145,834 square miles
Tokyo is the capital and largest city in Japan.
About 1,500 seismic events (mostly tremors) occur every year.

127,000,000 (U.S. is 308.7 million).
67% of the population live in cities.


Main Exports
Motor vehicles, electronic equipment, machine tools, steel, ships, chemicals, textiles, processed foods

Shinto; Buddhism

Life Expectancy
On average, men live to be 78 years old, and women live to be 85. (The current world average is 67.)


Japan is an island nation of East Asia. It is composed of four large islands and many smaller ones, which extend in a narrow arc, northeast to southwest, for a distance of about 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) off the eastern coast of Asia. The four main islands are Honshu (the largest and most populous), Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku.

Japan's culture is a blend of traditional Japanese values and modern Western ideas. Japan is the world's oldest monarchy. Its emperors traced their descent from Jimmu. Jimmu, according to mythical tradition, unified Japan and became its first emperor more than 2,500 years ago. Modern Japan, however, is a constitutional monarchy. The emperor is the symbol of the nation, with little political power.

Until slightly more than a century ago, Japan, by its own choice, was almost completely isolated from the rest of the world. It reluctantly opened to Western countries in the mid-1800's. It adopted modern technology and quickly became an industrial and military power. Following the destruction of World War II, Japan rebuilt its economy and now ranks among the world's leading industrialized nations.


The islands of Japan were probably settled by peoples migrating from the mainland of Asia. Over a period of many centuries they developed into a distinctive people, the Japanese. The Ainu, a people quite different from the Japanese, are the descendants of the earliest settlers of the islands. Only a few thousand have survived. Most Ainu now live on the northern island of Hokkaido.

Japan is one of the world's most densely populated countries. It has about half the population of the United States. But in area it is smaller than the state of California. Nearly two-thirds of the Japanese are city dwellers. And the number is increasing.


Shinto and Buddhism are the major religions of Japan. A very small minority of Japanese are Christians.

Shinto, meaning "the way of the gods," is a native Japanese religion. Its followers worship the forces of nature and emphasize cleanliness. Its gods, like those of ancient Greece, often personify the forces of nature. Shinto came under the influence of Buddhism, which was introduced from China. Buddhism brought a new faith and a new philosophy to Japan. Today, most Japanese see no contradiction in participating in both Shinto and Buddhist ceremonies. In fact, the typical Japanese marriage ceremony is performed according to Shinto rites, while the funeral service is Buddhist.

Way of Life

Dwellings. A traditional Japanese house is small. It is made of wood and has a tiled roof. Most houses are surrounded by a bamboo fence or hedge. Because Japan is such a densely populated country and space is limited, Japanese gardens are small. They usually contain some shrubbery and perhaps a group of carefully arranged rocks, all designed to give a feeling of peace and quiet.

On entering a Japanese house one takes off one's shoes. The floors in the inner rooms are covered with tatami, or rush matting. Sliding doors made of wood and paper enclose the rooms. Ideally, the Japanese house is sparsely furnished. But because of limited space, the average house tends to be cluttered. To one side of the main room is the tokonoma, an alcove (a small separate area) decorated with a hanging scroll. The scroll is usually a painting or a poem beautifully written with a brush. Next to the scroll is a flower arrangement of simple beauty and perhaps one or two art objects. A low, wide table is used for eating and writing. Japanese traditionally sit on zabuton, or cushions, instead of chairs. Bedding, called futon, is laid out at night on the tatami and put away in closets during the day.

This traditional style of living is rapidly changing, particularly in the cities. Apartment houses are replacing the small homes. Western-style furniture, electrical appliances, and modern kitchen equipment are now common in Japanese homes.

Few homes have central heating, however, even in the cities. Portable kerosene stoves provide the main source of heat. Many houses also contain a kotatsu. This is a sunken area heated by an electric coil under a table. The kotatsu is usually located in the main room. When a quilt is placed over the table, family members can tuck their feet into the sunken area and sit in comfort or eat a meal, even in the cold of winter.

The Traditional Bath. Many new homes and apartments have Western-style baths and showers. But the majority of Japanese still prefer the traditional Japanese bath. The bathtub is made of wood. It is quite deep and large enough to accommodate several people. The custom is to wash oneself thoroughly with soap and water before getting into the tub to soak. For this reason, the floors of the bathrooms are built to allow water to drain. One takes a bath to relax in the hot water, not just to get clean.

Marriage. The once-usual custom of arranged marriages is rapidly changing. But even when a man and woman have independently chosen each other, they still favor a traditional marriage ceremony. A Japanese bride wears an ancient hairstyle, now usually a wig rented for the occasion. A white band is tied around the top of her hair to hide the "horns of jealousy" that every woman is believed to possess. The bride's ceremonial kimono, or robe, is black or white, with a colorful design at the hem. Her obi (a sash used to fasten the kimono) is tied at the back in a butterfly knot--the symbol of a young, unmarried woman. If she wears traditional dress after she is married, she will tie the obi in a drum knot. It is fashionable for the groom to wear Western-style attire, rather than the formal men's kimono with a pleated overskirt called hakama.

Dining and Etiquette. An invitation for dinner to a Japanese home is considered a great honor. Japanese etiquette, or prescribed behavior, is quite different from that of Western countries. At a family-style dinner, the dishes are placed in the center of the table. Everyone reaches for the food with chopsticks. For more formal dinners, the guests are provided with individual serving trays. The plates and bowls are often purposely unmatched. They are chosen to enhance the food, which is artistically arranged. A typical dinner might consist of steamed rice, pickled vegetables, and a main dish of tempura--fish or vegetables dipped in batter and deep-fried in oil. Or the main dish might be sukiyaki. This is a combination of sliced beef or chicken with an assortment of vegetables. It is cooked at the table.

