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: Shikoku, Kyushu, Hokkaido, and Honshu. The islands have tall mountains originating from volcanic activity. Many of the volcanoes are active, including the famous Mount Fuji. The physical area of all Japan’s islands is equivalent to the size of the US state of Montana. The mountainous islands of Japan extend into two climate zones. All but the northern region of Japan has a type C climate. The island of Hokkaido in northern Japan has a type D climate and receives enough snow for downhill skiing. Japan hosted the Winter Olympics in 1998. Mt. Fuji, located just west of Tokyo, is a widely photographed mountain because of its symmetrical volcanic cone.

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. The second-largest urban area in Japan is located in the Kansai District, and includes the cities of Kobe, Osaka, and Kyoto. Japan is a mountainous region, and most of its large cities are located in low-lying areas along the coast. Most of the population (67 percent) lives in urban areas such as Japan’s core area, an urbanized region from Tokyo to Nagasaki. The 2010 population of Japan was listed at about 126 million, less than half the size of the United States. Ironically, 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 massive 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.

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. Hundreds of aftershocks were recorded; at least three registered over 7.0 in magnitude. This is the strongest earthquake ever to 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 struck 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 Kyiv in present-day Ukraine. The next big earthquake could happen at any time, since Japan is located in an active tectonic plate zone.


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. 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 mostly 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 significant city even before the colonial era. Japan developed its own unique type of urbanized cultural heritage.

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 most extensive 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 several islands and had more land area than Britain, but 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 layout 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 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 proliferated as they put the local people they subjugated to work and extracted the raw materials they needed from their newly taken colonies.

The three-way split in China revealed that the Japanese colonizers were a significant 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. 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, 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.

Economic Growth

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.

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, when the war destroyed the country. The Allied powers decimated Germany’s infrastructure and resources. Today, Germany is the most robust 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 to 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 several large cities and urban areas that rapidly increased with the growing manufacturing sector.

The basis for Japan’s technological and economic development may be related to its geographic location and cultural development. Japan’s pattern of economic development has similarities to the patterns of other Asian entities that have created thriving economic conditions. Hong Kong and Taiwan are both small islands with few natural resources, yet they have become economic tigers. Taiwan exports computer products to the United States, but Russia, with all its natural resources, millions of people, and large land area, does not. Explaining how or why countries develop at different rates can be complicated, because there may be many interrelated explanations or reasons. One element might be centripetal cultural forces that hold a country together and drive it forward. The ability to manage labor and resources would be another part of the economic situation. The theory of how countries gain wealth may shed some light on this issue. Japan used manufacturing as a primary means of gaining wealth from value-added profits. This is the same method the Asian economic tigers also developed their economies. Japan developed itself into a core economic country that took advantage of the peripheral countries for labor and resources during the colonial era. Japan took advantage of every opportunity that presented itself to become a world manufacturing center.

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 robust centripetal force that unites the people under one culture and one language. 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 the 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. Buddhism that is practiced in Japan is more meditative than mystical.

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 small, 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.

Japan is facing a labor shortage for many low-level service jobs that had traditionally been held by young people entering the workforce. Japan is an island country that has prided itself on 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.

Centripetal Forces Hold a State Together

  • Ethnic Unity and Tolerance
  • Social/Economic Equity
  • Just and Fair Legal System
  • Charismatic Leadership
  • Religious Acceptance
  • Nationalism
  • Common Heritage
  • Common Language
  • Any Other Unifying Force

As the economic dragon of Asia, Japan has had an enormous economic impact on the East Asian Community (EAC). The shortage of cheap labor has forced Japan to look elsewhere for new manufacturing ventures. China is an attractive country in this respect because of its substantial population and low standard of living for many of its citizens. Japan is looking to take advantage of its geographical location to establish a more favorable trade situation with its Asian neighbors. The dynamics of its economy are uniquely similar to that of the United States and Europe. All three core economic areas are competing for inexpensive labor and resources to fuel their economies. China has been a significant destination for manufacturing production because of its low labor costs and attractive financial incentives. During World War II China and Japan were locked in a bitter war that caused harsh animosities to take root against each other. The two countries have not historically been friendly toward each other. Japan’s history as a colonizer has caused serious cultural attitudes against it from its Asian neighbors. Nevertheless, the economics usually drives politics, and Japan wields enormous economic power. Japan now engages in trade with China and continues to be a core economic country in the global economy.


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Introduction to World Regional Geography Copyright © 2019 by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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