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Country Profile: Japan


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Area: 377,780 square kilometres (142,771 square miles)
Population: 127,100,000
Capital City: Tokyo
People: 98.7% Japanese; 1.3 % other (mostly ethnic Korean)
Language: Japanese
Religion(s): 80% of Japanese adhere to more than one religion: Shinto (106.2 million), Buddhism (95.8 million), Christianity (1.8 million), others (10.2 million)
Currency: Yen
Major Political Parties: LDP - Liberal Democratic Party; DPJ - Democratic Party of Japan; New Komeito; JCP - Japan Communist Party; SDP - Social Democratic Party
Government: Led by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) since 1955, apart from a year in 1993. Since 1994, it has been the major party in a series of coalitions. The latest LDP coalition is with the Buddhist-linked New Komeito Party and the small New Conservative Party. The main opposition party is the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).
Head of State: Emperor Akihito, ascended to throne 7 January 1989.
Prime Minister: Junichiro Koizumi (LDP), since 26 April 2001.
Foreign Minister: Nobutaka Machimura since 27 September 2004.
Economic Information: Despite several years of low growth, Japan still has the second largest economy in the world. An export-led recovery under way since mid-2002 is becoming more broad-based.
Membership of International groups/organisations: United Nations (UN), Security Council membership from January 2005 to December 2006, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTD), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), World Trade Organisation (WTO), International Monetary Fund (IMF), Group of 8 (G8), Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), International Bank for Reconstruction and Development Bank (World Bank), Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), African Development Bank (AFDB), Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC), Asia Development Bank (ADB), Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol), International Labour Organisation (ILO), International Maritime Organisation (IMO), International Telecommunications Satellite Organisation (ITSO), International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Universal Postal Union (UPU), International Whaling Commission (IWC), World Health Organisation (WHO), plus various others.


Japan consists of a chain of islands. The main ones are Kyushu, Shikoku, Honshu (where Tokyo and Osaka are situated) and Hokkaido. The land is mountainous and volcanic, and only 17% of the total area is cultivable. The highest mountain is Mount Fuji (a dormant volcano) at 3,776 m.


A centralised state has existed in Japan since the 4th century. In the middle of the 19th century, the ruling elite set about developing Japan’s industrial and military power, and methodically adopted much from the West. Japan’s rapid rise led to a war with China 1894-95, Russia 1904-05, and the annexation of Korea in 1910. Japan appeared to be becoming a liberal democracy in the 1920s, but the Great Depression led to acute economic problems and military domination. Japanese military expansion in China after 1931 led to friction with Western powers and, faced with an oil blockade, Japan started the Pacific War.

The Allied occupation after the Second World War introduced far-reaching political, social and economic reforms before Japan regained full independence when the San Francisco Peace Treaty came into force in April 1952. By 1955, a strong co-operative arrangement was established between a dominant conservative party, the bureaucracy and business, which successfully implemented policies aimed at rapid industrial growth. This concentrated economic activity in some regions and led to policies aimed at ensuring wealth was redistributed to rural areas.


Japan is a democracy with a constitutional monarch (the Emperor) and a bicameral parliament, the ‘Diet’. The Lower House (House of Representatives) has 480 members. 300 are elected in single member constituencies and the other 180 from regional blocks, through proportional representation. A Lower House election must be held at least every four years and the last was held on 9 November 2003. The Upper House (House of Councillors) has 242 members. Councillors are elected for fixed 6-year terms, with elections for 50 per cent of Upper House seats held every three years.

Seventy-three are elected from prefecture-based multimember constituencies (with one to four seats) and 48 through national proportional representation. The last Upper House election was held on 11 July 2004.

