Geography Of Japan Essay


With the Pacific Ocean to the east, the Sea of Japan to the west and the East China Sea to the south, Japan is an archipelago comprised of four major island and 6,800 smaller islands. Covering about 145,856 square miles (378,000 square kilometers), Japan is slightly larger than the United Kingdom, slightly smaller than California, approximately the same size as Germany, Finland, Vietnam, or Malaysia, and one twenty-fifth the size of the United States. The nearest countries are Korea (about 100 miles to the west), Russia and China. Japan is divided into state-like 47 prefectures.

The islands of Japan make up less than 15 percent of Japan’s total territory. Most of its territory is in the sea. In addition to the 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) of ocean that Japan can also claims around the main islands according to the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea it can also claim 200 nautical miles around far flung Japanese islands that extend from near Taiwan and China to far out in the Pacific Ocean.

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. About 12.7 percent of the country is good for agriculture (compared to 21 percent in the U.S.) and most of this arable land is along the coast or in the river valleys between the mountains on the main islands. Mountains ranges and volcanos (some still very active) cover about 68 percent of Japan. Large plains around Tokyo and Osaka that once contained a lot of farm land are now heavily urbanized. Only 1.7 percent of Japan is covered by pastures and grasslands.

Websites and Resources


Good Websites and Sources: Geography of Japan ; Statistical Handbook of Japan Land and Weather Chapter ;2010 Edition ; News ; Japan’s Ministry of Environment ; Essay on Use of the Term Orient ; Essay on Comparing Japan and Britain on Environmental Criteria ; World Heritage Sites in Japan ; Wikipedia article on Geography of Japan Wikipedia ;

Maps Large Internet Map ; Satellite Maps of Places in Japan ; Statistical Maps of Japan ; Library of Congress Map Collection (do a Search for Japan ) ; Japanese Historical Maps from Berkeley ; Japan Map Center ; Geographical Survey Institute, Government of Japan ; JNTO JNTO or JNTO No. 2 ; Lonely Planet Lonely Planet ; Perry-Castaneda Mapp Collection ;"> University of Texas ; National Geographic Map Machine:"> National Geographic ; ; Google Maps Google Maps

Land and Landscape of Japan

Most Japanese live in the sprawling urban areas that seem to go on forever, but once they end they give way to beautiful countryside. Forests cover about two-thirds of Japan. About 41 percent of the trees in the forests have been planted in nice neat rows, and 44 percent of the planted tree are cedars. The heavily indented coastline extends for 16,654 miles.

The less developed side of Japan that faces the Sea of Japan is often referred as the “backside of Japan” as opposed to more developed “front side” that faces the Pacific. East Japan refers mainly to the Tokyo-Yokohama, Mount Fuji, Japan Alps area. West Japan refers to everything south of Kyoto and Osaka on Honshu, plus the northern part of Kyushu. The area around Tokyo is called Kanto (a reference to Kanto Plain which Tokyo is part of); the region that embraces Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe is called Kansai (or Kinki). Tohuko describes northern Honshu.

The Japanese countryside landscape, sometimes called the satoyama, is structured like a fine patchwork quilt or tile mosaic. An amazing variety of land-use patterns are jumbled together in a complicated manner. The individual patches are all small in area, and often isolated from others of their kind. Each type of land-use pattern contains its own distinctive set of tree species. The result is that a wide diversity of trees, shrubs and woody vines can be found within a very limited area. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, October 5, 2011]

Paul Theroux wrote in The Daily Beast: Japan is almost without hinterland. Its population lives mainly on its coast. The mountains are for tunneling through, not residing on. And where there is open landscape, as in the low rolling hills of Hokkaido, it is thinly settled. From the carriage window, as the train travels north from Tokyo, through Sendai and the coastal towns of Minamisanriku, Kesennuma, Okuma, and others---the ones now swept away---the Japanese can be seen living in unusual urban density, the low, snug houses cheek by jowl, traversed by narrow lanes, as they have been throughout history. My sense is that they have been able to live closely together because of their elaborate good manners, mutual respect, self-sufficiency, and work ethic. A less polite society would require more space or higher fences or guard dogs. [Source: Paul Theroux, The Daily Beast, March 20, 2011]

“With this acute sense of limited land and few natural resources, and the hostility of nature, they have taken pains to put off the evil day by manipulating their weird geography, even if it means a disfigurement. The result makes the strange Japanese landscape even weirder: it is the most possessed-looking place imaginable, its awkward-seeming features ordered and buttressed, the human hand visible everywhere. The notion of control and containment, which dominates Japanese life, dominates the landscape. Rivers are cemented into place, embankments are tiers of concrete blocks; sidewalks and bridges exist in the most unlikely places. The 33-mile Seikan Tunnel that links Honshu to Hokkaido under the Tsugaru Strait is the world’s longest railway tunnel. The watchtowers and sea walls all over the coast reinforce the look of Japan as a fortress in the sea. It is, of course, an illusion. [Ibid]

regions of Japan

Japan’s Island Arcs

Japan is an archipelago that forms an arc in the Pacific Ocean to the east of the Asian continent. 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.

