A small wooden prayer tablet painted with Colonel Sanders holding a rooster in his arms.

A Shinto prayer tablet featuring Colonel Sanders of KFC. Photo © Chris Gladis, licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

When you first come to Japan, you may observe things that look like cultural contradictions, a clash of East and West. For example, while waiting on a train platform, you might see a woman in a traditional kimono using a smart phone, two businesspeople bowing and shaking hands simultaneously, or a blonde Japanese with a mohawk. Newcomers to Japan often perceive such phenomena as contradictions, because they’ve never imagined these particular cultural elements in comfortable juxtaposition. In my experience observing two cultures, it’s no more incongruous for a woman in a kimono to use a keitai (cell phone) than for a Western man in a tuxedo to do so. Though we may regard modern accoutrements as belonging to the West, they are just as intrinsic a part of Japanese culture and daily life.

After all, Japan has been blending foreign elements into its culture for several thousand years—Buddhist thought and arts from India, China, and Korea; Christianity from the Middle East via Europe; literature and a writing system from China and Europe; medicine from Germany; parliamentary government from Europe; modern business and manufacturing practices from the United States; public school education from Europe and the United States; school uniforms from Prussia; football and rugby from Europe; and baseball and, more recently, hamburgers, Starbucks, and KFC from the United States.

Below is a table with some quick comparative facts between the Japan and the United States:

JapanUnited States
Age Structure: 0–14 years13.1 percent20.1 percent
Age Structure: 15–64 years64 percent66.8 percent
Age Structure: 65+ years22.9 percent13.1 percent
Median Age44.8 years36.9 years
Arable Land11.6 percent20 percent
Birth Rate8.4 births/1,000 population13.68 births/1,000 population
ClimateCool temperate north to tropical southMostly temperate, also tropical, arctic, and arid
Coastline29,751 kilometers19,924 kilometers
Ethnic GroupsJapanese 98.5 percent

Korean 0.5 percent

Chinese 0.4 percent

Other (Ainu, Brazilian, Filipino, etc.) 0.7 percent

Anglo non-Hispanic 63 percent

Hispanic or Latino 17 percent

African-American 13 percent

Asian 4.2 percent

Alaska native 1.5 percent

Hawaiian, Pacific Islander 0.3 percent

Other 4 percent

Fiscal YearApril 1 to March 31/td>October 1 to September 31
Gross Domestic Product (GDP)$5.855 trillion$15.06 trillion
GDP per Capita$42,800$47,600
Government TypeParliamentary government with constitutional monarchConstitution-based federal republic
Gun-Related Deaths/Year9431,347*
Infant Mortality2.2 deaths/1,000 live births5.98 deaths/1,000 live births
Landmass377,835 square kilometers9.6 million square kilometers
Life Expectancy84 years78.5 years
Literacy99 percent97 percent
Natural ResourcesNegligible minerals, fishCoal, copper, lead, molybdenum, phosphates, uranium, bauxite, gold, iron, mercury, nickel, etc.
Obesity3.1 percent33.9 percent
Oil Consumption4.452 million barrels/day19.15 million barrels/day
Population127 million313 million
ReligionShinto 84 percent

Buddhist 71 percent

Other 15 percent (1 percent Christian)

Protestant 52 percent

Catholic 24 percent

Jewish 1.7 percent

Muslim 1 percent

Other 19 percent

School YearApril to MarchSeptember to June
Unemployment Rate4.6 percent8.3 percent
Source: The World Fact Book
*CDC National Center for Health Statistics mortality report online, 2010

Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Living Abroad in Japan.