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Japan, the world's second-largest economy, consists of more than 3,000 islands off the coasts of Korea and China. It is one of the world's most densely populated countries and its capital Tokyo is home to more than 30 million people, making it today's largest metropolitan area. Japan is also home to the longest unbroken royal family line in the world.

Japan is divided in 4 main islands: Kyûshû, Shikoku, Honshu and Hokkaidô, which comprise more than 90 percent of the nation’s land. Among these, Honshu is the largest, often referred to as the mainland.

After it's wartime years, Japan's economy experienced tremendous growth with assistance from the United States.


Archaeological evidence dates human habitation on the islands of Japan to the Paleolithic period, somewhere around 35,000 BC. Among them, the Jomon and the Ainu are the most common of indigenous peoples. Some of the oldest utilitarian craft comes from Japan, including pottery dating to around 14,000 BC. In fact, the Jomon are often credited as having created the earliest known examples of pottery. More recently, dwellings preserved in ice have been discovered and dated back to around 9,000 BC.

Arts and crafts took on new forms during the Yayoi Period, from around 300 BC to 250 AD. Rice farming became the primary agricultural resource, and the earliest evidence of spiritual practice came in the form of shamanism.

Chinese explorers began traveling to Japan in the first century AD, arriving in the southern island of Kyushu. Archaeological evidence shows the mingling of Japanese and Chinese design, both in dwellings and household items.

The earliest recognizable form of government, the Yamato State, came around the 3rd century, known as the Kofun period, and lasted until the early 500s. Asuka, near modern day Nara, became the capital. During this time, Buddhism was introduced to Japan by way of Korea. The roots of Japanese military were founded, and an alliance developed with the Baekje of southern Korea. The result was a blending of cultural strengths and Japan was introduced to the Chinese system of writing as well as new techniques for developing pottery and tools.

According to historical records, Japan’s Imperial family cemented their role during this era, with the founding of the Yamato Court, even though the first emperor, Jimmu, is believed to have been born in 711 BC. According to tradition, Emperor Jimmu was descended directly from the sun goddess, and had three sons, founding the dynasty. He is interred in Kashihara, Nara Prefecture.

The Asuka period lasted from 538 through 710 AD, and is commonly associated with strong growth in politics and the arts. The Yamato Court unified the clans, further reinforcing the Imperial hold over the nation. Drawing heavily on the Confucian politics of China, the ideals defining the behavior of Japanese citizens and government were laid down under Prince Shotoku in 604.

The Nara period, from 710 through 794 AD, saw the founding of the capital in Heijo-kyo, in present day Nara. The era is characterized by strong agricultural interests and the development of documenting the nation’s history. Literature flourished, but was primarily political in nature. However, an early form of poetry known as waka evolved. The influence of literacy on this age is also seen in the development of Japanese characters. Until this time Chinese characters were used exclusively.

By the end of the Nara period, the capital had nearly 200,000 residents. A system of taxation developed, and Nara began building roads to connect the center of government with provincial villages. The earliest form of minted currency was created, though it wasn’t very popular at the time.

The Fujiwara clan also began asserting influence over the Imperial family, often marrying into the royal line. Under Emperor Shomu and his Fujiwara consort, Buddhism became the official state religion. Emperor Shomu commissioned the construction of Todai-li (Eastern Great Temple) in 743. Buddhism gained prominence over the remainder of the period, and saw the construction of many temples, notably the monastery of Mt. Hiei, north of Kyoto.

The Heian period, from 794 through 1185, is the last great era of Imperial influence in the classical period. The influence of the Fujiwara nobles saw a proliferation of the arts, and resulted in such works as the Tale of Genji, often cited as the world’s first literary classic, dating to the 10th century. The story recounts the life of a fictional prince of the house of Genji, often said to be inspired by the life of Minamoto no Toru, a grandson of Emperor Saga.

It was during the Heian period that the roots of the now famous samurai warrior were planted. By the end of the 12th century, the three dominant military houses were the Minamoto and the Taira, both descended from the Imperial line, and the Fujiwara. The struggle for dominance led to civil war, primarily between the Minamoto and Taira. Power passed from one house to another, coming to a head with the Gempei war of 1180-1185. The Minamoto, under the rule of Minamoto no Yoritomo, was victorious and the Taira was all but wiped out. Over the next few years, the Minamoto gained power and influence over the court, which led to the founding of the Kamakura Shogunate in 1192.

Basically, the power to govern the country was held by the Minamoto warriors and the Imperial family became little more than figureheads, symbols of national pride and relegated to ceremonial duties. As the head of the Minamoto clan, Minamoto no Yoritomo received the title of Shogun, and changed the course of Japan forever. Under his rule, the warrior class rose to the top of the social order, and ruled from the city of Kamakura. During this age, the Japanese sword evolved into the now distinctive katana, the sword most often associated with the samurai class. The techniques used to forge the katana are in use to this day. During the late Kamakura period, Mongol warlord Kublai Khan attempted to invade Japan. The first invasion met with little resistance, but storm conditions forced the invaders to flee the island of Kyushu, where they had landed at Hakata Bay. Making use of their smaller and more agile vessels, the samurai set after the Mongol armies, defeating them on their own ships. They returned to Japan in 1281, but were unable to secure a base on land. A fortunately timed typhoon now called “kamikaze” (meaning divine wind) sank much of the Mongol horde. The Kamakura period lasted until 1333, when the Imperial family began fighting for control.

