Regional Geography of Japan


  1. Physical Characteristics
  2. Human Characteristics
  3. Economic Characteristics
  4. References

Physical Characteristics

Relative Location

Japan lies east, off the coast of mainland china.  To its North lies Russian controlled Sakhalin Island.  To its East lies Korea, separated by 120 miles through the Korean Strait, and China lies 500 miles away through the East China Sea.  Japan is an archipelago island nation and is often compared to the British Isles because of its isolated location from the mainland of the Continent.  The country of Japan is made up of 4 main islands, Hokkaido in the far north, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu in the far south, as well as 7,000 smaller islands in the Pacific.  The country is approximately 25% bigger than the UK and 75% the size of France.  From Hokkaido to Kyushu (Northern tip to Southern tip) the distance is approximately the same as from Bangor, Maine, to Mobile Alabama (Ellington, 1).

Landscape and Physical Environment

The most prominent topographical feature in Japan is its mountains.  75% of the land in Japan is mountain terrain, although not particularly high they are heavily wooded.  In the central island of Honshu some ranges reach as high as 10,000 feet (Ellington, 5.)  The small amount of flat plain areas in Japan means that most of the population lives within a few flat areas.  The largest plain being the Kanto plain where Tokyo resides.  Japan sits at the meeting point of three tectonic plates, the Eurasian, Pacific and Philippines Plate.  This makes Japan very prone to earthquakes, and Tsunamis as well as exposing it to volcanic activity.  Japan is also a part of the “Ring of Fire” as zone of seismic and volcanic activity in the Pacific spanning from California to Japan.  The Japanese archipelago was formed from subduction of tectonic plates, since it is a relatively new land formation, it has very little natural resources, only small deposits of coal, oil, iron, and other minerals.  It is roughly 25% bigger than Italy.

Weather and Climate

For the most part Japan has a temperate climate, with the exceptions of colder Hokkaido in the north and warmer Kyushu in the south.  Its pacific islands such as the Ryukyuan Islands can be humid subtropical and tropical rainforest climates.  Mainland Japan is said to have 4 distinct seasons, with humid hot summers and cold snowy winters.  Climate and weather tend to vary however, based on mountains, ocean currents, and latitude. 

Human Characteristics

Population, Density and Age/Sex characteristics

Japan’s size, small amount of developable area, and high population create a great space problem for the country.  High population density is much more prevalent in large citifies such as Tokyo.  92% of Japan’s population lives in an urban area, and its population density is 3,012 people per square km.  compared to the U.S.’s 212 per square km.  and U.K.’s 1,105.  Japan also has a problem of a declining population with a birth rate of 1.4, not unusual for a developed country but not offset by immigrant into the country.  There is also the problem of too many older people and not enough young people to care for them.  12% of the population is below 15 compared to 28% of the population is above 65. In 2050 those numbers will be 13% and 36% respectively (PRB, 2018).

Language and Religion

The most widespread language spoken is Japanese.  The language itself however has many regional dialects, the Tokyo dialect is proper or standard Japanese, but dialects exits in Osaka, Kansai, and other prefectures.  Japanese is written using different sets of symbols or Kana.  Kanji are Chinese Characters that have been adapted, Hiragana is a simplified version of Kanji used for vowel sounds, and Katakana are another set of Kana used for loan words from English and other languages.  The Ryukyuan language and Ainu Language are spoken to a degree in Hokkaido and the Ryukyu Islands and some Korean speakers do exist.

The religious influences of Japan are numerous and rich in its history.  Shinto (Traditional Japanese Religion), Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism have all influenced Japanese Religion and culture in some capacity.  Shinto belief consists of spirits and gods from nature or Kami, whom they worship.  It is the most prominent religion in Japan and the oldest one to exist there.  Buddhism is also prevalent coming all the way from India to China and Korea and then Japan in the 550’s CE.  Buddhism in Japan later evolved and became somewhat intertwined with Shinto beliefs.  Famously, Zen Buddhism emerged as a sect out of Japan.  Although Buddhism and Shintoism exist in Japan only about 26% of Japanese consider themselves very religious (CIA, 2019).

Cultural/Ethnic Groups

Japan has a very homogenous population with 98.5% of people identifying as Yamato Japanese, the dominant native ethnic group dating from the 6th century.  From Neolithic and Paleolithic times, the Yamato are thought to be descendants from Yayoi and Jomon people who moved to the archipelago.  However, other ethnic groups do exist within Japan.  The Ainu people are natives to Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands.  They have their own distinct language and writing and a unique and rich history.  They are known for their traditional robed dress, full beards, and their tradition of tattooing around women’s lips.  They also practice their own animist religion.  They have a long history of repression by the Japanese government, only in recent times has the Japanese government made steps to recognize them and improve their standards of living.

The people of the Ryukyus are another distinct ethnic group, although not recognized by the Japanese government.  Up until 1879 the Ryukyu islands were not a part of Japan until its annexation.  The Ryukyu have their own language and religion, during the Meiji Period after its annexation they were repressed and the government sought to assimilate them, because of this and World War II many dispersed to Hawaii and other places. 

There is also a sizable amount of Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Brazilians living within Japan.

Economic Characteristics

Major economic activities

Japan is a devolved country and an economic powerhouse, less that 5% of Japanese are employed in primary industries (fishing, mining, etc.), 17% have manufacturing jobs in the secondary sector, and relatively few are unemployed.  Construction and food processing are large industries, but Japan is most well known for its electronics and technology industries.  Electronics, robotics, aerospace, and cars are all major sources of economic activity in Japan.  Since Japan has very little in terms of natural resources much of its manufacturing relies on research and development of technology.  68% of the population is employed in the service industry.  A significant number of women participate in the workforce, not uncommon for developed countries.  Japan has a highly educated workforce of 67 million, and they engage in activities such as finance, banking, entertainment, and law (Ellington, 134). 

Imports and Exports

Japan is a leading country in international trade, ones of its biggest exports is automobiles, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, and Mitsubishi are all in high demand all over the world.  Cell phones, microelectronics, and industrial robots are also major exports.  Japan lacks raw materials however, and so their imports include oil, coal, iron, copper, etc.  Most trade is done with China, Korea, United States, and Australia.  Japan has also invested much into alternative energy primarily nuclear energy (Ellington, 120-134).

GNP and GNP per capita

The GNP per capita according to PRB is, $45,470.  The total GNP of Japan is $5.6 Trillion.  That number is behind the U.S. but is very good for a developed country with little natural resources or land.  For reference U. S’s GNP per Capita is $60,000.  China’s GNP per Capita is $16,760.  China is a much larger and more populous country, yet evidently it has much more inequality of wealth.  Although Japan has little land area, and a smaller population there is a better standard of living for all.  The literacy rate is 99% in Japan, and mostly a service economy (PRB, 2018). 


CIA. CIA World Fact book: Japan, 2019,

Ellington, Lucien. Asia In Focus: Japan. ABC-CLIO, 2009. UNO Library,

PRB: World Data., PRB,

Submitted by Ryan Clarke on 4/18.