The Japanese language has many polite phrases appropriate for different social situations. It would be considered rude if a guest, or even members of the family, started to eat without first bowing and saying, "Ita-dakimasu [I gratefully receive this food]." After the meal is over, one bows again and says, "Gochiso-sama [Thank you for the delicious meal]." Formal bows are once again exchanged when the guest is ready to leave. The guest says, "Arigato gozaimasu [Thank you]" and "Sayonara [Good-bye]," and the host tells the guest repeatedly, "Mata dozo [Please come again]."

The Tea Ceremony. Tea is the favorite beverage of the Japanese and an ever-present part of daily life. A cup of tea is always offered to a guest. The formal tea ceremony, during which the tea is brewed and served, requires quiet concentration and the strict observance of rules. The ceremony is filled with spiritual meaning. Its correct performance was once considered one of the necessary social graces of Japanese women.

Business Practices. The business world of Japan has become completely Westernized. But some traditional customs remain. Checks and documents are stamped with the seal of a person's name or of a company, instead of being signed. People in business exchange name cards when they first meet. Japanese surnames, or last names, come before the given name. For instance, Yukio (given name) Ogawa (surname) is addressed as Ogawa Yukio-san. (San is used for Mr., Mrs., and Miss.)

One's rank is strictly observed in business. At New Year's and mid-summer, gifts are sent to clients and superiors. In small offices and shops, the soroban, or abacus (an ancient but rapid calculating device), is used. However, most business establishments in Japan, as in the United States or Europe, have the latest electronic equipment.


The Japanese language is thought to be related to Korean, Manchurian, and Mongolian, and more distantly to Finnish and Hungarian. But these connections lie in the remote past. Until the 400's or 500's A.D., when Chinese characters were introduced, the Japanese had no writing system. Thereafter, a system was developed for writing Japanese using Chinese characters (kanji). Using kanji as a base, the Japanese devised two syllabic alphabets--hiragana and katakana. Each represents the same 47 syllables. The alphabets are used together with kanji in writing modern Japanese.

Children first learn hiragana and katakana and are gradually introduced to kanji. There are more than 60,000 kanji. But most people have a general knowledge of from 3,000 to 4,000 kanji. To simplify matters, most books and newspapers use only 1,850 kanji. This is the same number that high school graduates are expected to master. There is also a method of writing Japanese--called romaji--using the Roman alphabet.

Japanese is traditionally written from top to bottom, beginning at the right-hand side of the page. In modern books, especially those dealing with scientific subjects, the text appears in Western style--straight across from left to right. Children do their homework with a pen or pencil. But, because the art of beautiful writing, or calligraphy, is much esteemed, they also learn to write Japanese using a brush and black ink.


The Japanese place a high value on education. Modern schools began in Japan more than a century ago. After World War II, Japanese schools adopted a system similar to that of the United States. Nine years of schooling (six of primary school and three of middle school) are compulsory for Japanese children. Nearly all continue on to high school for three additional years. Higher education also resembles the four-year college system of the United States. There are more than 450 colleges and universities in Japan. There are also many specialized schools and junior colleges.

Holidays and Festivals

The four seasons bring welcome changes to the nature-loving Japanese. Numerous holidays and festivals are celebrated throughout the year. They honor nature, children, and the Shinto and Buddhist religions.

New Year. By far the most important holiday is New Year's Day. At year's end people rush about paying debts and preparing for the festivities, which last a week. At midnight on December 31, the temple bells announce the passing of the old year and the arrival of the new. It is customary to eat long noodles called soba as the last meal of the year. Decorations of bamboo and pine, which stand for strength, devotion, and faithfulness, are placed at the front gate of each house.

On New Year's Day itself, everyone eats mochi. These are little dumplings made of pounded boiled rice. Temples and shrines are filled with people. Many of them dress in colorful kimonos. New Year's Day is also one of the two occasions in the year when the gates of the emperor's palace grounds are open to the people. The emperor and empress appear on the palace balcony. They greet the throngs of people who have come to wish them "Banzai." This means "ten thousand years." It is their way of saying "Long may you live." At home, boys fly kites, while girls play a game much like badminton.

Girls' Day. March 3 is celebrated as Girls' Day. It is also known as the Festival of Dolls. Because it is the time that peach blossoms are in full bloom, it is also called the Peach Festival. Young girls wear their best kimonos and visit each other to admire their dolls.

Cherry Blossom Viewing. By early April the cherry blossoms are at their peak. There is no formal festival as such. But it is customary for families to go on picnics at this time to enjoy the flower most loved by the Japanese.

Iris Festival. Traditionally, May 5 was observed as Boys' Day or the Iris Festival. The long, bladelike leaves of the Japanese iris were placed in a boy's bath to give him a martial, or fighting, spirit. The festival is now celebrated by all children. But the symbols of courage and strength honor boys especially. Brightly colored paper or cloth carp--a fish known for its courage--are flown from tall bamboo poles. The poles are set up in front of every home where there is a boy.

Star Festival. Held on July 7, the Star Festival commemorates a romantic legend about the Princess Weaver Star. She falls in love with a cowherd star on the banks of the Heavenly River (the Milky Way). But she is fated to meet him only once a year.

Feast of the Lanterns. The Buddhist Feast of the Lanterns, or Obon, is held on July 15 in some areas and on August 15 in others. It honors the spirits of one's ancestors. Ancestors are believed to return once a year to visit their families. During the day families visit the graves of their ancestors. In the evening the streets are decorated with brightly colored lanterns to light the way for the visiting spirits. A communal dance, the bon odori, is performed energetically. After the celebration the spirits are escorted to a river or lake if there is one nearby. They are sent off in miniature straw boats filled with food and incense.

Harvest Thanksgiving Festival. This festival is celebrated in October. Farmers express their gratitude to the Shinto gods of the harvest by offering them the first fruits of the field.

