How Much Do You Know About the History of Japan?

Torrance Grey

Image: CrashCourse

About This Quiz

Japan has fascinated Americans and other Westerners for many centuries, beginning when Japan deliberately shunned contact with much of the outside world. For millennia, its status as an island nation influenced Japan's people to keep largely to themselves, creating a very homogenous society with a strong sense of national identity.

When it emerged from this isolation, Japan embarked on a dangerous course of colonialism, using its new military power to subjugate Korea and parts of China. For more than a century, into WWII, Japan was both the aggressor and the victim in some of modern history's worst atrocities. Japan was responsible for the Nanking massacres and the Bataan death march. In turn, it became the only nation to have an atomic bomb dropped on its cities, resulting in the deaths of more than 100,000 civilians.

Today, things have changed. Japan has become an economic powerhouse and a strong influence on popular culture around the world. It has opened its doors to tourism and imports cars and technology all over the world. Its manga and anime are eagerly bought by young people everywhere.

Perhaps you count yourself as a Japanophile. But underneath an interest in its modern  culture, do you really know the 40,000-year history of this nation? We've created a quiz to help you find out. Brew up a cup of sencha (green tea) and put your knowledge to the test!

How are early peoples believed to have migrated to Japan?

During colder geological periods, there were land bridges to present-day Japan. Later, warming and thaws of the polar ice caps led to flooding that made Japan a chain of islands.

What was China's early name for Japan?

Students of Japanese may recognize this as one of Japan's "particle words" (words that have no meaning of themselves, but are attached to the end of other words). In Chinese, it wasn't very flattering, carrying the meaning of "small" or "dwarf."

What does "Nihon," the name the Japanese gave themselves, mean?

Of course, you probably have heard this more poetically phrased. Japan is now commonly called "Land of the Rising Sun."

What is the name of the early Japanese people who are still present as an indigenous race today?

While all of Japan's early peoples are believed to have migrated from elsewhere, the Ainu have been set apart from the "Japanese" by their lighter skin and genetic link to Russia. Today, about 25,000 people identify as Ainu, and they are designated an indigenous people by the government.

What religion did Prince Shotoku introduce from mainland Asia in the 5th century BC?

Specifically, Shotoku brought this religion over from a kingdom in Korea called Baekje. (Sounds more Dutch than Korean to us!)

What name did the Japanese give the largest island in the archipelago?

Honshu is the biggest island by far. It is home to more than 100 million people today.

Which of these historical periods came latest?

The correct order is Jomon, Yayoi, Asuka, and Heian. The first two were hunter-gatherer cultures; the second two are part of Japan's civilized/classical history. The Heian period, in particular, is known for a flowering of the arts.

The imperial capital of Heian-kyo is now which city?

This capital was established a little before 800 A.D. Nowadays, the city of Kyoto is one of Japan's most populous, but not its capital.

Which book did Murasaki Shikibu write in the 11th century?

"The Tale of Genji" is widely considered to be history's first novel. This is a point of pride for women writers, like Mary Shelley writing the first science-fiction novel.

The warrior caste that arose in the early Heian period were known as ______.

Mostly called "Bushi" in Japan, the West knows them as "Samurai." Fascination with this class of warrior/bodyguards/enforcers in still rampant in the West.

The Kingdom of the Ryukyus is now better known as what?

The Ryukyus ruled Okinawa Island and other, smaller island groups for about 400 years, ending in the 19th century. Okinawa was later absorbed into Japan, despite being considerably south of the main island of Honshu.

A shogun is best described as a _______.

While Japan had emperors during the shogunate period, they were puppets. The real power was held by the military leaders, or shoguns.

Which of these greatly hampered the Mongols' two attempts to invade?

This is possibly the reason the word "kamikaze," or "divine wind" is important to Japanese warfare. In both invasions, the weather itself seemed to take Japan's side, as typhoons destroyed much of the Mongol fleets.

The poet Basho was known for what form?

Matsuo Basho wrote in the Edo period. He both wrote haiku and linked the haiku of multiple poets together into longer poems, a tradition of the day.

Which of these was the early name for Tokyo?

Edo was a fishing town on Honshu's east coast. It grew to challenge Kyoto as the country's most important city, and eventually supplanted it as the capital under the name "Tokyo," ("east capital") in the 1860s.

