Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category


August 3, 2010

As I said in my last post, “cute” is king in Japan, to the point where many adult women adopt exaggeratedly squeaky voices and childish mannerisms in attempts at being cute.  The results can be cringe-inducing. But it’s not all bad.  Some people manage genuine cuteness.  And some do it really well.

Prime example:  Maki Horikita (堀北真希, Horikita Maki).

This video doesn’t demonstrate it, but she uses a natural speaking voice, which wins extra credit in my book.


May 15, 2010

Good grief, it’s been three and a half months since I’ve written anything here.

I’ve been distracted.  As of mid-February, I’ve returned to the realm of full-time employment.  Yay for positive cash flow!  But now that I’ve settled into work, I want to show my poor, neglected blog some love.

In my last post, I said I would write more about kanji and hiragana, but I have no idea what I had intended to discuss.  That’s what I get for saying “Next time, I’ll write about X.”  Foolish.  My dispatches would be less random as far as getting written if I went back to making them more random in terms of content.  In that vein, this post has nothing to do with the Japanese writing system, although it is language-related.

Recently, I was poking around YouTube, looking for decent enka music, which is in much shorter supply than bad enka.  In doing so, I came across Aiko Moriyama (森山愛子, Moriyama Aiko), whose work falls into both categories at once.  Which is to say she’s a talented singer, but her songs tend toward melodramatic fluff.  But the most notable thing about her is the enormous contrast between her speaking voice and her singing voice.

In conversation, Ms. Moriyama affects a ridiculously cutesy voice.  It’s a good example of the phenomenon in modern Japanese society called burikko (ぶりっ子), in which women adopt artificially cute voices and behavior in an attempt to be appealing.  Basically, in the same way that American society tells women that they need to be sexy, Japan prizes cuteness.  The voices and mannerisms encouraged by the pressure to be cute range from subtle to grating.  Moriyama’s speaking voice falls in the latter camp, but at least her behavior isn’t that bad.

Here’s the YouTube video in question.

I wonder if she talks like that just to make it a shock when she starts singing.

It’s beside the point, but here’s an attempt at translating the conversation and the song.  The song is called Tokyo Banka (東京挽歌), meaning “Tokyo Elegy.”

Host:    Ms. Yuki Nishino, thank you very much.  Now to our next guest.  Ms. Aiko Moriyama.  Welcome.

Aiko:    I’m glad to be here.

Host:    Is this by any chance made from a kimono’s sash?  It is, isn’t it?

Aiko:    That’s right.  This is an obi turned into a dress.

Host:    Isn’t that clever.

Aiko:    Isn’t it?

Host:    Ms. Aiko Moriyama, you grew up in the town of Utsunomiya, is that right?  Do you have any memories of summer in Utsunomiya from when you lived there?

Aiko:    Well, Utsunomiya is surrounded by nature, so when summer vacation came, I’d go to the forest with my older brother who’s closest to my age, and we’d catch beetles.  Or also, when we stayed at my grandmother’s house, we’d go to a river near by and catch crayfish. That sort of thing.

Host:    Isn’t that nice!  That’s the sort of summer you’d dream of.  Now then, on to your new song.

Aiko:    Yes.

Host:    The title is “Tokyo Banka.”  What sort of song is it?

Aiko:    This song depicts someone who has left her hometown and moved to the capital to follow her dreams.  And of course I also moved to Tokyo at age 18, right after graduating from high school, and worked to become a singer, although I did part-time jobs and took voice lessons first, but anyway it’s a song where I can superimpose myself over the character.

Host:    I see.  Well without further ado, we’ll have you sing it for us.  This is Aiko Moriyama with “Tokyo Banka.”  If you please.