Shichi-Go-San. November 15 is a day of much excitement for girls of 7, boys of 5, and all children of 3. This festival is called Shichi-Go-San ("7-5-3"). It is a day when the children receive presents. They also visit shrines with their parents to pray to the Shinto gods for health and happiness.

Apart from these traditional holidays, in recent years Christmas has become popular in Japan, even though Christians are only a tiny minority. It is not unusual for young Japanese to exchange presents or to visit a department store to see a huge Christmas tree or Santa Claus on display. However, New Year's remains the customary time for Japanese families to gather for a reunion.

Entertainment and Sports

Noh and Kabuki. Entertainment in Japan is rich and varied. It ranges from ancient stage dramas to the types of modern drama performed in Western countries.

In the classical theaters of Noh and Kabuki, the actors are all men, who play the roles of beautiful women, villains, and heroes. The older Noh plays are slow moving and simple in plot. Actors wear masks and move with studied gestures, which have deep symbolic meaning. In the more lively Kabuki plays there are many thrilling moments. When a popular actor makes his entrance on the "flower walk," a narrow platform leading from the back of the theater to the stage, devoted fans shout words of praise and applaud him as he walks by. Kabuki actors do not wear masks. Instead, their faces are elaborately painted to show the characters they play.

Bunraku. Another ancient and popular theatrical art is Bunraku, a puppet play. The puppets are much larger than Western ones and are themselves works of art. Each puppet is guided by three puppet players. The players are dressed entirely in black so as to remain unseen by the audience. The master player controls the head and right hand; a senior assistant, the left hand; and a junior assistant, the body and legs. As the puppets dance, laugh, cry, and do battle, they look almost human.

Geishas. Geishas provide yet another form of entertainment, mainly for men. A geisha is a female entertainer who has been trained from her youth to move and speak with grace. She also learns to sing, dance, and play musical instruments--all of the traditional kind. And she becomes expert in the art of flower arrangement and the tea ceremony. Geishas are expected to dress with taste and elegance. Hiring geishas for an evening's entertainment can be very expensive. It is usually reserved for business affairs.

Movies. Movies and television are the chief sources of popular entertainment today. Japanese have won awards at international film festivals for pictures such as Rashomon and Gate of Hell. Other acclaimed Japanese films are The Seven Samurai and Ran. Young Japanese are also fond of American movies, jazz, and rock music.

Sports. Japan is a sports-minded nation. Baseball, tennis, golf, and skiing are all popular. Indeed, baseball is almost the national sport, and professional and amateur teams are followed with wild enthusiasm. One traditional Japanese sport is sumo, an ancient form of wrestling. Sumo wrestlers are generally very big and heavy. A wrestler's hair is tied up in a coiled knot on top of his head. He wears a type of loincloth so that the audience can see every muscle in his body. The match is lost by the wrestler who first steps outside the ring or touches the ground with anything but the soles of his feet. Two other traditional sports are karate and judo, which are also useful for self-defense. In karate, one uses the hand, either open or closed; the elbows; and the feet. In judo, the student is trained to use the movements of an opponent to achieve the momentum needed for a throw.


About 200 million years ago the continental shelf of the Asian mainland rose up to form a long crest of islands, of which Japan is a part. The islands are actually the peaks of submerged mountain ranges. Like all the lands along the rim of the Pacific Ocean, Japan has many active volcanoes and frequent earthquakes. Most earthquakes are minor and cause little or no damage. But some have been violently destructive. The worst earthquake in Japan's history struck the area around Tokyo, the capital, in 1923, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people.

The major bodies of water surrounding Japan are the Pacific Ocean in the east, the Philippine and East China seas in the south, and the East Sea (Sea of Japan) in the west. Japan faces three nations on the Asian mainland. They are China, Korea, and the Russian Federation.

Mountains and Forests

Almost 75 percent of Japan's land is mountainous, and about two-thirds of it is forested. Japan's most famous mountain and the highest in elevation is Mount Fuji. It rises to 12,388 feet (3,776 meters). Located on the island of Honshu, Fuji is a dormant (inactive) volcano, which the Japanese regard as sacred. Its graceful, snowcapped form has long inspired poets and artists.


Japan has no long rivers. The largest river, the Shinano, has a length of only about 230 miles (370 kilometers). Most of the others are too short and swift-flowing to be suitable for transportation. They are, however, important as sources of hydroelectric power.

The Inland Sea

The Inland Sea is a picturesque waterway dotted with about 700 islets. It is partly enclosed by the islands of Honshu, Shikoku, and Kiyushu. Ships and fishing boats travel between its coastal ports. The beauty of the sea has been depicted in traditional Japanese paintings.


The country's climate is affected by two ocean currents. The warm Japan Current flows northward from the Philippines along Japan's eastern, or Pacific, coast. This area, as a result, has a milder climate than the western coast. The cold Oyashio Current originates in the Bering Sea off the coast of Siberia. It flows southward along the eastern coast of Hokkaido, producing a much cooler climate in this region. Japan's location also makes it vulnerable to typhoons (hurricanes that occur in the western Pacific Ocean) and the mudslides that result from these violent storms. In 2004, Japan suffered the worst typhoon season in more than twenty years.

Japan has abundant rainfall, ranging from about 40 to 100 inches (1,000 to 2,500 millimeters) annually. Because of this, much of Japan is covered with green foliage. The year falls into four distinct seasons. They are pleasant springs; generally hot and humid summers; clear, bright autumns; and cool to cold winters, with frequent snowfall in some areas.

Mineral Resources

Japan does not have an abundance of mineral resources. It has many kinds of minerals, but except for some coal, copper, and lead, none exist in any quantity.

The Main Islands

Japan is made up of thousands of islands. But most of them are quite small. The four main islands make up almost all of Japan's land area. They are home to virtually all of its people.

