Japan has the world's third-largest economy, having achieved remarkable growth in the second half of the 20th Century after the devastation of World War II.
Its role in the international community is considerable. It is a major aid donor and a source of global capital and credit.
More than three quarters of the population live in sprawling cities on the coastal fringes of Japan's four mountainous, wooded islands.
Japan's rapid post-war expansion - propelled by highly successful car and consumer electronics industries - ran out of steam by the 1990s.
The 1997 Asian financial crisis, and bouts of recession, precipitated major banking, public spending and private sector reforms.
Japan remains a traditional society with strong social and employment hierarchies - Japanese men have tended to work for the same employer throughout their working lives.
But this and other traditions are under pressure as a young generation more in tune with Western culture and ideas grows up.
On the other hand, one of the biggest challenges that successive Japanese governments have faced is how to meet the huge social security costs engendered by an ageing society.
Japan's relations with its neighbours are still heavily influenced by the legacy of Japanese actions before and during World War II. Japan has found it difficult to accept and atone for its treatment of the citizens of countries it occupied.
A Japanese court caused outrage by overturning a compensation order for Korean women forced to work as sex slaves.
South Korea and China have also protested that Japanese school history books gloss over atrocities committed by the Japanese military. Japan has said China promotes an anti-Japanese view of history.
Following World War II, lawmakers forged a pacifist constitution. This seemed inviolable for more than half a century, but since the beginning of the twenty-first century it has been subjected to some reinterpretation.
In the last decade, some Japanese politicians have called for the constitution to be revised so as to enable the country to play a more active role on the world stage, and in particular to allow its military to take part in peacekeeping missions abroad.
Twenty percent of the world's earthquakes take place in Japan, which sits on the boundaries of at least three tectonic plates. Schools and office workers regularly take part in earthquake drills, and waiting for "the big one" is deeply engrained in the national psyche.
- Population: 126.9 million (UN, 2010)
- Area: 377,864 sq km (145,894 sq miles)
- Major religions: Shintoism, Buddhism
- Life expectancy: 80 years (men), 87 years (women) (UN)
- Main exports: Vehicles, computer parts, chemicals, scientific instruments and watches
- GNI per capita: US $42,130 (World Bank, 2010)
- International dialling code: +81
Head of state: Emperor Akihito
Akihito succeeded his father, Hirohito, in 1989. Under the 1947 constitution, Japan's emperors have a purely ceremonial role.
Prime minister: Yoshihiko Noda
Yoshihiko Noda became prime minister in August 2011 following the departure of Naoto Kan, who resigned following a brief premiership marred by economic gloom and a nuclear crisis triggered by the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March 2011.
Mr Noda has made a virtue of his unassuming image
Mr Noda became Japan's sixth prime minister in five years, and the third premier since his centre-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) came to power in August 2009 after winning a landslide election that ended half a century of conservative rule.
His predecessor, Naoto Kan, became prime minister in June 2010 following the resignation of Yukio Hatoyama amid a damaging dispute over an unpopular US air base off Okinawa.
Mr Noda inherits some daunting challenges from Mr Kan. Support for the DPJ rapidly ebbed away when it failed to rein in the country's huge public debt - which in August 2011 stood at twice the size of the economy - and the leadership's popularity ratings plummeted even further when it was perceived to be making heavy weather of the task of disaster recovery.
In his role as finance minister prior to becoming premier, Mr Noda pledged tough economic reforms to reduce the public debt mountain - the highest debt to GDP ratio in the industrialised world - and to pay for nuclear disaster relief by raising taxes rather than borrowing.
Unlike Mr Kan, who vowed to phase out nuclear power, he believes that the shut-down reactors should be restarted once they are deemed safe.
But perhaps his most immediate challenge is to unite the warring factions within the DPJ and to secure the support of opposition parties, which control the upper house and so have the power to block legislation.
