Here are some basic facts about Japan:
Japan is a stratovolcanic archipelago consisting of 6,852 islands, stretching 3,300 kilometers north to south. Japan’s capital, Tokyo, lies at almost the same latitude as Los Angeles. Japan is only 1/25 the size of the United States and is smaller than the state of California.
Japan is comprised of four major islands—Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu—along with the Ryukyu Island Chain, which includes Okinawa. The country is divided into 47 prefectures in 8 regions and has a population of 126 million, the world's tenth largest.
About three-fourths of Japan’s land surface is mountainous. Japan’s highest mountain is Mt. Fuji (3,776 meters) on the border of Yamanashi and Shizuoka prefectures. Japan’s second highest peak is Kitadake in Yamanashi Prefecture, at 3,193 meters, while its joint third-highest peaks are Okuhotakadake at 3,190 meters, on the border between Nagano and Gifu prefectures, and Ainodake at 3,190 meters, on the border between Yamanashi and Shizuoka prefectures.
As it is situated along the circum-Pacific volcanic belt, Japan has several volcanic regions—usually considered to number seven —from the far north to the far south. Though volcanoes can cause great harm through large eruptions, they also contribute an incalculable tourist resource. Touristic areas such as Nikko, Hakone, and the Izu Peninsula, for example, are famous for their hot springs and attractive scenery of volcanic mountains.
As all these volcanoes attest, the Earth’s crust beneath the Japanese archipelago is unstable and full of energy. Thus, Japan is among those countries most likely to suffer from earthquakes. Every year there are approximately 1,000 earthquakes which are strong enough to be felt.
A major feature of Japan’s climate is the clear-cut temperature changes between the four seasons. From north to south, Japan covers a range of latitude of some 25 degrees and is influenced in the winter by seasonal winds blowing from Siberia and in the summer by seasonal winds blowing from the Pacific Ocean. Despite its rather small area, Japan is characterized by four different climatic patterns.
Hokkaido, with a subarctic weather pattern, has a yearly average temperature of 9.45 degrees centigrade and receives an average annual precipitation of about 1,205 millimeters. The Pacific Ocean side of Japan, from the Tohoku region of northern Honshu to Kyushu, belongs to the temperate zone, and its summers are hot, influenced by seasonal winds from the Pacific. The side of the country which faces the Sea of Japan has a climate with much rain and snow, produced when cold, moisture-bearing seasonal winds from the continent are stopped in their advance by the Central Alps and other mountains which run along Japan’s center like a backbone. The southwestern islands of Okinawa Prefecture belong to the subtropical climate zone and have a yearly average temperate of over 22 degrees, while receiving over 2,000 millimeters of precipitation.
Japan has a current population of approximately 126.71 million (as of 2017). Because the country is mountainous, the population density in Japan is nearly ten times greater than in the United States as most people choose to live close to city centers. The Greater Tokyo Area, which includes Tokyo and several surrounding prefectures, is the world's largest metropolitan area with over 35 million residents and the world's largest urban economy.
The Population Census shows that there were 53.33 million households (as of 2015) in Japan. From the 1960s to the early 1980s, Japan experienced an increase in the amount of nuclear and one-person households. Since 1970, the number of household members has been on a steady decline, but the number of households is expected to increase as average household sizes decrease. The number of households consisting of only elderly people has also been on the rise.
Japan has one of the highest average life expectancies in the world, and an aging population. After peaking in 1971, Japan’s marriage rate has fallen to 4.9 marriages per 1000 people in 2017. The average age of marriage has been on a steady rise for the past 20 years, reflecting the fact that more women are pursuing higher education and entering the workforce. There has been an increase in the amount of lifetime non-marriages.
For further reading, see the Statistical Handbook of Japan.
With a varied and vibrant cultural history, Japan is a living mix of the modern and the traditional. Japan boasts numerous art forms—such as theatre, music, and dance—that have been handed down for generations. Traditional cultural arts often embody the values of wabi (elegant stillness) and sabi (antiquated elegance with calm). Many arts, including the performing arts of Kabuki, Noh, and Bunraku, have been designated by UNESCO as forms of intangible cultural heritage.
For more information, please see the following resource: Web Japan - Japan Fact Sheets.
