Welcome to Japan
Explore Our Best Destinations Japan
Japan is truly timeless, a place where ancient traditions are fused with modern life as if it were the most natural thing in the world. On the surface, Japan appears exceedingly modern, but traveling around it offers numerous opportunities to connect with the country’s traditional culture. Spend the night in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), sleeping on futons and tatami mats, and padding through well-worn wooden halls to the bathhouse (or go one step further and sleep in an old farmhouse).
Chant with monks or learn how to whisk bitter matcha (powdered green tea) into a froth. From the splendor of a Kyoto geisha dance to the spare beauty of a Zen rock garden, Japan has the power to enthrall even the most jaded traveler. Wherever you are in Japan, it seems, you’re never more than 500m from a great meal. Restaurants often specialize in just one dish – perhaps having spent generations perfecting it – and pay close attention to every stage, from sourcing the freshest, local ingredients to assembling the dish attractively.
Japan is a long and slender, highly volcanic archipelago. It’s over two-thirds mountains, with bubbling hot springs at every turn. In the warmer months there is excellent hiking, through cedar groves and fields of wildflowers, up to soaring peaks and ancient shrines (the latter founded by wandering ascetics). The neon-lit streets capes of Japan’s cities look like sci-fee film sets, even though many of them are decades old. Meanwhile, cities such as Tokyo and Osaka have been adding new architectural wonders that redefine what buildings – and cities – should look like.
There’s an indelible buzz to these urban centers, with their vibrant street life, 24-hour drinking and dining scenes, and creative hubs that turn out fashion and pop culture trends consumed the world over.
Capital of Japan: Tokyo
Official language: Japanese
The currency: Japanese yen
Population: 127 million (2016)
Prime Minister: Shinzō Abe
Calling code: The international calling code is +81
Climate: The weather in Japan is generally temperate, with four distinct seasons: Japan’s weather in Winter, from December to February, is quite dry and sunny along the Pacific coast and the temperatures rarely drop below 0°C. The temperatures drop as you move north, with the Central and Northern regions experiencing snowfall.
Japan’s weather in winter, from December to February, is quite dry and sunny along the Pacific coast and the temperatures rarely drop below 0°C. The temperatures drop as you move north, with the Central and Northern regions experiencing snowfall. Southern Japan is relatively temperate and experiences a mild winter.
Spring is from March to May. Temperatures are warm but not too hot, plus there isn’t too much rain. The famous cherry blossoms are out during this time and there are plenty of festivals to enjoy.
Summer begins in June and the country experiences a three to four-week rainy season during which the farmers plant their rice. It is hot and humid during this time and temperatures are often in the high 30’s. Summer wraps up in August.
Autumn is from September to November and is characterised by light breezes and cooler temperatures of around 8-10oC. It’s during autumn that many exhibitions, music concerts and sports tournaments are held in Japan.
Situated off the eastern edge of the Asian continent, the Japanese archipelago is bounded on the n by the Sea of Okhotsk, on the e and s by the Pacific Ocean, on the sw by the East China Sea, and on the w by the Sea of Japan. The total area of Japan is 377,835 sq km (145,883 sq mi). Comparatively, the area occupied by Japan is slightly smaller than the state of California. It extends 3,008 km (1,869 mi) ne–sw and 1,645 km (1,022 mi) se–nw and has a total coastline of 29,751 km (18,486 mi).
Of the thousands of lesser islands, four are of significance: Tsushima, in the straits between Korea and Japan; Amami Oshima, of the northern Ryukyu Islands at the southern end of the Japanese archipelago; Sado Island in the Sea of Japan off central Honshū; and Awaji Island, lying between Shikoku and Honshū. Two groups of islands returned to Japan by the United States in 1968 are located some 1,300 km (800 mi) due east of the Ryukyus: the Ogasawara (Bonin) Islands, about 885 km (550 mi) south of Tokyo, and the Kazan (Volcano) Islands, directly south of the Ogasawara group.
The population of Japan in 2005 was estimated by the United Nations (UN) at 127,728,000, which placed it at number 10 in population among the 193 nations of the world. In 2005, approximately 20% of the population was over 65 years of age, with another 14% of the population under 15 years of age. There were 96 males for every 100 females in the country. The projected population for the year 2025 was 121,136,000. The population density was 338 per sq km (876 per sq mi).