The four main islands account for 90 percent of Japan's land area. The four major islands of Japan are: 87,800-square-mile Honshu, or the "mainland," where Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto are found; 30,150-square-mile Hokkaido, the northernmost of the large islands; 14,100-square-mile Kyushu, the volcanically-active southernmost large island; and 7,050-square-mile Shikoku, a rustic island on the Inland Sea between Honshu and Kyushu.

Japan is comprised of island arcs. An island arc is a string of volcanic islands in a curving arc-like pattern above a deep ocean trench. It is formed by magmatic activity after one oceanic tectonic plate subducts another one. Island arcs serve as nests for earthquakes and volcanoes. They are scattered throughout Southeast Asia, the Pacific Rim and the Caribbean Sea. In Japan, four island arcs converge on an area extending from Hokkaido through Honshu to Kyushu, to create a complex formation that has rarely occurred throughout the Earth's history. This formation makes the country always under threat from disasters. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 10, 2012]

“Island arcs are vulnerable to tsunami because their land extends over a small area at relatively low altitudes. They often experience heavy rain and tropical cyclones as many are sandwiched between a continent and the high seas. However, Japan's island arcs come with unique benefits. Rich river resources have been created by rapid currents that are caused by a radical difference in height between mountainous and low-lying areas. Magma has produced a leading geothermal area blessed with undersea deposits of precious metals and rare earths raised from deep within the seabed. There are also deposits of an icy natural gas substance called methane hydrate, which was created by high-pressure low-temperature conditions. [Ibid]

“The U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf upheld in April some of Japan's claims on an extended continental shelf in seabed areas around the country. The elevated seabed from the Shikoku basin and the maritime area to the south of Okinotorishima, the southernmost island of Japan--about 1,700 kilometers from Tokyo--is a remnant of the island arc that was active in the past. Due to the concentration of island arcs, Japan could obtain a continental shelf equivalent to 80 percent of its national land area. [Ibid]

Coastline and Rivers of Japan

Japan has 32,000 kilometers of coast. Much of Japan’s outer coastline consists of alternating stretches of rock shore and beach , with protected bays, marshes and mud flats here and there. Around cities and towns the coastal areas are highly developed. There are not many nice beaches near the cities. The nicest ones in remote places. Many places have been reclaimed from the sea.

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. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

“There are 32,000 rivers, streams and lakes. Because Japan is so mountainous it doesn't really have any navigable rivers except near the seas. 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. [Ibid]

“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).

Beginning about 250 miles south of Kyushu are the Ryukyu islands, which includes Okinawa. North of Hokkaido are a few islands than run up to the Sakhalin islands, which Japan is currently trying to get back from Russia.

Mountains, Volcanoes and Earthquakes in Japan

Hokkaido's Daisetsuzan mountain 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 thirdhighest peak is Hotakadake at 3,190 meters, on the border between Nagano and Gifu Prefectures. Mt. Fuji Japan’s highest peak, Mt. Fuji, is seen here from Lake Kawaguchi in April. It remains covered in snow until June. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

“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. [Ibid]

“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. [Ibid]

Geographical Names and Japan

In the early 1990s both the U.N.'s conference on Geographical Names and the U.S. Board of Geographic names rejected suggestions by Koreans to the change the name of the body of water between Korea and Japan from the Sea of Japan to the East Sea.

In August 2007, the ninth conference for the standardization of geographical names ruled that the Sea of Japan will remain the Sea of Japan. South Korea and North Korea wanted the name to be changed to the “East Sea” or the “Sea of Korea,” names which they say have been used for more than 2,000 years. The chairman of the conference said, “I encourage the three countries involved to find a solution acceptable to all of them, taking into account any relevant solutions, or else agree to differ.”

