Search this website:

This web page location:

home page  >   Asia  >   Japan



Korea Strait, shoguns, Sea of Okhotsk, constitutional monarchy, Axis powers

Deeper web pages:

>  Land and Resources

>  People and Society

>  Arts and Culture

>  Economy

>  Government

>  History

Japan, island nation in East Asia, located in the North Pacific Ocean off the coast of the Asian continent. Japan comprises the four main islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku, in addition to numerous smaller islands. The Japanese call their country Nihon or Nippon, which means “origin of the sun.” The name arose from Japan’s position east of the great Chinese empires that held sway over Asia throughout most of its history. Japan is sometimes referred to in English as the “land of the rising sun.” Tokyo is the country’s capital and largest city.

Mountains dominate Japan’s landscape, covering 75 to 80 percent of the country. Historically, the mountains were barriers to transportation, hindering national integration and limiting the economic development of isolated areas. However, with the development of tunnels, bridges, and air transportation in the modern era, the mountains are no longer formidable barriers. The Japanese have long celebrated the beauty of their mountains in art and literature, and today many mountain areas are preserved in national parks.

Most of Japan’s people live on plains and lowlands found mainly along the lower courses of the country’s major rivers, on the lowest slopes of mountain ranges, and along the seacoast. This concentration of people makes Japan one of the world’s most crowded countries. Densities are especially high in the urban corridor between Tokyo and Kobe, where 45 percent of the country’s population is packed into only 17 percent of its land area. An ethnically and culturally homogeneous nation, Japan has only a few small minority groups and just one major language–Japanese. The dominant religions are Buddhism and Shinto (a religion that originated in Japan).

Japan is a major economic power, and average income levels and standards of living are among the highest in the world. The country’s successful economy is based on the export of high-quality consumer goods developed with the latest technologies. Among the products Japan is known for are automobiles, cameras, and electronic goods such as computers, televisions, and sound systems.

An emperor has ruled in Japan since about the 7th century. Military rulers, known as shoguns, arose in the 12th century, sharing power with the emperors for more than 600 years. Beginning in the 17th century, a powerful military government closed the country’s borders to almost all foreigners. Japan entered the 19th century with a prosperous economy and a strong tradition of centralized rule, but it was isolated from the rest of the world and far behind Western nations in technology and military power.

When Western nations, eager to trade with Japan, forced the country to open its borders in the mid-19th century, Japan’s shogun was ousted in a coup that restored the emperor to power. Under the rule of the Meiji emperor(1868-1912), Japan began a crash program of modernization and industrialization, as well as colonial expansion into Korea, China, and other parts of Asia. By the early 20th century, Japan had won a place among the world’s great powers.

Japan fought on the side of the Axis powers in World War II (1939-1945). By the time the war ended with Japan’s defeat, most of the country’s industrial facilities, transportation networks, and urban infrastructure had been destroyed. Japan also lost its colonial holdings as a result of the war. From 1945 to 1952 the United States and its allies occupied Japan militarily and administered its government. Under a revised constitution, the emperor assumed a primarily symbolic role as the head of state in Japan’s constitutional monarchy. During the postwar period, Japan rapidly rebuilt its economy and society. By the mid-1970s the country had established a lucrative trade with the United States and many other nations, and was well on its way to its present status as a top-ranking global economic power.

The portion of the Asian mainland closest to Japan is the Korea Peninsula, which is 200 km (100 mi) away at its nearest point (in South Korea). Japan does not share a land border with any other country, but nearby are far eastern Russia, located to the northwest across the Sea of Okhotsk and the Sea of Japan (East Sea); South Korea and North Korea, to the west across the Korea Strait and the Sea of Japan; and China and Taiwan, to the southwest across the East China Sea.

The introduction to this article was contributed by Roman Cybriwsky.


For younger readers

Behnke, Alison. Japan in Pictures. Lerner, 2002. For readers in grades 6 to 10.

Bornoff, Nicholas. Japan. Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1997. A comparison of urban and rural life, for readers in grades 4 to 7.

Green, Jen. Japan. Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 2000. For readers in grades 4 to 8.

Hamanaka, Sheila, and Ayano Ohmi. In Search of the Spirit: The Living National Treasures of Japan. Morrow, 1999. For readers in grades 4 to 6.

