NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- China and Europe continue to be the standout points of contention as we prepare to close the book on the first quarter of 2012. On a lighter note, however, major United States equity indices have managed to maintain their footing at historical and psychologically important levels. The Nasdaq, for instance, is seeing its strongest first quarter since 1998.
While the Nasdaq, S&P 500 and Dow Jones Industrial Average have become the poster children of strength over the past few months, they are not the only high fliers. On the contrary, in 2012, Japan's Nikkei 225 Index has also carved out a leadership role, surpassing the S&P 500 on a year-to-date basis. According to a report from Bloomberg, this rally has allowed it to power to its highest level since 2011's devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.
The yen has been interesting to watch throughout the past year. Initially, following last year's string of disasters, the closely watched currency took off. In an effort to stem the negative impact of an excessively strong yen, the Bank of Japan has taken policy actions to rein in its strength, however.Most recently, in February, the authority announced a plan to purchase 10 trillion yen worth of government bonds. So far, these moves have been effective in driving the currency lower; since the start of the year, the Currency Shares Japanese Yen Trust (FXY) has tumbled more than 7%. Japan-hungry investors can turn to a number of options in order to take aim at this developed marketplace. Each fund offers a different take, allowing individuals to customize their exposure to fit their specific outlook. The largest and most popular way to target Japanese equities is the iShares MSCI Japan Index Fund (EWJ). The fund is designed to cast a wide net over the country's marketplace, targeting more than 300 different companies. EWJ's underlying index is weighed using factors like market capitalization; meaning household names like Toyota Motor (TM), Honda Motor (HMC) and Canon are given top spots.