Is it time to plan a vacation? How about Asia? We have fun facts about Japan in this post. Most people think of Japan as an island. However, Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka are on only one of the islands, Honshu. Japan has 6,852 islands but only a small number of these islands are inhabited, with the four main islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku accounting for the majority of the country's population and economic activity. If you want to know more about Tokyo, we have another post about Tokyo fun facts here. Japan is quite famous for food. Japan is home to the world's largest fish market, the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, which handles over 2,000 tons of seafood daily. Japanese cuisine is known for its emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients and delicate flavors, with popular dishes including sushi, ramen, and tempura. Did you know that Japan has volcanoes? Japan is home to over 100 active volcanoes and is situated in the Pacific Ring of Fire, a region known for its frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity. Even with volcanoes, it might be the safest country you could ever visit. It is time to start planning your vacation. As a traveler, here are some fun facts to consider about Japan.
Here is some historical information for Japan. The country has a long and storied past; I hope this helps you better understand the country when you visit!
This barely scratches the surface of Japanese history. I highly recommend reading more about Japan’s fascinating story.
And read more about our travels in Japan!
We can trace Japan civilization as far back as 40,000 BC. The Japanese Paleolithic Period lasted several millennia, from 40,000 BC to 14,000 BC. Scholars base this on artifacts, particularly stone tools and axes. These dates are estimated, and scholars debate the details while they discover more artifacts.
The first humans to inhabit Japan walked over from the Asian mainland around 35,000 BC, when the northwestern tip of Hokkaido connected to the eastern extremities of Russia. Cord-marked pottery has been discovered and dated. This is Japan’s first documented era called the Jōmon period.
The Jōmon were a hunter-gatherer culture when another group called the Yayoi sailed from the Korean peninsula around 500 BC. These newcomers gradually came to dominate the regions from the south of Japan up to northern Honshu. Today it is thought that Japanese are ancestors of interbreeding between these two early inhabitants.
The Jōmon period spans roughly from 14,500 to 300 BC. During this period, people migrated to the four main islands of Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, and eventually to the several hundred smaller islands that make up Japan. It is difficult to be accurate about Japan’s historical roots because the only records of Japan before the 8th century came from the Chinese.
Archeological data from iron and bronze tools, farming techniques, pottery, etc. only provide fragments of information. From the Chinese texts, we know that by 250 AD, Japan was self-governed over the land from northern Kyushu to the Kanto plains. The seat of government was in the modern-day Nara Prefecture, close to modern-day Kyoto.
The documentation of religious practices, both Shinto and Buddhism, gave historians some glimpses of the Japanese people. Shinto religion was based on the worship of multiple kami (gods or spirits) who resided in nature. Spirits would inhabit lakes, rivers, mountains, trees, and rocks. They also manifested themselves in rain, wind and thunder.
The Shinto religion must have been central to the farmers who were so dependent on the rice harvest. In the Shinto religion, they believed that the first emperor descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu. This belief persisted until Emperor Hirohito declared his humanity his people.
Japan’s other main religion, Buddhism, crossed from Korea in the middle of the 6th century when Seong of Baekje, king of one of the three kingdoms of Korea, sent a mission to Nara bearing a statue of the Buddha and copies of the sutra. Buddhism was not as popular with the people as was Shinto until the Soga clan adopted it when they were in power. As a result, Buddhism grew in influence.
Both Shinto and Buddhism shaped the rituals and beliefs of the Japanese people. However, it was the teachings of Confucius that provided the framework for an administrative and legal system. Confucius was a Chinese philosopher who lived in the 6th century. His teachings spread to Korea and when Buddhism came to Japan from Korea, the teachings of Confucius came along as well. The first documented writing system came at the same time. This allowed the Japanese to both understand the teachings but also to begin documenting their own interpretation of history.
The Seventeen Article Constitution, authored by Prince Shotoku in 604 AD and the subsequent Taika Reforms in 645 AD, jointly gave rise to Japan’s first constitution. Based almost entirely on the Ritsuryō, a legal system of penal and administrative codes as taught by Confucius, it laid the groundwork for patriarchal rule and a male-dominated society.
