26 minute read

Looking At JAPAN

Where in the World Is Japan?, What Is the Geography of Japan?

Japan is an island country. On the map, find the east coast of North and South Korea. Then look south along the Pacific Ocean. This chain of islands, or archipelago, makes up Japan. There are four large islands and thousands of smaller islands. The four islands are Hokkaido (hoh-ky-doh), Honshu (hawn-shoo), Shikoku (shee-koh-koo), and Kyushu (kyoo-shoo). Most people live on these four islands. Japan is a little smaller than California.

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Asia portrait Japan

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What is life like for people in Japan? You may think of crowded Tokyo or quiet gardens made of rocks and stones. Perhaps you own Japanese products from Sony or Honda. Maybe you like manga, or Japanese comic books. With a partner, make a list of things that you know about life in Japan.

The islands were made by volcanoes. Forests and mountains cover most of the land. The only flat land is close to the coast. These areas are the most places in the world. The Sea of Japan North and South Korea, China, and Russia.

Asia portrait Mount Fuji is a famous volcano. It is also the highest mountain in Japan. A favorite activity for people is to climb the mountain.

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Mt. Fuji is a sacred mountain. The people of Japan climb the mountain to show their respect. A popular saying in Japan is “Everyone must climb Mt. Fuji once, but only a fool would climb Mt. Fuji twice. Do you think climbing Mt. Fuji is difficult?

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Latitude and longitude lines help you locate places on the earth. Latitude lines run east to west. Longitude lines run north to south. The lines are measured in degrees. By using latitude and longitude, you can locate any place on the earth. For example, if you lived in Tokyo, what degree of latitude and longitude would you be? Look at the map. You would be at 35° N and 139°E.

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Asia portrait

Japan is an archipelago made up of many islands. People live on only four of the islands. Forest and mountains cover most of the land. The population is crowded together in large cities along the coast.

What Is the Geography of Japan?


Ring of Fire

Look at the map. Four large islands make up Japan—Kyushu, Hokkaido, Honshu, and Shikoku— and many smaller islands.

Japan is part of the Ring of Fire. The Ring of Fire is the name used to describe a band of active volcanoes. The band circles around the edges of the Pacific Ocean.

Asia portrait Physical Map of Japan

Volcanoes form when plates on the earths surface crash into each other. There are over one hundred and sixty active volcanoes around Japan. The country has more earthquakes than any other nation on the earth. About every two years, Japan has an earthquake that damages buildings and causes deaths.

In the last one hundred years, Japan has had twenty major earthquakes. The worst earthquake happened in 1923 near Tokyo. Over 140,000 people died. Almost one-third of Tokyo was destroyed.

After the earthquake, a famous American architect named Frank Lloyd Wright traveled to Tokyo. He helped design buildings that earthquakes could not destroy. Japanese buildings are now springier. They can bend a little with the movement of the earth.

Steep mountains run down the center of the country. Land is difficult to farm. Japan grows only half of the food it needs to feed its population. The country relies on the sea for food. Fishing is an important industry. The only flat land is located along the coasts. Most of the major Japanese cities are located on the east coast near Tokyo.

Notice on the map that the Sea of Japan separates Japan from the continent of Asia. Geography isolated Japan from the rest of Asia. This separation helped tie the culture of Japan together. Most people are ethnic Japanese. They speak one language and share the same customs and beliefs. Many people follow either the native religion (called Shinto) or Buddhism.

Asia portrait Trees uprooted by the Great Earthquake (1923) lie over the road near Fujisawa, Japan, on Honshu

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Photographs are a good source of information. You can use the information to draw a conclusion. Photographs often show details that are not included in the text of an article. Study the photograph. Notice what the people are doing. Look at all the details.

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Asia portrait

Japan is an island country with a very rugged landscape. Because of where it is located in the Pacific, Japan has many different natural disasters. Volcanoes and earthquakes are common. The Japanese have worked at redesigning buildings to better withstand earthquakes. Geography has isolated the island country from the rest of Asia.

What Is the Climate Like in Japan?

The islands of Japan stretch out over 2,500 miles (4,023 k) in the Pacific Ocean. That is almost from Maine to California in the United States. Because the country is so long, Japan has a variety of climates. The different climates in Japan compare to the east coast of North America from Nova Scotia to Georgia.

The climate changes from the north to the south. In the north, the island of Hokkaido has cool summers. Winters are long and cold with heavy snowstorms. There is a lot of snow! The growing season is very short. One popular city for winter sports is Sapporo. Winter tourism is an important industry here. In July, the temperature in Sapporo reaches only the mid-60s.