Should I visit home, before the festival?
It’s not far, but it feels so distant
Right now even my grandfather
wouldn’t let me rub his shoulders

Ha~ e~ the madder red sky
Wiping away a tear
Tokyo Elegy

White moonflowers, bottle gourd flowers
They would be blooming now and shaking in the rain
To follow my dream, I walk on alone

Determination is tomorrow’s milepost
Ha~ e~ it’s so lonely
But damned if I’ll give up
Tokyo Elegy

Notes:  I think the line “Right now even my grandfather wouldn’t let me rub his shoulders” implies that she left home against her family’s wishes and expects that she’d get a cold welcome if she visited them.  I’m not sure how to interpret “determination is tomorrow’s milepost,” but that’s a direct translation.  As for the conversation, the host and Aiko don’t actually say “Welcome” and “I’m glad to be here.”  They both use a set phrase (yoroshiku onegaishimasu) that means something like “Please treat [me/it/them] well.”  It’s used when you meet someone for the first time, when you’re working with someone, or when you’re placing someone or something in another person’s care.

Adapting Kanji to Japanese

February 4, 2010

As I discussed in my last post, Japan imported writing from China.  However, these symbols – called kanji in Japanese – are morpheme-based, representing both sound and meaning.  Thus kanji could at first only be used for writing Chinese.  In time, however, a system for writing Japanese eventually emerged.

Adaptation began with Man’yōgana.  Named after the first anthology of Japanese poetry, the 8th century “Man’yōshū,” Man’yōgana are kanji used purely for their pronunciation, with no regard for meaning.  They made it possible to write in Japanese, but they weren’t codified; to write the sound “a” for example, any character pronounced “a” could be used.   Given that kanji number in the tens of thousands, this made for a cumbersome system.  Nonetheless, it was a start, and Man’yōgana in turn gave birth to the two syllabic alphabets still used in writing Japanese today.

One of these syllabaries is katakana (like the other types of writing I’m talking about, the name refers both to the syllabary as a whole and to the individual symbols).  Katakana were originally used for writing notes or pronunciation glosses in the spaces between columns of text.  This meant that katakana’s symbols had to be simple, in order to fit into small spaces legibly.  This chart from Wikipedia shows how katakana were created.

In each cell katakana is on the left and kanji is on the right, with the parts used to create the katakana colored red.

The other syllabary is hiragana.  Hiragana was the direct evolution of Man’yōgana, created not by taking pieces of kanji, but by writing whole characters in a simplified cursive form.  Furthermore, hiragana were used not for annotation, but for general writing.  This chart from Wikipedia shows the evolution of hiragana.

In each cell the original kanji is on top, the intermediate cursive form is in the middle in red, and the modern hiragana is on the bottom.

Hiragana replaced Man’yōgana as the means of writing Japanese-language poetry and literature, but Chinese continued to be used for official documents.  However, in these Chinese documents, there had to be a way of writing the names of Japanese people and places.  Man’yōgana was one method, i.e. kanji could be used to spell out names.  The other method was to use kanji for meaning instead of sound, and to then assign these kanji the native pronunciations.  This approach became increasingly common, with more and more kanji acquiring a Japanese reading in addition to the original Chinese reading.  In cases where it was unclear how a word was meant to be read, a gloss could be written next to it in katakana.

As a body of native literature was written in hiragana, people got used to reading and writing in Japanese.  And as it became more common to apply native Japanese readings to kanji, using katakana to annotate text when necessary, it became possible to write Japanese using these meaningful kanji.

The system of writing that finally emerged combines kanji with both hiragana and katakana.  Kanji are used to write most nouns, verb stems, and adjective stems.  Katakana are used for foreign words and as the equivalent of italics.  Hiragana are used for most everything else, notably for inflectional endings for verbs and adjectives, for grammatical particles, and for words with no kanji or whose kanji is obscure.  Hiragana also replaced katakana as the script generally used for pronunciation glosses.  And in modern Japanese, Arabic numerals are common and Roman letters are used for SI units and for a few words like “CD.”

Here’s an example sentence.