North Korea and South Korea joined together to contest the name and argued that the “East Sea” and “Sea of Japan” names to be used concurrently until a common designation could be worked out. Japan argues that the “Sea of Japan” name has long been established and widely recognized as the name of the sea since the late 18th century.

Geology of Japan

Geologically, Japan is one of the youngest inhabited areas on earth. It regularly experiences volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Around Tokyo much of the landscape is made up of marine sediments---deposited when the area was occupied by seas---covered by layers of ash from eruptions by Haokone, Mt. Fuji and other volcanoes.

Japan lies on the Pacific Ring of Fire and is home to 108 of the world’s 1,500 or so active volcanos, including more than 10 percent of the active volcanos that are a threat to human populations. Volcanos in Japan are ranked A to C in accordance with the degree of their volcanic activity, with A being the most active. Some A volcanos have erupted 400 times a year. Mt. Fuji is classified as an active volcano even though it hasn't erupted since 1707.

Japan is riddled with faults and is located at the junction of four tectonic plates. In the last 75 years, the Japanese archipelago or areas immediately offshore have experienced five earthquakes measuring more than eight on the Richter scale; and 17 measuring more than seven on the Richter scale. It is unusual for a year to go by without three or four earthquakes measuring 6.0 or more.

Japan's First Glaciers Have Been Found

In April 2012, Jiji Press reported: “A Japanese research team has confirmed that large bodies of ice discovered in the Tateyama mountain range in central japan satisfy the definition of glaciers. The bodies of ice, found in three places in Toyama Prefecture, are the first confirmed glaciers in Japan. Previously, no glacier was known to exist in the region south of the Russian peninsula of Kamchatka. It was learned that the Japanese Society of Snow and Ice reached its conclusion by analyzing research by the Tateyama Caldera Sabo Museum in Tateyama, Toyama Prefecture. Its findings will be reported in the May edition of the society's newsletter. [Source: Jiji Press, April 6, 2012]

Snow in valleys and streams at high altitudes remains even during the summer. This snow may cover large bodies of ice, which may be considered glaciers if they move for at least one year. Using the Global Positioning System, the museum tracked the movements of bodies of ice in the Sannomado and Komado valleys of the 2,999-meter-high Mt. Tsurugi and the Gozenzawa snow valley of Mt. Oyama, which is 3,003 meters high.In research conducted in 2010 and 2011, the museum confirmed that the ice moved 10 to 30 centimeters per month. All three bodies of ice are considered independent glaciers. "I'm very happy [the bodies of ice] have been recognized as glaciers," said museum member Kotaro Fukui, who participated in the study."We will continue our research," he said, noting that there are more bodies of ice that may satisfy the definition of glaciers. [Ibid]

Japan’s Southernmost Island

size, latitude comparison with the U.S. The southernmost point of Japan is a heliport on Okinotori Island---about 1,700 kilometers south of Tokyo. The landing pad sits on a 50-meter-wide foundation intended for an unbuilt lighthouse planned built before World War II. Japan claims the waters around the island---an area of 400,000 square kilometers, which is the total land area of Japan.

Okinotori island embraces a coral reef that has a circumference of 11 kilometers during low tide. At high tide just two peaks---including the one with the heliport’sit above the ocean surface. Located in a strategic spot between Taiwan and Guam, it requires regular “maintenance” to keep it from submerging. China claims that Okinotori is a rock not an island and Japan has no right to claim it or the waters around it. It opposes the “maintenance” efforts.

There has been some discussion of employing new technology that creates sand from substances in seawater to help protect Okinotori from erosion. The technology---called the electrodeposition method---uses electrodes with negative charges that attract calcium and magnesium ions and they in turn form sandlike chemical compounds and they in turn attract coral

Twenty-Three Remote Isles Put under State Ownership

The government has placed 23 remote islands under state ownership after finishing necessary legal procedures last August, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said. The 23 islands, which are used to determine Japan's exclusive economic zones, do not include remote isles around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea off Okinawa Prefecture. China also claims the Senkaku Islands. This time, the designated remote islands include those under the jurisdiction of the village of Ogasawara, Tokyo; Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture; and Tsushima, Nagasaki Prefecture. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 8, 2012]

“Under the Civil Code, unowned land is vested in state coffers. The government has confirmed that the isles had no owners after checking property registers. The government has been strengthening its control over remote islands based on a basic policy decided in 2009 for the purpose of maritime supervision. The state ownership of the 23 isles is in line with this policy. "The Japan Coast Guard has filed the isles as administrative assets for the purpose of contributing to stable maintenance of EEZs," Fujimura said. [Ibid]

