Identification. The Japanese people, the majority of whom live in the archipelago known as Japan, which lies off the eastern coast of the Asian continent, speak the Japanese language. Japan, the most technologically advanced society in the world today, officially was transformed from a feudalistic country to a nation-state in 1871. It remains a homogeneous society in that less than 1 percent of the population is classified as non-Japanese and immigration to Japan is regulated carefully. A considerable amount of emigration has taken place since the end of the last century, largely to the United States, Canada, and South America, The indigenous religious system is Shinto; Buddhism was brought to Japan from China via Korea in the sixth century. The majority of Japanese people today classify themselves as both Shinto and Buddhist, and just over 1 percent as Christian. A large proportion of the population is, however, effectively secular in orientation. The Japanese identify themselves in terms of what is taken to be a shared biological heritage, birth in Japan, and a common language and culture. Although Japan is a postindustrial society and has, particularly since World War II, been thoroughly exposed to North American and European cultures and values, the sense of a shared past and unique cultural heritage remains central in creating a modern Japanese identity.
Location. Japan consists of four main islands—from north to south, Hokkaidō, Honshū, Shikoku, and Kyūshū—in addition to a number of island chains and a thousand smaller islands. It occupies less than 0.3 percent of the world's land area and is about one twenty-fifth the size of the United States. Japan lies in the temperate zone, at the northeastern end of the monsoon region, and has four distinct seasons. Rainfall is abundant. Japan is subject to numerous earthquakes and, in late summer, to typhoons. Rugged mountain chains, several of them containing active volcanoes, account for more than 72 percent of the total land area, and numerous swift, shallow rivers flow from the mountains to the sea. Relatively little land is available for agriculture, just over 14 percent today; dwellings and roads occupy another 7 percent, leaving most of the countryside covered by dense, cultivated forests.
Demography. The population of Japan is just over 123 million people, with a density of 326 persons per square kilometer in the habitable areas, making it one of the most densely populated countries in the world. About 76 percent of the Japanese people live in cities; well over half of urban dwellers reside in one of four metropolitan areas made up of the sixteen prefectures around Tokyo, Ōsaka, Nagoya, and Kitakyūshū. The Tokyo megalopolis is comprised of about 30 million people and contains the administrative unit known as the Central Tokyo Metropolitan Area—approximately 11 million people, a population on the decline because of a small but steady exodus of families who favor suburban residence.
Life expectancy at birth is 75.91 years for men and 81.77 years for women, the longest in the world for both sexes. In 1935 the average life expectancy was 47 for men and 50 for women, and thus it has increased by about 30 years in just over half a century, an extremely rapid rate of change. The proportion of those aged 65 and over is increasing rapidly. At present the elderly comprise about 15 percent of the population, but this figure is expected to rise to more than 23 percent early in the next century. At the same time the birthrate is falling; it is estimated at present to be 1.37 live births per 1,000 population per year, insufficient to replace the current population.
In 1721 the feudal government instituted regular, nationwide census taking with surveys repeated every six years. It is estimated from these records that Japan's population remained stable at about 30 million from the early eighteenth century until the latter part of the nineteenth century. From 1872 to 1975 it grew threefold, and Japan now ranks seventh in the world in terms of population.
Linguistic Affiliation. Japanese is a polysyllabic, highly inflected language. It is usually assigned to the Altaic Group of languages, which includes Korean, Mongolian, and Turkish languages and is not related to Chinese. The indigenous peoples of Japan were most probably the Ainu, a very small number of whose descendants now live in the northernmost island of Hokkaidō. It is widely accepted that the Ainu and Japanese languages are unrelated and that the Japanese of today are primarily descended from peoples who migrated long ago from the Asian mainland and displaced the Ainu, driving them northward.
It is estimated that Proto-Korean and Proto-Japanese separated from each other about 6,700 years ago, sometime after the first distinctive society, known as the Jōmon, was established in Japan. However, pottery dating back about 12,000 years, the oldest known in the world, indicates that a well-developed social organization (possibly that of the Ainu) was present before the arrival of peoples from the Asian mainland. Although Japanese is predominantly an Altaic language, it has some similarities to Austronesian, a linguistic group associated with Micronesia, Melanesia, and Southeast Asia; it is usually assumed that continuous cultural contact and possibly repeated migrations from these areas to Japan over many centuries account for these similarities.
From about 300 B.C. the Jōmon culture was gradually transformed and largely replaced by the vital Yayoi culture, whose archaeological remains give clear evidence of sustained contact with China. With the establishment of the Yayoi culture the foundations for the present-day Japanese language were clearly established.
Written Japanese is complex because it makes use of Chinese characters ( kanji ), of which approximately 2,000 must be used just to read a newspaper. The reading of Chinese characters in Japanese texts is particularly formidable because most have more than one reading, usually depending on whether they appear singly or in combinations. In addition, two separate forms of phonetic syllabic script, both derived originally from Chinese characters, are used together with the Chinese characters. One, katakana, is used largely to express words of foreign origin; the other, hiragana, is reserved principally for inflectional endings and suffixes, which are extensively employed in Japanese but which do not exist in Chinese. In addition many technical words, acronyms, and so on are expressed today in roman letters.
Both syllabic scripts were developed by the eighth century, but at first they were not integrated with the Chinese script. At that time hiragana was used for personal correspondence and classical Japanese poetry: it was known as "women's hand." Early Japanese literature was set down entirely in what was thought of as this "pure" Japanese style, while Chinese characters were used for official and religious documents.