The region was the cradle of various ancient civilizations such as Ancient China, ancient Japan, ancient Korea, and the Mongol Empire. East Asia was one of the cradles of world civilization, with China, an ancient East Asian civilization being one of the earliest cradles of civilization in human history. For thousands of years, China largely influenced East Asia as it was principally the leading civilization in the region exerting its enormous prestige and influence on its neighbors. Historically, societies in East Asia have been part of the Chinese cultural sphere, and East Asian vocabulary and scripts are often derived from Classical Chinese and Chinese script. The Chinese calendar preserves traditional East Asian culture and serves as the root to which many other East Asian calendars are derived from. Major religions in East Asia include Buddhism (mostly Mahayana), Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism, Taoism, Ancestral worship, and Chinese folk religion in Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, Buddhism and Shintoism in Japan, and Christianity, Buddhism and Sindoism in Korea. Shamanism is also prevalent among Mongols and other indigenous populations of northern East Asia such as the Manchus.
East Asians comprise around 1.6 billion people, making up about 38% of the population in Continental Asia and 22% of the global population. The region is home to major world metropolises such as Beijing, Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai, Taipei, and Tokyo. Although the coastal and riparian areas of the region form one of the world's most populated places, the population in Mongolia and Western China, both landlocked areas, is very sparsely distributed, with Mongolia having the lowest population density of a sovereign state. The overall population density of the region is 133 inhabitants per square kilometre (340/sq mi), about three times the world average of 45/km2 (120/sq mi).
In comparison with the profound influence of the Ancient Greeks and Romans on Europe and the Western World, China would already possess an advanced civilization nearly half a millennia before Japan and Korea. As Chinese civilization existed for about 1500 years before other East Asian civilizations emerged into history, Imperial China would exert much of its cultural, economic, technological, and political muscle onto its neighbors. Succeeding Chinese dynasties exerted enormous influence across East Asia culturally, economically, politically and militarily for over two millennia. Imperial China's cultural preeminence not only led the country to become East Asia's first literate nation in the entire region, it also supplied Japan, Vietnam and Korea with Chinese loanwords and linguistic influences rooted in their writing systems. In addition, the Chinese Han dynasty hosted the largest unified population in East Asia, the most literate and urbanized as well as being the most technologically and culturally advanced civilization in the region. Cultural and religious interaction between the Chinese and other regional East Asian dynasties and kingdoms occurred. China's impact and influence on Korea began with the Han dynasty's northeastern expansion in 108 BC when the Han Chinese conquered the northern part of the Korean peninsula and established a province called Lelang. Chinese influence would soon take root in Korea through the inclusion of the Chinese writing system, monetary system, rice culture, and Confucian political institutions. Jomon society in ancient Japan incorporated wet-rice cultivation and metallurgy through its contact with Korea. Vietnamese society was greatly impacted by Chinese influence, the northern part of Vietnam was occupied by Chinese empires and states for almost all of the period from 111 BC to 938 AD. In addition to administration, and making Chinese the language of administration, the long period of Chinese domination introduced Chinese techniques of dike construction, rice cultivation, and animal husbandry. Chinese culture, having been established among the elite mandarin class, remained the dominant current among that elite for most of the next 1,000 years (939-1870s) until the loss of independence under French Indochina. This cultural affiliation to China remained true even when militarily defending Vietnam against attempted invasion, such as against the Mongol Kublai Khan. The only significant exceptions to this were the 7 years of the strongly anti-Chinese Hồ dynasty which banned the use of Chinese (among other actions triggering the fourth Chinese invasion), but then after the expulsion of the Ming the rise in vernacular chữ nôm literature. Although 1,000 years of Chinese rule left many traces, the collective memory of the period reinforced Vietnam's cultural and later political independence. As full-fledged medieval East Asian states were established, Korea by the fourth century AD and Japan by the seventh century AD, Korea, Japan and Vietnam actively began to incorporate Chinese influences such as Confucianism, the use of written Han characters, Chinese style architecture, state institutions, political philosophies, religion, urban planning, and various scientific and technological methods into their culture and society through direct contacts with succeeding Chinese dynasties. For many centuries, most notably from the 7th to the 14th centuries, China stood as East Asia's most advanced civilization, commanding influence across the region up until the early modern period. The Imperial Chinese tributary system shaped much of East Asia's history for over two millennia due to Imperial China's economic and cultural influence over the region, and thus played a huge role in the history of East Asia in particular. The transmission of advanced Chinese cultural practices and ways of thinking greatly shaped the region up until the 19th century.
As East Asia's connections with Europe and the Western world strengthened during the late 19th century, China's power began to decline. U.S. Commodore Matthew C. Perry would open Japan to Western ways, and the country would expand in earnest after the 1860s. Around the same time, Japan with its rush to modernity transformed itself from an isolated feudal samurai state into East Asia's first industrialized nation. The modern and powerful Japan would galvanize its position in the Orient as East Asia's greatest power with a global mission poised to advance to lead the entire world. By the early 1900s, the Japanese empire succeeded in asserting itself as East Asia's first modern power. With its newly found international status, Japan would begin to inextricably take a more active position in East Asia and leading role in world affairs at large. Flexing its nascent political and military might, Japan soundly defeated the stagnant Qing dynasty during the First Sino-Japanese War as well as vanquishing imperial rival Russia in 1905; the first major military victory in the modern era of an East Asian power over a European one. Its hegemony was the heart of an empire that would include Taiwan and Korea. During World War II, Japanese expansionism with its imperialist aspirations through the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere would incorporate Korea, Taiwan, much of eastern China and Manchuria, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Southeast Asia under its control establishing itself as a maritime colonial power in East Asia. After a century of exploitation by the European and Japanese colonialists, post-colonial East Asia saw the defeat and occupation of Japan by the victorious Allies as well as the division of China and Korea during the Cold War. The Korean peninsula became independent but then it was divided into two rival states, while Taiwan became the main territory of de facto state Republic of China after the latter lost Mainland China to the People's Republic of China in the Chinese Civil War. During the latter half of the twentieth century, the region would see the post war economic miracle of Japan, the economic rise of South Korea and Taiwan, and the integration of Mainland China into the global economy through its entry in the World Trade Organization while enhancing its emerging international status as a potential world power.