Facts & Figures
Emperor: Akihito (1989)
Prime Minister: Shinzo Abe (2012)
Land area: 140,728 sq mi (364,485 sq km); total area: 145,913 sq mi (377,915 sq km)
Population (2014 est.): 127,103,388 (growth rate: -0.13%); birth rate: 8.07/1000; infant mortality rate: 2.13/1000; life expectancy: 84.46
Capital and largest city (2009 est.): Tokyo, 37.217 million
Other large cities: Osaka-Kobe 11.494 million; Nagoya 3.328 million; Fukuoka-Kitakyushu 2.868 million; Sapporo 2.742 million; Sendai 2.428 million (2011)
Monetary unit: Yen
- Japan Main Page
- Japan Expands Its Empire
- Japan Tests Its Military Might
- Economic Recovery Is Followed by Deep Recession
- Succession of Prime Ministers Meet Only Fleeting Popularity
- Scandals Taint Leadership
- Tsunami Devastates Japan and Causes Nuclear Disaster
- Tension Increases with Asian Neighbors Over Islands
- Noda Wins Party Leadership Vote, but Faces Strong Opposition
- Shinzo Abe Becomes Prime Minister Again in Late 2012
- Ongoing Fukushima Leak Declared an Emergency
- Japan Lifts Decades Old Arms Ban
- China, South Korea, and Japan Hold First Foreign Minister Talks in Three Years
- Military Legislation Sparks Protests
An archipelago in the Pacific, Japan is separated from the east coast of Asia by the Sea of Japan. It is approximately the size of Montana. Japan's four main islands are Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku. The Ryukyu chain to the southwest was U.S.-occupied from 1945 to 1972, when it reverted to Japanese control, and the Kurils to the northeast are Russian-occupied.
Constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary government.
Legend attributes the creation of Japan to the sun goddess, from whom the emperors were descended. The first of them was Jimmu, supposed to have ascended the throne in 660 B.C., a tradition that constituted official doctrine until 1945.
Recorded Japanese history begins in approximately A.D. 400, when the Yamato clan, eventually based in Kyoto, managed to gain control of other family groups in central and western Japan. Contact with Korea introduced Buddhism to Japan at about this time. Through the 700s Japan was much influenced by China, and the Yamato clan set up an imperial court similar to that of China. In the ensuing centuries, the authority of the imperial court was undermined as powerful gentry families vied for control.
At the same time, warrior clans were rising to prominence as a distinct class known as samurai. In 1192, the Minamoto clan set up a military government under their leader, Yoritomo. He was designated shogun (military dictator). For the following 700 years, shoguns from a succession of clans ruled in Japan, while the imperial court existed in relative obscurity.
First contact with the West came in about 1542, when a Portuguese ship off course arrived in Japanese waters. Portuguese traders, Jesuit missionaries, and Spanish, Dutch, and English traders followed. Suspicious of Christianity and of Portuguese support of a local Japanese revolt, the shoguns of the Tokugawa period (1603–1867) prohibited all trade with foreign countries; only a Dutch trading post at Nagasaki was permitted. Western attempts to renew trading relations failed until 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry sailed an American fleet into Tokyo Bay. Trade with the West was forced upon Japan under terms less than favorable to the Japanese. Strife caused by these actions brought down the feudal world of the shoguns. In 1868, the emperor Meiji came to the throne, and the shogun system was abolished.
Japan Expands Its Empire
Japan quickly made the transition from a medieval to a modern power. An imperial army was established with conscription, and parliamentary government was formed in 1889. The Japanese began to take steps to extend their empire. After a brief war with China in 1894–1895, Japan acquired Formosa (Taiwan), the Pescadores Islands, and part of southern Manchuria. China also recognized the independence of Korea (Chosen), which Japan later annexed (1910).
In 1904–1905, Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, gaining the territory of southern Sakhalin (Karafuto) and Russia's port and rail rights in Manchuria. In World War I, Japan seized Germany's Pacific islands and leased areas in China. The Treaty of Versailles then awarded Japan a mandate over the islands.
