Located off the east coast of Asia, Japan is a nation comprising over 3,000 islands, the largest of which are Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku. It is the only non-Western member of the G8, and with the planet’s second largest economy, is a major world power.
Japan’s history is characterized by long periods of isolationism and extensive contact with other civilizations. Its main islands have never been successfully invaded, and the country has only been occupied once, following its defeat in World War II. This has allowed the Japanese to develop a distinctly homogeneous culture known for maintaining centuries-old traditions and customs while syncretically absorbing foreign influences. In the nation’s early history, these came primarily from Korea and China; later, following the downfall of the strictly isolationist Tokugawa regime in the 1800s, Japan began a process of wholesale Westernization that continues to this day. However, beneath this veneer of baseball, business suits, and American athletic apparel lies a unique society that has mystified and enchanted foreigners for over a century: one in which Sumo wrestlers are national heroes, cherry blossoms are the pinnacle of aesthetic significance, and awareness of one’s place in the social hierarchy is de rigeur.
Despite its economic decimation following the War, Japan managed to maintain some of the world’s highest growth rates through the following decades. It is today an economic giant and a global leader in technology and research. Automobile and electronics manufacturers dominate foreign export markets, and financial services, retail, transportation, and telecommunications are also important industries. One of the world’s top nations in robotics research, Japan possesses more than half of the planets manufacturing robots, and has lately produced numerous advancements in humanoid robotics. It also possesses a robust space program, having recently launched the SELENE lunar probe, and planning to construct a lunar base by 2030.
Japan’s expatriate population is mostly limited to the Tokyo metropolitan area. There are small communities of foreign workers, mostly from Brazil and Southeast Asia, but the majority of immigrants are students and professionals. Business opportunities and the country’s unique culture are the biggest attractions for foreigners; many young people, especially, develop an interest in Japan because of its popular culture in the form of manga, anime, and video games, which have become widespread in Asia and the West. Remember that Japan is a uniform and structured society; especially outside Tokyo, many Japanese people have never seen a foreigner in real life. It is advisable to learn as much about the culture as you can before relocating, as fitting in is essential to social success in Japan.
Japanese is the first language of nearly 100% of the population, and the standard (Tokyo) dialect is used in all schools and government. It is particularly difficult for foreigners, due to its complex system of honorific and informal speech and its unusual writing system, which uses two phonetic syllabaries (kana) in addition to Chinese characters (kanji). Beginning language study before leaving is thus essential. There are several regional Japanese dialects, and a few minority languages as well, namely Ainu and Ryukyuan.