Like Hawaii, Japan is a big chain of islands. These islands sit on the Ring of Fire. Therefore, also like Hawaii, the lands are riddled with volcanoes. Residents also have to be wary of tsunamis because of its island status. Most of the land is too rough to farm on, 80 per cent of it being mountainous. As you can imagine, all of this will play a hand in Japan's culture. For example, people stuck to rivers to farm. This meant the already fertile soil would be even better suited to their crops. Also, the Japanese were often protected due to their proximity to the sea. This included protection from war and hunger, as much of their food comes from the water.
Likely because of this connection with their land, the early Japanese worshipped nature spirits known as kami. They believed these spirits were their ancestors. This would evolve into a mature religion, known as Shinto. The followers of Shinto worship the kami by building shrines in their name and performing ceremonies for their favor.
One person would claim ancestry to the kami Amaterasu, or son goddess. He was supposed to be Japan's first emperor, and belonged to a group known as the Yamato clan. The clan claims the same goddess as its ancestor. They didn't have power over all of Japan, but considered their leaders the emperors of Japan. This never quite ended, as emperors today still claim lineage to the Yamato clan. Even the conquerors of the Yamato did not get rid of their emperors, but controlled them.
China and Korea would greatly influence Japanese culture. The foremost of these examples is the introduction of written language. Korean scribes showed them Chinese writing. And so the well-off would adopt this writing system. Koreans also introduced Buddhism, which grew surprisingly fast and had a big impact on Japanese art. Prince Shotoku, the regent to his aunt the Empress (since she couldn't rule alone), would be the one to spread it even faster. This prince also took a fancy to China, sending people to learn as much as they could about the country. Everything from art to Confucian family practices would be adopted. They also adopted China's bureaucratic government. The nobles would reject the civil service system, however, and continued their holding of office.
This video will showcase one of the temples built thanks to Prince Shotoku.
The Heian Period
After the capital was moved to Heian, Japanese nobles flocked there and created a court society. This is the period when Japanese culture flourished. Nobles lived separated from common folk, in lush palaces or strolling about in gardens. They read or wrote stories and poems. Everything was polished about a person's demeanor. They had to speak and write with attention to detail, so much so that it became an art. Even women were allowed to read and write, but were discouraged from learning Chinese. However, this did not limit them at all. It would be a Japanese woman, Lady Murasaki Shikibu, who would write the first full novel. It is considered one of Japan's greatest works, and is called The Tale of Genji. It's a love story, but has a lot of insight on Heian culture.