Honshu. This largest and most populous of the four main islands has about 60 percent of Japan's total land area. It contains many of the largest cities and has about 80 percent of the country's population. The Kanto Plain, situated in the eastern part of the island, is a major agricultural and industrial region and the site of the capital, Tokyo. Other chief cities of Honshu are Yokohama, Osaka, Nagoya, and Kyoto. Lake Biwa, Japan's largest lake, is located near Kyoto.

Hokkaido. The northernmost island, Hokkaido is second largest in area but only third in population. It is a rugged land, without the quiet beauty of the other islands. Because of its climate--cold and bleak for much of the year with heavy snowfall--Hokkaido was, until about a century ago, regarded as an outpost. It now has large cities and flourishing industries. It is a popular resort area for winter sports. The chief city is Sapporo.

Kyushu. The most southerly of the main islands, Kyushu is second in population after Honshu and third in area after Hokkaido. Because of its relatively small size, it is the most densely populated of the islands. Its major cities include Fukuoka, Kitakyushu, and Nagasaki.

Shikoku. Shikoku is the smallest of the main islands, both in area and population. Until the recent completion of a bridge linking it to Hiroshima on the island of Honshu, Shikoku was fairly isolated from the rest of the country. Its largest city is Matsuyama.

Other islands of importance are the Ryukyus and Bonins. The Ryukyus are a chain of more than 100 mountainous islands situated south of Kyushu. Okinawa is the largest and most important of the Ryukyus. The lightly populated Bonins lie about 600 miles (970 kilometers) southeast of the main islands.

Major Cities

The Japanese are chiefly a nation of city dwellers. Cities are scattered throughout the islands, although most of the largest are on Honshu. Twelve Japanese cities have populations of 1 million or more. They are Hiroshima, Kawasaki, Kobe, Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, Saitima, Sendai, Tokyo, and Yokohama (all on Honshu), Fukuoka (on Kyushu), and Sapporo (on Hokkaido). Hiroshima is perhaps best known internationally. This is because of its devastation by an atomic bomb in 1945, during World War II.


Tokyo, the capital, is one of the world's largest cities. Formerly called Edo, it was renamed when it became the imperial capital in 1868. It was given the name Tokyo ("eastern capital") to distinguish it from the former capital, Kyoto, in western Honshu. Tokyo is not only the center of government, but of industry, commerce, finance, and education as well. The city is described in greater detail in the article Tokyo.


Located just south of Tokyo, Yokohama is Japan's second largest city and its largest port. It is a center of heavy industry, including steelmaking, shipbuilding, and the manufacture of trucks and other motor vehicles. Originally a small fishing village, Yokohama grew rapidly after it was opened to foreign trade in 1858. The city was heavily damaged by bombing in World War II but has been rebuilt with wide boulevards and modern buildings.


Situated on Osaka Bay, the eastern arm of the Inland Sea, Osaka is one of Japan's leading seaports, along with Yokohama and Kobe. Often likened to the U.S. city of Chicago, Osaka is one of Japan's most industrialized cities. It is the subject of a separate article in this encyclopedia.


Kyoto was the capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years, until the seat of government was moved to Tokyo in 1868. The city is still the center of religion and of traditional Japanese arts. Kyoto and its places of interest are described further in this encyclopedia.


Nagoya is situated almost in the center of Honshu. Located on Ise Bay, it has an excellent harbor. It is the heart of Japan's automobile industry. It is also noted for its fine pottery, porcelain, and enamelware.


The capital of Hokkaido, Sapporo is a rapidly growing city. Its major industries include food processing, machinery repair, printing, construction, and mining. It was host to the 1972 Winter Olympic Games.


Located in western Honshu on Osaka Bay, across from the city of Osaka, Kobe is Japan's second most important seaport. It is an industrial city as well, producing ships, iron and steel, and textiles.




In the middle of the 1800's, Japan was still a predominantly agricultural country. Within two generations, the Japanese created an industrial and commercial power of international importance. Despite the enormous destruction of World War II (1939-45), Japan quickly rebuilt its economy. It did this with a combination of government leadership and private enterprise.

The Japanese economy expanded in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, but slowed greatly in the 1990s. The economic decline continued into the 21st century. In 2009, the nation's industrial production decreased by 17 percent. And in 2010, fast-growing China replaced Japan as the world's second largest economy, after the United States.


The services sector contributes over 75 percent to GDP, or gross domestic product. (GDP is the total amount of goods and services produced by an economy in one year.) Advertising, tourism, and financial services are important to Japan's economy, as are government services.


Industry accounts for about 22 percent of Japan's GDP and employs a slightly higher percentage of its workforce.

Japan is among the world's largest and technologically advanced providers of motor vehicles, electronic equipment, ships, chemicals, and processed foods. Shipbuilding and iron and steel production, however, are declining in importance. Japan is also moving rapidly to leadership in the field of biotechnology. Biotechnology involves the design and manufacture of artificial body parts. It also includes creation, in the laboratory, of new genetic materials and methods of fighting disease.

Today Japan's industries face growing competition from other countries such as China and South Korea. Many products once made in Japan are now being made elsewhere in Asia.


Agriculture contributes just over 1.5 percent to GDP and employs 4 percent of the Japanese workforce. Because so much of Japan is mountainous and forested, only about 15 percent of its total land area can be used for farming. Every bit of usable land is valuable, and Japanese farmers grow crops on plots of land that often seem too small or too steep to be cultivated. Even so, Japan must import a large portion of its food to feed its people.

Rice is the staple food of Japan. In fact, the term for "boiled rice" has the same meaning as "meal." Small, neat patches of green rice paddies dot the countryside. Rice seedlings are planted during the rainy season, which begins in early June. The rice is harvested in September.