Mr Noda grew up in Chiba, to the east of Tokyo. Unlike many Japanese lawmakers, he does not come from a political dynasty and indeed has relatively humble origins - his parents were both from poor farming families.
He has made much of his "ordinariness", insisting that reliability and stability are what Japan needs, not charisma and style.
Japan's broadcasting scene is advanced and vibrant, with established public and commercial outlets competing for audiences.
There are five national terrestrial TV companies, including the public broadcaster NHK which also runs national radio networks. Most of NHK's funding comes from the licence fees paid by viewers.
Many millions of viewers subscribe to satellite and cable pay TV. Japan spearheaded the roll-out of high-definition (HD) TV. A digital TV switchover - terrestrial and satellite - will be completed in 2011.
News, drama, variety shows and sport - especially baseball - all garner large audiences. Imported TV shows are not staple fare on the main networks, but Western influences are apparent in home-made programmes.
National papers sell in their millions, with 80% of Japanese reading one daily
Japan was years ahead of the US and Europe in pioneering reality TV, in which ordinary people are placed in extraordinary situations.
Newspaper readership is very high, with some 80% of Japanese reading a paper every day. National dailies sell in their millions, boosted by afternoon and evening editions. An increasing number of newspapers charge access fees for their websites.
Around 99 million people were online by March 2011 (InternetWorldStats). Homegrown networks, led by Mixi, dominate the social networking scene. Around 75% of users access social networks via mobile technology, which is advanced and ubiquitous.
- NHK - public, operates the General TV, Educational TV channels. NHK also runs HD satellite channels BS1 and BS Premium. NHK World is the organisation's international English-language channel.
- Fuji TV - national commercial network
- NHK - public, operates news/speech-based Radio 1, cultural/educational network Radio 2, classical music-based network FM Radio, external service Radio Japan
- Inter FM - Tokyo commercial music station
- J-Wave - Tokyo commercial music station
- Tokyo FM - Tokyo-based commercial network
- TBS Radio - network operated by Tokyo Broadcasting System
- Kyodo - English-language pages
A chronology of key events:
1894 - Japan goes to war with China. Japan's better equipped forces win victory in just nine months.
1895 - China cedes Taiwan to Japan and permits Japan to trade in China.
1904 - Japan goes to war with Russia. Japanese victory in 1905.
1910 - Japan annexes Korea after three years of fighting. Japan is now one of the world's great powers.
1914 - Japan joins World War I on the side of Britain and her allies. Japan has limited participation.
1919 - Treaty of Versailles gives Japan some territorial gains in the Pacific.
1923 - Earthquake in Tokyo region kills more than 100,000 people.
1925 - Universal male suffrage is instituted. The electorate increases fivefold.
Ultra-nationalism and war
Late 1920s - Extreme nationalism begins to take hold in Japan. The emphasis is on a preservation of traditional Japanese values, and a rejection of "Western" influence.
1931 - Japan invades Manchuria, renames it and installs a puppet regime.
1932 - Japanese prime minister is assassinated by ultra-nationalist terrorists. The military holds increasing influence in the country.
1936 - Japan signs an anti-communist agreement with Nazi Germany. It concludes a similar agreement with Italy in 1937.
1937 - Japan goes to war with China. By the end of the year, Japan has captured Shanghai, Beijing and Nanjing. Japanese forces commit atrocities, including the "Rape of Nanjing", in which up to 300,000 Chinese civilians are said to have been killed.
1939 - Outbreak of World War II in Europe. With the fall of France to Nazi Germany in 1940, Japan moves to occupy French Indo-China.
Attack on Pearl Harbor
1941 - Japan launches a surprise attack on the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Twelve ships are sunk, with a further 9 damaged; nearly 2,500 people are killed. The US and its main allies declare war on Japan the following day.
1942 - Japan occupies a succession of countries, including the Philippines, Dutch East Indies, Burma and Malaya. In June, US aircraft carriers defeat the Japanese at the Battle of Midway. The US begins a strategy of "'island-hopping", cutting the Japanese support lines as its forces advance.