“The legal steps were taken based on the National Property Law. As a reason for excluding the remote islands around Senkaku, Fujimura said: "Only remote islets around unowned islands have been placed under state ownership. Senkaku does not fall within that category." Of the three main isles of Senkaku, the state only owns the Taishojima islet. The Kubajima and Uotsurijima islets are privately owned, though they are leased and administered by the state. In a related move, the government announced a list of 39 newly named islands. These islands had been previously unnamed despite being used as reference points to draw Japan's EEZs. [Ibid]

Image Sources: 1) CIA map 2) Nicolas Delerue 3) 4) USGS 5) Japanese guesthouses

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated October 2012

ContinentAsia Oceania
RegionEast AsiaMicronesia
Coordinates35.0000° N 136.0000° E
AreaRanked 61st
 • Total377,915 km2 (145,914 sq mi)
 • Land87.93099%
 • Water12.06901%
Coastline29,751 km (18,486 mi)
Highest pointMount Fuji[1]
Lowest pointHachirōgata[1]
Longest riverShinano River[2]
Largest lakeLake Biwa[3]
Climatevaried; tropical in south to cool temperate in north[1]
Terrainmostly rugged and mountainous[1]
Natural Resourcesfish[1]
Natural Hazardsvolcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes and typhoons[1]
Environmental Issuesair pollution; acidification of lakes and reservoirs; overfishing; deforestation[1]

Japan is an island nation in East Asia comprising a volcanicarchipelago extending along the continent's Pacific coast. It lies between 24° to 46° north latitude and from 123° to 146° east longitude. Japan is southeast of the Russian Far East, separated by the Sea of Okhotsk; slightly east of the Korean Peninsula, separated by the Sea of Japan; and east-northeast of China and Taiwan, separated by the East China Sea. The closest neighboring country to Japan is Russia.[4]


The major islands, sometimes called the "Home Islands", are (from east to west) Hokkaido, Honshu (the "mainland"), Shikoku and Kyushu. There are 6,852 islands in total,[5] including the Nansei Islands, the Nanpo Islands and islets, with 430 islands being inhabited and others uninhabited. In total, as of 2006, Japan's territory is 377,923.1 km2 (145,916.9 sq mi), of which 374,834 km2 (144,724 sq mi) is land and 3,091 km2 (1,193 sq mi) water.

Location: Eastern Asia, island chain between the North Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan, east of the Korean Peninsula.

Map references: Asia, Oceania


  • total: 377,915 km²
  • land: 364,485 km²
  • water: 13,430 km²
  • notes: Includes the Bonin Islands, Daitō Islands, Minami-Tori-shima, Okinotorishima, the Ryukyu Islands, and the Volcano Islands. Ownership of the Senkaku Islands and Liancourt Rocks (Japanese:Takeshima, Korean:Dokdo) is in dispute.

Land boundaries: the ocean

Coastline: 29,751 km (18,486 mi)

Maritime claims:

  • territorial sea: 12 nmi (22.2 km; 13.8 mi); between 3 and 12 nmi (5.6 and 22.2 km; 3.5 and 13.8 mi) in the international straits—La Pérouse (or Sōya Strait), Tsugaru Strait, Osumi, and Eastern and Western Channels of the Korea or Tsushima Strait.
  • exclusive economic zone: 200 nmi (370.4 km; 230.2 mi)
  • contiguous zone: 24 nmi (44.4 km; 27.6 mi)

Climate: varies from tropical in south to cool temperate in north

Terrain: mostly rugged and mountainous, can easily be compared to Norway, both having about 70% of their land in the mountains.

Natural resources: small deposits of coal, oil, iron, and minerals. Major fishing industry.

Land use:

  • arable land: 11.65%
  • permanent crops: 0.83%
  • other: 87.52% (2012)

Irrigated land: 25,000 km² (2010)

Total renewable water resources: 430 km3 (2011)

Freshwater withdrawal (domestic/industrial/agricultural):

  • total: 90.04 km3/yr (20%/18%/62%)
  • per capita: 714.3 m3/yr (2007)

Composition, topography and geography[edit]

About 73% of Japan is mountainous, with a mountain range running through each of the main islands. Japan's highest mountain is Mount Fuji, with an elevation of 3,776 m (12,388 ft). Japan's forest cover rate is 68.55% since the mountains are heavily forested. The only other developed nations with such a high forest cover percentage are Finland and Sweden.[6]

Since there is little level ground, many hills and mountainsides at lower elevations around towns and cities are often cultivated. As Japan is situated in a volcanic zone along the Pacific deeps, frequent low-intensity earth tremors and occasional volcanic activity are felt throughout the islands. Destructive earthquakes occur several times a century. Hot springs are numerous and have been exploited as an economic capital by the leisure industry.

