Japan is an island nation in NE Asia containing four large islands - Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku - which make up more than 98% of its land. Thousands of small islands, including the Ryukyu island chain, form the rest of the country.
The four main islands are mainly mountainous, while many of the small islands are the tips of volcanoes rising from the sea bed. Japan has more than 150 volcanoes, about 60 of which are active. Volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis often occur.
Throughout Japan, complex folding and faulting has produced an intricate mosaic of landforms. Mountains and forested hills alternate with small basins and coastal lowlands, covered by alluvium deposited there by the short rivers that rise in the uplands. Most of the population lives on the coastal plains, one being the stretch from the Kanto Plain - where Tokyo is situated - along the narrow plains that border the S coasts of Honshu, to N Kyushu.
The pattern of landforms is further complicated by the presence of volcanic cones and calderas. The highest mountain in Japan, Fuji-san (Fujiyama) (3,776m [12,388ft]), is a long dormant volcano which last erupted in 1707. It is considered sacred, and is visited by thousands of pilgrims every year.
The climate of Japan varies greatly. Hokkaido in the N has cold, snowy winters. At Sapporo, temperatures below -20°C [4°F] have been recorded between December and March. Summers are warm, with temperatures often exceeding 30°C [86°F]. Rain falls throughout the year. Tokyo has the higher rainfall and temperatures while the islands of Shikoku and Kyushu in the S have warm temperate climates with hot summers and cold winters.
Most modern Japanese are descendants of early immigrants who arrived in successive waves from the Korean Peninsula and other parts of the Asian mainland. One of the earliest groups was the Ainu, c.15,000 of whom still live on Hokkaido. The native religion was the polytheistic Shinto, based on nature worship. According to legend, Japan's first emperor, Jimmu, ascended the throne in 660 bc.
By the 5th century ad Japan was divided among numerous clans. The largest and most powerful was the Yamato, who established the Japanese state in the 5th century and made Kyoto the capital. The chiefs of the Yamato clan are regarded as ancestors of the imperial family.
During the 5th century, new ideas and technology reached Japan from China. The Japanese adopted the Chinese system of writing. Confucianism was part of the profound cultural influence that China bestowed on Japanese art and architecture and Japanese literature. Buddhism, too, spread to Japan in the 550s.
From the early 12th century, political power passed increasingly to military aristocrats. Government was conducted in the name of the emperor by warrior leaders called shoguns. Civil warfare between rival groups of feudal lords was endemic over long periods, but, under the rule of the Tokugawa shoguns, between 1603 and 1867, Japan enjoyed a great period of peace and prosperity. Military families (the feudal lords and their retainers, or samurai) formed a powerful elite.
European contact began with the arrival of Portuguese sailors in 1543. In 1549 Spanish missionaries came to convert the Japanese to Christianity. In the 1630s Japan ordered all Christian missionaries to leave the country and forced Japanese converts to give up their faith. The only Europeans allowed to stay were Dutch traders. Japan only opened its ports to Western trade again in 1854 after American intervention led by Commodore Matthew Perry. Western powers plotted the overthrow of the shogunate, and the re-establishment of imperial power with the Meiji Restoration.
Emperor Meiji's reign (1868-1912) was marked by the adoption of Western ideas and technology. An educational system was set up, railways built and modern systems of banking and taxation introduced. Economic growth was driven by the formation of the zaibatsu. The samurai class was abolished and a modern army and navy established.
In 1889, Japan introduced its first constitution under which the emperor became head of state and supreme commander of the army and navy. The emperor appointed government ministers, responsible to him. The constitution allowed for a parliament, called the Diet, with two houses.
From the 1890s, Japan began to build up an overseas empire. In 1894-5, Japan fought China over the control of Korea in the first of the Sino-Japanese wars. Under the Treaty of Shimonoseki (1895), Japan took Taiwan. Korea was made an independent territory, leaving it open to Japanese influence. Rivalry with Russia led to the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) and decisive Japanese victory. Under the Treaty of Portsmouth, Japan gained the Liaodong peninsula, which Russia had leased from China, while Russia recognized the supremacy of Japan's interests in Korea. Thus Japan was established as a world power.
In World War 1 Japan supported the Allies. After the war, in 1920, Japan became a founding member of the League of Nations. During the 1920s, Japan built its economy, interrupted only by an earthquake (1923) that claimed 123,000 lives and devastated Tokyo and Yokohama. Militarists began to dominate Japanese politics. The army seized Manchuria in 1931 and made it a puppet state called Manchukuo, then extended Japanese influence into other parts of N China. In 1933, after the League of Nations condemned its actions in Manchuria, Japan was forced to rescind its membership
During the 1930s, and especially after the outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese war in 1937, militarist control of Japan's government grew steadily. By the end of 1938, when Japan controlled most of E China, Japan began to consider bringing all of E Asia under its control. In September 1939, Japan occupied the N part of French Indo-China and, later that month, signed an agreement with Italy and Germany, assuring their co-operation in building a 'new world order' and acknowledging Japan's leadership in Asia.
In 1941 Japan launched a surprise attack on the American naval base of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, an action that drew the United States into World War 2. Japan conquered a huge swathe of Pacific territory, but gradually the Allies regained ground. On 6 August 1945, American bombers dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The Soviet Union declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria and Korea. On 9 August, the Americans dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. World War 2 ended on 2 September 1945 when Japan surrendered.
The US occupation of Japan under Douglas MacArthur (1945-52) undertook the demilitarization of industry and the adoption of a democratic constitution. Emperor Hirohito declaimed his divinity and became a constitutional monarch. Japan signed a Treaty of Peace that took effect on 28 April 1952. The Allied occupation ended on that day. When, in 1956, the Soviet Union and Japan agreed to end the state of war between them, Japan became a member of the UN.
The conservative Liberal-Democratic Party was formed in 1955, made up of rival Japanese parties. The LDP controlled Japan's government until the 1990s, when a series of coalition governments were formed. A true opposition party emerged in the late 1990s, when the Democratic Party of Japan united with several small parties. The country underwent a serious economic crisis in 1997. In 2001, the LDP chose Junichiro Koizumi as prime minister. Koizumi promised drastic reforms to revive the economy. He won a landslide victory in September 2005 after calling a snap election when his plans to privatize Japan's postal system were defeated in the upper house. After this victory his government announced plans to continue his reform programme and also to revise Japan's pacifist constitution.
Japan has the world's second highest GDP after the United States. The most important sector of the economy is industry, though Japan has to import most of the raw materials and fuels it needs for its industries. Its success is based on the use of the latest technology, a skilled and hard-working labour force, vigorous export policies and a comparatively small spend on defence. Manufactures dominate its exports which include machinery, electrical and electronic equipment, vehicles and transport equipment, iron and steel, chemicals, textiles and ships. Japan is one of the world's top fishing nations and fish is an important source of protein. Only 15% of the land can be farmed due to its rugged nature yet the country produces about 70% of the food it requires. Rice is the chief crop, taking up about half of the farmland. Other major products include fruits, sugar beet, tea and vegetables.
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