Japan is an island country in East Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean, it lies to the east of the Sea of Japan, People’s Republic of 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 which make up Japan’s name mean “sun-origin country”, which is why Japan is sometimes identified as the “Land of the Rising Sun“.

Japan comprises over 3,000 islands making it an archipelago (An archipelago is a chain or cluster of islands that is formed tectonically). The largest islands are HonshÅ«, Hokkaidō, KyÅ«shÅ« and Shikoku, together accounting for 97% of Japan’s land area. Most of the islands are mountainous, many volcanic; for example, Japan’s highest peak, Mount Fuji, is a  volcano. Japan has the world’s tenth largest population, with about 128 million people. The 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.

Archaeological research indicates that people were living on the islands of Japan as early as the Paleolithic (late stone age) period (around 30,000 BC). The first written mention of Japan begins with brief appearances in Chinese history texts from the first century A.D. Influence from the outside world followed by long periods of isolation has characterized Japan’s history. Since adopting its constitution in 1947, Japan has maintained a unitary constitutional monarchy with an emperor and an elected parliament, the Diet. (The National Diet of Japan is Japan’s bicameral legislature. It is composed of a lower house, called the House of  Representatives, and an upper house, called the House of Councillors. Both houses of the Diet are directly elected under a parallel voting system. In addition to passing laws, the Diet is formally responsible for selecting the Prime Minister. The Diet was first convened as the Imperial Diet in 1889 as a result of adopting the Meiji constitution. The Diet took its current form in 1947 upon the adoption of the postwar constitution and is considered by the Constitution to be the highest organ of state power. The National Diet Building is located in Nagatachō, Chiyoda, Tokyo.)

Japan’s feudal era was characterized by the emergence of a ruling class of warriors, the samurai. In 1185, following the defeat of the rival Taira clan, Minamoto no Yoritomo was appointed Shogun and established a base of power in Kamakura. After Yoritomo’s death, the Hōjō clan came to rule as regents for the shoguns. Zen Buddhism was introduced from China in the Kamakura period (1185–1333) and became popular among the samurai class. The Kamakura shogunate managed to repel Mongol invasions in 1274 and 1281, aided by a storm that the Japanese interpreted as a   kamikaze, or Divine Wind. The Kamakura shogunate was eventually overthrown by Emperor Go-Daigo, who was soon himself defeated by Ashikaga Takauji in 1336. The succeeding Ashikaga shogunate failed to control the feudal warlords (daimyo), and a civil war erupted (the ÅŒnin War) in 1467 which opened a century-long Sengoku period.

The early twentieth century saw a brief period of “Taisho democracy” overshadowed by the rise of expansionism and militarization. World War I enabled Japan, which joined the side of the victorious Allies, to expand its influence and territorial holdings. Japan continued its expansionist policy by occupying Manchuria in 1931. As a result of international condemnation for this occupation, Japan resigned from the League of  Nations two years later. In 1936, Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact with Nazi Germany, joining the Axis powers in 1941.

In 1937, Japan invaded other parts of China, precipitating the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), after which the United States placed an oil embargo on Japan. On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the United States naval base in Pearl Harbor and declared war on the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. This act brought the United States into World War II. After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, along with the Soviet Union joining the war against it, Japan agreed to an unconditional surrender on August 15 (Victory over Japan Day).

The war cost Japan and countries part of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere millions of lives and left much of the country’s industry and infrastructure destroyed. The Allied powers repatriated millions of ethnic Japanese from colonies throughout Asia. The International Military Tribunal for the Far East, was convened by the Allies (on May 3, 1946) to prosecute some Japanese leaders for war crimes. However, all members of the bacteriological research units and members of the imperial family involved in the conduct of the war were exonerated from criminal prosecutions by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces.

In 1947, Japan adopted a new pacifist constitution emphasizing liberal democratic practices. The Allied occupation ended by the Treaty of San Francisco in 1952 and Japan was granted membership in the United Nations in 1956. Japan later achieved spectacular growth to become the second largest economy in the world, with an annual growth rate averaging 10% for four decades. This ended in the mid-1990s when Japan suffered a major recession. Positive growth in the early twenty-first century has signaled a  gradual recovery.