Japan Tests Its Military Might
At the Washington Conference of 1921–1922, Japan agreed to respect Chinese national integrity, but, in 1931, it invaded Manchuria. The following year, Japan set up this area as a puppet state, “Manchukuo,” under Emperor Henry Pu-Yi, the last of China's Manchu dynasty. On Nov. 25, 1936, Japan joined the Axis. The invasion of China came the next year, followed by the Pearl Harbor attack on the U.S. on Dec. 7, 1941. Japan won its first military engagements during the war, extending its power over a vast area of the Pacific. Yet, after 1942, the Japanese were forced to retreat, island by island, to their own country. The dropping of atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 by the United States finally brought the government to admit defeat. Japan surrendered formally on Sept. 2, 1945, aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Southern Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands reverted to the USSR, and Formosa (Taiwan) and Manchuria to China. The Pacific islands remained under U.S. occupation.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur was appointed supreme commander of the U.S. occupation of postwar Japan (1945–1952). In 1947, a new constitution took effect. The emperor became largely a symbolic head of state. The U.S. and Japan signed a security treaty in 1951, allowing for U.S. troops to be stationed in Japan. In 1952, Japan regained full sovereignty, and, in 1972, the U.S. returned to Japan the Ryuku Islands, including Okinawa.
Economic Recovery Is Followed by Deep Recession
Japan's postwar economic recovery was nothing short of remarkable. New technologies and manufacturing were undertaken with great success. A shrewd trade policy gave Japan larger shares in many Western markets, an imbalance that caused some tensions with the U.S. The close involvement of Japanese government in the country's banking and industry produced accusations of protectionism. Yet economic growth continued through the 1970s and 1980s, eventually making Japan the world's second-largest economy (after the U.S.).
During the 1990s, Japan suffered an economic downturn prompted by scandals involving government officials, bankers, and leaders of industry. Japan succumbed to the Asian economic crisis in 1998, experiencing its worst recession since World War II. These setbacks led to the resignation of Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto in July 1998. He was replaced by Keizo Obuchi. In 1999, Japan seemed to make slight progress in an economic recovery. Prime Minister Obuchi died of a stroke in May 2000 and was succeeded by Yoshiro Mori, whose administration was dogged by scandal and blunders from the outset.
Succession of Prime Ministers Meet Only Fleeting Popularity
Despite attempts to revive the economy, fears that Japan would slide back into recession increased in early 2001. The embattled Mori resigned in April 2001 and was replaced by Liberal Democrat Junichiro Koizumi—the country's 11th prime minister in 13 years. Koizumi enjoyed fleeting popularity; after two years in office the economy remained in a slump and his attempts at reform were thwarted.
At an unprecedented summit meeting in North Korea in Sept. 2002, President Kim Jong Il apologized to Koizumi for North Korea's kidnapping of Japanese citizens during the 1970s and 1980s, and Koizumi pledged a generous aid package—both significant steps toward normalizing relations.
Koizumi was overwhelmingly reelected in Sept. 2003 and promised to push ahead with tough economic reforms.
In Aug. 2005, Koizumi called for early elections, when the upper house of parliament rejected his proposal to privatize the postal service—a reform he long advocated. In addition to delivering mail, Japan's postal service also functions as a savings bank and has about $3 trillion in assets. Koizumi won a landslide victory in September, with his Liberal Democrat Party securing its biggest majority since 1986.
Princesss Kiko gave birth to a boy in September. The child's birth spared Japan a controversial debate over whether women should be allowed to ascend to the throne. The child is third in line to become emperor, behind Crown Prince Naruhito, who has one daughter, and the baby's father, Prince Akishino, who has two daughters.
In September, a week after becoming leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Shinzo Abe succeeded Junichiro Koizumi as prime minister. He promptly assembled a conservative cabinet and said he hoped to increase Japan's influence on global issues. Early into his term, Abe focused on nationalist issues, giving the military a more prominent role and paving the way to amend the country's pacifist constitution. He suffered a stunning blow in July 2007 parliamentary elections, however, when his Liberal Democratic Party lost control of the upper house to the opposition Democratic Party.
Scandals Taint Leadership
Abe faced international criticism in early 2007 for refusing to acknowledge the military role in forcing as many as 200,000 Japanese women, known as comfort women, to provide sex to soldiers during World War II. In March, Abe did apologize to the women, but maintained his denial that the military was involved. "I express my sympathy for the hardships they suffered and offer my apology for the situation they found themselves in," he said.
A 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck in northwest Japan in July 2007, killing 10 people and injuring more than 900. The tremor caused skyscrapers in Tokyo to sway for almost a minute, buckled roads and bridges, and damaged a nuclear power plant. About 315 gallons of radioactive water leaked into the Sea of Japan.
Prime Minister Abe abruptly announced his resignation in September just days into the parliamentary session, during which he stated his controversial plan to extend Japan's participation in a U.S.-led naval mission in Afghanistan. The move followed a string of scandals and the stunning defeat of his Liberal Democratic Party in July's parliamentary elections. The Liberal Democratic Party elected Yasuo Fukuda to succeed Abe. Fukuda, a veteran lawmaker, was elected to Parliament in 1990 and held the post as chief cabinet secretary under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. His father, Takeo Fukuda, served as prime minister from 1976 to 1978.
