Japan’s Four Main Islands and Its Core Urban and Industrial Areas
Japan’s Four Main Islands and Its Core Urban and Industrial Areas

Japan consists of islands that lie along the Pacific Rim east of China and across the Sea of Japan from the Korean Peninsula. Most of the archipelago, which has more than three thousand islands, is just north of 30° latitude. Four islands make up most of the country: ShikokuKyushuHokkaido, and Honshu. The physical area of all Japan’s islands is equivalent to about the size of the US state of Montana.

The islands have tall mountains originating from volcanic activity as Japan is located in the “Ring of Fire.”

Ring of Fire
Ring of Fire

About 108 of the volcanoes are active, including the famous Mount Fuji.

Mount Fuji with cherry blossoms in the Arakurayama Sengen Park, Fujiyoshida, Yamanashi, central Japan
Mount Fuji with cherry blossoms in the Arakurayama Sengen Park, Fujiyoshida, Yamanashi, central Japan

About 73 percent of Japan is forested, mountainous and is unsuitable for agricultural or industrial use. As a result, the habitable zones, mainly located in coastal areas, have extremely high population densities. Japan is one of the most densely populated countries in the world.

Panoramic view of Tokyo
Panoramic view of Tokyo – Click on the photo to see it larger.

Cities like Mexico City, São Paulo, and Bombay, which have vast slum communities, each claims to be the world’s largest city but lacks firm census data to verify its population. The largest metropolitan urban area in the world that can be verified is Tokyo, with a population of 26.7 million. The Tokyo metropolitan area is located in an extensive agricultural region called the Kanto Plain and includes the conurbation of Tokyo, Yokohama, and Kawasaki.

Map of Kantō Plain; Tokyo Bay is visible below center of picture
Map of Kantō Plain; Tokyo Bay is visible below center of picture

Zoom in on the map to see Yokohama, Kawasaki (which is to the northeast of Yokohama) and Tokyo.

The second-largest urban area in Japan is located in the Kansai District, and includes the cities of KobeOsaka, and Kyoto.

Himeji Castle is in the Kansai District.

Most of the population (67 percent) lives in urban areas such as Japan’s core area, an urbanized region from Tokyo to Nagasaki. The 2020 population of Japan was listed at about 126 million, less than half the size of the United States. It is ironic that the world’s largest metropolitan area is built on one of the worst places imaginable to build a city. Tokyo is located where three tectonic plates meet: the Eurasian Plate, the Philippine Plate, and the Pacific Plate. Earthquakes result when these plates shift, leading to possibly extensive damage and destruction. In 1923, a large earthquake struck the Tokyo area and killed an estimated 143,000 people. In 1995, an earthquake near Kobe killed about 5,500 people and injured another 26,000.

Shatner Method: Kobe Earthquake of 1995 – 1/17/95 – ABC News

In March 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck forty-three miles off the eastern coast of northern Japan. The earthquake itself caused extensive damage to the island of Honshu. A shockwave after the earthquake created a tsunami more than 130 feet high that crashed into the eastern coast of Japan causing enormous damage to infrastructure and loss of life.

Rare Video: Japan Tsunami | National Geographic

Hundreds of aftershocks were recorded; at least three registered over 7.0 in magnitude. This is the strongest earthquake to ever hit Japan in recorded history. It resulted in more than 15,500 deaths and wreaked serious damage across Japan in the value of billions of dollars. Thousands of additional people remain missing. Nuclear power plants along the coast were hit hard by the tsunami, which knocked out their cooling systems and resulted in the meltdown of at least three reactors. The nuclear meltdowns created explosions that released a sizeable quantity of nuclear material into the atmosphere. This is considered the worst nuclear accident since the 1986 reactor meltdown at the Soviet plant at Chernobyl, located north of Kiev in present-day Ukraine. The next big earthquake could happen at any time, since Japan is located in an active tectonic plate zone.

Optional video: National Geographic: Returning to Fukushima | Explorer

Japan has nine forest ecoregions that reflect the climate and geography of the islands. Japan is generally a rainy country with high humidity with a variety of climates. There is a latitude range of the inhabited islands from 24° to 46° north, which is comparable to the range between Nova Scotia and The Bahamas on the east coast of North America. There is a marked rainy season, beginning in early June and continuing for about a month, followed by hot, sticky weather. Five or six typhoons pass over or near Japan every year from early August to early October, sometimes resulting in significant damage.