Junichiro Koizumi assumed office as Prime Minister in April 2001. He lived up to his reputation, as a committed reformer and maverick, when he immediately appointed more women, young politicians and outside experts into his Cabinet. His fresh approach was popular with the public and support for his Cabinet soared. (Support for the previous Cabinet had fallen to 6.1 per cent) His public appeal helped the LDP to a decisive victory in the Upper House election in July 2001. His success led to his re-election as LDP President by a wide margin, for a two-year term, on 20 September 2003. Koizumi also led his LDP-dominated coalition government to victory in the (Lower House) general election on 9 November 03 despite significant gains for the opposition Democratic party of Japan.

But Koizumi’s reform programme has met with resistance from within his party, as well as from others with vested interests, and economic reforms in particular have been slower than expected. Nevertheless, he has vowed to continue with his reform programme despite winning fewer seats than the DPJ in the 2004 Upper House election. The coalition with Komeito continues to give the Koizumi government a stable majority and parliamentary backing in both Houses.

The strong showing of the newly strengthened DPJ in the 2003 general election, followed by their impressive gains in the July 2004 Upper House election, has been seen by some observers as a significant step towards a genuine two-party system. The pacifist Japan Communist Party (JCP) and Social Democratic Party (SDP) are both struggling for survival.


Basic Economic Facts

GDP:US$ 4,295 billion (2003)
GDP per head: US$ 33,660 (2003)
Annual Growth: +2.5% (2003)
Inflation: -0.3% (2003)
Major Industries: High-tech electronic products, motor vehicles, office machinery, chemicals.
Major trading Partners: US, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Germany, Hong Kong
Aid & development: ODA disbursement in 2002 was US$ 9,283 million
Exchange rate: £1 = 193 Yen on 3 March 2005

The post-war Japanese economy experienced miraculous growth, expanding ten-fold from 1955 to 1990 allowing living standards to catch up and surpass those of established Western economies. A number of factors, including low interest rates, banking deregulation and sudden appreciation of the yen, resulted in a stock market and real-estate bubble in the late 1980s. At the end of 1989 the bubble burst; since then stock prices have fallen as much as 75 percent and the value of commercial land in Tokyo is down 85 percent.

The economy then stagnated for more than a decade due to sluggish consumption and weak investment as excesses from the 1980s unwound and Japan adjusted to Asian industrialisation and globalisation. A particular hindrance has been the lingering non-performing loan problem that has prolonged the life of the weakest companies and hampered economic recovery. Through the 1990s, the Government utilised huge fiscal and monetary stimuli to try to kickstart the economy. Since Prime Minister Koizumi came to power in April 2001, there has been greater focus on structural reforms in the corporate and public sectors to lift Japan out of its economic malaise. Reform of the banking sector remains at the top of the economic agenda. While corporate restructuring, particularly amongst large firms and manufacturers, has progressed a long way, there are still troubling weaknesses in the financial sector and amongst smaller firms.

That the economy is recovering strongly is no longer in doubt. Over the past year the growth rate has averaged almost 4 percent thanks to booming exports and business investment and solid growth in private consumption. Increasingly, the domestic private sector has taken over from exports as the driver for growth. The economy is now as close to achieving self-sustaining growth as it has been at any time since 1990.

Japan has the world's fastest ageing population thanks to the highest life expectancy in the world and a low birth rate. As a result, the population will soon start to shrink whilst the working-age population is forecast to contract by almost 20 percent over the next two decades unless there is large-scale immigration, which appears unlikely. This presents significant challenges - all too familiar in Europe - for the provision of pensions and healthcare in the future.


Japan is increasingly active in international diplomacy, and is a reliable and constructive partner on a wide range of issues including Iraq, Indonesia/East Timor, the Middle East Peace Process, Afghanistan, and in counter-proliferation and the fight against terrorism. Since 11 September, 2001 Japan has provided welcome political, economic and logistical support to the international coalition against terrorism and is extending strong civil and military support to reconstruction efforts in Iraq. Japan held the Presidency of the G8 in 2000 and hosted the Okinawa Summit in July 2000, which was regarded domestically as a great success.

