The first signs of occupation on the Japanese Archipelago appeared with a Paleolithic culture around 30,000 BC, followed from around 14,000 BC by the Joumon period, a Mesolithic to Neolithic semi-sedentary hunter-gatherer (possibly Ainu) culture of pit dwelling and a rudimentary form of agriculture. Decorated clay vessels from this period, often with plaited patterns, are some of the oldest surviving examples of pottery in the world.
The Yayoi period, starting around 500 BC, saw the introduction of many new practices, such as wet-rice farming, a new style of pottery and metallurgy brought by migrants from China and Korea.
The Japanese first appear in written history in China's Book of Han. According to the Chinese Records of Three Kingdoms, the most powerful kingdom on the archipelago during the third century was called Yamataikoku.
Buddhism was first introduced to Japan from Baekje, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, but the subsequent development of Japanese Buddhism and Buddhist sculptures were primarily influenced by China. Despite early resistance, Buddhism was promoted by the ruling class and eventually gained growing acceptance since the Asuka period.
The Nara period of the eighth century marked the first emergence of a strong central Japanese state, centered on an imperial court in the city of Heijou-kyou, or modern-day Nara. In addition to the continuing adoption of Chinese administrative practices, the Nara period is characterized by the appearance of a nascent written literature with the completion of the massive chronicles Kojiki (712) and Nihon Shoki (720). The smallpox epidemic of 735–737 is believed to had killed as many as one-third of Japan's population.
In 784, Emperor Kammu moved the capital from Nara to Nagaoka-kyou for a brief ten-year period, before relocating it to Heian-kyou in 794, where it remained for more than a millennium. This marked the beginning of the Heian period, during which time a distinctly indigenous Japanese culture emerged, noted for its art, poetry and literature. Lady Murasaki's The Tale of Genji and the lyrics of modern Japan's national anthem, Kimi ga Yo were written during this time.
Japan's feudal era was characterized by the emergence of a ruling class of warriors, the samurai. In 1185, following the defeat of the rival Taira clan, Minamoto no Yoritomo was appointed Shogun and established a base of power in Kamakura. After Yoritomo's death, the Houjou clan came to rule as regents for the shoguns. Zen Buddhism was introduced from China in the Kamakura period and became popular among the samurai class.
The Kamakura shogunate managed to repel Mongol invasions in 1274 and 1281, aided by a storm that the Japanese interpreted as a kamikaze, or Divine Wind. The Kamakura shogunate was eventually overthrown by Emperor Go-Daigo, who was soon himself defeated by Ashikaga Takauji in 1336. The succeeding Ashikaga shogunate failed to control the feudal warlords (daimyou), and a civil war erupted (the Ounin War) in 1467 which opened a century-long Sengoku (“Warring States”) period.
During the sixteenth century, traders and Jesuit missionaries from Portugal reached Japan for the first time, initiating active commercial and cultural exchange between Japan and the West (Nanban trade). Oda Nobunaga conquered numerous other daimyo by using European technology and firearms and had almost unified the nation when he was assassinated in 1582. Toyotomi Hideyoshi succeeded Nobunaga and united the nation in 1590. Hideyoshi invaded Korea twice, but following several defeats by Korean and Ming China forces and Hideyoshi's death, Japanese troops were withdrawn in 1598.
After Hideyoshi's death, Tokugawa Ieyasu utilized his position as regent for Hideyoshi's son Toyotomi Hideyori to gain political and military support. When open war broke out, he defeated rival clans in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. Ieyasu was appointed shogun in 1603 and established the Tokugawa shogunate at Edo. The Tokugawa shogunate enacted a variety of measures such as Buke shohatto to control the autonomous daimyo.
In 1639, the shogunate began the isolationist sakoku ("closed country") policy that spanned the two and a half centuries of tenuous political unity known as the Edo period. The study of Western sciences, known as rangaku, continued during this period through contacts with the Dutch enclave at Dejima in Nagasaki. The Edo period also gave rise to kokugaku, or literally "national studies", the study of Japan by the Japanese themselves. According to one authority, there were at least 130 famines during the Edo period, of which 21 were particularly serious.
On March 31, 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry and the "Black Ships" of the United States Navy forced the opening of Japan to the outside world with the Convention of Kanagawa. Subsequent similar treaties with the Western countries in the Bakumatsu period brought Japan into economic and political crises. The abundance of the prerogative and the resignation of the shogunate led to the Boshin War and the establishment of a centralized state unified under the name of the Emperor (Meiji Restoration).
Adopting Western political, judicial and military institutions, the Cabinet organized the Privy Council, introduced the Meiji Constitution, and assembled the Imperial Diet. The Meiji Restoration transformed the Empire of Japan into an industrialized world power that embarked on a number of military conflicts to expand the nation's sphere of influence. After victories in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), Japan gained control of Taiwan, Korea, and the southern half of Sakhalin.
The early twentieth century saw a brief period of "Taishou democracy" overshadowed by the rise of expansionism and militarization. World War I enabled Japan, which joined the side of the victorious Allies, to expand its influence and territorial holdings. Japan continued its expansionist policy by occupying Manchuria in 1931. As a result of international condemnation for this occupation, Japan resigned from the League of Nations two years later. In 1935, local assemblies were established in Taiwan. In 1936, Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact with Nazi Germany, joining the Axis powers in 1941. And also in 1941, Japan signed the Soviet–Japanese Neutrality Pact with Soviet Union, respecting both Manchukuo and Mongolian People's Republic territories.
In 1937, the Empire of Japan invaded other parts of China, precipitating the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945). In 1940, the Empire then invaded French Indochina, after which the United States placed an oil embargo on Japan. On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the United States naval base in Pearl Harbor and declared war on the United States, the United Kingdom and Netherlands. This act brought the United States into World War II and, on December 8, these three countries declared war on Japan. After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, along with the Soviet Union joining the war against it, Japan agreed to an unconditional surrender of all Japanese forces on August 15.
The war cost Japan and countries part of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere millions of lives and left much of the country's industry and infrastructure destroyed. The Allied powers repatriated millions of ethnic Japanese from colonies throughout Asia. The International Military Tribunal for the Far East, was convened by the Allies (on May 3, 1946) to prosecute some Japanese leaders for war crimes. However, all members of the bacteriological research units and members of the imperial family involved in the conduct of the war were exonerated from criminal prosecutions by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces.
In 1947, Japan adopted a new pacifist constitution emphasizing liberal democratic practices. The Allied occupation ended by the Treaty of San Francisco in 1952 and Japan was granted membership in the United Nations in 1956. Japan later achieved spectacular growth to become the second largest economy in the world, with an annual growth rate averaging 10% for four decades. This ended in the mid-1990s when Japan suffered a major recession. Positive growth in the early twenty-first century has signaled a gradual recovery.