Japan has over 90,000 species of wildlife. Here are a few examples:

The Japanese hornet is the largest wasp in the world.
A tanuki (Japanese raccoon dog)
Wild boar live in Japan. They are sometimes a nuisance.
The Ezo brown bear can be found on Hokkaido. The Asian black bear can be found in the mountains of  Honshū, Kyūshū and Shikoku.
The Ezo brown bear can be found on Hokkaido. The Asian black bear can be found in the mountains of  Honshū, Kyūshū and Shikoku. 
The Japanese serow is a goat-antelope that is found in dense woodland, primarily in northern and central Honshu.
The Japanese serow is a goat-antelope that is found in dense woodland, primarily in northern and central Honshu.

The New York Times: The Story Behind Japan’s Bathing Monkeys | ScienceTake

The country of Japan is an interesting study in isolation geography and economic development. For centuries, shogun lords and samurai warriors ruled Japan, and Japan’s society was highly organized and structured.

Samurai in Armour
Samurai in Armour, hand-coloured albumen silver print by Kusakabe Kimbei. Empire of Japan. The person on the left has a yumi (Japanese bow), the one in the center has a katana and the one on the right carries a yari (straight-headed spear). Samurai were abolished in the 1870’s.

Urban centers were well planned, and skilled artisans developed methods of creating high-grade metal products. While agriculture was always important, Japan always existed as a semiurban community because the mountainous terrain forced most of the population to live along the country’s coasts. Without a large rural population to begin with, Japan never really experienced the rural-to-urban shift common in the rest of the world. Coastal fishing, always a prominent economic activity, remains so today. The capital city of Tokyo was formerly called Edo and was a major city even before the colonial era. Japan developed its own unique type of urbanized cultural heritage.

Edo in the 17th century

In 1639 the shogunate enacted an isolationist “closed country” policy that spanned two and a half centuries known as the Edo period (1603–1868). In 1854,  Commodore Matthew Perry and the “Black Ships” of the United States Navy forced the opening of Japan to the outside world.

Japanese woodblock print of Perry (center) and other high-ranking American seamen
Japanese woodblock print of Perry (center) and other high-ranking American seamen

You can read about this time in Japan’s history in the following three books:

Heart of a Samurai

Heart of a Samurai

In 1841 a Japanese fishing vessel sinks. Its crew is forced to swim to a small, unknown island, where they are rescued by a passing American ship. Japan’s borders remain closed to all Western nations, so the crew sets off to America, learning English on the way.

Manjiro, a 14-year-old boy, is curious and eager to learn everything he can about this new culture. Eventually the captain adopts Manjiro and takes him to his home in New England. The boy lives there for some time and then heads to San Francisco to pan for gold. After many years, he makes it back to Japan, only to be imprisoned as an outsider. With his hard-won knowledge of the West, Manjiro is in a unique position to persuade the emperor to ease open the boundaries around Japan; he may even achieve his unlikely dream of becoming a samurai.

Shipwrecked!: The True Adventures of a Japanese Boy

Any person who leaves
the country to go to another
and later returns
will be put to death.

This was the law in Japan in the early 1800s. When fourteen-year-old Manjiro, working on a fishing boat to help support his family, was shipwrecked three hundred miles away from his homeland, he was heartbroken to think that he would never again be able to go home. So when an American whaling boat rescued him, Manjiro decided to do what no other Japanese person had ever done: He went to America, where he received an education and took part in events that eventually made him a hero in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun
In 1853, few Japanese people knew that a country called America even existed.

For centuries, Japan had isolated itself from the outside world by refusing to trade with other countries and even refusing to help shipwrecked sailors, foreign or Japanese. The country’s people still lived under a feudal system like that of Europe in the Middle Ages. But everything began to change when American Commodore Perry and his troops sailed to the Land of the Rising Sun, bringing with them new science and technology, and a new way of life.

Encounters with European colonial ships prompted Japan to industrialize. For the most part, the Japanese kept the Europeans out and only traded with select ships that were allowed to approach the shores. The fact that European ships were there at all was enough to convince the Japanese to evaluate their position in the world. During the colonial era, Britain was the most avid colonizer with the largest and best-equipped navy on the high seas. Britain colonized parts of the Americas, the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and Australia and was advancing in East Asia when they encountered the Japanese. Both Japan and Great Britain are island countries. Japan reasoned that if Great Britain could become so powerful, they should also have the potential to become powerful. Japan encompassed a number of islands and had more land area than Britain, but Japan did not have the coal and iron ore reserves that Britain had.