These performing arts encompass many different genres, and each possess a unique history that has continued to the present.
Its origin is said to be a dance called kabuki odori created by a woman named Izumono Okuni in the 16th century. Today, an all-male cast performs Kabuki. Performed on a magnificently colorful stage, it delivers drama that touches the heartstrings of all who view it.
A traditional puppet theatre consisting of puppeteers, musicians, and puppets. Started in the 15th century, its present form was fully established in the 18th century. The plays are wonderful and heartfelt with descriptions of conflict between established ethical ideas and the reality of love and life and turmoil in the emotions of the common folks. It is performed along with a ballad chanting “joruri” to the accompaniment of 3-stringed shamisen instruments.
Noh and Kyogen are two of Japan’s four forms of classical theater, the other two being Kabuki and Bunraku. Noh, which in its broadest sense includes the comic theater Kyogen, developed as a distinctive theatrical form in the 14th century, making it the oldest extant professional theater in the world. Although Noh and Kyogen developed together and are inseparable, they are in many ways exact opposites. Noh is fundamentally a symbolic theater with primary importance attached to ritual and suggestion in a rarefied aesthetic atmosphere. In Kyogen, on the other hand, primary importance is attached to making people laugh.
Composed only of women, the Revue originates in the performance group established for the promotion of the Takarazuka hot springs in the early 1900s. Since that time, the company with its splendid costumes, magnificent songs and dances, as well as plays, has been very popular and the theater has produced countless stars.
For more information, please visit the following website: Takarazuka Revue Official Website
Japanese music derives from an ancient tradition whose folk origins and early influence from the Asian continent are wrapped in the midst of history. It also comprises the associated musical tradition of Okinawa and the autonomous tradition of the Ainu people of Hokkaido.
Gagaku is a type of music, strongly influenced by continental Asian antecedents, which has been performed at the Japanese imperial court for more than a millennium. Gagaku is made up of three bodies of musical pieces: togaku, said to be in the style of the Chinese Tang Dynasty (618–907); komagaku, said to have been transmitted from the Korean peninsula; and music of native composition associated with rituals of the Shinto religion. Also included in gagaku are a small number of regional Japanese folk songs, called saibara, which have been set in an elegant court style.
The short-necked lute (biwa), the zither (koto), and the end-blown flute (shakuhachi) were all introduced from China as early as the 7th century, and were among the instruments used to play gagaku. The shamisen is a three-stringed plucked lute that is a modification of a similar instrument introduced from Okinawa in the mid-16th century. Combinations of these four instruments, along with the transverse flute (shinobue) and small and large drums, comprise the ensembles of traditional Japanese music.
Since the 1970s, the commercial core of J-pop has evolved along two contrasting lines: pop idols and a singer-songwriter genre originally referred to as “new music.” From the last half of 2000s, a new type of desktop music publishing has become popular among professional musicians and amateurs. It uses singing synthesizer software, including Vocaloid such as virtual idol Hatsune Miku, which gets the input of a melody and lyrics and generates the output of synthesized human singing based on a sampled human voice.
Wadaiko, or taiko for short, are traditional Japanese drums. They are used to perform at festivals and other events, infusing them with energy and listeners with excitement. Today, Japanese taiko performances with other instruments and spanning various genres, such as classic and jazz music, are thriving as the instrument finds fans across the world.
The best-known Japanese taiko drum is the nagado-daiko (long-body drum), made from hollowed-out log with both ends capped with cowhide. The largest taiko drums are called o-daiko, some of which are greater than one meter in diameter. Wadaiko are played using wooden sticks known as bachi. When hit hard with bachi, taiko can produce sounds topping 130 decibels, a sound level that is on a par with the noise produced by jet airplanes. Outside, such sounds can be heard over a distance of several kilometers. In fact, in ancient Japan, such taiko drumming was even used to signal soldiers on the battlefield.
Taiko as an art continues to evolve, transcending its place in Japanese traditional performing arts and being performed in a variety of musical arrangements ranging from orchestras to rock concerts.
