupt).