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Japan is primarily an aggressive faction with unique units that enable conquest. In addition their unique ability allows their injured units to attack at full strength. Japan can win a fight even against cities that are well-defended.
In addition to this Japan gains a culture bonus from fishing boats and from atolls. This makes a culture-based coastal approach to the game viable with Japan. However you will most likely find yourself wanting to start fights when playing as Japan.
Preferred Landcsape: Any
Being conquest oriented Japan simply doesn’t care. However if you are thiking about the culture game, then you’ll want to play on a conteinent or archipelago map to increase your ability to access atolls and create fishing boats for those culture bonuses.
Japan’s two unique units both provide an upgrade over the equivalent unit available to other factions, and do so at key points in the game. Your Samurai are better than the Longswordsmen they replace and along with your ability to always fight at full strength, can make the Renaissance period one ripe for Japanese conquests.
The Zero provides a bonus over the fighter and allows Japan to establish air dominance to support attacks in later eras.
Your research will change based on your starting position. There is no key research path for Japan, though if playing for conquest you will naturally want to access the most advanced military options where you can. Researching Bronze Working to reveal Iron on the map is important as this will determine your Samurai numbers.
Your first policy
It will almost always be correct to choose Tradition here.
First 50 turns
Some early scouting to establish your starting position and any advantages offered is important. Keep an eye out for sea resources. If these are abundant, you may wish to prioritise Sailing to exploit those resources for additional culture.
Otherwise the early game for Japan is quite relaxed.
Pantheon of Choice
+1 production from Fishing Boats is a nice pantheon to choose. Alternatively, take advantage of what lies within your starting radius to boost culture even further.
Domination is your obvious choice, with a secondary option of a culture victory through Tourism.