Kanji is in orange, hiragana is in blue, and katakana is in green.  A word by word translation would be  “Interesting program [subject marker] few because, television [topic marker] much watch-[negative verb ending].”  Fully translated, it means “There aren’t many interesting programs, so I don’t watch much TV.”

In this sentence, katakana is used for the loan word, “TV.”   Kanji is used for the native noun, for the stems of the adjectives, and for the stem of the verb.  Hiragana is used for the grammatical particles, inflectional endings, and for the words “because” and “much.”

I’ll stop there for now.  More on kanji and hiragana in my next post.


December 17, 2009

Japan had no written language until regular contact with China began in the 6th century.  Over the next several hundred years, Japan adopted many aspects of Chinese culture, and one of these aspects was writing.  At first, though, all of this writing was actually done in Chinese, not Japanese.  Why?  Because Chinese isn’t written with an alphabet.

Chinese is written using glyphs known as hanzi, meaning “Han characters” – “Han” being the name of China’s dominant ethnic group.  In Japanese, this word is pronounced kanji.

Kanji began many thousands of years ago as pictograms.  So the word “bird,” for example, was a picture of a bird.  But what if you want to write “hawk,” or “duck,” or “heron”?  And then what about different varieties of hawk, duck, and heron?  Trying to have a different pictogram for every bird quickly becomes ridiculous.  And what about abstract ideas?  Pictograms are too cumbersome, and so most kanji were instead created by combining other kanji.

One type of combination deals purely with meaning.  For example, 明, a character that means “bright,” is composed of 日 and 月, the characters for “sun” and “moon.”  This category is small, though.

The majority of kanji were created such that one part indicates pronunciation and another indicates meaning.  Take 松, the character for “pine tree.”  The left half comes from 木, meaning “tree,” and the right half is 公, which means “public.”  A pine, therefore, is a tree whose name is pronounced like the word for “public” – in ancient Chinese, that is.

However, it’s generally not the case that kanji equal words.  Rather, most kanji correspond to morphemes, the units of meaning that make up words.  For example, the English word “geology” is composed of two morphemes, geo-, meaning “Earth,” and -logy, meaning “study.”  So if we used kanji to write English, that would be a two-character word.  (As it happens, “geology” is written with three kanji – 地質学 – which mean “ground-qualities-study.”)

Oh, and when I say that 松 was made by combining 木 and 公, note that the creation process happened millennia ago; you don’t make up new characters every time you write a sentence.  Sometimes artists and authors will invent new kanji, but it’s not something that is normally done.

So.  Each kanji character corresponds to a morpheme (usually), and each kanji is either a pictogram – stylized beyond recognition – or a composite of pictograms, most often consisting of a part that hints at meaning and a part related to pronunciation.  It’s complicated, but not arbitrary.  But what happens if you want to use kanji to write a different language?

Well for one, the clues to pronunciation are immediately rendered useless.  “Pine” and “public” may be pronounced the same in Chinese, but they sure aren’t the same in English.  And what do you do if one language has a morpheme that the other doesn’t?  And how do you write names?  “Kevin” means “kind and gentle,” but if you decide to use those characters to write “Kevin,” then you’re assigning them two separate pronunciations.  And in that case, how does anyone know that they’re reading the name and not the sentence fragment?

All of these problems meant that when Chinese writing was introduced to Japan, it could only be used for writing Chinese.  This was better than having no writing, but understandably, people wanted to find a way to write in their native Japanese.  Eventually they did, although it took centuries and left the Japanese language permanently changed in the process.

But I’ll talk about that another time.

As I Was Saying

November 9, 2009

Tonight on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, there was an interview with an American who worked as a reporter in Japan for 12 years.  He covered crime for the Yomiuri Shimbun, writing in Japanese. He left Japan after an article he wrote lead to a yakuza mob boss threatening to kill him and his family.

The interview was fascinating, but what’s more, the timing was great.