After rice, the leading food crops include sugar beets, vegetables, fruit, and tea. Silkworms are grown for their silk. Japan grows all the rice it needs, but among the foods it must import are soybeans, which form an important part of the Japanese diet.

As eating habits have changed, livestock raising has become increasingly important. Shortage of good pastureland, however, limits the raising of cattle. Much of Japan's meat and dairy products come from Hokkaido or abroad.


Japan is one of the world's foremost fishing nations. Fish and shellfish are a basic food of the Japanese. The waters surrounding Japan are rich in a variety of fish. These include sardines, mackerel, and yellowfin tuna. Octopus, cuttlefish, and eels are other delicacies. Seaweed is also harvested for food. Japanese fishing fleets also regularly travel the waters of the world with factory ships equipped to process the catch at sea.

Cultured Pearls

The cultured-pearl industry is distinctive to Japan. In the late 1800's the Japanese Mikimoto Kokichi created the modern cultured-pearl industry. He devised a practical method of producing pearls artificially by injecting an irritant into the oyster. Some of the largest pearl farms are located at Pearl Island in Ago Bay. There the water temperature and other conditions are ideal for the oysters.

Foreign Trade

Among Japan's major exports are transportation equipment, motor vehicles, semiconductors, electrical machinery, and chemicals. Its major export partners are China, the United States, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

Japan imports machinery and equipment, fuels, foodstuffs, chemicals, textiles, and raw materials. Its major import partners are China, the United States, Australia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.


Japan is heavily dependent on imported fuels. The country's major energy sources are water power, imported petroleum and natural gas, and nuclear energy. Production of coal has declined steadily, and many Japanese mines have been closed. Nuclear energy now supplies about one-third of Japan's electric power.


Japan has a very modern transportation network. It ranks relatively high among the nations of the world in air transportation. It ranks very high with respect to its railroads and roadways. Japan is known for its large fleet of commercial ships and its modern and well-equipped ports and trade terminals.


Japan has an excellent domestic and international telephone service. It has hundreds of radio and television stations. About 96 million Japanese access the Internet.






Japan is governed under a constitution that went into effect in 1947. The lawmaking body is the National Diet, which is composed of two houses, the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors. The House of Representatives, made up of 500 members, is elected for a term of four years. The House of Councillors, made up of 252 members, is elected for six years, with one half of its membership elected every three years.

The head of government is the prime minister, who is chosen by the Diet. The prime minister, in turn, appoints the other ministers of the cabinet, all of whom are responsible to the Diet. The Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP), a conservative political party, governed Japan from its founding in 1955 until 1993, when it fell from power after a series of scandals and charges of corruption. Three prime ministers (including Japan's first socialist leader since 1946) successively led opposition coalition governments before the LDP regained the prime ministership in 1996.

The emperor, who formerly held great power, now serves as the symbolic head of state under the present constitution. He now has only ceremonial duties.

The judicial branch of the government consists of the various courts, headed by the Supreme Court, which has a chief justice and 14 other justices.

Japan is divided into 47 prefectures, each of which is administered by an elected governor.






Japan's geographical location has played an important role in its history. Japan lies close enough to the mainland of Asia to have been strongly influenced by China. At the same time, the waters surrounding the Japanese islands long served as a barrier against invasion. After the first migrations of peoples from the mainland in the far distant past, Japan successfully resisted attempts at invasion until its defeat in World War II. This water barrier also encouraged the isolation that marks periods of Japanese history.

Legend of the Sun Goddess

The Japanese call their country Nippon or Nihon. It means "base of the sun," suggesting that Japan, the easternmost country of Asia, is the land where the sun rises. The national flag depicts the sun --a red ball--against a white background. The Japanese emperors traced their ancestry to a sun goddess, who in turn was descended from the god Izanagi. A myth tells how the Japanese islands were created:

One day long, long ago the heavenly being Izanagi dipped his jeweled spear into the deep waters, and the shining crystal drops that scattered formed the islands of Japan. Izanagi had made the sun goddess, Amaterasu, the ruler of the heavenly kingdom. She loved the beautiful islands that sparkled in the blue waters below and proclaimed that they should always be ruled by her descendants. "You, my grandson," she told Prince Ninigi, "go, and govern these islands, and may the prosperity of the imperial house be as everlasting as that of heaven and earth." The prince descended over the floating bridge of heaven to the Japanese islands.

For many hundreds of years the legend of the Sun Goddess was accepted as history by the Japanese. The goddess is worshipped at the Grand Shrine of Ise, in western Honshu. It is the most important Shinto shrine in Japan and is also the family shrine of the emperor.

According to the 700's text Kojiki ("Record of Ancient Matters"), which is Japan's earliest written history, Jimmu, the great- grandson of Prince Ninigi, became Japan's first emperor in 660 B.C. This document also stated that all succeeding emperors were to be regarded as sons of heaven--an idea that originated in China. The mythical origins of the imperial family have since been rejected by the Japanese, and the emperor is no longer looked upon as divine. However, the emperor and his family are still regarded with affection and respect by most Japanese, especially those of the older generation.

Early Settlers

The earliest settlers of Japan about whom much is known were the Jomon people, who came from the Asian mainland. They fashioned pottery, used tools and weapons made of stone, and lived by hunting, fishing, and gathering nuts and fruits. They lived in Japan from about 8000 B.C. to 300 B.C.

They were followed by waves of new settlers, who migrated to Japan from northeastern Asia by way of the Korean peninsula. They landed in Kyushu and pushed northward. It is these new settlers, in the main, who are considered the ancestors of the Japanese. Some of the Jomon people were killed. Some mingled with the new immigrants, while others fled to the northernmost island. It is thought that the Ainu are in part the descendants of the Jomon people.

