Japan has a land area of 380.000 km2. This is about 1/25th of the size of the USA, about half the size of Chile, or around 1.5 times that of the UK. Some 67% of Japan’s landmass is covered with forests, while farmland accounts for around 13%, making this a country with quite a large amount of greenery.
The total Japanese population as of October 12th, 1999 was around 126.500.000, the 9th largest population in the world. 44% of the population is concentrated in 3 major metropolitan areas (Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya) that account for 6% of the landmass.
Since 1868 the capital of Japan has been Tokyo. This is a massive city with a population of 11,9 million. At Tokyo’s centre is a cluster of government buildings such as the National Diet Building, the Supreme Court and many ministries and agencies, making it the centre of Japanese politics. It is also an economic centre, with many companies located here. It has a good deal of cultural facilities, newspaper companies and TV stations, making it also a centre for culture and information.
The Japanese archipelago assumed its present shape around 10,000 years ago. Soon after, the era known as the Jomon period began and continued for about 8,000 years. Its people were hunter-gatherers. Gradually, they formed small communities and began to organise their lives communally. They also began to use earthenware objects. Rice cultivation reached Japan from the Eurasian continent around 300 BC during the Yayoi period, and settlements grew larger.
Japan can be said to have taken its first steps to nationhood in the Yamato period, which began at the end of the third century AD. During this period, the ancestors of the present Emperor began to bring a number of small states under unified rule from their bases around what are now Nara and Osaka Prefectures.
In 604 Prince Shotoku laid down Japan’s first constitution. Also from this time, Buddhism that was introduced from the Eurasian continent began to take root in Japan. The Nara period began at the beginning of the eighth century with the establishment of the country’s first permanent capital in Nara. Toward the end of the century, the capital was transferred to Kyoto, launching the Heian period, during which noble families predominated and a distinct national culture blossomed.
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Japan has a democratic system of government. All adult citizens have the right to vote and to run in national and regional elections.
The Japanese system of government is founded on the constitution of Japan. It is sometimes called the Peace Constitution, because it affirms Japan’s commitment to peace and its renunciation of war. The Peace Constitution also determines the role of the Emperor, the rights and duties of the people, the responsibilities of the different branches of government, and other rules about how government operates.
The national legislature of Japan is called the Diet. The Diet has two houses: the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors. Most national laws must be passed by both houses.
For some kinds of laws, however, the decision of the House of Representatives is followed, if the two houses disagree.
The Prime Minister is a member of the Diet, and is elected by the Diet. The Prime Minister appoints the Cabinet. Most of the Cabinet members head government ministries or agencies.
Economically, Japan is one of the most highly developed nations in the world. Its gross national product (the value of all the goods and services a nation produces) is the second biggest in the world. Japan is especially strong in manufacturing; many cars and household appliances are produced and exported all over the world, and brand names like Sony, Toyota, and Honda have become quite well known.
Japan is poor in natural resources, though. Until now, Japanese companies have concentrated on importing raw materials, such as iron ore from Australia and crude oil from the Middle East, and then processed these raw materials to make finished products, which were then exported. But recently, Japan has been importing more and more manufactured products.
Japanese companies have also been making “direct investments,” mainly in North America, Southeast Asia, and Europe, setting up manufacturing plants to build products that are either sold locally or exported. Through these activities, Japanese businesses are helping the development of industry and creation of jobs in the countries in which they are investing. Japanese-affiliated companies in the United States now account for 9% of the total value of America’s exports, for example, and employ about 638,000 Americans.
Japan has a well-developed network of roads and railways, with expressways stretching from one end of the country to another and the high-speed Shinkansen, or “bullet train,” running from Morioka in the north to Fukuoka in the south. In large cities, there are well-developed public transportation systems such as buses, trains and subways. Commuters use these systems more than cars.
Japan’s main agricultural product is rice. Since Japan’s arable land area is so small, it cannot grow enough wheat, soybeans, or other major crops to feed itself. Japan has one of the lowest rates of food self-sufficiency of all industrialized countries; it must import a high percentage of its food from abroad.
Japan’s fishing industry is very active, though, as fish is an important part of the Japanese diet. The nation is fourth in the world, following China, Peru and Chile, in its yearly catch of fish.
Studies in Japan
Higher education in Japan begins after the completion of 12 years of schooling; six years at elementary school, three years at lower secondary school, and three years at upper secondary school. There are five types of higher educational institution that international students can enter, and they can be divided according to their administration into national, local public and private institutions.
The academic year in higher educational institutions in Japan begins in April and ends in March the following year. Some classes run year-round, but many last either the first semester (April through September) or the second semester (October through March). Vacations vary according to universities and departments, but they usually offer three vacation periods in the year; summer from early July through August-end, winter from late December through early January and spring from late February through early April. There are still few universities which accept new students in the second semester.
In general, higher educational institutions in Japan announce their application procedures from June to August every year, so international students should make enquiries directly to the educational institution of their choice. Each educational institution in Japan has its own application procedures, but general information can be found here.
