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Setting the Stage: Geography

Anyone interested enought to find and read a book like this is probably already aware that Japan is an island nation. Big surprise. It is composed of four main islands1.1 and hundreds of smaller ones, all formed through volcanic activity. Of the four main islands, northern Kyushu and western Honshu are the closest to the Asian continent.

Korea is about 130 miles from Japan. China is a bit farther. This distance is something like four times the width of the English channel. The effect is that for much of its history Japan has been close enough to benefit from continental culture, but isolated enough to avoid being overwhelmed by it. This has been of enormous importance in the development of Japanese culture. While Europe and China suffered repeated invasions by steppe nomads and other Eurasian barbarians, Japan was spared each time (save two, the Mongols invaded twice but lost both times). The barbarians ravaging Eurasia did not share the cultural assumptions of the people they conquered and thus could greatly threaten or damage the subjected culture. This was not the case in Japan - although they had centuries of civil war, it was civil, that is, it usually stayed inside the bounds Japanese culture set for warfare. Of course, it was also violent, as war tends to be, so although holy places were important for all sides they were sometimes destroyed. But with the important exceptions of temples and shrines that were active participants in the wars, those that were destroyed were usually rebuilt soon after the war ended because they were just as important to the victor as to his enemies. The barbarians ravaging Europe saw no reason to treat churches or monasteries as anything other than convenient concentrations of gold and other wealth. This isolation is one reason that Kyoto is full of temples and shrines dating back many hundreds of years.

Most (over 75%) of Japan is hilly or mountainous, meaning extremely limited room to live and grow crops. Only about 14% of Japan's land is arable. For comparison the figure for the U.S. is 20%, and for the United Kingdom, 29%. The Japanese love to dwell on how small their country is, and although several countries in Europe are in fact smaller, Japan is by no means a large country. America's arable land alone is more than twice as large as the whole of Japan. Another unfortunate consequence of steep mountains is that Japan's rivers are short, swift, and shallow. In other words, they cannot be used for transportation.1.2 Everyone and everything has to walk or be carried over the mountains.

Japan's rivers do serve one purpose: they are used to irrigate the plains. However, all these mountains don't leave a whole lot of room for plains. What flat areas there are have to serve the dual functions of agriculture and providing living space. It is no accident that the three largest plains in Japan are home to five of the largest cities. Tokyo occupies much of the Kanto plain, Nagoya is situated on the Nobi plain while Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe share the Kinai plain. These three account for over 15 million people in a combined space a little smaller than Connecticut. Not a whole lot of room left for growing rice. When all the math is done, Japan has to try to feed 125 million people crammed into a mountainous country about the size of California with precious little farmland. As if this weren't bad enough, Japan lacks almost every mineral and resource needed by industrialized countries in the modern world. Oil is a good example: Japan imports 99% of it's oil and petroleum products.

One fact remains to be addressed. Japan, a small island nation, has a longer total coastline than China, a huge continental power.1.3 Practically since day one, geography has forced, or at least encouraged, the Japanese to look out to the oceans for food and transport. Aquatic plants that in English are labeled ``weeds'' are important items in the Japanese diet. The Japanese eat fish that I don't even know the English names for. They have a long history of sea trade with East and Southeast Asia. Japanese pirates were the scourge of Asian seas for centuries. Until the 1600's, there were sizable Japanese communities scattered throughout East and Southeast Asia. It was only under the Tokugawa Bakufu (1600 to 1867) that the Japanese were forced to turn their collective back on the open seas.


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