About 70% to 80% of Japan is forested, mountainous, and unsuitable for agricultural, industrial, or residential use. This is because of the generally steep elevations, climate and risk of landslides caused by earthquakes, soft ground and heavy rain. This has resulted in an extremely high population density in the habitable zones that are mainly located in coastal areas. Japan is one of the most densely populated countries in the world.

Its location on the Pacific Ring of Fire, at the juncture of three tectonic plates, gives Japan frequent low-intensity tremors and occasional volcanic activity. Destructive earthquakes, often resulting in tsunamis, occur several times each century. The most recent major quakes are the 2004 ChÅ«etsu earthquake and the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995. Hot springs are numerous and have been developed as resorts. The hottest temperature ever measured in Japan — 40.9 degrees Celsius — was recorded on August 16, 2007.

Japan is one of the leading nations in the fields of scientific research, particularly technology, machinery and biomedical research. Nearly 700,000 researchers share a US$130 billion research and development budget, the third largest in the world. For instance some of Japan’s more prominent technological contributions are found in the fields of electronics, automobiles, machinery, earthquake engineering, industrial robotics, optics, chemicals, semiconductors and metals. Japan leads the world in robotics production and use, possessing more than half (402,200 of 742,500) of the world’s industrial robots used for manufacturing. It also produced QRIO, ASIMO and AIBO. Japan is the world’s largest producer of automobiles and home to six of the world’s fifteen largest automobile manufacturers and seven of the world’s twenty largest semiconductor sales leaders as of today.

Christianity in Japan

Unknown to even many Japanese, Japan has a long history of Christianity. The usual dating of Japan’s first contact with Christianity is 1549. However, some feel that there is sufficient evidence to claim that Nestorian missionaries arrived in Japan via India, China and Korea in 199 AD and by 400 AD had planted the first churches in Japan.

In the year 1542, the first Europeans from Portugal landed on Kyushu in Western Japan. The two historically most important things they imported to Japan were gunpowder and Christianity. The Japanese barons on Kyushu welcomed foreign trade especially because of the new weapons, and, therefore, tolerated the Jesuit missionaries (a religious order of monks in the Roman Catholic Church). The missionaries were successful in converting quite large numbers of people in Western Japan including members of the ruling class. In 1550, Francis Xavier also undertook a mission to the capital Kyoto. Towards the end of the 16th century, the Jesuits lost their monopoly position in Japan when Franciscan missionaries (also Roman Catholic but a different order) arrived in Kyoto despite a first banning edict by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. In 1597, Hideyoshi proclaimed a more serious banning edict and executed 26 Franciscans in Nagasaki as a warning. Tokugawa Ieyasu and his successors continued the persecution of Christianity in several further edicts.

In 1549, Francis Xavier, a Jesuit priest, arrived in Japan. His stamina, zeal and willingness to suffer resulted in thousands of conversion in just two short years. Unfortunately, the Church soon adopted some extreme methods to advance itself, including the introduction of Buddhist and Shinto religious elements into Christian worship and using feudal lords to coerce their subjects to convert. The shoguns were also eventually persuaded that Christianity was an attempt to soften them up for  European conquest. Added to that, quarrels among rival missionary groups aggravated the situations and as a result, as many as 280,000 Japanese Christians were persecuted and thousands were martyred. In 1626, Christianity was banned in Japan. For the next 250 years, Japan closed its door to the rest of the world.

It was only in the 1800s, when Commandore Perry of the US Navy forced Japan into signing an agreement that Japan’s isolation came to an end. And in 1859 the first 7 Protestant missionaries arrived in Japan.

