A refined culture and an advanced industry
A country with an extraordinary history, capable of transforming itself in the space of a generation, today’s Japan is the second largest economic power and one of the most advanced countries in the world. Yet its geographical conditions were not the most favorable: many islands, little land to cultivate, few minerals, many residents. An ancient and rich culture, an organized and supportive society, a very lively awareness of the people, a solid attachment to tradition are the ingredients of an impressive development. Having abandoned militarist temptations, today’s Japan is a great country that has its most important resources in peace and in improving living conditions
First of all, an archipelago
Of the more than 3,000 islands and islets that make up the archipelago of Japan, four are much larger, more important and more populated than the others: the northernmost is Hokkaido, which reaches the same latitude in the north as Vienna; on Honshu, the eldest, live four-fifths of the Japanese; Shikoku and Kyushu, the southernmost, are so close to Honshu that they are joined by long bridges. Hokkaido and Honshu, on the other hand, are connected by the longest submarine railway tunnel in the world: almost 54 km.
Around, the other islands: the most important are the Ryukyu, to the south, which almost touch the Tropic of Cancer, but other groups of Japanese islands are located much further away, in the Pacific Ocean. Japan, then, until the Second World War also had the Kuril Islands and a part of Sahalin Island, which continue the same ‘arch’ of islands that form Japan but which now belong to Russia.
The whole territory of Japan is very unstable from a geological point of view: there are many active volcanoes – the very famous Fuji, 3,776 m, near the capital Tokyo: the highest mountain in the country – and hundreds of those that are extinct. There are also many earthquakes recorded over time, often violent; the last of these, in 1995, seriously hit the big city of Kobe. The archipelago is, in fact, part of the Pacific belt of fire: a ring of active faults around the ocean.
The Japanese territory is almost all mountainous, with short plains along the coasts; among the largest, those in which the Tokyo-Yokohama conurbation and the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe conurbation arise. Consequently, the arable area is small (about 14% of the total) and the rivers are short: the Shinano (376 km) is the largest.
The climate varies greatly according to latitude (cold in Hokkaido, subtropical in Kyushu, tropical in Ryukyu) and according to the coasts: also thanks to the hot black current (in Japanese, Kuro Shio), the Pacific is milder than the Sea of Japan.
Despite the scarcity of agricultural land, an extraordinarily dense population has gathered on the archipelago for centuries. The soils are very productive and humidity is abundant everywhere: favorable conditions for agriculture and also for the spontaneous vegetation, still rich. About two thirds of Japan is covered by forests, almost all of which are protected, where many wild animals still live. In addition, the surrounding seas are abundant with fish and the Japanese diet makes a lot of space for seafood – from fish to shellfish to certain algae. Food supplies have been quite rich since ancient times.
From the end of the nineteenth century, then, came industrialization, and at the same time capitalist development and imperial expansionism: Japan began to produce ever more abundant and sophisticated artifacts, sold abroad, from which the raw material. The already large population, therefore, had the opportunity to grow throughout the twentieth century.
Very compact from an ethnic point of view – only one million people have foreign origins: mainly Koreans – and therefore also linguistically, the residents gather in the cities. Almost 80% of the Japanese live in vast metropolitan areas: the Tokyo conurbation has about 30 million residents, the one around Osaka has about 17, that of Nagoya 7; and then cities like Sapporo, Fukuoka, Hiroshima (the city that was razed to the ground by the atomic bomb). These urbanized areas follow one another from the center of Honshu (where the capital is) to Shikoku, always keeping close to the sea and using two routes intensely frequented for centuries: the Tokaido, from Tokyo to Kobe, and the Sanyodo, from Kobe to Kitakyushu. Three quarters of Japanese industry are also concentrated here. The northern part of archipelago and the countryside are much less populated. Emigration abroad has always been rather modest, but Japanese communities are found in the two Americas.
The Japanese miracle
The living conditions of the population are today among the best in the world: the longest average life span, very high levels of education, an excellent health system, strong social cohesion. The attention to human capital helps to understand the miracle of Japan: the country, almost devoid of mineral resources, still in the mid-nineteenth century had a medieval type organization and a completely rural economy; but in a few decades it became one of the major powers (including military ones) on Earth. When the Westerners (1853) forced Japan to modernize, the ruling class decided to engage the country in a very rapid productive and organizational evolution, and the population followed it with great discipline.
Modernization initially focused on the military apparatus and infrastructure. In the early twentieth century, the Japanese armies were already so powerful that they were able to defeat giants such as the Russian and Chinese empires and, later, to seriously engage the United States and the British Empire. Meanwhile, roads, railways, cities, port areas were also becoming more modern and efficient than the western ones.
After the Second World War, Japan chose to emerge economically. Agriculture is always very careful and productive (rice, tea), and so is fishing, but it is in the industrial sector that Japan has made extraordinary progress. It is almost impossible to find a sector in which the Japanese industry is not at the top of the world, especially in the most advanced productions. But the financial system is also highly developed, and the Tokyo Stock Exchange is now more important than that of New York. Japan is the second largest economic power on Earth and a large part of East Asia depends on its economy; Japanese companies also have an enormous weight in America and Europe: having abandoned military expansionism, Japan has taken the path of peaceful conquest, the productive and commercial one.
An ancient and complex culture
According to Prozipcodes, the modernization, which makes Japan increasingly western, is not, however, total. Traditional culture is still very much felt; the Japanese have a special attention to the natural elements of the landscape as to the places considered sacred by Shinto and Buddhism (the two religions which together involve about 90% of the population); certain customs, many festivals, the importance of the family, some artistic manifestations (from painting to theater), the attachment to traditional costume (the kimono) are still elements of the utmost importance for the Japanese. The contrast that these traditions produce with respect to the very strong technological progress is one of the most notable characteristics of Japan (as, in hindsight, also of many European countries, starting with Italy). Many things are changing, however, for example in the behavior of the youngest, and there has been no lack of moments of crisis and concern on an economic level. But Japan’s human wealth is certainly a guarantee for the country’s future.