Japan's Relations with the US

The US remains Japan's principal foreign policy and economic partner and the security relationship is central to Japan's defence policy. The US has shown strong support for Prime Minister Koizumi’s reform measures. Under the Koizumi Cabinet, Japan has taken on a more active role in the security relationship, and Japanese support for the war on terrorism, along with the absence of major trade frictions, has contributed to a warming of relations. The two countries work closely together on North Korea policy, which is Tokyo’s most immediate priority. President Bush visited Japan in February 2002 and again briefly in October 2003. Prime Minister Koizumi visited the US in September 2002 and again on 23 May 2003.

Japan's Relations with China

Japan normalised relations with China in 1972 and the two countries have strong, and growing, economic links. But there is also considerable friction in the relationship. In China, there are still bitter memories of Japanese actions there in the pre-1945 period, which have been magnified by Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni shrine honouring Japan’s war dead. Japan worries about the growth in China’s defence spending, and competition from Chinese exports to certain sectors in Japan.

Japan's Relations with South Korea

Japan’s relations with South Korea remain soured by memories of Japanese actions on the peninsula. Relations with the South were normalised under the Basic Treaty in 1965 and had shown signs of warming after President Kim Dae-jung, during his visit to Japan in September 1998, stated publicly that the relationship should look forwards, not back. The joint hosting of the 2002 World Cup also warmed relations – the Japanese Emperor and President Kim Dae-jung stood next to each other at the Final. President Roh Moo-hyun visited Japan in June 2003. 2005 is the Korea-Japan Friendship Year.

Japan's Relations with North Korea

Japan has never had diplomatic relations with the DPRK, and the situation between the two nations remains tense. Prime Minister Koizumi’s bold initiative to visit Pyongyang and meet with Kim Jong II on 17 September 2002 shifted the ground on many long-standing bilateral problems. Most importantly for Japan, Kim admitted for the first time that North Korea had abducted several Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. A shocked nation was told that eight had died in North Korea, another five were subsequently allowed to return to Japan. In May 2004, in the wake of Prime Minister Koizumi’s second visit to Pyongyang and decision to resume humanitarian aid to North Korea, the children of two abductee couples were allowed to join their parents in Japan. However, continued family separations, unanswered questions about deceased abductees, as well as Japan’s security concerns over the DPRK’s nuclear and missile programmes still stand in the way of a normalisation of relations. Japan is a participant in the (currently stalled) Six-Party Talks, which address the North Korean nuclear issue.

Japan's Relations with Asia

The Japanese economy is by far the largest in Asia. Japan made a major contribution to help South-east Asian countries affected by the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. In early 2002 Prime Minister Koizumi signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Singapore and presented a vision for the future development of a Comprehensive Economic Partnership (CEP) between Japan and ASEAN and improved co-operation and exchanges between the ASEAN+3 and Australia and New Zealand. At the Japan-ASEAN summit in December 2003, Japan reaffirmed its commitment to broadening and deepening both political and economic relations with ASEAN (already strong: Japan exports almost as much to ASEAN as it does to the EU-15, and is by far the largest investor and bilateral aid donor). The December summit agreed the outline of the CEP, and Japan announced the opening of FTA negotiations with Thailand and the Philippines.


Twenty-four Japanese citizens died in the 11 September, 2001 terrorist attacks. The Japanese reaction was swift. Prime Minister Koizumi presented a package of measures to the Diet that included humanitarian assistance for the countries near Afghanistan and logistical support from the Self Defence Forces for US and other forces involved.


Japan was the world’s largest single aid donor in absolute terms for several years and is now second behind the US. Most goes to Asia and the Pacific, particularly China, Indonesia, and other ASEAN states. Japan was a significant contributor to the aid efforts after the tsunami, giving $500 million as well as providing logistical help on the ground. However, Japan has started reducing its aid budget in recent years, reflecting economic difficulties and growing political opposition to the scale of grant aid offered to China.

