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Japan Part 2 of 3: Domestic

In our continuing series on figuring out Japan, today, why don’t you learn a bit about Japan domestically? Seriously, why don’t you?

Japan is roughly the size of California – just a bit smaller – with a population of 127.5 million, while the Golden State has just over 36 million residents.

What might account for Japan being smaller than California but having 3.5 times as many citizens? Well, the Japanese live longer, that’s for sure. Life expectancy in Japan is over 81-years-old putting it in the top ten among the world’s oldest living people, a list topped by the people of the small, western European country of Andorra, whose population can expect to live to 84-years of age. For some perspective, the title of lowest age expectancy goes to the landlocked south African country of Swaziland. There, citizens can be called lucky for crossing the threshold of 33-years-old.

Is it the rice? I don’t know, but there are a few reasons why the longevity of the Japanese might be puzzling to some. For one, Japan floats in one of the most earthquake-prone regions in the world. While, the ‘big-one’ may have been 1923’s 7.9-on-the-richter-scale destruction, taking some 130,000 lives, some scientists clamor that these massive geological movements happen at intervals of about 70 years. Do that math. It is 2006. Oh, we’re overdue.

Big one or not, Japan has about 1,500 seismic occurrences per annum. This on an island with active volcanoes, typhoon seasons and always in the grasp of a tsunami or two. An island paradise, indeed.

Depending on where you hang your hat, Japan can get even more brutal. While Tokyo winters are mild, the cold months of December to February can make for rough living conditions in the north. There is a region of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido called “snow country.” This area around the Japanese alps has been called the snowiest in the world. The year 1945 brought an estimated 23 feet to the region. Yes, 23 feet of snow. Seriously.

All that being said, Japan is an industrialized, democratized state, so its people all have the chance to ignore politics like the Western world. In Japan, suffrage begins at the age of 20, at which time citizens can vote for local officials and their representing members of the 700-plus member Diet, Japan’s bicameral legislative branch. It is the Diet which chooses Japan’s leading political figure – its prime minister, a position recently awarded to Shinzo Abe.

Despite the position’s political power being taken away by a constitution written by American-occupation forces post-World War II, technically Japan’s head of the state is its emperor.

A Japanese hereditary hierarchy for a Japanese land. Ethnically, Japan is certainly Japanese: 99 percent, to be specific. In terms of religion, 84 percent are a combination of Shinto and Buddhist.

All that said, the Japanese people are known for suppressing individual achievement and goals, instead finding strength in group effort. Sounds great, but, like anything, there are some issues. … A whole lot of timid, overly-reserved people, but that is just biased, anecdotal conjecture.

Still, what that group environment has done is create a united nation out of a people that was anything but just 150 years ago, when the country first began to modernize. What has become an important image for many is the Japanese flag, and it is a memorable one, if only for its simplicity. It is pristine white with a red circle, representing a sun without rays, contrasting at its center.

Shorthand: Japan, the island system, is dangerous, Japan, the people, are not, but they are old, united and respectful.

Click here to read “Japan Part 3 of 3: International”.


I relied heavily on the CIA World Factbook, one of the spy agency’s most admirable annual endeavors, and supported it with my own anecdotal and conversational discoveries, one of the more nonacademic and equally untrustworthy methods for cultural understanding, but my primary tool, nonetheless.

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