The Kofun era

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. Yamato is believed to have extended its control over most of Japan and part of the Korean peninsula, and by the 5th century its rulers had introduced the title emperor (tenno).

Throughout this period large tomb mounds or kofun were constructed for the burial of royalty. Containing large stone chambers and often surrounded by moats, these kofun took many forms, most distinctive of which was the keyhole-shaped kofun, constructed all over Japan from the 4th century. Perhaps the best known of these is the massive Daisen Kofun in Sakai City, Osaka Prefecture, which was built in the 5th century for Emperor Nintoku.

At this time indigenous animistic beliefs involving the worship of spirit deities or kami dominated the religious life of the people, and with the development of strong central authority they emerged as a state religion known as Shinto ('the way of the gods').

From the mid 6th century cultural influences began to permeate from mainland Asia.

Mahayana Buddhism arrived from China via the Korean kingdom of Paekche. Its introduction into early Japanese society facilitated by consideration of the Buddha as a kami, it spread quickly amongst the population and ultimately eclipsed Shinto as the official religion of Yamato at the turn of the 7th century.

During this period too the old clan system began to give way to a system of kingship and governance inspired by the example of China; temples and palaces were built on the Chinese model, and the Chinese calendar, writing system and craft skills were adopted.