Background Notes: Japan

Contributed By RealAdventures

Japan is one of the most densely populated nations in the world, with some 330 persons per square kilometer (almost 860 persons per sq. mi.). For 1997, the population growth rate was about 0.23%. Japan's low population growth rate in recent years has raised concerns about the social implications of an aging population.

The Japanese are a Mongoloid people, closely related to the major groups of East Asia. However, some evidence also exists of a mixture with Malayan and Caucasoid strains. About 750,000 Koreans and much smaller groups of Chinese and Caucasians reside in Japan.

Buddhism is important in Japan's religious life and has strongly influenced fine arts, social institutions, and philosophy. Most Japanese consider themselves members of one of the major Buddhist sects.

Shintoism is an indigenous religion founded on myths, legends, and ritual practices of the early Japanese. Neither Buddhism nor Shintoism is an exclusive religion. Most Japanese observe both Buddhist and Shinto rituals: the former for funerals and the latter for births, marriages, and other occasions. Confucianism, primarily an ethical system, profoundly influences Japanese thought as well. About 1.3 million people in Japan are Christians, of whom 60% are Protestant and 40% Roman Catholic.

Japan provides free public schooling for all children through junior high school. Ninety-four percent of students go on to 3-year senior high schools, and competition is stiff for entry into the best universities. Japan enjoys one of the world's highest literacy rates (99%), and nearly 90% of Japanese students complete high school.

Traditional Japanese legend maintains that Japan was founded in 600 BC by the Emperor Jimmu, a direct descendant of the sun goddess and ancestor of the present ruling imperial family. About AD 405, the Japanese court officially adopted the Chinese writing system. During the sixth century, Buddhism was introduced. These two events revolutionized Japanese culture and marked the beginning of a long period of Chinese cultural influence. From the establishment of the first fixed capital at Nara in 710 until 1867, the emperors of the Yamato dynasty were the nominal rulers, but actual power was usually held by powerful court nobles, regents, or "shoguns" (military governors).

Contact With the West

The first contact with the West occurred about 1542, when a Portuguese ship, blown off its course to China, landed in Japan. During the next century, traders from Portugal, the Netherlands, England, and Spain arrived, as did Jesuit, Dominican, and Franciscan missionaries. During the early part of the 17th century, Japan's shogunate suspected that the traders and missionaries were actually forerunners of a military conquest by European powers. This caused the shogunate to place foreigners under progressively tighter restrictions. Ultimately, Japan forced all foreigners to leave and barred all relations with the outside world except for severely restricted commercial contacts with Dutch and Chinese merchants at Nagasaki. This isolation lasted for 200 years, until Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy forced the opening of Japan to the West with the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854.

Within several years, renewed contact with the West profoundly altered Japanese society. The shogunate was forced to resign, and the emperor was restored to power. The "Meiji restoration" of 1868 initiated many reforms. The feudal system was abolished, and numerous Western institutions were adopted, including a Western legal system and constitutional government along quasi-parliamentary lines.

In 1898, the last of the "unequal treaties" with Western powers was removed, signaling Japan's new status among the nations of the world. In a few decades, by creating modern social, educational, economic, military, and industrial systems, the Emperor Meiji's "controlled revolution" had transformed a feudal and isolated state into a world power.

Wars With China and Russia

Japanese leaders of the late 19th century regarded the Korean Peninsula as a "dagger pointed at the heart of Japan." It was over Korea that Japan became involved in war with the Chinese Empire in 1894-95 and with Russia in 1904-05. The war with China established Japan's dominant interest in Korea, while giving it the Pescadores Islands and Formosa (now Taiwan). After Japan defeated Russia in 1905, the resulting Treaty of Portsmouth awarded Japan certain rights in Manchuria and in southern Sakhalin, which Russia had received in 1875 in exchange for the Kurile Islands. Both wars gave Japan a free hand in Korea, which it formally annexed in 1910.

World War I to 1952

World War I permitted Japan, which fought on the side of the victorious Allies, to expand its influence in Asia and its territorial holdings in the Pacific. The postwar era brought Japan unprecedented prosperity. Japan went to the peace conference at Versailles in 1919 as one of the great military and industrial powers of the world and received official recognition as one of the "Big Five" of the new international order. It joined the League of Nations and received a mandate over Pacific islands north of the Equator formerly held by Germany.

During the 1920s, Japan progressed toward a democratic system of government. However, parliamentary government was not rooted deeply enough to withstand the economic and political pressures of the 1930s, during which military leaders became increasingly influential.

Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and set up the puppet state of Manchukuo. In 1933, Japan resigned from the League of Nations. The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 followed Japan's signing of the "anti-Comintern pact" with Nazi Germany the previous year and was part of a chain of developments culminating in the Japanese attack on the United States at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941.

After almost 4 years of war, resulting in the loss of 3 million Japanese lives and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan signed an instrument of surrender on the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Harbor on September 2, 1945. As a result of World War II, Japan lost all of its overseas possessions and retained only the home islands. Manchukuo was dissolved, and Manchuria was returned to China; Japan renounced all claims to Formosa; Korea was granted independence; southern Sakhalin and the Kuriles were occupied by the U.S.S.R.; and the United States became the sole administering authority of the Ryukyu, Bonin, and Volcano Islands. The 1972 reversion of Okinawa completed the United States' return of control of these islands to Japan.

After the war, Japan was placed under international control of the Allies through the Supreme Commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur. U.S. objectives were to ensure that Japan would become a peaceful nation and to establish democratic self-government supported by the freely expressed will of the people. Political, economic, and social reforms were introduced, such as a freely elected Japanese Diet (legislature). The country's constitution took effect on May 3, 1947. The United States and 45 other Allied nations signed the Treaty of Peace with Japan in September 1951. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty in March 1952, and under the terms of the treaty, Japan regained full sovereignty on April 28, 1952.

Recent Political Developments

The post-World War II years saw tremendous economic growth in Japan, with the political system dominated by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). That total domination lasted until the Diet Lower House elections on July 18, 1993 in which the LDP, in power since the mid-1950s, failed to win a majority and saw the end of its four-decade rule. A coalition of new parties and existing opposition parties formed a governing majority and elected a new prime minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, in August 1993. His government's major legislative objective was political reform, consisting of a package of new political financing restrictions and major changes in the electoral system. The coalition succeeded in passing landmark political reform legislation in January 1994.

Under the 1994 legislation, the Lower House electoral system was changed to one in which 300 members are elected in single-member districts and another 200 members on proportional slates in 11 regions. The new electoral system also reduced the number of seats in overly represented rural areas and shifted them to some urban areas. The overall number of seats was reduced to 480 total as of the June 2000 elections.

In April 1994, Prime Minister Hosokawa resigned. Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata formed the successor coalition government, Japan's first minority government in almost 40 years. Prime Minister Hata resigned less than 2 months later. Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama formed the next government in June 1994, a coalition of his Japan Socialist Party (JSP), the LDP, and the small Sakigake Party. The advent of a coalition containing the JSP and LDP shocked many observers because of their previously fierce rivalry. Prime Minister Murayama served from June 1994 to January 1996. He was succeeded by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, who served from January 1996 to July 1998. Prime Minister Hashimoto headed a loose coalition of three parties until the July 1998 Upper House election, when the two smaller parties cut ties with the LDP. Hashimoto resigned due to a poor electoral showing by the LDP in those Upper House elections. He was succeeded as party president of the LDP and prime minister by Keizo Obuchi, who took office on July 30, 1998.

The LDP formed a governing coalition with the Liberal Party in January 1999, and Keizo Obuchi remained prime minister. The LDP-Liberal coalition expanded to include the Komeito Party in October 1999. Prime Minister Obuchi suffered a stroke in April 2000 and was replaced by Yoshiro Mori, who retained all of his predecessor's cabinet members. After the Liberal Party left the coalition in April 2000, Prime Minister Mori welcomed a Liberal Party splinter group, the Conservative Party, into the ruling coalition. In June 2000 Lower House elections, Prime Minister Mori's three-party coalition of the LDP, Komeito, and the Conservative Party maintained its majority in the Diet.

Japan is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary government. There is universal adult suffrage with a secret ballot for all elective offices. The executive branch is responsible to the Diet, and the judicial branch is independent. Sovereignty, previously embodied in the emperor, is vested in the Japanese people, and the emperor is defined as the symbol of the state. Japan's Government is a parliamentary democracy, with a House of Representatives and a House of Councillors. Executive power is vested in a cabinet composed of a prime minister and ministers of state, all of whom must be civilians. The prime minister must be a member of the Diet and is designated by his colleagues. The prime minister has the power to appoint and remove ministers, a majority of whom must be Diet members.

Japan's judicial system, drawn from customary law, civil law, and Anglo-American common law, consists of several levels of courts, with the Supreme Court as the final judicial authority. The Japanese constitution includes a bill of rights similar to the U.S. Bill of Rights, and the Supreme Court has the right of judicial review. Japanese courts do not use a jury system, and there are no administrative courts or claims courts. Because of the judicial system's basis, court decisions are made in accordance with legal statutes. Only Supreme Court decisions have any direct effect on later interpretation of the law.