In central Japan, winters are short and cold with hot, humid i summers. The climate in most of the major cities, including Tokyo, is temperate to subtropical. People enjoy four seasons. A rainy season comes in early summer. Typhoons, or hurricanes, hit parts of Japan in late summer.

In the south, the region is more tropical. The region has short, mild winters and hot, humid summers. From June to September, the climate is hot and wet. This weather comes from the Pacific Ocean and Southeast Asia. The air is full of moisture. When this humid air reaches land, it drops large amount of rainy season.

It is the altitude, or height, of a place and its location near the Pacific Ocean or the Sea of Japan that affects Japan's climate. The mild climate and plentiful rainfall in Japan make rice easy to grow. It is the country's main food crop.

Asia portrait Cherry blossoms in Japan
Winter in a Tokyo park

Asia landscape A Japanese Zen Rock Garden

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Japan is famous for its gardens. Some gardens feature ponds, rare plants, and unusually shaped trees. Other gardens, called Zen gardens, use only rocks and sand. Gardeners rake lines around the rocks to look like waves on the ocean. The rocks stand for islands. When you look at a Zen garden, you need to use your imagination.

Asia portrait Climograph: Sapporo, Japan (North)

Asia portrait Climograph: Naha, Japan (South)

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A climograph shows the average monthly temperature and average monthly precipitation for a place. A line shows the temperature. Bars show the precipitation. Study the two climographs of cities in Japan. They will help you analyze how climate affects life in different areas of Japan.

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Asia portrait

The climate of Japan changes from north to south. The north has cold winters and a short growing season. The south is hot and humid with a lot of rainfall and a long growing season.

How Do the Japanese Use the Land?

Look at the circle, or pie, graph about land use in Japan. You will notice a big problem for Japan right away. There is very little flat land in Japan for growing food and building houses and industries. The growth of cities and industry has caused a loss of land for farming. As a result, farmers have had to develop new ways of farming.

The farms in Japan are very different from farms in the United States. Most Japanese farms are very small. They are about the size of two football fields. No land is wasted. Farmers grow crops under plastic sheets. This makes the plants grow quickly, so farmers can raise two or three crops each year.

Farmers also cut flat, raised sections of land into the sides of hills. These terraces create more flat land for crops. The farmer builds a small mound of earth around each terrace. The mound traps rain to water the crops and to stop the soil from washing down the hill.

Asia portrait Land Use in Japan

Asia portrait Land Use Map of Japan

Where Is Industry Located?

Japan is a country with very few raw materials. As an archipelago, their main resource is fish and products from the sea, like pearls. Because there are few natural resources, Japan must import, or bring into the country, large amounts of fuel, raw materials, and food.

In the 1920s, Japan began to develop its industry. They used coal and iron ore from Hokkaido in the north to make steel. With the steel, the Japanese built factories and ships. The ships carried raw materials from other countries back to Japan.

Japan used up the supply of coal and iron ore. Because of this, factories moved to the south and east of the country. Today, Japan's major industrial centers are located around Tokyo. The huge population around Tokyo supplies skilled, educated workers. The deep-water ports allow large ships to bring in fuel and raw materials, and they carry Japanese products to world markets.

By the 1960s, Japan began to build manufacturing plants for automobiles. They also developed new electronic products. The money they made from these products paid for more fuel and raw materials. Japan built several hydroelectric power stations to supply more energy. With this new supply of energy in the east, important industries, such as iron and steel, automobile production, shipbuilding, and textiles, have developed in the region.

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Remember that a cause is the reason something happened. Clue words that help you find a cause are because or since. The effect is the result, or what happened. Clue words that point to an effect are therefore, so, or, as a result.

Example: The growth of cities and industry has caused a loss of land for farming (cause). As a result, farmers have had to develop new ways of farming (effect, or result).

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Japan has very little flat land for farming and building. Farmers find new ways to grow more food on less land. Industry is located along the flat, coastal areas for sources of energy, seaports, labor, and markets.

Asia portrait Close-up of a hand guard and chain mail over the arm
Samurai wearing helmet and face protection
A samurai statue, Tokyo

How Has History Shaped the People of Japan?

People and ideas moved back and forth between China and Japan for thousands of years. Buddhism and Confucianism came from China. The ideas for the government in Japan also came from China. As in China, Japan was also ruled by emperors. They moved the capital to Kyoto in 763. Kyoto became the center of art and education in Japan.