The mountainous islands of the Japanese archipelago form a crescent off the eastern coast of Asia. They are separated from the mainland by the Sea of Japan, which historically served as a protective barrier. The country consists of four major islands: Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu; with more than 6,500 adjacent smaller islands and islets ("island" defined as land more than 100 m in circumference),[7] including the Izu Islands and Ogasawara Islands in the Nanpō Islands, and the Satsunan Islands, Okinawa Islands, and Sakishima Islands of the Ryukyu Islands.

The national territory also includes the Volcano Islands (Kazan Retto) such as Iwo Jima, located some 1,200 kilometers south of mainland Tokyo. A territorial dispute with Russia, dating from the end of World War II, over the two southernmost of the Kuril Islands, Etorofu and Kunashiri, and the smaller Shikotan Island and Habomai Islands northeast of Hokkaido remains a sensitive spot in Japanese–Russian relations (as of 2005[update]). Excluding disputed territory, the archipelago covers about 377,000 square kilometers. No point in Japan is more than 150 kilometers from the sea.

The four major islands are separated by narrow straits and form a natural entity. The Ryukyu Islands curve 970 kilometers southward from Kyūshū.

The distance between Japan and the Korean Peninsula, the nearest point on the Asian continent, is about 200 kilometers at the Korea Strait. Japan has always been linked with the continent through trade routes, stretching in the north toward Siberia, in the west through the Tsushima Islands to the Korean Peninsula, and in the south to the ports on the south China coast.

The Japanese islands are the summits of mountain ridges uplifted near the outer edge of the continental shelf. About 73 percent of Japan's area is mountainous, and scattered plains and intermontane basins (in which the population is concentrated) cover only about 27 percent. A long chain of mountains runs down the middle of the archipelago, dividing it into two halves, the "face", fronting on the Pacific Ocean, and the "back", toward the Sea of Japan. On the Pacific side are steep mountains 1,500 to 3,000 meters high, with deep valleys and gorges.

Central Japan is marked by the convergence of the three mountain chains—the Hida, Kiso, and Akaishi mountains—that form the Japanese Alps (Nihon Arupusu), several of whose peaks are higher than 3,000 meters. The highest point in the Japanese Alps is Mount Kita at 3,193 meters. The highest point in the country is Mount Fuji (Fujisan, also erroneously called Fujiyama), a volcano dormant since 1707 that rises to 3,776 meters above sea level in Shizuoka Prefecture. On the Sea of Japan side are plateaus and low mountain districts, with altitudes of 500 to 1,500 meters.

None of the populated plains or mountain basins are extensive in area. The largest, the Kantō Plain, where Tokyo is situated, covers only 13,000 square kilometers. Other important plains are the Nōbi Plain surrounding Nagoya, the Kinai Plain in the Osaka–Kyoto area, the Sendai Plain around the city of Sendai in northeastern Honshū, and the Ishikari Plain on Hokkaidō. Many of these plains are along the coast, and their areas have been increased by reclamation throughout recorded history.

The small amount of habitable land has prompted significant human modification of the terrain over many centuries. Land was reclaimed from the sea and from river deltas by building dikes and drainage, and rice paddies were built on terraces carved into mountainsides. The process continued in the modern period with extension of shorelines and building of artificial islands for industrial and port development, such as Port Island in Kobe and the new Kansai International Airport in Osaka Bay. Hills and even mountains have been razed to provide flat areas for housing.

Rivers are generally steep and swift, and few are suitable for navigation except in their lower reaches. Although most rivers are less than 300 kilometers in length, their rapid flow from the mountains provides a valuable, renewable resource: hydroelectric power generation. Japan's hydroelectric power potential has been exploited almost to capacity. Seasonal variations in flow have led to extensive development of flood control measures. Most of the rivers are very short. The longest, the Shinano River, which winds through Nagano Prefecture to Niigata Prefecture and flows into the Sea of Japan, is only 367 kilometers long. The largest freshwater lake is Lake Biwa, northeast of Kyoto.

