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Learn about Japan

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Samurai on horseback wearing ō-yoroi, 16th century

Legend attributes the creation of Japan to the sun goddess, from whom the emperors descended. The first of them was Jimmu, ascended the throne in about 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 over other family groups in central and western Japan. Contact with Korea introduced Buddhism to Japan at about this time. Through the 700s Japan was heavily 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 (nobles) 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 776 years, shoguns from a succession of clans ruled in Japan, while the imperial court existed in relative obscurity.

Starting in the latter half of the 16th century, three famous Samurai each successively rose to the rank of shogun: Ocla Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. These three div-minded, ambitious men each played a key role in the modern era history of Japan, initiating change to enable unification, unifying Japan, and then establishing a family-based shogun dynasty that would rule Japan for the next 264 years, respectively.

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, along with many things from the west, such as Christianity and Matchlocks (guns). 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 government and ways of the shoguns. In 1868, the emperor Meiji came to the throne, and the shogun system was abolished under the Meiji restoration.

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In Depth History of Japan:



According to mythology, Japan's first Emperor Jimmu was a descendant of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu and enthroned in the year 660 BC. While the myths are not considered historically accurate, it is commonly accepted that emperors have reigned over Japan for more than 1500 years, and that they have all descended from the same family. The imperial crest is a 16-petaled chrysanthemum flower.

Despite the fact that the effective power of the emperors was limited or purely symbolic throughout most of Japan's history, all actual rulers, from the Fujiwara and Hōjō regents to the Minamoto and Tokugawa shoguns respected the emperor and were keen in having the imperial legitimization for their position as rulers.

With the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the Tokugawa shogunate was overthrown, and Emperor Meiji became the head of state. Under the new Meiji constitution, the Emperor held sovereign power, and his political and military power was theoretically close to absolute. In practice, however, the real power first laid with small, inner group of imperial advisors, and later with the generals and admirals.

The postwar constitution of 1947 gives the emperor a purely symbolic function. He now mainly participates at ceremonies and diplomatic meetings, and has no effective political power.

In 1989, Emperor Akihito became Japan's 125th emperor. He is married to Empress Michiko, the first empress who did not come from the nobility. Their eldest son is Crown Prince Naruhito. The Emperor resides in the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.

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Prime Minister

The Prime Minister of Japan is the head of government of Japan. He is appointed by the Emperor of Japan after being designated by the Diet (similar to Parliaments in many constitutional monarchies) from among its members and must enjoy the confidence of the House of Representatives to remain in office. He is the head of the Cabinet and appoints and dismisses the Ministers of State; the literal translation of the Japanese name for the office is Minister for the Comprehensive Administration of the Cabinet or Minister who presides over the Cabinet.

The office was created in 1885, four years before the enactment of the Meiji Constitution that mentioned neither cabinet nor prime minister explicitly. The office took its current form with the adoption of the current constitution in 1947.

The current Prime Minister is Shinzō Abe, who took office on December 26, 2012. He is the first former Prime Minister to resume the office since 1948.


National Diet

The National Diet is Japan's bicameral legislature. It is composed of a lower house called the House of Representatives, and an upper house, called the House of Councilors. Both houses of the Diet are directly elected under parallel voting systems. In addition to passing laws, the Diet is formally responsible for selecting the Prime Minister. The Diet was first convened as the Imperial Diet in 1889 under the Meiji Constitution. The Diet took its current form in 1947 upon the adoption of the postwar constitution. The Diet is considered by the Constitution to be the highest organ of state power. The National Diet Building is located in Nagatachō, Chiyoda, Tokyo.

Wikipedia – National Diet:



A torii is a traditional Japanese gate most commonly found at the entrance of or within a Shinto shrine, where it symbolically marks the transition from the profane to the sacred.

