Japan: Island Nation on the Pacific Rim (overview of the geography of the archipelago)
The Japanese Archipelago is situated off the eastern coast of the Asian continent in much the same way that the British Isles are situated off the western European coastline.
Japan is surrounded by seas and separated today from its immediate neighbours (Russia to the north, northwest and northeast; North Korea and South Korea to the west, China and Taiwan to the southwest) by major channels.
Japan is bordered in the north by the Sea of Okhotsk, in the east by the Pacific Ocean, and to the west by the Tsushima Strait, the Sea of Japan, and the East China Sea.
Generally described, by the Japanese themselves, as a small country, Japan's land area of 369,700 sq. km slightly exceeds that of re-unified Germany (356,840 sq. km), and dwarfs not only Britain (244,755 sq. km.) and New Zealand (265,150 sq. km.), but also many other countries.
It is only small in comparison with the largest of the world's countries such as: Brazil, Canada, China, Russia, or the USA. If we compare Japan with other parts of the world, the islands would stretch from Maine to Florida and are slightly smaller than California, but has a coastline of more than 34,000km!
Level land is in short supply in Japan, so much of the lowlands and valley bottoms have been co-opted for rice cultivation.
The long string of islands that make up the Japanese archipelago, extends more than 3,000 km from latitude 24 to 45 along the Pacific coast of Asia, but four of these islands are dominant, from north to south: Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. In size these four are ranked: Honshu (230,455 sq. km.), Hokkaido (78,460 sq. km.), Kyushu (42,010 sq. km.) and Shikoku (18,755 sq. km.). In addition, there are at least another 1,000 islands, though not all of them are inhabited.
Several subsidiary groups of islands are involved, the Izu, Ogasawara and Iwo islands stretching out into the Pacific south of Tokyo, and the Nansei Shoto stretching between Kyushu and Taiwan, are the most notable.
The density of urban development is best seen from the air. Buildings, housing and industrial complexes are crammed closely together into what little level land is available. A long-standing taboo preventing building in the mountains in Japan still survives.
Frequently perceived as over-crowded, that fact about Japan also requires some qualification, as large areas of the country have very low populations. Compared with New Zealand (c4.3 million; May 2009), or the UK (c 61.8 million; July 2009), both of which are smaller in land area, then the Japanese islands are indeed crowded, but this is only true of certain areas.
This is especially so when we consider that about 70~80% of the country is un-populated or has a very low population density. The latest estimates put Japan's population at 127.3 million, making it the 12th largest in the world, behind Russia and ahead of Mexico. In Japan's case the bulk of the country's population is concentrated in a band along the Pacific Ocean and Inland Sea coastal band stretching west-south-west from Tokyo to Fukuoka, and this strip is undeniably over-populated.
Currently eleven of Japan's cities exceed one million in population, and ten of those are in that same band, the population belt, from Tokyo to Fukuoka. The only exception is Sapporo, the capital of Japan's northernmost prefecture - Hokkaido.
Densely populated and intensively agricultural, Japan nevertheless has wonderful landscapes and wilderness areas. Here the Japan Alps stand out starkly on a winter's day.
Japan is governed centrally from Tokyo, but with various administrative districts, known as prefectures, grouped into eight regions: Hokkaido (1 island, 1 prefecture), Tohoku, Kanto, Chubu, Kansai, Chugoku, Shikoku (1 island, 4 prefectures), Kyushu, and Okinawa.
More than 75% of the country is mountainous with several peaks rising to over 3,000 m, and much of the country is forested. What is more, very few people live in the mountains. This is a fascinating aspect of Japanese geography, for which there are various practical and cultural reasons.
Firstly, there is limited flat land available for the all-important rice and vegetable agriculture that has sustained the country throughout much of its history. Secondly, almost all development (residential, agricultural and industrial) is in the lowlands, placing development expansion in direct conflict with its historical agricultural base and forcing people to live in vary crowded conditions in certain areas. Though crowded, Japan is a fascinating country to live in or travel in, with tremendous scenic, bio-geographical and cultural diversity.
The islands of Japan span climatic variation from sub-Arctic in the far north to sub-tropical in the far south. They span altitudinal variation too, from sea-level around its enormous coastline, which includes coral reefs, mangroves, estuaries and mudflats at river mouths, extensive sand beaches, coastal dunes and cliffs, to high mountains. The spine of the main island, Honshu, is mountainous, the alps rising to numerous peaks over 3,000 m and the highest mountain in the land being the iconic volcanic Mt Fuji (3,776 m).
Japan's highest peak Mt. Fuji is best enjoyed from a distance (here from the Japan Alps), when its marvelous symmetry is most visible.
Although very mountainous, Hokkaido's highest mountain, Asahi-dake, stands only 2,290 m high, and Kyushu's is lower still, Kiyu-san reaches just 1,788 m above sea level, Shikoku, however, can boast peaks over 1,900 m high, the highest being Mt Ishizuchi (1,981 m).
Japan has several major lakes, the largest and oldest being Lake Biwa, which dwarfs all others, although lakes Kasumigaura, Inawashiro, Suwa, Tazawa, and Towada in Honshu, and Toya, Shikotsu, Kussharo and Mashu in Hokkaido, are all impressive in their own ways.
Japan's rugged terrain, and high mountains, and the short distances between peaks and coast mean that despite having innumerable streams and rivers few are of significant length. The longest, at 367 km, is the Shinano River (known as the Chikuma River where it runs through Nagano Prefecture). It arises on the borders of Saitama, Yamanashi and Nagano prefectures and drains an area of some 11,900 km 2 before reaching the Sea of Japan at Niigata.
The seas around Japan are astonishingly rich in marine resources, on which Japan is very dependent for its largely fish-based diet. Cold and warm currents bathe the country from opposite directions, and while most coastal waters are no deeper than 100-500 m, the Sea of Japan plunges to depths below 3,000 m, though that is nothing compared with the great oceanic trench just to the east of Japan, which plummets down below 9,000 m.
A distance of only a little over 300 km separates this lowest point, within Japanese waters, and the highest mountain peak of the land, and this alone is telling of the tremendous geographic diversity to be found in the country.
Volcanoes can be found almost throughout Japan. Here Akan Fuji and Mt Me-Akan in east Hokkaido are already capped with snow although autumn has barely arrived in the lowlands.
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