Japan is the only Asian country thus far with a birthrate that has declined to the level of industrial areas in other parts of the world. According to the UN, the annual population rate of change for 2005–10 was expected to be 0.1%, a rate the government viewed as too low. The estimated 10 births per 1,000 population in 2000 compares with about 343 births per 1,000 population in 1947. The steep drop since 1950 has been attributed to legalization of abortion, increased availability of contraceptives, and the desire to raise living standards. Even with the low birth rate, Japan is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Urban density rates were 14,245 per sq mi (5,500 per sq mi). The UN estimated that 79% of the population lived in urban areas in 2005, and that urban areas were growing at an annual rate of 0.27%. The capital city, Tokyo, had a population of 34,997,000 in that year. Other major metropolitan areas and their estimated populations include Osaka, 11,286,000; Nagoya, 3,189,000; Kitakyushu, 2,815,000; Sapporo, 1,828,000; Kyoto, 1,805,000; Hiroshima, 1,005,000; and Sendai, 940,000.
Japanese is the official language. Most linguists agree that Japanese is in a language class by itself, although there is some inconclusive evidence that traces it to the Malayo-Polynesian language family. In vocabulary, Japanese is rich in words denoting abstract ideas, natural phenomena, human emotions, ethics, and aesthetics, but poor in words for technical and scientific expression. For these latter purposes, foreign words are directly imported and written in a phonetic system (katakana ). A distinct characteristic is the use of honorifics to show proper respect to the listener and his social status.
Written Japanese owes its origin almost entirely to Chinese forms. Having no indigenous script, the Japanese since the 5th century have used Chinese characters, giving them both an approximate Chinese pronunciation and a Japanese pronunciation. In addition, the Japanese invented phonetic symbols (kana ) in the 9th century to represent grammatical devices unknown to the Chinese.
Attempts have been made to reduce the complexity of the written language by limiting the number of Chinese characters used. The government has published a list of 1,850 characters for use in official communications. Newspapers adhere to this list.
According to a 2002 report by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, about 49.9% of the population practice Shintoism and 44.2% practice Buddhism. Religious identities are not mutually exclusive, however, and many Japanese maintain affiliations with both a Buddhist temple and a Shinto shrine.
Shinto, originally concerned with the worship of spirits of nature, grew under the influence of Chinese Confucianism to include worship of family and imperial ancestors, and thus provided the foundation of Japanese social structure. Shinto became an instrument of nationalism after 1868, as the government officially sponsored and subsidized it, requiring that it be taught in the schools and that all Japanese belong to a state Shinto shrine. After World War II, Shinto was abolished as a state religion, and the emperor issued an imperial prescript denying divine origin. Today, Shinto exists as a private religious organization.
Buddhism is considered by some the most important religion in Japan. Introduced through China and Korea around ad 552, Buddhism spread rapidly throughout Japan and has had considerable influence on the nation’s arts and its social institutions. There are 13 sects (shu ) and 56 denominations, the principal shu being Tendai, Shingon, Jodo, Zen, Soto, Obaku, and Nichiren. Japanese Buddhism was founded on the Mahayana school, which emphasizes the attainment of Buddhahood, whereas the Hinayana Buddhism of India emphasizes obedience to commandments and personal perfection. The great temples and gardens of Japan, the famous Japanese tea ceremony (chanoyu ), and Japanese flower-arranging arts (ikebana ) owe their development to the influence of Buddhism.
Religions designated as other are practiced by about 6% of the population (including 0.9% practicing Christianity). “Other” faiths that were founded in Japan include Tenrikyo, Seichounoie, Sekai Kyusei Kyo, Perfect Liberty, and Risho Koseikai. Christianity, introduced to Japan by the Jesuit St. Francis Xavier in 1549, was first encouraged by feudal lords but then banned in 1613, often under penalty of death. After that time, a unique sect known as “hidden Christians” developed, with no tradition of churches or public displays of faith and a syncretic doctrine that incorporated local ideas and history. The prohibition against Christianity was in force until 1873, following the reopening of Japan to international relations in 1854. Following World War II, when the emperor lost his claim to divinity, some Japanese gave up Shinto and converted to Christianity or Judaism.
After World War II, a considerable number of new religious groups sprouted up. One of these, the Soka-Gakkai, a Buddhist offshoot, controlled a political party (Komeito ), the third-strongest political group in Japan, until politics and religion were officially separated in 1970. In addition to the established and new religions, Confucianism, an ethical system originating in China, has strongly influenced Japanese society since the earliest periods, providing underpinnings for some characteristically Japanese attitude.
