Official name: Japan
Area: 377,835 square kilometers (145,883 square miles)
Highest point on mainland: Mount Fuji (Fujiyama) (3,776 meters/12,388 feet)
Lowest point on land: Hachiro-gata (4 meters/13.1 feet below sea level)
Hemispheres: Northern and Eastern
Time zone: 9 P.M. = noon GMT
Longest distances: 3,008 kilometers (1,869 miles) from northeast to southwest; 1,645 kilometers (1,022 miles) from southeast to northwest
Land boundaries: None
Coastline: 29,751 kilometers (18,486 miles)
Territorial sea limits: 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles)
1 LOCATION AND SIZE
The country of Jah2n is a crescent-shaped island chain in eastern Asia, bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the east and the Sea of Japan to the west. With a total area of about 377,835 square kilometers (145,883 square miles), the country is slightly smaller than the state of California, and consists of forty-seven prefectures.
2 TERRITORIES AND DEPENDENCIES
Japan has no territories or dependencies.
Most of Japan is in the temperate zone, with the exception of the subtropical southern island chains. There are four distinct seasons: winter (December through February), spring (March through May), summer (June through August), and autumn (September through November.) The average annual temperature is 15°C (59°F) with a winter range of -9°C to 16° C (15°F to 61°F) and a summer range of 20°C to 28°C (68°F to 82°F). Humidity is high, ranging from 50 percent to 75 percent.
The peak rainy season is from May to October, with some regional variations. Yearly rainfall averages 100 to 250 centimeters (39 to 98 inches). Southern Shikoku Island is particularly vulnerable to typhoons, which are violent cyclonic storms from the Pacific. In regions bordering the Sea of Japan, the winter monsoon, laden with snow, can be destructive. Snowfall is generally heavy along the western coast, where it covers the ground for almost four months.
Floods are common, especially in the Pacific coastal areas. Because this land is sinking, large embankments and dikes have been erected against rivers that flow at a level well above the surrounding plains. During periods of heavy rains, waters bearing great quantities of alluvium can break through the embankments, inundating adjacent fields and covering them with a thick carpet of gravel and sand. Sometimes typhoons, bringing fresh torrents of water to the rivers, convert whole plains into vast lakes and sweep away roads and railroads.
4 TOPOGRAPHIC REGIONS
Japan has four principal islands. From north to south, they are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyūshū. The four major islands are separated only by narrow straits and form a natural geographic entity. The nation also has more than three thousand smaller islands, including the Ryukyu archipelago, which extends far to the southwest of the main islands.
The terrain on all of the major islands is primarily mountainous. The lowland areas that exist are mainly along the shore and are densely populated. The mountains remain largely covered by forest. Japan lies along the boundary between the Eurasian, North American, and Pacific Tectonic Plates. As a result, earthquakes are common throughout the islands, as are volcanoes.
5 OCEANS AND SEAS
Seacoast and Undersea Features
The islands of Japan are so narrow that no point in the country lies more than 150 kilometers (93 miles) from sea waters. To the west, the Sea of Japan separates Japan from the Asian mainland. To the north lies the Sea of Okhotsk, and the East China Sea is to the south. All of these seas are extensions of the Pacific Ocean, which lies to the east of Japan. Another extension of the Pacific, the Philippine Sea, lies to the far southeast, along the coast of the Ryukyu archipelago. Warm and cold ocean currents blend in the waters surrounding Japan.
Undersea earthquakes often expose the Japanese coastline to dangerous tidal waves, known as tsunamis . Japan's coral reefs have been severely damaged by sedimentation from construction and agricultural activity, and by over-fishing. Environmentalists continue to try to protect the remaining intact reefs around southern islands such as Okinawa, where land development poses a threat.
