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Japanese Geography

Japan is an island country forming an arc in the Pacific Ocean to the east of the Asian continent. The Japanese archipelago consists of mostly mountainous islands that stretch from northeast to southwest about 2,800 km long. The land comprises four large islands named (in decreasing order of size) Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku, together with many smaller islands. The Pacific Ocean lies to the east while the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea separate Japan from the Asian continent. In terms of latitude, Japan coincides approximately with the Mediterranean Sea and with the city of Los Angeles in North America. Paris and London have latitudes somewhat to the north of the northern tip of Hokkaido.

Japan’s total land area is about 378,000 square kilometers. It is thus approximately the same size as Germany, Finland, Vietnam, or Malaysia. It is only 1/25 the size of the United States and is smaller than the state of California. Japan’s coastline is quite varied. In some places, such as Kujukurihama in Chiba Prefecture, there are long sandy beaches continuing fairly straight and uninterrrupted for 60 kilometers or so, while the coast of Nagasaki Prefecture is an example of an area characterized by peninsulas and inlets and offshore islands (like the Goto archipelago and the islands of Tsushima and Iki, which are part of that prefecture). There are also accidented areas of the coast with many inlets and steep cliffs caused by the submersion of part of the former coastline due to changes in the Earth’s crust.

A warm ocean current known as the Kuroshio (or Japan Current) flows northeastward along the southern part of the Japanese archipelago, and a branch of it, known as the Tsushima Current, flows into the Sea of Japan along the west side of the country. From the north, a cold current known as the Oyashio (or Chishima Current) flows south along Japan’s east coast, and a branch of it, called the Liman Current, enters the Sea of Japan from the north. The mixing of these warm and cold currents helps produce abundant fish resources in waters near Japan.

A major feature of Japan’s climate is the clear-cut temperature changes between the four seasons. From north to south, Japan covers a range of latitude of some 25 degrees and is influenced in the winter by seasonal winds blowing from Siberia and in the summer by seasonal winds blowing from the Pacific Ocean. In spite of its rather small area, Japan is characterized by four different climatic patterns.

Hokkaido, with a subarctic weather pattern, has a yearly average temperature of eight degrees centigrade and receives an average annual precipitation of 1,150 millimeters. The Pacific Ocean side of Japan, from the Tohoku region of northern Honshu to Kyushu, belongs to the temperate zone, and its summers are hot, influenced by seasonal winds from the Pacific. The side of the country which faces the Sea of Japan has a climate with much rain and snow, produced when cold, moisture-bearing seasonal winds from the continent are stopped in their advance by the Central Alps and other mountains which run along Japan’s center like a backbone. The southwestern islands of Okinawa Prefecture belong to the subtropical climate zone and have a yearly average temperate of over 22 degrees, while receiving over 2,000 millimeters of precipitation.

About three-fourths of Japan’s land surface is mountainous. The Chubu Region of central Honshu is known as “the roof of Japan” and has many mountains which are more than 3,000 meters high. Japan’s highest mountain is Mt. Fuji (3,776 meters) on the border of Yamanashi and Shizuoka Prefectures. Japan’s secondhighest peak is Kitadake in Yamanashi Prefecture, at 3,192 meters, and its third-highest peak is Hotakadake at 3,190 meters, on the border between Nagano and Gifu Prefectures.

As it is situated along the circum-Pacific volcanic belt, Japan has several volcanic regions—usually considered to number seven —from the far north to the far south. Of the total number of volcanoes, approximately 80 are active, including Mt. Mihara on Izu Oshima island, Mt. Asama on the border between Nagano and Gunma Prefectures, and Mt. Aso in Kumamoto Prefecture. Japan has almost 1/10 of the world’s approximately 840 active volcanoes, even though it has only about l/400 of the world’s land area. Mt. Fuji, which has been dormant since its last eruption in 1707, is by no means incapable of erupting again in our lifetimes. Though volcanoes can cause great harm through large eruptions, they also contribute an incalculable tourist resource. Touristic areas such as Nikko, Hakone, and the Izu Peninsula, for example, are famous for their hot springs and attractive scenery of volcanic mountains.

