Geography of Japan

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The mountainous islands of the Japanese Archipelago form a crescent off the eastern coast of Asia. They are separated from the mainland by the Sea of Japan, which historically served as a protective barrier. Japan's insular nature, together with the compactness of its main territory and the cultural homogeneity of its people, enabled the nation to remain free of outside domination until its defeat in World War II. The country consists of four principal islands: Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu; more than 3,000 adjacent islands and islets, including Oshima in the Nampo chain; and more than 200 other smaller islands, including those of the Amami, Okinawa, and Sakishima chains of the Ryukyu Islands. The national territory also includes the small Bonin Islands (called Ogasawara by the Japanese), Iwo Jima, and the Volcano Islands (Kazan Retto), stretching some 1,100 kilometers from the main islands. A territorial dispute with the Soviet Union, dating from the end of World War II, over the two southernmost of the Kuril Islands, Etorofu and Kunashiri, and the smaller Shikotan and Habomai Islands northeast of Hokkaido remained a sensitive spot in Japanese-Russian relations as the mid-1990s approached. Excluding disputed territory, the archipelago covers about 377,000 square kilometers. No point in Japan is more than 150 kilometers from the sea.

The four major islands are separated by narrow straits and form a natural entity. The Ryukyu Islands curve 970 kilometers southward from Kyushu.

The distance between Japan and the Korean Peninsula, the nearest point on the Asian continent, is about 200 kilometers at the Korea Strait. Japan has always been linked with the continent through trade routes, stretching in the north toward Siberia, in the west through the Tsushima Islands to the Korean Peninsula, and in the south to the ports on the south China coast.

The Japanese islands are the summits of mountain ridges uplifted near the outer edge of the continental shelf. About 75 percent of Japan's area is mountainous, and scattered plains and intermontane basins (in which the population is concentrated) cover only about 25 percent. A long chain of mountains runs down the middle of the archipelago, dividing it into two halves, the "face," fronting on the Pacific Ocean, and the "back," toward the Sea of Japan. On the Pacific side are steep mountains 1,500 to 3,000 meters high, with deep valleys and gorges. Central Japan is marked by the convergence of the three mountain chains--the Hida, Kiso, and Akaishi mountains--that form the Japanese Alps (Nihon Arupusu), several of whose peaks are higher than 3,000 meters. The highest point in the Japanese Alps is Kitadake at 3,192 meters. The highest point in the country is Mount Fuji (Fujisan, also called Fujiyama in the West but not in Japan), a volcano dormant since 1707 that rises to 3,776 meters above sea level in Shizuoka Prefecture. On the Sea of Japan side are plateaus and low mountain districts, with altitudes of 500 to 1,500 meters.

None of the populated plains or mountain basins is extensive in area. The largest, the Kanto Plain, where Tokyo is situated, covers only 13,000 square kilometers. Other important plains are the Nobi Plain surrounding Nagoya, the Kinki Plain in the Osaka-Kyoto area, the Sendai Plain around the city of Sendai in northeastern Honshu, and the Ishikari Plain on Hokkaido. Many of these plains are along the coast, and their areas have been increased by reclamation throughout recorded history.

The small amount of habitable land prompted significant human modification of the terrain over many centuries. Land was reclaimed from the sea and from river deltas by building dikes and drainage, and rice paddies were built on terraces carved into mountainsides. The process continued in the modern period with extension of shorelines and building of artificial islands for industrial and port development, such as Port Island in Kobe and the new Kansai International Airport in Osaka Bay. Hills and even mountains have been razed to provide flat areas for housing.

Rivers are generally steep and swift, and few are suitable for navigation except in their lower reaches. Most rivers are fewer than 300 kilometers in length, but their rapid flow from the mountains provides a valuable, renewable resource: hydroelectric power generation. Japan's hydroelectric power potential has been exploited almost to capacity. Seasonal variations in flow have led to extensive development of flood control measures. Most of the rivers are very short. The longest, the Shinano, which winds through Nagano Prefecture to Niigata Prefecture and flows into the Sea of Japan, is only 367 kilometers long. The largest freshwater lake is Lake Biwa, northeast of Kyoto.

Extensive coastal shipping, especially around the Inland Sea (Seto Naikai), compensates for the lack of navigable rivers. The Pacific coastline south of Tokyo is characterized by long, narrow, gradually shallowing inlets produced by sedimentation, which has created many natural harbors. The Pacific coastline north of Tokyo, the coast of Hokkaido, and the Sea of Japan coast are generally unindented, with few natural harbors.

Geographic Regions

The country's forty-seven prefectures are grouped into eight regions frequently used as statistical units in government documents. The islands of Hokkaido, Shikoku, and Kyushu each form a region, and the main island of Honshu is divided into five regions.


Hokkaido, about 83,500 square kilometers in area, constitutes more than 20 percent of Japan's land area. Like the other main islands, Hokkaido is generally mountainous, but its mountains are lower than in other parts of Japan; many have leveled summits, and hills predominate. Valleys cut through the terrain, and communications are comparatively easy. Hokkaido was long looked upon as a remote frontier area and until the second half of the nineteenth century was left largely to the indigenous Ainu. The Ainu number fewer than 20,000, and they are being rapidly assimilated into the main Japanese population. Since the movement of modern technology and development into the area in the late nineteenth century, Hokkaido has been considered the major center of Japanese agriculture, forestry, fishing, and mining. Hokkaido, with about 90 percent of Japan's pastureland, produces the same proportion of its dairy products. Manufacturing industry played a smaller role compared with the other regions.

Hokkaido's environmental quality and rural character were altered by industrial and residential development in the 1980s, with developments such as the completion of the Seikan Tunnel linking Hokkaido and Honshu. Hokkaido is both an important agricultural center and a growing industrial area, with most industrial development near Sapporo, the prefectural capital.


The northeastern part of Honshu, called Tohoku (literally, "the northeast"), includes six prefectures. Tohoku, like most of Japan, is hilly or mountainous. Its initial historical settlement occurred between the seventh and ninth centuries A.D., well after Japanese civilization and culture had become firmly established in central and southwestern Japan. Although iron, steel, cement, chemical, pulp, and petroleum-refining industries began developing in the 1960s, Tohoku was traditionally considered the granary of Japan because it supplied Sendai and the Tokyo-Yokohama market with rice and other farm commodities. Tohoku provided 20 percent of the nation's rice crop. The climate, however, is harsher than in other parts of Honshu and permits only one crop a year on paddy land.

The inland location of many of the region's lowlands has led to a concentration of much of the population there. Coupled with coastlines that do not favor port development, this settlement pattern resulted in a much greater than usual dependence on land and railroad transportation. Low points in the central mountain range fortunately make communications between lowlands on either side of the range moderately easy. Tourism became a major industry in the Tohoku region, with points of interest including the islands of Matsushima Bay, Lake Towada, the Rikuchu Coastline National Park, and the Bandai-Asahi National Park.


The Kanto ("east of the barrier") region encompasses seven prefectures around Tokyo on the Kanto Plain. The plain itself, however, makes up only slightly more than 40 percent of the region. The rest consists of the hills and mountains that border it except on the seaward side. Once the heartland of feudal power, the Kanto became the center of modern development. Within the Tokyo-Yokohama metropolitan area, the Kanto houses not only Japan's seat of government but also the largest group of universities and cultural institutions, the greatest population, and a large industrial zone. Although most of the Kanto Plain is used for residential, commercial, or industrial construction, it is still farmed. Rice is the principal crop, although the zone around Tokyo and Yokohama has been landscaped to grow garden produce for the metropolitan market.

The Kanto region is the most highly developed, urbanized, and industrialized part of Japan. Tokyo and Yokohama form a single industrial complex with a concentration of light and heavy industry along Tokyo Bay. Smaller cities, farther away from the coast, house substantial light industry. The average population density reached 1,192 persons per square kilometer in 1991.


