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Thursday 30th October
Japan Information - Page 1
Geography
The islands of Japan, lying between the "Sea of Japan" (Korea's East Sea) and the Pacific Ocean, are part of a chain running along the coast of Asia opposite China, Korea and, in the north, the former Soviet Union. Japan consists of a number of islands: Kyushu, Hokkaido, Honshu and Shikoku and around three thousand small islands, including the Volcano Islands and Iwo-jima.

Tokyo is the capital city. Other important cities - all on Honshu, the largest of the islands - are Osaka, Nagoya, Kyoto and Yokohama.

Many thousands of years ago the islands separated from the Asian mainland. Lying on the Pacific Ring, a region where the Asian and Pacific plates making up the earth's crust meet, around the Pacific Ocean, Japan is geologically very active.

There are around one hundred and sixty volcanoes in the area of which around a third are active. Mount Fuji, the highest mountain in Japan, was last active in 1707. In the last one hundred years Japan has suffered from more than twenty major earthquakes, such as the quake in Kobe. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and typhoons are all too familiar to the Japanese people.

The islands are very mountainous; between seventy and eighty percent of Japan is occupied by hills and mountains. The towns and cities are mainly squeezed into the flat lands along the coast, with very high levels of population density.

The climate is tropical in the south and cooler in the north. Humidity is high in the western regions of the main islands, with heavy rainstorms. On the Pacific coast the weather is less extreme. Winter snowfalls are heavy in the north.

Environment
Japan's forests cover much of the country. The forests contain a wide variety of trees: cedar, conifer, willow, beech, banyan, camphor and mulberry trees. The cherry with its spring blossom is a particular favourite, although the national flower is the chrysanthemum. Japan's other flowering plants include wisteria, azaleas, peony and the lotus.

Birds native to Japan include cranes, storks, swallows and sparrows. These are among the birds of Japan which can be seen in prints by artists such as Hokusai. Wildlife includes deer, bears, mink, otters, squirrels and other small animals. The macaque monkeys of Honshu are famous as a tourist attraction.

It is now recognized that Japan's rapid economic development after the war has damaged the environment: native plant species are facing extinction and rivers have been polluted. The Environment Agency was established in 1971 to tackle these problems. In 1988 a law was passed regulating the manufacture and use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which damage the ozone layer. Measures have been taken to improve the environmental situation: such as the Recycling Law of 1991 and the Basic Environment Law of 1993. Japan has a framework to deal with all environmental and conservation issues.

Architecture
Japanese architecture has always drawn on the country's great resources of forest timber. Houses, temples and castles and other traditional buildings were made from wood. The Horyuji Buddhist Temple near Nara is said to be one of the world's oldest wooden buildings. Timber buildings, though at risk from fire, are less of a hazard in earthquakes.

Japan's modern buildings are designed and built so that they can withstand earthquakes, sometimes by allowing movement and flexibility.

The traditional house was built with sliding room dividers as internal walls and its interior design is very clear and uncluttered.

Because of the high population density and the high cost of land, most Japanese people live in small homes or apartments. A famous use of small spaces is the capsule hotel found in Tokyo and other big cities. Instead of a hotel room, visitors sleep in cells with just enough room for a bed and a miniature television.

Japan has some of the world's most dramatic new architecture. Architects such as Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and Philippe Starck all have exciting new buildings in Japan's major cities. (2010)

Population
The population of Japan was estimated at 126,475,660 in July 2010; Japan has one of the highest population densities in the world.

Languages
Japanese is the national language.

Religion
Many Japanese follow the Shinto and Buddhist religions.

Shinto believers worship a spirit god who is to be found in nature. The sun goddess is the supreme deity. Shintoism is part of daily life, as the favours of the gods are asked for all types of events and activities (like taking examinations). The island of Itsukushima, in the inland sea of Seto, is the holy place of Shintoism.

Buddhism is the other major religion of Japan, introduced to the country in the sixth century AD.

Confucianism, which came to Japan from China, has been a significant influence, especially in the respect it requires for the ancestors and the family.

Christianity was brought to Japan by missionaries in the sixteenth century. When the Shogun decided in the early seventeenth century to close Japan to the outside world, Christianity was forbidden and did not return until the reopening in the mid nineteenth century.

Food
Japanese food relies heavily on simplicity and freshness, with many dishes eaten raw. A variety of different foods, mainly in small portions, are served at a meal with much emphasis placed not only on the appearance of the food but also on the tableware and on general presentation.

Rice is the most important part of a meal. Fish is very popular: Japan is famous for sushi (vinegared rice eaten with seafood or vegetables). Other Japanese food includes sukiyaki (thin slices of meat served with vegetables, tofu and vermicelli), chicken, cooked salad, pickles and Konbu kelp (seaweed using for making stock, rich in monosodium glutamate). Miso is soup made from fermented soybeans. Dried pickled apricots are eaten frequently and sweet potatoes are used in making confectionery and cakes.

Lunch boxes - bento - are popular and contain a variety of foods including rice and pickles. Western fast foods such as burgers and pizza are also popular, especially with young people.

Japan is famous for sake (rice wine). Beer is also produced but green tea is usually served with food. Tea making has its own very elaborate ceremony.

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