With the introduction of the Ritsuryō in the mid-seventh century, were declared property of the government on which a tax was to levied to support the administration. But lands classified as shoen were granted a tax-free status and offered as rewards to those who pledged their allegiance to the emperor. In this manner, the emperor could encourage them for their behavior.
The government of Japan consisted of the emperor, his high ministers, a council of state, and eight ministries, which ruled more than seven million people spread over 68 provinces. People worked the land, either for themselves or the estates of others.
The next documented era was the Heian period, which lasted from 794 until 1185 AD. During this time, the capital moved from Nara to Heian, present day Kyoto, where it remained until 1868. During the Heian period, art and culture flourished. The Tales of Genji, considered to be the world’s first modern novel, was written during this period. Poetry also flourished. The samurai thrived. By the 12th century, around half of Japan’s arable land was classified as shoen, significantly eroding the revenue stream flowing toward the government.
Between the 12th and 15th centuries, various shogun ruled Japan. The shogun were warlords who respected the emperor, who in turn rewarded them with shoen property free from taxation. The shogun used samurai to defend their territories from their enemies. Mongols unsuccessfully tried to invade Japan from their strongholds in China, but bad weather kept their ships from being a potent force.
By the end of the 15th century, Japan was in a period of civil war known as the sengoku-jidai. For the next 100 years, powerful clans spread throughout Japan would each vie to further their position in the political landscape. The emperor had little control over the clans other than to cede land to some and deny it to others.
Japan was a mystery to much of the world until missionaries and traders arrived from Europe. Even though the emperor supposedly ruled from Kyoto, the shogun really ruled Japan. The most famous of these was Tokugawa Ieyasu, who united most of the country and clarified the classes. He ruled from Edo, modern day Tokyo apart from the emperor in Kyoto.
Because of the spread of Christianity in the south of Japan, the Tokugawa shogun evicted all foreigners who refused to disassociate religion from trade. Only the Dutch were allowed to remain. They remained on an island near Nagasaki. Tokugawa also forbade the Japanese from travelling abroad. Under Tokugawa Japanese arts and literature flourished along with kabuki theatre and the formal tea ceremony.
Until this point the English, Americans, Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch traders engaged in regular trade with Japan. None of them were happy about being evicted from Japan.
Tokugawa created four social classes. The samurai were at the top, followed by peasants, artisans and merchants. The peasants provided food, whereas the merchants sold it. Artisans created works of beauty and were appreciated for it.
Below merchant class were two additional classes or castes: the eta and hinin. Together they were known as burakumin or untouchables. The eta, or defiled ones/filthy commoners, performed necessary work that was considered impure in Buddhist or Shinto beliefs. In vegetarian Japan, these were the butchers and the tanners, who dealt not only with death but handled animal skins.
The hinin were nonhumans, including convicts, beggars, prostitutes, street-sweepers, acrobats and other entertainers. Interestingly, an ordinary commoner could also fall into the eta category through certain unclean acts, such as committing incest.
Most eta were born into the status. Their families performed tasks that were so distasteful they were considered permanently sullied, such as butchering animals, preparing the dead for burial, executing condemned criminals or tanning hides. This Japanese definition is like that of the dalits or untouchables in the Hindu caste tradition of India, Pakistan, and Nepal.
Hinin were often born into their status too but could’ve come from circumstances occurring in their lives. For example, the daughter of a farming family might take work as a prostitute in hard times, thus moving from the second-highest caste to a sub caste in a single act.
Unlike eta, who were trapped in their caste, hinin could be adopted by a family from one of the commoner classes (farmers, artisans or merchants), and could join a higher status group. In other words, eta status was permanent, but hinin status could change.
Opening to the West
Japan did not allow foreigners within its borders until the West arrived in 1853. That’s when four large American warships sailed into Tokyo bay. And with them the realization that geography no longer ensured security. Tokugawa knew that his country was defenseless against military pressures and could no longer remain isolated.
United States Admiral Matthew Perry’s Black Ships compelled Japan to enter relations with the West. It was the beginning of the demise of the Tokugawa rule. The Tokugawa clan lost power in the 1868 Meiji Restoration. Power was restored to the emperor, who then moved to Tokyo. Abolishment of the caste system occurred in 1871, along with the feudal system.
