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Japan (日本, Nippon/Nihon, literally "the origin of the sun") is a country in East Asia situated on a chain of islands east of the Asian continent on the western edge of the Pacific Ocean. The largest of these islands are, from north to south, Hokkaido (北海道), Honshu (本州, the largest island), Shikoku (四国), and Kyushu (九州). A number of smaller islands immediately surround these four, as well as one outlying group of small islands well to the south in Okinawa.


Main article: History of Japan

A reconstructed Yayoi period building in Kyushu.

Archeological research indicates that Japan had already been occupied by early humans at least 500,000 years ago, during the Lower Paleolithic period. Over repeated ice-ages during the last million years, Japan was regularly connected by land bridges to the Asian mainland (by Sakhalin to the North, and probably Kyushu to the South), facilitating migrations of humans, animals and plants to the Japanese archipelago from the area that is now China and Korea.

With the end of the last ice age and general warming, the Jomon culture emerged around 11,000 BC, characterized by a mesolithic to neolithic semi-sedentary hunter-gatherer lifestyle and the manufacture of the earliest known pottery in the world. It is thought that Jomon populations were the ancestors of the Proto-Japanese and today's Ainu. The start of the Yayoi period around 300 BC marked the influx of new technologies such as rice farming and irrigation, brought by migrants from Korea, China, and other parts of Asia.

Classical Era
Uji (1053 AD)

According to traditional Japanese mythology, Japan was founded in the 7th century BC by the ancestral Emperor Jimmu, who started a line of emperors that were the nominal rulers of Japan for most of its history (although actual power was usually held by powerful court nobles, regents, or shoguns).

Recorded Japanese history began in the 5th and 6th centuries AD, when the Chinese writing system, Buddhism, and other Chinese culture was introduced by Baekje. Through the Taika Reform Edicts of 645, Japanese intensified the adoption of Chinese cultural practices, and reorganized government in accordance with the Chinese adminstrative structure. This paved the way for the dominance of Chinese Confucian philosophy in Japan until the 19th century.

The Nara period of the 8th century marked the first strong Japanese state centered around an imperial court in the city of Heijokyo (now Nara). The imperial court later moved to Heiankyo (now Kyoto), starting a "golden age" of classical Japanese culture called the Heian period.

Medieval Era
Samurai, as depicted in Akira Kurosawa's famous film The Seven Samurai

Japan's medieval era was characterized by the emergence of a ruling class of warriors called samurai. In the year 1185, general Minamoto no Yoritomo was the first to break the tradition of ruling alongside the Emperor in Kyoto, holding power in Kamakura, just south of present-day Yokohama. While this Kamakura shogunate was somewhat stable, Japan soon fell into warring factions and suffered through what became known as the Warring States or Sengoku period.

During the 16th century, traders and missionaries from Europe reached Japan for the first time, initiating the "Nanban" ("Southern barbarian") period of active commercial and cultural exchange between Japan and the West. Around the same time, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, established increasingly strong control over the warring states of Japan. Tokugawa finally reunified the country by defeating his enemies at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, moving the capital to Edo (now Tokyo) and starting the Tokugawa shogunate.

The Tokugawa shogunate, suspicious of the influence of Catholic missionaries, barred all relations with Europeans except for severely restricted contacts with Dutch merchants at the artificial island of Dejima. This period of isolation lasted for two and a half centuries, a time of tenuous political unity known as the Edo period, considered to be the height of Japan's medieval culture.

Modern Era
The Empire of Japan encompassed most of East and Southeast Asia at its height in 1942.

In 1854, U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry forced the opening of Japan to the West with the Convention of Kanagawa. The perceived weakness of the shogunate led many samurai to revolt, leading to the Boshin War of 1867-68. The shogunate was forced to resign, and the Meiji Restoration returned the Emperor to power. Japan adopted numerous Western institutions in the Meiji period, including a modern government, legal system, and military. These reforms transformed the Empire of Japan into a world power which defeated China in the Sino-Japanese War and Russia in the Russo-Japanese War. By 1910, Japan controlled Taiwan, half of Sakhalin, and Korea.