Archaeological discoveries revealed the existence of Paleolithic humans in Japan when the islands were connected to the Asian continental landmass. Little is known about the origins of the earliest Japanese beyond the fact that they migrated from the continent. The first distinctive Neolithic culture, the Jõmon, existed in Japan from 11,000 bc to 300 bc. The Jõmon was displaced by the Yayoi culture, which introduced new agricultural and metallurgical skills from the continent. Tradition places the beginning of the Japanese nation in 660 bc with the ascendance to the throne of the legendary Emperor Jimmu. It is generally agreed, however, that as the Yayoi developed, the Yamato clan attained hegemony over southern Japan during the first three or four centuries of the Christian era and established the imperial family line. Earlier contacts with Korea were expanded in the 5th century to mainland China, and the great period of cultural borrowing began: industrial arts were imported; Chinese script was introduced (thereby permitting the study of medical texts), the Chinese calendar and Buddhism also arrived from China. Japanese leaders adapted the Chinese governmental organization but based power upon hereditary position rather than merit. The first imperial capital was established at Nara in 710. In 794, the imperial capital was moved to Heian (Kyoto), where it remained until 1868, when Tokyo became the nation’s capital.
Chinese influence waned as native institutions took on peculiarly Japanese forms. Outside court circles, local clans gained strength, giving rise to military clan influence over a weakening imperial system. The Minamoto clan gained national hegemony as it defeated the rival Taira clan in 1185, and its leader, the newly appointed Yoritomo, established a military form of government at Kamakura in 1192, a feudal system that lasted for nearly 700 years. Under the shogunate system, all political power was in the hands of the dominant military clan, with the emperors ruling in name only. The Kamakura period was followed by the Ashikaga shogunate (1336–1600) which saw economic growth and the development of a more complex feudalism. For over 100 years, until the end of the 16th century, continuous civil war among rival feudal lords (daimyo ) ensued. During this time, the first contact with the Western world took place with the arrival in 1543 of Portuguese traders, and with that, the first guns were imported. Six years later, St. Francis Xavier arrived, introducing Christianity to Japan.
By 1590, the country was pacified and unified by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a peasant who had risen to a top military position. Hideyoshi also invaded Korea unsuccessfully, in 1592–93 and in 1598, dying during the second invasion. Ieyasu Tokugawa consolidated Hideyoshi’s program of centralization. Appointed shogun in 1603, Tokugawa established the Tokugawa shogunate (military dictatorship), which was to rule Japan until the imperial restoration in 1868. Tokugawa made Edo (modern Tokyo) the capital, closed Japan to foreigners except Chinese and Dutch traders (who were restricted to Nagasaki) and occasional Korean diplomats, and banned Christianity. For the next 250 years, Japan enjoyed stability and a flowering of indigenous culture, although from the end of the 18th century onward, Japan came under increasing pressure from Western nations to end its isolationist policy.
The arrival of Commodore Matthew C. Perry from the United States in 1853-with his famous “black ships”-started a process that soon ended Japanese feudalism. The following year, Perry obtained a treaty of peace and friendship between the United States and Japan, and similar pacts were signed with Russia, Britain, and the Netherlands based on the principle of extraterritoriality. A decade of turmoil and confusion followed over the question of opening Japan to foreigners. A coalition of southern clans led by ambitious young samurai of the Satsuma and Choshu clans forced the abdication of the Tokugawa shogun and reestablished the emperor as head of the nation. In 1868, Emperor Mutsuhito took over full sovereignty. This Meiji Restoration, as it is known, signaled the entry of Japan into the modern era.
Intensive modernization and industrialization commenced under the leadership of the restoration leaders. A modern navy and army with universal military conscription and a modern civil service based on merit formed the foundation of the new nationstate. The government undertook the establishment of industry, by importing technological assistance. In 1889, a new constitution established a bicameral legislature (Diet) with a civil cabinet headed by a prime minister responsible to the emperor.
By the end of the 19th century, irreconcilable territorial ambitions brought Japan into open conflict with its much larger western neighbors. The Sino-Japanese War (1894–95) was fought over the question of control of Korea, and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05) over the question of Russian expansion in Manchuria and influence in Korean affairs. Japan emerged victorious in both conflicts, its victory over the Russians marking the first triumph of an Asian country over a Western power in modern times. Japan received the territories of Taiwan and the southern half of Sakhalin Island, as well as certain railway rights and concessions in Manchuria and recognition of paramount influence in Korea. The latter became a Japanese protectorate in 1905 and was annexed by Japan in 1910.
During the Taisho era (1912–26), Japan participated in a limited way in World War I, in accordance with the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902. Japan was one of the Big Five powers at the Versailles Peace Conference and in 1922 was recognized as the world’s third-leading naval power at the Washington Naval Conference. The domestic economy developed rapidly, and Japan was transformed from an agricultural to an industrial nation. Economic power tended to be held by the industrial combines (zaibatsu ), controlled by descendants of those families that had instituted the modernization of the country decades earlier. In 1925, universal manhood suffrage was enacted, and political leaders found it necessary to take into consideration the growing influence of parties.
In 1926, Emperor Hirohito ascended the throne beginning the Showa era. By the 1930s, democratic institutions atrophied and the military-industrial complex became dominant. With severe social distress caused by the great depression, an ultranationalist ideology emerged, particularly among young army officers. Acting independently of the central government, the military launched an invasion of Manchuria in 1931, eventually establishing the puppet state of Manchukuo. In 1932, a patriotic society assassinated the prime minister, bringing an end to cabinets formed by the majority party in the Diet. Japan withdrew from the League of Nations (which had protested the Manchurian takeover) in 1933, started a full-scale invasion of China (the Second Sino-Japanese War, 1937–45), and signed the Anti-Comintern pact with Germany in 1936 and a triple alliance with Germany and Italy in 1940. The military leadership, viewing the former USSR and the United States as chief barriers to Japanese expansion, negotiated a nonaggression pact with the USSR in April 1941, thus setting the stage for the attack on Pearl Harbor and other Pacific targets on 7 December of that year. Thereafter, Japanese military actions took place in the context of World War II.
With its capture of the Philippines on 2 January 1942, Japan gained control of most of East Asia, including major portions of China, Indochina, and the southwest Pacific. Japanese forces, however, could not resist the continued mobilization of the US military. A series of costly naval campaigns-including battles at Midway, Guadalcanal, and Leyte Gulf-brought an end to Japanese domination in the Pacific. By 1945, the Philippines had been recaptured, and the stage was set for a direct assault on Japan. After the US troops captured Okinawa in a blood battle, US president Harry S. Truman argued that a full invasion of Japan would prove too costly and decided on aerial attacks to force Japan into surrendering. After four months of intense bombardment with conventional weapons, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 and a second bomb on Nagasaki on 9 August. An estimated 340,000 persons died from the two attacks and the subsequent effects of radiation. In addition, all major cities, with the exception of Kyoto, were destroyed during the war and food and supply shortages continued for several years after the surrender.
On 14 August, Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration for unconditional surrender with formal surrender documents signed aboard the USS Missouri on 2 September. After the surrender over 500 Japanese military officials committed suicide and hundreds more faced war crimes prosecution. Emperor Hirihito was not declared a war criminal and although he lost all military and political power he retained his royal title and became a symbol of the state until his death in 1989. The subsequent occupation (1945–52), under the direction of General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, began a series of ambitious reforms. Political reforms included the adoption of a parliamentary system of government based on democratic principles and universal suffrage, a symbolic role for the emperor as titular head of state, the establishment of an independent trade union, and the disarmament of the military. Economic reforms consisted of land reform, the dissolution of the zaibatsu, and economic and political rights for women. A new constitution was promulgated on 3 November 1946 and put into force on 3 May 1947.
In 2002, Japan began a diplomatic initiative to improve relations with North Korea. In September 2002, North Korean President Kim Jong Il apologized to Koizumi for North Korea’s kidnapping of Japanese citizens during the 1970s and 1980s. Japan pledged a generous aid package to North Korea in return. In 2005 relations with South Korea and China soured over Japanese continued use of junior high-school textbooks which downplayed the aggressive nature of Japan’s role in WWII. In addition, South Korea objected to the reassertion of the Japanese claim to the Liancourt Rocks, which Korea occupies. China objected to the Japanese proposal for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, while both countries objected to Japan’s use of the East China Sea.
Koizumi called for early elections in September 2005 after he dissolved the lower House due to the defeat in the upper House of his landmark proposals to reform the country’s postal system. The upper House cannot be dissolved in Japan, and so a two-thirds majority was needed in the lower House to be able to pass new legislation without the consent of the upper House. The result was the second-largest landslide in a general election in the LDP’s history. In combination with allied parties, the LDP coalition held over two-thirds of the seats, 296 out of 480. The results were a devastating setback for the Democratic Party, the main opposition, whose gains in 2001 and 2003 led some to believe that Japanese Democracy was evolving into a two-party system. Due to LDP term limits, Koizumi was expected to retire in 2006, although the possibility of his remaining in office still existed.
