Return to Your Name film guide
Meiji Period (1868 – 1912)

Following Commodore Matthew Perry’s “opening of Japan” to global trade in 1854, Japan’s contact with the West deepened substantially, though as in China, these relations were structured around “unequal treaties” that disadvantaged Japan. With the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Japanese government charted a path of Westernization and technological modernization that would position Japan as a leading East Asian power, throwing off Western incursions and challenging China’s primacy in the region. The Meiji period is named after the emperor; to this day, emperor’s reign periods determine Japanese dating methods. E.g., 2023 is concurrently known as Reiwa 5.


1868               Meiji Restoration

The Meiji Restoration overthrows the Tokugawa shogunate; the emperor was “restored” to power but in fact, a group of elites directed a series of reforms aimed at making Japan into a modern nation state.


1869               The Eastern Capital

The capital of Japan is moved from Kyoto to Edo, renamed as Tokyo, literally “the Eastern Capital.” Telegraph lines are laid between Tokyo and the nearby port of Yokohama.


1887               Tokyo Electric Lighting Begins Service

While broad access to electricity will take some years, the electrification of the city begins changing the urban landscape, opening new possibilities of urban life illuminated by artificial light.


1894 – 1895   First Sino – Japanese War

Japan’s triumph in the First Sino-Japanese war reconfigures power in East Asia, deposing China from its symbolic position of centrality and feeding Japanese confidence. Japan gains a colony in Taiwan and forces China to relinquish influence in Korea.


1903              First Movie Theater in Japan

Asakusa Denki-kan, Japan’s first permanent movie theater (as opposed to occasional exhibitions in other stage theatrical venues) opens in Tokyo’s Asakusa neighborhood.


1904 – 1905   Russo – Japanese War

Success against a European power, like victory over China, surprises global powers and positions Japan even more strongly in a changing balance of power in Asia.


Taishō Period (1912 – 1926)

The Taishō period begins with great prosperity; cultural life and political activity flourished in the empire’s growing cities. Compared to the Meiji, the Taishō period enjoys cultural and political freedoms, freedoms that would be curtailed with the rise of militarism and fascism in the next decades.


1910               Korea Annexed

After years of exerting control over Korea, Japan formally annexes the Korean peninsula, further growing its empire.


1923               Great Kantō Earthquake

This devastating earthquake levels Yokohama, Japan’s bustling port city, and Tokyo, killing around 140,000 people.


Shōwa Period (1926 – 1989)

The Shōwa period covers a huge swath of modern Chinese history, from the militarization and growing colonial project of the 1930s, to WWII and its shattering results, to the nation’s remarkable midcentury economic growth, right to the brink of economic collapse that followed Japan’s 1980s “bubble economy.” In 1920, 18% of Japan’s population lived in cities, by the 1980s, that percentage had risen to 76% with the biggest shifts occurring in the 1930s and the immediate postwar period (Harris 51).


1927               Tokyo Subway

Japan’s first subway line opens in Tokyo.


1931               Haneda Airport

Tokyo’s first airport is completed.


1937               Second Sino-Japanese War

Japan, having for years made incursions in the northeast, begins a full-scale invasion of China in July, taking control of Shanghai and moving onto Nanking late in the year.


1941               Pearl Harbor

A “day that shall live in infamy”; Japanese forces attack Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States into WWII on December 7, 1941.


1945               Tokyo Firebombing

Tokyo had been bombed throughout the war, but in March 1945, US forces carried out “Operation Meetinghouse,” dropping 2,000 tons of bombs on the city, burning 15 square miles of the city to the ground. Although exact numbers are not available, estimates suggest that casualties exceed 100,000. A short film titled “Target Tokyo” about the first B-29 bombings of Tokyo is available here.


1945               Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Atomic Bomb

US forces drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6th. A second bomb is dropped on Nagasaki on August 9th. A broadcast of Emperor Hirohito announcing Japan’s surrender airs on August 15. Estimates vary, but upwards of 100,000 and perhaps over 200,000 died during and within days and weeks of the bombing.


1945 – 1952   US Occupation

The United States armed forces occupy the Japanese mainland until 1951. Historian John Dower’s Embracing Defeat is an informative and accessible account of the period. In 1952, Japan regains its sovereignty.


1947               Japanese Constitution

The new constitution moves power into the hands of the people, establishing Japan as a representative democracy. The emperor remains in a symbolic role. Article 9 of the document rejects war and prohibits the maintenance of a standing armed forces. Japan does maintain a de facto army, the Japan Self-Defense Force.


1952               Japan Resumes Sovereignty

After signing the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951 and agreeing to conditions put forth in a bilateral security treaty with the United States, Japan resumes sovereignty in 1952.


1953            Public Television Broadcasts

The Japan Broadcasting Corporation begins public broadcast in 1953, with color programming coming in 1960. While many in the early 1950s are too poor to buy a TV, by 1960, 55% of household own televisions, and the number grows to 95% by 1964.


1954            Godzilla Released

Premiering in the same year as the Lucky Dragon 5 incident in which Japanese fishermen were irradiated by fallout from American nuclear tests in the Pacific, Godzilla negotiates Japan’s nuclear anxieties and allows Japanese heroes to prevail over the nuclear monster.


1960               Anpo Protests

Huge protests against the passage of a security treaty that would renew the alliance between Japan and the United States first formally established in 1951 rock Japan. Opposition comes from the left and right, but the left-wing opposition is especially strident in its opposition to embroiling Japan in American Cold War politics and conflicts.


1964               Summer Olympics

The Summer Olympics are a chance for Japan to demonstrate its economic accomplishments and an opportunity to market the nation in a positive light after the disastrous world war.


1966               First Nuclear Power Plant Goes Online

Japan’s first nuclear power plant, imported from Britain, begins operation. By the end of the 1970s, Japan would be producing nuclear power technology domestically.


1968 – 1969    Student Protests

Student protests swept the world in the late 1960s, with 1968 emerging as a particularly potent year of struggle.


1970               Osaka Expo

This world expo held in Osaka highlighted achievements in science and technology; the enormous site and its facilities were powered by nuclear energy.


1971               Okinawa Returns to US Sovereignty

The southern island of Okinawa, to this day home to one of the many controversial American military installations in Japan, is returned to Japanese rule by the United States.


1985               Studio Ghibli Established

Japan’s most famous animation company is founded by Japanese animators, including Miyazaki Hayao.


Heisei Period (1989 – 2019)

The 1990s are known in Japan as the “Lost Decade,” a period of dejection following the dramatic implosion of Japan’s “miracle economy.” The relative sluggishness of the economy and pessimistic outlook continued into the new century (now “30 Lost Years”). The Heisei also saw the 3/11 disaster, Japan’s most traumatic catastrophe since WW2.


1991               Bubble Bursts

Real estate and stock prices had become greatly inflated; the price bubble bursts in late 1991.


1995               Kobe Earthquake

A high magnitude earthquake struck in January, killing over 6,000 people and damaging hundreds of thousands of structures. Before the 3/11 disaster, it was Japan’s biggest natural disaster since the 1923 quake.


2011               Tōhoku Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Disaster

On March 11 a 9.1 magnitude earthquake hit Japan’s northeastern Miyagi Prefecture, its epicenter about 80 miles from the city of Sendai. It was followed by a massively destructive tsunami that damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plant, leading to the meltdown of three reactor cores and the subsequent creation of a nuclear exclusion zone in the surrounding area.


Reiwa Period (2019 – now)

The Reiwa period began after the abdication of the Akihito, the Heisei emperor, who decided to leave the throne on account of his age (85) and health. His son, Naruhito, assumed the throne. According to the World Bank, as of 2021, 92% of Japanese people live in cities. Those who remain the countryside are mostly older.


2021              2020 Summer Olympics

Delayed by Covid, the controversial Tokyo Olympics were hosted in the summer of 2021.


2022               Abe Shinzō Assassinated

Abe Shinzō, conservative politician of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and former prime minister of Japan was assassinated in July during a campaign speech in support of the LDP. Abe had been in favor of developing Japan’s military capabilities. Since his death, Fumio Kishida’s (also LDP) government has moved to dramatically increase military spending. Many experts see militarization in Asia as prepar