Japan is an island nation in East Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean, it lies to the east of the Sea of Japan, China, North Korea, South Korea and Russia, stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and Taiwan in the south. The characters that make up Japan's name mean "sun-origin", which is why Japan is sometimes referred to as the "Land of the Rising Sun".
Geography & Demographics
Japan is an archipelago of 6,852 islands. The four largest islands are Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku, which together comprise about ninety-seven percent of Japan's land area. Japan has the world's tenth-largest population, with over 127 million people. Honshū's Greater Tokyo Area, which includes the de facto capital city of Tokyo and several surrounding prefectures, is the largest metropolitan area in the world, with over 30 million residents.
The first written mention of Japan is in Chinese history texts from the 1st century AD. Influence from other nations followed by long periods of isolation has characterized Japan's history. From the 12th century until 1868, Japan was ruled by successive feudal military dictatorships in the name of the Emperor. Japan entered into a long period of isolation in the early 17th century, which was only ended in 1853 when a United States fleet pressured Japan to open to the West. Nearly two decades of internal conflict and insurrection followed before the Meiji Emperor was restored as head of state in 1868 and the Empire of Japan was proclaimed, with the Emperor as a divine symbol of the nation. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, victory in the First Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War and World War I allowed Japan to expand its empire during a period of increasing militarism. The Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937 expanded into part of World War II in 1941, which came to an end in 1945 following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since adopting its revised constitution in 1947, Japan has maintained a unitary constitutional monarchy with an emperor and an elected legislature called the Diet.
A major economic power, Japan has the world's third-largest economy by nominal GDP and by purchasing power parity. It is also the world's fourth-largest exporter and fourth-largest importer. Although Japan has officially renounced its right to declare war, it maintains a modern military with the sixth largest military budget, used for self-defense and peacekeeping roles. After Singapore, Japan has the lowest homicide rate in the world. According to Japan's health ministry, Japanese women have the second highest life expectancy of any country in the world. According to the United Nations, Japan also has the third lowest infant mortality rate. 
Nature And Climate
The land area of Japan is 378,000 square kilometers, which is one twenty-fifth that of the United States, one-twentieth that of Australia, and 1.5 times that of Britain. Three-quarters of the country is mountainous, with plains and basins covering the remaining area. Japan consists of a long series of islands stretching for 3,000 kilometers from north to south. The four main islands are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu.
Japan is surrounded by sea. Warm and cold currents flow through the seas around it, creating an environment that supports a variety of fish species.
Most of Japan is in the Northern Temperate Zone of the earth and has a humid monsoon climate, with southeasterly winds blowing from the Pacific Ocean during the summer and northwesterly winds blowing from the Eurasian continent in the winter.
The country has four well-defined seasons: spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Two of the most beautiful sights in Japan are the cherry blossoms in spring and the vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows of the autumn leaves. The Japanese people enjoy these signs of the changing seasons and track their progress with weather reports, which feature maps showing where the spring blossoms and autumn leaves are at their best. The far north and south of Japan have very different climates. In March, for example, you can go sunbathing in the south and skiing in the north!
The country often suffers such serious natural disasters as typhoons, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes. Although these disasters can claim many lives, as in the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of January 1995 and the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011, the Japanese have been working hard for years to minimize their damage. Japan uses state-of-the-art technologies to design quake-resistant structures and to track storms with greater precision.
Regions Of Japan
Japan has 47 prefectures. On the basis of geographical and historical background, these prefectures can be divided into eight regions: Hokkaido, Tohoku, Kanto, Chubu, Kinki, Chugoku, Shikoku, and Kyushu-Okinawa.
Each region has its own dialect, customs, and unique traditional culture. For example, the Kanto region, which includes Tokyo, and the Kansai region, which includes Osaka, offer striking contrasts in everything from the taste of food to the style of traditional performing arts, and people have fun comparing them.
Japan has a total population of 128 million.
Mountainous areas account for more than 70% of Japan's land, so major cities are concentrated in the plains that account for less than 30% of the land. Cities with a population exceeding one million are Sapporo in Hokkaido; Sendai in the Tohoku region; Kawasaki, Saitama, Tokyo, and Yokohama in the Kanto region; Nagoya in the Chubu region; Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe in the Kinki region; Hiroshima in the Chugoku region; and Fukuoka in Kyushu. The capital city Tokyo, needless to say, is the hub of Japan. Other major cities fulfill roles as the political, economic, and cultural hubs of their respective regions.