Japan does not have a federal system, and its 47 prefectures are not sovereign entities in the sense that U.S. States are. Most depend on the central government for subsidies. Governors of prefectures, mayors of municipalities, and prefectural and municipal assembly members are popularly elected to 4-year terms.

Prime Minister--Yoshiro Mori
Minister of Foreign Affairs--Yohei Kono
Minister of Finance--Kiichi Miyazawa
Ambassador to the U.S.--Shunji Yanai
Ambassador to the UN--Yukio Sato

Japan maintains an embassy in the United States at 2520 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC (tel. 202-238-6700). Consulates General are in Anchorage, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Guam, Honolulu, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York City, Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle. Honorary consulates general are in Buffalo, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Nashville, Miami, Minneapolis, Mobile, Phoenix, St. Louis, San Diego, and San Juan; and an honorary consulate is in American Samoa. The Japan National Tourist Organization is at 630 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY, 10111.

Japan is the second-largest economy in the world after the United States. Its reservoir of industrial leadership and technicians, well-educated and industrious work force, high savings and investment rates, and intensive promotion of industrial development and foreign trade have produced a mature industrial economy. Along with North America and western Europe, Japan is one of the three major industrial complexes among the market economies. Japan has few natural resources, and trade helps it earn the foreign exchange needed to purchase raw materials for its economy. In 1997, the country's exports amounted to about 12% of its GDP.

While Japan's long-term economic prospects are considered good, Japan is currently in its worst recession since World War II. Plummeting stock and real estate prices marked the end of the "bubble economy" of the late 1980s. The impact of the Asian financial crisis also has been substantial. Real GDP in Japan grew at an average of roughly 1.25% yearly between 1991-98, compared to growth in the 1980s of about 4% per year. Growth in Japan in this decade has been slower than growth in other major industrial nations. The Government of Japan has forecast growth in Japan fiscal year 1999 at 0.5%. A number of economic indicators remain in negative territory, but Japan announced strong growth (1.9%) for first quarter 1999.

Despite its current slow economic growth, Japan remains a major economic power both in the region and globally. Japan has diplomatic relations with nearly all independent nations and has been an active member of the United Nations since 1956. Japanese foreign policy has aimed to promote peace and prosperity for the Japanese people by working closely with the West and supporting the United Nations.

After World War II, the Allies disarmed and occupied Japan. Article IX of the Japanese constitution provides that "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained." During the 1950-53 Korean war, a national police reserve force was established. Before the end of the U.S. occupation of Japan in 1952, the first steps had been taken to expand and transform the force into the Self-Defense Force (SDF). At the same time, the Japanese Government accepted Article 51 of the UN Charter that each nation has the right of self-defense against armed attack. This doctrine was consistent with Article IX of the Japanese constitution.

In 1954, the Japan Defense Agency was created with the specific mission of defending Japan against external aggression. Ground, maritime, and air self-defense forces were established.

In recent years, the Japanese public has shown a substantially greater awareness of security issues and increasing support for the SDF. This is in part due to its success in disaster relief efforts at home and its participation in peacekeeping operations in Cambodia in the early 1990s. However, there are still significant political and psychological constraints on strengthening Japan's defense.

Although a military role for Japan in international affairs is precluded by its constitution and government policy, Japanese cooperation with the United States through the 1960 U.S.-Japan security treaty has been important to the peace and stability of East Asia. All postwar Japanese governments have relied on a close relationship with the United States as the foundation of their foreign policy and have depended on the mutual security treaty for strategic protection.

While maintaining its relationship with the United States, Japan has diversified and expanded its ties with other nations. Good relations with its neighbors continue to be of vital interest. After the signing of a peace and friendship treaty with China in 1978, ties between the two countries developed rapidly. The Japanese extend significant economic assistance to the Chinese in various modernization projects. At the same time, Japan has maintained economic but not diplomatic relations with Taiwan, where a strong bilateral trade relationship thrives.

Japanese ties with South Korea have improved since an exchange of visits in the mid-1980s by their political leaders. R.O.K. President Kim Dae-jung had a very successful visit to Japan in October 1998. Japan has limited economic and commercial ties with North Korea. Japanese normalization talks halted when North Korea refused to discuss a number of issues with Japan. Japan strongly supports the U.S. in its efforts to encourage Pyongyang to abide by the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Despite the August 31, 1998 North Korean missile test which overflew the Home Islands, Japan has repeated its support for the Korean Energy Development Organization (KEDO) and the Agreed Framework, which seek to freeze the North Korean nuclear program.