Sea Inlets and Straits
The islands of Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyūshū enclose Japan's narrow Inland Sea. The Korean Strait, approximately 200 kilometers (124 miles) across, separates southwest Japan from South Korea and links the East China Sea to the Sea of Japan. The Sōya Strait (La Perouse Strait) runs between northern Japan and Russia's Sakhalin Island; this strait links the Sea of Japan to the Sea of Okhotsk. Tsugaru Strait separates Hokkaido and Honshu Islands, linking the Sea of Japan to the Pacific Ocean.
Islands and Archipelagos
The northern island of Hokkaido (78,719 square kilometers/30,394 square miles) was long looked upon as a remote frontier area because of its forests and rugged climate. Hokkaido is divided along a line extending from Cape Sōya to Cape Erimo. The eastern half includes the Daisetsu Mountains, at the foot of which lie the plains of Tokachi and Konsen. The western half is milder and less mountainous.
Honshu, Japan's largest island (225,800 square kilometers/87,182 square miles), curves south to southwest between Hokkaido and Kyūshū. Tohoku, the northern region of Honshu, has flat, well-drained alluvial plains. In the center of Honshu is the Kanto region, which includes the Tokyo-Yokohama metropolis.
The Chubu region, lying west of Kanto, has three distinct districts: Hokuriku, a "snow country" coastal strip on the Sea of Japan with stormy winters; Tosan, the central highlands, including the Japanese Alps; and Tokai, a narrow corridor lying along the Pacific coast.
The Kinki region of Honshu lies to the southwest and consists of a narrow area stretching from the Sea of Japan on the north to the Pacific Ocean on the south. It includes Japan's second-largest commercial-industrial complex, centered on Osaka and Kobe, and the two former imperial cities of Nara and Kyoto.
The Chugoku region occupies the western end of Honshu and is divided into two distinct districts by mountains running through it. The northern, somewhat narrower, part is called "San'in" (shady side), and the southern part, "San'yo" (sunny side.)
The Inland Sea separates western Honshu from Shikoku Island (18,545 square kilometers/7,160 square miles). Mountains divide the island into a northern sub-region on the Inland Sea and a southern part on the Pacific Ocean. Most of the population lives in the northern zone. The southern part is mostly mountainous and sparsely populated.
Kyūshū (37,437 square kilometers/14,454 square miles), the southernmost of the main islands, is divided by the Kyūshū Mountains, which run diagonally across the middle of the island. The northern part is one of Japan's most industrialized regions.
There are thousands of other small islands in Japan's possession. Some of the largest located near the main islands are Tsushima, Sado, Rishiri, and Awaji Islands, as well as the Gotō, Oki, and Amakusa Islands.
Japan also has many islands located further out in the Pacific Ocean. These include the Nanpo Chain, the Bonin (Ogasawara) Islands, Iwo Jima, and the Volcano Islands; the latter are located some 1,100 kilometers (683 miles) south of central Honshu.
The Ryukyu Archipelago includes over two hundred islands and islets, of which fewer than half are populated. They extend in a chain from southeast of Kyūshū to within 193 kilometers (120 miles) of Taiwan. Okinawa (1,256 square kilometers/485 square miles) is the largest and most populated of the Ryukyu Islands.
Japan in engaged in a territorial dispute with Russia concerning several small islands north of Hokkaido: Etorofu, Kunashir and the Shikotan and Habomai Island groups.
Japan's coastline has been highly modified by projects such as land reclamation, port construction, and sea wall erection. At the head of most of the bays where Japan's major cities are located the land is subsiding (sinking), causing buildings to sink up to 4.5 centimeters (1.5 inches) annually. Since 1935, the port area of Osaka has subsided as much as 3 meters (10 feet). Global warming, which is a general increase in the average temperature worldwide, also threatens the beaches of Japan. An estimated 90 percent of Japan's coast would disappear with a 1-meter (3.4-feet) rise in the sea level.