Traditional Japanese homes are made of wood and supported by wooden pillars, but today's homes usually have Western-style rooms with wooden flooring and are often constructed with steel pillars. More and more families in urban areas, moreover, live in large, ferroconcrete apartment buildings.
Two big differences from Western homes are that shoes are not worn inside the house and that at least one room tends to be designed in the Japanese style with a tatami floor. Shoes are taken off when entering a house to keep the floor clean. The genkan, or entrance, serves as a place for removing, storing, and putting on shoes. People tend to put on slippers for indoor use as soon as they have taken off their shoes.
Tatami are mats made of a thick base of rushes and have been used in Japanese homes since about 600 years ago. A single tatami usually measures 1.91 by 0.95 meters, and room sizes are often measured in terms of the number of tatami mats. A tatami floor is cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and remains fresher than carpet during Japan's humid months.
The word for "meal" in Japanese is gohan. This word actually refers to steamed rice, but rice is such an important food to the Japanese that gohan has come to mean all sorts of meals. A traditional Japanese meal consists of a serving of plain, white rice, along with a main dish, some kind of side dish, soup, and pickled vegetables. Japanese rice is sticky when cooked, making it ideal for eating with chopsticks.
Japanese today eat many dishes from around the world, notably from Europe, North America, and Asia. In addition to rice, Japanese people eat bread, noodles, and pasta and enjoy a wide array of meats, fishes, vegetables, and fruits. Sushi, tempura, sukiyaki, and other Japanese foods famous abroad are, of course, also popular in Japan.
Cities, in particular, have many fast-food restaurants offering hamburgers and fried chicken, which are especially popular with young people and children. Before eating, Japanese people say "itadakimasu," a polite phrase meaning "I receive this food." This expresses thanks to whoever worked to prepare the meal. After eating, people again express their thanks by saying "gochiso sama deshita," which literally means “It was quite a feast."
The traditional dress of Japan is the kimono. Kimonos, which are generally made of silk, have large sleeves and reach from the shoulders all the way down to the heels. They are tied with a wide belt called an obi. Kimonos are now usually worn only on special occasions, such as the Shichi-Go-San festival, weddings, and graduation ceremonies.
Compared to Western dress, the kimono tends to limit one's movement, and it takes more time to put on properly. In the summer, however, a more easily worn, lightweight informal kimono known as a yukata is worn by children and young adults at festivals, fireworks displays, and other special occasions. In everyday life, though, young people tend to prefer clothing that is easier to move around in, like T-shirts, jeans, polo shirts, and sweat suits.
The basic school system in Japan is composed of elementary school, middle school, high school, and university. Education is compulsory only for the nine years of elementary and middle school, but 98% of students go on to high school. Students usually have to take exams in order to enter high schools and universities. Recently some middle and high schools have joined together to form single, six-year schools.
Japanese children enter the first grade of elementary school in the April after their sixth birthday. There are around 30 to 40 students in a typical elementary school class. The subjects they study include Japanese, mathematics, science, social studies, music, crafts, physical education, and home economics. More and more elementary schools have started teaching English, too. Information technology is increasingly being used to enhance education, and most schools have access to the Internet.
Students also learn traditional Japanese arts like shodo and haiku. Shodo involves dipping a brush in ink and using it to write kanji and kana in an artistic style. Haiku is a form of poetry developed in Japan about 400 years ago. A haiku is a short verse of 17 syllables, divided into units of five, seven, and five syllables. Haiku uses simple expressions to convey deep emotions to readers.
In Japanese elementary schools, classes are divided into small teams for many activities. For example, as part of their education, every day the students clean the classrooms, halls, and yards of their school in these teams. In many elementary schools, the students eat lunch together in their classrooms, enjoying meals prepared by the school or by a local "school lunch center." Small teams of students take turns to serve lunch to their classmates. School lunches contain a rich variety of healthy and nutritious foods, and students look forward to lunchtime.
