The Physical and Human Geographies of Japan

With its four major islands—Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku—as well as thousands of smaller ones, Japan has a total land area of approximately 145,825 square miles. The distance from the northernmost tip of Hokkaido to extreme southern Kyushu is approximately the same as the distance from Bangor, Maine, to Mobile, Alabama, in the United States (please see map on page xvi).

Japan’s population of more than 127 million makes it the world’s 10th-mostpopulated nation. Japan’s population is almost one-third larger than Germany’s and more than twice the size of the individual populations of the United Kingdom, Italy, and France. However, since peaking at an average of four per household during the postwar ‘‘baby boom,’’ Japan’s birthrates have been steadily declining, and in 2006 Japan’s population fell for the first time since the government began keeping this data in 1899. Japan’s current average birthrate is 1.26 children per household, and it is likely that further population declines will occur (Facts and Figures of Japan 2007, 28). While the number of children as a proportion of the Japanese population continues to decline, the percentage of Japanese age 65 and older grows rapidly.

Currently, Japanese who are 14 years old or younger constitute approximately 14 percent of the nation’s population. In the United States, people 14 years old and younger constitute 21 percent of the population. The figure for the Republic of Korea (ROK) is 19 percent. Twenty percent of Japan’s population is 65 years or older compared to 12 percent in the United States and 9 percent in the ROK (Statistical Research and Training Institute 2008).

Japan is often viewed, even by many Japanese, as a small country in terms of land area. This is true if the Japanese archipelago is compared to such large countries as China or the United States. Japan is at the least a ‘‘medium-sized’’ nation by world standards. It is approximately 25 percent bigger than Italy or the United Kingdom, approximately 75 percent larger than the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the ROK combined, and approximately 75 percent the size of France. Only Bangladesh, South Korea, and the Netherlands have higher populations per square mile than Japan, but Japan is, in practical terms, much smaller than it looks on a map. Japan has the highest population density per square mile of any of the world’s 10 most populous countries, but population density statistics alone do not accurately depict the Japanese space problem. Japan’s total land area is a little less than 5 percent that of the United States. However, almost 75 percent of the archipelago is mountainous, and only 20 percent of the nation’s land is suitable for human development (Laing 2007).

Most of the arable land is in quite scarce flatlands. Although Japan’s average population density per square mile is comparable to such small countries as Belgium and the Netherlands, these countries are flat with far more arable land.

Unlike the latter countries, which have the luxury of more usable space, in much of Japan, including parts of urban areas, large amounts of people are crowded between farm plots. Population density per unit of area cultivated is the largest in the world. Japan’s location relative to other nations has been significant in shaping Japanese culture and attitudes. To Japan’s north, the nearest foreign soil is the Russiancontrolled island of Sakhalin. Although China and Korea have always been important neighbors to Japan, the distances between them and Japan are relatively great. One must travel 500 miles across the East China Sea to reach mainland China or travel 120 miles through the Korea Strait to land on Korean soil. Many writers, when considering the United Kingdom, emphasize how important the geographic isolation of the British from the rest of Western Europe was in shaping many of the distinctive features of life on the British Isles. Yet Japan is 5 times further away from the Korean Peninsula and 20 times further away from China than the 20-mile distance from the white cliffs of Dover to France.

Today, technology makes physical distances between Japan and other countries seem slight. Yet the culture of any nation remains influenced by the past, and until the last half of the 19th century, Japan was relatively isolated compared to many other countries. The archipelago’s remote location helped the Japanese avoid being successfully invaded from ancient times until the American occupation in 1945.

Historically, the government carefully controlled foreign influences and for long periods of time chose to have little contact with foreign countries. Modern Japanese culture contains foods, words, tools, and practices from other countries that were allowed into Japan in earlier times and also many uniquely Japanese objects and ways of doing things that developed during isolationist periods.

Japan’s early geographic isolation and later government policies also influenced the ethnic makeup of Japan’s population. The Japanese are, like their nearest neighbors on the Asian continent, a Mongoloid people. Archeological evidence indicates the earliest human settlements in what is now Japan were approximately 30,000 years ago or more. The fall in sea levels due to successive ice ages created temporary land bridges between Japan and the Asian continent. People probably came to Japan by bridges located in what is now Manchuria in the north, the Korean Peninsula in the west, and the Ryukyu island chain toward central and south China. The Ainu, a people who share some characteristics of Caucasians, also settled in early times on the present-day island of Hokkaido and on part of what is now Honshu.

Once humans arrived, geographical remoteness and a temperate climate meant that they usually remained. Although scholars disagree, the best evidence indicates that since the early part of the sixth century CE, there has been no major infusion of immigrants into the Japanese isles. The end product of an absence of immigration or migration, along with no successful foreign invasion, is a relatively high level of racial homogeneity, and the Japanese are one of the more ethnically homogeneous peoples in the world. Although it is difficult to precisely calculate because of illegal immigrants, somewhere between 1.5 and 2.5 percent of Japan’s population are ethnic minorities. Until the end of 2007 Koreans were Japan’s largest ethnic group but the Chinese have taken their place. Chinese residents are from both the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan and have moved to Japan for educational opportunities or industrial or services employment. However, Brazilians of Japanese ancestry (most of whom speak no Japanese), Southeast Asians, and people from South and Southwest Asia as well as several Middle Eastern nations have all come to Japan through guest worker programs or illegally in the last two decades seeking economic opportunities. Japan is clearly becoming less a homogeneous nation than was the case a few decades ago.

In the past, racial homogeneity has in part spawned a deep-seated notion among some Japanese that they are so unique that foreigners cannot ever really understand their language or culture. Despite recent changes in these attitudes, Japan still does not have a particularly positive reputation among the nations of the world as being an especially welcoming place for medium-term or permanent foreign residents. Koreans whose families moved to Japan in the 19th century and before World War II historically faced discrimination and were denied easy access to citizenship. Although this situation has dramatically improved between the 1980s and the present, in many instances Koreans still encounter social discrimination, as does the new wave of foreigners in Japan. How Japanese interact with foreign residents is becoming ever more important and will be addressed in more depth elsewhere in this book.

Japan’s climatic and physical features have also contributed to molding culture. Mountains are the most common topographical feature of Japan, with 75 percent of the land area classified as mountainous. Japanese mountains, while not particularly high by world standards, tend to be extremely wooded and quite beautiful. Most mountains are only a few thousand feet high, although in central Honshu in the Japanese Alps there are ranges that soar as high as 10,000 feet.

Japan’s mountains, although beautiful, have been more of a hindrance than an asset to people; because of the high percentage of mountainous terrain in Japan, there are few level areas. The 120-square-mile Kanto Plain on Honshu, which includes Tokyo, is the most extensive plain in Japan. Historically, the mountains were barriers to communication, trade, and political unification within Japan. Today, they still constitute largely wasted space from an economic utilization perspective. Most Japanese are reluctant to live in the mountains for fear of volcanic activity and landslides, expense, and inconvenience. Throughout Japan one observes homes, factories, businesses and farms jammed next to each other on the scarce level land.

Japan is fortunate to have, by and large, a quite temperate climate. Although there are substantial climatic variations within Japan, particularly in sparsely populated and cold Hokkaido and in warm southern Kyushu, in general, Japanese weather is similar to that of the U.S. East Coast. However, Japan experiences more annual rainfall, and most of Japan is warmer, both in the winter and in the summer, than the northeastern section of the East Coast.

Most of Japan’s great cities on the main island of Honshu enjoy weather remarkably similar to that of the American states of North Carolina and Virginia. For example, the average January and August Tokyo temperatures of 41.9°F and 78.8°F and the humidity levels are similar to what might be found in Norfolk, Virginia. Because of the temperate climate, there are long growing seasons in all of Japan except for Hokkaido. Historically, scarce agricultural land could be used very productively to support large numbers of people. Vegetables and rice constitute Japan’s largest crops. Nonirrigated fields are devoted to fruits and vegetables, and most rice is grown in irrigated fields. Since farms are quite small, averaging only a little more than four acres, considerably less than 5 percent of total cultivable land in Japan is used as pastureland for beef or other animals. Japan’s large population and the small space available for farming have meant that since around 1900 Japan has been forced to depend on foreign countries for a portion of its food. Currently, imported food accounts for approximately 60 percent of all the calories Japanese annually consume. Japanese purchase large amounts of beans, cereals, fruit, meat, and even fish from abroad. Even though Japan has one of the world’s largest economies, all students are taught in school that the nation is incapable of feeding itself, and the public is aware of the necessity of maintaining a steady supply of agricultural imports.

Beginning in the 20th century, the lives of Japanese farm families began to dramatically change, and this process has accelerated even more in the 21st century. In the early 1990s, farmers made up 60 percent of Japanese workers. By 1950, about 50 percent of the nation’s workforce were in agriculture. By 2002, less than 3 percent of all Japanese were employed in agriculture (Tanaka 2007, 98).

Although Japanese agricultural production has increased in recent years, farm mechanization and the enormous expansion of industry have transformed Japan into one of the world’s most urban countries. This means the end of traditional rural living and working patterns for most people. Many farmers, as in other developed countries, don’t derive all their income from the land. Estimates are that today less than a quarter of Japanese farmers earn all of their income from agriculture. In several developed countries, commercial agriculture is increasingly an occupation performed by the elderly. This is true in Japan, where estimates are that more than half of all farmers are 65 years or older.

Cities have been part of Japan’s geography since the early 8th century CE. By 1700, Edo (present-day Tokyo) had an estimated population of more than 1 million people, making it possibly the world’s largest city. Still, until well into the 20th century most Japanese lived in rural areas. Today more than 75 percent of Japanese live in cities, and an even higher percentage of the population works in urban environments.