The Embassy’s information section can provide some information material on studies in Japan, but we highly recommend that you first visit the webpage of Association of International Education in Japan (AIEJ) where you will find general information on studies in Japan including practical information regarding costs, visa, living in Japan etc. They also provide a complete list of universities and colleges, as well as the course program offered by each institutions. Finally, they also offer a very extensive list of scholarships available to international students.
For information about the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, please click here.
Furthermore, we recommend that you read the information available from Lånekassen and Association for Norwegian Students Abroad (ANSA).
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Food and Drink
Fresh ingredients are very important in traditional Japanese cooking. If you visited a home for a typical dinner, you would be served rice, perhaps a soup made from soybean paste (miso), pickles, and either fish or meat. Popular seasonings include soy sauce (shoyu), green horseradish (wasabi) and toasted seaweed (nori).
Although rice is the main staple of the Japanese diet, fish is also an important food source. A favourite dish, deep-fried seafood and vegetables (tempura), was introduced to Japan by 16th century Portuguese traders. Sashimi (thin strips of raw fish) and sushi (slices of raw fish on rice on top of small portions of rice flavoured with vinegar) are Japanese foods that are well-known throughout the world. This form of cuisine may sound simple, but it takes many years of study to become an accomplished chef.
Meat is not a traditional part of the Japanese diet, but over the last century new and delicious recipes have been developed using chicken, pork and beef. Grilled chicken on a stick (yakitori) is popular, along with sukiyaki (beef cooked in an iron skillet together with vegetables and bean curd (tofu)).
Buckwheat (soba) and wheat (udon) noodles are favourite substitutes for rice. These noodles are commonly served in a deep bowl of hot soup stock, topped with vegetables, fried bean curd or tempura. Cold noodles dipped in sauce make a refreshing summer lunch.
Green tea (ocha) is the most loved drink in Japan. It is served after meals and whenever people get together. Ocha is drunk hot, with nothing added to it. Other popular beverages include black tea (kocha), wines made from rice (sake) and other grains (shochu) or from fruits like plums.
However, these traditional foods hardly tell the whole culinary story in Japan. You can also find food from almost anywhere in the world in Japanese restaurants and homes. Favourite international fare includes Chinese dishes, Korean barbecue, curry, spaghetti, steak, hamburgers and pizza. Young people today are especially fond of fast food, but family meals and snacks have also come to include items like omelettes, pasta, hot dogs, potato chips, yoghurt, chocolate, ice cream, cakes and a wide variety of other – originally foreign – foods, not to mention drinks like beer, soda and coffee.
The Japanese are a polite and reserved people. Etiquette is considered very important. Although they do not expect Westerners to understand or follow their customs, it is appreciated when Westerners make an effort to follow Japanese manners. Any Westerner who acts with courtesy and respect will never go far wrong. With this in mind, the following may be of interest to people going to Japan for the first time.
Although the custom of bowing is still common, businessmen often shake hands upon being introduced. The Japanese do not expect Westerners to bow when introduced, but a slight nod of the head is often appropriate.
Meetings in Japan often begin with the exchange of name cards. Therefore it is essential for visitors, especially if on business, to have cards giving one’s name, position and business address in English on one side, and the same information in Japanese on the other side.
Upon receiving a name card at a formal meeting, one should study the card thoughtfully and then lay it carefully on the table in front of you. Never write on someone’s name card or put it in your back pocket as this is very disrespectful.
The giving and receiving of gifts play an important part in Japanese social life. There are many occasions for presenting gifts. For example a gift given on the occasion of a wedding or funeral is usually in the form of a sum of money placed in a special envelope (this envelope is very important). In addition, gifts are also given on two yearly occasions such as the periods before the New Year and the Midsummer’s Bon Festival. The Japanese usually give important visitors gifts and it is considered polite to reciprocate. It would be quite usual for a visitor to take a small gift for his or her main host. Gifts can be something personal, e.g. a company product, something with a company or institutional crest on it or a regional speciality, such as a piece of fine china. Whiskey is now very common and is only a good idea if it is an expensive, single malt. In Japan, food is the most common type of gift. Avoid giving anything with a sharp edge, as this can symbolise the cutting of the relationship.
Gifts should always be wrapped. Traditionally the Japanese do not open the gift in the presence of the giver. It is best to treat them with reverence and then open them when the donor is no longer present.
In a Japanese room and also in a Western style business meeting, the place of honour is usually that furthest from the door, or nearest to the Tokonoma (i.e. the alcove with a scroll on it). A visitor may score points by making a show of initially refusing the place of honour. This may cause a minor delay at the beginning of any social gathering, but anyone disregarding this custom will become an object of criticism. The guests will all wait for the main guest to occupy the best place before taking their own seats, or if he or she is late, they will stand to greet the arrival.
Japanese meetings have a reputation for appearing to decide very little. Solutions tend to be well thought out, and then when the decision is made, action is expected very quickly. It is best not to get frustrated by the process and avoid pushing a Japanese client into making a decision.