In June 2008, the upper house of Parliament, which is controlled by the opposition, censured Fukuda, citing his management of domestic issues. The lower house, however, supported him in a vote of confidence. Fukuda unexpectedly resigned in September, barely a year in office. Shortly before he stepped down, Fukuda made several cabinet changes and announced a $17 billion stimulus package, making his resignation that much more stunning. He had, however, been unable to break a stalemate in Parliament that prevented passage of several pieces of important legislation.
Taro Aso, a conservative and former foreign minister, was elected as president of the governing Liberal Democratic Party in September. Two days later, on Sep. 24, the lower house of Parliament selected him as prime minister. At the same time, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which won control of the upper house of Parliament in 2007, was threatening to end the 50 year reign of the Liberal Democrats in the next election cycle.
In Aug. 2009 parliamentary elections, the opposition Democratic Party won in a landslide over the ruling Liberal Democrats, who had been in power nearly uninterrupted for a half-century. The Democratic Party increased its number of seats from 119 to 308, while the Liberal Democrats slid from 296 seats to 119. Yukio Hatoyama, who became prime minister in September, promised to lift Japan out of economic stagnation and a culture of corruption–malaise widely credited with sparking the popular backlash against the Liberal Democrats. Hatoyama campaigned on promises to move the U.S. Marine Air Station Futenma off the island of Okinawa and recast the relationship between Japan and the U.S. as one of equals. Okinawans had long complained about the noise and intrusion of the base, and tension between residents and marines soured after the rape of a 12-year-old local by three marines in 1995. The U.S. resisted Hatoyama's plan to move the base off the island, and insisted that Japan comply with 2006 agreement to relocate the base to a less populated part of Okinawa. However, in early 2010 as tension mounted between North and South Korea over the sinking of a South Korean warship and China indicated it planned to beef up its military, polls showed that most Japanese endorsed the role of the U.S. as a protector of Japan, and support of plans to move the base off Okinawa was largely limited to the island. Hatoyama's popularity took a nosedive, and he resigned in June. He was the fourth prime minister to step down in four years. The Democrats elected Foreign Minister Naoto Kan, a former leftist activist, to take over for Hatoyama.
Tsunami Devastates Japan and Causes Nuclear Disaster
Japan was hit by a massive earthquake on March 11, 2011, that triggered a deadly 23-foot tsunami in the country's north. The giant waves deluged cities and rural areas alike, sweeping away cars, homes, buildings, a train, and boats, leaving a path of death and devastation in its wake. Video footage showed cars racing away from surging waves. The United States Geological Survey reported the earthquake and on Monday revised its magnitude from 8.9 to 9.0, which is the largest in Japan's history. The earthquake struck about 230 miles northeast of Tokyo.
Disaster struck again on Saturday, March 12, when about 26 hours after the earthquake, an explosion in reactor No. 1 at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station caused one of the buildings to crumble to the ground. The cooling system at the reactor failed shortly after the earthquake. Officials feared that a meltdown may occur, and radioactive material was detected outside the plant. These fears were realized on Sunday, when officials said they believed that partial meltdowns occurred at reactors No. 1 and No. 3. The cooling systems at another plant, Fukushima Daini, were also compromised but the situation there seemed to be less precarious. More than 200,000 residents were evacuated from areas surrounding both facilities. Problems were later reported at two other nuclear facilities.
By Tuesday, March 15, two more explosions and a fire had officials and workers at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station struggling to regain control of four reactors. The fire, which happened at reactor No. 4, was contained by noon on Tuesday, but not before the incident released radioactivity directly into the atmosphere. The Japanese government told people living within 20 miles of the Daiichi plant to stay indoors, to not use air conditioning, and to keep their windows closed. More than 100,000 people are in the area. The government called in 100,000 troops to aid in the relief effort. The deployment is the largest since World War II.
On Aug. 26, 2011, Prime Minister Naoto Kan resigned. The Japanese Parliament elected Yoshihiko Noda as the new prime minister by the end of the month. After taking office, Noda vowed to restart Japan's nuclear plants once they pass safety checks. Noda also said that the country should decrease its reliance on nuclear energy in the years to come. Noda, a fiscal conservative, became the sixth prime minister in five years and faced a weak economy, mounting debt, and the on-going recovery from the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster from earlier this year.