Just a few days ago, in my last post, I wrote about pronouncing Japanese.  And with the word “yakuza,” this interview provides clear examples of correct and incorrect pronunciation.   In short, it’s /ya ku za/, not /ya ku za/.  (To be precise, it’s /ya ku za/, with no stress accents at all, but accenting the first syllable sounds close enough and is easier for Anglophones.)

I’m inclined to cut the interviewer some slack – anyone confronted with a word from a language they don’t speak is likely to mangle it by using their own language’s rules of pronunciation – but on the other hand he got to hear the correct pronunciation over and over.  And it’s not like we’re talking about Chinese tones or Xhosa clicks or something, you just have to accent the first syllable instead of the second.  He did get it right a few times, or was at least getting closer, but then he reverted to saying yaKUza again for the rest of the interview.  Oh well.

An interesting bit of trivia:  The Yomiuri Shimbun is the world’s best selling newspaper, with a daily circulation of 14 million copies.  The next four papers on the list are also Japanese, with Germany’s Bild coming in at number six with 3.5 million.  (These numbers come from the World Association of Newspapers.  Most of their publications are available only through subscription, but the 2005 list of largest newspapers is free.  Apparently the current list has the same top six papers as in 2005, but had shuffling in many other positions.)


The Japanese Language

November 7, 2009

I use at least a few Japanese words in nearly every post I write, so while I’m on my “Guide to Japan” kick, it would make sense to write about the language itself.  I’ll give it a go.

In this post, I’ll cover phonology.


Note that when I say “vowels,” I’m talking about sounds, not letters.  English has five vowels in its alphabet, but it uses many more actual vowel sounds.

Japanese has only five vowel sounds: a like in father, i like in see, u like in you, e like in say, and o like in no.  However, unlike the English vowels in “say” and “no,” none of the Japanese vowels are diphthongs.

Furthermore, Japanese vowels are all short.  What does that mean?  Consider long and short vowels in English.  The vowel in “met” is short and the vowel in “mate” is long.  They’re also simply different vowels, but the point is, if you try saying the two words, you can hear the difference in length.  So the Japanese e is pronounced with the same sound as mate (minus the diphthong part), but with the short length of met.


Consonants are nearly the same as in English (and again, I’m talking about sounds, not letters).  The most notable exception is that Japanese has neither r nor l, but instead features a sound that’s a bit like a cross between r, l, and the American English flap (the sound Americans substitute for t and d in words like “water” and “buddy”). Another difference is that there is no true f in Japanese.  What about words like Fuji?  Well when h is followed by u, the h changes to a sound made by pushing air through pursed lips, as if blowing out a candle, and the effect is similar to f.

Those are the big differences.  There are smaller ones, but I’ll skip them for the sake of brevity.

As far as combining sounds, a consonant must be followed by a vowel.  This can make for some rather cumbersome English loanwords.  “Strike,” for example, becomes sutoraiku.  The exceptions to this rule are that n can appear without a vowel, that <consonant+y+vowel> is allowed, and that some consonants can be “long,” which I’ll explain later.


English has stress patterns that are part of each word’s pronunciation.  Take the two words written “record.”  With the noun, the first syllable is stressed, and with the verb, it’s the second syllable.

Japanese doesn’t have stress accenting; each syllable receives the same emphasis.  English speakers trying to pronounce Japanese tend to have difficulty with this.  My advice is, if you can’t manage equal-stress syllables, then the next best thing is to accent the first syllable.  And whatever you do, don’t accent the second to last syllable.  So for example, pronouncing the popular manga and anime series Naruto as /na ru to/ sounds really goofy, but /na ru to/ is fine.  Or for a less nerdy example, Kenji Johjima, a catcher for the Seattle Mariners baseball team (2006-2009), initially had his name mangled by announcers as /jo ji ma/, but eventually this was corrected to /jo ji ma/.


Japanese doesn’t have stress accents, but it does have pitch accents, which are patterns of high and low pitch. These are not the same thing as the tone system used in Chinese.  The Wikipedia page has an excellent audio example.  Unfortunately for people learning Japanese as a second language, pitch accents vary by regional dialect and aren’t displayed in most dictionaries.  When I studied Japanese at the University of Washington, the instructors didn’t even attempt to teach pitch accents.


