Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.Oscar Wilde
For me, one of the most interesting things about their society is the fact that, for all their technology, they appear a very deeply traditional people. Of course, they are quite often selective in what traditions to follow, but influence of the customs of yore are evident. (Even if this is due to the fact they have chronically been taught as 'purer'). The way in which they have been able to blend the past and the present I find particularly noteworthy. If only because this is the sort of issue that the many countries in the Middle East are currently embroiled in. Perhaps, Japan could serve as one model to take note of.
The exact origions of the Japanese people and how they came to settle on these islands (which enjoy hundreds of earthquakes each year) is still a very sensitive topic for many so-called nationalists. It is particularly sensitive for those individuals and groups that are preoccupied with thoughts of Japanese as some sort of 'chosen people' for Asia. Indeed, one documentary I watched in Canada years ago noted how Japan was the first Asian country to embrace eugenics (a subject made even more infamous courtesy of the Third Reich; and accepted by scientists all over the world as codswallop). These 'nationalistic' people have and will likely continue to use every means at their disposal in order to prevent archaeologists and anthropologists from getting close to discussing the truth of the matter. And this is not just a simple case of ignorance or stubbornness (even if these are contributing factors), it is because these ideas are used to further their own political machinations. And, as an interresting aside, whereas the United States has the most lawyers per square kilometer, Japan has the most anthropologists per square kilometer. It is almost as if there is a social-academic contract that is mandatory to adhere to: You may study any society in depth; but do not dare suggest that the Japanese descended from Koreans or Chinese. The fact that most Kofun (ancient burial mounds in the Kinki area) are off-limits seems to re-enforce this. Similar structures in Korea are quite open to the public. Most Japanese (on the street, as it were) seem to accept that there are enough similarities between their peoples and those of Korea to justify a stance that they descended from Koreans. But the official stance is still purposefully vague.
Right. Whatever. So, somehow, some group lands on these islands, and starts living. That seems to be what the Japanese refer to as the Jyoumon era --when their society officially started. There doesn't seem to be much in the way to suggest that the Japanese came into being (evolved) on Japan --rather looks like people together with some technology were the first to arrive. At any rate, society grew and flourished. From villiages eventually reaching fifedoms, and kingdoms. Later on, even the kingdoms expanded by taking over other kingdoms (like Okinawa --once a trading partner). Apparently natives of the northern island, Hokkaido, were once quite distinct. Now, thanks to years of assimilation, they have been 'relegated' to legend. And, even to this day, 'Ainu' is considered a derogatory term by many on Honshu (the main island).
In time, (and with the help of xenophobic and insular policies) the Japanese became a very homogeneous group of people. These ranged from (what we would now call religious persecution or discrimination) verifying that local inhabitants were members of Buddhist temples (in order to determine Christians), to prohibitive travelling restrictions (especially for foreigners), and virtually forbidding trade with the 'outside'. Seems like the first kingdom was in the Kinki area (eg close to Osaka, Nara, and Kyoto) after this, there were many wars, insurrections, etc, etc. The capitol cities have been Kyoto, Nara, Kamakura, and Edo (called Tokyo after the Meiji Revolution/Restoration). According to Japanese culture, the capitol city is where the head priest of Shinto (also known as 'The Emperor' or 'Tennou' [Heavenly Star]) lives. Ages ago, the emperor only had any real power in the absence of a shogun. And even today presides over significant religious events. He (or She) is now thought of as a traditional public figurehead. The real power was with the shogun (commander of the military forces) when a shogun position existed. And, similarly, with the emperor with the emperor when there was no shogun. After the Meiji revolution/restoration, the emperor was only a symbol.
