Japan (Japanese: Nippon), country off the east coast of Asia, an archipelago of 4 principal islands (Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku), 500 smaller islands, and 3,000 minor ones. The capital is Tokyo.
The Japanese archipelago extends 1,300 mi (2,092 km) from northeast to southwest. Most of its area of 154,883 sq mi (377,835 sq km) is accounted for by the 4 main islands. More than 4/5 of Japan is mountainous; the highest peak is Mount Fuji (12,385 ft/3,775 m). More than 250 Japanese peaks are higher than 6,500 ft (1,981 m); there are about 50 active volcanoes. Most Japanese live in the 1/5 of the country that is relatively flat. There are many streams and rivers; among many inland lakes, Lake Biwa is the largest.
Japan is poor in certain resources, with almost no iron ore and with petroleum that meets less than 1/10 of its requirements. Luxuriant forests cover 2/3 of the country. Large mammals include deer, monkeys, bears, wild boars, and wolves; smaller mammals are badgers, ermines, foxes, hares, mink, otters, and squirrels. About 450 species of birds have been observed.
One of the world's most densely populated nations, Japan has more than 124 million people. Its population density of 817 people per sq mi creates economic, social, and pollution problems.
The Japanese are basically a Mongoloid people; centuries of isolation and inbreeding have produced a homogenous racial stock. Japanese is the universal language, except among the 15,000 Ainus (a primitive people of Caucasian origin) and 707,000 foreigners (mostly Korean) living in the country. English is the main foreign language.
The 2 major religions are Buddhism and Shinto. Many Japanese observe practices of both, with a Shinto family shrine and a Buddhist family altar. Schools are crowded, but the literacy rate is 99%, Asia's highest. The higher education system includes 475 colleges and universities and 610 junior colleges.
Having moved from feudalism to capitalism in just over a century, Japan is one of the world's leading industrial nations. Products range from ships and automobiles to electronic equipment, cameras, and textiles. Imports include coal, petroleum, and industrial raw materials. Rice is the chief agricultural crop. Japan has extensive fisheries.
Artifacts dating from at least 4000 B.C. have been found in Japan. The first Japanese state was ruled by the Yamato clan, from whom the present imperial house is said to descend. Japan has been subject to cultural influences from China by way of Korea. Rice cultivation was introduced from China (c.250 B.C.) and Buddhism from Korea (c.A.D. 538). In the 7th century A.D., Chinese ideographic script was adapted to the Japanese language, and the administrative system of the T'ang Dynasty was adopted. Land became the property of the emperor, who distributed it, and clan chiefs became imperial officials.
In 1192 Minamoto Yoritomo seized power as shogun (military dictator). Successive shoguns ruled absolutely, with the emperors as figureheads. Power was based on a vassal class of warrior knights, or samurai. Feudal warfare (1033–1573) paved the way for powerful lords who were free of shogun rule.
In 1543, the Portuguese visited Japan, followed by other European traders and Christian missionaries. A policy of isolation (sakoku) closed Japan to all foreigners except a few Dutch and Chinese traders until 1853–4, when U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry negotiated a trade treaty. Similar treaties with Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Russia followed. The shogunate collapsed in 1867. Under Emperor Meiji (1867–1912), Tokyo became the capital, and a program of westernization began.
Japan's victories in the Russo-Japanese War and Sino-Japanese Wars won her recognition as a world power, as did her support of the Allies in World War I. In the 1930s a militarist regime took power, built a large Asian colonial empire, and formed an alliance with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Japan entered World War II with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor (1941). The war brought economic ruin and nuclear devastation, and the Japanese surrendered in 1945. Since World War II, Japan has concentrated on economic development. The end of the 1990s was characterized by economic deterioration.