Green tea is made and served in accordance with traditional etiquette for receiving guests. Tea ceremony is a composite art. The tea host or hostess may spend decades mastering not only the measured procedures for serving tea in front of guests, but also learning to appreciate art, crafts, poetry, and calligraphy; learning to arrange flowers, cook, and care for a garden; and at the same time instilling in himself or herself grace, selflessness, and attentiveness to the needs of others. A full-length formal tea ceremony involves a meal (chakaiseki) and two servings of tea (koicha and usucha) and lasts approximately four hours, during which the host engages his whole being in the creation of an occasion designed to bring aesthetic, intellectual, and physical enjoyment and peace of mind to the guests.
The objective of a tea gathering is that of Zen Buddhism—to live in this moment—and the entire ritual is designed to focus the senses so that one is totally involved in the occasion and not distracted by mundane thoughts.
Also known as ikebana, kado is the art of cutting seasonal flowers and plants, putting them in flower bases, and expressing and appreciating the precious value of their life and beauty. There are many schools of kado, each with its own style. The relationship between the materials; the style of the arrangement; the size, shape, texture, volume, and color of the container; and the place and occasion for its display are all vitally important factors. In its 500-year history, there have been a wide range of forms, from modest pieces for home decoration to vast landscapes and innovative sculptural works that can fill an entire exhibition hall. Along with the enormous variety of contemporary work, traditional forms continue to be studied and created.
The practice of ikebana has been pursued as a form of meditation on the passage of the seasons, time, and change, due to its strong connection to the natural cycle of birth, growth, decay, and rebirth.
The educational system of Japan is comprised fundamentally of six years of elementary school, three years of junior high school, three years of high school, and two or four years of university. Elementary and junior high school attendance is compulsory. There are also kindergartens (attended by children aged 3 and above, prior to entering elementary school), five-year technical colleges for junior high-school graduates, special training schools for junior-high- and high-school graduates, and special schools for handicapped persons. Universities include undergraduate colleges, junior colleges, and graduate schools.
The Japanese school system begins with six years of elementary education, three years of junior-high school education and three years of high-school education. For most elementary, junior high, and high schools, the school year in Japan begins on April 1 and is divided into three terms: April to July, September to December, and January to March. Some schools follow a two-term schedule. The gradual transition from a six-day school week to a five-day week was completed in 2002. Many private schools, however, continued to hold Saturday classes, and in recent years some public high schools have obtained special permission to reintroduce Saturday classes to give them more time to cover the necessary subjects.
Although they are not part of the core educational system, academic tutoring schools (gakushujuku) and cram schools (yobiko) also play a significant role in education in Japan. The cram schools focus strictly on preparing students for university entrance examinations. The academic tutoring schools have a more general goal of helping students keep up with and go beyond their regular school work, although exam preparation is frequently emphasized.
For further reading, please see the following websites: Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.
There is no substitute for the personal and professional growth provided by living and studying in Japan. According to the Open Doors Data collected by the Institute of International Education, the number of American students studying abroad in Japan has been increasing since 2011 with about 7000 American students studying abroad in Japan during the 2015-2016 academic year.
Here are a list of resources for educators and those interested in learning more about Japanese culture. Some of these are provided by the JICC, Embassy of Japan, others are provided by other organizations and are not sponsored by the Government of Japan.
The Constitution of Japan, which came into effect in 1947, is based on the principles of popular sovereignty, respect for fundamental human rights, and the advocacy of peace. Japan’s political system is one of constitutional democracy. In accordance with the principle of “separation of powers,” the activities of the national government are formally divided into legislative, judicial, and executive organs.
The emperor is “the symbol of the State and unity of the people.” The emperor appoints the prime minister and chief judge of the Supreme Court as designated by the Diet, and performs “only such acts in matters of state” as provided for in the constitution along with the advice and approval of the cabinet, such as promulgation of amendments of the constitution, laws, cabinet orders and treaties, convocation of the Diet, dissolution of the House of Representatives, and so forth.
The Constitution of Japan proclaims a system of representative democracy in which the Diet is “the highest organ of state power.” It is formally specified that the Diet, as the core of Japan’s system of governance, takes precedence over the government’s executive branch. The designation of the prime minister, who heads the executive branch, is done by resolution of the Diet. Japan practices a system of parliamentary cabinet by which the prime minister appoints the majority of the cabinet members from among members of the Diet. The cabinet thus works in solidarity with the Diet and is responsible to it. In this respect, the system is similar to that of Great Britain, but different from that of the United States, where the three branches of government are theoretically on a level of perfect equality.
