The Japanese archipelago lies in the Pacific Ocean, separated from Russia, China, and Korea by the East Sea and the East China Sea. Today, the country consists of four main islands, Kyushu to the southwest, Shikoku in the west below the central island of Honshu, and Hokkaido to the north. South of Kyushu are a series of smaller islands known as the Ryukyu Islands. Almost three quarters of Japan is covered by mountain ranges, and it has, at present, nearly eighty active volcanoes. In a normal year, there are at least one thousand earthquakes strong enough to be detected by the average person. Most of the country experiences four distinct seasons, with a rainy season in the summer, and a typhoon season in the fall. The seismic and climactic rhythms of the archipelago have played an important role in the historical development of Japan's culture and the artistic sensibilities of its artists. The archipelago's proximity to China and Korea has resulted in cycles of influxes of material and intellectual culture from the continent over the centuries.
The period of recorded history in Japan likely began in the seventh century, but today, the earliest extant locally written histories are copies of manuscripts that were originally written in the eighth century. However, descriptions of the political organization and social customs of Japan begin to appear in Chinese documents as early as the first century. The classification of cultural and artistic developments of Japan starts with the Mesolithic/Neolithic cultures of the Jōmon (ca.10,000–300 B.C.) and Yayoi (ca. 300 B.C.–A.D. 300) periods, which produced two distinct types of pottery, the later of which suggests a rapid influx of continental culture and technology. This influx continues to be evidenced by the tomb and temple structures of the subsequent Kofun (300–710) and Nara (710–794) periods. The Nara period also witnessed the rise of a political system based upon the Chinese model. Japan internalized and modified continental forms for local consumption during the Heian period (794–1185), and demonstrate a pattern of intermittent receptiveness to Eastern, and later Western, cultural influences during its long era of military rule encompassing the Kamakura (1185–1333), Nanbokuchō to Muromachi (1333/36–1568), and Momoyama to Edo (1568–1868) periods. During this long feudal era, distinct but intermingled visual cultures developed first around the warrior and courtier classes, and later around the emerging merchant class. Beginning with the Meiji period (1868–1912) and continuing into the present, Japan has struggled to establish, and reestablish, its political, religious, and socio-cultural identities in relationship to other Asian countries and with Europe and America. Some Japanese artists have consciously developed an intimate relationship with artistic movements and communities in the West, while others have deliberately turned to traditional, indigenous or Asian continental forms as a source of inspiration. Still others decline to be identified by nationality, seeking instead to be recognized as part of a transnational community of artists.