Japan - A Country Overview

Information on Japan; its place geographically, history, government, climate, security, tourism and foreigners living in Japan...


Japan is the world's 61st largest country with a landmass of 377,930 Km2. As an archipelago landmass, it consists of four main islands: Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, as well as over 4,000 smaller islands and island groups.

The capital of Japan is Tokyo and the Greater Tokyo area is the largest metropolitan area in the world with an estimated 30 million inhabitants.


Japan's first hunter-gatherers occupants of Japan are estimated to have been present as early as the Upper Paleolithic period in about 30,000 BC. Around 500 BC saw the rise of the Yayoi period and the introduction of farming techniques and pottery to the region.

In the eighth century during the Nara period, a strong Japanese state emerged centred in the city of Nara. Following an outbreak of smallpox that killed an estimated 33 percent of the population, the Emperor Kammu moved the capital to Kyoto. This marked the beginning of the Heian period where indigenous Japanese culture flourished, forming the basis of today's society.

The Feudal era began in the 12th century and was characterised by warring Shoguns and a ruling class of warriors, the samurai. Following the successful repelling of marauding Mongol invaders and the changing of power between succeeding emperors, the country fell into civil war in the 15th century. This ushered in a century of fighting between feudal warlords and their states on the islands.

It was the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century that initiated cultural and commercial exchange between Japan and the West. Using Western technology and firearms, warlord Oda Nobunaga, and later Toyotomi Hideyoshi, successfully re-united Japan.

In 1603, Leyasu was appointed Shogun and established the Tokugawa Shogunate at what is now known as Tokyo. There followed an extensive period of "closed country" policy for over two and a half centuries.

In 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry successfully negotiated the Convention of Kanagawa that saw the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate opened up to the US Navy. This act gave the West a foothold in Japan and led to an economic and political crisis within the country. After the resignation of the Shogunate and the ensuing Boshin War, Japan was centralised under Emperor Meiji and parliament was formed under a Western guise.

In the latter years of the 19th century, Japan conquered Taiwan, Korea and the southern half of Sakhalin before benefiting from an Allied victory in the First World War and invading Manchuria in 1931. Following its resignation from the League of Nations and joining the Axis powers in 1941, Japan engaged in an eight-year war with China in the second Sino-Japanese war of 1937-1945.

Following its defeat at the end of World War II, Japan adopted a pacifist constitution and joined the United Nations in 1956. Throughout the second half of the 20th century Japan enjoyed spectacular economic growth to become one of the largest economies in the world.

Politics and Government

Japan is governed by a unitary constitutional monarchy with an emperor and a parliament called the Diet. The power of the Emperor is very limited and as such he is considered more of a ceremonial figurehead. At the present time, Emperor Akihito is the head of state.

The Diet consists of a democratically elected House of Representatives with 480 seats and a House of Councillors with 242 seats. These serve four- and six-year terms respectively. The head of government is the prime minister who is appointed by the emperor.

Every Japanese citizen over the age of 20 has the right to vote.


Embracing a free-market economy, Japan's economy has flourished since the 1960s. Today, Japan is the second largest global economy in terms of Gross Domestic Product and the third largest in terms of purchasing power parity. Japan leads the world in innovation and scientific research.

The labour force is approximately 67 million, with employment across a number of sectors.

Japan has a strong industrial sector with the manufacturing and development of vehicles, electronics, machine tools, chemicals, metal, ships and textiles all contributing to its long list of exports. Japan's main export destinations are China, the USA, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

As well as manufacturing, Japan's agriculture is also strong: approximately 13 percent of its land mass is cultivated; there is a yearly fish catch of 15 percent of the world's total; and the service sector accounts for three-quarters of annual GDP.

With a low unemployment rate and the highest per hour salary in the world according to the Big Mac Index, Japan is considered the most developed nation in Asia. It currently ranks at number 18 in the global Ease of Doing Business Index.

Japan's currency is the yen.


Japan's climate differs widely from north to south and features three distinct zones: humid subtropical climate in the majority of the country, humid continental climate in the north and inland areas, and a sub-Arctic climate in mountainous parts of the northern island of Hokkaido. Weather conditions for each season are very distinct.

The north of the country has very long, cold winters and mild summers with little rain. In the west, off the Honshu coast, there is often heavy snowfall in the winter.

Inland there are vast temperature differences between summer and winter.

The Pacific coast experiences cold to mild winters with long hot, humid summers while the Ryukyu Islands have warm winters and hot summers.

There is an annual rainy season that starts in Okinawa in the south in May and moves north before reaching Hokkaido in late July. Typhoons are common in late summer and early autumn.


Japan is a stable parliamentary democracy with few security concerns. It is however advisable for those wishing to visit Japan to check before travelling:


Although largely homogenous, Japan has an aging population and a diminishing work force. It is predicted that the total population of the country will begin to diminish over time. As such, immigrants are likely to be the source of a supplementary work force.

As of 2003, it was estimated that there were only 136,000 expatriates from the west living in Japan.


There was a peak of 8.3 million visitors to Japan in 2008 and it is a country that combines tradition and modernity in equal measure. There are many things for the tourist to see and do including visiting one of 14 UNESCO World Heritage sites, or many of Japan's thousands of cities. Main attractions include arguably the biggest city in the world - Tokyo; Hiroshima has a large port and was the first city to be destroyed by an atomic bomb; Sapporo is famous for its Snow Festival; and Kyoto is the ancient capital of Japan with Buddhist shrines and historical monuments.

With festivals, long beaches, mountainous regions, countless islands and jungles, Japan has a huge variety of activities and trips available for tourists. Other attractions include Mount Fuji, the Shiretoko National Park and the UNESCO World Heritage site at Yakushima.