The Chubu, or central, region encompasses nine prefectures in the midland of Japan, west of the Kanto region. The region is the widest part of Honshu and is characterized by high, rugged mountains. The Japanese Alps divide the country into the sunnier Pacific side, known as the front of Japan, or Omote-Nihon, and the colder Sea of Japan side, or Ura-Nihon, the back of Japan. The region comprises three distinct districts: Hokuriku, a coastal strip on the Sea of Japan that is a major wet-rice producing area; Tosan, or the Central Highlands; and Tokai, or the eastern seaboard, a narrow corridor along the Pacific Coast.

Hokuriku lies west of the massive mountains that occupy the central Chubu region. The district has a very heavy snowfall and strong winds. Its turbulent rivers are the source of abundant hydroelectric power. Niigata Prefecture is the site of domestic gas and oil production. Industrial development is extensive, especially in the cities of Niigata and Toyama. Fukui and Kanazawa also have large manufacturing industries. Hokuriku developed largely independently of other regions, mainly because it remained relatively isolated from the major industrial and cultural centers on the Pacific Coast. Because port facilities are limited and road transport hampered by heavy winter snows, the district relied largely on railroad transportation.

The Tosan district is an area of complex and high rugged mountains--often called the roof of Japan--that include the Japanese Alps. The population is chiefly concentrated in six elevated basins connected by narrow valleys. Tosan was long a main silk-producing area, although output declined after World War II. Much of the labor formerly required in silk production was absorbed by the district's diversified manufacturing industry, which included precision instruments, machinery, textiles, food processing, and other light manufacturing.

The Tokai district, bordering the Pacific Ocean, is a narrow corridor interrupted in places by mountains that descend into the sea. Since the Tokugawa period (1600-1867), this corridor has been important in linking Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. One of old Japan's most famous roads, the Tokaido, ran through it connecting Edo (Tokyo, since 1868) and Kyoto, the old imperial capital; in the twentieth century, it became the route of new super-express highways and high-speed railroad lines.

A number of small alluvial plains are found in the corridor section. A mild climate, favorable location relative to the great metropolitan complexes, and availability of fast transportation have made them truck-gardening centers for out-of-season vegetables. Upland areas of rolling hills are extensively given over to the growing of mandarin oranges and tea. The corridor also has a number of important small industrial centers. The western part of Tokai includes the Nobi Plain, where rice was grown by the seventh century A.D. Nagoya, facing Ise Bay, is a center for heavy industry, including iron and steel and machinery manufacturing.


The Kinki region lies to the west of Tokai and consists of seven prefectures forming a comparatively narrow area of Honshu, stretching from the Sea of Japan on the north to the Pacific Ocean on the south. It includes Japan's second largest industrialcommercial complex, centered on Osaka and Kobe, and the two former capital cities of Nara and Kyoto, seats of the imperial family from the early eighth century A.D. until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. The area is rich in imperial and cultural history and attracts many Japanese and foreign tourists.

The Osaka Plain is the site of Osaka, Kobe, and a number of intermediate-sized industrial cities, which together form the Hanshin commercial-industrial complex. Since the 1980s, the suburbs of Osaka have been given over to farming, including vegetables, dairy farming, poultry raising, and rice cultivation. These areas were progressively reduced as the cities expanded and residential areas, including numerous so-called "new cities," were built, such as the developments north of Osaka resulting from the Osaka International Exposition (Expo '70) world's fair.


