When I was in 8th grade and going through high school orientation, we were told to start thinking about what foreign language we wanted to study. Our options were Spanish, Latin, and Japanese. I knew I didn’t want to study Latin because I wanted to study a language I could use while traveling someday, and let’s face it: while studying a dead may be beneficial to the sciences, you can’t travel anywhere with it. Except maybe science conventions. But I think scientists speak another language altogether. And I knew that Spanish was super popular, and the classes would be full. (I did go back and learn some Spanish on my own.) So, that left me with Japanese. Plus, all of my friends were taking Japanese, and that was probably the biggest reason I took the class. But to be honest, I already had an interest in Asia and their writing systems and culture, so this also seemed to be a logical choice for me. I took four years of Japanese in high school, then won a scholarship to study abroad in Japan during the summer of 1998 where I was placed directly in Tokyo. I continued to study throughout college and joined the Japanese Student Association and other Japan-America organizations. I even worked for three summers at Concordia Language Villages at the Japanese camp, Mori no Ike. I have to admit, I haven’t studied quite as much during the last five or ten years or so, giving way to studying Spanish and Portuguese. But Japan has always had a special place in my heart, and I’m very happy to finally land on Japan for my blog.
The Japanese word for Japan is Nihon or Nippon, often translated as “the origin of the sun.” The etymology of the term Japan comes from a mispronunciation or other foreign term for the islands of Japan. However, which language it’s stemmed from seems to be somewhat disputed. It mostly likely was introduced into English from the Portuguese traders who picked up the Malay-origin Chinese word for the island nation.
Japan is an archipelago of over 6800 islands in East Asia. On the eastern side is the Pacific Ocean and to the western side is the Sea of Japan, which separates Japan from North Korea and South Korea as well as Russia. It’s also separated from mainland China by the East China Sea. The Ryukyu Islands are also part of Japan, which includes the island of Okinawa (housing one of the US Air Force Bases that are still in Japan left over from WWII) and extends all the way to Taiwan. The four main islands from north to south are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Fukuoka. Because Japan is spread out quite a ways from north to south, it has a very drastic change in climate across the country. The northernmost island of Hokkaido is very cold in the winter and has a famous snow sculpting celebration each February. The southernmost islands of the Okinawa prefecture enjoy a warm tropical climate. Its location along the Pacific Ring of Fire makes it prone to earthquakes (as many as 1500 per year—to be fair, I was in six earthquakes while I was there for six weeks, and only one or two were barely felt) and tsunamis, a Japanese word itself. It’s one of the most densely populated countries in the world: it’s like taking half of the people in the US and forcing them to all live in California.
The original people in Japan were the Ainu who mostly lived on the northernmost island of Hokkaido as well as some of the Russian islands north of Hokkaido. (I did a research paper on the Ainu when I was taking Japanese in college. They were treated much like the American Indians were by the Europeans who arrived later.) The early people in Japan were mainly hunter-gatherers, and they were highly influenced by the Chinese language, literature, and culture. Likewise, Buddhism began to spread and became widely popular during the 11th century. Starting in the 1200s, Japanese society entered into a feudal era. This is this time period that inspired many of our samurai films and stories. The country was pretty much shut off to the rest of the world. However, Portuguese Jesuit priests were allowed to enter during the 1600s (if you’ve ever read James Clavell’s Shogun, you’ll be familiar with this period). This was a crucial visit, which allowed Japan to obtain many items (including weapons) and cultural information from the West. This period of closure to the outside lasted until US Navy Commodore Matthew Perry landed in Japan in 1854, and Japan subsequently opened itself up to the world again. Japan entered what’s known as the Meiji Restoration where they sent out their best and finest students to learn everything they could from the rest of the world to bring back to Japan in order to help modernize the country. Around the turn of the century, Japan entered wars with China and Russia to gain land. It then entered China again in 1937 and also invaded French Indochina and Pearl Harbor. The US responded to the attack at Pearl Harbor by dropping the controversial atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (making it the only country in the world to be attacked this way). Since WWII, Japan has increased its economy to have one of the largest economies in the world and subsequently, a high quality life.
Not only is Tokyo the capital, it’s the largest city in the country, coming in with over 13.1 million people in the metropolitan area. I have a certain affinity for this city because this is where I did my homestay (in Ikegami, Ota-ku). Its former name is Edo, which is often mentioned in literature and in some place names, but was renamed Tokyo during the Meiji Restoration. Tokyo took much damage from bombings during WWII and much of the city was rebuilt after the war. Today, it is a major city for government, education, finance, culture, sports, and the arts not only in Japan but throughout Asia. The city is divided into 23 wards, each one with its own special bragging points. The major shopping and tourist areas are in Shinjuku and Shibuya as well as the Ginza and Harajuku neighborhoods. Temples and shrines dot the cityscape along with museums, libraries, restaurants, Tokyo Dome baseball stadium, Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Imperial Palace, Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, the Rainbow Bridge and many other places to see.
Since the Meiji period started in 1868, Japan started expanding its economy and joining the world market. There were many industries getting their start, and there are many top companies in Japan today that were started during this period. The period after WWII saw much growth up until the 1990s when the bubble finally popped, and the slowdown generally lasted until the 2000s. Japan is a leading producer of cars—names like Daihatsu, Honda, Isuzu, Mazda, Mitsubishi (what I drive), Nissan, Subaru, Suzuki, Toyota, and Yamaha are common names around the world. They’re also known for their electronics companies such as Sony, Panasonic, Nintendo, Casio, Hitachi, Seiko, Sharp, Toshiba, Minolta, Fuji, Fujitsu, JVC, Kenwood, Konica, Kyocera, Uniden, TDK, Sanyo, Pioneer, and Nikon. They also have substantial robotics, energy, biomedical technologies, chemical, and space programs in Japan. The oldest company in the world is a construction company that was founded in 578 and was continuously in business until it was absorbed by another company in 2006.
Religious freedom is granted throughout the country. Although most Japanese people do not actually consider themselves belonging to any religion, most people visit a Buddhist or Shinto shrines during major festivals and holidays and will lay claim to one of these religions when asked. Other Asian religions are also found in Japan like Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam as well as Judaism and to a much lesser degree, Christianity.
By far the most widely spoken language in Japan is Japanese. It’s the language of government and education and general communication. Japanese uses four writing systems: hiragana (for purely Japanese words), katakana (for foreign or borrowed words), kanji (the more complicated symbols borrowed from Chinese), and romaji (Roman letters as well as Roman Arabic numerals). It also utilizes a set of honorifics, meaning they have different ways of speaking to those higher than you in society and those lower than you. The Ainu language in northern Japan is on the verge of becoming extinct. However, awareness of the Ryukyuan languages (those of the Ryukyu Islands and Okinawan dialects) are also increasing.
Japan’s popularity and cultural products have reached all corners of the earth from Hello Kitty to Pocky to anime to video games to sumo wrestling and martial arts to cat cafes to karaoke to beer vending machines to bonsai trees to sushi, green tea, fugu, and Kobe beef. I’m so excited to write about a country I love and would love to take my children to. My kids are already telling me to find a job there (I just don’t think any company offering an editing job would pay to move my whole family across the world, or to any country for that matter).
Up next: art and literature