Japan

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Japan is a chain of islands in East Asia. The characters that make up Japan’s name mean “sun-origin”, which is why Japan is sometimes identified as the “Land of the Rising Sun”. Japan comprises over three thousand islands, the largest of which are Honshū, Hokkaidō, Kyūshū and Shikoku, together accounting for 97% of land area. Japan has the world’s tenth largest population, with about 128 million people. The Greater Tokyo Area, which includes the capital city of Tokyo and several surrounding prefectures, is the largest metropolitan area in the world, with over 30 million residents. Japan’s economy is the world’s second largest by nominal Gross Domestic Product (GDP) after the United States. Japan is the world’s fourth largest exporter and sixth largest importer. Japan has a large industrial capacity and is home to some of the largest and most technologically advanced producers of motor vehicles, electronic equipment, machine tools, steel and nonferrous metals, ships, chemicals, textiles and processed foods. Japan is home to leading multinational corporations and commercial brands in technology and machinery.

Area: 377,915 sq km
Population: 126,804,433
Religion: Shintoism 83.9%, Buddhism 71.4%, Christianity 2%, other 7.8%
Languages: Japanese
Government type: a parliamentary government with a constitutional monarchy
Capital: Tokyo
Currency: Yen

Background

In 1603, a Tokugawa shogunate (military dictatorship) ushered in a long period of isolation from foreign influence in order to secure its power. For 250 years this policy enabled Japan to enjoy stability and a flowering of its indigenous culture. Following the Treaty of Kanagawa with the US in 1854, Japan opened its ports and began to intensively modernize and industrialize. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Japan became a regional power that was able to defeat the forces of both China and Russia. It occupied Korea, Taiwan and southern Sakhalin Island. In 1931-32 Japan occupied Manchuria, and in 1937 it launched a full-scale invasion of China. Japan attacked US forces in 1941 – triggering America’s entry into World War II – and soon occupied much of East and Southeast Asia. After its defeat in World War II, Japan recovered to become an economic power. While the emperor retains his throne as a symbol of national unity, actual power rests in networks of powerful politicians, bureaucrats, and business executives. The economy experienced a major slowdown starting in the 1990s following three decades of unprecedented growth, but Japan still remains a major economic power, both in Asia and globally.

Economy

Government-industry cooperation, a strong work ethic, mastery of high technology, and a comparatively small defense allocation helped Japan advance with extraordinary rapidity to the rank of second most technologically powerful economy in the world and the third-largest economy in the world. Japan’s industrial sector is heavily dependent on imported raw materials and fuels. The tiny agricultural sector is highly subsidized and protected, with crop yields among the highest in the world. Japan maintains one of the world’s largest fishing fleets and accounts for nearly 15% of the global catch. For three decades, overall real economic growth had been spectacular – a 10% average in the 1960s, a 5% average in the 1970s, and a 4% average in the 1980s. Growth slowed markedly in the 1990s, averaging just 1.7%.

Geography

Japan is a country of over three thousand islands extending along the Pacific coast of Asia. The main islands, running from north to south, are Hokkaidō, Honshū (the main island), Shikoku and Kyūshū. About 70% to 80% of the country is forested, mountainous, and unsuitable for agricultural, industrial, or residential use. This is due to the generally steep elevations, climate and risk of landslides caused by earthquakes, soft ground and heavy rain. This has resulted in an extremely high population density in the habitable zones that are mainly located in coastal areas. The climate of Japan is predominantly temperate, but varies greatly from north to south.


Culture

Japanese culture has evolved greatly over the years, from the country’s original culture to its contemporary culture, which combines influences from Asia, Europe and North America. Traditional Japanese arts include crafts (ikebana, origami, dolls, lacquerware, pottery), performances (dance, kabuki, noh theatre), traditions (games, tea ceremony, architecture, gardens, swords) and cuisine. The fusion of traditional woodblock printing and Western art led to the creation of manga, a typically Japanese comic book format that is now popular within and outside Japan. Manga-influenced animation for television and film is called anime. Japanese-made video game consoles have prospered since the 1980s. Japanese music is eclectic, having borrowed instruments, scales and styles from neighboring cultures. The accompanied recitative of the Noh drama dates from the fourteenth century and the popular folk music, with the guitar-like shamisen, from the sixteenth. Western music, introduced in the late nineteenth century, now forms an integral part of the culture. Karaoke is the most widely practiced cultural activity.

Education

Education is an important issue in Japanese society. While high school (“upper secondary education”) is not compulsory, more than 90% of the population attends high school. There are, however, many high schools which are not strictly academic, including agricultural and technical high schools. More than 2.5 million students advance to universities and colleges.

Japanese tradition stresses respect for society and the established order and prizes group goals above individual interests. Schooling also emphasizes diligence, self-criticism, and well-organized study habits. More generally, the belief is ingrained that hard work and perseverance will yield success in life. At the same time, the academic achievement of Japanese students is high by international standards. Japanese children consistently rank at or near the top in successive international tests of most mathematics.

An entrance examination system, particularly important at the university level, exerts strong influences throughout the entire system. The structure does not consist exclusively of government-sponsored, formal official education institutions. Private education also forms an important part of the educational landscape and indeed private universities, often with very little emphasis on academics, constitute the majority.

Most children begin their education by attending preschool, although it is not part of the official system. The official structure provides compulsory, free schooling and a sound and balanced education to virtually all children from ages 6 to 15. Upper-secondary school, including non-strictly academic institutions, from grades ages 15 to 18, although not compulsory, attracts about 94 percent of those who complete lower-secondary school. About 40% of all Japanese upper-secondary school graduates advance to tertiary education—to full four-year universities, two-year junior colleges, or to other institutions.

College entrance is based largely on the scores that students achieved in entrance examinations. Private institutions accounted for nearly 80 % of all university enrollments in 1991, but with a few exceptions, the public national universities are the most highly regarded.

Such intense competition means that many students can not compete successfully for admission to the college of their choice. An unsuccessful student can either accept an admission elsewhere, forego a college education, or wait until the following spring to take the national examinations again.

In 1991 more than 2.1 million students were enrolled in Japan’s 507 universities. At the top of the higher education structure, these institutions provide four-year training leading to a bachelor’s degree, and some offer six-year programs leading to a professional degree. There are two types of public four-year colleges: the ninety-six national universities (including the University of the Air) and the thirty-nine local public universities, founded by prefectures and municipalities. The 372 remaining four-year colleges in 1991 were private.

The quality of universities and higher education in Japan is internationally recognized. There are 11 japanese universities in the 2006 THES – QS World University Rankings, with the University of Tokyo 19th and Kyoto University 29th.

More than 90 % of the students in junior colleges are women, and higher education for women is still largely perceived as preparation for marriage or for a short-term career before marriage. These colleges frequently emphasize home economics, nursing, teaching, the humanities, and social sciences in their curricula.

Most colleges of technology are national institutions established to train highly skilled technicians in five-year programs in a number of fields, including the merchant marine. Sixty-two technical colleges have been operating since the early 1960s. About 10 % of college graduates transfer to universities as third-year students, and some universities, notably the University of Tokyo and the Tokyo Institute of Technology, earmarked entrance places for these transfer students in the 1980s.

These colleges are unique in that they accept students after three years of secondary school (grade 9 in the North American system or year 10 in the British system). The five year program includes a general education program at the beginning and then becomes increasingly specialized.

A recent white paper from the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology indicated that the colleges of technology are leaders in the use of internships, with more than 90% of institutions offering this opportunity compared to 46% of universities and 24% of junior colleges.

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