This brings us to one possible justification that the Japanese have to be confused. Although Japan was once composed of many individual kingdoms, when they were finally united as 'Japan', Nara was (where the emperor resided and therefore) the capital city. Even though the emperor was a figurehead, at this stage he (or She) was also the power-monger of Japan. Eventually, the emperor moved to Kyoto and that, in turn, became the capital city. Up to this point, things have been very clear and well-defined. During a power struggle, the shogun wrestled power away from the emperor. Even though the emperor continued to live in Kyoto, the shogun lived in Kamakura. As a result, Kamakura was where all the power was centred --becoming a de-facto (note: But not official) capital city. Time passed, and the Kyoto regained its de-facto and official status as a capital city --even though the power was still centred about the shogun. Osaka was the next city to become a de-facto capital city. The emperor never lived there, and at that time, the power of the shogun was waning. A new type of creature evolved: The big-business power-wielder --essentially a financial shogun. In this case, a farmer by the name of Toyota. Born a farmer, his caste (class) was inappropriate to become a shogun. Nevertheless, he would rise to become the most powerful man in Japan. Osaka is where the business dealings would take place, so it became a de-facto capital. During the Edo era, the capital was still officially Kyoto. This changed after the Meiji revolution. The emperor moved to Tokyo, making it the official capital city. (Note: Apparently, this was initially not intended to be permenant). And the monarchy was essentially changed into a constitutional monarchy: The emperor was now a figurehead with little power, and a Prime Minister, chosen by electoral process was supposed to be the power-monger.
This is a confusing thing to the Japanese: The PM has only a virtual power. Like an actor playing a major part, they perform the script carefully crafted by the bureaucratic shadows in the back. They will (traditionally) do nothing that will alienate big business (bad for the coffers). Neither can they afford to alienate too many voters (at least for too long). Or even other party members (with their own interests at stake). The real power-mongers and power-brokers of Japan are the head bureaucrats. With their seal, they control all regulated practises in Japan (which basically means everything that matters). The PM now seems a substitute emperor of sorts. The power resides with all the big-business and big-bureaucrats back-room dealings. This seems to have deprived the Japanese of some powerful figure to identify with or aspire to --even to look to for help. Now, everything is a mess of political and financial rhetoric. The figureheads who are visible are powerless to do anything because they are restricted by their public and private supporters not to do much at all. The more secluded and powerful of Japan's elite are just that: More secluded and more powerful. They are likely to keep the status quo; lest their reputations become threatened. Who do you look to for answers or questions?
Although I am not a historian by vocation, I realise that history can be a very compelling and intriguing study. If only for the little bits that are seldom (if ever) mentioned by the hordes of stuffy books on the subject (note to Historians: If you make a factual history book read like a popular tabloid, I am sure it would encourage more to read about history). Here, then, is a short summary of Japanese history.
In the beginning, there was the Jyoumon era. This was typically the hunter-gatherer stage where agriculture and regional trade started. Recently, it is thought that rice agriculture also started in this era.
After this was the Yamato era. This was when rice agriculture started to flourish. And, because of a surplus food condition, organised warfare started to develop. The first Emperor (of what is now known as Kansai area) was a lady by the name of Himiko.
The Yamato era has been further sub-divided by academics into the Kofun ('Ancient Tombs') era and the Asuka era. During Kofun, the kings had tombs built that rivalled the area of the pyramids in Giza, Egypt. Small nations formed, and aristocracy started to form. In the Asuka era, aristocrats became better organised (marginalising local power-mongers), and a legal system started to form. This was also the era when national unity started (with the exceptions of Hokkaido and Okinawa).
The Nara era was the next to come. There was little in the way of wars then, and the samurai were without much power. There was still some local resistance to unification from the southern part of Kyushu and the northern part of Honshu (present-day Tohoku).
Then came the Heian era. Heian was also the name for present-day Kyoto. During this time, there were power struggles between the Heishi (merchant-samurai), and Genji (warrior-samurai). Both claimed imperial lineage. The Genji eventually triumphed, and samurai start to become power-brokers in their own right. This is when the post of shogun (aristocrat-general) was created.
The Kamakura era was next. Power gradually moved from the aristocrats to the samurai. The conversion to Feudalism starts.
By the Muromachi era, Houjyou had taken the place of the Genji (who were busy killing one-another), the shogun lost his power, and the Great Khan was thwarted by a typhoon in his desire to take Japan. During the Muromachi era, the emperor tried a coup d'etat which caused the Houjyou to lose power. There were lots of political intrigues and economic development also. This led to a lot of food/cuisine and cultural development.
