The Great Wave off Kanagawa, a nineteenth century woodblock print by Katsushika Hokusai, is one of the most famous works of Japanese art. Some art critics have assumed it to be a depiction of a tsunami, but it is more likely to be a large okinami, the word used for a ‘wave of the open sea’.
- Tokyo is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world, with a population of 35.6million people spread out on the south-eastern side of Japan’s main island of Honshu. Originally a fishing village called Edo, the name ‘Tokyo’ means east capital. About half the city was destroyed during the Second World War, when up to 200,000 people were killed by bombing. Today it is considered one of the three ‘command centres’ of the global economy, alongside New York and London. It has been ranked as one of the most expensive cities in the world. It is also considered to be one of the world’s ‘most-liveable’ super-cities.
- Japan has an amazing film industry, and Hollywood has not been too proud to take inspiration, or just plain steal, the plot lines of some Japanese classics. The Magnificent Seven, that ‘made in the US’ western with Yul Brinner, is in fact inspired by The Seven Samurai, a 1954 Japanese classic directed by Akira Kurosawa and described as one of the greatest and most influential films ever made. Some critics claim Disney’s The Lion King was at least partly inspired by the 1960s Japanese anime TV show called Kimba The White Lion – Disney says any similarities are just coincidence. Christopher Nolan, director of Inception, the science fiction film released in 2010, has cited another Japanese anime film, Paprika, made in 2006 by director Satoshi Kon, as part of his inspiration.
- Going to the toilet is a pretty hi-tech experience for many Japanese, and for any visiting tourists using the same facilities. Many toilets in homes and up-market restrooms have electronic controls, can play music, and have gently-warmed seats. They also have built in-bidets that spray the user front or back. Be aware that in some Japanese homes guests who use the toilet are expected to put on designated bathroom slippers so as not to contaminate the rest of the home. In some railway stations and public areas, on the other hand, you will still find old-fashioned ‘floor toilets’, a much more low-tech experience.
- The last time Tokyo hosted the Olympics, back in 1964, the government decided to build the Tokyo-Osaka bullet train system, which led to the extension of the Shinkansen high-speed rail network in various parts of the country. There are now just under 2,400kms of high-speed lines across the islands of Honshu and Kyushu, with a link to the northern island of Hokkaido under construction. Operating speeds go up to 320kmh (200 miles per hour). Tests are continuing on even faster maglev (magnetic levitation) trains. The Tokyo-Osaka Shinkansen service is the world’s busiest high-speed rail connection with up to 13 trains per hour running in each direction. In almost 50 years of operation there have been no passenger fatalities due to either derailments or collisions.
- One of the world’s top car manufacturers is Japanese. After having an argument about it, Kiichiro Toyoda finally got permission to use a corner of his dad’s textile factory to produce his first car, the AA, in 1936. Nearly 80 years later Toyota Motor Corporation is one of the world’s largest car producers, still influenced by the Toyoda family, churning out more than 8 million vehicles a year from assembly plants worldwide, and competing for the top slot with GM of the US and Volkswagen of Germany. Toyota is famous for creating new and more efficient approaches to the business, including ‘lean production’ and ‘just in time’ manufacturing. It also developed the Lexus brand into a nearly dominant role in the US luxury car market.
- The most popular sport in Japan is sumo wrestling, followed by baseball. To be a sumo wrestler you need to be big, powerful, and very focused. This centuries-old martial art requires you to force your opponent out of a circular ring, or to force him (it is a male thing) to touch the ground inside the circle with any part of his body other than the soles of his feet. Sumo is linked to ritual and to the Shinto religion; the original wrestlers were probably samurai fighters. Today, professional sumo is highly competitive, with the top wrestlers earning over £20,000 a month. Like many other sports there have been claims of match fixing and links to the Yakuza crime gangs. Baseball is also highly popular, with 12 teams divided into two leagues. One of the most popular teams is the Yomiuri Giants. Because they won nine consecutive Japan Series championships in the 1960s when the country was starting its economic boom, they are seen as a symbol of financial success.
- Japan has more elderly people in the population than anywhere else in the world, and virtually no immigrants. While many European countries, including the UK, have ageing populations – meaning that the proportion of older people is rising – Japan is the most extreme example. In 2013 the number of Japanese over the age of 65 reached just under 32 million, or one-quarter of the population. With a lower birth rate, the overall size of the population has been falling since 2004. This has major economic implications as the country has fewer workers and more pensioners. Some argue that because of this Japan should open up its borders to young skilled immigrants. This would involve a major cultural change: at present immigrants make up less than 2% of the total population.
- The Geisha tradition has influenced modern Japan. Geishas are traditional female entertainers, highly trained in skills such as classical music, dance, art, and games. The profession is also highly ritualised, and traces its origins back to the late seventh century. At different points in the this long history some Geishas sold sexual services, but the emphasis has been placed much more firmly on entertainment, with many achieving fame for poetry and calligraphy. Some of the first geishas were in fact male entertainers. The concept of paying an entertainer or an escort who acts as a host or hostess is well established in modern Japan, perhaps partly because of the geisha tradition. This includes clubs in various cities where businesswomen can hire a young male escort to entertain them for the evening.
- Possibly the world’s first novel was written in Japan. A noblewoman, Lady Murasaki Shikibu, wrote the Tale of Genji in 1007. It was almost like a soap opera of its day, with episodes released periodically and read eagerly by the aristocracy of the imperial court at Heian. In real life Lady Murasaki, a young widow, was courted by Fujiwara no Michinaga, a drunken lecher, and well-connected power broker. She hated him. One historian says ‘Genji became part of the culture it described, titillating and tantalising readers who vied for manuscripts of unread chapters, stimulating gossip and reinforcing the peculiar ideals of Heian… which elevated poetry above prowess, beauty above brawn, and which esteemed a sensitive failure more highly than a coarse success’. So not quite East Enders then.
- There are a lot of earthquakes in Japan. You knew that already! Everyone is of course aware of the disastrous earthquake and tsunami that hit the north-east coast of Japan in March 2011, causing fatalities and widespread destruction, and triggering a nuclear crisis at the Fukushima reactor. Maybe less well-known is the fact that the Japanese, like the Californians, have had to come to terms with living on a fault line. 70% of the country is mountainous terrain and there are more than 200 volcanoes, some of which, including Mount Fuji, the highest, remain active. On average there are about 1,500 earthquakes in the country every year.
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