Facts & Figures
Nihon and Nippon are the two names used in Japanese to refer to Japan. The latter is usually prefered in formal situations, probably because it can be pronounced with more forcefulness. The kanji characters used are "nichi" meaning sun, and "hon" meaning origin, and the combination is usually translated as "the land of the rising sun". This phrase can be traced back to the 7th-century ruler Prince Shotoku, who used it in a letter to China.
The origin of the word "Japan" used in western languages is less clear. One theory holds that it came from the Portuguese "jipang", which in turn was an attempt to pronounce "Jihpenkuo", the name for Japan used in northern China. Another idea is that Dutch traders pronounced "Yatpun", the name used in southern China, as "Japan" (the 'j' being pronounced like a 'y').
Mount Fuji and a temple in autumn, when much of the country is a riot of color
Japan is an island nation located off the east coast of the Asian continent. The archipelago of about 7,000 islands runs almost 3,000km northeast to southwest. The total land area is just under 388,000 square kilometers, roughly equal in size to the US state of Montana or 1.5 times the land area of the UK. Only about 16% of the land is fertile, the rest being mostly forest-covered mountains. Japan is located on the western rim of the so-called Pacific "Ring of Fire" and as a result suffers from frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity. There are four main islands - Honshu, often referred to as the mainland, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku. Read more about the regions of Japan.
The population of Japan in 2012 was approximately 127,650,000, which marked the first significant annual decrease since World War II, and this trend has been continuing ever since leading to a "greying" population. Japan is the 10th most populous country in the world. In 1920, the population was about 56 million and after peaking at over 128 million in the 2010 census, the projected population for 2050 is just over 100 million, of which a third are expected to be aged 65 years or over, up from the recent 23% (2010). The Japanese refer to this ongoing phenomenon as the 'silver' society.
The estimated number of children (aged up to 14 years) is 17 million, a declining segment of the total population at around 13% (2010), of which boys make up abou 51%, girls 49%. This figure began to decline in the early 1950s after the first 'baby boom' and rose slightly during the second baby boom (1971-1974) but has been on the decline ever since.
Approximately 79% of the population live in urban areas. The most densely populated areas are on the Pacific coast of the main island of Honshu, in the Kanto region - the Tokyo metropolis and its port cities of Yokohama and Kawasaki - and the Kansai area, centered around the cities of Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto.
Read more about the major cities of Japan.
Japan Flag - Hinomaru
Cherry Blossoms - Sakura
The flag of Japan is called the Hinomaru (rising sun). It consists of a red circle centered on a white background. The flag has length:width proportions of 3:2 and the circle is 3/5 of the width. Although its history goes further back, the flag was first officially raised on merchant ships in 1870, shortly after the "modern" Meiji era began.
The Japanese national anthem is Kimigayo (The Emperor's Reign). It was composed by Hayashi Hiromori in 1880 and adopted as the national anthem in 1888. The lyrics are taken from the Kokinshu, a Heian Period (794-1185) anthology of poetry and are written in the form of a 5-line, 31-syllable tanka poem.
Kimi ga yo wa
Chiyo ni yachiyo ni
Sazare ishi no
Iwao to nari te
Koke no musu made.
They can be translated as:
May the reign of the Emperor continue for a thousand, nay, eight thousand generations and for the eternity that it takes for small pebbles to grow into a great rock and become covered with moss.
Both the flag and the anthem are sources of some controversy. For example, the Japan Communist Party has long protested that since neither are actually recognized as official in the constitution and are more or less "de facto" national symbols, established by social custom rather than in law, the government should allow a national debate on the issue. They also arouse memories of Japan's wartime aggression among the country's Asian neighbors.
Some less contentious symbols of Japan include the sakura (cherry blossom), the national flower, and the kiji (pheasant), the national bird. The blooming of cherry blossoms is eagerly awaited across the country every year. Millions of people go to hanami (flower viewing) parties to welcome the coming of spring. Also, given the short time that the blossoms remain on the trees, they are also seen as a poignant reminder of the transience of life itself.