As all these volcanoes attest, the Earth’s crust beneath the Japanese archipelago is unstable and full of energy. Thus Japan is among those countries most likely to suffer from earthquakes. Every year there are approximately 1,000 earthquakes which are strong enough to be felt. In January 1995, the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake killed approximately 6,000 people, injured over 40,000, and left 200,000 homeless. An earthquake in Niigata Prefecture in October 2004 left over 60 people dead and more than 4,700 injured. In March 2011, a magnitude 9 earthquake was recorded off the coast of Sanriku (Tohoku) in the Pacific Ocean, and the ensuing tsunami, more than 10m high in places, hit the coast across a vast region from Tohoku to Kanto. The number of dead and missing after the earthquake and tsunami reached nearly 20,000.

Mountainous Japan is blessed with many rivers. Most of Japan’s rivers flow very fast, their waters reaching the ocean not long after leaving mountain valleys and basins. An example of the “steepness” of river flows is the Kurobe River, which joins the Sea of Japan after flowing only 83 kilometers from its source in the Japan Alps at an altitude of over 2,900 meters.

Japan’s longest river is the Shinano River, which flows 367 kilometers from the mountains of the Chubu region through Niigata Prefecture to the Sea of Japan. Second in length is the Tone River, which flows through the Kanto Plain to the Pacific Ocean, and third in length is the Ishikari River in Hokkaido, at 268 kilometers. The many rivers descending from mountainous areas have done much to mold Japan’s topography, creating large and small valleys and basins and producing fan-shaped deltas near the points where they flow into the sea. Most of the country’s plains are small. The largest is the Kanto Plain, which includes parts of Tochigi, Ibaraki, Gunma, Saitama, Chiba, Tokyo, and Kanagawa prefectures. Other relatively large areas of flat land are the Echigo Plain (Niigata Prefecture), the Ishikari Plain (Hokkaido), and the Nobi Plain (Aichi and Gifu prefectures).

Japan is an island country which has 6852 islands, of which only 421 islands are inhabited. Many of the remote (or small) islands had been left underdeveloped since prewar periods. In consequence, the disparity between the remote islands and mainland Japan widened, and thus, Japanese government undertook a development policy of remote islands based of the enactment of Remote Islands Development Act. There is no clear definition of the word “rito” – remote (or small) islands - but according to the report The Present State of Maritime Security, published by the Japan Coast Guard in 1987, the threshold for inclusion in this category is of having a coast of more than 100 m in circumference. Rito cannot just be a rock, which highlights another distinction between islands, that of yujinto and mujinto inhabited and uninhabited islands. 95% of Japan’s islands are uninhabited. The Nihon Rito Center (Japan Remote Islands Center) was established in 1966 as a foundation under the jurisdiction of Economic Planning Agency of Japan (current Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation and Tourism). The total population of the remote islands (excluding Amami, Okinawa and Ogasawara islands) was 920,000 in 1960, while it decreased to 470,000 in 2000,

The Japanese government will likely boost economic aid for remote, inhabited islands close to the country's maritime borders. Seventy-one remote islands have the government's special designation as areas that should be kept inhabited to help protect Japan's territorial waters and exclusive economic zones. The designation cuts sea and air fares for routes to the islands. This is to help prevent the islands from becoming uninhabited. But the islands have recently been reeling from economic implications of the coronavirus, such as a fall in tourist numbers. In response, the government will likely expand subsidies to shore up employment and tourism businesses on the islands.

The money may be spent to build accommodations where people can telework and enjoy the islands' allure on days off and after work. Another possible initiative is helping create travel packages that involve chartered flights to the islands. The Cabinet Office plans to include more than 6 billion yen, or roughly 57 million dollars, for the programs in its budget request for the fiscal year starting April 2021.

With these islands being scattered on the outer edge of Japanese territory, the territorial waters and 50% of the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ: a sea area extending up to 200 nautical miles or 370 km) are secured. Thus, despite ranking only 61st in the world in terms of territory (380,000 square kilometers), Japan’s territorial waters and EEZ combined are 12 times as large (4,470,000 square kilometers) as its territorial area, placing it 6th in the world.4 Surrounded on all sides by wide expanses of sea, Japan is a maritime nation that enjoys the extensive right on the ocean water and the benefits of the sea in the form of maritime trade and fishing.

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Page last modified: 06-07-2021 16:52:16 ZULU