Japanese words are divided into sub-syllable segments called moras.  A consonant-vowel pair is one mora, a vowel with no consonant is a mora, and n with no vowel is a mora.  So for example, sushi has two moras: su and shi.  Akai (“red”) has three: a.ka.i.  Nenjū (“year-round”) has four moras: ne.n.ju.u.

An English speaker asked to clap the beats in a word will match the beats to syllables, but in Japanese, each mora gets a beat.  And unlike the English syllable-beats, Japanese mora-beats are all the same length.

Moras are important in Japanese metered poetry.  In the original Japanese, the 5-7-5 pattern of a haiku poem is counted by mora, not syllable.

Doubled Sounds

I said that the word nenjū has four moras.  Why is it four and not three?  The reason is that the line over the u indicates a “long” vowel.  An alternate way to write the word would be nenjuu.

Properly speaking, all Japanese vowels are short, but the same vowel can come twice in a row.  The effect of such doubling is that the vowel is pronounced for two beats instead of one.  And in fact there are words where the same vowel appears for three moras in a row, as with yūutsu/yuuutsu (“melancholy”).

Consonants can also be doubled, though not tripled.  With sounds that can be pronounced continuously, such as s, sh, and n, the consonant is simply lengthened.  For an idea of what this sounds like, try saying “this seat” (at a normal pace, not slowly).  The s in “this” runs into the s in “seat,” creating one long s.  The long s in the Japanese word kissaten (“cafe”) sounds just like this.

Consonants produced by stopping and releasing air, such as p, t, and k, are doubled by holding the stop for a beat.  You can make a doubled k in English by quickly saying “back kick.”

In terms of moras, a word with doubled consonants breaks down like this:

Finally, as for usage, a doubled consonant never begins a word, and – with n being the exception once again – voiced consonants can’t be doubled.  (Voiced consonants are those in which the vocal cords vibrate.  Touch your vocal cords and say “ssssssss” and then “zzzzzzzzzzz.”  Z is voiced and s is not.  Other voiced/voiceless pairs include b/p, d/t, and g/k.)

And there you have it.  Not at all comprehensive, but I wanted to keep the information density at a manageable level.


Plants and Animals of Japan

October 16, 2009

Following my Introduction to Japan and overview of The Geography of Japan, this is a brief look at the country’s flora and fauna.  I won’t attempt to be at all comprehensive, I just want to provide a sense of place.

Much of Japan is forested.  The northern forests are coniferous and the tiny southern islands have subtropical plants, but most of Japan’s forests are a mix of broad-leaf and needle trees, with the occasional grove of bamboo.


Arashiyama Bamboo

A Bamboo Grove in the Outskirts of Kyoto

Common trees include native species of pine, spruce, beech, oak, and maple, as well as hinoki and sugi.  These last two trees are endemic to Japan, meaning Japan is the only place they grow natively, although both are now cultivated in gardens around the world.

Hinoki is related to cypress, while sugi – which belongs to its own genus, Cryptomeria – has cedar-like wood and a sequoia-like appearance.  Hinoki and sugi both produce wood that is excellent for construction, being strong, fragrant, and resistant to rot and insects.  Unfortunately, both trees also produce abundant hay-fever-inducing pollen.

Togakushi Okusha Sugi

Sugi Line the Path to Togakushi Shrine

Animals inhabiting these woods include foxes, wild boar, and deer.  There are some brown bears on Hokkaidō, the northern island, and small numbers of Asiatic black bears in the mountains of the other three main islands.  Wolves once inhabited Japan, but they died out about 100 years ago.  More unusual animals include the tanuki, the Japanese serow, and the Japanese macaque.

Tanuki are also known as raccoon dogs, but they’re unrelated to raccoons.