Around 1868, a group of reformers worked to bring about a change in direction for Japan. Named after the emperor, the movement was called the Meiji Restoration (the return of enlightened rule). Japanese modernizers studied the British pattern of development. The Japanese reformers were advised by the British about how to organize their industries and how to lay out transportation and delivery systems. Today, the British influence in Japan is easily seen in that both Japanese and British drivers drive on the left side of the road. The modernizers realized that to compete on the high seas in the world community they had to move beyond samurai swords and wooden ships. Iron ore and coal would have to become the goods to fuel their own industrial revolution. Labor and resources were valuable elements of early industrialization in all areas of the world, including Asia.

Japan began to industrialize and build its economic and military power by first utilizing the few resources found in Japan. Since it was already semiurban and had an organized social order with skilled artisan traditions, the road to industrialization moved quickly. Japan needed raw materials and expanded to take over the island of Formosa (Taiwan) and the Korean Peninsula in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Japan was on its way to becoming a colonial power in its own right. They expanded to take control of the southern part of Sakhalin Island from Russia and part of Manchuria (Northeast China) from the Chinese. Japanese industries grew quickly as they put the local people they subjugated to work and extracted the raw materials they needed from their newly taken colonies.

Sakhalin Island

The three-way split in China revealed that the Japanese colonizers were a major force in China even after the other European powers had halted their colonial activities. Japan’s relative location as an independent island country provided both quick access to their neighbors and also protection from them. By World War II, Japan’s economic and military power had expanded until they were dominating Asia’s Pacific Rim community. The Japanese military believed that they could invade the western coast of North America and eventually take control of the entire United States. Their attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1941, was meant to be only a beginning. History has recorded the outcome. The United States rallied its people and resources to fight against the Japanese in World War II. The Soviet Union also turned to fight the Japanese empire. The end came after atomic bombs, one each, were dropped by the United States on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Optional video: CBBC Newsround: Hiroshima – A survivor’s story in animation

Note: I recommend you watch the video linked in the Guest Hollow Geography & Cultures curriculum schedule (see week 27’s video section) about Japan’s history. It’s a long video, so you may want to split it up over 2 days. It also gives a balanced perspective as to why atomic weapons were used on Japan in WW2.

The terms of Japan’s surrender in 1945 stipulated that Japan had to give up claims on the Russian islands, Korea, Taiwan, China, and all the other places that they had previously controlled. Japan also lost the Kurile Islands (see the map above)—off its northern shores—to the Soviet Union. The islands have never been returned. Japan offered Russia an enormous amount of cash for them but the matter remains unresolved. The Kurile Island chain continues to be controlled by Russia. Japan also agreed not to have a military for offensive purposes. Japan was decimated during World War II, its infrastructure and economy destroyed.

Since 1945, Japan has risen to become Asia’s economic superpower and the economic center of one of the three core areas of the world. Japanese manufacturing has set a standard for global production. For example, think of all the automobiles that are Japanese products: Toyota, Honda, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Nissan, Isuzu, Mazda, and Suzuki. How many Russian, Brazilian, Chinese, or Indonesian autos are sold in the United States? The term “economic tiger” is used in Asia to indicate an entity with an aggressive and fast-growing economy. Japan has surpassed this benchmark and is called the economic dragon of Asia. The four economic tigers competing with Japan are Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea. Japan came back from total devastation in 1945 to become a world economic superpower. During this economic development, the nation developed a work ethic where companies emphasize the success of the company of a whole to be more important than any single individual. This work culture continues to this day.

Why does Japan work so hard? | CNBC Explains

Japan’s recovery in the last half of the century was remarkable. If an island nation like Japan could accomplish this rapid growth in its economy, why couldn’t other similar-sized countries accomplish the same level of growth? What was it that caused the Japanese people to not only recover so quickly but rise above the world’s standard to excel in their economic endeavors? The answer could be related to the fact that Japan already had an industrialized and urbanized society before the war. The United States did help rebuild some of Japan’s infrastructure that had been destroyed during World War II—things like ports and transportation systems to help bring aid and provide for humanitarian support. However, the Japanese people were able to not only recover from the devastation of World War II but rise to the level of an economic superpower to compete with the United States. Japan used internal organization and strong centripetal dynamics to create a highly functional and cohesive society that focused its drive and fortitude on creating a manufacturing sector that catapulted the country’s economy from devastation to financial success.