The Muromachi period was characterized by the rise of the Ashikaga clan and, towards the end, civil war. In 1334, Emperor Go-Daigo claimed the throne with the help of Ashikaga Takauji. Tension arose between Ashikaga and the Emperor, leading to a samurai uprising and the banishment of Go-Daigo in 1336. Ashikaga Takauji founded the Ashikaga shogun ate in 1338, which would last until the late 1500s. Rule was based in the Muromachi district of Kyoto, and saw renewed trade with mainland China.

The Ashikaga shogunate fell during the Onin War, lasting from 1467-1488. Civil unrest lead to the rising of several provincial lords (daimyo) against the shogun. The following period became known as the Sengoku period, or Warring States period, and saw the rise of several samurai clans, further disrupting national unity.

The mid 1500s saw the first European explorers arrive in southern Kyushu. The Portuguese landed in 1543, followed by the Spanish and began substantial trade relations. Important European imports such as firearms were traded for gold and silver. Christianity also came to Japan in the 16th century, finding many converts. Towards the end of the 1500s, however, the faith fell into a bad light. The earliest proscriptions against Christianity were established in 1587.

In the mid 1500s, Oda Nobunaga, from Owari province, began gaining ground in the unification of Japan. Over the next three decades, Oda became one of the most important figures of the day, defeating many opponents and winning many battles. He began to exert influence over the Ashikaga shogunate, and around 1568 marched on Kyoto. In 1570, Oda struck an important alliance with Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Oda’s rise to power was marked by extreme measures. In 1571 he would go so far as to attack the Buddhist monastery of Enryaku-ji on Mt. Hiei, known for its powerful warrior monks, burning it to the ground.

By 1573, the Ashikaga shogunate was defeated, but the battle was far from over. Oda faced, Uesugi Kenshin, one of the greatest generals of the Sengoku era. Oda suffered defeat in 1577 in the Battle of Tedorigawa. Uesugi died shortly after the clash, and Oda turned the situation to his advantage. By the 1580s, there were few obstacles to Oda’s dominance.

In 1582, however, Oda ally Akechi Mitsuhide surprised the warlord by switching sides during a stay at Honno-ji, in Kyoto. The temple was surrounded by traitors, cutting off Oda‘s support. Oda Nobunaga, seeing imminent defeat, lit on the temple on fire and committed suicide. His successor, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, caught up with Mitsuhide at Yamazaki (now part of Kyoto), who fled to near by Ogurusu where he is said to have been killed by a peasant wielding a spear.

By 1590, Hideyoshi had unified all of Japan, ending more than a century of civil war and bringing an end to the Sengoku period. Hideyoshi’s story is also remarkable in that he was born in relative poverty, in a time when it was unheard of for a person to rise above his social standing, yet by the end of his life had become the most powerful man in the nation. His rule is notable for, among other things, heavy social restructuring, the beginning of the banishment of Christian missionaries, forbidding peasants to own weapons (many confiscated swords were melted down to create a statue of Buddha) and failed invasions of Korea.

After his death in 1598, former ally Tokugawa Ieyasu rose against the Hideyoshi clan. The conflict came to a head at the Battle of Sekigahara, in the fall of 1600. Tokugawa Ieyasu was victorious, and founded the Tokugawa shogunate, which would last until the mid 19th century.

During this time, the capital was moved to Edo, now Tokyo, and the nation entered more than two centuries of relative isolation. Western influence was restricted, especially that of Christian missionaries, and the social structure refined. The warrior class was dominant but the years of peace left many samurai unemployed. Many became merchants, artisans or retreated to monasteries. Those who remained samurai began to develop a new form of warrior ethics, now known as Bushido.

New forms of artistic expression evolved, including ukiy-o wood-block prints and kabuki theater. The Edo period was characterized by a rigid class structure and a shift from military exploits to building a powerful nation. In the early years of the Tokugawa shogunate, only about 5% of the population made up the ruling class.

Tokugawa rule came to an end in the 1860s, when samurai from the southern provinces of Satsuma and Choshu rose up against an increasingly corrupt and flawed government. The arrival of Commodore Perry led Japan to open ports to foreign trade, effectively ending two and a half centuries of seclusion. Many Japanese felt the shogunate had lost its strength and was coming under the influence of foreigners. The westernization of Japan left many feeling uneasy, and warriors and peasants alike began to support the Imperial family as a symbol of national unity and pride.