The Chugoku region, occupying the western end of Honshu, encompasses five prefectures. It is characterized by irregular rolling hills and limited plain areas and is divided into two distinct parts by mountains running east and west through its center. The northern, somewhat narrower, district is known as San'in, or "shady side of the mountain," and the southern district is known as San'y , or "sunny side," because of the marked differences in climate. The whole Inland Sea region, including San'yo, underwent rapid development in the late twentieth century. The city of Hiroshima, rebuilt after being destroyed by the atomic bomb in 1945, is an industrial metropolis of more than 1 million people. Overfishing and pollution reduced the productivity of the Inland Sea fishing grounds


The Shikoku region--comprising the entire island of Shikoku-- covers about 18,800 square kilometers and consists of four prefectures. It is connected to Honshu by ferry and air and, since 1988, by the Seto- Ohashi bridge network. Until completion of the bridges, the region was isolated from the rest of Japan, and the freer movement between Honshu and Shikoku is expected to promote economic development on both sides of the bridges.

Mountains running east and west divide Shikoku into a narrow northern subregion, fronting on the Inland Sea, and a southern part facing the Pacific Ocean. Most of the population lives in the north, and all but one of the island's few larger cites are located there. Industry is moderately well developed and includes the processing of ores from the important Besshi copper mine. Land is used intensively. Wide alluvial areas, especially in the eastern part of the zone, are planted with rice and subsequently are double cropped with winter wheat and barley. Fruit is grown throughout the northern area in great variety, including citrus fruits, persimmons, peaches, and grapes.

The larger southern area of Shikoku is mountainous and sparsely populated. The only significant lowland is a small alluvial plain at Kochi, a prefectural capital. The area's mild winters stimulated some truck farming, specializing in growing out-of-season vegetables under plastic covering. Two crops of rice can be cultivated annually in the southern area. The pulp and paper industry took advantage of the abundant forests and hydroelectric power.


Kyushu, meaning "nine provinces" (from its ancient administrative structure), is the southernmost of the main islands and in modern times comprises seven prefectures. It was the stepping stone to Honshu for early migrants from the Korean Peninsula and a channel for the spread of ideas from the Asian mainland. Kyushu lies at the western end of the Inland Sea. Its northern extremity is only about 1.6 kilometers from Honshu, and the two islands are connected by the Kammon Bridge and by three tunnels, including one for the Japan Railways Group's Shinkansen (bullet train). The region is divided not only geographically but also economically by the Kyushu Mountains, which run diagonally across the middle of the island. The north, including the Kitakyushu industrial region, became increasingly urbanized and industrialized after World War II, while the agricultural south became relatively poorer. The hilly northwestern part of the island has extensive coal deposits, the second largest in Japan, which formed the basis for a large iron and steel industry. An extensive lowland area in the northwest between Kumamoto and Saga is an important farming district.

The climate of Kyushu is generally warm and humid, and the cultivation of vegetables and fruits is supplemented by cattle raising. The cities of Kitakyushu and Sasebo are noted for iron and steel production, and Nagasaki is noted for manufacturing. Nagasaki is a city of historical and cultural importance, a center for Chinese and Western influences from the sixteenth century on, and the only port open to foreign ships during most of the Tokugawa period. Like Hiroshima, it also was rebuilt after being devastated by an atomic bomb attack in 1945.

Ryukyu Islands

The Ryukyu Islands include more than 200 islands and islets-- some little more than coral outcrops--of which less than half are populated. They extend in a chain generally southwestward from the Tokara Strait, which separates them from the outlying islands of Kyushu, to within 120 kilometers of Taiwan. The Ryukyus are considered part of the Ryushu region but historically have been quite distinctively separate from the rest of the region.

The islands are the tops of mountain ranges along the outer edge of the continental shelf. They are generally hilly or mountainous, with active volcanos occurring mainly in the northern part of the archipelago. Okinawa is the largest and economically the most important of the Ryukyus. There is little industry, and the economy relies heavily on tourism. Northern Okinawa is quite rugged and forested, while the southern part consists of rolling hills. Although agriculture and fishing remained the occupations of most of the population in the Ryukyus, the region experienced considerable industrial expansion during the period of United States occupation from 1945 to 1972.

SOURCES: Library of Congress Country Studies/Area Handbook

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