East Asia: Japan

A HUMAN PERSPECTIVE The Japanese flag shows a red sun against a white background. The red sun symbolizes Amaterasu, the sun goddess. According to myth, the Japanese emperor and his family are descended from the goddess. The Japanese call their country Nippon, which means “source of the sun.” The name Japan may have come from a Chinese phrase meaning “origin of the sun,” or it may have come from Chipangu, a name for the country recorded by Marco Polo.

Samurai and Shogun

Japan lies east of China—toward the rising sun. In their earliest history, the Japanese were close enough to China to feel its civilizing effects, but they were far enough away to be protected from invasion.


The original inhabitants of Japan may have come to the islands from the mainland of Asia and from the South Pacific. There is some evidence to suggest that the ancestors of today's Japanese came eastward through Siberia and Korea and entered Japan.

By about 1,500 years ago, most of Japan was actively growing food, such as rice. Weapons and tools made of bronze and iron were introduced, along with textiles. Until the A.D. 300s, Japan was not a unified country. It was made up of hundreds of clans ruling separate territories. Then, by the fifth century, the Yamato clan had become the ruling clan. It claimed descent from the sun goddess, and by the seventh century, its leaders called themselves emperors of Japan.

In 794, the rulers moved the capital to the city of Heian (modern Kyoto). The era from 794 to 1185 is called the Heian period. During this time, Japan's central government was strong, but eventually the great landowners and clan chiefs began to act as independent rulers.

Professional soldiers called samurai served the interests of the landowners and clan chiefs. The samurai (the word means “one who guards”) served as a bodyguard of warriors loyal to the leader of a clan.


In 1192, after a struggle between two powerful clans, the Japanese emperor created the position of shogun. The shogun was the general of the emperor's army with the powers of a military dictator.

All officials, judges, and armies were under his authority. The shoguns appointed governors, called daimyo, to each province. They were responsible for maintaining order.

Rule by the shoguns lasted for about 700 years. During those years, the Japanese fought off Mongol invasions and saw the arrival of Portuguese traders, who brought Christianity and firearms to Japan in the 1500s. In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry's arrival to Japan from the United States ended Japan's isolation. In 1868, the last shogun resigned, and the emperor became head of the government.


During the late 19th century, Japan's government began bringing Japan into the modern age. By the early 20th century, Japan had become a major power.

During the early years of the 20th century, Japan expanded its empire. Its interests and those of the United States came into conflict in the Pacific region. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The attack brought the United States into World War II, which ended with Japan's defeat and surrender in 1945.

After World War II, the United States headed the occupation of Japan and introduced political and economic reforms. Eventually Japan became a democracy—a constitutional monarchy with an emperor and an elected parliament.

An Economic Powerhouse

After its defeat in World War II, Japan transformed itself into one of the world's most powerful economies. It experienced an economic boom, even though it has few natural resources. Japan is second only to the United States in the size of its economy.


The population of Japan is more than 126 million. About 75 percent of Japan's people live in cities. Sixty percent of the people live on 2.7 percent of the land. Japan has few minorities, and those few are often discriminated against.

Most of Japan's population and most of its industry and manufacturing are located in a corridor hundreds of miles long along the east coast of the main island of Honshu, with Tokyo as its anchor. The people who live in this corridor form the work force that produces goods sold around the world.

Japanese Empire, 1942

Manufacturing and trade are at the heart of Japan's economy. Japan imports most of the natural resources for its industrial needs. Among the resources it imports are coal and petroleum. Then it uses those resources and others to manufacture products for export to the global market. Among the most important of those products are cars, trucks, and electronic equipment such as televisions and computers.

A strong alliance between business and government has been one of the reasons for Japan's economic success during the second half of the 20th century.

After the war, the United States gave economic assistance to Japan. Financial support from the government helped Japanese businesses develop products to market abroad.


After four decades of rapid growth, Japan's economy began to slow down in the 1990s. As the economic growth rate declined, many companies scaled back their operations, and some went bankrupt. A number of reasons accounted for this slowdown.

Other economies in East Asia, such as those of Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong, provided competition. Then, when the economies of Southeast Asia encountered problems, Japanese investments there lost value. Many banks proved vulnerable. The Japanese stock market suffered big losses. Also, the Japanese people tended to save rather than spend. As a result, the economy became even more dependent on exports, which declined because of competition from other countries.

Japanese Culture

Japanese culture reflects the influences of both East and West. From these influences, Japan has developed its own unique culture.


In developing their early culture, the Japanese borrowed from China. Japanese language, religion, art, music, and government were all influenced by the Chinese.

The city of Kyoto is a monument to Japanese culture. The city contains Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines built of wood in the old style. The entire city is a living testament to Japanese ideas of beauty. Gardens, palaces, and temples all reflect a very spare, elegant, and refined style. In Kyoto and throughout Japan, great emphasis is placed on achieving harmony between a building and its natural surroundings.

Traditional drama is still performed in Japan. Noh plays developed during the 14th century. They deal with subjects drawn from history and legend and are performed by actors wearing masks. In the 17th century, Kabuki plays developed. They have colorful scenery, an exaggerated acting style, and vivid costumes.

Japanese painting was influenced by Chinese techniques and themes. Many early Japanese paintings show Buddhist themes that often came to Japan by way of China. Some examples of Japanese artistic works include long picture scrolls, ink paintings, and wood-block prints.


Since the day in 1853 when Commodore Perry sailed his fleet into Tokyo Bay, Japan has been open to Western influences. Those influences are visible in modern-day Japan.

Sports like baseball, golf, sumo wrestling, soccer, and tennis are popular in Japan. The clothes worn by most people are Western in style, although traditional clothing is worn on special occasions.

Western music is also popular in Japan. Rock music is popular among younger Japanese. They listen to Western groups and form rock bands of their own. Many cities in Japan have symphony orchestras that play Western classical music. Jazz is also popular.

Japan has been successful at balancing its traditional styles in art, theater, music, and architecture with influences from the West.

Life in Today's Japan

The people of Japan are educated and disciplined. This work force has enabled Japan to achieve prosperity.


Japan's educational system is highly structured. Students often attend school six days a week. They have a shorter summer vacation than American students—just six weeks in late July and August. Students attend six years of elementary school and three years of junior high school. Education is free during those years.

Then they spend three years in high school. At the same time, many students attend classes at private schools called juku to help get them into good colleges.

Competition among students is high to gain admission to the best universities. Japan has more than 1,000 universities and technical colleges. Universities that rank at the top of the educational system include the University of Tokyo, Kyoto University, Keio University, and Waseda University.


The Japanese are making some changes in the way their society is run. People are now increasingly demanding an end to pollution and overcrowding. Furthermore,workers at all skill levels are asking for shorter workdays and more vacation time.

In the next chapter, you will read about three important issues in East Asia. These include trade, the pressures of a large population, and the dangers posed by volcanoes around the Pacific Ocean.