By the end of 1867, the government had been defeated, largely by the efforts of the Satsuma and Choshu uprising led by such notable figures as Saigo Takamori. Saigo has since become a national hero, and has been immortalized in sculpture (a statue of Saigo stands on the grounds of Ueno Park in Tokyo) and film (Saigo was the inspiration for the samurai leader Katsumoto in the Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai).

The last Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, resigned in 1867. Power to rule was returned to Crown Prince Mutsuhito, now known as the Emperor Meiji, and within one year samurai influence came to an end. The government was restructured under His Imperial Majesty the Emperor, who began modernizing the nation by importing technological advancements of the west.

By the end of the century, Japan was at war again, this time with China. The Sino-Japanese war was fought for control over the Korean Peninsula. The war showed the strength of the new Imperial army, and secured the country’s status as a modern world power.

An alliance was struck between Japan and Great Britain in 1902, largely out of a desire to end Russian expansion. In 1904, Japan went to war with Russia. The Russo-Japanese war was also fought over the control of Korea and Manchuria, and Japan was once again victorious. The ease with which Japan defeated the Russian forces surprised much of the world, and marked the first time a western power was defeated by an Asian army.

The national identity prospered during the early years of the 20th century. Japan entered the First World War expanding its influence by fighting German occupation in Asia. In 1919, the nation was invited to the Palace of Versailles, in Paris, France, for the signing of several peace treaties signaling the end of the war. Japan was seen as one of the world’s great military and industrial powers, and joined the League of Nations.

Things began to change, however, when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931. The world was shocked, and Japan was forced to resign from the League of Nations. By the end of the decade, the nation had allied itself with the growing powers of Germany and Italy, and began to prepare for war with the West. When the United States enforced a trade embargo on products such as iron, essential to wartime construction, in 1940, Japan began to prepare for war with America. Many felt the war would end in defeat, but would reopen trade and secure the nation’s status as a world power. After several failed attempts to reach compromise, Japan launched a surprise attack on Pear Harbor, on the island of Oahu, Hawaii in 1941.

The US retaliated with a full scale attack. The Japanese army was divided between protecting the homeland and invading mainland Asia, and suffered at the hands of the American military. On August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima leveled 1.6 km (1 mile) worth of the city, killing 70,000 residents. About 90% of the city’s buildings were either damaged or completely destroyed. By 1950, almost 200,000 had died from illness related to the bombing. On August 9, 1945, another atomic bomb was dropped, this time over Nagasaki resulting in as many as 80,000 deaths. On August 17, 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender, which became official on September 2 on US Naval ship the USS Missouri.

The United States would oversee national politics for many years, under the Supreme Commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Japan would become a powerful ally during the cold war, and began to regain its independence. A new form of legislature was introduced in the form of the Japanese Diet, and enacted a new constitution in May of 1947. By 1952, Japan had regained sovereignty, though the United States still extended influence over some of the islands, finally returning the last Japanese rule in 1972.

Post War Japan saw the national interest return to building a strong economy. Construction and technology became the leading industries, and by the 1980s had developed the second largest economy in the world, behind only the United States. Japan made particular gains in the automotive and electronics sectors, which became the nation’s primary exports.

The Heisei era began with the ascension of Prince Akihito in 1989. The economy suffered somewhat during the 1990s, when the economic bubble burst. The trouble did not last long, and soon the country would support a strong Yen, low interest rates and heavy exports. In 1995, the nation was shocked by the most dramatic attack on the Japanese public since the end of the Second World War, when a local cult known as Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas on the Tokyo subway, killing 12 and injuring more than 1,000. Exact motivations for the attack is unclear, but is generally attributed to dissatisfaction with governmental policies.

Japan began to assert renewed military power, first supporting the Gulf War and then sending the largest deployment since the Second World War to help in the rebuilding of Iraq in 1991, and again in 2004.

In 1997, the former capital of Kyoto played host to a conference of world leaders to discuss the growing problem of pollution and greenhouse gasses. The result is known as the Kyoto Protocol, and has been adopted by nearly 200 countries. The country also enjoys an increase in tourism, heavily promoting its long held traditions and unique culture.


Major Islands:


Major Cities: Capital: Tokyo


Climate: Tropical weather depending on which end of Japan you're in. It gets warm in the south and quite cool in the north.

Currency: Japanese Yen

Languages: Japanese and English

Power: 100 V, 50 Hz and 60 Hz

Time Zone: UTC + 9

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Ryokan - Traditional Japanese inns are a welcoming alternative to Western style hotels that make a very un-Japanese use of space, engendering very expensive accomodation on the densely populated archipelago. Ryokan range in price from extremely conservative to lavishly expensive, but the former abound and offer a unique point of view into Japanese aesthetics. Rooms usually have tatami mat flooring, minimal furniture, futons for sleeping, and the omnipresent tea maker. Bathrooms are also usually shared and not within the room, but remain clean. They are especially popular in traditional cities, e.g. Kyoto, but are found in modern areas as well.


Jennifer Morrell's Travel Story

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