No one knows exactly where the Japanese came from. Despite what some people claim on a regular basis, they are not a homogeneous race. (There is no such thing.) Although there is a fair amount of controversy about their origins, the people described as ``Japanese'' are related to mainland East Asians and thought to be related to South East Asians and South Pacific Islanders as well. There has in the past been quite a bit of immigration from, and through, Korea. The Japanese language is thought to be related to the Polynesian and Altaic language families. What this all boils down to is that the ``Japanese'' are in fact quite a mixed group. However, there hasn't been any large scale immigration in centuries. So, the Japanese might not be the mongrols that many modern Americans are, but in the long duree, there is no such thing as a pure race and the Japanese are as impure as everyone else.
Long, long ago, some stone age types lived in Japan. They shared the islands with a proto-Caucasian2.1 group of people known today as the Ainu. Why either of these groups were here no one really knows. What is known is that someone other than them was making pottery decorated with intricate cord markings sometime around 8,000 B.C. These people, whoever they were, lived in pit dwellings and very inconsiderately didn't bother leaving any written documents for the historian to understand them by. Since they couldn't read or write this isn't all that surprising. What they left us instead was lots of those pots with the really neat cord markings, which is why some archeologist somewhere decided to name this stone age hunter-and-gatherer culture the ``Jomon'' culture and their day of supreme rulership of the sacred islands as the ``Jomon Period.'' Jomon, as you might have guessed, means ``cord markings.'' The Jomon period lasted until a wave of immigrants from the Asian mainland arrived around 250 BC with better technology and took over from the Jomon people. Quite logically, this new period from about 250 BC to about 250 AD is known as the ``Yayoi Period.''
Actually, the only reason this period is called ``Yayoi'' is because that is where the first artifacts of the culture were found.2.2 Soon after these new folks arrived iron and bronze tools and weapons made their first appearance in Japan.2.3Around 100 BC the rice culture of South East Asia entered Japan. This was to define the Japanese way of life until industrialization in the late nineteenth Century. Rice Culture = Lots of people work together to grow the highly labor intensive rice crop. Because of the need for large-scale irrigation works, rice cultures tend toward centralized control of group labor rather than individual labor for individual gain. WARNING: This is an older theory which does not have as many adherents today as it did in the past. While it is true that most if not all societies based on rice cultivation have been less than egalitarian, it is also true that many non-rice based cultures have been (and are) totalitarian. Whatever. Fact is that the rice entered the Japanese isles and has had a profound effect on Japanese culture.
Despite the presence of iron and rice, we are still not into historic times yet--these people didn't write anything down either. Lucky for us that the Chinese did. Chronicles from the third century A.D. tell us that a queen named Pimiku (or Himiko) united ``Japan'' (it wasn't called that yet) after a period of civil warfare. No one really knows exactly where Himiko's queendom was since the Chinese directions are rather vague (it was either on Kyushu, Honshu, or Oahu2.4). It is also unknown whether Himiko's family is the same one that emerges into the light of history as THE imperial family (the one that has continued as the ruling house until the present day--they even were allowed to govern once or twice, but more on that later).
You may have noticed how young the `ancient' Japanese nation is. Here we are, about to embark on the fourth century after the death of Jesus and Japan barely exists. Rome was well past its prime before the ``Japanese'' were advanced enough to qualify as barbarians. Compared to the USA, civilization in Japan may indeed be old, but much of European (to say nothing of African or Middle Eastern) civilization is older still. The reason for this is simple--being basically at the end of the world, the Japanese had to wait a long time for civilization to reach them. When it finally did, it was Chinese and it came to Japan through Korea.
The Yayoi period lasted until another wave of immigrants came in and started building big tombs for their (dead) leaders. It was during this, the Yamato Period, (about 300-710 A.D.) that Chinese and Korean culture came flooding into Japan, bringing the benefits of civilization with them. Prince Shotoku is the big name to know here. He was instrumental in bringing in elements of Chinese culture, including political institutions and Buddhism. The Chinese writing system was imported and Japan was finally literate. As some of you might know, however, the Japanese and Chinese languages have almost nothing in common. Chinese is monosyllabic and not inflected (no verb endings and things of that sort) while Japanese is polysyllabic and most definitely inflected. Imagine trying to write English in kanji - that's what the literate Japanese of this time were doing with their own language. No surprise then that literacy was severely limited and highly prized.
Also during the Yamato period, the founder of the most famous aristocratic family of early Japan, the Fujiwara family, gained control of the imperial court. He kept control by marrying his daughters to emperors and princes and always providing regents for underage (and sometimes adult) emperors. Some people used to say that the emperors of the time had more Fujiwara than imperial blood. Whatever the case, the Fujiwara family remained the power behind the throne for about two centuries. They controlled more than just the emperors: with the other aristocratic families, they dominated the culture of the country until the samurai (strong men with sharp swords) decided the aristocrats were effete snobs and took control. But that is still a few hundred years in the future. Now we turn to the Nara Period--so named because the national capital was located in Nara--and the Heian Period.