Japan is a country in eastern Asia, made up of an island chain between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan, east of the Korean peninsula. Known as the Land of the Rising Sun, it is a global economic powerhouse, with a rich history and a distinct culture.
Traditional Japanese legend maintains that Japan was founded in the 7th century BC by the ancestral Emperor Jimmu. During the 5th and 6th centuries, the Chinese written language|Chinese writing system and Buddhism were introduced, beginning a long period of China|Chinese cultural influence. The emperors were the nominal rulers, but actual power was usually held by powerful court nobles, regents, or shoguns (military governors).
During the 16th century, traders from Portugal, the Netherlands, England, and Spain arrived, as did Christian missionaries. During the early part of the 17th century, Japan's shogunate suspected that they were actually forerunners of a military conquest by European powers and ultimately barred all relations with the outside world except for severely restricted contacts with Dutch and Chinese merchants at Nagasaki (Dejima). This isolation lasted for 200 years, until Commodore Matthew Perry forced the opening of Japan to the West with the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854.
Within several years, renewed contact with the West profoundly altered Japanese society. The shogunate was forced to resign, and the emperor was restored to power. The Meiji restoration of 1868 initiated many reforms. The feudal system was abolished, and numerous Western institutions were adopted, including a Western legal system and government, along with other economic, social and military reforms that transformed Japan into a world power. Japan's new ambitions led to wars with China (1895) and Russia (1905) in which Japan acquired Korea, Taiwan and other territories.
The early 20th century saw Japan come under increasing influence of an expansionist military, leading to the invasion of Manchuria, a second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and ultimately with the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 to World War II. Japan was finally defeated in 1945 by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and surrendered to the United States and her Allies on September 2, 1945.
Post-war devastated Japan, now confined to its present size, remained under US tutelage until 1952, when it embarked on a remarkable economic recovery that returned prosperity to the islands.
Japan is a constitutional monarchy with a bicameral parliament, the Kokkai or Diet. The executive branch is responsible to the Diet, consisting of a cabinet composed of a prime minister and ministers of state, all of whom must be civilians. 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. Sovereignty, previously embodied in the emperor, is vested by the constitution in the Japanese people, and the Emperor is defined as the symbol of the state.
The legislative branch consists of a House of Representatives (Shugi-in) of 480 seats, elected by popular vote every four years, and a House of Councillors (Sangi-in) of 247 seats, whose popularly elected members serve six-year terms. There is universal adult suffrage with a secret ballot for all elective offices.
Japan, a country of islands, extends along the eastern or Pacific Ocean|Pacific coast of Asia. The main islands, running from north to south, are Hokkaido, Honshu (or the mainland), Shikoku, Kyushu, and Okinawa, which is over 600 km to the southwest of Kyushu. About 3,000 smaller islands are included in the archipelago. About 73% of the country is mountainous, with a chain running through each of the main islands. Japan's highest mountain is the famous Mount Fuji (Fujiyama) at 3,776 m . Since so little flat area exists, many hills and mountainsides are cultivated all the way to the summits. As Japan is situated in a volcanism|volcanic zone along the Pacific deeps, frequent low intensity earth tremors and occasional volcanic activity are felt throughout the islands. Destructive earthquakes occur several times a century. Hot springs are numerous and have been developed as resorts.
Because the islands run almost directly north-south, the climate varies considerably. Sapporo, on the northern island, has warm summers and long, cold winters with heavy snowfall. Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe, in central and western parts of the largest island of Honshu, experience relatively mild winters with little or no snowfall and hot, humid summers. Fukuoka, on the island of Kyushu, has a climate with mild winters and short summers. Okinawa is subtropical.
Government-industry cooperation, a strong work ethic, mastery of high technology, and a comparatively small defense allocation (1% of GDP have helped Japan advance with extraordinary rapidity to the rank of second most technologically powerful economy in the world after the US and third largest economy in the world after the US and China. One notable characteristic of the economy is the working together of manufacturers, suppliers, and distributors in closely-knit groups called keiretsu. A second basic feature has been the guarantee of lifetime employment for a substantial portion of the urban labour force. Both features are now eroding.
Industry, the most important sector of the economy, is heavily dependent on imported raw materials and fuels. The much smaller agricultural sector is highly subsidised and protected, with crop yields among the highest in the world. Usually self-sufficient in rice, Japan must import about 50% of its requirements of other grain and fodder crops. Japan maintains one of the world's largest fishing fleets and accounts for nearly 15% of the global catch. 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 aftereffects 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.
The crowding of habitable land area and the aging of the population are two major long-run problems. Robotics constitutes a key long-term economic strength, with Japan possessing 410,000 of the world's 720,000 "working robots".
Japanese society is ethnically and linguistically very uniform with 99% of the population speaking Japanese. The other 1% consists of an immigrant population of primarily Koreans and Chinese, as well as the tiny indigenous minority of the Ainu on Hokkaido.
Shintoism and Buddhism are Japan's two principal religions. Shintoism is founded on myths and legends emanating from the early animistic worship of natural phenomena. Since it was unconcerned with problems of afterlife which dominated Buddhist thought, and since Buddhism easily accommodated itself to local faiths, the two religions comfortably coexisted, and Shinto shrines and Buddhist monasteries often became administratively linked. Today many Japanese (up to 84%) are adherents of both faiths. Christianity in its many forms is a relatively small minority religion in Japan.
- Kunaicho.go.jp - Official site of the Imperial family (in Japanese)
- Kantei.go.jp - Official prime ministerial and cabinet site
- Sangi-in.go.jp - Official site of the House of Councillors
- Shugi-in.go.jp - Official site of the House of Representatives
- Courts.go.jp - Official site of the Japanese Supreme Court