Japanese homes are often small and overcrowded and therefore the Japanese rarely invite guests home, preferring to entertain in restaurants. However, if you should be invited it is common practice to bring a gift for your hosts. If you arrive without a gift, then you should apologise for this. When handing the gift over it is usual to depreciate oneself and the gift by saying something like “this gift is a poor thing but..”, Or “this may not suit your taste but..”
It is considered an important point in hospitality to serve guests with food and drink. Even when the guest has arrived unexpectedly, it is customary to offer a meal, even if it’s only a bowl of rice with tea and pickles.
In western style restaurants no particular problems arise for Western visitors. On the whole meals are informal occasions where the Japanese like to relax and get slightly drunk.
If the entertainment is Japanese style, a whole series of new situations will arise, and your host will take great pleasure guiding you through any difficulties, such as explaining where and when to remove one’s shoes, a common practice in Japan. There is no need to sit in the Japanese manner which is kneeling on one’s heels. Most Japanese find this just as difficult as Westerners. However, men are allowed to sit cross legged and ladies are still expected to kneel (but they may kneel over to the sides for comfort). You may be provided with a back rest which will help to support you. To sit with your legs stretched out is still very informal and should be avoided, as should showing people the sole of one’s feet.
Eating and drinking
It is usual to hold or touch one’s glass when one’s host is refilling it, otherwise it is presumed that one does not want to drink. Usually one should wait for the glass to be refilled by someone else. Likewise you should fill other people’s glasses when necessary.
Here are some things to avoid doing with chopsticks:
- Do not cross the chop sticks or put them sticking up in a rice bowl (this has associations with death)
- Do not pass food chopstick to chopstick
- Do not push food or plates around
- Do not wave or point with the chopsticks when drinking from a bowl.
An in-depth look into etiquette can be found at Japan Guide
Calendar Events and National Holidays
Various events are held in Japan throughout the year, such as:
New Year: For the Japanese, this is one of the most important times of year. Far-flung families gather together to see in the New Year, visiting shrines or temples to pray for their continued well-being in the coming 12 months.
Setsubun: Held on February 3rd or its vicinity, this event involves scattering beans to drive away demons and welcome in happiness. People pick up and eat the same number of beans as their age, praying to ward off illness and calamity.
The Hina Festival: On March 3rd, families with small girls put out displays of traditional hina dolls in a wish for good health and growth.
Cherry -blossom viewing: As the seasons turn early April and the beautiful sight of cherry blossoms, people enjoy outdoor parties in which they eat, drink and make merry under the cherry trees in parks and elsewhere.
Children’s Day: May 5th is also called Tango-no-Sekku; Boy’s Day. On this day families with small boys put out displays of miniature samurai helmets and costumes, and adorn the outside of their houses with streamers shaped like carp fish, in a wish for healthy growth in the future.
Tanabata: This is the “star festival” held on July 7th. It derives from a Chinese legend that portrays the stars Altair and Vega as a cowherd and a weaver, crossing the Milky Way to meet but once a year. People enjoy attaching paper strips bearing their wishes together with other colourful decorations on bamboo grass bushes.
O-Bon: Held on August 13th-15th (or July, according to the old calendar), this is a Buddhist observance in which we comfort the spirits of our ancestors. Fruits and vegetables are put on little trays for their refreshment. In some parts of the country, people take part in the bon-odori dance, dancing around a high wooden stage to the rythm of a big drum. In other parts, people release paper lanterns on rivers to send the souls back to the other world.
Shichi-go-san: On November 15th, boys aged 3 and 5, and girls aged 3 and 7 go to shrines dressed in the traditional kimono to pray for healthy growth in the future.
New Year’s Eve: On the last day of the old year, families gather to eat toshikoshi soba noodles in the evening and wish each other good health for the coming year.
For more information on events and festivals…
Events and festivals database
List of National Holidays in Japan
Japanese people’s hearts leap in anticipation of the festivals that take place each year in towns and villages throughout the country. Japan was traditionally an agrarian society centred on the cultivation of rice and other crops. People lived by the rhythm of the seasons, and the harvest was a major landmark in farm life. Village festivals gave farming families the chance to take time out from work and enjoy themselves for a while. At some temples and shrines, festivals go back several hundred years. They are relaxing occasions that make people feel the weight of history and give them a sense of the sacred–sensations that are all too often forgotten in the pace of everyday modern life.
For an overview and more information about festivals in Japan…
Events and festivals database
Festival information in Japan Atlas
Please note that enquiries concerning trade/commerce should be addressed to Japan External Trade Organization
Tel: +47 22 36 12 17
Fax: +47 22 36 08 13
Homepage in Japan: www.jetro.go.jp
JETRO has extensive information available for those wishing to do business in Japan. Their website includes a section on doing business in Japan, the changing face of Japanese retail and many other useful reports.
To find out how the topsy-turvy world of shares is behaving, why not go to the Tokyo Stock Exchange, or for more basic information on Japanese companies then try Japan Company Info .
You can also find information about what’s happening behind the headlines with business, economy, culture, society, science, technology and much more in Trends in Japan.
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