Country of the Week: Japan

In Countries by Continental StaffLeave a Comment

This week we’ve journeyed across the world to the island nation of Japan. A unique culture and history make this country a place like nowhere else.

  • Capital (and Largest City): Tokyo
  • Population (2015): 126,865,000 (10th)
  • Total Area: 377,944 km² (62nd)
  • National Language: Japanese
  • Currency: Japanese yen (¥) (JPY)

Tokyo Tower in Japan’s largest city


The story of Japan begins millennia ago, though we know little of the lands ancient history. It wasn’t until the Nara period (710-784), when the Japan we know started to establish itself. This also marked the beginning of strong emperors and an imperial court as well as the creation of many cultural works (art, poetry, etc.) and the introduction of Buddhism.

The Feudal era was known for many iconic aspects of Japanese culture including a dominant warrior class – better known as the samurai. A succession of Shoguns established bases of power, only to be supplanted by challengers – and so on and so forth. The Ashikaga shogunate was able to achieve great success from the 1300’s onwards, however conflict with opposing warlords eventually threw the nation into a civil war, beginning in 1467. What followed was a century long period of warfare, known as the Sengoku period.

Japan began to change in the 16th century, when Jesuit missionaries from Portugal arrived on the country’s shores. The introduction of European weapons (namely firearms) allowed the most powerful of warlords to greatly expand their power – Oda Nobunaga being one such ruler. Tokugawa Ieyasu later established a powerful shogunate in Edo (Tokyo), bringing about a long isolationist period for nearly 250 years.

This all changed in 1854, when the US Navy brought four warships (known as the ‘Black Ships’) into the bay at Edo, and demanded that Japan open up to trade with the rest of the world, or else they would attack. This also marked the end of the samurai, as Japan was once again consolidated under Imperial rule (the rule of an emperor). Known as the Meiji Restoration, this period saw the Empire of Japan grow into a world power – one that began to throw its weight around regionally against China and Russia.

While fighting with the Allies in World War I, Japan was able to greatly increase their land – eventually occupying Manchuria in 1931. This move brought about international condemnation, and eventually Japan signed a pact with Nazi Germany. In 1937, Japan once again invaded China. The capture of Nanjing in particular is remembered for the brutal atrocities committed. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the United States entered World War II, and the Pacific theater was opened. The war was long and brutal, and only ended when the US dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – events that have remained ingrained in the Japanese psyche since.

After the war, the Allies (namely the US) administered the country directly for a time. In 1952, the occupation was ended and Japan began to grow exponentially in the economic sphere, eventually reaching a point as the second largest economy in the world (with numerous scholars postulating that Japan would be the next superpower), this was ended by a mid 90’s recession. While China has since passed it as the second largest economy and Japan itself has suffered from economic stagnation for two decades, recent positive growth under Prime Minister Abe’s so called Abenomics bodes well for the country. Of course, the country has also suffered some recent tragedies, particularly the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. Despite this, Japan remains one of the most developed and advanced countries in the world.


Cherry trees in Tokyo – a well known sight in the country


Japanese culture has been through many different phases, and is now a product of so many different elements that it is hard to define. A long period of isolation, coupled with the forced reopening means there is a mix of traditional Japanese elements and popular Western culture at play here.

Japan is well known for distinctive visual art as well as calligraphy (handwriting). In addition, traditional sculpture work (much of it Buddhist inspired) is a staple of Japanese visual arts.

One of the most well known elements of Japanese culture is the cuisine. The palette is refined and sophisticated, with sushi, tempura, and teriyaki popular both domestically and across the world. The diet is considered extremely healthy, with Japanese lifespans among the highest in the world.

Popular culture from Japan has also found a footing with a global audience. This includes video games, anime, manga, film, music, and more. Thanks to the popularity of pop culture (yeah, I know; kind of obvious), arcades and karaoke are popular establishments for young Japanese to spend time with friends.

Sport is also popular in Japan, with sumo wrestling considered the national sport. Other combat sports such as karate, judo, and kendo are popular throughout the country as well. The most popular spectator sport however is baseball, with the domestic league – Nippon Professional Baseball – considered the second best in the world. Beyond baseball, soccer is popular with the national team among the best in Asia.


A chef preparing sushi – one of the most well known examples of Japanese cuisine


Japan consists of a large archipelago, with four main islands (Home Islands), and thousands of smaller ones. The majority of the country is mountainous, and there is regular volcanic activity in and around the country. These natural hazards, coupled with earthquakes and typhoons present a danger for the country – but has also resulted in Japan being a world leader in the study of these phenomena.

While the country is relatively small, there are a wide variety of different climates within. In fact, they can be categorized into six distinct climatic zones. There’s the humid Hokkaidō, the Sea of Japan, the temperate Central Highland, the mild Seto Inland Sea, the Pacific Ocean, and the subtropical Ryukyu Islands.

There are many large cities in the country, but foremost among them is Tokyo. The metropolitan area that encompasses the city is the most populous in the world. However, the city is actually a conglomeration of different special wards, but the interconnectedness of them makes this the most staggering example of urban landscape in the world.


Mount Fuji seen from across a lake

Did you know?

  • Until this year, it was illegal to partake in late-night dancing in Japan
  • Raw horse meat is popular in the country
  • Sake is an alcoholic drink made from fermented rice
  • Japan and Russia are still technically at war due to the Kuril Islands dispute
  • Karaoke means ‘empty orchestra’
  • Japan produces 60% of the world’s animated TV shows
  • Walking while eating is considered rude
  • Squid is the most popular pizza topping. Eat your heart out pepperoni.
  • There are vending machines with beer
  • The average train delay is only 18 seconds
  • There are more pets than kids in Japan
  • Want a traditional Christmas Eve meal? Get some KFC

Matsumoto Castle – one of the premier examples of traditional Japanese architecture

Last Word

Japan is wondrous country with a long, albeit sometimes dark history. Today, the culture is as vibrant as ever with notes of the familiar and the foreign in equal measure.

Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems. See all of our previous countries here.

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