Japan (日本 — Nippon) is a sovereign island nation in Eastern Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean, it lies off the eastern coast of the Asia Mainland (east of China, Korea, Russia) and stretches from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and Taiwan in the southwest. Japan has a total of 6,852 islands extending along the Pacific coast of East Asia. The main islands, from north to south, are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, which make up about ninety-seven percent of Japan’s land area and often are referred to as home islands. The Ryukyu Islands, which include Okinawa, are a chain to the south of Kyushu. The country is divided into 47 prefectures in eight regions, Hokkaido being the northernmost prefecture and Okinawa being the southernmost one. The population of 127 million is the world’s tenth largest. Japanese people make up 98.5% of Japan’s total population. Approximately 9.1 million people live in the core city of Tokyo, the capital.
About 73 percent of Japan is forested, mountainous, and unsuitable for agricultural, industrial, or residential use. As a result, the habitable zones, mainly located in coastal areas, have extremely high population densities. Japan is one of the most densely populated countries in the world.
Japan is substantially prone to earthquakes, tsunami and volcanoes due to its location along the Pacific Ring of Fire. The country has 108 active volcanoes. Destructive earthquakes, often resulting in tsunami, occur several times each century. The 1923 Tokyo earthquake killed over 140,000 people. More recent major quakes are the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake and the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, a 9.0-magnitude quake which hit Japan on March 11, 2011, and triggered a large tsunami.
The kanji that make up Japan’s name mean “sun origin”. 日 can be read as ni and means sun while 本 can be read as hon, or pon and means origin. Japan is often referred to by the famous epithet “Land of the Rising Sun” in reference to its Japanese name. The earliest record of the name Nihon appears in the Chinese historical records of the Tang dynasty, the Old Book of Tang. At the start of the seventh century, a delegation from Japan introduced their country as Nihon. Prince Shotoku, the Regent of Japan, sent a mission to China with a letter in which he called himself ‘the Emperor of the Land in which the Sun rises’. Thus Nihon might have originated in this period. The message in Japanese is: “Hi iduru tokoro no Tenshi, Sho wo Hi bossuru tokoro no Tenshi ni itasu. Tsutsuga nakiya?“, which means “The Emperor of the land where Sun rises sends a letter to the Emperor of the land where Sun sets. Are you healthy?” This letter was sent in the early period of the seventh century, either 605, 608 or 612. The message is recorded in the official history book of the Sui dynasty.
In ancient China, Japan was called Wo 倭 (pronounced Wa in Japanese). Wo/Wa is mentioned in the third century Chinese historical text Records of the Three Kingdoms in the section for the Wei kingdom, which is based on the earlier work Weilüe. Wa means obedient, gentle, or meek. Japanese dislike the name because it resembles the character 矮, meaning ‘dwarf’. The 倭 kanji has been replaced with the homophone 和 (Wa) which means “harmony”.
The English word Japan possibly derives from the historical Chinese pronunciation of 日本. The Old Mandarin or possibly early Wu Chinese pronunciation of Japan was recorded by Marco Polo as Cipangu. In modern Shanghainese, a Wu dialect, the pronunciation of characters 日本 Japan is Zeppen. The old Malay word for Japan, Jepang, was borrowed from a southern coastal Chinese dialect, probably Fukienese or Ningpo, and this Malay word was encountered by Portuguese traders in Malacca in the sixteenth century. Early Portuguese traders then brought the word to Europe. An early record of the word in English is in a 1565 letter, spelled Giapan.
From the Meiji Restoration until the end of World War II, the full title of Japan was Dai Nippon Teikoku (大日本帝國), meaning “the Empire of Great Japan”. Today the name Nippon-koku (日本国) is used as a formal modern-day equivalent simply meaning “the State of Japan”; countries like Japan whose long form does not contain a descriptive designation are generally given a name appended by the character koku (国), meaning “country”, “nation” or “state”.