Which American intimidated Japan into signing an agreement that opened the nation to trade and visitation?

Commodore Perry sailed to Japan and proceeded to engage in military posturing and firing of guns off the coast of Edo. Japan, at that time not a military or economic power, then signed the Convention of Kanagawa, which opened two ports to American ships.

With whom did Japan fight a war in 1904 and 1905?

Japanese expansion into Manchuria threatened Russia's control of a warm-water seaport there. This led to a war that Japan won in 1905.

Who negotiated the Treaty of Portsmouth, which ended the Russo-Japanese War?

Roosevelt was president of the U.S. from 1901 to 1909. His negotiation between the Russians and the Japanese helped establish a tradition of U.S. attempts at peace-making that are carried on to this day, often at Camp David.

Which of these is considered to be a motivating factor in Japan's expansionism in the 19th and 20th centuries?

Seventy percent of Japan's land is not arable (farmable), and it lacks natural energy resources as well. That, as well as Japan's increased presence on the world stage, all led the country to grow its military and seek foreign holdings.

In 1910, Japan annexed ______.

Korea has spent a lot of its existence in the hands of either China or Japan. It was the Cairo Conference of 1943 at which the Allied powers decided that "Korea shall be free" after the projected defeat of Japan.

Emperor Hirohito holds which distinction in Japanese history?

Emperor Hirohito died in 1989. He was never prosecuted for war crimes, and he presided over Japan's recovery and rise to economic superpower.

Which of these geographic sites is associated with a Japanese war atrocity?

The "Rape of Nanking," in 1937, included many actual rapes as well as mass murder. This was part of the Second Sino-Japanese War, and more broadly, part of Japan's expansionist aggression in the 1930s and 40s.

On which two cities did the United States drop the atomic bomb in 1945?

The United States remains the only nation to use a nuclear weapon. The U.S. government justified this by saying that the cost of U.S. lives, in a boots-on-the-ground invasion, would be much too high. 130,000 civilians died in the attacks.

What were kamikaze pilots known for?

Kamikaze pilots had a blind devotion to the mission. They made missiles of their own planes, which allowed them to target Allied ships with greater accuracy than remote missiles had.

Who was Hideki Tojo?

Tojo ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor, widely considered a war crime, since Japan did not declare war on the U.S. first. Tojo was, in fact, executed for war crimes in 1948.

Which of these is considered the turning point against Japan in the Pacific war?

After several key victories by the Japanese naval forces, the U.S. defeated them at Midway. This is considered to be a turning point in WWII's Pacific theater.

The Bataan Death March was a forcible 69-mile transfer of American and _____ soldiers.

As many as 18,000 Filipino POWs might have died as a result of abuse or simple executions on the march to Camp O'Donnell. Lower estimates put the number at around 5,000. Several hundred American troops died as well.

Which American governed Japan during its postwar occupation?

The Emperor remained in place as a cultural figurehead and U.S. ally. But MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, was effectively in charge.

The "Humanity Declaration" of 1946 said that the emperor was not a ______.

Under Shinto principles, the emperor was considered a living god, a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu. It was part of Japan's surrender agreement that the emperor would deny his claim to divinity.

What is Japan's National Diet?

Japan adopted a bicameral legislature in the 1880s, as part of a trend toward Western-style civic life. It is responsible for electing the prime minister.

True or false: Has Japan's Honshu become the most populous island in the world?

With a populace of more than 140 million, Indonesia's Java claims that distinction. Honshu is second.

In what post-WWII decade did Japan become the world's second-largest economy?

Japan had ascended to this position by 1968. The speedy recovery from the war would later be known as Japan's "economic miracle."

What was Japan's "lost decade"?

After three decades of an "economic miracle," Japan's economy slumped in the 1990s. This was just as its ally, the United States, was entering a period of prosperity.

In 1992, the prime minister of Japan suffered what indignity?

President George H.W. Bush did this -- in his defense, he was truly ill and fainted afterward. Boris Johnson, the ebullient British politician, actually did knock down a Japanese schoolboy in a soccer match several years ago. International diplomacy marches on!

What was 2011's Fukushima incident?

It might surprise you to know that there were no fatalities due to the Fukushima meltdown, which followed an earthquake and tsunami. However, it is projected that fatal cases of cancer will number around 500 to 600.

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