Extensive coastal shipping, especially around the Seto Inland Sea (Seto Naikai), compensates for the lack of navigable rivers. The Pacific coastline south of Tokyo is characterized by long, narrow, gradually shallowing inlets produced by sedimentation, which has created many natural harbors. The Pacific coastline north of Tokyo, the coast of Hokkaidō, and the Sea of Japan coast are generally unindented, with few natural harbors.

In November 2008, Japan filed a request to expand its claimed continental shelf.[8] In April 2012, the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf recognized around 310,000 square kilometres (120,000 sq mi) of seabed around Okinotorishima, giving Japan priority over access to seabed resources in nearby areas. According to U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, the approved expansion is equal to about 82% of Japan's total land area.[8] The People's Republic of China and South Korea have opposed Japan's claim because they view Okinotorishima not as an island, but as a group of rocks.


Most regions of Japan, such as much of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, belong to the temperate zone with humid subtropical climate (Köppen climate classificationCfa) characterized by four distinct seasons. However, its climate varies from cool humid continental climate (Köppen climate classification Dfb) in the north such as northern Hokkaido, to warm tropical rainforest climate (Köppen climate classification Af) in the south such as Ishigaki in the Yaeyama Islands.

The two primary factors influences in Japan's climate are a location near the Asian continent and the existence of major oceanic currents. Two major ocean currents affect Japan: the warm Kuroshio Current (Black Current; also known as the Japan Current); and the cold Oyashio Current (Parent Current; also known as the Okhotsk Current). The Kuroshio Current flows northward on the Pacific side of Japan and warms areas as north as the South Kantō region; a small branch, the Tsushima Current, flows up the Sea of Japan side. The Oyashio Current, which abounds in plankton beneficial to coldwater fish, flows southward along the northern Pacific, cooling adjacent coastal areas. The intersection of these currents at 36 north latitude is a bountiful fishing ground.

Japan's varied geographical features divide it into six principal climatic zones.

  • Hokkaido(北海道,Hokkaidō): Belonging to the humid continental climate, Hokkaido has long, cold winters and cool summers. Precipitation is not great.
  • Sea of Japan(日本海,Nihonkai): The northwest seasonal wind in winter gives heavy snowfall, which south of Tohoku mostly melts before the beginning of spring. In summer it is a little less rainy than the Pacific area but sometimes experiences extreme high temperatures due to the foehn wind phenomenon.
  • Central Highland(中央高地,Chūō-kōchi): A typical inland climate gives large temperature variations between summers and winters and between days and nights. Precipitation is lower than on the coast due to rain shadow effects.
  • Seto Inland Sea(瀬戸内海,Setonaikai): The mountains in the Chūgoku and Shikoku regions block the seasonal winds and bring mild climate and many fine days throughout the year.
  • Pacific Ocean(太平洋,Taiheiyō): The climate varies greatly between the north and the south but generally winters are significantly milder and sunnier than those of the side that faces the Sea of Japan. Summers are hot and humid due to the southeast seasonal wind. Precipitation is very heavy in the south, and heavy in the summer in the north. The climate of the Ogasawara Island chain in the Pacific Ocean ranges from a humid subtropical climate (Köppen climate classification Cfa) to tropical savanna climate (Köppen climate classification Aw) with temperatures being warm to hot all year round.
  • Ryukyu Islands(南西諸島,Nansei-shotō): The climate of these islands ranges from humid subtropical climate (Köppen climate classification Cfa) in the north to tropical rainforest climate (Köppen climate classification Af) in the south with warm winters and hot summers. Precipitation is very high, and is especially affected by the rainy season and typhoons.

Japan is generally a rainy country with high humidity. Because of its wide range of latitude, seasonal winds and different types of ocean currents, Japan has a variety of climates, with a latitude range of the inhabited islands from 24° to 46° north, which is comparable to the range between Nova Scotia and The Bahamas in the east coast of North America. Tokyo is at about 35 degrees north latitude, comparable to that of Tehran, Athens, or Las Vegas.

Regional climatic variations range from humid continental in the northern island of Hokkaido extending down through northern Japan to the Central Highland, then blending with and eventually changing to a humid subtropical climate on the Pacific Coast and ultimately reaching tropical rainforest climate on the Yaeyama Islands of the Ryukyu Islands. Climate also varies dramatically with altitude and with location on the Pacific Ocean or on the Sea of Japan.

Northern Japan has warm summers but long, cold winters with heavy snow. Central Japan in its elevated position, has hot, humid summers and moderate to short winters with some areas having very heavy snow, and southwestern Japan has long, hot, humid summers and mild winters. The generally humid, temperate climate exhibits marked seasonal variation such as the blooming of the spring cherry blossoms, the calls of the summer cicada and fall foliage colors that are celebrated in art and literature.

