Explore / World Cultures
The Japanese islands have been inhabited for more than 30,000 years. Over the centuries people developed from hunters living in pit houses to rice farmers who made tools and ritual objects out of metal. Permanent agricultural settlements followed.
Buddhism arrived from the Asian mainland during the sixth and seventh centuries AD. With it came new forms of architecture, sculpture, painting and the Chinese writing system. New ideas of government were also introduced from elsewhere in Asia.
Openness to outside influence did not continue, however, and in AD 1639 the samurai government established by the Tokugawa shoguns banned Japanese from travelling. It also carefully controlled foreign contact by having just four gateways through which outsiders could enter the country.
Urban culture flourished during this period, but in 1868 the samurai government was replaced by a new modernizing regime that ruled in the name of the Meiji emperor. This period saw Japan enjoy an atmosphere of cultural openness when international influences were eagerly absorbed, and urban life largely resembled that in the West.
Although the Asian-Pacific war brought a sense of national unity to some, defeat left the population exhausted and the cities ravaged. The Allied Occupation (1945–52) remodelled the Japanese political infrastructure to ensure the democratic process.
Continuity and change have consistently shaped Japan. Today it is a thriving modern, high-technology society that continues to celebrate many elements of its traditional culture.
The British Museum has one of the most comprehensive collections of Japanese material culture in Europe. The collection of around 30,000 objects traces the history of Japan from early archaeological material to twentieth century Manga comics. In between, the collection takes in the arts of Buddhism, paintings, prints and printed books, sculpture, Samurai warrior swords, textiles, lacquerware, ceramics and tea ceremony wares and utensils.