There are many school events during the year, such as sports day when students compete in events like tug-of-war and relay races, excursions to historical sites, and arts and culture festivals featuring dancing and other performances by children. Students in the highest grades of elementary, middle, and high schools also take trips lasting up to several days to culturally important cities like Kyoto and Nara, ski resorts, or other places.
Most middle and high schools require students to wear uniforms. Boys generally wear pants and jackets with stand-up collars, and girls wear two-piece suit with sailor collar or blazers and skirts.
Almost all middle school students take part in an extracurricular club activity of their choice, such as a sports team, a musical or arts group, or a science club.
Baseball clubs are very popular among boys. Soccer clubs are also gaining popularity. Judo clubs, where kids train in this traditional martial art, attract boys and girls. They may be inspired by the many great Japanese judo athletes, both male and female, who have won medals at the World Judo Championships and the Olympic Games. Other popular sports clubs include tennis, basketball, gymnastics, and volleyball. In every sport, many games are held between schools and at the regional level, so students have plenty of opportunities to compete.
Among cultural clubs, meanwhile, one that has lately gained popularity is the go club. Go is a strategic board game played with black and white stones. After a manga about the game was published, more and more schoolchildren started enjoying go. Other options for students include choir and art clubs. Brass band, tea ceremony, and flower arrangement clubs are also popular.
Three types of character are used to write Japanese. Although Japanese is a completely different language from Chinese, the characters used to write Japanese originally came from ancient China, where they are said to have been created thousands of years ago. These characters are called kanji and began as pictures. Over time the pictures changed, and most kanji no longer look like the original objects; they now stand for words or parts of words. There are about 2,000 kanji in regular use. Children learn around 1,000 kanji in elementary school and another 1,000 in middle school.
In addition to kanji, Japanese has two sets of phonetic scripts, hiragana and katakana, both developed from kanji. Each set has 46 characters, which stand for syllables. Combined with specific extra dots used to mark changes of the original sounds, these characters are enough to express all the sounds of modern Japanese. Hiragana are used together with kanji to write ordinary Japanese words. Katakana are used to write words introduced from other languages, names of foreign people and places, sounds, and animal cries.
Japanese has many local dialects, called hogen. Different dialects have different words for the same things; there are also variations in accent and intonation, as well as in the endings attached to verbs and adjectives. Using the widely accepted standard spoken Japanese, however, people from different regions can communicate easily.
Japan has absorbed many ideas from other countries over the course of its history, including technology, customs, and forms of cultural expression, and has developed its unique culture while integrating these imports. The Japanese lifestyle today is a rich blend of Asian-influenced traditional culture and Western-influenced modern culture.
Traditional performing arts that continue to thrive in Japan today include kabuki, noh, kyogen, and bunraku. Noh, kabuki, and bunraku are recognized by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage.
Kabuki is a form of classical theater that evolved in the early seventeenth century. It is characterized by the rhythm of the lines spoken by the actors, extravagant costumes, flamboyant makeup, and the use of mechanical devices to achieve special effects on stage. The makeup accentuates the personalities and moods of the characters. Most plays draw on medieval or Edo period themes, and all the actors, even those playing female roles, are men.
Noh is Japan's oldest form of musical theater. The story is told not just through dialogue but also through utai, hayashi, and mai. Another feature is that the leading actor, dressed in a colorful costume of embroidered silk, usually wears a lacquered wooden mask. The masks depict such characters as an old man, a young or old woman, a divine figure, a ghost, and a young boy.
Kyogen is a type of classical comic theater that is performed with highly stylized actions and lines. It is staged between noh performances, although it is now sometimes performed in its own right.
Bunraku, which became popular around the end of the sixteenth century, is a kind of puppet theater that is performed to the accompaniment of narrative singing and music played on the shamisen. Bunraku is known as one of the world's most refined forms of puppet theater.
Other traditional arts, such as the tea ceremony and ikebana, live on as part of the everyday lives of Japanese people. The tea ceremony is a highly structured method of preparing green tea. But there is far more to sado than the ritual making and serving of tea. It is a profound total art that requires a wide range of knowledge and a delicate sensitivity. Sado also explores the purpose of life and encourages an appreciation of nature.
Japanese flower arrangement, which evolved in Japan over seven centuries, has its origin in early Buddhist flower offerings. This art is distinguished from purely decorative use of flowers by the extreme care taken in choosing every element of each work, including the plant material, the container, where each branch and flower is placed, and how the branches relate to the container and the surrounding space.
