Japan, a country of islands, extends along the Pacific coast of Asia. The main island is Honshu, and the country has three other large islands: Hokkaido to the north and Shikoku and Kyushu to the south. More than 4,000 smaller islands surround the four largest. A modern transportation system connects the main islands, including the Seikan Tunnel, which links Honshu to Hokkaido and is the world's longest railroad tunnel at 54 kilometers (33 miles). Japan's high-speed trains (known as shinkansen, or bullet trains) connect major urban areas.
About 73 percent of Japan is mountainous, and all its major cities, except the ancient capital of Kyoto, cling to narrow coastal plains. Only an estimated 18 percent of Japan's territory is suitable for settlement—so Japan's cities are large and densely populated. Tokyo, the capital, is the planet's largest urbanized area at 35 million people. However, Tokyo has a worrisome environmental history of destructive earthquakes and tsunamis (seismic sea waves). A major earthquake in 1923 killed an estimated 143,000 people.
The orthographic characters that make up Japan’s name literally mean "Sun's Origin", thus Japan is also sometimes known as "The Land of the Rising Sun", a name that comes from the country's eastward position relative to China.
This is an ancient land, having a more or less national identity, culture and language extending back for several millennia. The nation has been independent since about 660 BC. In its relationship to the rest of the world, Japan has alternated through its history between extreme isolationism on one hand and liberal openness on the other. In 1603, the shogun (military dictator) ushered in a long period of isolation from foreign influence in order to secure power. For 250 years, this policy enabled Japan to enjoy stability and a flowering of its indigenous culture. Following the Treaty of Kanagawa with the US in 1854, Japan opened its ports and began to intensively modernize and industrialize.
Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary, brought Christianity to Japan in 1549. The shoguns became convinced that this was to soften them up for European conquest. In 1612, the 300,000 Japanese Christians were persecuted and many were martyred. This ushered in the 250-year period during which the country was closed to all foreigners.
There was a positive response to the gospel in the late 1800s when Japan re-opened its doors to the West. But this was followed by renewed suspicion and rejection. Church growth slowed dramatically in the early twentieth century under pressure from within (rationalistic higher criticism) and without (military government).
Today, a vast majority of Japanese people profess to believe both Shinto (the indigenous religion of Japan) and Buddhism. Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism from China have significantly influenced Japanese beliefs and mythology. Religion in Japan tends to be syncretic in nature, and this results in a variety of practices such as parents and children celebrating Shinto rituals, students praying before exams, couples holding a wedding at a Christian church and funerals being held at Buddhist temples. Only a very small minority profess to Christianity and other religions like shamanism, Islam and Hinduism.
Of the 12 minority indigenous languages listed for Japan in the Ethnologue, all are endangered or dying. Of these, the Ethnologue universally states, “Adult speakers can also understand and use Standard Japanese. Those 20 to 50 can understand [the minority language], but mainly use Japanese at home and work. The younger the generation, the more fluently they speak Japanese (Hattori in Wurm and Hattori 1981). Those under 20 are monolingual in Japanese (T. Fukuda SIL 1989).” Some of these languages exist only on the island of Okinawa.
Photo: Doug Caribb