1944 - US forces are near enough to Japan to start bombing raids on Japanese cities.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki
1945 - US planes drop two atomic bombs, one on Hiroshima (6 August), the second on Nagasaki (9 August). Emperor Hirohito surrenders and relinquishes his divine status. Japan is placed under US military government. All Japanese military and naval forces are disbanded.
1947 - A new constitution comes into force. It establishes a parliamentary system, with all adults eligible to vote. Japan renounces war and pledges not to maintain land, sea or air forces for that purpose. The emperor is granted ceremonial status.
1951 - Japan signs peace treaty with the US and other nations. To this day, there is no peace treaty with Russia, as the legal successor to the Soviet Union.
1952 - Japan regains its independence. The US retains several islands for military use, including Okinawa.
1955 - Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) formed. Apart from a brief interlude in the early 1990s, the party governs almost uninterruptedly for the rest of the century and beyond.
1956 - Japan joins United Nations.
1964 - Olympic Games held in Tokyo.
1972 - Japanese prime minister visits China and normal diplomatic relations are resumed. Japan subsequently closes its embassy in Taiwan.
Okinawa is returned to Japanese sovereignty, but US retains bases there.
1982 - Japanese car firm Honda opens its first plant in the US.
1989 - Emperor Hirohito dies, succeeded by Akihito.
1993 - Elections held against a background of bribery scandals and economic decline see the LDP ousted for the first time since 1955. A seven-party coalition takes power.
1994 - The anti-LDP coalition collapses. An administration supported by the LDP and the Socialists takes over.
Natural and man-made disasters
1995 January - An earthquake hits central Japan, killing thousands and causing widespread damage. The city of Kobe is hardest hit.
1995 March - A religious sect, Aum Shinrikyo, releases the deadly nerve gas sarin on the Tokyo underground railway system. Twelve people are killed and thousands are injured.
Rape of a local schoolgirl by US servicemen based on Okinawa sparks mass protests demanding the removal of US forces from the island.
1997 - The economy enters a severe recession.
1998 - Keizo Obuchi of the LDP becomes prime minister.
2000 - Obuchi suffers a stroke and is replaced by Yoshiro Mori. Obuchi dies six weeks later.
2001 March - Mori announces his intention to resign as LDP leader and prime minister.
Koizumi at helm
2001 April - Junichiro Koizumi becomes new LDP leader and prime minister.
2001 April - Trade dispute with China after Japan imposes import tariffs on Chinese agricultural products. China retaliates with import taxes on Japanese vehicles and other manufactured goods.
2001 August- Koizumi pays homage at the Yasukuni shrine dedicated to the country's war dead, provoking protests from Japan's neighbours. The memorial also honours war criminals.
2001 October - Koizumi visits Seoul and offers an apology for the suffering South Korea endured under his country's colonial rule.
2001 December - Birth of Japan's new princess - first child of Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako - reignites debate over male-only succession law.
2002 September - Koizumi becomes the first Japanese leader to visit North Korea. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il apologises for abductions of Japanese citizens in 1970s and 1980s and confirms that eight of them are dead.
2002 October - Five Japanese nationals kidnapped by North Korea return home to emotional family reunions.
2003 December - Government announces decision to install "purely defensive" US-made missile shield.
2004 February - Non-combat soldiers arrive in Iraq in first Japanese deployment in combat zone since World War II.
2004 September - Japan, along with Brazil, Germany and India, launches an application for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
2004 October - More than 30 people are killed in powerful earthquakes in the north, the deadliest quakes in almost a decade.
2004 December - Dispute with North Korea over the fate of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea during the Cold War. Pyongyang says any imposition of sanctions by Tokyo will be treated as declaration of war.
2005 April - Relations with Beijing deteriorate amid sometimes-violent anti-Japanese protests in Chinese cities, sparked by a Japanese textbook which China says glosses over Japan's World War II record.
