Japan is a crescent-shaped archipelago, extending 3,000 kilometres from top to bottom, and made up of four main islands: Hokkaido in the north, the central and largest island of Honshu, Shikoku to the south east of Honshu, and Kyushu to its south. There are about 2,450 smaller islands, the largest being Okinawa to the south of Kyushu.
The capital of Japan, Tokyo, lies at 140 degrees east longitude, and 36 degrees north latitude, and is 7,830 kilometres from Sydney. Administratively the country is organised into 47 prefectures (ken). These are all broken down into a further 3,250 municipalities, varying in population from a few hundred, in rural areas, to tens of thousands in urban areas.
Officially and colloquially different names are used to refer to the country by region. Thus, the six northern prefectures of Honshu are collectively known as the Tohoku region; the area comprising Tokyo and six neighbouring prefectures is the Kanto region; the area comprising Osaka, Kyoto, Nara and four other prefectures is the Kinki region, but the part containing Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe is also known as the Kansai region; the western or bottom five prefectures of Honshu are the Chugoku region. Kyushu, Shikoku and Okinawa encompass the total area of each island.
Japan’s total land area covers about 377,900 square kilometres, compared with Australia’s approximately 7.7 million, making it a little larger than Finland and Italy. From 72 million in 1945, around 2012 the population peaked at 127 million, but due to an inadequate birth rate is now declining. In 2012 the population decreased by 210,000. At this rate, there will be less than 100 million Japanese people by 2050.
With 126 million people, population density is 330 per square kilometre, a figure similar to the Netherlands and Belgium. However because around 70% of the land is mountainous, and 15% used for agriculture, less than 5% is used for residential purposes, so in reality the density of the habitable area is the highest in the world, about 1,500 per square kilometre.
Due to industrialisation through the 20th century, a fairly spread out agriculture based population at the start of that century has become heavily urbanised, with over 40% of people now living in the three main urban areas of Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, and a further 40% in other such areas.
The original Western name for Japan, Zipangu, and the similar sounding Jipangu, are said to be derivatives from the name Jihpenkuo, which was used in northern China. The name used for Japan in southern China, Yatpun, is also said to have been a source of the word Japan, the name that was ultimately chosen for use in English to refer to the country. The name in Japanese, Nihon, or the more formal Nippon, is said to have emanated from a 7th century ruler, Prince Shotoku, when referring to his country in correspondence to China. These names come from the expression ‘place from where the sun rises’, which is the meaning conveyed by the kanji characters used for the word Nihon.
Japan’s place in the world
Japan’s long period of isolation, and its belligerent international policies for part of the time since its opening in the 1860s, place it a little uneasily on the world stage. Added to this is the opinion still held by some people, including at governmental level, in countries Japan colonised in the 1930s and 40s that it has not fully or publicly faced up to these policies and outcomes. This includes South East Asia, Korea and China, where residual dislike and bitterness continue.
Along with such people, many Japanese themselves are not keen for Japan to be active internationally in any capacity other than trading and foreign aid. As the result of Russia declaring war on Japan at the very end of the Pacific War, then invading Japanese-held South Sakhalin and Kurile Islands, this unresolved situation continues to cause relations with Russia to be slightly strained.
Geographically Japan can be described as located in East Asia (higashi ajia) or at least on the edge of it, however as a country Japan does not see itself as part of this region. Japanese commentators tend to imply East Asia comprises less developed countries, which receive economic aid and assistance from Japan, and to ordinary people this term has no meaning. A more apt description of Japan’s geographical position might be that it is in Asia, but not fully of Asia, a little like Australia, straddling East and West.
The Japanese language
Japanese is not an excessively difficult language to learn, but is certainly more difficult than a European language would be for an English-speaking person. The easiest part is speaking, as being a phonetic language each syllable in every word is pronounced, although in some words a vowel in the middle and at the end is dropped. The hard part is reading and writing, as Japanese is written in three forms of script, two of which are syllabries, or symbols representing sounds.
