Japan - Encyclopedia Information
Official name Japan
Formation 1590 / 1972
Population 127 million / 874 people per sq mile (337 people per sq km)
Total area 145,882 sq. miles (377,835 sq. km)
Languages Japanese*, Korean, Chinese
Religions Shinto and Buddhist 76%, Buddhist 16%, Other (including Christian) 8%
Ethnic mix Japanese 99%, Other (mainly Korean) 1%
Government Parliamentary system
Currency Yen = 100 sen
Literacy rate 99%
Calorie consumption 2806 kilocalories
It is believed that early humans inhabited Japan almost 600,000 years ago. During the Ice Age Japan was connected to Asia by land bridges facilitating the migration of humans from Korea and China to Japan.
Around 11,000 B.C.E. hunters and gatherers occupied the area, and excavations have revealed that pottery existed during that time. By around 300 C.E. the area was largely inhabited by the Yamato Kingdom. Irrigation, rice farming, iron, and bronze-making were introduced during that period. The period from 300 C.E. to 600 C.E. is called the Yamato Era, or the Kofun period.
In the mid-sixth century, the Chinese introduced Buddhism to Japan, and along with it Chinese culture also crept in.
Shinto was the traditional religion of Japan at that time. However the clash between Buddhism and Shinto was prevented by presenting the Shinto deities as manifestations of Buddha.
According to Japanese mythology the first Emperor Jimmu was a descendant of the Sun goddess Amaterasu. He founded Japan in the seventh century C.E. A succession of emperors followed. But the real power has always been in the hands of the military and the prime ministers.
During the medieval era a ruling class of warriors called samurais emerged. In 1185 the Minamoto family came to power. Their leader Yoritomo established himself as the shogun (general) and set up his headquarters in Kamakura. After his death a warrior clan the Hojos took control. In 1274 and then again in 1281 Japan resisted an invasion by the Mongols.
The next few centuries saw the samurai fighting with each other for control over the region. The period was marked by chaos and civil wars. Eventually the Tokugawa family unified the country and moved the capital from Kyoto to Edo (now called Tokyo).
The period from 1600 to 1867 is called the Tokugawa Period. During this time fear of the influence of Catholic missionaries prompted the government to prohibit Japanese from traveling overseas or even indulging in trade.
By the beginning of the 19th century, corruption was rampant in the Tokugawa government.
Famine and poverty were playing havoc, and the country was in decline. In 1867 the leader of the Tokugawa clan Yoshinobu resigned, and Emperor Meiji came to power. Under his rule, Japan prospered and began to reap the benefits of industrialization and modernization. Japan became a world power. It defeated China in the Sino-Japanese War in 1894–95 and Russia in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904–05. By 1910 Japan controlled Taiwan, Korea, and half of Sakhalin Island.
During World War I Japan sided with the Allies but did not involve itself completely in the fighting.
In 1926 Emperor Hirohito came to power. Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, and it entered into hostilities with China as well in 1937.
In 1940 Japan allied itself with Germany and Italy and launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. In the beginning of World War II Japan took the initiative and was victorious. However when the United States counterattacked, the Japanese navy suffered, and by 1945 Japan was rapidly losing its initial gains. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were struck with nuclear bombs, and Japan eventually surrendered. From 1945 until 1952 the Allied forces (the United States, Great Britain, and France) occupied Japan.
Japan recovered from its defeat in the war at an amazing rate, and over the next few decades it became one of the strongest economies in the world, with unprecedented advancements in electronics, computing, car production, and robotics. In the 1990s Japan’s growth slowed a little. However despite the downturn, Japan remained a global economic power.
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
Japan is surrounded by the sea on all sides and is strategically located in northeast Asia. Japan is made up of a series of islands, which stretch for about 1,864 miles from north to south. There are four main islands: Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu.
The Japanese landscape is largely rugged and mountainous. The tallest mountain is Mt. Fuji (12,388.5 feet). Japan is the most seismically active region of the world. Most of the mountains are volcanic in nature, and the threat of earthquakes and tsunamis is ever present. The country gets almost 1,000 earthquakes a year. To counter this, all the buildings in Japan are quake resistant, and the latest equipment is used to track the activity of storms and typhoons precisely.
Japan has a temperate climate with four seasons.
The climate varies from region to region. The climate of the northern island of Hokkaido is the coldest, and snowstorms occur frequently during winter, while the southern areas are subtropical. There is a rainy season from late June until early July, and in the late summer and early autumn, typhoons often bring heavy rain to the region.
Japanese pine and cedar, respectively called matsu and sugi in Japanese, are the most common plants found. The favorite plant of the Japanese is the sakura, or the cherry tree, which blossoms in spring.
Japan has very diverse fauna as well. Corals, turtles, and sea snakes are abundant off the coast of the islands, especially near the Ryukyu Islands. In the sea near Honshu sea lions, fur seals, and whales are common. On the mainland the Japanese dormouse, the Japanese macaque (a variety of monkey), the giant salamander, and the dragonfly are the most common species.
Japan’s economy is one of the strongest in the world.
Japan main exports are electronics, cars, and computers.
While the United States is its largest trading partner, the country also trades extensively with Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, China, and Singapore.
The main imports are raw materials and fuels.
The industrial sector of Japan is the most advanced.
The primary industries are manufacturing, construction, and distribution.
