Having sushi in a sushi bar, playing Japanese computer games or engaging in karaoke: these are all things we associate with Japan. But Japan is more: it is also Buddhist temples, martial arts, origami, Japanese gardens and, of course, kimonos. Of course, this is a very traditional image of Japan, and it is not necessarily untrue, but very limited
Modern Japan has two faces. On the one side it has a long history and rich traditions. On the other, it is a prime example of state-of-the art technology, global manufacturering of products and product components that consumers all over the world use on a daily basis, for communication, recreation, and for logistics
Today, Japan is probably the most modern country in the world. In spite of this radical modernization, the Japanese have managed to hold on to their cultural identity. Ancient customs and traditions go together with modern technology.
Japan consists of a narrow chain of islands along the East of the Asian continent (altogether almost 3000 kilometres from East Siberia to Taiwan). From north to south, the four biggest islands are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. Due to this geographical stretch, Japan has a rich flora and fauna. At the same time, the differences in climate are considerable. Okinawa, which is in the very south, has a tropical climate, whereas Hokkaido, in the northernmost part of Japan, is quite cold in winter, with a lot of snowfall.
About 127 million people live in Japan, three quarters of them in urban concentrations. In the past few years the population increase has fallen to a mere 0.2 to 0.3 per annum. Expectations are that the Japanese population will decrease in the near future. Since about 75% of Japan's land surface is covered with mountains and forests, its cities are very crowded. Overall, accommodation is cramped and quite expensive.
As a nation, the Japanese are hard-working, and their work discipline is legendary. The average working week amounts to 60 hours, and most Japanese work on Saturday. When offices close, Japanese workers habitually go out and have a drink with their colleagues, and when they come home in the evening, their children are asleep. This is why a lot of Japanese men only see their children on Sunday. Although workers are entitled to two weeks' holidays each year, they tend to spend only four days.
Japan's head of state is the emperor Akihito. These days, the emperor no longer has any political power. He is the symbol of the state and of the unity of the nation. Prime Minister Noda is the actual leader of the government. Together with the cabinet he rules the country.
A good 90% of the Japanese are both Shintoist and Buddhist. There is a small Christian minority. It is often said that Japanese are born Shinto, marry Christian and are buried Buddhist.
Japan's favourite pastime is going out for dinner. In Tokyo alone, there are over 80,000 restaurants. The main ingredient is rice, but buckwheat noodles like soba and udon are also popular. Apart from traditional restaurants, fast-food chains like McDonald's and Pizza Hut have laid out their stakes in most cities.