Shoguns and Samurai. In 1192, shoguns (shoh-guns), or military leaders, began to rule Japan for the emperor. Shoguns were leaders of powerful families. The first shogun was named Yoritomo. He ruled with the help of warriors called samurai (sa-muh-ry). Samurai were a class of fierce fighters and very loyal to their leaders. By law, they had to wear special clothing and hairstyles. The Japanese people respected the samurai very much.

To stay in power, the shoguns organized common people into groups. Five people formed each group. Every person in the group was responsible for everyone else. If one person broke the law, everyone in the group was punished. The group became more important than just one person.

In 1272, the Mongols tried to attack Japan. Just as their ships arrived at the coastline, a terrible typhoon arose. The storm destroyed the Mongol ships. It saved Japan. Because of this event, the Japanese believed that the gods protected Japan from attack.

KEY TERMS: samurai colonialism Meiji Restoration oligarchy

Asia portrait Two samurai in a battle re-enactment

Commodore Perry's Visit. By the 1700s, European traders and Christian missionaries arrived in Japan. But Japanese leaders did not trust them. The shoguns closed Japan to foreigners. They kept people from other countries away.

In July 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japan. He carried a letter from President Millard Fillmore of the United States. The president demanded Japan sign a trade treaty. At first, the Japanese officials thought Commodore Perry would leave. They refused to sign a treaty. Later, Commodore Perry threatened to attack. Japan was forced to sign a treaty. Commodore Perry and his ships became symbols to Japan of western technology and colonialism. Colonialism is a system in which a territory is lived in and ruled by people from another country.

Asia portrait This print shows how the Japanese saw Commodore Perry and his black steamships.

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Asia portrait

History and tradition are very important to the people of Japan. Events often shape how people think and feel. Military rulers led Japan for almost a thousand years. Their leaders taught the people to be loyal. People learned that the group was more important than one person was.

Asia portrait Commodor Matthew C. Perry presents a letter from President Fillmore to the Japanese.

The Meiji Restoration. When Commodore Perry opened Japan, his visit changed the government of Japan. Many leaders were ashamed at how Japan was treated. They wanted to restore, or bring back, the power of the emperor. In 1868, Emperor Meiji (may-jee) took control of the government from the shogun. This revolution is called the Meiji Restoration. The emperor moved the capital to Tokyo. He opened Japan to the world.

After the emperor returned, the government became an oligarchy. An oligarchy is a form of government in which power is held by a small group of people. Oligarchies are often run by powerful families. The leaders wanted to develop Japanese industry. But there was a huge problem. The country does not have many natural resources. Japan began to look at other regions for raw materials. The leaders wanted to build an empire in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Asia portrait Emporer Meiji

In 1894, Japan went to war with China. They defeated China and won the island of Taiwan. In 1904, Japan beat Russia and captured more land. In 1910, Japan moved on to the Korean peninsula and ruled Korea. On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The United States declared war on Japan the next day. In 1945, atomic bombs were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima (heer-uh-shee-muh) and Nagasaki (nah-guh-sah-kee). The bombs devastated Japan, and it surrendered.

After the war, the United States ruled Japan for several years. They made many changes to Japanese society. Women received the right to vote. Land was distributed to people. A constitution was written. It took away the power of the emperor. Japan began to build for the future.

Asia portrait December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Important Events in Japanese History

1192 Yoritomo becomes the first shogun

1272 Typhoon stops Mongol invasion

1700 Europeans begin to arrive in Japan

1853 Commodore Perry visits Japan

1868 Emperor Meiji restored to the throne

1894 Japan wins Taiwan from China

1910 Japan rules Korea

1941 Japan attacks Pearl Harbor

1945 Japan surrenders

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Asia portrait

Asia portrait

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Textbooks often use dates to help you follow the order of events. Notice how dates in the text are used to create the time line. A time line lists events in chronological, or time, order.

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Asia portrait

The Meiji Restoration ended the control of the shoguns. The Emperor Meiji and a small group of leaders ruled the country. They opened Japan to development, but military power became a way to solve problems. They began a series of wars that led to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

How Has the Population Changed in Japan?

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Did your family or neighbors immigrate to America? Immigrants play an important role in the economy. They help build the country. Young workers supply labor and pay taxes to support the country. Think what might happen if there were not enough workers to replace older people. With your classmates, make a list of the problems that might happen.

Japan has the second-largest economy in the world. But it has the oldest population. In 1988, 12 percent of the population was over 65 years old. Today, 21 percent of the population is over 65 years old. This means that Japan needs to spend more money to take care of its elderly, or older, people. There are also more single people now in Japan. Couples are having fewer children. Japan's population is aging very fast. This is a very serious problem. More old people and fewer young people mean there are not enough workers. There are also not enough people paying taxes.

