Destination Spotlight - Japan

January 17th, 2018


Japan is a sovereign island nation consisting of 6,852 stratovolcanic islands. The Japanese characters for the name of the country, 日本, roughly translate to ‘sun origin’. This explains why Japan is often referred to as the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’. The Japanese archipelago has been inhibited since roughly 30,000 B.C. From 500 A.D. onwards, Buddhism came into Japan from Korea and gained widespread acceptance. It became greatly popular in the latter half of the 11th century. The time period from the 11th century onwards was characterised by the emergence and dominance of a ruling class of warriors, known as the samurai. 

From the early 17th century until 1854, Japan was in a long period of isolation, called Sakoku, in which no foreigners were allowed to enter the country and no Japanese people were allowed to leave. Trade was heavily limited and regulated This was done to prevent colonial and religious influences of primarily Spain and Portugal. The only way Japan managed to keep up with the Western technology during this period was by studying medical and other scientific texts obtained through Dejima, a Dutch trading post on a small island near Nagasaki. Japan had a blossoming field of Rangaku (Dutch studies) in the late 18th century, as all these texts were in fact written in Dutch! Even today, there has been very little immigration into Japan, with 98,5% of the population of 127 million people being originally Japanese. 

In 1854, the United States navy forced the opening of Japan. In the following years, Japan westernised heavily and adopted Western political, judicial and military institutions. The Western cultural influences mixed with Japan’s traditional culture to breed a platform for modern industrialisation. In the first world war, Japan widened its territorial holdings and influence on the Asian mainland after being on the victorious Allies side. In 1937, it further invaded China, starting the second Sino-Japanese War. Most famously, during this war the Japanese forces carried out a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States and United Kingdom into a war in the pacific and merging the second Sino-Japanese War with other global conflicts into World War II. 

After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan was the last country to surrender in World War II, leaving the country’s population, infrastructure and industry crippled. Japan quickly recovered however, adopting a new constitution in 1947 and being granted membership in the United Nations in 1956. Later, Japan achieved rapid growth to become the second-largest economy in the world, until it was surpassed by China in 2010. 

Today, Japan is a leading nation in scientific research, ranking second among the most innovative countries in the world. Its electronics and automotive manufacturing industry is internationally famous, with brands such as Sony, Nintendo, Toyota and Nissan. It is estimated that 16% of the world’s gold and 22% of the world’s silver is contained in Japanese electronics! Japan is also famous for its infrastructure, making it especially interesting for Study Tour Shift. Most notably, the Shinkansen, known in English as the bullet train, are the world’s fastest trains with a maximum operating speed of 320km/h. However, speeds up to 603km/h have been tested with maglev trains. This railway network is not only incredibly quick, but also very reliable and punctual. The average train delay is only 54 seconds, including all trains delayed due to natural disasters. Managing this railway network, as well as all other cyber-physical infrastructure systems that keep the giant cities in Japan running, are very interesting challenges that the study tour is going to explore in September and October of this year. 


Our first stop in Japan is going to be Osaka, which is the second largest city of Japan, with over 19 million inhabitants. It was historically a merchant city and served as the center for the rice trade between 1600 and 1850 A.D. It is still a world capital as far as food goes, as illustrated by the old saying "Kyotoites are financially ruined by overspending on clothing, Osakans are ruined by spending on food.”. Osaka was the home city of a large number of universities, but many of them have relocated to suburbs due to their growing campuses and the need for a larger area. Though many educated young people in Japan relocate to Tokyo, Osaka has been investing into its start-up scene which has been rapidly growing the past couple of years. Besides its start-up scene, Osaka is known for companies such as Capcom, Panasonic and Mitsubishi.


Kyoto is the odd one out among the three cities Shift will visit during the study tour. While the other two are gigantic metropoles, Kyoto only has 1.5 million inhabitants. Even though Kyoto’s key industry is IT, with companies such as Nintendo calling Kyoto their home, during the study tour we will visit Kyoto not for its tech, but for its culture. Japan’s television and film industry has its center in Kyoto. Did you know that more than 60% of the world’s animation-based entertainment comes from Japan? 

Kyoto served as the imperial capital for 11 years before Tokyo took over that role. During World War II, Kyoto originally was on top of the atomic bomb list, but was removed by the personal intervention of Secretary of War Stimson, who wanted to save Kyoto’s cultural center, which he knew from his honeymoon. We’re very glad this center was preserved, as it offers us the opportunity to visit a few of Kyoto’s 1600 Buddhist temples, 400 Shinto shrines, and many palaces, gardens and old architecture. 


Study Tour Shift will wrap up in Tokyo, the capital city of Japan. Originally known as ‘Edo’ (Estuary), its name was changed to ‘To’ (East) ‘Kyo’ (Capital) when it became the imperial capital with the arrival of Emperor Meiji in 1868. With almost 38 million people living in the Tokyo Greater Metropolitan Area, it is the most populated metropolis of the world. Tokyo is actually made up of 23 wards, which are each governed as an individual city. As one ward officially contains an island 1850km off the coast of Tokyo, it is probably also the biggest city in the world as far as raw distance goes! Besides very large and very busy, Tokyo is also the most expensive city in the world. 

While Tokyo wasn’t hit with an atomic bomb in World War II, unfortunately it did suffer heavy bombings throughout the war, which left more than half of the city destroyed. Therefore, the cityscape primarily consists of modern architecture. 

Many of Japan’s most prestigious universities are in Tokyo, including the Tokyo Institute of Technology, and the University of Tokyo. Corporately, Tokyo is a major international finance center and serves as a hub for Japan’s transportation, publishing and electronics industries. It is the home to many renowned tech and manufacturing companies, including Canon, Honda, Toshiba and Bridgestone. 


If you’ve made it to the end of this blog, I congratulate you and thank you for staying with me, because it turned out quite long. However, this is only a testament to how interesting Japan is and how much we are going to learn and experience during the Study Tour. I can’t wait, and I hope you’re just as excited as I am!