Japan: Historical Background

Much of Japan's early culture, including art, language, Buddhism andConfucianism was derived from China and, over the years, has become Japanese.

During a period of civil wars in the fifteenth and sixteenth a feudal system, much like that of medieval Europe, developed. Each lord had his knights, or samurai, who were bound to them by oaths of fealty. But it wasn't until the middle of the sixteenth century that the western world became interested in this island nation.

In 1542 a Portuguese mariner, Fernando Mendez Pinto was wrecked there and brought back such glowing reports of the country that Portugal established a trading mission at Nagasaki. Soon Dutch merchants and European missionaries followed. In 1600 Tokugawa Ieyasu won a victory over the western lords and in 1603 became the Shogus, founding a dynasty which effectively ruled Japan until 1867. An Englishman, William Adams, who had served under Sir Francis Drake and had been a pilot for the Barbary merchants, joined a Dutch fleet which sailed for Japan. After a troubled beginning there, the Shogun, Tokugawa, took a liking to him, and he was given a house. Jesuits and Japanese missionaries Christians acted as interpreters. The emperor sent for him and asked him to build a ship. Although Adams knew nothing about shipbuilding, he was so successful that the Emperor gave him two swords (the mark of a samurai). He also taught the emperor some mathematics. Although Adams had a wife in England, the emperor declared that William Adams was dead and reborn as Miura Anjin, free to marry again. He married a high-born Japanese woman, but eventually wished to go home. Permissioin was refused, he built another, larger ship and had over 80 retainers. He died in Japan in 1620. James Clavell's novel Shogun based on his experiences.

Soon the Exclusion Decrees were published and Japan was closed to the West. After it was reopened in 1854, the Western world became fascinated with all things Japanese. Commodore Perry had opened to view a society and culture which had been hidden for hundreds of years. Soon exhibitions of Japanese art opened throughout the United States and Europe and japonisme became the rage as chinoiserie had been a century before. Japanese motifs such as bridges, fans, cranes, butterflies, and bamboo were incorporated into Western art and furnishings. Literature also responded to the influx of new themes. Poets such as Whitman, Longfellow and Yeats incorporated Japanese images into their works. Stories set in Japanese locals were written and several of these merged into the one depicted in Puccini's Madama Butterfly.