Japan and Korea


  1. Japan-Physical Setting
  2. Japan-Development Through Time
  3. Japan-Regional Setting
  4. Modern Japan
  5. Demographic Analysis based on Population Data Sheet
  6. Korea - Geographic Features
  7. Korea- Problems in a Divided Country
  8. References
  9. Review Questions

Japan-Physical Setting

Roughly the size of California, Japan consists of over 3,000 islands, including the four large islands, Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. Japan's span of latitude is roughly equivalent to the area from Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border. A large portion of Japanese land consists of mountains, most of which are steep and heavily forested. Mount Fiji is the highest mountain in Japan, an active volcano that last erupted in 1707-08. Rivers are usually narrow and rapid and the flat plains surround the areas where rivers run into the sea. The Japanese islands form part of the western edge of Pacific "Ring of Fire," (an active volcanic and seismic zone in the Pacific Ocean.). Devastating earthquakes have occurred frequently, sometimes accompanied by tsunami, (tidal waves). The islands are fairly young in geologic terms, so Japan has few resources.

The climate in Japan varies with latitude along the north-south axis, ranging from subtropical to subarctic. The entire country is strongly influenced by the westerly winds from Siberia, ocean currents, and subtropical storms (typhoons) from the Pacific Ocean. In general, Japan has hot, humid summers but cold winters and experiences four distinct seasons. This seasonal awareness is an essential element of Japanese culture.

Land uses are comparable from one urban area to another, with mixes of residential, industrial, and commercial uses interspersed with transportation links, parks, and government facilities. There is an extreme shortage of residential land and housing in urban areas. The landscape of many multistory apartment complexes reflects the population and housing crunch. The population density of Japan is 331 persons per kilometer in contrast to 28 persons per kilometer in the U.S.

Japan-Development Through Time

The original inhabitants of the Japanese islands came from Siberia, East and Southeast Asia over 2000 years ago. The first inhabitants of Japan were a Caucasian group called the Ainu. They were forced to flee northward when the ancestors of modern Japanese people came to inhabit the islands. Very few of them still live in the northern part of Hokkaido today.

Civilization in Japan began in approximately 300 AD. The first stage in Japanese history was the pre-classical period known as the Yamato period. The early Yamato state rulers were the legendary ancestors of Japan's Imperial Family.

The second stage was the Classical/Aristocratic period (710-1185). Japanese art and culture begins to develop independently of the formerly pervasive Chinese influence. Native writing scripts, hiragana and katakana comes into use.

The third stage was the feudal period (1185-1867). Control of the government shared between the Emperor (head of the traditional government), and the Shogun (leaders of the military government). The year 1603 was the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate period. The country was closed to foreign influence, and strictly controlled in a division of classes with the samurai at the top, followed by the farmer, artisan, and the merchant. All foreign traders and missionaries were forced by the Shoguns to leave. Foreign influence was not welcome during this time; only a few Dutch and Chinese traders could land their ships near Nagasaki. Japan remained isolated form invasion and immigration until the middle of the nineteenth century, thereby creating a remarkably homogenous population. In the 1850's the period of isolation ended when Americans, with their superior western army forced Japan to open trading with them through the threat of military intervention. The Japanese reluctantly agreed and soon after, they had contacts with the world again.

In 1868, reformers seized power from the old guard, by the end of the century, Japanese military and economic power rivaled that of western nations. This period is known as the Meiji Restoration, which means "return to enlightened rule". The Japanese combined their traditional values of hard work with western technology and help from Great Britain, planned better cities, built railroads, and reformed schools. The capital was switched from Kyoto to Edo (present day Tokyo).

As the other western powers built empires, so would Japan. Colonial expansion in1930 led to Japanese control of Korea, Northeast China, Taiwan and south Sakhalin Island. Japan began dominating areas militarily during WWII to ensure them access to raw materials. On December 7, 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack on the U.S. military base in Pearl Harbor. This led to the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the loss of almost all their possessions including the northern part of China, French Indochina, the Philippines, East Indies, Thailand, Burma and Malaya. By the end of WWII, Japanese expansion was over.

The end of WWII marked a new beginning for Japan. Rather than control through Imperialism, Japan would become a dominant force in the world economy. Today, Japan has become a technological powerhouse due to its hard work and work ethic.