Only 15 percent of the land area of Japan is arable, and agriculture accounts for only 2 percent of the Gross National Product (GNP). Rice is the most important agricultural product. However, Japan has to import 50 percent of its requirements for grain and crops. Minerals like iron ore, copper, and bauxite are also imported.
Although the 1990s was a period of recession, led by sliding stock and real estate prices, the economy seems to be making a quick turnaround, and in 2004 it experienced the highest rate of growth since 1990.
The traditional Japanese diet is very high in protein and low in calories. Japanese cuisine is mainly composed of fish, seafood, rice, and soybeans. In addition to rice the Japanese also eat bread, noodles, and pasta with their meals.
Main dishes are usually accompanied with miso soup, which is made from fermented soybeans and fish broth. A traditional breakfast is rice served with miso soup and a side dish. Nowadays many people have a Western breakfast, such as toast and coffee, instead.
One of the most popular rice dishes is sushi (raw or cooked fish served with rice). Shabu-Shabu is another favorite dish, prepared from boiled meat and vegetables. Another all-time favorite dish is tempura, which is batter-fried seafood and vegetables, served with a dip.
The most popular Japanese beverage is tea (nihoncha), which is generally served cold and without milk. Tea-drinking is a ritual in Japan. Other favorite beverages are sake (rice wine) and Japanese malt beer.
The Japanese eat with chopsticks. Pointing the chopsticks at another person, chewing on them, or waving them around when talking is considered rude. However slurping soup is acceptable and is considered as a sign of appreciation.
CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
Japanese culture has been influenced by both the traditional Asian culture and Western culture.
Classical music came to Japan from the West and it is very intense. Many distinct kinds of folk music are also common. Rock, electronic music, hiphop, and country music are particularly popular among younger fans.
The oldest form of theater in Japan is called No.
The plot of the drama is narrated through singing and is accompanied with music and dance. The actors wear masks to depict the characters they are playing. Puppet theater, called bunraku, is very popular among the children and is one of the world’s most renowned forms of puppetry.
The kimono is the traditional dress of Japanese women. It is a robe made of almost nine meters of cloth and tied with a sash around the waist. Wearing a kimono is an art in itself, and special classes are held to train people. In the olden days, kimonos were worn every day, but due to Western influences, this trend has been declining.
Today, kimonos are worn mainly for weddings and special occasions.
Other Japanese traditions, however, are still observed conscientiously For instance people always take off their shoes before entering the house. They also consider pointing an index finger at someone very impolite. Tipping is not a common custom, and it is rare that a bartender, waiter, hairdresser, or cab driver is given a tip.
In the fifth month of pregnancy the pregnant woman and her family visit a holy shrine and pray for the safe birth of the child. Then, in a ceremony known as annZan, the priest presents a white sash to the pregnant woman. The sash, which has the picture of a dog on it, is tied around the pregnant woman’s belly. The Japanese believe that a dog symbolizes safe and easy birth.
COMING OF AGE
In Japan coming of age ceremonies takes place on Seijin No Hi, which falls on the second Monday in the month of January. All Japanese men and women who have reached 20 years of age participate in this ceremony, which marks the transformation from childhood to adulthood. This is because in Japan, people consider the age of 20 as the beginning of adulthood and the youth get the right to vote, drink, and smoke when they reach this legal age.
Throughout Japan state authorities organize special ceremonies. Males wear suits while many women prefer to wear furisode, which is a traditional type of kimono that is meant for unmarried women and has extra long sleeves with elaborate designs on them.
After a prayer ceremony in a Shinto temple, the day is filled with celebration.
Traditional Japanese weddings take place in Shinto shrines. On the day of her wedding the bride paints herself white and wears a white kimono and an elaborate headpiece that is adorned with beautiful ornaments.
The Japanese believe these ornaments will bring her good luck in her married life. Also the kimono is attached to a white hood that serves as a veil and which the Japanese believe helps in hiding her “horns of jealousy” from her mother-in-law, who now officially assumes the position of the head of the family.
Grooms wear black kimonos for their wedding.
During the wedding, while the couple is exchanging wedding vows, their families sit facing each other. To complete their wedding the bride and groom drink nine cups of sake (the rice wine that is Japan’s national beverage). In honor of the couple and to wish them eternal bonding, friends and family members also drink sake. Then a formal introduction of the two families takes place. The groom’s father introduces his family members, and then the bride’s father does the same. Before or after the wedding ceremony, guests give goshugi (an envelope filled with money) to the newlyweds.
A lavish reception is thrown in honor of the newlyweds. The bride changes into a red kimono and later into a Western-style gown. Wedding guests dance, play games, and perform skits and karaoke during the celebrations.
Japanese funeral services follow the principles of Buddhism. Buddhist monks preside over the funeral ceremony. Mourners pay some amount of money to the family of the deceased and receive a small gift from them.
The body of the deceased is cremated on the funeral day, and all the participating mourners take their first meal at the crematorium in honor of the deceased. Then the bones are picked from the ashes, passed on from one mourner to the other with the help of chopsticks, and placed in an urn.
Tradition requires placing the urn on the family altar for 35 days, where incense sticks (osenko) burn around the clock. People who visit the mourning family pay their respects by bowing in front of the altar and lighting an incense stick in honor of the deceased. The urn is buried in a Buddhist cemetery at the end of the 35-day period.
The Japanese pay their respects to the dead and regularly visit cemeteries on special days throughout the year.