Tanuki Pair

A Pair of Tanuki (image from Wikipedia)

Japanese folktales portray tanuki as shape-changers who like to eat huge meals and drink enormous quantities of sake and then pay with money that turns to leaves after the tricksters have made their escape.

The Japanese serow has no colorful stories associated with it, but it’s endemic to Japan.

Japanese Serow

A Japanese Serow (image from Wikipedia)

It’s cute, too.

The Japanese macaque is also unique to the islands.

Snow Monkeys in a Hotspring at Jigokudani, Nagano

Snow Monkeys in a Hotspring at Jigokudani, Nagano (image from Wikipedia)

They’re sometimes called snow monkeys, as their range extends farther north than any other monkey, but they also live in regions where snow is rare.

All manner of birds live in Japan.  Crows dominate the cities and often drive away other birds, but waterfowl hold their own along the rivers, in the city or out.

A Heron Takes Flight at a Temple in Kyoto

A Heron Takes Flight at a Temple in Kyoto

In Japan, as in the rest of East Asia, red-crowned cranes symbolize longevity and are a favorite subject of art, but they are now – ironically, sadly – endangered.

Red-Crowned Cranes (image from Wikipedia)

Red-Crowned Cranes (image from Wikipedia)

The paving of so many of Japan’s streams and rivers probably hasn’t done any favors for wildlife.

A Paved Stream in the Town of Dazaifu

A Paved Stream in the Town of Dazaifu

With many streams like this one (Or most?  All?), not only have the banks been reinforced, but in fact the riverbed has also been paved.  The pretense for this canalizing, which was carried out all over the country, was to prevent erosion and flooding, but the primary goal was really to create jobs and reward the construction industry for political support.  It’s not entirely bad, though.  Along the sides of streams like this, concrete blocks have been dropped and then covered with soil (the blocks help keep the soil from washing away), and riverside grasses are able to return.

Grassy plains and wetlands once accounted for most of Japan’s non-forested flatland, but most such areas have long been filled with houses or farms.  On the bright side, the average rice paddy is utterly teeming with life.  I harvested rice twice while living in Kobe, and both times, as the plot was cleared, frogs and insects fled the newly exposed ground in waves.

Rice is the biggest crop in Japan, but it is by no means the only one.  But I’ll leave the topic of Japan’s fruit and vegetables for another post. I’ll finish this entry with the country’s native flowers.

Ume (“oo-may”) – Prunus mume, aka Chinese plum, aka Japanese apricot – is beloved in China as a symbol of resilience, because it flowers in early February.  (Note: all of the following flower pictures are from Wikipedia.)


When Chinese culture entered Japan, ume blossoms (generally translated to “plum blossoms”) became the most popular flower, at least in poetry.  But after a few centuries, that place of honor was permanently taken by the flowering cherry.


Flowering cherries bloom gloriously for about one week and then their petals scatter.  In Japan, they are therefore a symbol of transience.

Japan doesn’t have a national flower, and if it did, the cherry blossom would have to be it, but the imperial crest is a golden chrysanthemum.

Chrysanthemum Morifolium

Other native flowers include peony, iris, andromeda, azalea, bluebeard, Kobushi magnolia, many species of camellia, hydrangea, lotus, and wisteria.


AzaleaCaryopteris divaricataMagnolia kobus

Camellia sasanquaHydrangeaLotus


That’s all for now.

Regions of Japan

September 28, 2009

Picking up where I left off with The Geography of Japan, this post is about the country’s regions.

Japan consists of four large islands and many, many small ones.  Starting at the north end and moving southwest, the main islands are called Hokkaidō, Honshū, Shikoku, and Kyūshū.  The small islands that form a chain continuing to the southwest are the Ryūkyū Islands, often referred to in Japan as the Southwest Islands (“Nansei-shotō”).

Administratively, Japan is divided into 47 regions, called prefectures, but traditionally speaking, Japan has nine regions.