The Azuchimomoyama era was one where constant feudal strife caused the economy to rapidly develop. the country became more unified as resistance fell. During the Edo era, both Okinawa and Hokkaido (both former trading partners) were unified with Japan. In the case of Hokkaido, the conquering (ahem, "unification") was primarily by means of trade. There was no international trade, and the economy stabilised.
Then came the Meiji era. A pocket of resistance to unification, in the Tohoku area, lost in the civil war. Perhaps to add insult to injury, many were forcibly re-located to Hokkaido. This was essentially to help with the assimilation process of the Hokkaido natives ('Ainu'). You have to be mindful on how you use the word 'Ainu' in Japanese as some consider it a derogatory term. The local governments' power increases as the central governments' influence weakens. This was also the start of the military expansion of Japan.
Because it has rather 'ugly' connotations, Japanese are not keen to use the term 'Meiji Revolution'. They prefer 'Meiji Restoration'. In truth it was both. In the course of attempting to restore the monarchy, there were many assassinations and other 'abrupt' measures. The Taisho era was next. On a somewhat lighter note, international trade flourished --spurred on by the first world war (where Japan fought with the allies). Although his predecessor had successfully wrestled the power from the shoguns, the emperor of this period was comparatively weak. As a result politicians gained power, and western political thinking started to become widespread (democracy, socialism). But, this was also the year when Japan would suffer from a devastating earthquake and succumb to the effects of the world-wide depression.
The Showa era, was the one which is particularly bitter to its present-day neighbours. It is where Japan invaded and colonised parts of China (JungKuo), Korea, Taiwan, and other South-Pacific countries. Ironically, as with the second world war in Europe, the events seemed to be precipitated by opportunistic political extremists exploiting desperate citizens and leaders. For, at that time, Japan had massive economic problems: Politicians and family-controlled monopolies seemed oblivious to the plight of the average citizen. Manchuria was the first of a long string of victories that stopped at Midway (a tiny Pacific island). After that, the official term was (translated to) 'advancing backwards'. And this lasted until the island of Honshu was the first to experience thermonuclear warfare. After the war ended, Japan grew industrially at a remarkable pace. The phenomenal economic benefits would not be without consequences, but most Japanese were either unprepared or ignorant of them (a fact that has sadly changed little).
We are now in the Heisei era. Thus far, it seems to be an era where the Japanese are extremely confused, disoriented, and incoherent in terms of both economics and politics.
After the Second World War, Japan started to become a more modernised society. And, certainly more were enjoying life more. That is to say, prior to this, there was not much to look forward to -- just work, work, work.
When Japan started to enter into the industrialised society mode (mid-Heisei era), Everything was geared for production and manufacturing companies. It would not be without its perils (Minamata Bay), but it was making some money. To their credit, the Japanese excelled at the art of re-tooling [A&E Network: New Japan series]. They were simply awesome and without compare in the world (likely still are). And being a small country with limited space and resources, their small car technology was ideal as America got involved in their 'Energy Crisis' of the 1970s. This was basically a case of high demand (America) and the suppliers (mostly from the Persian Gulf area) either limiting supply or charging a high price for the commodity. For generations, Americans enjoyed cheap petrol and huge cars. Now as the prices rose drastically and even supply became a problem, it was time to re-consider. The timing couldn't have been better for Japan. They were able to supply relatively cheap cars that were very economical with petrol. Initially the quality control was horrid. But, in the amazingly short period of about 5 years this drastically changed and they became a prized commodity. Then, with the re-tooling fervour (note: In America, the other major automotive competitor-country, this frequent re-tooling was far too expensive for American manufacturers) they were able to consistently introduce many changes with each and every subsequent model (about twice a year).
On other fronts, Japanese politicians decided that a good backbone was needed to facilitate the transportation of goods. So, a lot of work went into giving Japan a splendid transportation system. Not only roads, but especially by trains. More conveniences and electronic gadgets appeared. Many were working very long hours. Some, were literally dying to show their devotion to the company. As a result, Japan became the first country to allow 'death through overwork' [Japanese: "karoshi"] as a valid life insurance claim. The salaried worker (salaryman) was born. The salaryman was basically someone who was pigeon-holed but was guaranteed lifetime employment for his undying (mostly) devotion.