The rise and opening of Japan

Japan is an island nation that lies to the northeast of China. Though there is evidence of human habitation in Japan dating back thousands of years, it was not until settlers from China and Korea traveled to Japan in the sixth century C.E. that a definable society have been well represented in Japanese theater, such as No plays and Kabuki, and in film, particularly the historical films of director Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998). (A No, or Noh, play is a classic Japanese dance-drama having a heroic theme, a chorus, and highly stylized action, costuming, and scenery.) The samurai film, in fact, has had a wide influence throughout the world. Akira Kurosawa's legendary movie, The Seven Samurai (1954), was the inspiration for the light saber battles in the film Star Wars (1977) and its sequels. Samurai suits of armor, made of ceramic plates sewn together, were the inspiration for the military flak jacket developed by the United States Army during World War II (1939-45). Samurai wore distinctive top-knot hairstyles and wore bold crests on their robes.

The samurai disappeared as a distinct class in the nineteenth century. In modern Japan some towns celebrate the history of the samurai by holding annual pageants or parades where participants dress in reproductions of historical samurai styles. The traditional practices of archery, swordsmanship, and martial arts all have their basis in samurai culture. Today, many practitioners of these disciplines are greatly respectful and knowledgeable about their samurai forefathers.

Heian Costume
A samurai warrior wearing samurai armor and a horned helmet. Reproduced by permission of © Sakamoto Photo Research Laboratory/CORBIS.

took root. Early Japanese society was deeply rooted in Chinese customs and traditions of religion, governance, and costume. The Heian period, which lasted from 794 to 1185 C.E., was the first flowering of a unique Japanese society. The Japanese began to develop distinct clothing traditions that were more formalized and ritualized than those in China.

Following the collapse of the Heian period in 1185 C.E., a number of powerful kings vied for power. Each king surrounded himself with warriors known as samurai. The samurai had a distinct warrior culture of their own, with rules of behavior and dress. The culture had a great influence on fashion in Japan. The most powerful samurai was known as the shogun, and he ruled with the power of an emperor. In 1637 the Tokugawa shogunate (the name for the government of the shogun), which had assumed power in Japan, closed the country to any exposure to the West. For nearly two hundred years Japan resisted Western influences. It retained its traditional culture, while the world around changed. Eventually powerful British and American governments forced Japan to open to trade.

In 1867 the rule of shoguns ended and an emperor was restored. The emperor, Meiji, believed that Japan must become a modern nation. He allowed the Japanese people to vote, and he developed a modern economy. Japan became a powerful nation, so powerful, in fact, that it opposed the United States and its European allies in World War II (1939-45). Though Japan lost the war, it remains a powerful industrial nation to this day.

Late in the nineteenth century the Japanese people adopted Western dress. Their traditional dress, which dates back to the earliest years of Japanese civilization, is still worn, however, as a way of showing respect and love for ancient traditions. Traditional Japanese dress is reserved primarily for special occasions and ceremonies. Some fear that by the end of the twenty-first century traditional Japanese dress will disappear altogether.

China and Japan are not the only Asian nations with deep roots in the past. Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and many other Asian nations also claim cultural and costume traditions with ancient roots.

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