The Chinese had already opened their ports to the West. There was a steady stream of maritime traffic between North America and Asia. Steam ships replaced sailing ships and needed to be serviced with coal and provisions. Japan held vast deposits of coal which increased the appeal of establishing commercial and diplomatic contacts with the Japanese. The American whaling industry had entered the North Pacific by the mid-18th century, and its ships sought safe harbors.
The West believed that even if the Japanese were unreceptive to Western ideals, forcing them to interact and trade with the world was a necessity that would ultimately benefit both nations. A period of Western integration followed, during which the Japanese government worked to modernize, revising their education system, military, laws and infrastructure. This strengthened the economy, allowing Japan to consider expansion.
Japan waged wars against its neighbors, first against China from 1894 to 1895, and then Russia from 1904 to 1905. It acquired Korea, Taiwan, the Okinawa islands and part of Sakhalin. The West interceded on the part of China and forced Japan to return some territories. But this led to greater militarization by the Japanese.
The World Wars
Japan joined the Allies during World War I. But when the Treaty of Versailles was signed, Japan felt that its contributions were not fairly recognized. It seemed obvious to Japan’s leaders they were not being treated as peers by the so-called Big Four: Britain, France, Italy and the United States. For fifty years after the Meiji Restoration, Japan had embarked on a massive program of political modernization, economic industrialization, and Westernization. Japan had defeated both China and Russia. But it was clear to the Japanese that in the halls of Versailles, Europeans and Americans would never regard them as equals.
Emperor Hirohito became emperor when his father died in December 1926. He chose Showa, which roughly translates to “enlightened harmony,” as his reign name. World War I had ended less than a decade before. When Hirohito assumed the throne, political parties reassumed their prewar powers. However, the Japanese economy was failing while military power was rising.
The role of the prime minister was changing. Hirohito fired his prime minister in 1929. The next prime minister was shot and mortally wounded. In 1932, yet another prime minister was assassinated by naval officers upset about a treaty limiting the number of Japanese warships. From then on, almost all prime ministers came from the military rather than political parties, which were disbanded altogether in 1940.
Japan’s conflict with China was growing. In 1931, Japanese army officers started the so-called Manchurian Incident by detonating a railway explosion, and then blaming it on Chinese bandits. They used the event as an excuse to take over Manchuria in northeastern China and set up a puppet state. In 1937, war with China began. Hirohito did not condone the invasion, but he also did not punish those responsible.
In 1940, Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, in which they agreed to assist one another should any of them come under attack by a country not already involved in the war. Japan sent troops to occupy French Indochina that same month, and the United States responded with economic sanctions, including an embargo on oil and steel. A little more than a year later, Hirohito consented to the decision of his government to battle the United States.
After World War II, the Japanese constitution changed, preserving the monarchy but defining the emperor as a symbol of the state. All political power went to elected representatives. Unlike many among his top military brass, Hirohito was not indicted as a war criminal. Instead, Hirohito toured the country and oversaw reconstruction efforts. The American occupation ended in 1952, after which Hirohito served largely in the background. Meanwhile, Japan went through a period of rapid economic growth. Hirohito died in 1989, having spent nearly 64 years on the throne, the longest imperial reign in Japanese history.
After World War II, the U.S. and Japan were able to forge a strong postwar diplomatic alliance. The U.S. State Department still refers to the American-Japanese relationship as “the cornerstone of U.S. security interests in Asia and…fundamental to regional stability and prosperity.” The two countries are strong allies today, relying on each other under the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, signed in 1959. Today, the camaraderie between the two nations is seen in the huge number of Japanese tourists who travel to Hawaii and pay their respects to those lost at Pearl Harbor. On average, more than three and a half million Japanese tourists visit the United States annually. The number of Americans visiting Japan has increased steadily to nearly two million in 2018. Japanese tourism is booming, with more than 30 million tourists visiting annually.
Japan is a contrast in culture in many ways. There is so much history with traditions and practices that has lasted for thousands of years. Japan is also modern and changing constantly. The culture allows rapid change in technology, fashion, animation, and transportation. Japan has been talking about robots since the 1600s. The Shinkansen, known as the bullet train, has revolutionized travel.
