Geography of Japan Geography of Japan Perhaps more than any other nation in the world, Japan is shaped by its geography to a tremendous extent. Technically classified as an archipelago, Japan is a curved chain of four islands (Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu, plus over a thousand smaller islands). However, it is first and foremost an island nation, a fact which isolated Japan from the rest of the world. The second largest influence in Japanese geography is the size of the nation. The total area of Japan proper is a little under 143 thousand square miles; the contiguous United States spreads across just over 3 million. To say that Japan is crowded with its 130 million people would be an understatement. But add that to the fact that seventy-five percent of the nation is hilly or mountainous, and the wide open spaces for living and working are even more crammed.
The mountainous terrain, lack of lowlands and plains all have had far-reaching consequences on the development of Japan and its people. No study of them is accurate without a study of Japans geography. Before Japan was unified, many different clans held power over different parts of the islands. Centralizing power proved difficult because of the physical disunion. Once a nation, though, Japans island geography kept Japan isolated from even its closest neighbor, Korea. Being a group of islands was the main reason Japan could maintain its isolationist ways until just a century ago.
It was also the main reason for a strong maritime outlook in the Japanese. It has over 17 thousand miles of coastline, which means almost all the centers of population (lowlands) have sea frontage. The term “center of population” isnt fair to the “non-centers” of population. Except in the northern island of Hokkaido, all parts of Japan are still crammed with over 300 persons per square mile. The centers have population densities of over 512 persons per square mile. The seventh most populous nation in the world lives in an area smaller than the state of Montana.
This circumstance fed Japanese expansionism in the early twentieth century, and is now a daily challenge for the Japanese people and leaders as they deal with an ever-shrinking space dilemma. Nowhere is the dilemma more dramatically playing out than in the big cities. Japans six largest cities were built in its only two major plains. There are simply no more suitable flatlands to build additional cities. The rest of Japan is cast with high mountains with considerable volcanic activity. Earthquakes, then, have become a commonplace occurrence in the daily life of many Japanese.
In 1981, only 14.6 percent of Japan was arable. Rice, Japans most important food crop for centuries, is intensively cultivated on terraced hillsides because there are not enough flat paddy fields to feed the whole nation. A hard-working Japanese peasantry has resulted from the agricultural challenges.