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Atlas Japan

Country (long form)
Total Area
145,882.91 sq mi
377,835.00 sq km
126,549,976 (July 2000 est.)
Estimated Population in 2050
99% total, N/A% male, N/A% female (1970 est.)
observe both Shinto and Buddhist 84%, other 16% (including Christian 0.7%)
Life Expectancy
77.51 male, 84.05 female (2000 est.)
Government Type
constitutional monarchy
GDP (per capita)
$23,400 (1999 est.)
Labor Force (by occupation)
trade and services 65%, industry 30%, agriculture, forestry, and fishing 5%
among world's largest and technologically advanced producers of motor vehicles, electronic equipment, machine tools, steel and nonferrous metals, ships, chemicals; textiles, processed foods
rice, sugar beets, vegetables, fruit; pork, poultry, dairy products, eggs; fish
Arable Land
motor vehicles, semiconductors, office machinery, chemicals
fuels, foodstuffs, chemicals, textiles, office machinery
Natural Resources
negligible mineral resources, fish
Current Environmental Issues
air pollution from power plant emissions results in acid rain; acidification of lakes and reservoirs degrading water quality and threatening aquatic life; Japan is one of the largest consumers of fish and tropical timber, contributing to the depletion of these resources in Asia and elsewhere
Telephones (main lines in use)
60.3 million (1997)
Telephones (mobile cellular)
36.5 million (1998)
Internet Service Providers (ISPs)
357 (1999)

Japan's earliest settlers were fishers, hunters and gatherers who slogged over the land bridges from Korea to the west and Siberia to the north. It's also thought that seafaring migrants from Polynesia were part of the ethnic blend. By AD 300, the sun-worshipping Yamato kingdom had loosely unified the nation through conquest and alliance. Buddhism was introduced from China in the mid-6th century and soon became the state religion. Rivalry between Buddhism and Shinto, the traditional religion of Japan, was diffused by presenting Shinto deities as manifestations of Buddha.

With the empire more or less stable, particularly after the conquest of the indigenous Ainu in the 9th century, Japan's emperors began to devote more time to leisure and scholarly pursuits and less time to government. Important court posts were dominated by the noble but corrupt Fujiwara family. Out in the provinces, a new power was on the rise: the samurai, or warrior class, readily turned to arms to defend its autonomy, and began to muscle in on the capital, Heian (modern-day Kyoto). The Taira clan briefly eclipsed the Fujiwara, and were ousted in turn by the Minamoto family in 1185. After assuming the rank of shogun (military leader), Minamoto Yoritomo set up his HQ in Kamakura, while the emperor remained the nominal ruler in Kyoto. This was the beginning of a long period of feudal rule by successive samurai families which lingered until imperial power was restored in 1868.

The feudal centuries can be clunkily split into five main periods. The Kamakura Period (1185-1333) saw repeated invasions by Kublai Khan's Mongol armies. Japan managed to stave off the Mongols, but a weakened leadership lost the support of the samurai. Emperor Go-Daigo presided over the beginning of the Muromachi Period (1333-1576), until a revolt masterminded by the disgruntled warrior Ashikaga Takauji saw him flee to the hills. Ashikaga and his descendants ruled with gradually diminishing efficiency and Japan slipped into civil war and chaos. The various factions were pacified and unified during the Momoyama Period (1576-1600) by Oda Nobunaga and his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The quick spread of Christianity during the Christian Century (1543-1640) was tolerated at first, then ferociously quashed as the interloping religion came to be seen as a threat. During the Tokugawa Period (1600-1867), Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated Hideyoshi's young heir and set up his headquarters at Edo (now Tokyo). The emperor continued to exercise purely nominal authority in Kyoto while the Tokugawa family led Japan into a period of national seclusion. Japanese were forbidden to travel overseas or to trade abroad and foreigners were placed under strict supervision. The rigid emphasis of these times on submitting unquestioningly to rules of obedience and loyalty has lasted, some would say, to the present day.

By the turn of the 19th century, the Tokugawa government was stagnant and corrupt. Foreign ships started to probe Japan's isolation with increasing insistence, and famine and poverty weakened support for the government. In 1868 the ruling shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, resigned and Emperor Meiji resumed control of state affairs, seeing Japan through a crash course in Westernisation and industrialisation. In 1889 Japan created a Western-style constitution, the tenets of which seeped into national consciousness along with a swing back to traditional values. Japan's growing confidence was demonstrated by the ease with which it trounced China in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-5) and Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5). Under Meiji's son, Yoshihito, Japan sided with the Allies in WWI. Rather than become heavily involved in the conflict, however, Japan took the opportunity, through shipping and trade, to expand its economy at top speed. Emperor Hirohito ascended to the throne in 1926. A rising tide of nationalism was quickened by the world economic depression that began in 1930. Popular unrest led to a strong increase in the power of the militarists: Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and entered into full-scale hostilities against China in 1937.

Japan signed a tripartite pact with Germany and Italy in 1940 and, when diplomatic attempts to gain US neutrality failed, the Japanese launched themselves into WWII with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. At first Japan scored rapid successes, pushing its battle fronts across to India, down to the fringes of Australia and out into the mid-Pacific. The Battle of Midway opened the US counterattack, puncturing Japanese naval superiority and turning the tide of war against Japan. By August 1945, with Japan driven back on all fronts, a declaration of war by the Soviet Union and the release of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was all over. Emperor Hirohito announced unconditional surrender. Japan was occupied until 1952 by Allied forces who aimed to demilitarise the country and dismantle the power of the emperor. A recovery programme enabled the economy to expand rapidly, and Japan became the world's most successful export economy, generating massive trade surpluses and dominating such fields as electronics, robotics, computing, car production and banking.

With the arrival of the 1990s, the old certainties seemed to vanish: Japan's legendary economic growth slowed to a virtual standstill; the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was swept out of power and then back in again the next year; a massive earthquake in 1995 brought Kobe to its knees (a disaster made worse by a government that was slow to react); and to top it off, a millennial cult with doomsday ambitions engineered a poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway system.

Things began to look up with the appointment of Keizo Obuchi, who took over after Prime Minister Hashimoto was ousted by a voter backlash over the shrinking economy. Obuchi ushered in a few brief years of economic vitality, but the job took its toll and he died while still in office from a massive stroke. His successor, LDP stalwart Yoshiro Mori, held the dubious honour of possessing the lowest approval rating of any leader in recent Japanese history, until he announced his resignation in early April 2001. Mori's succesor was the eccentric Junichiro Koizumi, who brought a beguiling mix of nationalism and reform to Japan's top job. Promising to end the culture of high-level nepotism that had in part led to the deflation, he distinguishes himself with his charisma and dashing haircut. His energies seem to be paying off: Japan's economyis ever-so-slowly climbing out of its deflationary hole in the ground.