10 historic moments that shaped Japan

Lesley Downer, author of The Shogun's Queen, a novel set in historical Japan that revolves around Princess Atsu, shares 10 moments that shaped the country

1. Commodore Perry sails in in his ‘Black Ships’, 1853

On 8 July 1853 fishermen casting their nets at the entrance to Edo Bay (now Tokyo Bay) see four black ships steaming straight towards them. Japan has been closed to the outside world – except for one small island off Nagasaki – for more than two hundred years. Threatening to attack, Perry forces the shogun’s government to agree to open some ports to whaling ships.


2. Townsend Harris forces the shogun’s government to sign a trade agreement, 1858

Townsend Harris arrives unexpectedly at the port of Shimoda and declares himself the first American Consul General to Japan. After sixteen months of arguing he obtains permission to travel across country to Edo, the capital (now Tokyo). There he has an audience with the shogun and negotiates the first Trade Treaty. Trade Treaties with Britain, France, Russian and Holland follow shortly thereafter.


3. Meiji Restoration, 1868

After a bloody civil war the fourteenth shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, abdicates to prevent further bloodshed and hands over power to a coalition of the shogun’s ancient enemies, the daimyo princes of the south and west, ruling in the name of the teenage Emperor Meiji. The emperor himself travels in grand procession from Kyoto to his new capital, the newly renamed Tokyo – ‘Eastern Capital.’


4. Japanese modernizes with unprecedented speed, 1888

With the help of foreign engineers Japan develops a telegraph, a railway, lighthouses and a western banking system and education system. Japanese people wear western clothes, adopt western hairstyles and embrace all things western. Meanwhile in the Victorian west there is a boom in Japonisme as collectors snap up Japanese swords, ceramics and woodblock prints, and fashionable ladies wear kimonos. In 1889 the government draws up a constitution, establishing a two chamber Diet (parliament).


5. Japan defeats China (then Russia in 1905), 1895

By 1895 Japan has a western style army and navy which win a huge victory over China. Then in 1905 Japan wins an overwhelming victory over Russia. As one Japanese diplomat wryly comments, for many years Japan had exported ‘artistic treasures to Europe . . . and had been regarded as barbarians, but as soon as they showed themselves able to shoot down Russians with quick-firing guns they were acclaimed as a highly civilized race.’  


6. Great Kanto Earthquake, 1923

The reign of Emperor Taisho is a period of peace and growth for Japan. Japan signs a treaty of friendship with Britain and enters the First World War as Britain’s ally. Then on 1 September 1923 a devastating earthquake levels Tokyo and Yokohama. 100,000 people die.


7. Pearl Harbour, 1941

In the build up to the Second World War militaristic elements gain control over the government. The army invades China. Then on 7 December 1941, in response to American economic sanctions, the Japanese navy launches a surprise attack on the American fleet in Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. All out war follows, ended by the fire bombing of Tokyo and the dropping of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan is flattened.


Rubble after the Great Kanto Earthquake

8. American Occupation, 1945-1952

Under General Douglas MacArthur the Americans draw up a new constitution for Japan enforcing peace and institute many changes, imposing far-reaching political, economic and social changes. Emperor Hirohito officially renounces any claim to be divine. The Occupation is ended by the outbreak of the Korean War.


9. Tokyo Olympics, 1964

By the 1960s there is growing prosperity, celebrated by the 1964 Tokyo Olympics opened by the Emperor, which hastens the development of Tokyo and results in the building of the world’s first Bullet Train (Shinkansen).


10. ‘Bubble economy’, 1990

In the 1980s and early 1990s Japan reaches its greatest economic prosperity. Then comes economic downturn followed by the disastrous 2011 Fukushima tsunami and nuclear disaster. Even so Japan remains stable and peaceful and an economically successful country.

Stamp from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

More about the author

The Shogun's Queen

Lesley Downer

The year is 1853, and a young Japanese girl’s world is about to be turned upside down.

When black ships carrying barbarians arrive on the shores of Japan, the Satsuma clan’s way of life is threatened. But it’s not just the samurai who must come together to fight: the beautiful, headstrong Okatsu is also given a new destiny by her feudal lord – to save the realm.

Armed only with a new name, Princess Atsu, as she is now known, journeys to the women’s palace of Edo Castle, a place so secret it cannot be marked on any map. Behind the palace’s immaculate façade, amid rumours of murder and whispers of ghosts, Atsu must uncover the secret of the man whose fate, it seems, is irrevocably linked to hers – the shogun himself – if she is to rescue her people . . .

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