Kallen, Stuart A. Life in Tokyo. Lucent, 2001. For readers in grades 6 to 10.

Pilbeam, Mavis. Japan Under the Shoguns: 1185-1868. Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1999. For young adult readers.

Poisson, Barbara Aoki. The Ainu of Japan. Lerner, 2002. For readers in grades 4 to 7.

Ross, Stewart. Rise of Japan and the Pacific Rim. Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1995. For middle school and high school readers.

Schomp, Viginia. Japan in the Days of the Samurai. Benchmark, 2001. For readers in grades 6 to 10.

Shelley, Rex, Teo Chuu Yong, and Russell Mok. Japan. 2nd ed. Benchmark, 2001. In the Cultures of the World Series, for readers in grades 4 to 8.

Whyte, Harlinah. Japan. Gareth Stevens, 1998. For readers in grades 4 to 8.


Hartz, Paula. Shinto. Facts on File, 1997. Discusses the history of the Shinto religion in Japan, describing its origins, basic beliefs, rituals, and place in Japanese society; for middle school and high school readers.

Kato, Genichi.Trans. Shoyu Hanayama. A Historical Study of the Religious Development of Shinto. Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, 1973. Reprint, Greenwood, 1988. Comprehensive history of Shinto thought.

Muraoka, Tsunetsugu.Trans. James T. Araki. Studies in Shinto Thought. Greenwood, 1988. Eight essays by one of Japan's most renowned thinkers on the essence of Shinto thought.

Nelson, John K. A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine. University of Washington Press, 1996. Modern Shinto in Japan.

Picken, Stuart D. B. Essentials of Shinto. Greenwood, 1994. Guide to understanding Shinto, its history, and its place in Japanese society.

Ross, Floyd H. Shinto, the Way of Japan. Greenwood, 1983. Conveys the strength of Shinto and the human emotions tied to it.

Japanese art and architecture

Addiss, Stephen. The Art of Zen: Paintings and Calligraphy by Japanese Monks, 1600-1925. Abrams, 1989. An in-depth study of Buddhist art traditions.

Elisseeff, Danielle, and Vadime Elisseeff. Art of Japan. Rev. ed. Abrams, 1985, 1994. Comprehensive survey.

Hiesinger, Kathryn B., and Felice Fischer. Japanese Design: A Survey Since 1950. Abrams, 1994. Wide coverage of contemporary design in Japan.

Hillier, Jack. Japanese Colour Prints. Phaidon, 1966, 1993. Well-illustrated selection of prints.

Hisamatsu, Shin'ichi. Zen and the Fine Arts. Kodansha, 1971, 1982. History, aesthetics, and illustrations of Japanese Zen Buddhism in architecture, calligraphy, painting, homes, and theater.

Kuck, Loraine. The World of the Japanese Garden: From Chinese Origins to Modern Landscape Art. Weatherhill, 1968. Tuttle, 1980. Beauty and symbolism of traditional Japanese garden.

Lee, Sherman E. The Genius of Japanese Design. Kodansha, 1981. Resource with 800 plates of predominant motifs from 15 centuries; also family crests.

Mason, Penelope E. History of Japanese Art. Abrams, 1993. Concise introduction.

Murase, Miyeko. Masterpieces of Japanese Screen Painting: The American Collections. Braziller, 1990.

Nishi, Kazuo, and Kazuo Hozumi.Trans. H. Mack Horton. What Is Japanese Architecture? Kodansha, 1996. Excellent introduction to Japanese architecture.

Paine, Robert T., and Alexander C. Soper. Art and Architecture of Japan. 3rd ed. Penguin, 1992. Scholarly history focuses on distinctive characteristics.

Pearson, Richard J., and Takashi Doi. Ancient Japan. Braziller, 1992. Catalog of a large exhibition on the ancient art of Japan.

Roberts, Laurance P. A Dictionary of Japanese Artists: Painting, Sculpture, Ceramics, Prints, Lacquer. Weatherhill, 1976, 1991. Comprehensive reference includes terminology, bibliography, organizations.

Shimizu, Yoshiaki, ed. Japan: The Shaping of Daimyo Culture, 1185-1868. Braziller, 1988. Catalog of an exhibition held at the National Gallery of Art.

