Japan is one of the world's most ethnically and culturally homogeneous nations, but down the ages its culture and society have been greatly influenced by foreign ideas and institutions, art and literature.
Palaeolithic tool finds suggest that human settlement in Japan stretches back at least 30,000 years. The first inhabitants of the Japanese islands were hunter-gatherers from the continent who used sophisticated stone tools, but had no settled agriculture or ceramics.
From about the 3rd century CE, various petty kingdoms were established in and around modern Nara Prefecture, culminating in the emergence of the Yamato kingdom.
The origins of classical Japan are generally traced back to the kingdom of Nara (710-794), which emerged contemporaneously to the Tang dynasty (618-907) in China.
The defeat of the Taira clan at the hands of Minamoto no Yoritomo in the Genpei War (1180-1185) paved the way for the establishment of the shogunate, a feudal system of government which would last until 1867.
By the 19th century the Tokugawa Shogunate was in terminal decline, its power weakened by debt and internal division. After a brief civil war in the early 1860s the Tokugawa regime was overthrown and imperial rule restored.
The Showa era (1926-1989) began with the inauguration of Emperor Hirohito, who had acted as regent since 1921.
By the end of World War II more than 2 million Japanese lives had been lost and over 100 cities destroyed. Industrial production stood at less than 10 per cent of its pre-war level, and transportation networks had been severely damaged.
The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 provided an important boost to the Japanese economy, as the country became the principal supplier of food and arms for the US armed forces.
The death of Emperor Hirohito in January 1989 brought to an end the longest imperial reign in Japanese history, removing a powerful symbol of continuity. In November 1990 Emperor Akihito became the 125th emperor of Japan and the first under the post-war constitution.