The word Japan is believed to have derived from the English pronunciation of the Chinese word jipen, which in Chinese is written with ideographs meaning “source of the sun.” In Japanese, these characters are pronounced Nippon (neep-pone) or nihon (nee-hone) and have the same meaning as they do in Chinese – thus, the use of the sun as the symbol of Japan.


Pronounced (Ghee-ree), it refers to the very strong feelings of obligation and responsibility the Japanese have for doing what is expected of them in all areas of life. What is expected of them is to obey and abide by traditional customs regarding education, marriage, gifts, parties, work, etc. Basically, upholding the demands of giri is upholding one’s honor and reputation by doing what is expected, even though it may be unpleasant or result in unhappiness. In earlier days, when the demands of giri could not be reconciled with a person’s own wishes, suicide was often the way out Even today, among older Japanese, there are many who are giri-gatai – very strict in their observance of giri.

Learning To Speak Japanese

300 words are the basis for speaking a language . . . and three new words. This year I met a language teacher who is Dutch and speaks five languages fluently. She told me that one has to learn just 300 words to speak a language. [Note: The written language is far more difficult especially Japanese which has some 3000 kanji characters (compare that to our 26-letter alphabet), maybe more.]

Please advise, Maru, and tell us how many one has to know to graduate from high school. So, I think we can learn to speak Japanese. Maru taught Joanne and me two new words: hinode (pronounced like he-no-day) which means dawn, and itadakimas (pronounced like ee-tah-dah-key-maas) which freely translated means thanks to the god(s). Maru says it as grace before meals.

The other word is one I came across in this novel American Fuji by Sandra Backer that I told you about a few months ago. The word is shikataganai (pronounced quickly as she-kah-tah-gah-nigh) which means, “It cannot be helped!” I used it when Maru arrived here late at night, after she and Mary Ellen got lost in San Antonio. Maru looked surprised. My husband who speaks some Japanese complimented me. I was very pleased.

Geography of Japan

I knew that Japan consists of four main islands (Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu), but I did not know that it was comprised of so many small islands – 3, 918 to be exact. Japan’s combined total area is 337, 682 square kilometers, which makes it a little larger than Norway, Italy, or Malaysia, and a little smaller than Iraq or Morocco.

I’m used to seeing Japan on a map, but the comparisons with other countries give me a better perspective. “Passport’s Japan Almanac” stated that until 200,000 years ago, Japan was not entirely a chain of islands. It was connected to Siberia in the north and to Korea in the south. Further, there is also evidence to indicate that even earlier it was connected to the Philippines and to Java, and the Sea of Japan was a huge lake.

Administratively, Japan consists of 47 prefectures (similar to our states,) each is administered by a governor.

Topographically, 71% of Japan is mountainous with the remainder made up of basins and plains. The long chain of mountains that traverses Japan from the north to the south divides the country into two distinct regions – one facing the Japan Sea to the west, and the other facing the Pacific Ocean to the east. The Pacific Ocean side has the largest plains, is the most densely populated, and has one of the most irregular shorelines in the world. This side has only a few sandy beaches. The Japan Sea coast side on the west has higher and rougher waves, is less irregular, and has a large number of sandy beaches.

Hurricanes and typhoons

For our Japanese friends, most of us were keeping watch of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. I recall from my time in Okinawa, that there is something similar called typhoons (taifun) that means any violent tropical cyclone originating in the Western Pacific, especially the South China Sea.

In the Chinese dialect, the word is tai-fung which means great wind.