Japan is an island nation in East Asia. It is composed of four main islands (Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku) and many smaller ones. Its capital and largest city is Tokyo. Most Japanese people speak Japanese and practice Shinto or Buddhism.
The modern Japanese people are believed to be the descendants of Korean farmers who immigrated to Japan in the second century BC. However, Japan was inhabited before this; its original inhabitants were one of the first to invent pottery.
In the 1270s and 1280s, the Mongol empire under Kublai Khan launched several invasions of Japan. The Mongols arrived with thousands of troops and quickly decimated the samurai, who expected to engage in ritual single combat. However, according to legend, a hurricane blew up and killed most of the Mongols while they were aboard their ships. This miracle became known as kamikaze, or divine wind.
In 1592, militaristic elements of Japanese society launched an invasion of Korea. It was successful at first, but the entrance of China into the war and a surprise Korean victory at sea forced Japan back.
For the next 300 years Japan remained almost wholly isolated from the rest of the world. Small numbers of Portuguese and Dutch traders and missionaries were allowed, and they introduced firearms and Christianity.
In 1853, the United States admiral Matthew Perry sailed to Japan with a fleet of large ships to force open trade. The Japanese were shocked by the size and power of the ships, and immediately divisions between progressives and conservatives appeared in Japanese society.
In 1868, the progressives won out with the expulsion of the shogun and the crowning of the reform-minded Meiji Emperor. The army and navy were organized along European lines, and factories were established. European dress was adopted among the upper class. In 1895, the First Sino-Japanese War illustrated the superiority of Japan's army and navy.
In 1937, Japan began the Second Sino-Japanese War. Japan quickly secured the coastal cities, committing atrocities such as the Rape of Nanking, but was unable to take over the countryside. Japan became increasingly desperate for raw materials due to the American embargo.
On December 7, 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Japan wanted to quickly force the United States into a peace treaty on favorable terms. Unfortunately, none of the American aircraft carriers were damaged in the attack.
Still, Japan enjoyed early success. Most of Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, was taken over. However, the Japanese advance was halted at the Battle of the Coral Sea, and much of the Japanese fleet, including most of their aircraft carriers, was destroyed at the Battle of Midway.
Throughout 1943 and 1944, Japan retreated across the Pacific, inflicting heavy casualties in vicious jungle warfare, such as at the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1943. In 1944, an Allied victory was secured at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, where Japan's navy was nearly destroyed.
In August 1945, when mass conventional bombings of civilian targets such as Tokyo had failed, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. On September 2, 1945, Japan surrendered unconditionally.
Many of the top leaders during the war, such as Hideki Tojo, were executed, but the Emperor, Hirohito, was allowed to remain. Japan quickly adopted aspects of American culture such as baseball and the English language.
Throughout the Cold War, Japan's economy boomed. Automobile companies such as Toyota and Honda, as well as electronics companies like Sony and Nintendo, drove this growth. In the 1980s, it appeared that Japan would surpass the United States.
However, in the 1990s Japan's economy tanked. It recovered slowly, and took another big hit in the 2007 economic recession. The 2011 Japan earthquake also damaged the economy, and killed nearly 13,000 people.
Japan is a constitutional monarchy. The head of state, and the ceremonial head of the Shinto religion, is the Emperor. The head of government is the Prime Minister. The legislature is known as the Diet.
Despite nearly two decades of slow growth, Japan remains the world's third largest economy, behind the United States and China, which only recently overtook it. Many of the world's automobiles are produced in Japan by companies such as Honda, Toyota, Mitsubishi, and Suzuki. The large electronics conglomerates of Sony, Nintendo, Panasonic, Toshiba, Canon, and Nikon are also Japanese.
The Japanese language is the native language of Japan. There are also Okinawan languages spoken on Okinawa, and a very small number of people on Hokkaido also speak Ainu. There is also a large Korean-speaking population.
As in China, religion in Japan is a complex matter. The native Japanese tradition of Shinto reveres the Japan as well as nature spirits. It was popular during World War II, but has lost popularity since. Buddhism, which is similar to Shinto, also has a large following. Christianity is a minority religion.