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Japan is a very small country, approximately 144,000 square miles (smaller than California), and is inhabited by a considerably large population of over 120 million people (half the United States!) This makes Japan the seventh most populous nation in the world.

Japan is located at the far west side of the north pacific ocean, and consists of more than 4,000 islands! However, the Japanese people live on less than 10 percent of this land mass due to rough, mountainous, volcanic terrain, which make up a substantial 70 percent. One of the most famous and symbolic volcano’s is Mt. Fuji. Among these many islands, only four are commonly known, including Hakkaido (northern-most, considered to be Japan’s “frontier”), Shikoku (the smallest of the four), Kyushu (most southern), and Honshu ( the largest and most populated.)

Japan’s capital city is Tokyo, which is also one of the world’s largest cities. It consists of 12 million people! Tokyo became the imperial capital in 1868, with the downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the end of the feudal period. And of course, it is home to the Imperial palace. The chrysanthemum flower is the symbol of the imperial family.

Japan is an extremely modern civilization. After World War 2, much of Japan was destroyed, so in the rebuilding process of the nation, they were able to impose the very latest in technology, making them an “economic superpower” today. Their Gross National Product is so successful in fact, that it has nearly surpassed ours here in the United States! And is ranked second in the world. One of my favorite things in their very technologically-advanced society are the “bullet trains”, which are able to carry many people at speeds of up to 130 mph! They are safe, reliable, immaculately clean, and on time to the very second...How efficient! Another is their very modern system of parking in the thriving city of Sapporo, in which cars are lifted and rearranged in order to take full advantage of every last inch of precious space in crowded Japan.

Despite this modernization, Japan is also very determined to maintain it’s highly distinctive (and lovely) tradition. In an attempt to keep the country culturally isolated from the surrounding world, like it is physically, the ancient Japanese invented their very own unique culture including beautiful (and very expensive) kimono’s for the women, and sumo- wrestling for the men, just to name a few.

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Of course many of their traditions were influenced and imported by a variety of other cultures, including Indian, Chinese, and American. For example, McDonald’s, baseball, and skate boards were all appreciatively adopted and made very popular in Japan thanks to Commodore Perry of the U.S. navy when he brought with him the western influence to Japan in 1854. Even foods like fruit, dairy, and meat were added to Japanese menu’s, following the stay of American occupational troops after WWII, thus creating the famous Kobe beef, and even more significantly, adding several inches to the average Japanese persons height! Even still, our American money is hardly valuable compared to the Japanese yen.

Religion is also a very important and powerful tradition is Japan. Their main religion is Shinto, which is a form of nature and ancestor worship, done at shrines. There are a great many shrines all throughout Japan, and nearly all Japanese visit them occasionally, no matter what religion they are. Buddhism is the second major religion in Japan, with nearly 100 million followers. Buddhist worshiping takes place in temples. One temple in particular is the Todaiji temple in Nara, which is the largest wooden building in the world, and houses the Great Buddha; largest bronze statue in the world, standing 71 1/2 feet high and weighing 551 tons! The two religions practice together in peace, with never any conflict, very typical of Japanese behavior.

Another major part of Japanese tradition are their world-famous, very extensive, detailed, and nearly “perfect” gardens. Japanese gardeners spend long hours working very hard to create and maintain the most exquisite plants (and even rocks like in the Zen garden) in the form of art. Their gardens are used for meditating, worshiping, admiring, and most commonly, for strolling in. Korakuen in Okayama is one of the three most famous strolling gardens, built in 1700 by Daimyo, a feudal lord. Another of the three is Ritsurin Park in Takamatsu, also used for strolling, and thirdly is Matsushima, where you can take much pleasure in riding very large, fancy boats in the shape of beautiful birds. Bonsai is another art form related to gardening in which dwarf tree’s are cultivated in tiny containers and trained to grow into certain shapes. Flower arranging called ikebana is very important in the education of young girls and is done mostly by women only. It originated in the fifteenth century and consists of three symbols: heaven, man, and earth. With all these fascinating ideas for gardens, many Japanese enjoy showing off their work in contests.

Besides tradition, the Japanese also live by very prestigious morals, most especially, cleanliness. They never wear shoes in the house, except to wear special shower slippers wile bathing so not to dirty the bathroom floor for the next person. Their bus drivers, police officers, and other authoritive figures always where spotless white gloves, and those sick with a cold never go out without covering their mouths, in order to avoid spreading the ill germ. The streets are litter-free, and only on very rare an occasion will you see graffiti in public places, on busses, or anywhere, and running water is everywhere for washing hands frequently throughout the day. Overall they are an extremely considerate, polite people.

Education in Japan is very important and highly emphasized. Students wear school uniforms, sometimes even while away from school, and they study exceptionally hard in order to be accepted into top universities. Juku is a private school specially designed to help students prepare for their college entrance exams, and is very competitive and pressuresome. Nevertheless, 99 percent of Japanese are literate! Reading is very popular; even comic books sell 1 million copies per week! After graduating, the vast majority of Japanese are extremely loyal to their job, often working for the same company their entire life. Their job becomes a very important social unit for them.

Other very important social gatherings for the Japanese are their many cultural and extravagant festivals. They have several throughout the year, but the most appealing one to me is their cherry blossom celebration, which takes place when the beautiful blossoms (native to Japan) appear on the trees for the first time that year, symbolizing that winter is finally ending, while the coming of new life for nature and man is beginning. The ceremonies and rituals are designed to seek the blessing of fertility upon nature and man. Women dress up in their most colorful kimono’s, while playing koto music and throwing rice, and men enjoy games such as kemari, or hacky-sack. Even the children dress up as cherry blossoms. It is a very joyous event for families and friends to participate in together. The celebration lasts approximately 1-2 weeks, or until rain or wind comes to destroy the blossoms. But the Japanese view their coming and going as a symbol of their duty to die for their Lord at a moments notice, just as quickly as the millions of cherry blossoms disappear. How extraordinary!

One of the greatest things I’ve learned and truly admire about the Japanese as a people, besides their loyalty to their culture and devotion to tradition, are their overwhelming appreciation and consideration to life and property. They’ve invented such national holidays as “respect the aged day”, and bow to their neighbors to show respect to them. Even the homeless people do not dare to begg, out of disrespect. It seems they take nothing for granted, while enjoying the simplest pleasures in life, and take so much pride in who they are, something very well-deserved indeed!

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