History Files

Far East Kingdoms

East Asia Cultures


Early Japan (East Asia)

FeatureThe system which has evolved to catalogue the various archaeological expressions of human progress is one which involves cultures. For well over a century, archaeological cultures have remained the framework for global prehistory. The earliest cultures which emerge from Africa and the Near East are perhaps the easiest to catalogue, right up until human expansion reaches the Americas. The task of cataloguing that vast range of human cultures is covered in the related feature (see link, right).

The chain of islands which make up modern Japan in East Asia stretches from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea in the south. Much of Japan faces what is now North Korea and South Korea, while the southernmost edge of the country's territory abuts that of modern China to the south-west.

Four main islands make up the country, these being from north to south Hokkaido, Honshu (Honshū - the largest of all of them), Shikoku (the smallest), and Kyushu (Kyūshū). A further six thousand smaller islands are also included, although less than five hundred of these are occupied.

Prehistoric Japan can be divided into four major cultures: Palaeolithic, Jomon, Yayoi, and Kofun. Each of these major cultures, or periods, is further subdivided into several sub-periods. The cultural phases are almost limitless.

Archaeological dates for these periods are generally given in uncalibrated radiocarbon years before present which are then recalculated for the Gregorian calender. The only exception to this process is the Palaeolithic which is based on other dating methods. The idea of human occupation in Japan before 35,000 BC is highly contentious, but is covered here in order to include all important timeline events.

Palaeolithic sailors

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from the BBC series, The Story of China, by Michael Wood, first broadcast between 21 January and 25 February 2016, and from External Links: Japanese Archaeology, and Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Japan-Guide.com.)


King list Palaeolithic Japan
(c.50,000 - 13,000 BC)

The Japanese Palaeolithic was a period which was dominated by big-game hunters, although there is little direct evidence to show how these people lived.

King list Jomon Culture
(c.13,000 - 300 BC)

The first pottery appeared on the Japanese islands around 14,500 BC although it was not especially widespread until circa 13,000 BC, and it gave the period its name.

King list Botai-Yayoi Culture
(c.300 BC - AD 300)

Yayoi newcomers introduced the language from which all modern dialects of Japanese appear to descend, replacing any earlier hunter-gatherer languages.

Images and text copyright © all contributors mentioned on this page. An original king list page for the History Files.