Ueda, Atsushi. The Inner Harmony of the Japanese House. Kodansha, 1990. Collection of essays covering all aspects of domestic architecture.

Yoshida, Mitsukuni, and others. Japan Style. Kodansha, 1990. Essays with examples of Japanese aesthetics.

Japanese music

Crump, J. I., and William P. Malm, eds. Chinese and Japanese Music-Dramas. Michigan, 1975. Emphasis is on the characteristics of the Japanese no drama.

Kishibe, Shigeo. The Traditional Music of Japan. 2nd ed. Japan Foundation, 1982.

Malm, William P. Japanese Music and Musical Instruments. Tuttle, 1959, 1968. Authoritative, for layperson and musicologist; fine illustrations.

Malm, William P. Six Hidden Views of Japanese Music. University of California Press, 1986. Rituals, principles, compositions, performances; covers no, nagauta, and matsuri genres.

Piggott, Francis. The Music and Musical Instruments of Japan. Da Capo, 1971. Includes a section on the Japanese scale; first published 1893.

Tanabe, Hisao. Japanese Music. Rev. ed. Society for International Cultural Relations, 1960. Revision of a paper published in 1929. Japanese literature

Kato, Shuichi.Trans. David Chibbett (vol. 1) and Don Sanderson (vols. 2, 3). A History of Japanese Literature. 3 vols. Macmillan, 1979-1983. Discusses social context from the 7th century to the 1980s.

Keene, Donald. Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era. 2 vols. Holt, 1984. Reprint, Columbia University Press, 1998. Covers the period from 1867 to 1970. Volume 1 covers nonfiction, volume 2 deals with poetry, drama, and criticism.

Keene, Donald. Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century. Holt, 1993, Reprint, Columbia University Press, 1999. Last volume of Keene's comprehensive survey of Japanese literature.

Keene, Donald. Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867. Holt, 1976, Reprint, Columbia University Press, 1999. Part of Keene's survey of Japanese literature.

Rimer, J. Thomas. A Reader's Guide to Japanese Literature. Kodansha, 1999. Provides a good introduction for all readers.

Ueda, Makoto, ed. and trans. Modern Japanese Tanka: An Anthology. Columbia University Press, 1996. A comprehensive collection of the early poetry form that inspired haiku and renga.

Japanese culture and society

Beasley, William G. The Rise of Modern Japan: Political, Economic, and Social Change Since 1850. 2nd ed. St. Martin's, 1995. An excellent one-volume history of Japan from the rise of the Tokugawa to the 1990s.

Benedict, Ruth. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Houghton Mifflin, 1946, 1989. A classic exploration of Japanese society from the 7th century to the mid-20th century.

Booth, Alan. Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan. Kodansha, 1996. The author retraces three journeys originally made by literary and military figures, providing historical and cultural insights into Japan. Also by this author, The Roads to Sata: A 2000-Mile Walk Through Japan (Viking, 1986).

Buckley, Roger. Japan Today. 3rd ed. Cambridge University Press, 1998. Excellent description of Japanese society.

DeMente, Boye Lafayette. Japan Encyclopedia. Passport, 1995. Concise yet comprehensive resource on Japanese people and culture. Many entries provide Japanese equivalents and pronunciation with the English text.

Earhart, H. Byron. Religions of Japan: Many Traditions Within One Sacred Way. Harper & Row, 1984. Reprint, Waveland, 1998. Introduction to the different traditions and the role of religion in Japanese life.

Gibney, Frank. Japan: The Fragile Superpower. 3rd ed. Charles E. Tuttle, 1996. Politics and foreign policy in modern Japan.

Hall, John W., gen. ed. The Cambridge History of Japan. 6 vols. Cambridge University Press, 1988-1993. The standard multivolume scholarly history of Japan.

Horsley, William, and Roger Buckley. Nippon: New Superpower: Japan Since 1945. BBC Books, 1992. Companion to the BBC television documentary provides a complete discussion of postwar Japan.

Jansen, Marius B. Japan and Its World: Two Centuries of Change. Princeton University Press, 1980, 1996. Emphasizes how the Japanese view themselves and the Western world.

Reischauer, Edwin O. The Japanese Today. Harvard University Press, 1987. One of the best one-volume introductions to Japan.