2005 September - PM Koizumi wins a landslide victory in early general elections called after the upper house rejects plans to privatise the postal service - the key part of his reform agenda. Parliament approves the legislation in October.
2006 July - The last contingent of Japanese troops leaves Iraq.
Abe takes over
2006 September - Shinzo Abe succeeds Junichiro Koizumi as prime minister.
2006 December - Parliament approves the creation of a fully-fledged defence ministry, the first since World War II.
2007 April - Wen Jiabao becomes the first Chinese prime minister to address the Japanese parliament. Mr Wen says both sides have succeeded in warming relations.
2007 July - The ruling LDP suffers a crushing defeat in upper house elections.
2007 August - On the 62nd anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II, almost the entire cabinet stays away from the Yasukuni shrine. Prime Minister Abe says he has no plans to visit the shrine for as long as the issue continues to be a diplomatic problem.
Abe steps down
2007 September - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe resigns, is replaced by Yasuo Fukuda.
2007 November - A Japanese whaling fleet sets sail on a six-month mission Tokyo describes as scientific research. Australia and other nations call the programme a front for commercial whaling.
2008 June - The opposition-controlled upper house passes a censure motion against Mr Fukuda for his handling of domestic issues, but the lower house backs a confidence motion in him.
Japan and China reach a deal for the joint development of a gas field in the East China Sea, resolving a four-year-old dispute.
2008 September - Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda resigns. Former foreign minister Taro Aso appointed as new premier.
2008 November - General Toshio Tamogami, head of Japan's air force, loses his job after writing an essay seeking to justify Japan's role in the second world war.
2009 February - Economics Minister Kaoru Yosano says Japan is facing worst economic crisis since World War II, after figures show its economy shrank by 3.3% in last quarter.
Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa resigns amid claims that he was drunk at a G7 meeting.
2009 July - Prime Minister Taro Aso calls an election for 30 August following his party's emphatic defeat in local elections held in Tokyo.
The outlook for Japan's economy remains uncertain as consumer confidence increases but fears remain over output and deflation.
2009 August - Opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) wins general election by a landslide, ending more than 50 years of nearly unbroken rule by the Liberal Democratic Party.
2009 September - DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama elected PM at head of coalition with Social Democratic Party and People's New Party.
2010 January - Prime Minister Hatoyama says Japan may rethink US military bases after a city on Okinawa elects a mayor opposed to hosting a major air base.
2010 March - Japan's economy grew by less than first estimated in the final quarter of 2009. On an annualised basis, economic growth was 3.8%, down from the initial estimate of 4.6%.
2010 May - PM Yukio Hatoyama apologises for not keeping an election promise to move the United States' Futenma military base - unpopular with many locals - from Okinawa.
2010 June - Prime Minister Hatoyama quits. Finance Minister Naoto Kan takes over after a vote in the party's parliamentary caucus.
2010 July - Ruling coalition loses majority in elections to the upper house of parliament.
2010 September - Diplomatic row erupts with China over Japan's arrest of Chinese trawler crew in disputed waters in East China Sea. Japan later frees the crew but rejects Chinese demands for an apology.
2010 October - Japan's central bank cuts interest rate to almost zero in effort to stimulate faltering economy.
2010 November - Tensions surface with Russia after PM Kan criticises visit by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to the disputed Kuril Islands.
2011 February - Japan is overtaken by China as world's second-largest economy.
2011 March - Huge offshore earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastate miles of shoreline. Damage to the Fukushima nuclear plant causes a radiation leak that leaves extensive areas uninhabitable and contaminates food supplies.
2011 August - Following severe criticism of his handling of the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, Prime Minister Naoto Kan steps down. He is succeeded by Yoshihiko Noda.
2011 December - The government announces a relaxation of Japan's self-imposed ban on arms exports. It says the move will allow the country to supply military equipment for humanitarian missions.