Ainu Customs

The customs of the Ainu were quite different from those of the Japanese. Their chief deity (a god or goddess) was the goddess of fire. The bear held an important place in Ainu customs. A cub was raised, sacrificed, and eaten with great ceremony in a religious ritual. This feast of thanksgiving, called the Bear Festival, was held to bid farewell to the god of the mountains, who was said to visit the earth in bearskins and bring gifts of bear meat for the people.

The Yamato State: Chinese Influence

The new settlers in Japan were organized in clans, or large social groups related through a common ancestor. Gradually, regional states were formed. One of these, known as the Yamato state, unified Japan politically sometime in the 300's or 400's A.D. Its leader became the emperor, and its gods became the gods of Japan.

Japan first came under the influence of China in the 200's or 300's A.D. The development of the Yamato state would have been very different without the influence of this powerful, highly civilized neighbor. China at the time had a written language, a sophisticated tradition of philosophy and literature, the Buddhist religion, and an advanced system of bureaucratic government. Between the 500's and 600's these Chinese elements began to enter Japan in increasing volume. The Japanese adopted the Chinese writing system. They learned Chinese arts and crafts, including how to cast bronze and make fine pottery and porcelain, and how to grow tea, raise silkworms, and weave silk. Buddhism, too, was adopted by the Japanese, and while it did not replace Shinto, it soon became the major religion. The first capital, built in 710 at Nara on Honshu, was designed in the Chinese style.

Fujiwara Rule

From the end of the 700's until the 1100's, Japan was governed by the imperial and other aristocratic clans. Only those born within these clans could hold offices at the emperor's court. The most important clan was the Fujiwara, who held the highest offices. Fujiwara daughters became the wives of emperors. The emperors themselves often ruled only as ceremonial figureheads, while the Fujiwara held real power.

During the centuries of Fujiwara rule, life in the countryside was backward. The people were poor and heavily taxed. In contrast, Kyoto, which had become the new capital in 794, was filled with magnificent palaces and temples. Masterpieces of painting, sculpture, and literature were created by the Kyoto nobility. The noblemen wrote in Chinese. However, it was the women, writing in Japanese, who created the classics that are still read today. One, The Tale of Genji, is the story of the life and loves of Genji, the "shining prince." Another, The Pillow Book, is filled with descriptions, often amusing, of the court.


While aristocratic life flourished in Kyoto, new forces were emerging in more distant regions of Japan. To maintain law and order and to protect their rice fields, a new class of mounted warriors arose. They were called samurai, which means "those who serve." The samurai fought with bows and arrows and with swords. They were very much like the European knights of the Middle Ages. At first these warriors held only local power in the countryside, where they co-operated with governors sent out from the imperial court. But eventually the samurai became more powerful, and from the 1100's to the 1800's, they were the rulers of Japan.

Kamakura Rulers: The First Shoguns

The first military government was established in Kamakura in eastern Honshu in 1185. Its founder took the title of "Barbarian-Conquering-General"--whose shortened form in Japanese is shogun. He claimed to be merely the military ruler, while the emperor ruled over the civil government in Kyoto. But, in fact, he gradually gathered all power into his own hands and those of his samurai followers, leaving the emperor more powerless than ever.

The "Divine Wind"

During the 13th century, the Mongol emperor of China, Kublai Khan, sent emissaries to Japan with the demand that it submit to his rule. The shogun in Kamakura ignored the demand and beheaded the emissaries. Kublai Khan was so angered that he sent thousands of ships to invade Japan. The first attack was inconclusive, but during the second, a great storm appeared that destroyed many of the enemy ships. The rest of the ships were forced to retreat. The Japanese called this storm kamikaze, or "divine wind," in the belief that it had saved them from foreign invasion.

Kyoto Shogunate: The Ashikaga

The second period of military rule began in the early 14th century. The samurai had become so numerous and so overly ambitious that the rulers in Kamakura could no longer control them. After rebellions broke out, a new military government took power, headed by the Ashikaga clan. The new shogun settled in Kyoto, where he built himself a magnificent palace. The emperor still resided in Kyoto. But a separate civil government no longer existed, except on paper.

The Ashikaga shoguns built great temples and gardens, which still can be seen today. Several, like the Silver Pavilion, are national treasures. It was the great age of Zen Buddhism. The Ashikaga were patrons of monasteries and of painters, poets, and writers.

The Dark Age

As Ashikaga rule began to decline in the middle of the 1400's, Japan was plunged into a dark age of constant warfare, which was to last for nearly a century. Feudal lords, called daimyo, each with his fortified castle and army of samurai, arose in every part of Japan. Hundreds of such daimyo competed for power, drafting foot soldiers from among the peasants to enlarge their armies.

The First Europeans

Just at this time the first Europeans arrived in Japan. In 1543 three Portuguese traders who had been sailing along the China coast were blown out to sea and eventually landed on an island south of Kyushu. They were treated hospitably. Their firearms, in particular, aroused much excitement among the samurai, who quickly copied them and used them to advantage in their wars.

News of the coming of the foreigners and of their unusual possessions spread throughout the country. The Portuguese themselves, on hearing of the discovery of Japan, at once fitted out expeditions to trade in this new market. Within a few years the traders were followed by missionaries. Other foreign expeditions also made their way to the Japanese islands. During the short but successful mission of the Spanish Jesuit Saint Francis Xavier, the first Christian church was built in Japan, and hundreds of Japanese were converted to the Roman Catholic religion.

Three Leaders of the 1500's

Three men--Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu--were destined to play important roles in the history of Japan in the 1500's. A well-known story compares the characters of the three.

    Nobunaga says: "Nightingale, if you do not sing, I shall kill you."

    Hideyoshi says: "Nightingale, if you do not sing, I shall make you."

    Ieyasu says: "Nightingale, if you do not sing now, I shall wait until you do."

