Driving Directions Japan

JAPAN, a constitutional monarchy, consists of a series of over 1,000 islands in East Asia. There are four principal, large islands running from north to south: Hokkaido, Honshu (the largest and known as the main­land), Shikoku, and Kyushu. These four islands, all near one another, make up 98 percent of the total area of Japan.

In the north, the La Perouse Strait (Sea of Okhotsk) separates Hokkaido from the island of Sakhalin (Russia). In the northwest, Hokkaido is similarly separated from the Kuril Islands by the narrow Nemura Strait. (The Kuril Islands have been occupied by Russia since the end of the Second World War but are also claimed by Japan.)

In the southwest, the Western Channel of the Korea Strait separates the Japanese island of Tsushima from South Korea. In the far southwest, the southernmost of the Japanese Ryukyu Islands lie about 201 kilometers or 125 miles east of Taiwan while the remainder is separated from China to the west by the broad expanse of the East China Sea.

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All parts of Japan lie within fairly easy reach of the sea, and the country has a very long coastline, which is highly indented in places. The dominant topographical feature is a series of high mountains, hills, and ridges interrupted by deeply cut valleys, which occupy about 80 percent of the total land area.

Lower land is found only in some of the larger river valleys and coastal plains and most intensely cultivated. The islands support a dense population, the great majority of whom live in crowded cities or towns.

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The islands of Japan occur in a seismically active area of the Earth’s crust and there are frequent earthquakes, two of which during this century, in 1923 and 1995 repectively, have had devastating effects and caused great loss of life.

In addition, many of Japan’s mountains are extinct or still active volcanoes and there are areas of obvious volcanic activity in the form of thermal springs and fissures emitting toxic gases. Among the active volcanoes are Asama-san and Bandai-san on Honshu and Sakurajima and Aso-san on Kyushu. Japan’s highest mountain, Fuji-san (3,775 metres or 12,388 feet) is in eastern Honshu and is itself a dormant volcano whose last eruption was in 1707.

Most valleys on the islands are occupied by fast-flowing rivers or streams, which are not navigable but ensure an abundant supply of water and potential for the development of hydroelectric power. There are also numerous lakes, particularly in the mountainous regions.

The most abundant trees in the north and on the mountain slopes are conifers, with the principal species being Japanese cedar (sugi), fir and spruce. In temperate regions and at lower levels, there are other trees such as beech, willow, poplar, alder and holly. Further south on southern Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu there are subtropical forests of a variety of species including bamboo.

Wildlife species include a large selection of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and birds such as Japanese deer and the Japanese macaque.

Apart from Hokkaido and the subtropical south, most of Japan has a temperate climate with warm to hot summers and cool to cold winters with most rain falling in the summer although precipitation occurs throughout the year. Temperatures become cooler farther north and winters in Hokkaido are very cold with plenty of snow and summers are fairly brief. In the south, winters are mild and summers are moist and hot. Typhoons or tropical cyclones affect the Pacific coast from late August to October.

Only about 15 per cent of land in Japan is suitable for cultivation and this is done intensively with extensive use of fertilisers and modern technology (such as the development of bioengineered crops), so that maximum crop yields can be obtained.

Cultivation is mainly of rice but wheat, barley, sugar beet, potatoes and other vegetables, soya beans and sweet potatoes are also grown. Fruits such as apples, cherries, peaches, oranges and pears are grown and some tea and tobacco cultivation takes place. The Japanese have also perfected the art of cultivating miniature trees (bonsai) and they are renowned for their cultivated flowers which include the lotus, chrysanthemum, tree peony and azalea. Mulberry bushes are cultivated for the raising of silkworms. There is little spare land for the raising of livestock although pigs, poultry and cattle are reared in some parts of Japan.

Much of Japan is covered with coniferous woodland which provides the basis for a considerable forestry industry although this is insufficient for domestic needs and the country has to import timber from elsewhere.

Fish, from the seas which surround Japan, have always formed the staple source of protein in the Japanese diet. Hence the country’s fishing industry is highly important and well developed with fish being caught both for domestic consumption and for export. The fishing fleet is very large and while some boats operate far from home in international waters, others operate near the shore or within coastal waters.

Japan is lacking in mineral resources although it does possess some small reserves of lead, copper, zinc, natural gas and coal. Many raw materials must be imported. Heavy industries, such as iron and steel, shipbuilding, chemicals and petrochemicals, used to account for almost three quarters of Japan’s export revenue but increasingly Japan has had to rely on the success of its manufacturing industry, which employs about one third of the workforce.

Leading manufacturing industries produce cars, televisions, videos, electronic equipment, cameras, watches, clocks, robots and textiles. Japan’s financial markets have experienced some problems in recent years which has introduced some uncertainty into what has hitherto been a very secure economy.

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