A Paleolithic culture around 30,000 BC constitutes the first known habitation of the Japanese archipelago. This was followed from around 14,000 BC (the start of the Jōmon period) by a Mesolithic to Neolithic semi-sedentary hunter-gatherer culture, who include ancestors of both the contemporary Ainu people and Yamato people, characterized by pit dwelling and rudimentary agriculture. Decorated clay vessels from this period are some of the oldest surviving examples of pottery in the world. Around 300 BC, the Yayoi people began to enter the Japanese islands, intermingling with the Jōmon. The Yayoi period, starting around 500 BC, saw the introduction of practices like wet-rice farming, a new style of pottery, and metallurgy, introduced from China and Korea.
Japan first appears in written history in the Chinese Book of Han. According to the Records of the Three Kingdoms, the most powerful kingdom on the archipelago during the third century was called Yamataikoku. Buddhism was first introduced to Japan from Baekje, Korea and was promoted by Prince Shōtoku, but the subsequent development of Japanese Buddhism was primarily influenced by China. Despite early resistance, Buddhism was promoted by the ruling class and gained widespread acceptance beginning in the Asuka period (592–710).
The Nara period (710–784) of the eighth century marked an emergence of the centralized Japanese state centered on the Imperial Court in Heijō-kyō (modern Nara). The Nara period is characterized by the appearance of a nascent literature as well as the development of Buddhist-inspired art and architecture. The smallpox epidemic of 735–737 is believed to have killed as much as one-third of Japan’s population. In 784, Emperor Kanmu moved the capital from Nara to Nagaoka-kyō before relocating it to Heian-kyō (modern Kyoto) in 794. This marked the beginning of the Heian period (794–1185), during which a distinctly indigenous Japanese culture emerged, noted for its art, poetry and prose. Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji and the lyrics of Japan’s national anthem “Kimigayo” were written during this time.
Buddhism began to spread during the Heian era chiefly through two major sects, Tendai by Saichō, and Shingon by Kūkai. Pure Land Buddhism (Jōdo-shū, Jōdo Shinshū) became greatly popular in the latter half of the eleventh century.
Japan’s feudal era was characterized by the emergence and dominance of a ruling class of warriors, the samurai. In 1185, following the defeat of the Taira clan in the Genpei War, sung in the epic Tale of Heike, samurai Minamoto no Yoritomo was appointed shogun by Emperor Go-Toba, and he established a base of power in Kamakura. After his death, the Hōjō clan came to power as regents for the shoguns. The Zen school of Buddhism was introduced from China in the Kamakura period (1185–1333) and became popular among the samurai class. The Kamakura shogunate repelled Mongol invasions in 1274 and 1281, but was eventually overthrown by Emperor Go-Daigo. Emperor Go-Daigo was himself defeated by Ashikaga Takauji in 1336.
Ashikaga Takauji established the shogunate in Muromachi, Kyoto. This was the start of the Muromachi period (1336–1573). The Ashikaga shogunate achieved glory in the age of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and the culture based on Zen Buddhism (art of Miyabi) prospered. This evolved to Higashiyama Culture, and prospered until the sixteenth century. On the other hand, the succeeding Ashikaga shogunate failed to control the feudal warlords (daimyōs), and a civil war (the Ōnin War) began in 1467, opening the century-long Sengoku period.
During the sixteenth century, traders and Jesuit missionaries from Portugal reached Japan for the first time, initiating direct commercial and cultural exchange between Japan and the West. This allowed Oda Nobunaga to obtain European technology and firearms, which he used to conquer many other daimyōs. His consolidation of power began what was known as the Azuchi–Momoyama period (1573–1603). After he was assassinated in 1582, his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi unified the nation in 1590 and launched two unsuccessful invasions of Korea in 1592 and 1597.
Tokugawa Ieyasu served as regent for Hideyoshi’s son and used his position to gain political and military support. When open war broke out, he defeated rival clans in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. Tokugawa Ieyasu was appointed shogun by Emperor Go-Yōzei in 1603, and he established the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo (modern Tokyo). The Tokugawa shogunate enacted measures including buke shohatto, as a code of conduct to control the autonomous daimyōs; and in 1639, the isolationist sakoku (“closed country”) policy that spanned the two and a half centuries of tenuous political unity known as the Edo period (1603–1868). The study of Western sciences, known as rangaku, continued through contact with the Dutch enclave at Dejima in Nagasaki. The Edo period also gave rise to kokugaku (“national studies”), the study of Japan by the Japanese.