In 1868, Emperor Meiji worked hard to modernise Japan, importing the latest technological know-how and foreign talents from the West. Japan also sought expansion throughout most of Asia. The defeat of Japan in World War II marks the first time in history when Japan suffered defeat and occupation by a foreign power. Japan was compelled to adopt a democratic constitution (thus ensuring religious freedom), renounce war and ban State Shinto (Emperor worship).

In Japan, there exists many different type of religions. The most famous three religions are Shinto, Buddhism and Christianity. These three religions all contain a large amount of followers. Since these three religions had been introduced to Japan for not less than 4 centuries, they will certainly have some influences in some stages of Japan. Christianity is a western religion’ and it was introduced to Japan when western people first came. So, it is different from the other two popular religions in Japan as it is a pure western concept which was new to the people in earlier Japan.

Today, about one to two million Japanese are Christians (about 1% of Japan’s population). Most of them live in Western Japan where the missionaries’ activities were greatest during the 16th century. However, a few Christian customs have become quite popular also among the non-Christian population. Such customs are the wearing of white dresses at weddings or the celebration of St.Valentine’s Day and, to a certain degree, also include Christmas.

Today’s churches in Japan remain extremely small, with an average attendance of 20 to 30 people on Sunday and most of those who go are women. Christians are a tiny minority in a society where consensus is important and because few families come to faith, individuals feel exposed. Even Christian families face pressures from their communities. Cultural  pressures to conform can come in the form of an obligation to participate in religious festivals and rituals, ancestral worship and in helping to take care of the local shrine.

Throughout her history, Japan has repeatedly rejected Christianity because of her suspicion of this Western influence. While the Christian doctrine cannot be adjusted to suit the Japanese temperament much more can be done to help Japanese own the Christian faith for themselves, incorporating more of their traditions and festivities into their faith and to worship God in their own distinctively Japanese ways.

Politics in Japan

The politics of Japan is in a framework of a parliamentary representative democratic monarchy, where the Prime Minister of Japan is the head of government, and of a multi-party system. Executive power is exercised by the government. Legislative power is vested in both the government and the two chambers of parliament; the Diet with the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors. The Judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature. In academic studies, Japan is generally considered a constitutional monarchy, based largely upon the British system with strong influences from European continental civil law countries such as the German Bundestag. In 1896 the Japanese government established Minpo, the Civil Code, on the French model. With post-World War II modifications, the code remains in effect in present-day Japan.

The Imperial Household of Japan is headed by the Emperor of Japan. The Constitution of Japan defines the emperor to be “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people.” He performs ceremonial duties and holds no real power, not even emergency reserve powers. Power is held mainly by the Prime Minister and other elected members of the Diet. Sovereignty is vested in the Japanese people by the constitution. Though his official status is disputed, on diplomatic occasions the emperor tends to behave (with widespread public support, it should be noted) as though he were a head of state. Japan is the only country in the world headed by an emperor.

The executive branch reports to the Diet. The chief of the executive branch, the Prime Minister (see next page), is appointed by the Emperor as directed by the Diet. He must be a member of either house of the Diet and a civilian. The Cabinet, which he organizes, must also be civilian. Since the Liberal Democratic Party (the LDP) has been in power, it has been convention that the President of the LDP serves as prime minister. The Cabinet is composed of a Prime Minister and ministers of state, and is responsible to the Diet. 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. The liberal conservative party (LDP) has been in power since 1955, except for a short-lived coalition government formed from its opposition parties in 1993; the  largest opposition party is the social liberal Democratic Party of Japan.

 Emperor Akihito:

Akihito is the eldest son and the fifth child of the Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito) – the previous emperor of Japan – and Empress Kōjun (Nagako). Titled Prince Tsugu (継宮,Tsugu-no-miya?) as a child, he was raised and educated by his private tutors and then attended the elementary and secondary departments of the Peers’ School (Gakushuin) from 1940 to 1952. Unlike his precedents in the Imperial Family, he did not receive a commission as an Army officer, at the request from his father, Hirohito.

