Japan already possessed an ancient civilization when the first Western visitors, a group of shipwrecked Portuguese sailors, stumbled onto the coast of southern Tanegashima island in 1542. Though a young country in comparison with its neighbor China, this archipelago nation had been ruled at least nominally by emperors for more than a thousand years and had boasted a welldeveloped, community-based culture for a full two millennia. The Japanese people were as highly educated as any on the globe, and the country's literary and art worlds were sophisticated. It was little wonder that the first European arrivals called the Japanese the [best race yet discovered.] Japanese culture was, after all, well in advance of that of Europe.
Until the eighth century, Japan's central regions were ruled directly by the imperial Yamato family, a clan said to have descended from the sun goddess and to have ruled these divinely created islands since 660 BCE, when the first emperor, Jimmu, came down from the heavens. The family's rule had peaked in the eighth century at Nara, a capital city of 200,000 people where taste and elegance vied with intricate law codes, adapted from China, to make Japan a model of progress. A fifty-three-foot statue of Buddha, dedicated in 752 CE and covered in 15,000 pounds of gold, showcased the new importance of Buddhism, as well as the ruling family's wealth. Although the emperors lost much of their political power to a noble family named Fujiwara after the capital moved north to Kyoto (then called Heian) to get away from Nara's meddling Buddhist influence at the end of the century, the emphasis on taste and elegance remained. During the 400 peaceful years in which Heian dominated Japanese life, a group of women produced brilliant works of literature, including what has been called the world's first novel, the Tale of Genji, while men vied for esteem by showing off their learning, and everyone competed to be the best dressed and the most elegant calligraphers.
The mood turned darker near the end of the 1100s, when a warrior family named Minamoto took control of the country by military