Japan: Its History and People

“Japan: Its History and People” is this year’s theme for the Wyatt Exploration Program.  Japan has a very long and rich history.  Ruled by chieftains during antiquity, aristocracy emerged and established the imperial system that governed all of Japan.  After centuries of rule, the samurai (aristocratic warriors) grabbed hegemony of Japan and maintain their hegemony until the mid 19th century.  Faced with the rapidly changing world of 19th century brought upon by western nations’ thrust into the Pacific, the samurai dismantled their own world and instituted various reforms and changes for survival.  Not only did Japan survive but also became the first Asian nation to form a constitution that called for a constitutional monarchy.  By the beginning of the 20th century, Japan became a world power but this century was one of turmoil.  The democratic tradition was derailed and the militarists gained control of Japan.  The Second World War resulted in Japan’s first defeat and occupation by foreign powers, its industrial base and cities destroyed, and its people starving on the streets.  However, in less than a decade after the war, Japan was rebounding back and saw what is commonly known as an “economic miracle.”  This economic recover resulted in an interesting dichotomy; Japan and the United States clashed viciously over trade issues, but at the same time acknowledged that the alliance between the two countries were indispensible.  The post war Japan also saw a boom in American popular culture.  Initially, fashion, movies, and music poured into Japan; then, in 1971, MacDonald’s opened its first Asian store in Tokyo.  MacDonald’s became part of the Japanese vocabulary.  By the late 20th century, Japanese culture became much more visible in the United States.  Generations grew up with Sony and Nintendo and some immersed themselves in anime.  As things Japanese became more common in the United States, people to people contact increased as more Americans went to Japan.

Japan is a country that has experienced a number of changes, but despite these changes, tradition remains strong and the Japanese have a strong sense of history.  As we journey through this year’s Wyatt Exploration Program, we will experience this history and its people.  The ancient capital of Kyoto retains much of its past.  You will navigate through streets that were walked by those in the 10th century and visit Buddhist institutions that have been visited by the Japanese for centuries.  In contrast to Kyoto, Fukuoka is bustling city with its high rises and subway.  It is also a city with great history.  Fukuoka has always been a gateway to Asia, but this was where the Mongols landed in their effort to invade Japan.  The magnitude of this invasion can be felt by visiting Borui (sea wall).  There is Daizaifu Tenmangu, a Shinto shrine built in the 10th century, outside of Fukuoka that is visited by 1000’s of students each year.  Daizaifu’s deity is for scholarship; perhaps, a must visit for us.

Besides history, this Wyatt Exploration Program will be exploring the Japanese people through the lens of immigration and war.  In Honolulu, we will visit the Hawaii’s Plantation Village to catch a glimpse of the conditions surrounding the Japanese immigrants in Hawaii.  In Japan, there will be lectures in Fukuoka and Okinawa on the Japanese immigration.  A very dark chapter in the US-Japan relationship is the Second World War.  This trip will take place during the 70th anniversary of the ending of the Second World War.  We will see how this war is being remembered by visiting Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima Peace Museum and various sites in Okinawa, including where the last battle of the Pacific War took place.

Visiting historical sites are meaningful.  It is possible to feel the past.  Another important aspect of this program is for the students to meet their Japanese counterparts.  Thus, this program includes activities with students from Kitakyushu University.  The value of understanding each other’s culture is immeasurable, and hopefully, students would engage in building bridges between the two countries.


The seat of aristoratic rule during the Heian Period (794-1185). Known as Heian-Kyō, this imperial city remained as the capital of Japan until 1869.


The Temple of Silver Pavilion, Built in 1482 as a retirement villa for the eighth shogun of the Muromachi Period (1333-1573), Ashikaga Yoshimasa, Ginkakuji became a center of Higashiyama culture that had a profound impact on Japan. Refinement of arts such as the tea ceremony and flower arrangment took place here. When Ashikaga Yoshimasa died in 1490, the villa was converted to a Zen temple.

This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


This city's history goes back to Warring States Period, when a regional ruler named Mōri Terumoto made this place his seat of power in 1589. Hiroshima is best known as the first city where the atomic bomb was dropped.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial: It is better known as the Atomic Bomb Dome, but it is actually a large complex with several buildings and serves as memorial for those who died as the result of the atomic bomb that was dropped on this city on 6 August 1945.

This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


The island of Okinawa is part of the Ryūkyū Islands. With its royal  heritage, long contact with China and distinctive dialect, the Okinawan culture is unique. During WWII, the last battle in the Pacific was fought in Okinawa.

Shuri Castle: Shuri Castle was the center of the Ryūkyū kingdom from late 1300's to 1879. The royal court was located at this castle, but it was much more than an administrative and political center. Not only did commercial activities flourished here, but also is was the heart of the Ryūkyū culture. The original Shuri Castle was completely destroyed during WWII.

This is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Eisa is an example of the uniqueness of the Okinawan culture. Its origin goes back to the folk traditions, where the young people paid their respect to their ancestors by parading through the neighborhood playing durms. Eisa's lively rhythms and movements are unique, and now there are many Eisa troupes in Okinawa and other parts of Japan.


The 50th state of USA, Hawai'i is similar to the Ryūkyū Islands in that it was a kingdom with a unique culture. Honolulu ("sheltered bay" in Hawaiian) is the state capital and has been the center of politics and economy. It is perhaps the most diverse city in Hawai'i, as people from various parts of the world came to the islands as immigrants. This immigration continues today, bringing a new layer of cultural dimension to Hawai'i.

Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor is now part of the National Park Service and part of "World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument" that includes states in Alaska and California. It was after the attack on Pearl Harbor that United States declarded war against Japan. USS Arizona Memorial is the final resting place for many crewmen who lost their lives during the attack by Japan on 7 December 1941.

This is a National Historic Landmark Site.

Hawaii's Plantation Village

Many people in Hawai'i are descendants of those who came to the island to work on the planations. Coming from Japan, China, Korea, Philippines, Portugal, Puerto Rico as well as other places, they were all looking for a better life. This village is an outdoor museum that represents the planation community from approximately 1850's to 1950's.