Japanese Traditions:

Japan is known for its unique culture and heritage, which has been preserved and developed by the Japanese people since ancient times. The age-old Japanese traditions and customs that give a unique character to the lifestyle of the Japanese people must be experienced to be truly appreciated. Some of the unique aspects of Japanese life are introduced here for a glimpse into the traditions of Japan.

Japanese Gardens:

The original Japanese gardens were inspired by Buddhist and Chinese philosophy and later evolved to have their own distinct Japanese identity. The gardens found in Japanese temples and shrines are inspired by the Shinto religion and the belief in an ideal state of harmony. The Japanese attempt to recreate this idealized harmony in their beautifully designed gardens that include elements of nature such as water, rocks, gravel, moss and miniature plants or Bonsai. One of the most famous Zen Rock Gardens in Japan is the Ryoan-ji Zen Rock Garden in Kyoto.

Japanese Architecture:

Traditional Japanese Architecture has a distinct style deeply influenced by the Buddhist and Shinto religions. Houses and temples made of wood, placed on stilts to raise them above the ground, and with sloping roofs made of thatch or tiles create a distinctive silhouette in traditional Japanese architecture. The use of lightweight wood and bamboo to create Fusuma (sliding doors), straw or woven grass to create Tatami (mats), and translucent paper over a frame of wood with wood or bamboo lattice to create Shōji room dividers or window coverings are other unique features of Japanese architectural design. In the past, people usually sat on the floor and furniture, such as chairs, only came into widespread use after the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Japanese Tea Ceremony:

The Japanese ceremony of preparing and offering green tea to revered guests is a formal and stylized ritual, almost like a meditative performance. The art of preparing tea and all the elements of the tea ceremony have special and symbolic meaning. Deeply influenced by Zen Buddhism, the Japanese tea ceremony has evolved into a cultural ritual that means much more than the mere sampling of powdered green tea, and is a unique part of Japanese traditions.

Japanese Cuisine:

Japan is an island nation and seafood plays an important role in Japanese cuisine. Rice and fish, along with vegetables, are eaten by most Japanese. Tofu, or soy bean curd, is another popular and healthful dish routinely consumed by many Japanese people. The unique Japanese foods such as Sushi (rice flavored with vinegar and combined with seafood or seaweed and sometimes vegetables) and Sashimi (cut and sliced raw seafood) are forms of Japanese cuisine that have become famous worldwide. Teppanyaki or food cooked on an iron griddle is another popular form of Japanese cuisine, although not with the “showmanship” common in the states. Sake, or Japanese rice liquor, is drunk at traditional meals as a toast to the health and long life of one's dining companions, and is also used in many Shinto religious ceremonies.

Japanese Festivals:

The Japanese people celebrate many festivals, most of which are of the Buddhist and Shinto religions. Different Buddhist temples Shinto shrines across Japan have their own specific “Matsuri” or festive holiday. Some festivals that began long ago are also celebrated today in a modern form. These include Aomori Nebuta Festival, the Hadaka Festival, the Tanabata Festival and many Cherry Blossom Festivals, which are an integral part of Japanese culture.

Cherry Blossom Festivals:

Every year in the spring, the Japanese people make time to appreciate the beauty of nature as the Cherry trees burst into full bloom and their lovely pink and white flowers offer a wonderfully appealing sight. This is commonly called Hanami, “flower viewing”. People picnic in the Cherry groves, drink tea and Sake and enjoy music in the delightful ambience of the blooming Cherry flowers. The Cherry Blossom festivals at Okinawa and at Matsuyama Castle in Ehime prefecture are some of the best-known among many flower festivals across Japan. The natural beauty of the Cherry blossom season is celebrated by the Japanese in their art and music, and even in the designs of their traditional clothing, the Kimono.

Japanese Kimono:

The traditional Japanese attire, the Kimono, is a graceful full-length silk robe that falls from the wearer's shoulders to their ankles. The robe is tied around the middle with a sash called the Obi. Kimonos for special occasions were made of rich fabric such as silk, satin and brocade and feature designs inspired by nature such as Cherry blossoms, autumn leaves, butterflies and pine trees. Kimonos are now worn mostly for ceremonial occasions and events such as festivals and marriages.