The National Diet, the Japanese parliament, is the highest organ of state power and the sole legislative organ of the state in Japan. It has two branches, consisting of the House of Representatives and the House of Councilors. The House of Representatives takes precedence over the House of Councilors in passing laws,. acting on the budget, ratifying treaties, and designating the prime minister. Business cannot be transacted in either house unless a quorum of one-third of the total membership is present. All matters must be decided by either a simple majority of those present or, in some special cases, a two-thirds majority
The cabinet, in which the nation’s supreme executive power is vested, exercises control and supervision over the various administrative organs of the government. Under Japan’s parliamentary cabinet system, the cabinet depends on the confidence of the Diet, to which it is collectively responsible. The prime minister is elected from among Diet members by a Diet resolution. The prime minister, who heads the cabinet, has the right to appoint and dismiss ministers of state (kokumu daijin) who make up the cabinet.
Established by the constitution, the Supreme Court is Japan’s highest judicial organ. The independent standing of the judicial branch of government is protected, and the constitution stipulates that “no disciplinary action against judges shall be administered by any executive organ or agency.” According to article 6 of the constitution, “the Emperor shall appoint the Chief Judge of the Supreme Court, as designated by the Cabinet,” while the cabinet directly appoints the other 14 Supreme Court judges. Under Japan’s three-tiered court system, a decision handed down in the court of first instance can be appealed to a superior court and finally to the Supreme Court.
Linguistically, Japan is a nearly homogenous nation and most of the population uses the same language. This means that the Japanese language is the ninth most spoken language in the world. However, the language is spoken in scarcely any region outside Japan
A major difference from English is that Japanese follows a subject-object-verb sentence pattern. Also, Japanese has no stress accent: equal stress is given each syllable. And whereas English syllables are sometimes elongated, in Japanese, strings of syllables are spoken with the regularity of a metronome. Like English, Japanese does have a system of high and low pitch accents.
A large number of local dialects are still used in spoken Japanese. Whereas standard Japanese, which is based on the speech of Tokyo, has been gradually spreading throughout the country under the influence of media such as radio, television, and movies, the dialects spoken by the people of Kyoto and Osaka, in particular, continue to flourish and maintain their prestige.
The first Japanese writing system was adapted from that of China sometime in the fifth or sixth century. This writing system, called kanji, consists of pictures (or logograms) that represent words or ideas. Since these characters were originally from the Chinese language, they could not accommodate the different sounds and words found in Japanese. Thus, two other writing systems called hiragana and katakana were developed. Today, Japanese people must learn kanji, hiragana, and katakana in order to read and write everyday Japanese.
It is customary for Japanese to be written or printed in vertical lines that are read from top to bottom. The lines begin at the righthand side of the page, and so ordinary books usually open from what would be the back of a Western-language book. Exceptions are books and periodicals devoted to special subjects—scientific and technical matter— which are printed in horizontal lines and read from left to right. Nowadays there is a tendency to print books in horizontal lines. These publications open in the same way as their Western counterparts.
Kanji are originally Chinese characters that use a number of strokes to represent words, which can combine to express further ideas or concepts. They often have several pronunciations, and the correct one is determined by the surrounding characters. Today, Japanese people must learn about 2,000 kanji for literacy, though traditional texts, proper names, and technical writing show as many as 50,000 kanji in existence. By sixth grade, students are expected to read and write approximately 1,000 kanji.
The other two writing systems, hiragana and katakana, are phonetic scripts, both made up of 48 characters. Each character represents a different sound consisting of a consonant plus a vowel, a consonant cluster plus a vowel, or just a vowel. Hiragana can be used to write any Japanese word, while katakana is mainly used for loan words such as konpyuutaa (computer) or hanbaagaa (hamburger), as well as foreign names and places.
Over the past 40 years, the number of Japanese language learners, teachers, and Japanese-teaching institutions in the United States has increased significantly. Since 2012 alone, the number of Japanese language learners increased by 9.7% (2015). Most Japanese language learners are located on the East and West coast, but almost every state offers some sort of Japanese language education.