The early 20th century saw a brief period of "Taisho democracy" overshadowed by the rise of Japanese expansionism, leading to the invasion of Manchuria and the second Sino-Japanese War (1937). In 1941, Japan attacked the United States naval base in Pearl Harbor, bringing the two countries into World War II. After a long campaign in the Pacific Ocean, Japan lost its initial territorial gains, and the United States moved into range to begin strategic bombing of Tokyo, Osaka, and other cities. Japan surrendered following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and lost all of its colonies in Asia and the Pacific.

Japan remained under US occupation until 1952. During that time, it adopted a new constitution that established the country as a pacifist constitutional monarchy. After the occupation, under a program of aggressive industrial development, protectionism, and deferral of strategic defense to the United States, Japan's gross national product rose to become the second-highest in the world. Despite a major stock market crash in 1989, from which the country has not fully recovered, Japan remains a global economic power and has recently begun to re-emerge as a strategic power, lending non-combat support to the Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.


Main article: Politics of Japan

The Diet
The Diet sits in joint session.

Japan is generally considered to be a constitutional monarchy. The "highest organ of state power" is its bicameral parliament, the Kokkai or "Diet." The Diet consists of a House of Representatives (Lower House or Shugi-in) containing 480 seats, elected by popular vote every four years, and a House of Councillors (Upper House or Sangi-in) of 247 seats, whose popularly elected members serve six-year terms. There is universal adult (over 20 years old) suffrage with a secret ballot for all elective offices.

The Cabinet is composed of a Prime Minister and ministers of state, and is responsible to the Diet. The Prime Minister must be a member of the Diet and is designated by his colleagues. The Prime Minister has the power to appoint and remove ministers, a majority of whom must be Diet members. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been in power since 1955, except for a short-lived coalition government formed from its opposition parties in 1993; the largest opposition party is the Democratic Party of Japan.

The Imperial Household
Imperial Palace in Tokyo is the primary residence of the Emperor

Japan's head of state is the Emperor, but under the current constitution he performs only ceremonial duties and holds no real power, not even emergency reserve powers. Sovereignty, previously embodied in the Emperor, is vested in the Japanese people by the Constitution, and the Emperor is defined as the symbol of the State and of national unity.

Akihito (明仁) is the current and 125th Emperor of Japan. He assumed the throne after the death of his father, Hirohito, on January 7 1989, formally becoming the 125th Japanese monarch on November 12 1990. His son, Crown Prince Naruhito, married a commoner, Masako Owada, and the couple gave birth to a girl, Princess Aiko. The Imperial Household Law of 1947 limits succession to males: since neither of the former Emperor Hirohito's sons have a direct male descendant, some public and parliament members perceive Chrysanthemum Throne continuity to be in jeopardy despite a line of succession seven levels deep. This perception and a new regard for women's rights led some to call for revision of imperial law to allow succession through females. Such a change would likely improve Crown Princess Masako's mental and physical health, which has deteriorated under pressure from Imperial Household bureaucrats to bear a male child.


Main article: Geography of Japan
Map of Japan

Japan, a country of islands, extends along the eastern or Pacific coast of Asia. The main islands, running from north to south, are Hokkaido, Honshu (or the mainland), Shikoku, and Kyushu. Naha on Okinawa in the Ryukyu archipelago is over 600 km to the southwest of Kyushu. In addition, about 3,000 smaller islands may be counted in the full extent of the archipelago that comprises greater Japan.

About 73% of the country is mountainous, with a chain running through each of the main islands: the highest mountain, Mount Fuji, has a height of 3,776 m (12,388 feet). Since flat land is limited, many hills and mountainsides are cultivated all the way to the summits, and major cities have developed on every sizable plain.

Japan is situated in a volcanic zone on the Pacific Ring of Fire. Frequent low intensity earth tremors and occasional volcanic activity are felt throughout the islands. Destructive earthquakes, often resulting in tsunamis, occur several times a century. The most recent major quakes include the 2004 Chuetsu Earthquake and the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995. Hot springs are numerous and have been developed as resorts.