Oda Nobunaga was the first to gain power. After ousting the weakened Ashikaga shogun from Kyoto, he eliminated all of his rivals, successfully using the new firearms in a decisive battle. But the ruthless Nobunaga was not popular. In 1582, after a brief rule of nine years, he was killed by one of his own men. He was succeeded by Hideyoshi.

Many stories are told about Hideyoshi. Beginning as a common soldier, who could neither read nor write, he became Japan's greatest warrior. He was an ugly man--his nickname as a child had been Kozaru, or "Little Monkey." After several years at a monastery, to which his despairing parents had sent him, he entered the service of a daimyo. He then joined Nobunaga's army, where he quickly rose to become his chief general.

By 1590, Hideyoshi had brought all of Japan under his control. But the arrogant and boastful warrior had an even greater ambition: He dreamed of conquering China. The armies he sent to the mainland, however, suffered severe losses in Korea, and they were withdrawn soon after Hideyoshi's death in 1598.

Tokugawa Ieyasu was a clever politician as well as a brilliant general. He was known for his patience and his sense of justice. After defeating all of his opponents in battle in 1600, he established a military government that lasted until the middle of the 1800's. Under the Tokugawa shoguns, Japan enjoyed two and a half centuries of peace.

The Tokugawa Shogunate

Following the example of the first Kamakura shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu established his shogunate, or military government, in eastern Japan, at Edo (the future Tokyo). Originally a small village, within a century it was to grow into a city of a million inhabitants.

Ieyasu took direct control of one third of Japan, settling his own soldiers in Edo. The rest of the land he distributed to other lords, especially favoring those who had proved their loyalty to him in battle. Those he trusted most were settled, along with their thousands of samurai, on lands bordering his own. Those he least trusted were sent to distant regions in Kyushu or Shikoku. Ieyasu also formed a council of the most trustworthy lords as his advisers. When later shoguns were too young or too weak to rule effectively, the council took over and governed Japan.

Some Important Events Under the Tokugawa

In the 1630's, under the third shogun, Christianity was banned in Japan. Fearing that the Japanese lords who had converted to Christianity would not remain loyal to his government, the shogun ordered all foreigners to leave Japan and all Christian converts to give up their new religion. Anyone who refused to obey the order was sentenced to death. Many Japanese did renounce Christianity, but others died for their faith.

Beginning in the mid-1600's, not only were foreigners forbidden to enter Japan, the Japanese themselves were forbidden to travel outside the country. Any who did so were liable to execution on returning. The reason for this harsh law, like the one banning Christianity, was to ensure the security of Japan. The one exception to the order against foreigners was in the port city of Nagasaki on Kyushu, far from the capital at Edo, where a handful of Dutch, Chinese, and Korean merchants were permitted to trade. For two centuries, Nagasaki remained Japan's only outlet to the rest of the world, through which a few books on Western science entered.

Commerce grew within Japan as peace and a more stable society brought economic expansion. Art, literature, and drama reached new heights of expression. The Kabuki play--more realistic than the earlier Nō drama--became popular among the emerging middle classes in the cities. While some literature was serious and dealt with heroes and military virtue, most city people preferred romances and comic sketches of ordinary folk.

The function of the samurai changed. After many years of peace, they became a class of hereditary government officials rather than warriors. They still wore swords and trained in the military arts. But education and learning had now become more important.

Arrival of Perry: Fall of the Tokugawa

In 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the United States Navy arrived in Japan with four warships. He carried a letter from U.S. president Millard C. Fillmore. It requested Japan to open its ports to trade and to give better treatment to American sailors shipwrecked on Japanese shores. Perry returned the following year with additional ships. The Tokugawa government was aware that China had been defeated by the British in the Opium War of 1841. And it was fearful of the guns of Perry's warships. So it agreed to his demands for a treaty. The Treaty of Kanagawa granted the United States trading rights at two ports and permitted an American diplomat to reside in the country. A more extensive commercial treaty was signed in 1858. Japan signed similar treaties with other Western nations. These outside contacts upset the political balance within Japan. In 1868 the Tokugawa shogunate was overthrown and a new government took its place.

Modernization of Japan: Meiji Period

In theory the new government was a return to power by the emperor, who left Kyoto and settled in Edo, which was renamed Tokyo. The period in Japanese history that followed is known as the Meiji Period, after the Emperor Mutsuhito (1852-1912). He took the name Meiji, meaning "Enlightened Rule." In practice, however, the new government was controlled by a very capable and tough-minded group of young samurai. They were determined to make Japan a strong, modern nation, on the model of Western nations.

They built railroads, factories, and dockyards, laid telegraph lines, and established banks--all that was necessary, in fact, to the economy of a modern nation of the time. They also created a new army and navy, equipped with the latest weapons and powerful warships. With these Japan defeated China in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), thus establishing itself in the eyes of the world as a power to be taken seriously.

More important, Japan's leaders created a new school system and modern universities. By about 1900, nearly all Japanese, rich and poor, could read and write. Young people were also sent abroad to study, and foreigners were invited to Japan to advise the government. In 1889 a constitution was proclaimed. It was not fully democratic, but it did provide for elections. Political parties were gradually formed, and the people began to have a voice in the government.

Imperial Expansion

As a result of its victories over China and Russia, Japan acquired Taiwan, southern Sakhalin Island, and the Liaotung Peninsula on the Chinese mainland. It gained a foothold in China's northern region of Manchuria and control of Korea, which it formally annexed in 1910. Like the Western powers on which it had modeled itself, Japan had become not only a highly industrialized nation, but one with imperialist ambitions and colonies of its own.

During World War I (1914-18), Japan sided with the Allied Powers, which included Britain, France, and, from 1917, the United States. Although Japan saw little fighting, it won additional territory in China as well as island colonies in the Pacific. These had formerly belonged to Germany, the defeated leader of the Central Powers.