JET Programme

The JET Programme is a government-to-government programme between Japan and 37 countries worldwide. It brings young overseas graduates to teach in Japanese schools and local communities in order to foster international exchange and aid foreign language proficiency. The UK was one of the first countries to participate in the Programme and now accounts for almost a quarter of total participation. JET has for several years been the single biggest employer of British university graduates. There are over 1400 British JETs in Japan at present.


Energy Security has, particularly since the oil crises, been a core goal of Japanese domestic and foreign policy. As a nation that imports 99% of its huge fossil fuel requirements, Japan is particularly vulnerable to external shocks. This vulnerability lies behind the vigour with which Japan has pursued a nuclear programme, investing huge sums in the pursuit of the nuclear fuel cycle. Although Japan currently produces 35% of its electricity in nuclear plants, recent safety scandals and demand concerns (Japanese electricity demand is forecast to peak within 20 years) mean that this programme may not expand much further. Japan has also invested tremendously in the pursuit of “new energies”, and is a world leader in solar, hybrid car and fuel cell technologies. These technologies, as well as nuclear power and Japan’s impressive level of energy efficiency, lie at the heart of the country’s efforts to reduce its carbon emissions. However, attached though it is to the Kyoto Protocol, Japan is currently slipping behind its targets and is considering what further policies to implement. Japan’s own natural environment, while diverse and often exceptionally beautiful, has suffered from the pressures of population density and expansive infrastructure investment.


There has recently been increasing discussion of human rights issues in Japan. The main issues of interest to activists in the past was the treatment of minorities of Japan, including “lower caste” Japanese, the Ainu race in Hokkaido, and ethnic Korean and Chinese residents in Japan. With the Japanese Government having taken some action to deal with these, the focus has moved on to the rights of children and women. Legislation to counter child abuse, both in Japan and abroad, has been passed and measures are also being introduced to reduce the level of domestic violence. Japan still retains (and carries out) the death penalty and Britain, through the EU, regularly takes this up with the Japanese Government, although there is still overwhelming support for capital punishment in Japan.


Japanese men and women enjoy the highest life expectancy in the world. However, with the Japanese population expected to age rapidly during the next 30 years, the Government is concerned about how it will finance health care for the aged in the future.

Local Travel

Travel throughout Japan is relatively easy. Taxis are generally safe and use a fixed meter system for fares.

Road Safety

Roads in Japan are well maintained. Traffic travels on the left-hand side of the road, as in the UK. Road rules are, for the most part, the same as in the UK but drivers should pay particular attention to: pedestrians crossing roads at green lights, especially at junctions; cyclists travelling on the pavements, on the wrong side of the road and without lights at night; and taxi drivers stopping suddenly. Traffic congestion is often significantly worse than in the UK. Many road signs are written in English and Japanese in urban areas but this is less common in rural areas.

To drive in Japan, you will require an International Driving Licence (IDL) and insurance. There are two types of insurance:

Compulsory insurance (jibaisekihoken) which may be insufficient in cases of personal liability.

Voluntary insurance (nin’i no jidoshahoken). We strongly recommend that you buy both types. It is compulsory to carry your driving licence with you at all times. UK residents of Japan must obtain a Japanese licence within one year of arrival, and will need both parts of the UK licence when applying (photocard and counterpart paper).

Rail Safety

Tthe Japanese national rail network is generally efficient, reliable, safe and affordable (though bullet trains are considerably more expensive than ordinary trains).


There are few major differences between the laws and customs of Japan and the UK of relevance to most visitors to Japan. In regard to sexual conduct in private between consenting adults, Japan is a tolerant society. However, as with any overseas visit, you should be sensitive to the different culture and people around you and not engage in behaviour which may cause offence. Japanese people are very friendly and welcoming but can be reserved. Loud, boisterous behaviour is not as acceptable as it is in the UK.