The climate from June to September is marked by hot, wet weather brought by tropical airflows from the Pacific Ocean and Southeast Asia. These airflows are full of moisture and deposit substantial amounts of rain when they reach land. There is a marked rainy season, beginning in early June and continuing for about a month. It is 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. Annual precipitation averages between 1,000 and 2,500 mm (40 and 100 in) except for the areas such as Kii Peninsula and Yakushima Island which is Japan's wettest place[9] with the annual precipitation being one of the world's highest at 4,000 to 10,000 mm.[10]

Maximum precipitation, like the rest of East Asia, occurs in the summer months except on the Sea of Japan coast where strong northerly winds produce a maximum in late autumn and early winter. Except for a few sheltered inland valleys during December and January, precipitation in Japan is above 25 millimetres (1 in) of rainfall equivalent in all months of the year, and in the wettest coastal areas it is above 100 millimetres (4 in) per month throughout the year.

In winter, the Siberian High develops over the Eurasian land mass and the Aleutian Low develops over the northern Pacific Ocean. The result is a flow of cold air southeastward across Japan that brings freezing temperatures and heavy snowfalls to the central mountain ranges facing the Sea of Japan, but clear skies to areas fronting on the Pacific.

Mid June to mid July is generally the rainy season in Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, excluding Hokkaidō since the seasonal rain front or baiu zensen(梅雨前線) dissipates in northern Honshu before reaching Hokkaido. In Okinawa, the rainy season starts early in May and continues until mid June. Unlike the rainy season in mainland Japan, it rains neither everyday nor all day long during the rainy season in Okinawa. Between July and October, typhoons, grown from tropical depressions generated near the equator, can attack Japan with furious rainstorms.

The warmest winter temperatures are found in the Nanpō and Bonin Islands, which enjoy a tropical climate due to the combination of latitude, distance from the Asian mainland, and warming effect of winds from the Kuroshio, as well as the Volcano Islands (at the latitude of the southernmost of the Ryukyu Islands, 24° N). The coolest summer temperatures are found on the northeastern coast of Hokkaidō in Kushiro and Nemuro Subprefectures.

Sunshine, in accordance with Japan’s uniformly heavy rainfall, is generally modest in quantity, though no part of Japan receives the consistently gloomy fogs that envelope the Sichuan Basin or Taipei. Amounts range from about six hours per day in the Inland Sea coast and sheltered parts of the Pacific Coast and Kantō Plain to four hours per day on the Sea of Japan coast of Hokkaidō. In December there is a very pronounced sunshine gradient between the Sea of Japan and Pacific coasts, as the former side can receive less than 30 hours and the Pacific side as much as 180 hours. In summer, however, sunshine hours are lowest on exposed parts of the Pacific coast where fogs from the Oyashio current create persistent cloud cover similar to that found on the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin.

As an island nation, Japan has the 7th longest coastline in the world.[11][12] A few prefectures are landlocked: Gunma, Tochigi, Saitama, Nagano, Yamanashi, Gifu, Shiga, and Nara. As Mt. Fuji and the coastal Japanese Alps provide a rain shadow, Nagano and Yamanashi Prefectures receive the least precipitation in Honshu, though it still exceeds 900 millimetres (35 in) annually. A similar effect is found in Hokkaido, where Okhotsk Subprefecture receives as little as 750 millimetres (30 in) per year. All other prefectures have coasts on the Pacific Ocean, Sea of Japan, Seto Inland Sea or have a body of salt water connected to them. Two prefectures—Hokkaido and Okinawa—are composed entirely of islands.

The hottest temperature ever measured in Japan, 41.0 °C (105.8 °F), occurred in Shimanto, Kochi on August 12, 2013.[13]

Environmental issues[edit]

Main article: Environmental issues in Japan

Environment - current issues: In the 2006 environment annual report,[14] the Ministry of Environment reported that current major issues are: global warming and preservation of the ozone layer, conservation of the atmospheric environment, water and soil, waste management and recycling, measures for chemical substances, conservation of the natural environment and the participation in the international cooperation.