Japan- Regional Setting

The four main islands of Japan account for 97% of the land area. Hokkaido is the northernmost island. Rice, the primary crop of Japan, wheat, beans and potatoes are grown here. Dairy cattle are also raised in Hokkaido. The coal industry used to be thriving in the Yubari area. This is the least densely populated island. The Russian Kurile Islands, just north of Hokkaido, were once a part of Japan and are now a source of conflict between the two countries.

Honshu is the largest of the four islands in terms of both area and population. The northern 1/3 of Honshu, called Tohoku, is mostly agricultural area. 2/3 of this land is used for rice production. A large amount of rice is produced for the small amount of land used.

The southeastern part of Honshu is the busiest most populated area in all of Japan. Most of the Japanese population lives here. All the major cities are located on the flat coastal plains. Because of a shortage of living space, the Japanese are forced to build on landfills that go out into the sea. Over 23 million people are living in the Kanto District, which is about 90 miles in diameter. Japan's biggest megalopolis, which consists of Tokyo, Yokohama, and Kawasaki, is in this district. These three cities run together and effectively act as one big city. One-third of the country's entire industry comes from this area.

To the south, in the middle of Honshu, there is one of major districts called the Chubu District (Nobi Plain). This area hosts mostly the chemical and heavy-machinery manufacturing industries. Machine manufacturing is particularly prominent. Nagoya is the major city in this area.

Going to west from the Chubu District, there is another major district called the Kinki District. This district has been the political and cultural center of Japan for many centuries. The cities of Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, and Kobe are all located in the district. The Kinki district is often called the Kansai area. High-tech electronic equipment and textile are produced in this area.

Shikoku is south of Honshu and is the smallest of the four islands. A chain of mountains runs down the middle of the island dividing it into the pacific side and the Inland Sea side. The northern coast is fairly densely populated, and the main industrial areas are concentrated there.

Kyushu lies southwest of Honshu and Shikoku and is the southernmost island. Kyushu is an agricultural island where beef and dairy cattle are raised. The Kita-Kyushu Industrial Area is located at the northeastern part of Kyushu. Iron and steel are the produced here. The coal industry also used to be thriving in Kyushu. The climate in southern Kyushu is subtropical.

Modern Japan

In 2005, Japan's average GNI Per Capita was $33,730. The Japanese are very dependent on foreign trade and imports. Japan relies mainly on raw materials and fuel imported from all over the world, particularly from Pacific Rim countries. It exports manufactured products from the so-called processing trade. The Japanese are currently producing 10% of the worlds exports with just 2% of its population. Major export items are computers, automobiles, and home entertainment technology.

Japan has to import nearly 90% of its resources; including oil, 99%; coal 80%; and iron ore 99%. Much of the oil from the West and Southeast Asian countries goes to Japan. In the 1970's, OPEC cut off oil supplies to the world; and because Japan imports almost all of its oil, they changed from heavy industries such as shipbuilding, which requires large amounts of oil, to light industries like electronics. Japan is becoming more self-sufficient in fulfilling its energy needs through the use of hydroelectric, thermal, and atomic power plants.

Conglomerates, which produce a wide variety of goods, are common in Japan. Toyota, Panasonic, and Mitsubishi are some examples. The U.S. only buys certain products from these companies, even though they make all types of merchandise.

Rice is the major agricultural product of Japan. However, the number of farm workers in Japan has decreased to 1.4 persons per farm, while their average age has increased. Farmland is so limited that acreage under cultivation per farm can be as small as 1.2 acres. The self-sufficiency rate is declining gradually, while the ratio of food in total imports is increasing.

The basic Japanese education is 9 years of compulsory education in an elementary and a middle school. The school year begins in April and ends the following March of the next year. Students go to school on Monday through Friday and every other Saturday. One teacher takes charge of a class of about 40 students. Many schools have school uniforms. 45.2% of high school graduates go on to university; however, entrance examinations are very competitive and difficult to pass. If a student fails, he/she attends a preparatory school to prepare for the next year's exam. Because the entrance exams are highly competitive, many elementary, middle and senior high school students go to cram schools after regular schools. They tend to spend most of their free time studying.

