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Contemporary Japan

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Kanroku-en (Six Attributes Garden) in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, Japan.

Japan today is a country of some 377,955 sq km, and as an island country it has 29,769km of coastal boundary. It rises to 3,778m with Mount Fuji as its highest point. Natural dangers include:

  • Tsunamis
  • Earthquakes
  • Typhoons
  • Active volcanoes

The country is divided into 47 prefectures and is governed by a democratically elected two-house system – the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors.


The only English words I saw in Japan were Sony and Mitsubishi.
- Bill Gullickson.

Japan is known for its technology; it ranks as the second most technologically powerful economy in the world, not only in terms of invention, but in terms of taking existing products and ideas and adapting, improving and developing them. They have patents on various products, in particular those related to classes of photography, office machines, consumer electronic goods and information technology. Japan is also known for its input in creating cars (which are sometimes eco-friendly) designing the Gran Turismo and the driving technique 'drifting'. They have also helped in creating inductively-heated rice cookers, which were put into use because of the number of women that entered the workforce during the 1950s. Hi-tech toilets, canned hot drinks (such as canned coffee, tea and hot chocolate), robots, video games (such as Donkey Kong, Super Mario, and Legend of Zelda), the Walkman, mobile phones (keitai denwa), the Shinkansen (bullet train), quality management tools and vending machines have all evolved through Japanese expertise. There are about 5.6 million vending machines in Japan selling a range of different things, including eggs, flowers, drinks, cigarettes, clothing and tickets. Japanese film-makers produced the film Godzilla and the Subaru telescope1. The Japanese also invented the tsunami forecaster, fare cards (Suica and ICOCA) and the convenience food known as instant ramen.


Gardening takes place both indoors and outdoors. Outside, you'll find traditional landscape gardens. These include:

  • Tsukiyama Gardens (hill gardens, showing nature in miniature)

  • Karesansui Gardens (dry gravel zen gardens with rocks representing landscape features)

  • The Chaniwa Gardens (tea gardens)

Inside, garden arts such as Ikebana and Bonsai are practised which reflect on the beauty and nature of the outdoors.

Japan is home to over 30 of the most famous and beautiful gardens in the world:

  • In Kanazawa the gardens of Kenrokuen Castle have spectacular landscapes, over 200 years in the construction.

  • In Tokyo the gardens of Rikugien include the gardens of six poems, finished around 1700.

  • In Kamakura are the gardens of Zuisenji Zen Temple, and rock and flower gardens in the temple grounds.

  • In Mito the Kairakuen garden of the plum tree forest (including 3,000 trees of 100 different types) is an essential visit in Spring blossom time.

Ikebana is the art of flower arranging. It takes up to five years to become a specialist in Ikebana, as there are many different ways of arranging flowers. Many of these styles of arrangement have names such as rikka (standing flowers), seika or shoka (living flowers), nageire (flung flowers) and moribana (piled-up flowers). The intention of all who do Ikebana is to create harmony between both the flower and the pot it lives in. These beautiful arrangements are created through the use of scissors (hasami), a tall vase (kabin) for use in heika arrangements or a low shallow container (utsuwa) for use in moribana arrangements and a holder with sharp points known as kenzan.

Bonsai are another part of traditional Japanese culture and require a lot of looking after. They are a reflection on what Japanese society regards as beautiful as well as being significant of the respect Japanese people have for living things. If you wish to, it is fairly straightforward togrow your own bonsai.


Japan is home to many animals. There are over 660 bird species, including the crane, the copper pheasant and the bush warbler. Over 180 species of animals are native to Japan. These include the Japanese deer (kamoshika), the fox (kitsune), and the raccoon dog (tanuki). Brown bears have been found living in Hokkaido, tropical snakes in Okinawa and Japanese monkeys (saru) live all over Japan (except Hokkaido).

Though illegal in many countries Japan also takes part in whaling.


Japan is commonly known around the world for its martial arts such as judo, karate, aikido, puroresu, kendo, bushido, sumo wrestling and tae kwon do. Japan is also heavily influenced by western sports such as hiking, cycling, skiing, baseball, cormorant fishing and climbing.

The highest peak in Japan is Fujiyama (Mount Fuji) which is climbed by 400,000 people each year. Formula One and Grand Prix motorcycling is also favoured by the Japanese who have produced a number of 125cc and 250cc world champions. Yamaha, Honda and Suzuki (and to a lesser extent Kawasaki) have dominated the Grand Prix scene for decades. Football has also been gaining popularity among the Japanese, especially since the Korea/Japan 2002 World Cup. Japanese football fans are famous for turning up at a venue, cheering on their team, then at the end, producing plastic bags and clearing up after themselves. Japan also sends many of its athletes to the Summer and Winter Olympic Games and has held them three times in 1964, 1972 and 1998. The first Olympic games the Japanese participated in was the 5th Olympic Games in July, 1912 in Stockholm.

Child's Play

When Japanese children aren't playing computer games or sport, they may be seen taking part in origami (the art of paper-folding), listening to folk legends or partaking in a game that dates back to the middle ages such as fuku warai (the Japanese version of 'pin the tail on the donkey'). Kendama is also a popular pastime for many children and has become a recognisable sport, while Menko involves pictured discs and the aim of the game is to turn the opponents disc over like POGs. Onsen, sento, budo, spinning tops (koma), kites (tako), karuta (such as hyakunin-isshu, which is a popular card game), chess (shogi) and an alternative version of badminton (hanetsuki) are all very popular too, as are graphic novels (manga) and animated films (anime2).