Environment - international agreements:
party to: Antarctic-Environmental Protocol, Antarctic Treaty, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Desertification, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Hazardous Wastes (Basel Convention), Law of the Sea, Marine Dumping, Ozone Layer Protection (Montreal Protocol), Ship Pollution (MARPOL 73/78), Tropical Timber 83, Tropical Timber 94, Wetlands (Ramsar Convention), Whaling
signed and ratified: Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol

Natural hazards[edit]

Ten percent of the world's active volcanoes—forty in the early 1990s (another 148 were dormant)—are found in Japan, which lies in a zone of extreme crustal instability. As many as 1,500 earthquakes are recorded yearly, and magnitudes of 4 to 7 are common. Minor tremors occur almost daily in one part of the country or another, causing slight shaking of buildings. Major earthquakes occur infrequently; the most famous in the twentieth century was the great Kantō earthquake of 1923, in which 130,000 people died. Undersea earthquakes also expose the Japanese coastline to danger from tsunamis(津波).

On March 11, 2011 Japan was subject to a devastating magnitude 9.0 earthquake and a massive tsunami as a result. The March 11 quake was the largest ever recorded in Japan and is the world's fourth largest earthquake to strike since 1900, according to the U.S. Geological Service. It struck offshore about 371 kilometres (231 mi) northeast of Tokyo and 130 kilometres (81 mi) east of the city of Sendai, and created a massive tsunami that devastated Japan's northeastern coastal areas. At least 100 aftershocks registering a 6.0 magnitude or higher have followed the main shock. At least 15,000 people died as a result.

Japan has become a world leader in research on causes and prediction of earthquakes. The development of advanced technology has permitted the construction of skyscrapers even in earthquake-prone areas. Extensive civil defence efforts focus on training in protection against earthquakes, in particular against accompanying fire, which represents the greatest danger.

Another common hazard are several typhoons that reach Japan from the Pacific every year and heavy snowfall during winter in the snow country regions, causing landslides, flooding, and avalanches.


Main article: Regions of Japan

Japan is informally divided into eight regions. Each contains several prefectures, except the Hokkaido region, which covers only Hokkaido Prefecture.

The region is not an official administrative unit, but has been traditionally used as the regional division of Japan in a number of contexts: for example, maps and geography textbooks divide Japan into the eight regions, weather reports usually give the weather by region, and many businesses and institutions use their home region as part of their name (Kinki Nippon Railway, Chūgoku Bank, Tohoku University, etc.). While Japan has eight High Courts, their jurisdictions do not correspond to the eight regions.

Extreme points[edit]

Main article: Extreme points of Japan

This is a list of the extreme points of Japan, the points that are farther north, south, east or west than any other location.


  • Northernmost point
  • Southernmost point: Okinotorishima – 20°25'N, 136°04'E
  • Westernmost point: Yonaguni – 24°27′N, 122°59′E
  • Easternmost point: Minami-Tori-shima – 24°18′N, 153°58′E

Japan (main islands)[edit]

  • Northernmost point: Cape Sōya, Wakkanai, Hokkaido – 45°31'N, 141°56'E
  • Southernmost point: Cape Sata on Ōsumi Peninsula, Minamiōsumi, Kagoshima – 30°59'N, 130°39'E
  • Westernmost point: Kōsakibana (神崎鼻), Sasebo (formerly Kosaza), Nagasaki – 33°13'N, 129°33'E
  • Easternmost point: Cape Nosappu(納沙布岬,Nosappu-misaki)), Nemuro, Hokkaido – 43°22'N, 145°49′E

Elevation extremes[edit]


The only part of Japan with antipodes over land are the Ryukyu Islands, though the islands off the western coast of Kyūshū are close.

The northernmost antipodal island in the Ryukyu Island chain, Nakanoshima, is opposite the Brazilian coast near Capão da Canoa. The other islands south to the Straits of Okinawa correspond to southern Brazil, with Gaja Island being opposite the outskirts of Santo Antônio da Patrulha, Takarajima with Jua, Amami Ōshima covering the villages of Carasinho and Fazenda Pae João, Ginoza, Okinawa with Palmas, Paraná, the Kerama Islands with Pato Branco, Tonaki Island with São Lourenço do Oeste, and Kume Island corresponding to Palma Sola. The main Daitō Islands correspond to near Guaratuba, with Oki Daitō Island near Apiaí.

The Sakishima Islands beyond the straits are antipodal to Paraguay, from the Brazilian border almost to Asunción, with Ishigaki overlapping San Isidro de Curuguaty, and the uninhabited Senkaku Islands surrounding Villarrica.

See also[edit]


External links[edit]

A topographic map of Japan.
A map of Japan's major cities, main towns and selected smaller centers.

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