Japanese Painting:

Japan has a long tradition of painting and woodblock printing. One of the more famous Japanese painters is Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), who is famous for the Ukiyo-e or woodblock printing style of art. Another famous Japanese painter is Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), who is famous for a series of woodblock prints depicting Mount Fuji. The best known among these is The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

Japanese Calligraphy:

The Japanese script “Kanji” consists of pictographic characters that were imported from China and when traditionally painted use smooth brushstrokes on handmade paper. The fine art of Kanji calligraphy requires many years of practice and was traditionally considered essential learning for an accomplished person in Japanese society.


The Japanese cultural practice is a fine art of flower arrangement that encompasses the ideas of aesthetics, spirituality, discipline and harmony with nature. It is believed to have evolved from the Buddhist practice of offering flowers in memory of those who have passed away. The emphasis on minimalism, attention to the line and form of the plants and flowers used in an arrangement and the harmony of the overall arrangement exemplify this Japanese tradition.

There are many more fascinating aspects of traditional Japanese culture, such as viewing sunrise from Mount Fuji, the Samurai Code, Sumo Wrestling and the role of the Geisha. You can find out more about these uniquely Japanese traditions when you visit this fascinating country.

Maps of World: Japanese Traditions

Respectful Society:

The Japanese, in general, are reserved people and somewhat more formal than typical Americans. In their own society, they have developed a unique set of values, customs, and traditions. Japanese have rules of etiquette for nearly every situation. They try to be considerate and accommodating of others. They respect all religions. The Japanese culture has a group orientation: altruism, teamwork, and group cohesiveness are all areas greatly stressed within Japanese society. Harmony is important to Japanese. Individual identity is defined by the social group.

Preserving harmony in society, maintaining the clarity of hierarchical structure, and showing respect to others is important in Japanese society. Respect is conveyed through language, behavior, etiquette, body language, and other subtle forms of non-verbal communication. Successful relationships with Japanese people depend upon three factors; sincerity, compatibility, and trustworthiness. Sincerity means that you are accommodating, understanding, and able to establish a personal relationship. Compatibility is established when you are seen to be concerned about the personal relationship. Trustworthiness relates to your willingness to prevent “loss of face” for the Japanese guest.

Sharon Pluralism Network:
 U.S. Seventh Fleet

Yokosuka, Japan - Fireworks explode behind the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold (DDG65) as seen from the flight deck of the U.S. Navy's only forward deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76). Ronald Reagan provides a combat-ready force that protects and defends the collective maritime interests of its allies and partners in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Adrienne Powers/Released)

Japan is very proud of its four distinct seasons: clear, cold, and sometimes snowy winters melt into blossom-laced springs; summers are tropically hot and include a rainy season, and the cooling autumns are aflame with turning leaves. Seasonal changes permeate the culture, making their way into fashion and food, and are marked by the traditional celebrations that punctuate the year. The vernal and Autumnal Equinoxes are National Holidays in Japan.

The year starts on January 1st, celebrated with family and symbolic food. At midnight on December 31st, people gather at temples to ring out the old year on giant bronze bells; and the trains run all night, allowing a first visit to a Shinto Shrine - often in kimono - to pray for luck and success in the New Year. Rice pounding to make fresh mocha (rice cakes) is a New Year’s Day tradition.

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American music is very popular in Japan. So popular in fact, many of your favorite American artists can be found playing concerts all year long in and around Tokyo. Whatever your preference, Japan has it for you. Click on the links below to view up to date concert information and see what artists are playing in your area.

Japan also has its own unique music, including JPoP (for Japan Pop) and Enka, based in traditional Japanese music. And of course, Japan is the home of KARAOKE.