Asia portrait Age Breakdown for Japanese Population
Source: 2005 Japanese Population Census

Asia portrait Population Comparison of Four Countries

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Diagrams, charts, and graphs visually show information. They can help to compare information. The diagram and the graph compare total population and population density.

Asia portrait Population Density Comparison of Four Countries

For the first time, Japan's population dropped in 2005. This shocked officials. The government began a program to build more childcare centers. Towns and villages began to offer “matchmaking” services. They wanted to help young men and women meet, get married, and start families.

Japan must replace their older workers. The country needs new workers. However, Japan does not want to open its borders. People from other countries make up only 1.2 percent of Japan's population. The government wants to limit immigrants to 3 percent of the country's population. How will Japan find new workers?

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By 2050, the Japanese government reports that about one in three people will be over 65 years old. Fewer babies are born to women in Japan than in almost any other country.

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Industrialized countries need workers. They also need tax money for government programs. If there are more elderly people and fewer children, Japan will not have enough workers for the economy.

Where Do the People of Japan Live?

As you have learned, volcanoes formed Japan. There is not much flat land. Mountains run down the center of all four islands. Over 80 percent of the land in Japan is mountainous. No one can live there. Look at the population density map. Most people live in large towns and cities. They are crowded along thin strips of land next to the ocean. These areas are among the most densely populated regions in the world.

Look at the photographs of Tokyo, the capital of Japan. Tokyo was built on one of the few places that has a large amount of flat land. But most of the land has been used for buildings. This means that land is now very expensive. The center of Tokyo has the highest land values in the world.

People had to learn to live in very small spaces. Many families live in only one room. The Japanese have used creative ideas to increase their living space. When millions of people live in a city, they make a lot of garbage. All this garbage gave city planners an idea. They decided to use garbage as a landfill to build more land in a part of Tokyo Bay. Tokyo already has plans for new buildings on the site. Major cities in the United States, such as Boston and New York, have used the same method to create more land for living space. However, there is a problem. Many people worry that the trash pollutes the land and the water.

Asia portrait A section of Tokyo bay
A crowded crosswalk in Tokyo

Asia portrait Population Density in Japan

Developing More Space. In 1989, a Japanese company planned a new kind of city. They called the new city Sky City 1000. They hope their city will give people in Tokyo a better life. Look at the diagram. Sky City is a building 3,282 (1,000 m) feet tall and 1,312 feet (400 m) wide. There are fourteen floors called space plateaus. Thirty-five thousand people can live here. There is also room for 100,000 workers. The building will have homes, offices, businesses, schools, and entertainment. It is a whole city in one building!

Recently, a helicopter practiced fighting a fire in a super high building. They want to see what dangers might happen if a fire started. It is important to be able to handle all types of emergencies in a building this size.

Sky City 1000 will use high-speed elevators. Each elevator holds 70 people. A small train on the roof will take people from place to place. Trains and elevators will take people around each space platform and up and down the building. As you can imagine, it will take a lot of energy to power this one building.

Asia portrait Diagram of a Sky City Building

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Japan has no more land for building. People already live in tiny apartments that are very expensive. There is no room for factories or office buildings. Japan must find new ways to develop land into living space.

Asia portrait How do you say “good afternoon” in Japanese? “konniichiiwa”
The Japanese flag

What Is the Culture of Japan?

Symbols are designs or objects that stand for something else. For example, the eagle is often used as a symbol of the United States—proud and strong. Other cultures develop their own symbols to represent their country.

Symbols are important in Japan. The Japanese flag has a red circle on a white background. The red circle stands for the sun, which is a symbol of Japan. The Japanese call their flag hinomaru (heh-noh-mah-roo), which means, “circle of the sun.” Because Japan is in the eastern part of the world, and the sun rises in the east, the two characters that stand for Japan mean “the land of the rising sun.”

From ancient times, the Japanese loved cherry blossoms. In the spring, it is popular for families to take a picnic and look at the flowers. In the summer, it is popular to hike up Mt. Fuji. It can take between five and twelve hours to climb up and down Mt. Fuji.

Kimigayo (kee-mee-guy-oh) is the name of Japan's national anthem. It is one of the oldest national anthems in the world. People usually sing it twice because it is so short. Just like the national anthem of the United States, “The Star Spangled Banner,” Kimigayo is sung at sporting events and award ceremonies.

These 2 symbols mean Japan.

