Palaeolithic tool finds suggest that human settlement in Japan stretches back at least 30,000 years. The first inhabitants of the Japanese islands were hunter-gatherers from the continent who used sophisticated stone tools, but had no settled agriculture or ceramics.

This earliest wave of settlers - from which today's Ainu ethnic minority are descended - are believed to have migrated from Siberia. Initially dispersed widely throughout the Japanese islands, they were subsequently pushed steadily northwards by later migrant groups, forerunners of today's Japanese people, so that today only a small number remain in isolated pockets on Hokkaido.

From around 13000 BCE a new wave of hunter-gatherers known as the Jomon settled in the Japanese islands. Known for their exquisite pottery, they acquired their name Jomon (literally 'cord marked') as a result of the unique decorative patterns they created on their ceramics.

The hunter-gatherer Jomon people were gradually superseded by the more advanced Yayoi (c 300 BCE-300 CE), who introduced wet rice cultivation and the use of metal tools.