Japan is a temperate region with four distinct seasons, but because of its great length from north to south, its climate varies from region to region: the far north is very cold in the winter, while the far south is subtropical. The climate is also affected by the seasonal winds blown from the continent to the ocean in winters and vice versa in summers.

Late June and early July are a rainy season (except in Hokkaido), as a seasonal rain front or baiu zensen (梅雨前線) stays above Japan. In the late summer and early autumn, typhoons develop from tropical depressions generated near the equator, and track from the southwest to the northeast, often bringing heavy rain.

Japan's varied geographical features divide it into six principal climatic zones.

  • Hokkaido: Hokkaido has a temperate climate with long, cold winters and cool summers. Precipitation is not heavy, but the islands usually develop deep snowbanks in the winter.
  • Sea of Japan: The northwest wind in the wintertime brings heavy snowfall. In summers, the region is cooler than the Pacific area, but it sometimes experiences extremely hot temperatures due to the Foehn wind phenomenon.
  • Central Highlands (Chuo-kochi): A typical inland climate, with large temperature differences between summers and winters and between days and nights. Precipitation is light.
  • Seto Inland Sea (Seto-naikai): The mountains of the Chugoku and Shikoku regions block the seasonal winds, bringing mild weather throughout the year.
  • Pacific Ocean: Experiences cold winters with little snowfall and hot, humid summers due to the southeast seasonal wind.
  • Nansei-shoto (Ryukyu) or Southwest Islands: Has a subtropical climate with warm winters and hot summers. Precipitation is very heavy, especially during the rainy season. Typhoons are common; in 2004 a record number of 10 typhoons reached the main islands.

Prefectures and regions

The Local Government Law of Japan divides the country into 47 prefectures, which carry out administrative duties independently of the central government. From north to south (as listed in ISO 3166-2), these are:

Japan is also commonly divided into nine regions. From north to south, these are Hokkaido, Tohoku region, Kanto region, Chubu region, Kinki region (commonly called Kansai), Chugoku region, Shikoku, Kyushu, and the Ryukyu Islands.

Territorial disputes

Japan has outstanding territorial disputes over the southern four islands of the Kuril Islands, administered by Russia, as well as the Liancourt Rocks (Kr. Dokdo, Jp. Takeshima), administered by South Korea. The Senkaku Islands (Chinese Diaoyutai) are claimed by China and Taiwan.

Economic growth after World War II made Japan one of the world's wealthiest countries, and also contributed to the development of the Greater Tokyo Area as the world's largest urban sprawl.
cars such as the Honda Civic.
Japan's construction industry has been aided by huge civil works projects. One of the most well-known is Kansai International Airport, built on an artificial island at a total cost of $30 billion.

Main article: Economy of Japan

Government-industry cooperation, a strong work ethic, mastery of high technology, emphasis on education and a comparatively small defense allocation (1% of GDP) have helped Japan advance with extraordinary speed to become one of the largest economic powers in the world along with the US and European Union. For three decades overall real economic growth had been spectacular: a 10% average in the 1960s, a 5% average in the 1970s, and a 4% average in the 1980s. Growth slowed markedly in the 1990s largely because of the after effects of overinvestment during the late 1980s and contractionary domestic policies intended to wring speculative excesses from the stock and real estate markets. Government efforts to revive economic growth have met with little success and were further hampered in 2000-2001 by the slowing of the US and Asian economies.

Distinguishing characteristics of the Japanese economy include the working together of manufacturers, suppliers, distributors and banks in closely-knit groups called keiretsu; the powerful enterprise unions and shunto; cozy relations with government bureaucrats, and the guarantee of lifetime employment (shushin koyo) in big corporations and highly unionized blue-collar factories. Recently, Japanese companies have begun to abandon these norms in an attempt to increase profitability.

The government of Junichiro Koizumi has enacted or attempted to pass (sometimes with failure) major privatization and foreign-investment laws intended to help stimulate Japan's dormant economy. While some of these laws have been enacted, the economy has yet to respond, and Japan's aging population is expected to place further strain on the economy in the near future.

