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Asia, Japan

Korea Strait, Meiji emperor, urban corridor, Sea of Okhotsk, eastern Russia

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 sea coast. 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.

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