Now that we have officially been living in Japan for over a year now, I figured it would be kind of neat to take a look at the country that we have been calling home. During the past year, we have explored and traveled to many cities and islands in and around Japan. It is only now that I realized we never wrote about the specifics of Japan- how big is the country?, what does their flag look like?, how is their government run?, what is daily life like?, etc- we only included the places to which we have been. However, now that we are about to expand our travels to more countries in the Pacific, it will be interesting to be able to take a closer look at our temporary home and see how it differs from other countries we will soon visit, or even from the country we came from, America.
OFFICIAL NAME: Japan
FORM OF GOVERNMENT: Constitutional monarchy with parliamentary government
CAPITAL: Tokyo (also the largest city)
OFFICIAL LANGUAGE: Japanese (the written language uses a combination of three writing systems: katakana, hiragana, & kanji).
MONEY: Japanese yen
AREA: 145,883 square miles (377,835 square kilometers)
MAJOR MOUNTAIN RANGES: Japanese Alps
MAJOR RIVERS: Biwa, Inawashiro, Kasumigaura
NUMBER OF PREFECTURES (PROVINCES): 47
MAIN RELIGIONS: Shinto, Buddhism
Japan is an archipelago, or string of islands, on the eastern edge of Asia. There are four main islands: Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. There are also nearly 4,000 smaller islands! Japan’s nearest mainland neighbors are the Siberian region of Russia in the north and Korea and China farther south.
Almost four-fifths of Japan is covered with mountains. The Japanese Alps run down the center of the largest island, Honshu. The highest peak is Mount Fuji, a cone-shaped volcano considered sacred by many Japanese.
Japan can be a dangerous place. Three of the tectonic plates that form Earth’s crust meet nearby and often move against each other, causing earthquakes. More than a thousand earthquakes hit Japan every year. Japan also has about 200 volcanoes, 60 of which are active.
NATURE The Japanese people have a deep affection for the beauty of the landscape. The ancient Shinto religion says natural features like mountains, waterfalls, and forests have their own spirits, like souls.
Most of Japan is covered by countryside. But with more than 100 million people living in such a small place, wildlife has suffered.
Pollution is now tightly controlled, but road building and other human activities have harmed natural habitats. About 136 species in Japan are listed as endangered.
The warm Tsushima Current flows from the south into the Sea of Japan, where it meets a colder current from the north. The mixing of waters makes the seas around Japan very rich in fish and other sea life.
PEOPLE & CULTURE The Japanese are famous for their willingness to work very hard. Children are taught to show respect for others, especially parents and bosses. They learn to do what’s best for their family or company and worry less about their own needs.
Japanese food is very different from food in Western countries. There is lots of rice, fish, and vegetables, but little meat. With little fat or dairy, this diet is very healthy, which helps Japanese people live, on average, longer than any other people in the world.
GOVERNMENT & ECONOMY
Japan is the only country in the world with a reigning emperor. Emperors have no real power, but they are still revered as a symbol of the country’s traditions and unity.
World War II devastated Japan’s economy. But the Japanese people’s hard work and clever innovation turned it around, making it the second largest economy in the world. Japan’s high-tech industry makes some of the most popular electronic products in the world.
HISTORY People first came to Japan about 30,000 years ago. At the time, the main islands were connected to Siberia and Korea by bridges of dry land, so people crossed on foot. The first society, called the Jomon culture, arose about 12,000 years ago. Around the same time, the Ainu people arrived by boat from Siberia.
The Jomon and Ainu survived for thousands of years, hunting, fishing, and gathering plants. In 300 B.C., the Yayoi people came to Honshu Island from Korea and China. They were skilled weavers, tool makers, and farmers who began cultivating rice in flooded paddy fields.
In 660 B.C., Japan’s first emperor, Jimmu Tenno, came to power. Emperors controlled Japan until the 12th century A.D., when military rulers, called shoguns, took control and ruled by might.
Europeans first arrived in Japan in 1543, bringing guns and Christianity. In 1635, the ruling shogun closed Japan to foreigners and forbade Japanese to travel abroad. This isolation lasted more than 200 years. In 1868, the shoguns were overthrown and emperors returned. This was a time of great change and modernization for Japan.