On March 31, 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry and the “Black Ships” of the United States Navy forced the opening of Japan to the outside world with the Convention of Kanagawa. Subsequent similar treaties with Western countries in the Bakumatsu period brought economic and political crises. The resignation of the shogun led to the Boshin War and the establishment of a centralized state nominally unified under the Emperor (the Meiji Restoration).
Adopting Western political, judicial and military institutions, the Cabinet organized the Privy Council, introduced the Meiji Constitution, and assembled the Imperial Diet. The Meiji Restoration transformed the Empire of Japan into an industrialized world power that pursued military conflict to expand its sphere of influence. After victories in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), Japan gained control of Taiwan, Korea, and the southern half of Sakhalin. Japan’s population grew from 35 million in 1873 to 70 million in 1935.
World War I enabled Japan, on the side of the victorious Allies, to widen its influence and territorial holdings in Asia. The early twentieth century saw a brief period of “Taishō democracy (1912–1926)” but the 1920s saw a fragile democracy buckle under a political shift towards fascism, the passing of laws against political dissent and a series of attempted coups. The subsequent “Shōwa period” initially saw the power of the military increased and brought about Japanese expansionism and militarization along with the totalitarianism and ultranationalism that are a part of fascist ideology.
In 1931 Japan invaded and occupied Manchuria and following international condemnation of this occupation, Japan resigned from the League of Nations in 1933. In 1936, Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany, and the 1940 Tripartite Pact made it one of the Axis Powers. In 1941, following its defeat in the brief Soviet–Japanese Border War, Japan negotiated the Soviet–Japanese Neutrality Pact, which lasted until 1945 with the Soviet invasion of Manchuria.
The Empire of Japan invaded other parts of China in 1937, precipitating the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945). The Imperial Japanese Army swiftly captured the capital Nanjing and conducted the Nanking Massacre. In 1940, the Empire then invaded French Indochina, after which the United States placed an oil embargo on Japan.
On December 7–8, 1941, Japanese forces carried out surprise attacks on Pearl Harbor, British forces in Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong and declared war on the United States and the British Empire, bringing the U.S. and the U,K. into World War II in the Pacific. After Allied victories across the Pacific during the next four years, which culminated in the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Japan agreed to an unconditional surrender on August 15.
The war cost Japan, its colonies, China and the war’s other combatants tens of millions of lives and left much of Japan’s industry and infrastructure destroyed. The Allies (led by the United States) repatriated millions of ethnic Japanese from colonies and military camps throughout Asia, largely eliminating the Japanese empire and restoring the independence of its conquered territories. The Allies also convened the International Military Tribunal for the Far East on May 3, 1946, to prosecute some Japanese leaders for war crimes. However, the bacteriological research units and members of the imperial family involved in the war were exonerated from criminal prosecutions by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers despite calls for the trial of both groups.
In 1947, Japan adopted a new constitution emphasizing liberal democratic practices. The Allied occupation ended with the Treaty of San Francisco in 1952 and Japan was granted membership in the United Nations in 1956. Japan later achieved rapid growth to become the second-largest economy in the world, until surpassed by China in 2010. This ended in the mid-1990s when Japan suffered a major recession. In the beginning of the twenty-first century, positive growth has signaled a gradual economic recovery.
On March 11, 2011, Japan suffered the strongest earthquake in its recorded history; this triggered the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, one of the worst disasters in the history of nuclear power.
Public posts would not be established in Japan until 1871; prior to that several nations maintained foreign post offices. The British maintained post offices in Yokohama (opened 1859), Nagasaki (1860), and Kobe (1869), all closing in December 1879. From 1864 on, the offices used stamps of Hong Kong. France had an office in Yokohama from 1865 to 1880, using French stamps. The United States opened post offices in Yokohama and Nagasaki in 1867, in Kobe in 1868, and in Hakodate in 1871, using U.S. stamps, and closing in 1874.