Agricultural sector

Japan's small agricultural sector is highly subsidised and protected, with government regulations that favor small-scale cultivation instead of large-scale agriculture as practiced in North America. Imported rice, the most protected crop, is subject to tariffs of 490% and restricted to a quota of only 3% of the total rice market. Although Japan is usually self-sufficient in rice (except for its use in making rice crackers and processed foods), the country must import about 50% of its requirements of other grain and fodder crops, and relies on imports for its supply of meat. Japan maintains one of the world's largest fishing fleets and accounts for nearly 15% of the global catch, prompting some claims that Japan's fishing is leading to overdepletion in fish stocks such as tuna. Japan has also sparked controversy by supporting quasi-commercial whaling.

Industrial sector

Industry, one-third of Japan's GDP, is heavily dependent on imported raw materials and fuels. Internationally, Japan is best known for its automotive and electronics industries, as the home of big manufacturers such as Toyota, Honda, Matsushita, Sony, Nissan, and Toshiba. Japan also holds a large market share in high-technology industries such as semiconductors, industrial chemicals, machine tools, and (in recent years) aerospace. Construction has long been one of Japan's largest industries, with the help of multi-billion-dollar government contracts in the civil sector. Robotics constitutes a key long-term economic strength, with Japan possessing 410,000 of the world's 720,000 "working robots."

Service sector

Japan's service sector accounts for about two-thirds of its total economic output. Banking, insurance, real estate, retailing, transportation, and telecommunications are all major industries. The Koizumi government is attempting to privatize Japan Post, one of the country's largest private banking and insurance institutions, by 2007.

See also: List of Japanese companies



Main article: Demographics of Japan

Japanese society is ethnically and linguistically very homogeneous, with small populations of primarily North and South Koreans (1 million), Okinawan (1.5 million), Chinese and Taiwanese (0.5 million), Filipinos (0.5 million), and Brazilians (250,000), as well as the indigenous Ainu minority in Hokkaido. 99% of the population speaks Japanese as their first language.

Japanese citizenship is conferred on an infant when a family member registers the infant's birth in the family registry held by a neighborhood ward office. Simply being born in Japan does not assure citizenship. Monolingual Japanese-speaking minorities often reside in Japan for generations under permanent residency status without acquiring citizenship in their country of birth. People of Japanese heritage returning to Japan from overseas have citizenship if their birth in a foreign country was registered on their behalf by a family member. Sometimes these returnees are not considered truly Japanese and sometimes suspected of being a descent of old feudal Burakumin "unclean" caste, a group of people known to have immigrated to South American countries, and subject to discrimination.

The Japanese population is rapidly ageing, the effect of a post-war baby boom followed by a decrease in births as the country modernised in the latter part of the 20th century (notable aspects including the shift from agricultural to urban lifestyles and the increasing tendency for women to remain in the workplace). Japan now also has the highest life expectancy in the world. By 2007, when Japan's population growth is expected to stop completely, over 20% of the population will be over the age of 65. The changes in the demographic structure have created a number of social issues, particularly potential decline in workforces and increase in the cost of social securities like public pension plan. Japanese government planners are currently in a heated debate over how to cope with this problem. Immigration and birth incentives are sometimes suggested as a possible solution to provide younger workers to support the graying society. Immigration is not publicly popular as recent increased crime rates are often attributed to foreigners living in Japan.


Main article: Religions of Japan

Japanese people usually have indifferent feelings regarding religion and see it as something cultural or traditional; such attitude is pervasive in East Asia. When asked to identify their religion, most Japanese people would profess to believe in Buddhism, merely because their family has belonged to some sect of Buddhism. Shinto, though it originated in Japan, is hardly practiced today and its teachings are known only among a few scholars. Many practices that Buddhism and Shinto teach remain largely as customs, like manners for wedding ceremony. A minority profess to Christianity, shamanism, and New Religions such as Soka Gakkai, some of which are related to Buddhism.


Main article: Education in Japan

Compulsory education consists of elementary school and middle school, which last for 9 years (from age 6 to age 15). Almost all children continue their education at a three-year senior high school, and 96% of high school graduates attend a university, junior college, trade school, or other postsecondary institution.