In 1872 education (kyoiku) became compulsory in Japan as a result of the Meiji Restoration. Standard education consists of elementary school (lasting six years), middle school (three years), high school (three years), and university (four years). Education is only compulsory for nine years through elementary and middle school, but 97% of students go on to university, junior college, trade school, or other post-secondary institutions. Many students progress in education with the help of cram schools (juku), which improve their chances of passing exams.

The Japanese education system is respected highly around the world and is most similar to the French education system, which is very rigid and holds little scope for creativity, unlike that of the UK or the US. Education is taught via lectures but there is little to no interaction between the students and their highly-regarded teachers. The Japanese are particularly good at maths and study this alongside other subjects from Monday to Friday. Like the French, the Japanese also occasionally went to school on Saturdays, but this is no longer practised.


America's health care system is second only to Japan... Canada, Sweden, Great Britain... well all of Europe. But you can thank your lucky stars we don't live in Paraguay!
- Dan Castellaneta.

Apart from relatively high rates of smoking, cancer, heart disease, strokes, suicide (especially among the elderly and students) and what used to be seen to the Japanese as a foreign illness, AIDS, the Japanese live particularly healthy lives mainly due to their low fat fish-based diets and high levels of healthcare and public hygiene. Japan has the highest concentration of centenarians in the world: 25,000 in a population of 127 million in 2006. By 2050 the number of Japanese centenarians is expected to rise to one million. The average life expectancy for Japanese women is 85.6 years; for men it is 79.6 years. It was recorded in the 2002 Guinness Book of World Records that the oldest person was 120-year-old Shigechiyo Izumi, who also had the longest career, working for 98 years as a farmer. Izumi passed away in 1986. 'Respect the Aged Day' is held every year on 19 September and celebrates the latest legion of 100-year-olds, who are presented with a silver cup and a letter from the Prime Minister.

In 2005 Blue Peter presenters visited Japan and were surprised to see people wearing white masks covering their noses and mouths; these block out germs and colds and carry an antiseptic.

Chinese medicine has been practised in Japan since 6AD and is related to Shinto. Herbal drugs, acupuncture and shiatsu are just some of the methods used to cure patients. Bufotoxin (cane toad poison) is used in oriental medicine; and a derivative of bufotoxin is an ingredient of a Japanese hair-restorer.

Famous Japanese People

It's interesting to find a band in Japan that sounds just like Yes and a band in Germany that do just Yes covers.
- Jon Anderson

Junichiro Koizumi - Former Japanese Prime Minister

Born in Yokosuka on 8 January, 1942, Koizumi attended Yokosuka High School and Keio University, where he studied economics. He also attended University College London and returned to Japan in August 1969 having heard news of his father's death. Over the years he has experienced marriage and divorce and won leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 2001. He is an advocate for reform, is focussed on Japan's government debt and the privatisation of its postal service and although many people support him, neighbouring countries have objected to a perceived lack of contrition on his behalf with regard to Japan's militaristic past. In his spare time the Prime Minister has had fun impersonating Elvis and has recorded a CD of Elvis songs with Elvis's backing singers. Koizumi performed a duet with Tom Cruise for an audience when Tom visited Japan. Cruise described Koizumi as 'an extraordinary man, and a pretty good singer'.

Yoko Ono

Born in 1933, Yoko Ono was already a well-known artist before she became John Lennon's wife. She was rumoured to have helped break up The Beatles and appeared in the video for the song 'Imagine' performed by John Lennon.

Yoko Kanno

Yoko Kanno shot to fame as a keyboardist for the band Tetsu 100% in 1987. She went on to join the computer game company Koei in 1988 and to date has composed soundtracks to anime and computer games, created orchestral compositions with world-class orchestras such as the Israel, Czech and Warsaw Philharmonics and has produced a range of music including jazz, pop and opera tracks.

Aikawa Nanase

Born on 16 February, 1975 in Osaka, Japan, Nanase shot to fame in Japan as a rock singer, performing 'Dandelion', 'Bye Bye', 'Break Out' and 'Cosmic Love'. Nanase is a very private person and rarely gives interviews: when she does she is very careful in what she chooses to tell people. She is so private that on her wedding day (16 February, 2001) only her official website told of the fact she had got married and that she was pregnant with her first child (a baby boy which arrived on the 6 September, 2001). This caused many broken hearts among her male fanbase. By January 2002, Nanase Aikawa had released five albums, plus one compilation album and a mini-album, 19 singles and two music video collections.

Takeshi Kitano

Takeshi Kitano (aka 'Beat' Takeshi) is a director, writer, actor, artist, poet, novelist, newspaper columnist, comedian, musician and daily talk-show host. He had a rags to riches upbringing and like a lot of other famous Japanese people is barely known in the West. His love of baseball has also led him to participate in the game, managing an amateur baseball team. In 2000 he unleashed an English language film on the West called Brother, followed by a very well-received modern adaptation of an old tale, 'Zatoichi'.

The Japanese band Shonen Knife also broke into the western music scene with the Japanese take on rock called J-Rock.

Other famous Japanese people include singer and actor Takuya Kimura (nicknamed 'Kimutaku'), actor Ken Watanabe who was in Memoirs of a Geisha and The Last Samurai, singers Ayumi Hamazaki and Hikaru Utada, sumo brothers Takanohana and Wakanohana, Hayao Miyazaki who directed Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle, Akira Kurosawa of The Seven Samurai, origami extraordinaire Sadako Sasaki, soccer star Hidetoshi Nakata, and young baseball pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. However, many of them are not well known in the West.

1Although this 21st-Century infra-red telescope is owned by the Japanese, it was built in Hawaii and has been used to examine the outer fringes of the universe.2Manga and anime dealing with adult-based themes are also very popular with Japanese grown-ups.

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