Recovery from the Asian financial crisis was itself cut short in 2001, with the onset of a global slowdown and the aftershocks of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States: real GDP growth dropped from 2.2% in 2000 to -0.5% in 2001. The depth of recessions has been minimalized by massive stimulus packages and tax cuts across the period of stagnant growth. Recently, major tax cuts were made in 1999 and 2003, and in 2001, the government implemented its ninth massive stimulus package since 1992, this one for ¥11 trillion (about $960 billion). Total national debt, at 164.3% of GDP in 2004, is proportionately the highest among developed countries.
As of 2006, however-despite a currency that rose more than 20% from 2002-05-Japan’s economy was beginning to show signs of improvement. GDP was forecast to grow by 2.3% in 2005 and by 2% in 2006. Japan remained set to end persistent deflation in 2006, although fiscal tightening could slow GDP growth. Consumer prices were forecast to fall by 0.1% in 2005 and to rise by 0.3% in 2006. The unemployment rate was forecast to fall from 3.9% in 2006, to 3.8% in 2007, to just 3.5% in 2008.
The Ministry of Health and Welfare has become the central administrative agency responsible for maintaining and promoting public health, welfare, and sanitation. All hospitals and clinics are subject to government control with respect to their standards and spheres of responsibility. In 2004, there were 201 physicians, 820 nurses, 72 dentists, and 171 pharmacists per 100,000 people. Every practitioner in the field of medicine or dentistry must receive a license from the Ministry of Health and Welfare. In addition, the ministry recognizes and authorizes certain quasi-medical practices, including massage, acupuncture, moxa-cautery, and judo-orthopedics, all based upon traditional Japanese health professions.
Expanded examination and treatment have brought about a dramatic decrease in the death rate from tuberculosis, the major cause of death in the 1940s. Death rates from cancer and heart disease have risen considerably and now rank among the leading causes of death, trailing cerebrovascular diseases. Japanese medical researchers have been working on research for a new cure for breast cancer.
Infant mortality dropped to 3.26 per 1,000 live births in 2005, one of the lowest in the world. Only 3% of children under age five were malnourished. The total fertility rate was 1.4 as of 2000. Immunization rates for children up to one year old are nearly 100%. Average life expectancy was 81.15 years in 2005, among the highest rates in the world. In the mid-1990s there were nearly 300,000 deaths per year strictly from cardiovascular diseases.
Tourism in Japan is regarded as a major industry, since many foreign visitors as well as the Japanese themselves tour the country extensively. In 2003, Japan had about 5.2 million visitors. There were 1,562,867 hotel rooms with an occupancy rate of 70%. Tourism expenditure receipts totaled $11.4 billion. A valid passport along with an onward/return ticket is required. A visa is not necessary for stays of up to 90 days.
Japan’s chief sightseeing attractions are in the ancient former capital of Kyoto: Nijo Castle, Heian Jingu Shrine, the 13th-century Sanjusangendo temple, and the Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion); the Ryoan-ji (Temple of the Peaceful Dragon), famed for its garden of stones and raked sand, and numerous other ancient Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Nearby sights in the vicinity of Nara include the Great Buddha, a huge bronze statue originally cast in the eighth century; the Kofuku-ji pagoda; and Horyu-ji, the seventh century temple from which Buddhism spread throughout Japan. There are few historic sites in the capital-Tokyo was devastated by an earthquake in 1923 and virtually destroyed in World War II-but nearby attractions include Mt. Fuji and the hot springs of Fuji-Hakkone-Izu National Park; Nikko National Park, site of the Toshogu Shrine, where the first Tokugawa shogun is entombed; and the summer and winter sports facilities in the mountains of central Japan-the so-called Japan Alps. The Hiroshima Peace Park and Peace Memorial Museum commemorate the destruction of the city by an atomic bomb in 1945.
Baseball is Japan’s national pastime; there are two professional leagues, each with six teams. Sumo, a Japanese form of wrestling, is also popular, with tournaments held six times a year. Golf, an expensive sport because of the lack of open space, is used mainly as a means of entertaining business clients. Other pastimes include judo, karate, table tennis, fishing, and volleyball. Gardening is the most popular hobby among men and women alike. Nagano hosted the 1998 Olympic Winter Games.
The costs of traveling in Japan, among the highest in the world, were reduced slightly when a 3% tourism tax, in effect since 1960, was abolished on 1 April 2000.
In 2005, the US Department of State estimated daily expenses for staying in Tokyo at $257. Okinawa was estimated at $354 from May through September and $238 the rest of the year. To stay in Osaka-Kobe the daily expenses were $260 and in Kanazawa, $195.