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Japan had an enviable record for growth and prosperity, but its economic and political frailties have been exposed

Though the Japanese archipelago has more than 1,000 islands, most of the territory comprises four main islands. From north to south these are: Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu, of which the largest, with more than half Japan's land area, is Honshu. These islands have mountain chains running north to south divided by steep valleys and interspersed with numerous small plains. The mountains include both extinct and active volcanoes, of which the highest, at 3,700 metres, is the distinctively symmetrical and snow-capped Mount Fuji on Honshu.

This is one of the world's most unstable geological zones and Japan experiences more than 1,000 tremors per year. The most recent severe earthquake hit the city of Kobe in 1995, killing more than 6,000 people. Japan's climate runs from the sub-arctic to the sub-tropical but most of the country enjoys fairly mild temperatures with plentiful rain that supports lush vegetation.

Japan has one of the world's most homogenous populations. This is partly due to isolationism, since for centuries Japan effectively cut itself off from the rest of the world. There is one small indigenous ethnic group, around 24,000 Ainu people on Hokkaido, but the largest group of non-Japanese are the 690,000 Koreans, many of whom are descendants of people brought to Japan during the Second World War to work as forced labourers. During the post-war boom years, however, Japan was the only developed country not to rely extensively on foreign workers to meet labour shortages. Although immigrants arrived from elsewhere in Asia, they often did so unauthorized.

The only group actively welcomed were the ‘nikkeijin’, the descendants of a previous generation of Japanese emigrants. From the early 1900s, many Japanese had emigrated to the Americas, and in the 1990s thousands of their descendants came back—around 230,000 from Brazil.

Japan's rapid economic development has been accompanied by striking social changes. With a healthy diet and a good health service average life expectancy, at 83 years, is among the highest in the world. Education standards are high—though learning by rote tends to stifle creativity. Japanese houses are well equipped but cramped, typically with less than half the floor area found in other rich countries. Many workers commute long distances.

Salarymen replaced by freeters

Japan's population is ageing rapidly. There are now only 1.3 children born per woman of childbearing age—well below the replacement rate. One-fifth of the population is now over sixty-five. With a steady breakdown of the extended family, this has serious implications for the country's pensions system. It has also contributed to a steady rise in inequality in what was formerly a very egalitarian society.

Social security has already come under pressure as economic crisis has forced many large companies to abandon their former commitment to loyal employees, the ‘salarymen’, whom they had offered jobs for life. As a result of corporate downsizing and the recession, unemployment in 2009 was around 6%, alarmingly high by Japanese standards. In addition there are now more than four million ‘freeters’, young people who only work part time.


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