The highest concentration of people is in the Kanto Plain in central Honshu, which includes the two largest cities: Tokyo and Yokohama. Tokyo’s population is more than 8 million people, but it is only 1 of 12 Japanese cities whose population exceeds a million. The 300-mile distance along the eastern Honshu coast from Tokyo south to Osaka, the third-largest Japanese city, is almost completely urbanized. Approximately 50 percent of the Japanese population live in three great clusters: Greater Tokyo (including Kawasaki, Yokohama, and Chiba), Greater Nagoya (including Aichi and Mie prefectures), and Greater Osaka (including Hyogo and Kyoto prefectures). All of these megalopoli are located on Honshu, making it Japan’s most populous island by far. Although massive urbanization has been beneficial to Japan’s economy, it has also complicated Japan’s living space problem and caused major air and water pollution.

Developed nations in particular must have access to both a great variety and amount of natural resources. The Japanese are not self-sufficient, with the exception of limestone, in such vitally important commodities as iron ore, petroleum, lead, zinc, and copper. Japan has an ideal climate for tree growth and enjoys substantially more timber than mineral resources. Forests comprise at least 65 percent of Japan’s land area. However, Japan’s total land area is relatively small, deforestation has occurred at various times in the past, and the range of commercial timber is primarily limited to cedar, cypress, and larch. Wood has a special place in traditional and contemporary Japanese culture. Temples, shrines, chopsticks, and, still today, contemporary home construction all rely on wood, ensuring great domestic demand. However, the domestic timber industry cannot meet Japanese demand for wood, and its prices are higher than foreign competition. Japan continues to be a major world timber importer.

Japan has high energy demand and scarce natural energy resources. Oil, the most critical energy resource, accounts for about half of energy consumption, and Japan relies almost entirely on imports. There are oil deposits off Japan’s shores in the East China Sea, but competing territorial claims with China have seriously impeded their development.

Japan trails only the United States and the People’s Republic of China in annual oil consumption and each year imports the world’s third-largest amount of oil. Historically, the Middle East has supplied Japan with more than 80 percent of its oil, and the Japanese are more vulnerable than any major nation to the negative effects of wars or economic and political crises in that volatile region. Any lengthy disruption of oil supply would negatively affect Japan’s manufacturing output and unemployment rates. Japanese companies are actively engaged in joint crude oil production ventures in more stable areas of the Middle East while also seeking production and import opportunities in Latin America, the Caspian Sea region, and the Russian Far East. The Japanese have high hopes that oil-rich Sakhalin in eastern Russia and quite close to Japan will be a major new source of oil. Japan also for the most part lacks and must import natural gas, which accounts for about 13 percent of Japanese energy needs. Most of the natural gas that the Japanese use is imported as liquid natural gas from Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Australia, and elsewhere (Karan 2005).

Despite being the only country upon which nuclear weapons have been employed, the Japanese government and private companies have built a substantial nuclear energy program. Japan now is 14th in the world in electricity generation through nuclear power while the United States ranks 18th. Japan obtains over 25 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. Although the latter percentage is expected to rise, several well-publicized accidents at plants, including one in 1999 in Tokaimura, north of Tokyo, that left two workers dead, have caused considerable public anxiety about nuclear power (Australian Uranium Association 2007). Japan presently accounts for about five percent of its total energy needs from hydroelectric, geothermal, and other alternative energy sources such as wind power. Since Japan has considerable thermal activity because of the large numbers of volcanoes and hot springs, geothermal energy could be a major future domestic source of power for electricity and other energy needs.

The resource picture is not completely dark for the Japanese, however, since there are two great resources with which Japan has been blessed. One is the sea. No part of Japan is more than 70 miles from the sea, and Japan has a total of 16,800 miles of coastline as well as a large inland sea. In Japanese history, the ocean was a great boon for transportation, and the sea has always been a wonderful source of food. Herring, cod, halibut, salmon, crab, sardines, tuna, skipjack, sea breams, mackerel, yellowtail, octopus, eel, seaweed, and squid are just some of the sea life that ends up on Japanese tables. In traditional Japanese cuisine, it is most unusual to eat a meal that does not include some kind of food from the sea. However, in the last few years, overfishing, stricter international regulations, and rising world prices for such specialty fish as tuna, which are used in sushi bars throughout the world, have adversely affected domestic supply and introduced new competition for the Japanese fishing industry.

Japan has long been criticized by many nations and international organizations because it continues the practice of whaling. In 1986, in response to an international moratorium, the Japanese ended commercial whaling but still engage in scientific whaling. Many young people have never eaten whale, and its availability has declined, but some whale meat is still consumed. The Japanese who support whaling argue that the current excess population of whales reduces the supply of a number of other edible fish.

The second-greatest resource within Japan is undoubtedly its people. Throughout history, the Japanese have proven to be hardworking, intelligent, accepting, and resourceful. These traits are especially important in a crowded country with almost no resources.