Tokyo Electric Power released the results of an internal study on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on Dec. 2, 2011. The study found that the power plant withstood the March 11, 2011 earthquake. The report revealed that the tsunami, which followed the earthquake, caused the damaged to the plant. The company hoped the study's results would calm concerns about other nuclear plants in Japan where earthquakes are far more common than tsunamis. The report showed that the company was unprepared for the large tsunami and, therefore, slow to respond to the disaster. The Japanese government was also conducting a separate investigation.
Also in December, Prime Minister Noda announced that the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant were under control, thus declaring an end to the nuclear disaster. The government planned to spend the next several years removing the fuel stored at the site and dismantling the plant, budgeting 1.15 trillion yen ($14 billion) through March 2014 for the radiation cleanup. Some radiation-poisoned areas could take decades to clean up. By the end of 2011, the government had lifted evacuation orders for some of the communities near the plant, but many of the 160,000 people refused to return home.
A year after the disaster, the country was still recovering. While the country rebuilt factories and roads as well as showed growth in its economy by the end of 2011, the cleanup was still far from complete. More than 160,000 people had not returned to their homes in the radiation-poisoned areas. Not trusting the decontamination process, they refused to go home even after the government lifted evacuation orders from certain communities.
An independent parliamentary commission released a report in July 2012, stating that the 2011 nuclear crisis was a preventable disaster. The report also concluded that the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant could have been damaged first by the March 2011 earthquake, before the tsunami hit. The fact that the earthquake could have damaged the plant was particularly unsettling because earthquakes occur frequently in Japan. It was also a cause for concern because, during the summer of 2012, Japan was removing its temporary freeze on nuclear power and restarting the Ohi nuclear plant. All 50 of Japan's nuclear reactors have been idle since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in March 2011.
In Feb. 2012, Japan and the U.S. revisited their 2006 agreement over removing 8,000 Marines from Okinawa. For years, Okinawa residents have opposed the presence of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, a reminder of the United States' occupation of Japan after World War II. Both sides agreed to revise the 2006 condition that the key base must be relocated before moving the Marines. The Marines were supposed to relocate to Guam by 2014. Even without the 8,000 Marines, the island would still have 10,000 Marines as well as the U.S. Air Force's Kadena Air Base.
Tension Increases with Asian Neighbors Over Islands
In Aug. 2012, Japan arrested 14 Chinese citizens after they arrived on an island claimed by both countries. The 14 prisoners included journalists and protesters. They traveled from Hong Kong on a boat to the uninhabited island, which is called the Senkaku by Japan. China, who also claims ownership of the island and calls it Diaoyu, urged Japan to release its citizens without pressing charges.
It was the first time in eight years that Chinese activists had been arrested on an island in the East China Sea, but it was just the latest incident in recent flare-ups between Japan and its Asian neighbors. Also in Aug. 2012, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak flew to a group of islands that are in dispute between Japan and South Korea. Japan officials called Lee's visit "unacceptable" and retaliated by removing its ambassador from Seoul. In July 2012, Japan temporarily removed its ambassador to China over the disputed East China Sea islands.
On Aug. 24, 2012, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said on live television that Japan would appeal to the international community for support of its claims to the islands that have been a matter of separate disputes with China and South Korea. He stressed that Japan would approach matters in a calm way. "It doesn't serve any country's interest to whip up domestic opinion and needlessly escalate the situation," Noda said. His televised speech was partly a response to statements from Lee Myung-bak, the South Korean president, and the recent anti-Japanese protests in China.
In Sept. 2012, anti-Japanese demonstrations continued in more than 50 cities across China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Qingdao. On Oct. 11, 2012, according to the Japanese government, Luo Zhaohui, a Chinese diplomat, visited Tokyo in secret to discuss how to defuse the tensions between the two countries. Zhaohui, head of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Asian Affairs Department, met with Shinsuke Sugiyama, director general of Japan's Asian and Oceanic Affairs Bureau. The two diplomats began preparations for a longer meeting between the two countries, which would take place at a later date.
Noda Wins Party Leadership Vote, but Faces Strong Opposition
On Sept. 21, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda won re-election as president of the Democratic Party (DPJ) of Japan, the country's governing party. Noda's victory came at an uncertain time for his party, which had seen a dip in polls and approval ratings. Noda's approval rating was also low going into the election due to his inability to take a clear stance on Japan's nuclear energy policy, stimulate a shaky economy, and resolve the gridlock in Parliament.