The coastline of Hokkaido Island has a rough diamond shape, with the capes of Sōya in the north, Shiretoko-Masakai in the east, Erimo in the south, and Kamui in the west forming its corners. Oshima, a southwestern peninsula of Hokkaido, curves around Uchira Bay and ends in the promontories of Shiragami and Esan.
Honshu has large indentations along its Pacific coast, such as the Bōsō, Izu, and Kii peninsulas, and the bays of Ishinomaki, Tokyo and Ise (Nagoya). On the Pacific side, flat shores are found at the head of the principal bays where the major cities are situated. North of Tokyo Bay is a type of landscape called suigo ("land of water"), where the plain is exactly at sea level, protected by levees and locks and by a system of pumps. In contrast to the Pacific coast, Honshu's Sea of Japan shoreline is less indented, with the central Noto Peninsula and Wakasa Bay serving as exceptions to long curves of flat shoreline.
Shikoku Island has a violin shape, with the Inland Sea on the north and Tosa Bay curving into the south. The southern and western coasts of Kyūshū Island, including Kagoshima Bay, are deeply fragmented and fractured.
6 INLAND LAKES
The landscape of Japan contains numerous and varied lakes. The largest is Lake Biwa, 673 square kilometers (260 square miles) in area, which fills a fault basin on Honshu. Lake Biwa is affected by pollution as well as the demand for fresh water from the cities of Osaka and Kyoto. The second-largest lake is Kasumiga (168 square kilometers/65 square miles) near Tokyo. These are followed by Saroma (150 square kilometers/58 square miles) on Hokkaido, Inawashiro (103 square kilometers/40 square miles) in Bandai-Asahi National Park of northern Honshu, and Nakaumi (89 square kilometers/56 square miles)
Eleven areas in Japan have been designated as Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar International Convention on Wetlands. Those on Honshu include Lake Biwa and its surrounding marshes; Izu-numa and Uchi-numa lakes and peat swamps; Katano-kamoike pond/marsh, a major bird habitat; and Yatsu-higata, a mudflat shorebird habitat near Tokyo. The Hokkaido sites are Akkeshiko and Bekambeushi-shitsugen, a lake and saltmarsh complex; Kiritappu-shitsugen, a peat bog; Kushiro-shitsugen, a wildlife habitat containing reedbeds; Kutcharo-ko, a reed swamp; and Utonai-ko, a lake with surrounding swamps. There are also wetland sites on Okinawa and Niigata Islands. Japan's wetlands are threatened by pollution, reclamation of land for development, and extraction of water.
7 RIVERS AND WATERFALLS
Although the country is exceptionally well watered, the absence of large plains has prevented the formation of a major river system. The longest river, the Shinano, is only 367 kilometers (228 miles) long and the second longest is the Tone, 322 kilometers (200 miles). Both are in central Honshu. The third longest is Hokkaido's Ishikari River (268 kilometers/166 miles). Japan's rivers tend to flow swiftly and thus most are unsuitable for navigation. The mountainous terrain and the absence of glaciers make the river flow highly irregular. Early summer rains account for a large part of the annual precipitation and can turn slow streams into raging torrents. In winter, the riverbeds are transformed into wide stretches of gravel furrowed by thin trickles of water. Rivers are used mostly for hydroelectric production and for irrigation. Extensive dams have been built for flood control, hydropower, and irrigation diversion, disrupting natural river ecosystems.
There are no desert regions on Japan.
9 FLAT AND ROLLING TERRAIN
Japan has few regions of level, open, land. Most of those that exist are areas in which masses of river-borne soil have accumulated. Accordingly, most of the plains are located along the coasts. The largest is Kanto, where Tokyo is located. Others include the Nobi plain that surrounds Nagoya, the Kinki plain in the Osaka-Kyoto area, the Sendai plain in northeastern Honshu, and the Ishikarai and Tokachi Plains on Hokkaido. Japan's plains are almost completely urbanized, so that little of the natural ground cover remains.