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Asia portrait

Springtime in Washington, DC, is the time for the Cherry Blossom Festival. Thousands of visitors come to the capital of the United States to see thousands of cherry trees in bloom. In 1912, the original cherry trees were given to the people of Washington, DC, from the city of Tokyo in Japan. The Japanese gave the trees as a symbol of friendship between Japan and the United States.

How Does Shinto Affect People's Beliefs?

Shinto is Japan's main religion. It teaches that everything in nature is filled with sacred spirits. These spirits are called kami. Everything in nature has a kami, including trees, mountains, rivers, and rocks. Even some people, such as artists or politicians, have a kami.

Shinto has many sacred places. Some are marked with a small wooden house called a shrine. Near the shrine is a sacred object. Shinto priests place a white rope around the object. A Shinto book, called the Kojiki (koh-gee-kee), tells about the history of Japan. It says that the first Emperor Jimmu was the grandson of the sun goddess. For hundreds of years, the Japanese people believed that the emperor was a god.

Primary Sources: Japan's National Anthem

The Emperor's Reign (Rule) May the Emperor reign in happiness for ten thousand years For the time that it takes small pebbles to grow into a great rock And become covered with moss.

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Analyzing point of view means looking closely at a person's arguments and beliefs to understand the reasons behind those beliefs. A person's point of view is influenced by his or her culture, values, or needs. Some songs, photographs, or art express a point of view. To analyze point of view, decide who is speaking. Then look for facts and opinions. Look for strong words that help you understand someone's feelings.

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Symbols have special meaning for people in different cultures. In Japan, the rising sun, cherry blossoms, and Mt. Fuji are all symbols for Japan. The Shinto religion is very important to the people of Japan.

What Are Japanese Schools Like?

Education is very important in Japan. Almost everyone can read and write. Children are expected to work hard at school. Their school day begins about 8:00 A.M. and ends around 3:00 P.M. Students go to school for 240 to 250 days a year. They also go to school on Saturday mornings. There is not much time for vacations. In the United States, students go to school for about 180 days.

Most Japanese students wear uniforms. They also wear a badge that tells their name, class, and school. The schools do not have lunchrooms. Students eat lunch in their classroom. They also help clean their classrooms at the end of the day. Japanese students study English from seventh grade to twelfth grade. In twelfth grade, everyone takes difficult tests. They must pass these tests to get into college.

Asia portrait Japanese children on their school playground

What Are Some Japanese Customs?

Japanese people are very polite. However, they do not shake hands. They bow instead. They bow to greet each other, to say thank you, and to say good-bye. Before Japanese people enter someone's home, they take off their shoes. Then they put on slippers. Straw mats cover the floors. The mats are called tatami (tah-tah-mee). A Japanese family eats their meals at a low table. They sit on the floor or on a pillow. Everyone eats with a pair of chopsticks instead of a knife and fork.

Japanese people do not like to be embarrassed in front of other people. This causes them to “lose face,” which means to lose their honor and respect.

Asia portraitJapanese people eat at low tables and sit on pillows.

Traditionally, the family has been the center of one's life. Children show respect for older people and their experiences. Grandparents, parents, and children all lived together in one house. As Japan changes, many families are made up of only parents and children.

How Do the Japanese Celebrate the New Year?

New Year celebrations are very important throughout Asia. In Japan, celebrations go on for three days. People prepare for the New Year by sweeping their homes. The sweeping cleans away bad luck from the old year. They rush to finish business and pay old bills. A piece of sacred straw tied with strips of white paper hangs over the front door. People believe the straw keeps evil from coming in the house. Special food is prepared. No one wants to cook during the New Year celebrations! On New Year's Eve, Buddhist temples across Japan ring their bells.

Asia portrait A traditional New Year decoration made with straw and paper

On New Year's Day, families eat mochi (moh-chee), or rice cakes, for breakfast. Then they pray at Shinto or Buddhist altars in their homes. Like parents in other Asian cultures, Japanese parents give their children gifts of money. The gift is called the New Year's Treasure. Just like Americans, the Japanese visit their family and friends to wish them good luck in the New Year.

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When you classify, you group items together that are alike or have something in common. Classifying helps you understand and remember information. A chart helps you classify information.

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Asia portrait

Japanese children go to school for 240 to 250 days a year. They also attend classes on Saturday. As in many other cultures, Japanese culture places importance on respect for older people and their experiences. New Year's Day is an important holiday in Japan. Like Americans, the Japanese have special traditions for New Year's Day, and they visit family and friends.

Additional topics

History Reference: Ancient History & World HistoryThe Eastern Hemisphere - Asia