Japanese food has a rich history of its own and there is certainly a lot of emphasis on rice, noodles and fish. Japanese food is known worldwide for its precision, detailed and unique presentation. Every region in Japan has its own variety of dishes which reflect the area the food is sourced from. Sushi is known all over the world but to have sushi in Japan is special.
Kimonos and Geishas
Women dressing in kimonos can be seen all over Japan. I frequently would see them in exquisite dress and talking on their cell phone. It’s a little jarring since I originally only knew of this style of dress from movies particularly in tea ceremonies or as Geisha. I never saw a movie with a Geisha using a mobile phone!
The Geisha are the embodiment of Japanese culture and one of the known symbols of Japan. As in the past, they are performing artists, adept at playing a range of musical instruments, traditional dance and mannered conversation.
You still can receive a Japanese tea ceremony at most hotels and at many tourist destinations. The ceremony is a unique bond between host and guest that demonstrates the spirit of generosity and respect. Courtesy and polite behavior are part of Japanese culture and all foreigners can learn from this.
You can also still see Kabuki as a tourist. This form of theater originated in the country and the audience were the townspeople and farmers. Originally, the cast were performers of both sexes, male and female but later men played all parts. When you see it today, the men are wearing heaving makeup with elaborate costumes and music. The National Theater in Tokyo has a school for training young performers today and the style is evolving.
Most kabuki performances are styled with classic Edo-period plays and utilize traditional costumes and conventions. A new generation of actors are updating plays to attract a more modern audience. A kabuki performance can be long–about 5 hours with multiple acts and intermissions. You might want to check first.
Larger theatres in Tokyo provide earphones where English is spoken so you can follow along more readily if Japanese is not your main language. You also can purchase a single act ticket these days that only permits admission for the act you wish to see. These are far less expensive and less time consuming.
Sumo wrestling is Japan’s oldest sport and you can see it on TV regularly or you can visit the match itself. the oldest sport of Japan. The rules and traditions are ancient, and the sumo follow them with rigor. Rituals and ceremonies performed before practice and bouts are fascinating to the Western eye. In the ring, the two wrestlers try to push, pull or throw the other out of the ring or down to the ground. There are six tournaments a year and the schedule is well known. Tickets to a match are not hard to get but you may want to go with a tour, so you have more understanding of what is happening.
These are all traditions and practices from the past that have been maintained. There are many others like origami, woodblock printing, pottery traditions and food traditions.
In the modern world, Japan keeps reinventing itself. Manga and anime are common. Japan is a leading contributor to fashion trends. Technology firsts occur regularly in Japan. In Tokyo, particularly in Harajuku, you might see people dressed in costumes. Some have termed this Cosplay as a mixture of costume and play. You will see young and old dress up as a character from a film, TV, video game or Manga or Anime. They have robot restaurants where characters dress up as robots and real robots move about. Japan also has maid restaurants where young women dress up as maids and call their customers master. Japan is not stuck in the past but it honors many traditions while it also creates new ones.
Tokyo is modern and there is something for everyone in this city. Western styled foods are available in many locations with English menus. You still can find terrific sushi all over Tokyo even if all you can do is point at the dish you want. Many sushi-styled restaurants have plates on conveyer belts and you simply pick the one you want to eat. At the end of your meal, they count the plates to determine your bill.
Pachinko parlors abound in Tokyo where things are more modern. Modern day life in other cities has been updated with major hotel chains entering Japan. Where you once only found humble ryokan hotels, you might find a Marriott or a Hyatt. English is not spoken as much outside of Tokyo, but most hotels will speak English if you pick one carefully.
Our Japanese Travels
Japan is much more than Tokyo. We have enjoyed many cities including:
Places we still want to visit include:
I originally came to Japan to work, and I only worked in Tokyo. The transportation systems (trains and buses) are plentiful, and it’s easy to arrange a tour from Tokyo to other cities.
There is plenty to see in Japan. Although we’ve been there many times, we always want to go back. We have many friends there and have had so many great experiences, we want to see them again and look for new opportunities.
I would recommend Japan to anyone who asks. The Japanese are gracious, and it’s easy to navigate around a city with metro maps in English. For longer distance travel, the Shinkansen trains can whisk you to your destination quickly. With their country hosting the Olympics in 2020, the Japanese are taking great care in welcoming all visitors to their beautiful country.