The View from Japan
Torii gate



Tokyo landmarksJapan—Land and People

Japan stretches between approximately the same latitudes as the contiguous United States, from 20° to 45° N Latitude. It is made up of four main islands—Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu—and hundreds of smaller islands, including Okinawa.


Japan has a population of 127.1 (2001 census), roughly half the population of the U.S., but with only one twenty-sixth the land area. This comes out to roughly 872 people per square mile in Japan, compared with 77 in the States. Furthermore, 85% of Japan’s 145,880 square miles (377,829 sq. km.) is considered to be mountainous, so while the country’s size is similar to that of Montana, most of Japan’s population is crammed into 15% of its land area, which comes out to a population density of 5,808 people per square mile—18,000 per sq. mile in Tokyo. This is why you can reach out your window and shake hands with your next-door neighbor.


Japan ranges in climate from the pleasant summers and cold, snowy winters of Hokkaido to the subtropical heat and humidity of Okinawa—analogous to the climate variations along the U.S. East Coast from Maine to Florida. Snow in Japan tends to be heaviest in Hokkaido and the western side of Honshu, facing the Sea of Japan; the backbone of mountains running through central Japan keeps heavy snows from reaching the Pacific side.

Winters in the Kanto area (which includes Tokyo) seldom get much colder than 30°F, which may sound reasonable if you’re used to subzero temperatures—but remember, Japanese houses generally don’t have central heating or sufficient insulation. Further, most Japanese turn off their heaters at night for fear of starting a fire; 30° seems much colder when you’re in your pajamas. Winter days are generally cold and clear.

Japan (except Hokkaido) has a rainy season in June and July. This is closely followed by the typhoon season, when tropical cyclones may hit any part of Japan. Otherwise, get set for a hot, muggy summer. Temperatures are often in the 90s F.


Many foreigners coming to Japan still have in their minds pictures of a Japan where people live in harmony with nature, where kabuki and Zen Buddhism are well known among the general population. Especially for those who go to Tokyo or Osaka, that pleasant picture is soon shattered by the grimy realities of modern Japan (as documented in Alex Kerr’s book Dogs and Demons ), and the realization that Japanese are more likely to be familiar with Mozart or Shakespeare than koto master Yatsuhashi Kengyo or bunraku and kabuki playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon. Still, the traditional Japan can be found if you look for it; as one of my college professors liked to say, this is a society that doesn’t throw anything away.

While Japan may outwardly appear to have bought into Western culture wholesale, the ways of thinking are still uniquely Japanese. This can take a while to grasp; the U.S. government still hasn’t. Japan’s social structure is based on rigid heirarchy and conformity to one’s group. This seems to be eroding somewhat, but there is no reason to think that Japan’s social—or economic—structure will ever mirror our own.

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Copyright 2004 This page last updated June 18, 2005 . E-mail Tim