Reischauer, Haru Matsukata. Samurai and Silk: A Japanese and American Heritage. Belknap, 1986. The author's grandfathers exemplify upper-class life in modern Japan.

Smith, Patrick L. Japan: A Reinterpretation. Pantheon, 1997. This portrait of modern Japan covers history, samurai culture, education, and political and social issues.

Sugimoto, Yoshio. An Introduction to Japanese Society. Cambridge University Press, 1997. Introduction to many aspects of Japan, including class, work and labor, education, family, government, and popular culture.

Tsunoda, Ryusaku; William Theodore de Bary; and Donald Keene, comps. Sources of the Japanese Tradition. Columbia University Press, 1958, 1969. Translations from important works of literature, history, philosophy, religion, and statecraft.

White, Merry. The Material Child: Coming of Age in Japan and America. Free Press, 1994. Cross-cultural study discussing the differences between Japanese and American teenagers.

Japanese history

Beasley, W. G. The Japanese Experience: A Short History of Japan. University of California Press, 1999, 2000. A distinguished expert's concise history of Japan from the 6th century to the present.

Bix, Herbert L. Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan. HarperCollins, 2000, 2001. Vivid portrait of Japan's wartime emperor.

Buruma, Ian. Inventing Japan, 1853-1964. Modern Library, 2003. A concise history of modern Japan.

Dower, John W. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. Norton, 1999, 2000. Analysis of postwar Japan; winner of Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.

Jansen, Marius B. The Making of Modern Japan. Harvard University Press, 2000. Absorbing, monumental history of Japan over the last 400 years.

McClain, James L. Japan: A Modern History. Norton, 2001. Lively and comprehensive treatment of Japan's history from the 17th century to the present.

Reischauer, Edwin O. Japan: The Story of a Nation. 4th ed. McGraw Hill, 1990. One of the best introductions to Japanese history and culture.


Cybriwsky, Roman A., B.S., M.S., Ph.D. Professor of Geography and Urban Studies, Temple University. Author of Historical Dictionary of Tokyo, Japan, and Tokyo: The Shogun’s City at the 21st’ Century.

Duus, Peter, A.B., M.A., Ph.D. William H. Bonsall Professor of History, Stanford University. Author of The Abacus and the Sword, Feudalism in Japan, and Modem Japan.

Haley, John 0., A.B., LL.B., LL.M. Garvey, Schubert and Barer Professor of Law and Professor of International Studies, University of Washington. Author of Antitrust in Germany and Japan: The First Half Century,Authority Without Power: Law and the Japanese Paradox, and The Spirit of Japanese Law.

Katz, Richard, B.A., M.A. Senior Editor, The Oriental Economist Report and Visiting Lecturer in Economics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Author of Japan: The System that Scared—The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Economic Miracle.

Varley, Paul, M.A., Ph.D. Sen Soshitsu XV Professor of Japanese Cultural History, University of Hawaii. Author of Warriors of Japan, As Portrayed in the War Tales, Japanese Culture, and Tea in Japan: Essays on the History of Chanoyu. Received the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette, from the Emperor of Japan.

Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2009. © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation.

Article key phrases:

Korea Strait, shoguns, Sea of Okhotsk, constitutional monarchy, Axis powers, Sea of Japan, eastern Russia, Shinto, East Sea, Hokkaido, North Pacific Ocean, East China Sea, Shikoku, seacoast, shogun, Kyushu, major rivers, industrialization, Asian continent, military power, lowlands, air transportation, standards of living, great powers, urban infrastructure, island nation, modern era, electronic goods, head of state, sound systems, latest technologies, Densities, emperors, Kobe, coup, Nippon, Western nations, sway, land area, rising sun, Buddhism, foreigners, largest city, televisions, North Korea, national parks, World War II, origin, East Asia, emperor, automobiles, capital, borders, Taiwan, China, Japan, South Korea, Tokyo, computers, cameras, coast, Korea, time, Japanese, art, bridges, United States, landscape, population, Mountains, world, century, place, technology, economy, rest, beauty, plains, English, government, Beginning, literature, society, result, country, defeat, portion, west, percent, addition, article, rule, nations, way, years

Search this website: