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This is a broad topic so where should we start?
A lot of people associate the terms, "Japan" + "history" with samurais or WWII. A few years ago I found Japanese history to be boring because of the superficial reason that everyone looked the same prior to the Meiji Restoration. I've opened my eyes now and have realized that there are many historical figures and events that are worth learning more about.
There are TONS to discuss about Japanese history ranging from the good, the bad and the ugly. To contribute something to the thread, I will briefly talk about the current central figure of the Taiga Drama. ("Taiga Drama" is a historical series that features a historical figure each year. Often times they alternate between men and women.)
Yae no Sakura is about Yamamoto Yaeko (a.k.a. Yae or Niijima Yaeko) (1845 - 1932) who was the wife of Joseph Hardy Neesima. She lived during the Meiji era and was able to convert to Christianity due to Japan opening its doors to the world after centuries of isolation. (Christians would have been killed during the country's closed door policy.) She aided her husband in opening Doshisha University and was also well-known for being a skilled sharpshooter since her father was a gun instructor. (Source: Wikipedia and About.com)
She converted to Christianity in the 1870s, which is impressive considering the fact that Japan only got rid of its isolationist policies in 1868. Despite the fact that I don't know much about her (hence the fact that I ventured into Wikipedia), she seems like someone who is daring and likes to go against the norm. Not only because of her religion but also because she was able to utilize a gun; the vast majority of Japanese people (even today) have never touched a gun in their lives, and letting a woman use a weapon comfortably was most likely unfathomable during that period.
Some discussion questions to get the ball rolling:
- Who are the other historical figures that interest you?
- Which period/events are you intrigued by the most?
- Are there any historical references in the manga/anime you've been reading/watching?
- Is there anything you want to know more about?
Note that I have "the good, the bad and the ugly" mentioned above, which means yes, Japan's role in the Second World War/Pacific War is free for discussion as well. Unfortunately not many people in Japan know about that aspect of history.