During World War I (1914-1917), Japan fought on the side of the U.S. But in World War II (1941-1945), Japan’s military leaders fought against the allied forces. In August 1945, the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing about 115,000 people. Japan surrendered a few days later.
- The Japanese name for Japan is “Nihon” or “Nippon” which means “sun origin”.
- Japan belongs to the continent of Asia. Japan is an island nation surrounded by the Sea of Japan to the East and the Pacific Ocean to the West.
- Japan is made up of 6,852 islands.
- The highest point in Japan is Mount Fuji, which stands at 3,776m (12,388ft).
- Japan sits along the “Pacific Ring of Fire”, so has many volcanoes and experiences many earthquakes. In 2011, an earthquake of magnitude 9.0 hit Japan and created a tsunami which resulted in much devastation.
- Almost three quarters of Japan’s land is either forest or mountains and is difficult to be made into farms, industrial or residential areas.
- Human life in Japan dates back thousands of years.
- Ancient warriors of Japan were known as Samurai. They were very skilled fighters and swordsmen. Their main weapon was the Katana, a sharp sword with a slight curve to it.
- Due to gases produced by power plants, Japan sometimes suffers from acid rain.
- Japan is an industrialized nation, producing some of the most technologically advanced motor vehicles, electronics, and machine tools.
- Japan is a world leader in robotics. Japanese engineers are known for producing a range of human-like robots such as ASIMO.
- Some of the most well-known companies in the world are Japanese such as Toyota, Honda, Sony, Nintendo, Canon, Panasonic, Toshiba, and Sharp.
- Japanese cuisine has become popular around the world. Some well-known dishes are sushi, sashimi and tempura.
- Japan is home to many different forms of martial arts. Karate, Judo, Sumo, Ninjutsu, Kendo, Jujutsu, and Aikido to name a few.
- Sumo is recognized as the national sport of Japan, although the most popular spectator sport is baseball.
- Japan hosted the 1940 and 1964 Summer Olympic games, both times in Tokyo. They also hosted the 1940, 1972 and 1998 Winter Olympic Games.
- Four seasons in Japan: spring, summer, fall, & winter.
- Traditional clothing: kimono.
- Education system: Japanese children are required to complete nine years of education (six years of elementary school and three years of middle school). Almost all students (about 98% in 2010) go on to high school.
- Entrance exams play an important part in the education system. Passing these exams lets a child into a certain school or college.
- Japan has a parliamentary form of government with elected representatives who make up the governing body called the Diet. The Diet elects the prime minister, who is the real head of the government.
- Japan has high-speed trains, known as shinkansen or bullet trains, that connect major urban areas.
- In the countryside, called the inaka, life moves at a slower pace than in the cities and follows the changing seasons. In the country are large fields of fruit orchards and rice farms. Japanese grow rice on flat plains and on the steep mountains which are terraced. In the spring, the rice fields are flooded and small rice seedlings are planted. In autumn, rice is harvested, grapes are picked, and persimmons are laid out to dry.
- Home life: Japanese bathrooms are for the bathing area only (no toilets, they have their own separate room); futons are used to sleep on, which are folded up during the day and put away for more room; homes have shoji (wooden screens with rice paper panels) that function as a sliding wall; traditional Japanese tables are low to the ground and diners sit on pillows on the floor (a kotatsu is a low table that has a heater underneath the tabletop for extra warmth in the winter since there is no central heating).
- Serenity and peace are very important to the Japanese. There are various traditions that impart this sense of peace, including tea ceremonies, bonsai, ikebana (flower arranging), and Japanese gardens, recognized all over the world for their beauty and serenity.
- Popular Art: bunraku (Japanese traditional puppet theater) and haiku poems.
- Japanese takeout: A Japanese lunchbox with compartments is called a bento box and is sort of like a lunchbox. Traditional bento boxes are made of lacquered wood, although today you can buy disposable one. A bento box lunch contains rice; vegetable, such as pickled Japanese radish or pumpkin (kabocha); and meat, such as fish or deep-fried pork cutlet (tonkatsu). Garnishes included might be pickled plums (umeboshi) or seaweed.
Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!