During the Ice Age, Japan was connected to the mainland. Hunters crossed the sea from present-day Siberia. Later, they were joined by shipwrecked fishermen from the south. Our knowledge originates from the excavated Kaizuka, shell-hills. They used to be those days' landfills. Agriculture entered Japan from Korea. This is still seen today in our breakfast: we eat rice with Miso-Shiru, a soup with asari-shells, sea wead, egg plant, spring onion, beet or tofu and seasoned with Miso, a past of soy beans. That is why Japanese grammar resembles Korean but the vocabulary is predominantly Siberian and Kanji. A good example is the royal seal of Kan-no-Wa-no-Na-no-Koku-Ou, exhibited at the Fukuoka-Museum . Kan was the name of China between 25 and 220 AD. Japan was an allied nation outside the imperia borders of China (simply the sea in between); perhaps like the Germanic and Slavic tribes at the Roman imperial borders. Hence the name Kan-ji: characters from Kan.
In the year 710, the capital was transferred from Yamato to Hei-Jou-Kyou, modern Nara. The city was modelled after the capital of Toh-China (Kan fell apart and Toh reunited China). The squared street plan was inspired by the book of Maths and multiplication; a simple area is square. Buddhism gained a strong position in Japanese society, as seen by the Daibutsu, Giant Buddha, in Nara. This 18 metres-tall bronze statue was a symbol of peace in a time of dissatisfaction among peasants, especially about the new taxes. Japan modernied with a new bureaucracy. Leagal terms were absorbed into Japanese.
In the year 1185, Yoritomo Minamoto and his brother Yoshitsune of th Genshi defeated the then in power Heishi. Genshi and Heishi were regent families descending from emperors. They occupied higher positions in the bureaucracy. A scene from the battle is seen in an illustration from the chronicles of Kasuga-Gongengenki, exhibited at the Tokyo-Kokuritsu-Hakubutsukan museum. Minamoto founded the Kamakura-Bakufu dynasty of generals, who de fact held power, next to the official emperor. This feudal structure was typical to Japan. In the mean time, reading and writing was made more accessible by the development of Hiragana and Katakana, which are like small and capital prints of the phonetic alphabet. Lots of literal language was absorbed into spoken language precisely because of this; with Katakana, it is much easier to learn Kanji.
There were also developments in architetcure. New movements within Buddhism like Zen caused change. The classical Daibutsu-style was graciuous and large, while Zen was more refined, paying attention to detail. The Kinkaku is mixed-style. Zen was inspired by Daruma, a munk who meditated sitting for a long time in a cliff. A very famous story in Japan.
Contact with the western world began in the 17th century, first with Portuguese, then with Holland. Firework from China was brought to the west by Mongols, which in turn was exported to Japan in the form of portuguese rifles. Himeji-joh was the reaction to this event: not only did one buy arms, but the castles were modernised with a ishigaki, a high fundament from stone and earth, made to withstand cannon impact. The Tokugawa-bakufu dynasty came to power and thus they wished to solidify their reign. It is from this time that the dish Tempora originates: battered and fried fish and vegetables, originally Bagna Caoda (hot bath in Genovese Italian), a kind of fondue in hot olive oil with anchovis, carrots, mushrooms and other vegetables. Try them both!
The Portuguese commenced active conversion. The converts gave the Portuguese power which the Tokugawa-Bakufu wanted to get rid of. Borders were closed except for the Dutch and the Chinese, since they came for trade purposes only. Deshima was the trading post of the Dutch East India Company. The Sieboldhuis in Leiden has a nice exhibition about this period. The name Japan stems from this period, the characters for Nippon-Koku are pronounced Jipan-Gu in a South-Chinese dialect.
In the 19th century, artists like Seiki Kuroda and Takeji Fujishima studied (Post-)Impressionism. While newer styles like Cubism, Surrealism and the East-German Industrialism came to being, in Japan Impressionism is still thought of as the main European arts movement. The word Man-Ga, loose-image, exists since the Tokugawa period but was casted in its coontemporary shape when it was combined with illustrations from British newspapers. Popular ever since, the film production company Toh-Ei started cartoons around 1950, which were broadcasted together with Disney cartoons. Japanese children grow up with magazines like Ribbon for girls or Jump for boys, strictly speaking meant for infants and teens between the age of 6 and 15 but also adults occasionally read Jump. The author feels he is getting old but he is not surprised that they are exactly the same as they used to be and are read as frequently.
Tokyo accomodates the tallest skyscrapers in the world. Even if they aren't in Japan, often other tall buildings elsewhere are designed and built by Japanese companies. Construction regulations in Japan are among the most demanding and these buildings withstand earthquakes and storms (Tyfoons). In Japan, these buildings are built right next to ancient buildings in the city centre. The cultural revolution in communist China has destroyed lots of heritage so that ancient China is preserved only in Japan and Taiwan. But Japan is a good place for modernity too; Made is Japan is a warranty for technology and craftmanship. You are quite welcome there!