During the American firebombing raids on Tokyo in March 1945, he and his younger brother, HIH Prince Masahito, were evacuated from the city. During the American occupation of Japan following World War II, Prince Akihito was tutored in English by Elizabeth Gray Vining. He briefly studied at the Department of Political Science at Gakushuin University in Tokyo, though he never received a degree. Although he was Heir-Apparent to the Chrysanthemum Throne from the moment of his birth, his formal Investiture as Crown Prince (立太子礼, Rittaishi-no-rei?) was held at the Kokyo  Imperial Palace on November 10, 1952. In June 1953, Crown Prince Akihito represented Japan at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom.

On April 10, 1959, he married Miss Michiko Shōda (born October 24, 1934), the eldest daughter of Mr. Hidesaburo Shōda, the president and later honorary chairman of Nisshin Flour Milling Company. The new Crown Princess was the first commoner to marry into the imperial family. The Emperor and the Empress have three children.

Prime Minister Taro Aso:

Taro Aso (麻生太郎, Asō Tarō?, born September 20, 1940) is the current Prime Minister of Japan, having taken office on September 24, 2008. He is also President of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and has served in the House of Representatives since 1979. He was Minister for Foreign Affairs from 2005 to 2007, and was Secretary-General of the LDP briefly in 2007 and in 2008. On September 22, 2008, Aso was elected to succeed Yasuo  Fukuda as President of the LDP. On September 24, the Diet elected Aso as Prime Minister.

Aso, a Roman Catholic, was born in Iizuka, Fukuoka. His father, Takakichi Aso, was the chairman of the Aso Cement Company and a close associate of Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka; his mother was Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida‘s daughter. Both Taro and his wife come from family’s with long political histories.

Aso first graduated from the Faculty of Politics and Economics at Gakushuin University. He then studied in the United States at Stanford University, but was cut off by his family, who feared he was becoming too Americanized. After making his way back to Japan on a ship, he left once more to study at the London School of Economics. Aso also spent two years working for a diamond mining operation in Sierra Leone before civil war forced him to return to Japan.

Aso joined his father’s company in 1966, and served as president of the Asō Mining Company from 1973 to 1979. He had distanced himself from the company’s use of forced labor during World War II, but since then has again been embroiled in controversy over the forced labor issue. Working for the company, he lived in Brazil during the 1960s; Aso speaks Portuguese fluently.

Aso was elected as a member of the House of Representatives in October 1979, and has since been re-elected eight times. In 1988, he became Parliamentary Vice Minister for Education.

Other Tid Bits

A major economic power, Japan has the world’s second largest economy by nominal GDP and the third largest in purchasing power parity. It is a member of the United Nations, G8, OECD and APEC, with the world’s fifth largest defense budget. It is also the world’s fourth largest exporter and sixth largest importer. It is a developed country with high living standards (8th highest HDI) and a world leader in technology, machinery, and robotics.

The English word Japan is an exonym. The Japanese names for Japan are Nippon (にっぽん, Nippon?) and Nihon (にほんNihon?). They are both written in Japanese using the kanji 日本. The Japanese name Nippon is used for most official purposes,  including on Japanese money, postage stamps, and for many international  sporting events. Nihon is a more casual term and the most frequently used in contemporary speech.

Both Nippon and Nihon literally mean “the sun’s origin” and are often translated as the Land of the Rising Sun. This nomenclature comes from Imperial correspondence with Chinese Sui Dynasty and refers to Japan’s eastward position relative to China. Before Japan had relations with China, it was known as Yamato and Hi no moto, which means “source of the sun”.

Japan has some of the oldest surviving examples of pottery in the world dating back to 30,000 BC.

Buddhism was first introduced to Japan from Baekje of the Korean Peninsula, but the subsequent development of Japanese Buddhism and Buddhist sculptures were primarily influenced by China. Despite early resistance, Buddhism was promoted by the ruling class and eventually gained growing acceptance since the Asuka period.

Japan is the only country in the world headed by an emperor.

Prime Minister Aso was also a member of the Japanese shooting team at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal and President of the Japan Junior Chamber in 1978.

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