Japan is a country that remained completely blocked off to any foreigner until the 1500s, when missionaries and traders started to arrive from Europe. At that time, Japan was ruled by the shogun, warlords who were supposed to respect the Emperor. The most famous shogun is Tokugawa Ieyasu, who united most of the country and clarified the classes, as well as subordinated the warlords (daimyo). He further established his reign in Edo (modern Tokyo), purposefully away from the Emperor in Kyoto.
Due to the spread of Christianity in the South of Japan, the Tokugawa shogun evicted all foreigners who refused to disassociate religion from trade – this meant everyone but the Dutch left, and even then, their base was a man-made island off the port of Nagasaki. Travelling abroad was also forbidden to the Japanese.
During this period, Japanese art truly expended, and the daimyo were trained not only in martial arts, but also literature, philosophy and arts such as the tea ceremony, ukiyo-e and kabuki.
Social status was developed as such: samurai at the top, followed by the peasants, artisans and finally merchants, ranked in order of importance to the country (peasants provide the food, artisans the goods and merchants merely dispatch them). Two more classes existed, the eta and the hinin, which means “sub-human”. In vegetarian Japan, these were the butchers and the tanners, who delt not only with death but also handling animal skin. To this day, the discrimination against these families still exists, despite the long time difference. They are now referred to as the burakumin.
The Tokugawa clan held on to power until the 1868 Meiji Restoration, at which point the power was restored to the Emperor, who moved to Tokyo. At this point in time, the Western powers decided to force the Japanese to start trading again, by using highly intimidating American war ships. A period of Western integration followed, during which the Japanese government did all to modernise, revising their education system, military, law and many more.
Japan waged wars against its neighbours, first against China in 1894-1895 (a crushing victory), then Russia 1904-1905 and thus acquired Korea, Taiwan, the Okinawa islands and part of Sakhalin. The Western states interceded on the part of China, and so Japan was forced to return some territories. However, this led to greater militarisation.
Japan joined WW1 on the side of the Allies, but was treated with contempt at the Treaty of Versailles. Racism plagued the relations between the West and Japan, thus pressing the country to prove how great a power it can be. In 1931, Japan invaded China again, through Korea and established a puppet as Emperor of Manchukuo (originally Manchuria).
The Second Sino-Japanese war broke out in 1937, during which many atrocities were committed (such as the Nanking massacre), but the Chinese government never surrendered, thus this war went on until 1945.
In 1940, Japan invaded Indochina (then controlled by the French) in an attempt to secure natural resources, which are completely lacking on its own territory. They continued their expansion throughout Asia, reaching as far as New Guinea, India and Hawaii. The US declared war on Japan in 1941, when they were attacked at Pearl Harbour.
Following intensive air raids (fire bombing which destroyed 80% of some cities, and over half of Tokyo), the Japanese military refused to surrender unconditionally, despite having already lost some islands to American control. In order to force them, the Americans dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9. The Soviet Union also declared war on Japan on August 8, and the Emperor finally agreed to the terms.
1945 is the turning point in Japanese history, and has shaped the entire government and international policy since. The occupation of Japan, the rewriting of their Constitution by a team of foreigners and the removal of their army.
Since then, Japan's economy has gone through the roof, to place it second in the world.