Classical music was brought to Japan from the West and enjoys a broad following. Concerts are held all over the country. Japan has also produced many conductors, pianists, and violinists who perform around the world.
Since Kurosawa Akira won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, Japanese cinema has been the focus of global attention, and works by great directors like Mizoguchi Kenji and Ozu Yasujiro have been widely hailed. More recently, Kitano Takeshi won the Golden Lion Award at the 1997 Venice Film Festival with HANA-BI and the best director award at the 2003 festival with Zatoichi. Okuribito won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2009 Oscars.
Japanese anime, which have been entertaining Japanese children since the 1960s, are now exported all over the world, and series like Astro Boy, Doraemon, Sailor Moon, and Dragonball Z are now global children's favorites. Meanwhile, director Miyazaki Hayao's Spirited Away won the Oscar for best animated feature in 2003, and Howl's Moving Castle was chosen for the Osella Award at the 2004 Venice Film Festival.
In literature, Japanese Nobel Prize winners include Kawabata Yasunari and Oe Kenzaburo, while the works of more modern authors like Murakami Haruki and Yoshimoto Banana are popular among young Japanese and have been translated into many languages.
Many different sports are played in Japan. Traditional martial arts like judo and kendo are popular, as are sports imported from overseas, such as baseball and soccer. Many Japanese go to the sea for surfing and scuba diving in the summer, while skiing and snowboarding are popular winter pursuits.
Baseball is one of the most popular spectator sports in Japan. There are 12 professional baseball teams, six in the Central League and six in the Pacific League. The teams in each league play about 140 games each during the season, at the end of which the two league winners meet in the Japan Series.
Amateur baseball is also popular, and many schoolchildren play the game through local Little Leagues or school baseball clubs. The National High-School Baseball Championship, which is held twice a year, is fought out among schools that have survived tough qualifying rounds to represent their prefectures.
Since Japan's own professional soccer league, J. League, was founded in 1993, soccer has won more and more fans in Japan. The 2002 FIFA World Cup was cohosted by Japan and the Republic of Korea, and this has greatly increased the popularity of soccer. In the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, Japan made it to the Round of 16. Many Japanese players have joined overseas teams and play in the top European leagues. Japan also has women's soccer leagues, in which most of the players are amateurs. In 2011, the Japanese women's national team won the FIFA Women's World Cup held in Germany. This has helped raise the profile of women's soccer in Japan and increased the player population.
Traditional martial arts, such as judo, kendo, karate-do, and aikido, thrive in modern Japan thanks to the devotion of those who practice them. In judo, which literally means "the gentle way," the key to overcoming an opponent lies in taking advantage of their strength. Now popular all over the world, judo has firmly established itself as an official Olympic event since its first inclusion in the Games in 1964. Following in the footsteps of judo, kendo has also succeeded in attracting a loyal overseas following in recent years. Kendo competitors wear armor-like protective gear and use bamboo swords to attack and defend. Karate-do came to Japan from China through the Ryukyu Kingdom. Karate-do competitors do not wear any kind of protection and fight using only their hands and feet.
Sumo, Japan's national sport, has a history spanning more than 1,000 years. As it used to be held as a way of giving thanks for harvests, sumo still involves many rituals. Rikishi, whose hair is styled like that of ancient warriors, wear only a special silk belt and fight using only their bare hands. Most weigh between 100 and 200 kilograms. They fight in the 4.5-meter wide dohyo until one either leaves the ring or touches the ground with any part of his body other than the soles of his feet. While the rules are simple, the techniques are not, and there are more than 80 ways to win. Professional sumo tournaments take place six times a year and last 15 days each. Sumo has attracted attention outside Japan through exhibition tours to various countries and the success of wrestlers from overseas.
Amateur sport also thrives in Japan, which always sends strong teams to the Olympic Games. A team of 339 Japanese athletes competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and 94 took part in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. The Olympics have been held in Japan three times: Tokyo hosted the Summer Games in 1964 - the first Olympics ever to be held in Asia - while the Winter Games were hosted by Sapporo in 1972 and by Nagano in 1998.