About 67 percent of Japan's land is forested. This percentage includes plantations of cedar and cypress species that replaced natural forests during the twentieth century, as well as secondary forest and stands of old-growth trees. Most of Japan's forest consists of temperate tree species, including conifer, deciduous, and alpine types. There are also subtropical forests on the Ryukyu Islands. Nearly all of Japan's remaining forests are situated in mountainous areas. Many are under official protection as national parks and Forest Ecosystem Reserves. Continuing threats to the forests include construction of dams, roads, and recreational areas.
Foothills border the coastal plains of Japan. Away from the coasts, ascending terraces mark the foothills, which provide a transition from these plains to the mountain ranges. On the approaches to the mountains, the slopes become steeper and are laced by numerous watercourses, isolating groups of hills. The Hakone hills, in central Honshu, are typical of this type of terrain.
10 MOUNTAINS AND VOLCANOES
The Japanese islands are essentially the summits of submerged mountain ridges that have been uplifted near the outer edge of the Asian continental shelf. Consequently, mountains take up some 75 percent of the land. A long spine of mountain ranges runs roughly north to south down the middle of the archipelago, dividing it into two halves.
Although the mountains are steep, most of them are not very high. Central Honshu Island, however, has a convergence of three mountain chains, the Akaishi, Kiso, and Hida, forming the Japanese Alps, which include many peaks that exceed 3,048 meters (10,000 feet). Other ranges include the Ōu, Chūgoku, Daisetsu, and the Kitami Mountains. Snow lingers late into spring on the Japanese Alps, but there are no true glaciers in Japan.
The highest point in the country is the renowned Mount Fuji (Fujiyama), a symmetrical dormant volcano that rises to 3,776 meters (12,388 feet) in central Honshu, outside of the Japanese Alps. The second-highest peak is Kitadake (3,192 meters/10,472 feet) and the third-highest is Hotakadake (3,190 meters/10,466 feet). Both are in central Honshu.
Ten percent of the world's volcanoes are found in Japan. Of Japan's 265 known volcanoes, 20 have been active since the beginning of the twentieth century. They are particularly numerous in Hokkaido, the Fossa Magna region of central Honshu, and Kyūshū. The mountainous areas of Japan contain wide craters and cones of every form, ranging from the ash cone of Mount Fuji on Honshu to the volcanic dome of Daisetsu on Hokkaido. Recent eruptions have included Mount Unzen, on Kyūshū Island, during 1991-93; Mount Usu on Hokkaido in March 2000; and Mount Oyama on Miyako Island, south of Tokyo, during September and October 2000.
Landslides that shake loose entire mountainsides are generally composed of clay and may reach depths of 6 to 23 meters (20 to 75 feet), widths of several hundred feet, and lengths up to 4 kilometers (2.5 miles). Such landslides are especially frequent on the Sea of Japan side of Honshu.
11 CANYONS AND CAVES
Japan's rivers have cut deep gorges through the mountain ranges. Suwa, Minakami, and Momiji Canyons on the Tone River in the Japanese Alps are known for their whitewater rapids. Kurobe Gorge, in central Honshu, is Japan's deepest, plunging 1,500 to 2,000 meters (4,921 to 6,562 feet). It has a dam at its south end. Dakigaeri Gorge is a national park in northern Honshu. The Oobako and Kobako Canyons on Hokkaido feature rocky terrain and waterfalls, as does Soun-kyo Gorge. Noteworthy river gorges on the other islands include Oboke Gorge on Shikoku Island, and Takachiho and Yabakei Gorges on Kyūshū Island.
