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Japan is a large island nation in the western Pacific. It covers 145,900 square miles (377,900 sq. km), making it a bit smaller than the state of California. It is across the sea from China, Korea, and Russia.
When exactly humans began to settle this archipelago is a matter of some debate. Most people agree that people were living in Japan as far back as 35,000 BCE, while some push the date back substantially beyond that, some as far as 100,000 BCE. The first sedentary culture that began to demonstrate the characteristics of civilization appeared about 14,000 BCE, along with pottery and other signs of a relatively advanced culture. Whether descendants of these people, known as the Jomon, remain in the country is also open to debate, although some claim that the indigenous Ainu are their descendants.
Around 300 BCE a new influx of people arrived on the island. They brought with them many new technologies, including bronze- and iron-working, weaving, and rice farming. These people banded together in tribes, and began to appear in the written records of the Chinese just after the turn of the millennium.
For the next few centuries Japan remained a fairly decentralized region, with small tribes occasionally forming larger kingdoms, eventually moving towards greater centralization. The Yamoto Court originated in this early period, from about 300 AD to 700 AD. This period also saw the introduction of new agricultural techniques, interaction with mainland Korea, a systematic integration of laws, and the introduction of Buddhism.
By the 8th century it had become a fairly centralized state, built on the Chinese Imperial model. The Imperial Japanese state continued for the next few centuries, eventually growing away from China and forging its own strong cultural identity. Near the end of the 12th century the power of the Imperial system began to decline, and in its place emerged a feudal system based on samurai clans, powerful families, and shogun leading them. The militarization proved to be useful, as it helped to repel Mongol invaders in the 13th century.
In the mid-16th century the first Europeans, the Portuguese, made contact with Japan. Within a decade traders had arrived from not only Portugal, but also England, the Netherlands, and Spain. Christianity also arrived in force, with Dominican, Franciscan, and Jesuit missionaries coming to preach the faith. In addition to Christianity, Europeans also brought guns, intensifying the battles between feuding clans drastically.
At the end of the 16th century the country was unified again, this time under a military leader. With the newfound power and weapons, it crossed the sea and invaded mainland Korea and China, with aspirations of pushing as far west as India. These campaigns failed, however, and the Japanese withdrew.
With the spreading of Christianity and Western values, the Shogunate began to worry about the loyalty of Japanese citizens. This led to a massive campaign against Western ideas, and an eventually closing of the country to most trade and visitation. This period of seclusion would last for two centuries, until 1853, when a US Commodore forced the Japanese to open their ports to Western trade, under threat of violence. The Emperor was restored to power ten years later, and trade with the West was fully enacted.
Japan began an aggressive expansionist campaign during World War I, using the battle against Germany as a pretext to seize land in the Pacific, and expand its sphere of influence throughout Asia. It continued its campaign by seizing part of China in 1931, and continuing to seize land on the mainland. In 1940 Japan joined World War II on the side of the Axis powers. Following a total freeze on Japanese assets in the US, the Japanese eventually attacked the US base at Pearl Harbor, beginning a war in the Pacific that would last for years, before ending in surrender in 1945.
Over the next few decades the country rebuilt surprisingly quickly, building an industrial sector that rivaled that of any in the world. Incredible innovation and a focus on development led to it becoming an economic superpower in a very short time. Although the economy has since cooled, it continues to be one of the dominant players in the international market.
Japan is full of history and has a cultural depth that is hard to find anywhere else. Visitors should know, however, that the country can be very expensive for tourists, with accommodations and meals being some of the most expensive in the world. Popular attractions include Mount Fuji, the hundreds of temples and gardens of Kyoto, and the nearly 1500 square mile (2400 sq. km) Daisetsuzan National Park.
Flights arrive multiple times each day in Tokyo from every major airport in the world. Additional flights arrive at a number of other airports, including Osaka and Kyoto. For those entering from Asia, travel by boat is also possible, especially from South Korea.
A few years ago, I had the good fortune of visiting Japan on a family trip. I have to say, Japan is probably the most beautiful place I have ever been too. Even taking the relatively brief bullet train ride from Tokyo to Kyoto offered nearly non-stop, breathtaking views of Japan's countryside. Aside from an endless assortment of wonderful temples and cultural sites to behold, the thing I enjoyed the most about the country was their pride in nature. Despite being among the highest tier of industrialized nations, Japan's urban centers are shockingly clean. The culture as a whole takes pride in its living spaces. I was constantly shocked at the myriad forests tucked between skyscrapers in Tokyo and the vibrant gardens of Kyoto homes. Everyone should visit Japan in their lifetime, if possible.