Major Japanese companies have lifetime employment and seniority systems. There is a give-and-take relationship between labor and management in Japanese companies. A worker enjoys a steady salary and certain status and in turn is loyal to the company. However, in recent years, the situation has been changing especially after the collapse of the "bubble economy." A typical Japanese worker leaves home at 7:00 in the morning and returns after 11:00 at night. This lifestyle is affectionately refereed to as a "7-11" lifestyle.

Individualism is somewhat frowned upon in Japan and people are expected to blend in with society. One reason for economic success is often said to be their ethnic and social homogeneity. This creates a strong feeling of nationalism which causes people to take pride in their work and therefore, work harder to make the country as a whole, more prosperous. Some traditions in Japan are starting to change and young people are becoming more individualized and adopting western ideas.

The income per capita of Japan, an economic superpower, is on the increase annually and the Japanese have become an affluent people; however, there is dissatisfaction with the high property and commodity prices. Since cities are always very crowded, there is very little living space, not to mention, parks and green areas. Housing is both limited and excessively expensive in central city areas. Workers often spend over 2 hours a day commuting from their house to their workplaces. Trains or buses are filled to capacity at peak commuting times. Workers also suffer from long working hours and even karoshi (death from overworking). Some work up to 80 hours a week. Japan has a social security system, which tries to guarantee a decent life for each and every citizen. This system, however, has some poorly developed aspects.

The strong Japanese identity is somewhat of a barrier to incoming minority groups. The groups of Korean descent and Ainu people are still having many difficulties in the society. Ethic relationship between the Japanese and the other minorities are still very poor.

Demographic Analysis based on Population Data Sheet



North Korea

South Korea

2007 Populations (millions)




Projected Population by 2025 (millions)




Projected Population by 2050 (millions)




Natural Rate of Increase (%)




Projected Population Change 2007-2050 (%)




Births per 1,000 population




Deaths per 1,000 population




Infant Mortality Rate




% of Population of Age under 15




% of Population over 65




Percent Urban




GNI PPP Per Capita, 2005 (US$)




Source: 2007 World Population Data Sheet

Japan has 127.7 million people, which is the tenth largest population in the world. For every 1,000 people, there is an average of 9 births and 9 deaths per year making the natural rate of increase 0%. By the year 2025, Japan's population is expected to drop to around 119 million, and by 2050 its expected to drop again to around 95 million. Around 14% of the population is under the age of fifteen and 21% are over the age of 65. It is predicted that people aged 65 and over will account for 24.2% of Japan's population by 2050. Life expectancy in Japan is now about 86 years for women and 79 for men, which are the longest in the world.

The larger of the two Koreas, South Korea has 45.5 million people, which is the twenty-fourth largest in the world while North Korea has 23.3 million. Both are expected to increase in population by the year 2025, but then South Korea is expected to decrease to 42.3 million people, which is lower than its current population. North Korea has a higher infant mortality rate at 21% than South Koreas 5%. Currently, 27% of North Koreans are under the age of fifteen, while South Korea is only 18%. While 10% of South Korea is over 65 years, and only 8% of North Korea. South Korea has a higher percentage of urban population than Japan and North Korea at 82%.

Korea-Geographical Features

Poised strategically in the northeastern part of the Asian continent, the Korean Peninsula thrusts in a southerly direction for about 1610 miles. To the north are regions of China and Russia, while the Chinese mainland lies directly to west. To the east, the peninsula faces the islands of Japan. The closest point in Japan is the island of Honshu, which lies in 290 miles from Korea's southern port of Pusan. The Peninsula, contiguous to the two continental powers of China and Russia and adjacent to oceanic Japan, long acted as a land bridge over which continental cultures were transmitted to Japan. The peninsular location brought not only the advantage of easy access to adjacent cultures but also the disadvantage of furnishing a target for aggressive neighbors.

The North Kaema Highlands in North Korea are 3,300 ft. above sea level. Mt. Paektu, an extinct volcano topped with a huge crater lake, is the highest mountain and rises 9,022 ft. above sea level. The Tuman River begins here and drains into the Yellow Sea, where other important rivers, such as the Yalu, the longest river, drain also. The Nangnim Mountains divide east and west Korea. The soil is only fertile on the coasts, where most of the farming is done. The climate is cool and it usually rains from June to September because of the humid summer monsoon. Iron ore and coal are mined here.

South Korea is mountainous and consists of three main rivers: the Han, the Kum and the Naktong which flow from the T'aebaek Mountains. The seasons range from cold, dry winters to hot, humid summers. Rice is the most important crop in Korea.