The first of these, and the one that children generally start learning during pre-school years, is hiragana, based on the five vowel sounds of a (as in cup), i (as in ink), u (as in put), e (as in egg), and o (as in top). There are about sixty of these sounds and hence about sixty hiragana. The second kind of syllabry, katakana, is used to represent all the same sounds, but only for loan words (gairaigo), individual words that have over centuries been introduced to Japanese from other languages, and invariably changed to suit the Japanese way of pronunciation, noted below.
The third kind of script comprises kanji characters, first introduced by immigrants from China in about 50AD. At this time Japan had no organised writing system, so the earliest forms of writing in Japan comprised the imported Chinese characters. Over time these characters and the order they appeared in sentences changed, to better suit and represent the local language, which wasn’t Chinese. Often they started out as pictures of objects, gradually being simplified to become like diagrams, the strokes in which must be written in a specific sequence. Like a word in English, kanji can have more than one meaning, depending on the context.
In total there are about 6000 kanji characters, but most people would know and be able to recognise only about half this number. The most common ones make up a list called the jou-you kanji, for everyday use, and the jinmei-you kanji, for people’s names, together totalling around 2,800. By the time students graduate from high school they might be able to recognise most of these, but the number they have actually mastered would probably be more in the range 2,200 – 2,500, sufficient to read the daily newspaper and all manga. As kanji are used to write words that came to Japan from China, and words originating in Japan, many can be pronounced in either of two ways. Pronunciation that is similar to the Chinese reading is called an on reading, and other words are said to have a kun reading.
As in other languages, if you don’t speak or read certain words they can slip from memory – the same with kanji, if it isn’t sighted or, more importantly, written. As a result of the use of computers and word processors many Japanese effectively cease writing after graduation from university, and from this time begin to forget how to write some of the kanji characters drummed into them during their schooling. With the most common form of leisure-reading being comics, which have a fairly restricted vocabulary range, many people cease reading various kanji characters from this time too.
The language is no exception to the age-old Japanese practice of introducing items from overseas, and as a result many loan words have been incorporated into it from other languages. The largest component comes from English, and the number is increasing all the time with the influence of the internet and the IT industry, although upon first sight, and sound, they may not be recognisable as English words due to their pronunciation Japanese-style. The earliest loan words came from Portugal, the first European country to make contact with Japan. Holland, the only country allowed to trade with Japan during its 260 year period of isolation, has also supplied a large number. Other sources are Javanese, Korean, Italian, French, German, Russian and Malaysian.
True to the Japanese penchant for miniaturisation, many of these words are abbreviated, and a combination of two words made into one. English examples abound, including family computer to famicom, air conditioner to aircon or kura, from cooler, word processor to waapuro, remote control to remocon, and so on.
With Japanese it’s helpful to know that after every consonant, except n, there must be a vowel, and words usually end in a vowel. This creates a somewhat staccato sound when speaking, although as in other languages the tone of voice raises and lowers according to the content.
One trait of the language that can cause confusion is in the way a negative tag question is answered in the affirmative (hai, yes), rather than in the negative, as in English. For example, the question: ‘You’re not driving, are you?’ would be answered in English by ‘No’, if the person wasn’t intending to drive. In Japanese, to indicate the same situation, the answer would be yes. Another characteristic is the existence of joseigo, words and expressions used only by females, plus the use more frequently by women than men of honorifics and formal forms.
Reflecting Japanese society, the language is very hierarchical. Most sentences can be expressed on at least four different levels of politeness, so people always need to ascertain the social standing of those with whom they are speaking, and to take account of the nature of the relationship they have with them, to know the appropriate level of formality at which they should address them. The highest level of politeness (keigo) uses its own grammatical forms and large numbers of honorifics.
Communication at any level can be very subtle, with much left unspoken, yet understood. This explains why a business card will always be carefully scrutinised when first received. The recipient needs to quickly determine the other person’s position, in his company and society in general.
As a consequence, when first meeting a business person in Japan, visitors may well be asked a variety of questions about their job, title, responsibilities, number of employees under them, and so on, all being used by the questioner to determine the appropriate level of politeness required.
Normal conversation can leave much to the understanding or imagination of the listener, and periods of silence during a conversation are common. This is even more common in business negotiations, which can also be used to good effect by the Japanese side for tactical purposes.