History: Legend attributes the creation of Japan to the Shinto deity Amaterasu (Sun Goddess), from whom the emperors were descended. Recorded Japanese history begins in approximately A.D. 400, when the Yamato clan, eventually based in Kyoto, managed to gain control of other family groups in central and western Japan. Trade with the West was forced upon Japan in 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry sailed an American fleet into Tokyo Bay. The Meiji Restoration transformed the Empire of Japan into an industrialized world power that pursued military conflict to expand its sphere of influence. In 1936, Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact with Nazi Germany, and the 1940 Tripartite Pact made it one of the Axis Powers. After the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Japan agreed to an unconditional surrender on August 15. 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. On March 11, 2011, Japan suffered the strongest earthquake in its recorded history; this triggered the Fukushima I nuclear accidents, one of the worst disasters in the history of nuclear power.
Culture: Japan is famous for its complex web of social conventions and rules of behavior. In Japan, each person is expected to conform to societal ways and norms, though there are exceptions with much of the younger generation. Still, Japanese popular culture not only reflects the attitudes and concerns of the present day, but also provides a link to the past. Popular films, television programs, manga, music, and video games all developed from older artistic and literary traditions.
Religion: Japan's indigenous religion is Shinto, and all Japanese belong to it by default. About half the population are also practicing Buddhists and around one million are Christian. Combining religions may seem odd, but one must understand that Shinto does not possess one all-powerful deity or scripture. Followers live their lives according to the way of the kami (spirits), which favor harmony and cooperation and are felt to be present in natural phenomena.
Arts: One of the pleasures of visiting Japan is witnessing the ordinary ways in which the Japanese aesthetical sense permeates into everyday life. Spanning all forms of Japanese art is a common love of nature, respect for excellent craftsmanship, and the idea of beauty in simplicity. The traditional art of ikebana embodies these traits, with emphasis on creating flower displays that imitated their natural state. Painting is the preferred artistic expression in Japan - until modern times, the Japanese wrote with a brush rather than a pen, and their familiarity with brush techniques has made them particularly skillful. Traditional music and dance, which trace their origins to ancient religious use - Buddhist, Shintō, and folk - have been preserved in the dramatic performances of Noh, Kabuki, and bunraku theater.
Environment: Despite Japan's rapid modernization, spectacular areas of unspoilt natural beauty remain amid a growing awareness of the need for conservation. Japan is one of the world's leaders in the development of new environment-friendly technologies, and is ranked 20th best in the world in the 2010 Environmental Performance Index. The growing popularity of recreational activities such as mountaineering spurred the creation of Japan's first national parks, of which there are 29 today.
Government: Emperor Akihito is the head of state. Despite it being a ceremonial position, most Japanese still treat it with great respect. The current Prime Minister of Japan, Yoshihiko Noda, is the head of government and is appointed by the Emperor after being designated by the Diet from among its members.
Sports: Believers in team spirit, the Japanese embrace many sports with almost religious fervour. Japan's national sport is Sumo, where enormous rikishi (wrestlers) compete with much pomp and ceremony. However, the most popular sport in Japan is baseball, and hot on the heels on both sports is soccer. Martial arts, such as aikido, judo, and karate, all traditionally associated with Japan, have a lower profile than one might expect.