Japanese children play a variety of sports through clubs at school or near where they live. Soccer and baseball are two of the most popular sports among boys, while many girls tend to play sports like tennis and volleyball. Swimming is popular with both boys and girls.
The Imperial Family
Under the Japanese Constitution, the Emperor is the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people. He has no powers related to government. Emperor Akihito took the throne as the 125th Emperor of Japan in 1989.
Members of the Imperial Family receive state guests from other countries and make overseas visits. Through these and other activities, they fulfill an important role in promoting international friendship.
Members of the Imperial Family also maintain wide contact with Japanese citizens through their attendance at various events across the nation and visits to facilities including those for the handicapped and the aged. They are widely respected by Japanese people.
National Flag And National Anthem
Japan's national flag is called the Hinomaru. It came to be used as the national flag in the late nineteenth century. The flag depicts the sun as a red disc against a white background.
The lyrics of Japan's national anthem, "Kimigayo",trace their roots to a 31-syllable poem, or waka, that was written in the tenth century. "Kimigayo" took on its present form in the latter half of the nineteenth century, when a melody was added. The words of the song pray for enduring peace and prosperity in Japan.
Japan's Constitution, which came into force in 1947, is based on three principles: sovereignty of the people, respect for fundamental human rights, and renunciation of war. The Constitution also stipulates the independence of the three branches of government - legislative, executive, and judicial.
The Diet, Japan's national parliament, is the highest organ of state power and the sole law-making organ of the state. The Diet comprises the 480-seat House of Representatives and the 242-seat House of Councillors. All Japanese citizens can vote in elections once they reach the age of 20.
Japan has a parliamentary system of government like Britain and Canada. Unlike the Americans or the French, the Japanese do not elect a president directly. Diet members elect a prime minister from among themselves. The prime minister forms and leads the cabinet of ministers of state. The cabinet, in the exercise of executive power, is responsible to the Diet.
Judicial power lies with the Supreme Court and lower courts, such as high courts, district courts, and summary courts. The Supreme Court consists of a chief justice and 14 other justices, all of whom are appointed by the cabinet. Most cases are handled by district courts. There are also summary courts, which deal with problems like traffic violations. A lay judge system was introduced in May 2009. Under this system, six adult citizens are chosen at random to act as lay judges in criminal cases tried in district courts.
There are 47 prefectural and numerous municipal governments in Japan. Their responsibilities include providing education, welfare, and other services and building and maintaining infrastructure, including utilities. Their administrative activities bring them into close contact with local people. The heads of regional governments and local assembly members are chosen by local people through elections.
Economy And Industry
Economically, Japan is one of the most highly developed nations in the world. Japanese brands like Toyota, Sony, Fujifilm, and Panasonic are famous across the globe.
Manufacturing is one of Japan's strengths, but the country has few natural resources. One common pattern is for Japanese companies to import raw materials and then process them to make finished products, which are sold domestically or exported.
One of the most promising fields for future economic growth is robotics, in which Japanese technology leads the world. ASIMO, a humanoid robot developed by Honda, can walk on two legs and speak human language. In the near future, robots will be active in a range of fields and may even live alongside humans, just like in science-fiction films.
Japan's main agricultural product is rice, and most rice eaten in Japan is home-grown. Since Japan has little arable land compared to its population, it cannot grow enough wheat, soybeans, or other major crops to feed all its citizens. In fact, Japan has one of the lowest rates of food self-sufficiency of all industrialized countries. This means it has to import a high percentage of its food from abroad. Japan does, however, have abundant marine resources. Fish is an important part of the Japanese diet, and Japan's fishing industry is very active.
Japan's transport system is highly developed, with road and rail networks covering virtually every part of the country together with extensive air and sea services.
Shinkansen, or bullet trains, are express trains that travel at top speeds of 250 to 300 kilometers per hour. The Shinkansen network is a convenient way to travel around Japan. The Shinkansen is considered one of the fastest and safest railroad systems in the world.
Besides the Shinkansen, Japan has a passenger railway network. Many of Japan's major cities also have subway lines. The subway system in the capital Tokyo, which has over a dozen lines covering hundreds of kilometers of track, is considered to be one of the best in the world and continues to grow. Commuter rail services like these are used by millions of people every day to get to and from work or school. Japanese trains of all kinds are famed for being clean and punctual.