Detention for minor offences can be longer than in the UK, and prison regimes in Japan are very strict. Japan has a strict zero tolerance policy towards drug crime and there are severe penalties for drug offences, however minor. Detection facilities at airports and post offices are extremely effective. There have been a number of cases recently of small quantities of cannabis being sent through the mail to Britons living in Japan, which have resulted in the arrest and detention of the recipients. Japanese Police have been known to require customers of bars to give samples for drug trace testing. Tests proving positive lead to arrest and prosecution, even if the drug was taken before arrival in Japan.

There are severe penalties against drink driving, including allowing someone else to drink and drive (for example if you are a passenger in a vehicle being driven by a drunk driver).

The use or possession of Vicks inhalers and some other common prescription and over-the-counter medicines (e.g. for allergies and sinus problems) are banned under Japan’s strictly enforced anti-stimulant drugs law. Customs officials may not be sympathetic to visitors who claim ignorance about these medicines. If in doubt, check with the nearest Japanese Embassy.

Drinks and meals are paid for at the end of your visit to a Japanese bar, rather than as you go along as in England. Be aware that prices are high.

In general, penalties for most offences are more severe than in the United Kingdom. If you are arrested in Japan, even for a minor offence, expect as much as 23 days police detention while your case is investigated. Bail is not granted to foreigners. Police interviews can last many hours and you will not have access to a lawyer while under questioning. You are advised not to sign any document you cannot understand, since it is very hard to amend once signed. Police interviews are not recorded. If you are indicted, you can expect up to a year for the completion of your case. Time spent in detention while on remand or making an appeal does not automatically count towards completion of the sentence.

Japan has signed the Council of Europe Convention of the Transfer of Sentenced Persons. Japan has, however, recently decided that applicants for transfer must serve at least one third of the sentence before a return to the home country can take place.


Japan is in a major earthquake zone, and earthquakes of varying sizes occur very frequently. You should familiarise yourself with safety procedures in the event of an earthquake, and take note of earthquake-related instructions eg in hotel rooms. To enable the Embassy or Consulate-General to help British visitors and respond to enquiries from relatives after an earthquake, we strongly recommended that you register with the British Embassy in Tokyo (Consular Section) for those in Eastern Japan, and with the Consulate-General in Osaka for those in Western Japan. Japan also has several active volcanoes. You should heed advice given by the Japanese authorities about travelling in volcanic areas. Miyakejima Island near Tokyo is currently closed to visitors because of volcanic activity.

Unless you are a returning resident, you will not be able to travel to Genkaijima Island, which sustained considerable damage from a recent earthquake and from which most of the population was evacuated. Reconstruction work is underway and some areas are still out of bounds.

You should also take care during typhoons (approx Sept and Oct), which may cause injuries or even death through eg fallen trees, flooded rivers.


Most Japanese people will have studied English at school, but few can speak it well or understand what is said to them. However, many can understand clear and simple English in written form and may be able to write a reply more easily than they can speak. But you should be prepared for situations in which English is not understood at all eg by taxi drivers, restaurant staff, police, doctors. A pen and notebook and a simple phrase book may prove useful.

You should take out comprehensive insurance before visiting Japan, including insurance against medical costs, loss of belongings, theft, cancellation of your journey etc. Keep belongings, especially your passport, safe. Enter next of kin details into the back of your passport.

You should check what sort of weather you can expect in Japan before you travel. May – August can be very hot and humid and you should take sensible precautions (eg drink plenty of water, limit time spent in the sun).

Japan is mainly a cash society. The Japanese currency is the Yen. Some credit cards and Cirrus, Maestro, Link and Delta cash cards are NOT widely accepted, and few banks or cash machines will provide cash drawn on such cards. Japanese post offices do have cash machines, which will accept Visa, Delta and Cirrus cards during hours of business. Cash machines do not operate 24 hours a day. They generally close at 21:00 hours or earlier and may not operate at the weekends. You should check with your bank before travelling and take sufficient alternative sources of money for the duration of your stay. Western Union Money Transfer has recently become available in Japan.

Last reviewed on 3 March 2005


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