Japan is a country in East Asia which spans a number of islands, the five largest of which are Hokkaido (in the north), Honshu (the “mainland”), Shikoku, Kyushu and Okinawa. It has a population of approx. 126 million, 98% of which are ethnically Japanese. The dominant spoken language there is, unsurprisingly, Japanese. Its capital city is Tokyo.

There are lots of things that come to mind when I think about Japan! One of these would be the high degree of urbanisation (92% of Japanese people live in cities). Japanese cities are very dense, but also highly liveable with excellent public transport. There aren’t strict zoning laws, so people are welcome to open a business anywhere so long as it doesn’t disturb neighbours – this means that almost no matter where you are in a city, you’re within easy walking distance to shops, bars, restaurants, etc.. Japan also has a very different attitude to construction than we do in the West; basically, most buildings there are purposely designed to be temporary, so property actually depreciates in value rather than constantly going up like here. As a result, Tokyo (and other Japanese cities) have some of the most affordable rents of any major city in the developed world.

Japan is also, unfortunately, infamous for its insane work culture. Office workers are expected to put in horrifically long hours (15 hours a day in the office is not unknown), and what I’ve heard is that they face being harshly judged if they dare go home earlier than the boss. This has a number of negative social impacts, including young people lacking time to date, deciding not to have kids or having only one kid (not negative in and of itself I guess but I think it’s bad if people would otherwise want kids and are choosing not to only because work is too demanding), and it’s been suggested that this is also a cause of Japan’s high suicide rate. (But it’s also been suggested that their suicide rate isn’t that much higher than other developed countries.)

Other social problems in Japan include a certain amount of xenophobia, to the point that even very long-standing ethnic minorities like the Zainichi Koreans are not fully integrated into Japanese society. Another would be its poor rates of gender equality (it rates one-hundred-and-somethingth in the world, far below nearly all other developed countries, with women poorly represented in power structures and widely discriminated against at work). This is super anecdotal but when I’ve tried watching Japanese TV dramas, I have usually been turned off by the weird characterisation of women (but I won’t pretend I’ve watched that many Japanese shows). On the bright side though, crime rates are extremely low.

Japan’s media output is prolific, and people around the world are familiar with manga, anime, J-pop and Japanese video games (e.g. by Nintendo). I also watch a few YouTubers based in Japan (although most of them are expats rather than Japanese people), including Rachel & Jun, Chris Broad (Abroad in Japan), Sharla (Sharmeleon). So considering the considerable language barrier, I feel like Japan is one of the non-Western countries that Westerners have the most familiarity with.

Lots of natural disasters strike Japan on a regular basis, unfortunately. Situated on the Pacific Ring of Fire, it regularly faces earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis, and it also experiences typhoons between May and November. One of the most significant earthquakes to hit Japan in recent years was the 9.1 magnitude quake which hit in March 2011, killing almost 20,000 people and causing the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The history of Japan should really get its own page, but as I understand it Japan was an extremely inward-looking nation for much of its history, with no interest in communicating with outsiders (like European explorers). Despite this, they clearly did have cultural ties with neighbouring countries, like China, and also with the arrival of Buddhism from India. In the nineteenth century Japan industrialised rapidly and became one of the leading imperialist powers of the world. In 1905 they defeated Russia in the 1905 Russian-Japanese War (something which sent shockwaves through the Russian political establishment). In 1910, they invaded and annexed Korea and Taiwan. In 1933, they went on to invade Manchuria, and a few years after that proceeded to invade most of east and southeast Asia, occupying those countries with shocking brutality and cruelty. Japan was defeated at the end of WW2 (and the USA has controversially maintained military bases there ever since). After that it became a democratic country (the only one in East Asia until the late 1980s), albeit one where the same party won almost every election, and pacifism was written into the country’s constitution. It continued to be one of the world’s major industrial economies, and its economy boomed until 1991, when the bursting of a real estate bubble brought down the whole economy. Japan’s economy has stagnated ever since.

Japan is a major tourist destination, and while I’ve never visited, I’d like to (my partner Viv would really like to!). It’s known for its mountainous landscapes, good skiing, the historic city of Kyoto, its other bustling cities, its short-lived but much-loved cherry blossom season each spring, and much more stuff I’m sure. The thing Vivian mentions more than anything else is the theme park Nintendoland, lol.


Did you know? I’ve posted other content tagged ‘Japan’! If you want to see what else I’ve written on this topic, you can do so here.