The same dynamics can be applied to Germany after World War II. Germany was completely destroyed by the war. The Allied powers decimated Germany’s infrastructure and resources. Today, Germany is the strongest economy in all of Europe. Part of the reason Germany came back to become so economically successful was its industrialized and urbanized society. Germany also was able to access resources. Again, think of all the automobiles that are German products: Mercedes, Volkswagen, Porsche, BMW, and Audi. The pattern of economic growth was similar for Germany and Japan. The loss of colonies after World War II prompted Japan to look elsewhere for its raw materials. Extensive networks of trade were developed to provide the necessary materials for the rapidly growing manufacturing sector. The urbanized region around Tokyo, including the cities of Yokohama and Kawasaki, swelled to accommodate the growth of industry. Japan’s coastal interior has a number of large cities and urban areas that rapidly increased with the growing manufacturing sector.

Timeline of Japanese Development

Modern Japan

Japan is a homogeneous society. In 2010, all but 1 percent of the population was ethnically Japanese. Japan resembles a nation-state, where people of a common heritage and aspirations hold to a unified government. This provides a strong centripetal force that unites the people under one culture and one language.

geobeats: 10 Japanese Habits Americans Don’t Understand

However, religious allegiances in Japan vary, and there are a good number of people who indicate nonreligious ideologies. Shintoism and Buddhism are the main religious traditions. Shintoism includes a veneration of ancestors and the divine forces of nature. There is no one single written text for Shintoism; the religion is a loosely knit set of concepts based on morality, attitude, sensibility, and right practice. It is possible for a Shinto priest to conduct a wedding for a couple, whereas the funeral (hopefully taking place much later) for either of the spouses might be conducted by a Buddhist priest. The Buddhism that is practiced in Japan is more meditative in nature than mystical.

NowThis World: What Is The Ancient Japanese Religion Shinto?

The code of etiquette in Japan governs the expectations of social behavior. Honne and tatemae contrasts a person’s true feelings and desires and the behavior and opinions one displays in public. To simplify it: honne is what you think and tatemae is what you say/do. In many cases, tatemae can lead to outright telling of lies in order to avoid exposing true inward feelings.

Tofugu: What Are Japan’s True Feelings? Honne and Tatemae Explained

In Japanese culture, public failure and the disapproval of others are seen as particular sources of shame and reduced social standing, so it is common to avoid direct confrontation or disagreement in most social contexts.

Wa (和) is a Japanese cultural concept that implies a peaceful unity and conformity within a social group, in which members prefer the continuation of a harmonious community over their personal interests.

Modernization has brought new opportunities and problems for the Japanese people. With a highly urban and industrial society, personal incomes in Japan are high and family size is quite low, at about 1.2 children. The replacement level for a given population is about 2.1 children, which means Japan has a declining population. The population is aging and there are not enough young people to take entry-level jobs. The family has been at the center of Japanese tradition, and the elderly have been venerated and honored. As the country has become more economically developed, higher incomes for young people have prompted a shift toward convenience and consumer amenities. Consumer goods are available, but all the oil and about 60 percent of the food products have to be imported. During the offseason, fruit, for example, is expensive. Beef is at a premium price, so fish is a staple source of protein. Income levels are high, but the cost of living in places like Tokyo is also quite high.

Japanese cuisine offers a vast array of regional specialties that use traditional recipes and local ingredients.

Nattō is a traditional Japanese food made from fermented soybeans.
Nattō is a traditional Japanese food made from fermented soybeans.
Green tea KitKat!
Udon is a type of thick, wheat-flour noodle.
Udon is a type of thick, wheat-flour noodle.
Taiyaki is a Japanese fish-shaped cake that is often filled with red bean paste.
Taiyaki is a Japanese fish-shaped cake that is often filled with red bean paste.
Osechi-ryōri are traditional Japanese New Year foods.
Osechi-ryōri are traditional Japanese New Year foods.

Japan is a constitutional monarchy and sovereign state where the Emperor is a ceremonial figurehead. Executive power is wielded chiefly by the Prime Minister (who is appointed by the Emperor after being designated by the Diet – Japan’s legislature) and his cabinet.