Japan is home to a large number and wide variety of excellent art museums. Whether it’s traditional or contemporary, eastern or western art – Japan is sure to have what you’re looking for. Click below to view some of the most popular art museums in Japan.

Japanese architecture has traditionally been typified by wooden structures, elevated slightly off the ground, with tiled or thatched roofs. Sliding doors (fusuma) were used in place of walls, allowing the internal configuration of a space to be customized for different occasions. People traditionally sat on cushions or otherwise on the; chairs and high tables were not widely used until the 20th century. Since the 19th century, however, Japan has incorporated much of Western, modern, and post-modern architecture into construction and design, and is today a leader in cutting-edge architectural design and technology.

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Japanese is believed to be linked to the Altaic language family, which includes Turkish, Mongolian and other languages, but also shows similarities to Austronesian languages like Polynesian.


The Japanese writing system consists of three different character sets: Kanji (Chinese characters) and Hiragana and Katakana (two phonetic alphabets of 46 characters each; together called Kana). Japanese texts can be written in two ways: In Western style, i.e. in horizontal rows from the top to the bottom of the page, or in traditional Japanese style, i.e. in vertical columns from the right to the left side of the page, with traditional texts starting at the “back” of the book. Both writing styles exist side by side today.


Basic Japanese grammar is relatively simple. Complicating factors such as gender articles and distinctions between plural and singular are missing almost completely. Conjugation rules for verbs and adjectives are simple and almost free of exceptions. Nouns are not declinated at all, but appear always in the same form. Sentence structure follows standard patterns, although sometimes words are omitted in common speech.


In comparison with other languages, Japanese knows relatively few sounds, and pronunciation poses little problems to most learners. The biggest difficulty are accents, which do exist, but to a much lower extent than in other languages. In addition, there are relatively many homonyms, i.e. words that are pronounced the same way – at least to the foreign listener but have different meanings subtle accents are often the difference.

Levels of speech

Different words and expressions are used when talking to an unknown person or a superior, as opposed to when talking to a child, family member or a close friend. For instance, there are more than five different words for the English word "I” that are used depending on the context. For formal situations, a honorific language level (keigo) is still in common use.


Japanese literature spans a period of almost two millennia of writing. Early work was heavily influenced by Chinese literature, but Japan quickly developed a style and quality of its own. When Japan reopened its ports to Western trading and diplomacy in the 19th century, Western Literature had a strong effect on Japanese writers, and this influence is still seen today.

As with all literature, Japanese literature is best read in the original. Due to deep linguistic and cultural differences, many Japanese words and phrases are not easily translated. Although Japanese literature and Japanese authors are perhaps not as well known in the west as those in the European and American canons, Japan possesses an ancient and rich literary tradition that draws upon a millennium and a half of written records.

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The kimono is the traditional attire of Japan made of silk cloth. Nowadays it is worn mostly on formal occasions. Some people accuse the kimono of being an impractical form of dress, but it has the advantage of giving the wearer a graceful and elegant deportment.

There are various different types of kimono for use at different times and on different occasions. Women's kimono include the furisodé and tomesodé for formal wear, the hômongi for paying calls, the tsukesagé, and the komon. Men's kimono may include the montsuki hakama for ceremonial occasions and the haori for going out visiting. There is also the cotton fabric yukata, worn by both men and women as informal dress at home, in ryokan, or for attending local festivals.

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Once known in the west for such things as "sukiyaki" and "sushi," Japanese cuisine has in recent years become much more familiar and appreciated around the world. Many visitors to Japan will have already sampled the pleasures of raw fish or batter-fried shrimp, whether shrimp tempura “ebi-furai”, fried shrimp. However few first-time visitors to Japan are prepared for the variety and sumptuousness of Japanese food, as it is traditionally prepared. Eating in Japan is an experience to be enjoyed and remembered fondly for the rest of your life. There is an extremely wide variety of Japanese cuisine.

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