In 1870, Baron Maeshima visited London to learn the workings of the British postal system, and founded Japan’s postal system in 1871. The first stamps were issued in April 1871, in a set of four covering the different postal rates; the intricate two-color design consisted of a pair of dragons facing towards the center, where the characters of value were printed in black. The denominations were in mon, which had already been superseded by the yen; the same basic design denominated in yen appeared in 1872, but was itself soon replaced by a new set of four designs featuring the imperial crest.
The new designs also included Latin letters for the denomination, a trend which has been generally followed since, and a chrysanthemum, which was on every Japanese stamp until 1947, in lieu of the actual visage of the emperor.
In 1876, a long definitive series was introduced, with a generally oval inner frame, and inscribed IMPERIAL JAPANESE POST. Japan joined the Universal Postal Union in 1877.
The first commemorative stamp, in 1894, marked the 25th anniversary of the wedding of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken. The first persons depicted were Prince Kitashirakawa Yoshihisa and Prince Arisugawa Taruhito, honored in 1896 for their role in the First Sino-Japanese War that had ended the previous year.
The first New Year’s stamp was released in 1935, issued at the end of the year to pay postage on New Year’s cards. It depicted Mount Fuji, as did the first of a long-running series of national parks issues, appearing in 1936.
A new definitive series in 1942 reflected Japan’s entry into World War II, with designs including war workers and saluting aviators. They were superseded by a new series in 1945 and another in 1946, crudely printed and issued imperforate. During the war, Japan issued a variety of overprints and new designs for its many conquered territories.
In 1945, the Ryukyu Islands came under the occupation of the United States military and a civilian government was set up under American control in 1952. The islands issued their own stamps starting on July 1, 1948. The final Ryukyu Islands stamp was a commemorative issued on Apriul 20, 1972, after which the islands reverted to the control of Japan and Japanese stamps were used.
In accordance with UPU regulations, in 1966, Japanese started including the name NIPPON in Latin characters in addition to the Latin-character denomination.
From 1989 to 2007, prefecture stamps appeared. Although valid for postage throughout the country, the designs were specific to the prefecture and were only sold in the prefecture’s postal region. From 2008, prefectural issues were available for sale nationwide. Prefecture stamps are distinguishable from other Japanese stamps by the style of the ideographic characters of Nippon yubin on each stamp:
The prefecture stamps are listed in the Scott Catalogue with a “Z” prefix and follow immediately after General Issues stamps and before the Semi-Postals (“B”). Scott #Z125 was released on July 24, 1992, for Kanagawa Prefecture. The 62-yen stamp, printed in photogravure and perforated 13½, features a painting of Shasui Falls (洒水の滝 — Shasui-no-taki), a waterfall on the Tanzawa River in Yamakita, Ashigarakami District, Kanagawa Prefecture. The waterfall is listed as one of “Japan’s Top 100 Waterfalls”, in a list published by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment in 1990. It is also one of the “50 Scenic Spots of Kanagawa Prefecture” in a 1979 listing published by the Kanagawa Prefecture Tourism Association.
The Shasui Falls is located in the precincts of Saishō-ji, a Buddhist temple, and has been used by yamabushi and Buddhist clergy for takegyo purification ceremonies, where participants stand underneath the fall, allowing the water to strike their head and upper body. The waterfall drops in three separate plunges with a total height of 90 meters. The upper falls has a height of 69 meters, the middle falls has a height of 16 meters and the lower has a height of 29 meters.
The falls are mentioned as the Shasui Falls (蛇水の滝) in the Shin-Sagamikuni Fudoki of 1841, but have been known since at least the late Heian period. During the early Kamakura period, the famed monk Mongaku is said to have spent one hundred days in meditation and austerities at this waterfall, and the temple of Saishō-ji has an image of Fudo Myoo called the “Waterfall Fudō”, which it attributes to Mongaku.