The Talko: Inside The Lives Of Japan’s Royal Family

Japan is facing a labor shortage for many low-level service jobs that had traditionally been held by young people entering the workforce. It’s an island country that has prided itself in being 99 percent Japanese. Countries in stage 5 of the index of economic development usually enter a negative population growth pattern. According to population statistics, Japan is at the start of a serious population decline, with a negative population growth pattern. While Western Europe and the United States also have a declining percentage of young people, in those countries the declining youth cohort has been replaced by an elevated level of immigration, both legal and illegal. Culturally, this is not an attractive option for Japan, but they are forced to address the labor shortage in any way they can. Their economy will depend on the ability to acquire cheap labor and resources to compete in the global marketplace.

FRANCE 24 English: Faced with labour shortage, Japan begins to open its doors to immigration

Before moving on, let’s take a quick look at some things Japan is famous for:

Sumo wrestling
Sumo wrestling
Manga are comics or graphic novels created in Japan with annual sales of 1.9 billion manga books and magazines in Japan.
Manga are comics or graphic novels created in Japan with annual sales of 1.9 billion manga books and magazines in Japan.
Tatami mats are a type of flooring made from woven soft rush straw.
Tatami mats are a type of flooring made from woven soft rush straw.
Totoro is a famous Japanese cartoon character. (Photo by Hannah Haruna)
Totoro is a famous Japanese cartoon character. (Photo by Hannah Haruna)
Karaoke comes from the Japanese kara 空 “empty” and ōkesutora オーケストラ “orchestra”

Kabuki is a classical Japanese dance-drama performed only by men.

60 Minutes reports on the Japanese art of Kabuki
See the full video here on cbsnews.com.
The kimono is a traditional Japanese garment. (Photo of Masashi and Hannah Haruna)
Sakura (cherry blossoms) in the spring (Photo by Hannah Haruna)
The Japanese artist Hokusai is famous for paintings like this one called “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.”

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Next: 8.5 Southeast Asia

Additional information and image credits:

Japan’s core region – https://open.lib.umn.edu/worldgeography/chapter/10-4-japan-and-korea-north-and-south/
japan Chart https://open.lib.umn.edu/worldgeography/chapter/10-4-japan-and-korea-north-and-south/
Mt. Fuji By https://www.flickr.com/photos/reggiepen/ – https://www.flickr.com/photos/reggiepen/17025277650/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67128875
Tokyo panorama By Yodalica – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42119013
Kanto Plain By Σ64 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5057241
Himeji Castle By Gorgo – Photo taken by author, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=181748
Samurai By Kusakabe Kimbei – J. Paul Getty Museum (object no. 84.XA.700.4.58), digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=86376861
Edo By unknown stitched by Marku1988This panoramic image was created with Panorama Perfect (stitched images may differ from reality)., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3581624
Perry in Japan By Unknown author – Library of Congress, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3637489
Ring of fire By Gringer (talk) 23:52, 10 February 2009 (UTC) – vector data from [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5919729
Tanuki By Original uploader was Iwanafish at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37402702
Ezo brown bear By jiashiang さん https://www.flickr.com/photos/wangjs/ – flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/wangjs/7391662426/, CC BY 2.0,
Macaque By Tony Hisgett – Flickr: Snow Monkeys, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14621308
Serow By Kei hashi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27060833
boar warning sign By KKPCW – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=88268112
Wildlife of japan https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wildlife_of_Japan
Japanese hornet By Yasunori Koide – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63832922
Japan’s climate – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geography_of_Japan#Climate
Sakhalin Island map By No machine-readable author provided. NormanEinstein assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=385863
Japanese cuisine https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_cuisine
Osechi By dnak – https://www.flickr.com/photos/38891581@N00/4236503554/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33784059
natto By The original uploader was Shades0404 at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3605333
Udon By No machine-readable author provided. Fg2 assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=500256
Taiyaki By Toto-tarou – Photo by Toto-tarou., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=372282
Sumo By BradBeattie at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52325395
Karaoke By Orataw – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31533448
Pichi manga By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54221058
Tatami By 663highland – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5188051
Hokusai By Katsushika Hokusai – Metropolitan Museum of Art, online database: entry 45434, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2798407

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