Headed into his second term, Noda faced an escalating feud with China over a group of islands in the East China Sea, a feud which sparked protests throughout China. He also faced opposition in Parliament going into his second term. The Liberal Democratic Party blocked several of his first term policies. Noda was able to pass a controversial ten percent sales tax increase, but only by promising to set a date soon for nationwide elections.
Another obstacle facing Noda was the Sept. 2012 election of Shinzo Abe to lead the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Japan's main opposition party. The election gave Abe the chance to become prime minister again. Abe was prime minister in 2006, but he left the position a year later due to health issues. Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party could win big in the upcoming nationwide elections, especially since Noda's approval rating has continued to decrease. Abe's rise could be a cause for concern when it comes to the country's rising tension with China and its other neighbors. In 2006, when Abe became prime minister, he called for an unapologetic, tougher Japan.
In reaction to general dissatisfaction with the Japanese political system, Toru Hashimoto, the mayor of Osaka, launched a new political party in September. The Japan Restoration Party (JRP) billed itself as a conservative, free-market party which will refashion the parliament. The JRP immediately lured seven parliamentarians from the more mainstream political groups, including the DPJ and LDP.
Shinzo Abe Becomes Prime Minister Again in Late 2012
In the Dec. 2012 elections, the Liberal Democratic Party, led by Shinzo Abe, won in a landslide. A conservative party, the Liberal Democrats had governed the country for decades until 2009. Abe officially became prime minister again on Dec. 26, 2012. He previously held the office from 2006 to 2007.
To woo voters, the Liberal Democrats presented their plan to stand up to China and revive Japan's economy. The victory came at a time when tension had increased with China over disputed islands and voters were disappointed by the incumbent Democrats' failure to improve the economy. "We recognize that this was not a restoration of confidence in the Liberal Democratic Party, but a rejection of three years of incompetent rule by the Democratic Party," Abe said to reporters about his party's victory.
Ongoing Fukushima Leak Declared an Emergency
In Aug. 2013, Japan's Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) task force reported that radioactive water was seeping from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant into the ocean. NRA went on to say the situation was more extreme than previously reported and that it was an emergency. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) stated the previous month that contaminated water had indeed reached the ocean from an underground water system at Fukushima. TEPCO estimated that somewhere between 20 and 40 trillion becquerels of radioactive tritium had poured into the ocean since the Fukushima plant was damaged during the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.
Japan Lifts Decades Old Arms Ban
In April 2014, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his cabinet approved a measure that lifted Japan's ban on weapons exports. The self-imposed ban had been in place since 1967. Under the new policy, arms sales were still banned to countries in conflict and nations that could undermine international peace. In fact, weapons sales must contribute to international peace and Japan's security.
Supporters of the new policy believed that it will help increase Japan's role on an international stage. Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga met with reporters after the measure was passed. About the new policy, he said, "We have made the procedure for transfer of defense equipment more transparent. That will contribute to peace and international cooperation from the standpoint of proactive pacifism."
Prime Minister Abe called for an election in December 2014, after Japan's economy slid further into recession. The economy's most recent decline was largely blamed on a consumption tax increase in April 2014. In December, Abe was re-elected as prime minister, keeping a two-thirds majority with coalition partner, the Komeito party. After his re-election, Abe announced that the consumption tax would not be raised again until 2017.
China, South Korea, and Japan Hold First Foreign Minister Talks in Three Years
In March 2015, foreign ministers from China, South Korea, and Japan met for the first formal talks since April 2012. South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Byung-Se hosted Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in Seoul. The three met in an attempt to calm tensions and improve relations. The tension between the countries has revolved around an ongoing dispute between China and Japan over island territories in the East China Sea. However, relations between all three countries have been strained for years, going back to Japan's occupation of sections of China before and during World War II as well as its colonization of Korea.
The March 2015 meeting included a discussion of a possible future summit between the three countries' leaders. Another topic of discussion was how to contain North Korea's nuclear ambitions, a matter that all three foreign ministers agreed was a priority.
Military Legislation Sparks Protests
In July 2015, Parliament's lower house approved legislation that would allow Japan's military to participate in foreign conflicts in a limited capacity for the first time since World War II. Members of the opposition refused to vote, leaving the session in Parliament over the issue. Meanwhile, the new bill sparked the largest public protests since the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the United States supported the bill. However, China did not, calling it a threat to peace in the region. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson for China, Hua Chunying, said in a statement, ?We solemnly urge the Japanese side to draw hard lessons from history, stick to the path of peaceful development, respect the major security concerns of its Asian neighbors, and refrain from jeopardizing China's sovereignty and security interests or crippling regional peace and stability."
The legislation would now move to Parliament's upper house. The bill would be considered there for sixty days before a vote.