Main article: Culture of Japan

Japanese culture has evolved greatly over the years, from the country's original Jomon culture to its contemporary hybrid culture, which combines a number of influences from Europe, America, and East Asia.

Historically, China and Korea were first mostly influential, starting with the development of the Yayoi culture from around 300 BC. Classical Greek and Indian cultural traditions, combined into Greco-Buddhism, influenced the arts and religions of Japan from the 6th century AD, culminating with the introduction of Mahayana Buddhism. In the premodern era, Japan developed a unique original culture, in its arts (ikebana, origami, ukiyo-e), crafts (dolls, lacquerware, pottery), performances (bunraku, dance, kabuki, noh, rakugo), and traditions (games, onsen, sento, tea ceremony, gardens, swords), as well as a unique cuisine.

From the mid-19th century onward, European influence prevailed, with American influences becoming predominant following the end of World War II. This influence is apparent in Japan's contemporary popular culture, which combines Asian and European influences in its cartoons (anime), comic books (manga), fashion, films, literature, television, video games, and music. Today, Japan is a major exporter of such culture, which has gained popularity around the world, particularly in the other countries of East Asia. Traditional and modern Japanese culture have attracted many devotees in Europe and the Americas as well.

See also: Japanese clothing, Japanese festivals, Japanese New Year, Japanese sports, Tourism in Japan, Japanese media, Japanese dance

Names of Japan

The Japanese names for Japan are Nippon and Nihon. They are both written the same in Japanese. The Japanese name Nippon is used for most official purposes, including money, postage stamps, and international sporting events. Nihon is a more casual term used in Japan. See Nippon and Nihon for more of this.

Both Nippon and Nihon literally mean "The Land of the Rising Sun." This nomenclature comes from imperial correspondence with China and refers to Japan's eastward position relative to the Asian continent. Before Japan had relations with China, it was known as Yamato (大和). Wa (倭) was a name early China used to refer to Japan, around the time of the Three Kingdoms Period.

The English word for Japan came to the west from early trade routes. The early Mandarin Chinese word for Japan was recorded by Marco Polo as Cipangu. However, the Cantonese word for Japan, from which the word Japan was probably originally born, is Jatbun. In Malay the Cantonese word became Japang and was thus encountered by Portuguese traders in Malacca in the 16th century. It is thought the Portuguese traders were the first to bring the word to Europe. It was first recorded in English in 1577 spelled Giapan.

In English, the official title of the country is simply "Japan". Previously, the full title had been the "Empire of Japan" but this was changed after the adoption of the post-war constitution. The official Japanese title is Nipponkoku or Nihonkoku (日本国), literally "State of Japan."

Further reading

  • Sugimoto Yoshio (2003) An Introduction to Japanese Society. Cambridge University Press.
  • Conrad Totman, 2000. 'A History of Modern Japan. Blackwell Publishers.'
  • Noboru Koyama, Japanese Students at Cambridge University in the Meiji Era, 1868-1912: Pioneers for the Modernization of Japan, translated by Ian Ruxton, (Lulu Press, September 2004, ISBN 1411612566)
  • C.H. Kwan. 2001. 'Yen Bloc: Toward Economic Integration in Asia.' Brookings Institution Press.
  • Bernson, Mary Hammond and Elaine Magnusson, eds. MODERN JAPAN: AN IDEA BOOK FOR K-12 TEACHERS. MULTICULTURAL EDUCATION RESOURCE SERIES. Olympia, WA: Office of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, 1984. ED 252 486.
  • Cogan, John J. and Donald O. Schneider, eds. PERSPECTIVES ON JAPAN: A GUIDE FOR TEACHERS. Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1983. ED 236 090.
  • EAST MEETS WEST: MUTUAL IMAGES. Stanford, CA: California Center for Research in International Studies, l980. ED 196 765.
  • Wojtan, Linda S. FREE RESOURCES FOR TEACHING ABOUT JAPAN. Bloomington, IN: Midwest Program for Teaching about Japan, Indiana University, 1986. ED 270 3891.

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