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The four north pacific islands that make up Japan are located east of the Asian continent. Mountains dominate Japan’s landscape, covering 75 to 80 percent of the country.

The traditional view is that it was the father of the Gods, Izanagi, who thrust his spear into the waters of the earth and so created the Japanese isles from the droplets thus formed. Although belief in this view is no longer widely held , there is no doubt that a strong link exists in the Japanese mind between the spiritual and natural worlds. The survival of Shinto in the modern age, and the reverence attached to natural features such as Mount Fuji, the Amanohashidate, and the blossom of cherry trees are testament to this.

All the islands are hilly or even mountainous, particularly Honshu, where the highest peaks such as Fujiyama rise to over 3,600 m/12,000 ft. There are numerous other peaks rising to over 2,000 m/6,500 ft, many of which are extinct or even active volcanoes. The higher mountains in Hokkaido and Honshu are snow-covered throughout the year and there are many opportunities for winter sports. 

Over the last 400 million years there have been four major periods of mountain building, each of which  has contributed features to the present day Japanese landscape. Add to this the effect of erosion, including glaciers, and you will begin to understand the reasons behind the mountainous terrain which comprises much of modern-day Japan. In general terms, the topography of Japan is characterized by a series of mountain ranges running lengthways across the country. The volcanic front associated with the present mountain building process extends along the line of the Japan Sea coast.

About 80 percent of the land in Japan is considered ’mountainous’. Although not particularly high, the hills and mountains of the Japanese interior are steep and are not, therefore, considered habitable or suitable for cultivation. The young rocks are eroded by many short, steep and fast-flowing streams and rivers, the longest of which tend to flow towards the Pacific Ocean. The largest plains are thus found along the Pacific coast, where eroded material is deposited as alluvium. With such a shortage of habitable living space and cultivable land, it is only natural that the largest plains, such as the Kanto Plain, should have the largest concentrations of population and industrial activity. With as many as 40 million people living in the Kanto region, however, representing one-third of the total population, it is no wonder that the human landscape appears so over-crowded in some parts of Japan, yet under-populated in others.

One industry with a centuries-old tradition is fishing. Japan lies at the juncture of two major ocean currents - the warm Kuroshio and the cold Oyashio - which provides a rich feeding and breeding ground for many species of fish. Fishermen operating from ports distributed throughout the country have exploited this to the extent that Japan is now one of the leading fishing nations in the world, landing over 14 million tonnes annually. Although much of this is exported, the huge domestic demand for fish is reflected in the large numbers of seafood restaurants found in every Japanese city.

Inland waters provide another important resource. Farmers depend on the annual rains in late spring to  flood the rice paddies for planting, and industrialists depend on the extraction of huge quantities of underground water for cooling purposes. Unfortunately, over extraction in recent decades has led to problems of land subsidence, causing damage to property and greatly increasing the risk of flooding.

The forces shaping the Japanese landscape are many and varied and include natural as well as man-induced elements. With a total population of some 124 million living on the Japanese isles, the real challenge is to achieve and maintain a balance between these forces in future.


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