Geography isn’t just destiny, as the old saying points out; it can also be culture, cuisine and worldview: Witness Japan.
A shimaguni, or “island country” of 6,852 islands, Japan is a mountainous, lush but rugged land that stretches from a subtropical south to a largely temperate north. It lies east of the Koreas and Russia, at latitudes roughly similar to the east coast of the United States. Tokyo sits at about the same latitude as Las Vegas, Nevada and Tangier, Morocco.
Despite the abundance of islands, four of which dominate, and fewer than 500 of which are inhabited, Japan is not a large place; it ranks No. 61 in size among the nations of the world, the same as Germany.
Japan is defined by several crucial geographic features: It is more than 73% mountains, which means that less than 12% of its land is arable or habitable in large numbers; it is surrounded by, and permeated by, the sea – no spot in Japan is more than 150 km from its 30,000-kilometer coast; and it gets a tremendous amount of rainfall, which causes most of those mountainous areas to be heavily forested.
There is a fourth feature, perhaps the most dramatic, and famous, and certainly the deadliest: Japan is one of the world’s most unstable geologic areas, with fully ten percent of the active volcanoes in the world – 40 of them. A visitor can be in Japan for weeks without feeling an earthquake, but this seismically active land can experience anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 measurable earthquakes a year, or roughly three to four a day.
The 1923 Kanto Earthquake was the deadliest, killing more than 100,000 people. But most recently, earthquakes in Kobe (in 1995) and Tohoku (internationally known as the Fukushima Quake, in 2011) were disastrous events for the densely populated country. The latter brought on a second disaster: the nation’s largest-ever quake at 9.0, it occurred offshore and created an enormous tsunami that damaged or destroyed more than a million buildings, killed more than 16,000 people, and caused a nuclear reactor to melt down.
Japan’s seismic instability has also given the country its highest point: Mount Fuji, or Fuji-san, a dormant volcano of 3,776 meters (12,388 feet) that is Japan’s national symbol. The mountain is yet another natural threat: Fuji-san last exploded in 1707, but given its proximity to the Tokyo metropolitan area and its tens of millions of residents, it is a sleeping giant.
Another element in Japan’s geography is its wet, monsoonal climate, with water – in the form of rain and snow, and a constant high humidity through all seasons – playing a considerable role. Japan’s abundant rainfall and often cloudy character has determined its destiny. The surface of Japan is only one percent lakes, and the biggest lake, Biwa, just north of Kyoto, is one of the country’s major sources of potable water. More important, though, are the archipelago’s rivers. None are very long – the longest is the Shinano, which stretches 367 km (228 miles) – but their steepness means that they are often cascades, which makes them perfect for generating hydroelectric power.
The highest mountains in Japan are the three ranges that run north-south across the islands, centered on the biggest island, Honshu. They are generally called the Japanese Alps, but the Japanese call them Nihon Arupusu. Due to the volcanic nature of the land, many of these mountains feature hot springs, or onsen, which are of major appeal to both the Japanese and visitors.
Given the rugged, mountainous land, the Japanese have always turned to the sea for sustenance and inspiration, and it plays an outsized role in the country’s cuisine, its art and perhaps most importantly, its long isolation from the rest of the world. The sea provides much of the country’s food, whether fish or sea vegetables, especially kelp, thanks to the confluence of the warm Oyashio Current coming up from the tropics and the colder Tsushima Current coming down from the Arctic. Where these currents meet, at around the 36th parallel, just north of Tokyo, is one of the world’s great fisheries, and anyone familiar with Japanese art and especially, cuisine, knows that the sea looms large here.
Just as importantly, the sea has for centuries insulated and isolated Japan from the Asian continent – even at its closest point to the mainland, it is still 193 kilometers (120 miles) from Russia, its closest neighbor. By contrast, at its closest point, Britain is only 34 kilometers (21 miles) from Europe. Much of Japan’s character can be attributed to this one geographical fact. Living in a rugged, turbulent but exceptionally lush land, ringed by bountiful but isolating seas, Japan’s destiny has been, and continues to be, determined largely by its remarkable geography.