Geography of Japan

Geography of Japan

Perhaps more than any other nation in the
world, Japan is shaped by its geography to a tremendous extent. Technically
classified as an archipelago, Japan is a curved chain of four islands (Hokkaido,

Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu, plus over a thousand smaller islands).

However, it is first and foremost an island nation, a fact which isolated

Japan from the rest of the world. The second largest influence in

Japanese geography is the size of the nation. The total area of Japan
proper is a little under 143 thousand square miles; the contiguous United

States spreads across just over 3 million. To say that

Japan is crowded with its 130 million
people would be an understatement. But add that to the fact that
seventy-five percent of the nation is hilly or mountainous, and the wide
open spaces for living and working are even more crammed. The mountainous
terrain, lack of lowlands and plains all have had far-reaching consequences
on the development of Japan and its people. No study of them is accurate
without a study of Japanís geography.

Before Japan was unified, many different
clans held power over different parts of the islands. Centralizing
power proved difficult because of the physical disunion. Once a nation,
though, Japanís island geography kept Japan isolated from even its closest
neighbor, Korea. Being a group of islands was the main reason

Japan could maintain its isolationist ways until just a century ago.

It was also the main reason for a strong maritime outlook in the Japanese.

It has over 17 thousand miles of coastline, which means almost all the
centers of population (lowlands) have sea frontage.

The term "center of population"
isnít fair to the "non-centers" of population. Except in the northern
island of Hokkaido, all parts of Japan are still crammed with over 300
persons per square mile. The centers have population densities of
over 512 persons per square mile. The seventh most populous
nation in the world lives in an area smaller than the state of Montana.

This circumstance fed Japanese expansionism in the early twentieth century,
and is now a daily challenge for the Japanese people and leaders as they
deal with an ever-shrinking space dilemma.

Nowhere is the dilemma more dramatically
playing out than in the big cities. Japanís six largest cities were
built in its only two major plains. There are simply no more suitable
flatlands to build additional cities. The rest of Japan is cast with
high mountains with considerable volcanic activity. Earthquakes,
then, have become a commonplace occurrence in the daily life of many Japanese.

In 1981, only 14.6 percent of Japan was arable. Rice, Japanís most
important food crop for centuries, is intensively cultivated on terraced
hillsides because there are not enough flat paddy fields to feed the whole
nation. A hard-working Japanese peasantry has resulted from the agricultural
challenges.