12 PLATEAUS AND MONOLITHS
Volcanic activity has shaped many of Japan's plateaus, while others consist of ancient limestone. The Shiga Highlands, in Jo-Shin-Etsu National Park, central Honshu, is a lava plateau 1,400 to 1,700 meters (4593 to 5,577 feet) in height. The Hachimantai Plateau, volcanic in origin, in northern Honshu, is 1,400 to 1,600 meters (4,593 to 5,249 feet) above sea level. The Akiyoshi-dai Plateau of western Honshu is a limestone platform that is riddled with 420 caves. The Atetsu Plateau, in the same region, is also limestone-based. Northern Honshū's Bandai Plateau contains lakes and marshes. Other plateaus on Honshu include Nihon Daira near Mount Fuji; Midagahara in the Japanese Alps; and the Musashino Plateau, near Tokyo.
The Ebino Plateau, 1,200 meters (3,937 feet) above sea level, stands within Japan's first national park, Kirishima Yaku, on Kyūshū island. The Takachihokyo Plateau, near Kyūshū's Mount Aso, is lava-based with a river-eroded valley and rock formations.
DID YOU KNOW?
Mount Bandai (1,819 meters/6,003 feet) is a volcano that lies 240 kilometers (150 miles) northeast of Tokyo in one of the most popular tourist areas in Japan. Mount Bandai forms part of the Bandai-Asahi National Park.
13 MAN-MADE FEATURES
Tsujunkyo Bridge is Japan's largest stone-arch aqueduct bridge. Located in the Shiroito Plateau of Kyūshū, the bridge has a width of about 6 meters (20 feet) and a length of about 76 meters (249 feet). The bridge has been used since 1854 to bring water into Yabe town from the Shiroito Plateau over the deep ravine formed by the Todoroki River. The aqueduct is a vital source of drinking water and of irrigation waters for rice farms.
The Seikan Submarine Tunnel, completed in March 1988, is the longest tunnel in the world. The tunnel runs beneath the Tsugaru Strait, connecting Hokkaido and Honshu Islands. It is a part of the railway that runs between Aomori City on Honshu and Hako-date City on Hokkaido. The length of the tunnel is 53.85 kilometers (33.5 miles), with 23.3 kilometers (14.5 miles) of it underwater. The railway track also runs 240 meters (787 feet) below the sea surface, making it the deepest rail track in the world.
The Tokyo Bay Aqualine Expressway, completed in 1997, includes the fourth-longest vehicular tunnel in the world. The 15-kilometer (9.3-mile) expressway spans the Tokyo Bay, connecting the cities of Kisarazu and Kawasaki. The expressway includes a 4.4-kilometer (2.7-mile) bridge from Kisarazu and a 9.5-kilometer (5.9-mile) undersea tunnel from the Kawasaki side, which is world's longest undersea tunnel, running 60 meters (197 feet) deep under the surface of the water. The bridge and tunnel areas meet at the artificial island of Umi-hotaru, lying in Tokyo Bay.
The Akashi Kaikyo Bridge that links the city of Kobe with Awaji-shima Island is currently the world's longest suspension bridge. Two main towers suspend two thick cables to create the 1,991-meter- (6,529-feet-) long bridge. Italy expects to complete construction of a larger suspension bridge in 2005.
DID YOU KNOW?
Japan is very prone to earthquakes, with more than fifteen hundred of them recorded annually. Most of these are minor tremors, but the occasional major earthquake can result in thousands of deaths. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 was one of the most destructive of all time, causing powerful tremors and resulting in fires that destroyed most of Tokyo and Yokohama, with a loss of more than one hundred thousand lives. More recently, the Kobe earthquake on January 17, 1995, which measured 7.2 on the Richter scale, killed more than five thousand people and destroyed over one hundred thousand buildings. Japan has become a world leader in researching the causes and prediction of earthquakes, as well as in the construction of earthquake-proof buildings.
14 FURTHER READING
Booth, Alan. The Roads to Sata: A 2,000-Mile Walk through Japan. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1997.
Bornoff, Nicholas. The National Geographic Traveler: Japan. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2000.
Sutherland, Mary. National Parks of Japan. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1995.
Zick, Arthur. "Japan's Sun Rises Over the Pacific." National Geographic , November 1991, 36-67.