Rise of the Militarists

The decade following the end of the war was a period of prosperity and relative political freedom for Japan. In the late 1920's and early 1930's, however, there was a growing worldwide economic depression. Military extremists began to exert growing pressure on the government. In 1931, Japanese military officers in Manchuria used the pretext of a bombing by Chinese of a Japanese-owned railroad (the Mukden Incident) to occupy all of Manchuria, which became a puppet state of Japan. Soon after, the civilian government of Japan was replaced by one dominated by military leaders. In 1937, following a clash between Chinese and Japanese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge near Peking, Japan began a full-scale invasion of China. By 1938, Japanese forces had gained control of the eastern part of the country.

World War II

World War II began in Europe with Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939. In 1940, Japan formed an alliance with Germany and Italy as an Axis Power.

Japan's policy of expansion in Asia led to increasing tension with the United States. When Japanese troops moved into French Indochina (now Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) in 1940-41, the United States cut off all trade with Japan. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese navy launched a surprise attack against the U.S. naval and military bases at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The attack brought the United States into the war against Japan and Germany on the side of the Allies. In the early stages of the war in Asia, the Japanese won dramatic victories. They occupied Malaya (now Malaysia), Singapore, the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia), Burma (now Myanmar), the Philippines, and many Pacific islands.

Defeat of Japan

Eventually the superior economic strength of the United States and its increasing military and naval power began to tell. The Japanese forces were slowly pushed back from their initial territorial gains. By 1945, they were fighting for the survival of their own home islands. Japan had suffered millions of battlefield casualties, the collapse of its economy, and the devastation of many of its cities by bombing. When Japan's leaders ignored calls for surrender, U.S. President Harry S. Truman reluctantly ordered the dropping of the newly developed atomic bomb. The bomb, dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, killed or injured more than half the city's population. Two days later, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and sent its troops into Manchuria. A second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9.

On August 14, 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Japan. The official surrender document was signed on board the battleship USS Missouri, anchored in Tokyo Bay, on September 2, 1945. For more information on World War II, see the article World War II.

Postwar Period: A Changing Society

An Allied army, under U.S. General Douglas MacArthur and composed mainly of American forces, remained in Japan until 1952. Under MacArthur's administration, political, social, and economic reforms were introduced that greatly changed Japanese society.

In 1945, Emperor Hirohito, in a nationwide broadcast, told the Japanese people that he was not divine. Later, the crown prince, Akihito, the heir to the throne, broke an ancient tradition by marrying a commoner. (A commoner is a person who does not belong to a noble family.)

In 1947 a new, democratic constitution came into force. It established a parliamentary system. Women were permitted to vote and to own property for the first time. And Japan renounced war forever.

Other changes included the distribution of land among the farmers who worked it. Schools were reorganized and textbooks were rewritten to give more accurate accounts of Japan's historical beginnings.

In 1989, Akihito succeeded his father, Hirohito, as emperor.

Japan Today

Young Japanese are growing up in a Japan far different from the one their parents and grandparents knew. Young men and women now have a more relaxed attitude toward each other. And there is more respect for individual rights. A higher standard of living and a more varied diet have increased the average Japanese life span to more than 82 years, the third highest in the world.

The Japanese have made enormous strides in science, industry, and technology. These have challenged Japan's traditional ways of doing business. And despite its economic decline in the 1990's and 2000's, the country is still the world's third largest economy.

In 2001, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) swept the general elections, and party leader Junichiro Koizumi became prime minister. The LDP also won a majority in the elections of 2003 and 2005. In 2006, Koizumi resigned as leader of the LDP. His successor as LDP leader, Shinzo Abe, was named prime minister. The LDP's Yasuo Fukuda was made prime minister in September 2007 after the resignation of Abe, whose short time in office was filled with political scandals.

In September 2008, Prime Minister Fukuda announced his resignation and was succeeded by LDP party leader Taro Aso. In August 2009, however, the LDP, which had ruled Japan for almost 54 years (except for 11 months in 1993-94), was defeated in parliamentary elections. The left-of-center Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) was the victor. The DPJ leader, Yukio Hatoyama, became prime minister in September.

U.S. president Barack Obama visited Japan in November 2009 and met with Hatoyama. There were signs that the once-close U.S.-Japanese ties were loosening. A major point of contention between the two countries was a U.S. Marine air base on the Japanese island of Okinawa. The people of Okinawa have long demanded that the air base be removed. U.S. bases occupy almost one-fifth of Okinawa. Okinawans complain about the noise and air pollution from airplanes and about crime.

Hatoyama resigned in June 2010, after only eight months in office. He was the fourth prime minister to step down in four years. A major reason for his resignation was his failure to resolve the Okinawa issue. He was also criticized for his inability to halt the decline of Japan's economy.

Naoto Kan, the finance minister, was elected leader of the DPJ and replaced Hatoyama as prime minister. He promised to end Japan's economic stagnation and reduce its huge government debt. He also said that the Marine air base would be allowed to stay on Okinawa, but that it would be moved to a less populated area of the island. The United States had already agreed to this.

In late 2010, Japan's economy showed a few signs of improvement. With the worldwide recession seeming to end, Japan's industrial production and exports began to rise. And some companies began to hire more workers. But it was feared that Japan's economy would not have a strong recovery. One reason was the huge government debt. Another was that many Japanese held on to their money--they did not spend or invest it.

Also in 2010, tensions increased between Japan and China. In September, the Japanese navy detained the captain of a Chinese fishing boat. The Japanese said that the ship had rammed two Japanese ships in the East China Sea. Japan soon released the captain, but China demanded an apology. China also temporarily halted the export of rare earth minerals to Japan. These minerals are vital in certain industrial processes, and China mines almost all of the world's supply.

Reviewed by Albert M. Craig
Harvard University
Editor, Japan: A Comparative Perspective