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Starting government: Liberalism
Prior to the beginning of the 17th century, Japan was in a state of political anarchy. Natural disasters and weak government contributed to the destruction of the 200-year-old Ashikaga shogunate, and the Japanese islands were in a state of civil war for the first time in two centuries. During this transitional period, known as the Sengoku Jidai, Japan's fate would be determined by the destinies of three different men of three different generations: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Early Modern JapanEdit
Amongst the provincial warlords or daimyo (Japanese for "great name"), one arose to eminence: Oda Nobunaga. The Oda clan, despite not being truly descendents of samurai, managed to take advantage of new European-style gunpowder tactics introduced by the Portuguese, and so Nobunaga made big strides in reunifying Japan — by the time he fell, almost half of the entire Japanese nation was unified under Oda control. However, his eccentric behaviour, brutual means and adoption of Christianity alienated many around him and in 1582, Oda was forced to commit sepukku. One of his most loyal retainers, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, succeeded him and managed to completely reunify Japan.
In order to gain absolute control, Hideyoshi destroyed many castles that had been built around the country during the Sengoku Jidai, and forbade the samurai class from farming, and forced them to move into castle towns. Seeing Christians as a threat to his reunification process, and suspicious of the intentions of the Spanish and the Portuguese, he also began to expel Christians missionaries in 1587. Further conversions to Christianity were forbidden and the persecution intensified culminating with the execution of 26 Franciscans in 1597 as a warning.
Rise of the Tokugawa ShogunateEdit
To further solidify his legimacy, Hideyoshi chose to invade the Asian mainland through Korea, and began the Imjin War in 1592. Although the invasion was initially successful at first, eventually the Koreans rallied and with Chinese support, drove the Japanese to the sea. He would die later that year to be supplanted by Tokugawa Ieyasu. From its seat at Edo (present-day Tokyo) the Tokugawa shogunate established firm political and military power, with Tokugawa being nominated as shogun by the Emperor in 1603. The shogun was able to redistribute the wealth he acquired in a way as to satisfy the Daimyos but also instituted a practice that required them to spend every other year at Edo, resulting in a huge financial burden for the Daimyos and moderated their power at home.
Foreign relations still proved a thorny problem, however. Concerned with the expansionism of the Spanish and Portuguese empires in Asia and the welfare of Japanese citizens abroad, Ieyasu initiated a series of policies suppressing Christianity, forbidding Japanese to travel abroad and limiting contact with the outside world, which would eventually be called sakoku or "locked-country policies". This was not to say that Japan had no contact with the outside world, it was only that foreign access to Japan would be strictly and severely controlled by the shogunate authorities. Trade in fact did prosper during this era, especially with Korea, Holland and Britain.
In this isolated space, the general peace and stability that Tokugawa rule brought resulted in a cultural flourishing The samurai class began to branch out from martial arts to the appreciation and practice of the finer Japanese arts, while new forms of art such as Kabuki theatre and Ukiyo-e printing developed among the commoners. Japanese society however also became more firmly entrenched in a caste system where social classes were not allowed to change from one to the other. The Samurai class was at the top, followed by peasants, artisans and merchants and the outcast class known as the eta at the bottom.
Coming of the GaijinEdit
Towards the end of the 18th century, however, Japan's sakoku policy began to unravel the structure of Tokugawa domination while the Tokugawa government began to stagnate, combined with natural disasters that led to worsening financial conditions and social unrest.
The first event to show how weak Tokugawa power actually was came during the rule of Tokugawa Ienari (1773-1841). At that time, Europe was embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars and when Napoleon created the Batavia Republic, a British warship, the HMS Phaeton, took hostages and bombarded Nagasaki harbour in 1808. Although the Phaeton left of its own accord eventually, the slow and phlegmatic response of the Tokugawa authorities showed just how inadequately equipped Japan was in dealing with the outside world.
The second major visit from a Western power to Japan had far more serious consequencies. Between 1852 and 1854, two naval expeditions led by Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry forced Japan to open up to the world. Perry extorted an agreement for commerce and non-agression at gunpoint by randomly shelling a few waterfront buildings in Tokyo Bay, an action which would later earn the infamous epithet of "gunboat diplomacy" and emulated later on by the colonial powers against equally weak opponents. Anti-Western sentiment was directed at the Tokugawa authorities (who were scrambling to modernise in the wake of the Perry Expedition), open trade led to further proliferation of foreigners in Japanese streets, and an economic crisis which exacerbated peasant uprisings. Individual daimyos in the south seceded from the Tokugawa regime, in what would be known as the Boshin War (called so for having started in the lunar year of the Dragon, 1868). Rallying behind the Japanese emperor, the rebels drove the Tokugawa to Hokkaido, who then the set up the Republic of Ezo. By 1869, the Ezo Republic was no more and so were the last of the Tokugawa too, and a new era — the era of "enlightened rule" (in Japanese, rendered as Meiji — had begun.
An Empire RestoredEdit
Although the Japanese were incensed with the existence of foreigners or iteki as they called them, the nobles who rose up to overthrow the Tokugawa were pragmatic enough to realise that the methods and tactics of the Western powers were materially superior, if not culturally, to their own indigenous ones. Thus, after the Boshin War, a new state centred around the emperor was created, which was nominally democratic but in reality was a de facto oligarchy dominated by the victors in the Boshin War. The caste system was abolished, and while economic, military and educational reforms were vigorously pursued and structured after western models to close the gap between Japan and western nations, taking what were at the time the best western models in each area at the time. For instance, Japan turned to France for assistance in modernising the land army, but then turned to Prussia instead after the Franco-Prussian War. Emperor worship, initially ignored by past regimes, was also increasingly emphasised to bring focus to the nation as opposed to individual clans.
When the transformation was complete, Japan again turned its attention again back to mainland Asia, believing that just as how the European powers were supported by overseas empires, Japan also needed one of its own too. Conflicting interests in Korea between Japan and China lead to the Sino-Japanese War in 1894. where China was forced to cede Taiwan over to the Japanese. Western intervention had actually forced Japan to return some captured territory, so Japan continued to intensify military development. Then in 1904, conflicts with Russia developed over Korea and Manchuria. In a stunning victory, Japan defeated the Russian Pacific fleet gaining new territory from Russia and respect from the Western powers, albeit grudgingly. Six years later, Korea was annexed completely. Of these wars, however, the Russo-Japanese War was the most significant. Hitherto, Asians had been seen as weak and powerless before the threat of Western domination, but by the time the Treaty of Portsmouth was signed, the world was entirely changed. The victories Japan scored proved that the non-Western peoples of the world were capable of achieving the same power and prestige which Western nations hitherto had commanded. From that point on, Asian patriots from China to the Middle East would begin their struggle to modernise and to gain independence from the Western powers.