Ancient Japan

The Wedded Rocks, on the southern coast of Japan The Wedded Rocks, on the southern coast of Japan The people of ancient Japan believed their islands were created by the goddess Izanami and her brother and husband Izanagi. According to legend, Jimmu, a descendant of the Sun goddess Amaterasu, united the people under his rule and became the first emperor of Japan. The legends say Jimmu’s rule began in 660 BC. Modern historians think Jimmu may actually have lived hundreds of years later, from about 40 BC to 10 BC.  

A modern reconstruction of a Jomon dwellingA modern reconstruction of a Jomon dwelling

The Yayoi

The first people settled in Japan in about 30,000 BC. The islands remained sparsely populated until the 3rd century BC. People of this time, called the Jomon period, still used stone tools and living by hunting, fishing and gathering nuts and berries. Then, on the island of Kyushu in about 300 BC, a people called the Yayoi learned to make metal tools and more complex pottery, raise livestock and cultivate rice. This way of life spread across Japan's main island, Honshu.

Queen HimikoQueen HimikoThe population of Yayoi people grew rapidly, forcing the native inhabitants of Honshu, the Ainu, to move to northeastern Honshu. The Yayoi began to trade with Korea, and built a fleet of ships to move goods to and from the Asian mainland. Warriors, equipped with horses and weapons imported from overseas, became a powerful force.

Ruling families, or clans, emerged. These were sometimes headed by a woman. One such leader was Queen Himiko, who ruled over much of Kyushu between AD 183 and 248. Himiko meant "Sun Daughter": her people believed she was descended from the Sun goddess. She is said to have come to power after decades of warfare between rival clans.

Jimmu, legendary founder of the Yamato dynastyJimmu, legendary founder of the Yamato dynasty

The Yamato

Territorial conflicts arose between local rulers. From around the 3rd century, one of the more powerful ruling families was the Yamato. They ruled over the fertile plains near what are today the cities of Osaka and Kyoto. The Yamato rulers called themselves Tenno, a name meaning "Heavenly Ruler", and they believed that they were directly descended from Jimmu and the gods. The Yamato conquered most areas populated by the Yayoi people and came to dominate Japan. The current emperor of Japan is said to be descended from the Yamato family.

A Shinto shrineA Shinto shrine


The Japanese religion of Shinto emerged from the ancient Japanese people's customs and traditions. The first Shinto shrine, or temple, was built for the Sun goddess Amaterasu by the legendary emperor Suinin at Ise in the 1st century AD. Inside the building, he is said to have placed her sacred mirror. It is said to still be there today. Followers of Shintoism worship many different gods and spirits, known as kami. Everything, including rocks, waterfalls, islands, trees, animals and people (alive or dead), has a spirit.

Consultant: Philip Parker

See also in Geography

The first settlers in Japan migrated to the islands through two natural land bridges. These bridges are now covered by water.

The Jomon people of Japan were making pots from clay by 14,000 BC, making it one of the earliest pottery-making cultures in the world.

It is believed that the Jomon may have worn clothes made out of bark.

The Yamato dynasty took hygiene seriously—they invented the Japanese bath.

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