Dark blue:  Hokkaidō (“North Sea Circuit”).  Hokkaidō only became part of Japan in the late 19th century and was originally the home of the Ainu people, hunter-gatherers ethnically distinct from the Japanese.  Hokkaidō has fewer people and somewhat wider vistas than the rest of Japan, and it has some European-style farms and pastures. The island’s biggest city is Sapporo, birthplace of Sapporo Beer.

Gray: Tōhoku (“The Northeast”). Tōhoku has the image of being a remote mountain backwater.  These days it’s also known for ski resorts.

Pink: Kantō (“East of the Barrier”).  The Kantō Plain is filled with the Tokyo metropolitan area, now the cultural and economic heart of Japan.

Reddish: Chūbu (“Central Region”). Chūbu contains Japan’s tallest mountains, the very highest being Mt. Fuji.  The region is really made up of four isolated centers of culture and population.  On the Pacific coast is Nagoya, home of Toyota, and deep in the mountains is Nagano, host of the 1998 Winter Olympics.  The Japan Sea coast has Kanazawa south of the peninsula and Niigata north of the peninsula.

Green: Kansai (“West of the Barrier”), also called Kinki (“Neighborhood of the Capital”).  Kansai is home to Kyoto, the old capital and still the center of traditional Japanese culture.  Kansai is also home to Osaka, which was the economic center of Japan until Tokyo usurped that role in the last century or so.

Yellow: Chūgoku (“Middle Country”). The name comes from when provinces were classified as being a short, medium, or long distance from Kyoto.  “Chūgoku” is also the name for China (“The Middle Kingdom”), so to avoid confusion, the region of Japan is also called San’in-San’yō, meaning “Shady Mountain-Sunny Mountain,” referring to the region’s north and south sides, respectively.

Purple: Shikoku (“Four Lands”). The island’s four modern prefectures correspond to its four old provinces.  Shikoku is a bit isolated and its mountainous interior is only sparsely inhabited.

Light blue: Kyūshū (“Nine Provinces”). Before the late 19th century, Kyūshū was Japan’s gateway to the outside world. Contact with China and Korea usually passed through the north end of the island and contact with the Ryūkyū Kingdom came through the south.  During the late 16th century, Nagasaki, in western Kyūshū, flourished as a Dutch trading port, and then during the 200 years when Europeans were barred from entering Japan, the Dutch were allowed to continue trading at an artificial island in Nagasaki Bay.  And yet, despite Kyūshū’s role as conduit to the rest of the world, in the old days court officials from Kyoto regarded assignment to a post in Kyūshū as practically exile.

Orange-ish:  The Ryūkyū Islands.  The northern half of the chain is administratively part of Kyūshū and the southern half makes up Okinawa Prefecture.  The islands below the red line were formerly the Ryūkyū Kingdom, whose culture was distinct from Japan and whose languages form the only other branch of the Japonic language family.  The Ryūkyū Kingdom became a tributary state to China’s Ming dynasty, and then from 1609 also paid tribute to Japan’s Satsuma province.  Japan annexed Ryūkyū in 1879 and mandated that school be conducted in Japanese. As a result, the Ryūkyū languages are disappearing.

And that’s that.  Someday I might do a post for each of the nine regions, but not today.

Next up is flora and fauna.

The Geography of Japan

September 15, 2009

Following my basic introduction to Japan, this is an overview of Japan’s geography.


Japan is located in East Asia, off the coasts of China, Korea, and Russia.

Japan (topographic map)

[topographic map from Wikipedia]

The northern end of Japan is at roughly the same latitude as the cities Milan, Montreal, and Portland, Oregon.  The southern end of the main islands of Japan is at roughly the same latitude as Shanghai, the mouth of the Nile river, and Austin, Texas.  The string of small islands that makes an arc from the bottom of the main islands to Taiwan is also part of Japan, and its southern end is at about the same latitude as Cuba.


Mountains account for 73% of Japan’s land, and most of the country’s people are crammed into what little flat land there is.  In this fantastic satellite image from NASA (via Wikipedia), the concrete-gray population centers are clearly visible.