Russo-Japanese relations have warmed considerably since 1996, despite the fact that Russia continues to claim and occupy the Northern Territories, small islands off the coast of Hokkaido occupied by the U.S.S.R. at the end of World War II. But recent summits in 1997 and 1998 between former PM Hashimoto and President Yeltsin have accelerated work on a peace treaty that would settle the Northern Territories dispute and normalize bilateral relations. To further mutual confidence and trust, Japan has pledged about $4 billion to various programs designed to bolster Russian democracy and economic reform.

Beyond its immediate neighbors, Japan has pursued a more active foreign policy in recent years, recognizing the responsibility that accompanies its economic strength. It has expanded ties with the Middle East, which provides most of its oil. Japan increasingly is active in Africa and Latin America and has extended significant support to development projects in both regions. And a Japanese-conceived peace plan became the foundation for nationwide elections in Cambodia in 1998.

After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Japan adopted tough sanctions against Iraq and strongly supported the UN effort against the aggression. Japanese financial support for the Gulf war reached $14 billion. Japan actively supported the Israel-Palestine peace framework. From October 1993, Japan has contributed $300 million to Palestinian reconstruction. Under the framework of the Middle East Peace Process, Japan chairs the multilateral working group on environment and participates in other working groups.

In the 1990s, Japanese military and police forces as well as civilians have participated in a wide variety of UN peacekeeping missions. These have included Cambodia (two Japanese citizens were killed in that effort), Mozambique, the Golan Heights, and relief efforts for Rwandan refugees in what was then Zaire (now Congo). Japan did not send any Self-Defense Force units to Somalia but financed much of the effort there with a $100 million contribution. In 1998, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces conducted its first-ever overseas military relief operation. The Japanese military dispatched 105 personnel to Central America to provide humanitarian disaster relief in Honduras and Nicaragua in the wake of Hurricane Mitch.

Development assistance is a major tool of Japan's foreign policy. Japan has been the world's largest aid donor since 1989, with aid levels of $9 billion. Japanese aid to other Asian countries exceeds that of the United States, and Japan also is a major donor to central and eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. Japan and the United States hold regular consultations to coordinate foreign assistance programs. The United States supports Japan's efforts to open its markets to developing nations' products.

The United States' close and cooperative relationship with Japan is the cornerstone of U.S. policy in Asia and the basis of a strong, productive partnership in addressing global issues. Despite different social and cultural traditions, Japan and the United States have much in common. Both have open, democratic societies, high literacy rates, freedom of expression, multiparty political systems, universal suffrage, and open elections. Both have highly developed free-market industrial economies and favor an open and active international trading system. As noted, Japan is one of the three major industrial complexes among the market economies, along with North America and western Europe. The U.S. supports Japan's goal of obtaining a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Because of the two countries' combined economic and technological impact on the world (together accounting for a little more than 30% of world GDP and 60% of the Western industrialized nations' GDP), the U.S.-Japan relationship has become global in scope. The two governments have developed a partnership to address shared priorities. An example of that partnership is the U.S.-Japan "Common Agenda for Global Issues," a set of initiatives in areas such as the environment, technology development, and health. Under the Common Agenda, the United States and Japan are coordinating $12 billion in population and HIV/AIDS assistance to developing countries and are conducting joint research on advanced transportation and environmental technologies. The two governments also are cooperating closely on issues as diverse as ocean pollution, children's vaccines, narcotics demand reduction, the role of women in development, and the protection of forests and coral reefs.

Ambassador--Thomas Foley
Deputy Chief of Mission--Christopher LaFleur
Economic Minister-Counselor--Michael Michalak
Political Minister Minister-Counselor--James Foster
Consul General--John Dinger
Commercial Minister--Samuel H. Kidder
Defense Attache--Capt. Jeffrey Crews, USN

The street address and the international mailing address of the U.S. embassy in Japan is 10-5 Akasaka 1-chome, Minato-ku, Tokyo (107); tel. 81-3-3224-5000; fax 81-3-3505-1862. The APO mailing address is American Embassy Tokyo, Unit 45004, Box 258, APO AP 96337-5004. U.S. consulates general are in Osaka, Sapporo, and Naha, and consulates are in Fukuoka and Nagoya. The American Chamber of Commerce in Japan is at 7th floor, Fukide No. 2 Bldg., 1-21 Toranomon 4-chome, Minato-ku, Tokyo (105).

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