The earliest Japanese cultures were tribal. Early Japanese culture was influenced by China and Korea. In the 4th century A.D., the Yamato clan came to power. In the 6th century, Buddhism was introduced and by the 7th century it was the official religion. The country was ruled by emperors from the city of Kyoto. The Yamato rulers were succeeded by the Fujiwara in the 9th century.

At the end of the 12th century, the power of the imperial court declined, replaced by a military government or shogunate and the rule of the samurai class. This marked the beginning of the Japanese feudal era, or Kamakura period. Warrior families controlled villages and agriculture. Meanwhile, the influence of the imperial court was undermined by powerful Buddhist monks.

The 16th century was a time of great changes in Japanese society. Traders from Spain and Portugal introduced new technologies that revolutionized warfare. Jesuit missionaries came to Japan to spread Christianity. A new sect of Buddhism called Zen became important. This period was the beginning of cultural practices such as flower arranging, the tea ceremony and Noh drama.

At the same time, the feudal lords warred constantly with each other, until Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu, te 3 great military rulers succeeded in uniting all of Japan. Their successors ruled from 1603 to 1868, a time known as the Edo period. Tokyo (originally called Edo) became the principal city. Japan closed itself off from outside influences, banning missionaries and European books. In the 19th century, these restrictions were eased.

 In 1868, power returned to the emperor in Kyoto, a time known as the Meiji period. Feudal institutions were abolished and Japan became increasingly modernized and urbanized. In the war between Japan and China in 1894-95, the Japanese army defeated the Chinese. In 1904-5, Japan won a war against the Russians for authority over Korea. These victories were demonstrations of Japan’s increasing power.

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Archaeological evidence of settlement on the islands dates back 30,000 years, and pottery objects have been found dating from 16,500 B.C.


In the First World War, Japan fought against Germany. In the 1920s and 1930s, Japan extended its power by occupying Manchuria. In December 1941 Japan entered the Second World War on the side of Germany by bombing American ships in the port of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Japan invaded Malaysia, Hong Kong, Borneo and several Pacific islands. In 1945, the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans forced Japan to surrender. Japan was under American military occupation from 1945 to 1952. 

From the 1950s to the 1970s, Japan experienced rapid economic growth. By the 1980s, Japan was an economically powerful and prosperous nation. The economy declined in the mid-1990s. Japan is now working to restore prosperity.