Japan Satellite View

The biggest urban area, at the elbow of the main island, is the Tokyo region.

Forests cover most of the land that isn’t either urban, rocky mountain, or agricultural.  In the satellite image, only the south is green, but that’s because the picture was taken in April, when spring was well underway in the southern half of the country, but when plants in the north were still waking up.


Japan is mostly in the temperate zone and thus experiences the four seasons distinctly.  Summers are hot, winters bring snow, autumn is colored by red maple leaves, and spring begins with cherry blossoms.  Except at the north island, there is also a month-long rainy season in early summer. Additionally, typhoons occur through summer and into early autumn.  Each storm typically starts in the south and sweeps up the length of the archipelago, weakening along the way.

Japan’s weather isn’t the same all over, however.  The country’s dividing mountains and span of latitudes create several climate zones.

  • Pacific Coast: Hot, humid summers and mostly dry winters.
  • Inland Sea: (The area between the main island and the smaller two of the four big islands.)  Has weather similar to the Pacific Coast, but it’s sheltered from storms and has more sunny days.
  • Japan Sea Coast: Somewhat cooler summers and heavy snowfall in the winter, due to winds from Siberia.
  • Central Highlands: (A small region in the mountains in the middle of Japan.)  Has a more continental climate, with a large contrast between daytime and nighttime temperatures.
  • Hokkaidō:  (The northern island.)  Cooler and less humid than the rest of Japan and with less precipitation.
  • Southern Islands: Subtropical.

I’ll stop here and talk about regions and flora and fauna in separate posts; this post was too long with those sections included.

An Introduction to Japan

August 24, 2009

I should have written this when I first started this blog, but better late than never, eh?  Here is a brief introduction to Japan.

Japan is an island nation in the Pacific Ocean, off the coasts of China, Korea, and Russia.  It consists of four large islands and several thousand small ones, and has a total land area slightly less than that of California.

Japan (orthographic projection)

[Picture taken from Wikipedia.]

In the Japanese language, “Japan” is called Nihon or Nippon.  These are just two ways of pronouncing 日本, which means “sun source,” hence “Land of the Rising Sun.”  Appropriately, the flag of Japan represents a sun.

Flag of Japan

Japan is a constitutional monarchy.  The emperor is the symbolic head of state and the prime minister is the head of government.  The legislature is a two-house parliament, known as the Diet.

The capital of Japan is Tokyo.   Tokyo’s population is about 12 million, but the Greater Tokyo Area (the region you get if you put the borders at where the city actually stops instead of where its official boundaries are) is the largest metropolitan area in the world, with 36 million people.  Tokyo also has the largest GDP of any city in the world.  New York is only US$60 billion behind, but the gap between New York and #3, LA, is about $500 billion.  Japan’s national economy, meanwhile, is the second third largest in the world.

Japan has a population of 127 million people.  98.5% of those people are ethnically Japanese, 0.5% are Korean, 0.4% are Chinese, and the rest come from everywhere else.  Japan has the longest life expectancy in the world, but the birthrate has dropped so much that the population has been contracting slightly for a few years now.

Finally, regarding religion, the CIA’s World Factbook says that about 84% of Japanese are Shinto, 71% are Buddhist, and 2% are Christian.  The numbers add up to more than 100 because most Japanese follow a mixture of Shinto and Buddhism, rather than only one or the other.  However, it’s worth noting that for the majority of these people, the Shinto and Buddhist beliefs and practices they adhere to fall more in the realms of culture and tradition than deep religious devotion.

And there you have it.

In separate posts, I’ll give overviews of Japan’s geography, history, and language.

*** Update – January 2011 ***

In 2010, China overtook Japan to become world’s second largest economy.

But speaking of “world’s largest,” this UN report from 2009 projects that Greater Tokyo will continue to be the biggest urban agglomeration (by population) for the next several decades at least.