Korea-Problems in a Divided Country

Korea is divided at the 38th parallel into North and South Korea and includes an area of 47,399 square miles. North Korea has about 23 million people and its capital is the industrial city of P'yongyang. South Korea has 48.5 million people and its capital is Seoul. The north has the raw materials that the south needs and they, in turn, provide food and manufactured goods to the north. The North Korean government is a communist dinosaur closely resembling China during its Maoist isolation period. South Korea is a thriving, capitalist country and has 2/3 of the population of the Korean Peninsula. North Korea is almost entirely rural with no industry and it trades with China and Russia. South Korea has the world's largest shipbuilding industry and also produces iron, steel and chemicals. Their major trading partners are the United States, Europe and Japan. Seoul has a population of 12 million people.

Korea has always been controlled by outside forces. Before WWII, it had been a dependency of China and a colony of Japan. In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea in an effort to reunite the two countries. The United Nations, (mainly the U.S.) drove them back across the original border almost to China. China's Red Army got involved and drove the UN troops south again. By the time a cease-fire was finally called in 1953, the country laid in ruins. The cease-fire line is still a heavily guarded division between both countries. After the war, the north was given to the USSR and the south was given to the United States. North Korea immediately fell under communist rule and South Korea became a successful capitalist country. Today the GNP per capita of South Korea is about $23,800.


Bradshaw, Michael J. (2006) Contemporary World Regional Geography: Global Connections, Local Voices. New York, NY. McGraw-Hill.

Japan. Wikipedia. 9 April 2008. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 9 April 2008. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japan >.

Gabler, Robert E. Essentials of Physical Geography (4th Edition). Brace College Publishers.

World Population Data Sheet (2007). Washington D.C: Population Reference Bureau.

North Korea. Wikipedia. 9 April 2008. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 9 April 2008. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Korea >.

Blij, H.J., Muller, Peter O. (2006) Geography: Realms, Regions, and Concepts. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

South Korea. Wikipedia. 9 April 2008. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 9 April 2008. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Korea >.

Review Questions:

1. The four main islands of Japan include all of the following EXCEPT: A. Kyukaido; B. Shikoku; C. Honshu; D. Kyushu; E. Hokkaido.

2. Race relations among the Japanese are a: A. declining problem; B. non-existent problem; C. serious problem; D. cultural hang-up.

3. While petroleum provides two-thirds of Japan's energy needs, about what percentage is produced locally: A. 1%; B. 5%; C. 10%; D. 15%.

4. The primary crop of Japan is: A. wheat; B. rice; C. fish; D. potatoes.

5. The major asset of Japan's economy is: A. mineral resources; B. loyal and hard-working employees; C. creative thinking; D. agriculture.

6. High technology areas in Japan are centered in: A. large cities. B. rural areas; C. coastal locations; D. rural areas and former areas of heavy industry.

7. A major problem with the topography of Japan is: A. lack of level ground; B. northern position; C. large holes; D. unsuitable for industry.

8. Japan is about the size of: A. Maine; B. Wisconsin; C. Florida; D. California.

9. Japan attempted to establish an empire in Asia and the Pacific in order to: A. control the sources of vital raw materials; B. combat the effects of British and American colonialism in the region; C. acquire extensive areas for settler colonialism in China and Vietnam; D. all of the above.

10. The primary city and capital of Japan is: A. Kyoto; B. Edo; C. Osaka; D. Nagoya; E. Tokyo.

11. The Korean Peninsula has traditionally served: A. as the agricultural "breadbasket" of East Asia. B. as the sole example of an Asian society removed from the main currents of world commerce C. as a bridge connecting Chinese and Russian civilization D. as a conflict between Japanese and Chinese power.

12. Among the most important reasons for the rapid economic development of Japan would be: A. the nation's values of hard work under lifetime employment and seniority systems; B. the abundant supplies of coal, iron ore, and petroleum available in the Japanese islands; C. the fruitful cultural interplay of many races and languages in Japan; D. adequate level ground for development.

13. Probably one of the most important characteristics of Japan's development and management of the economy has always been: A. an adversary relationship between big business and government; B. exploitation of the working classes; C. active cooperation between government and business; D. failure and successes in technological development; E. none of the above.

14. Japanese firms have been establishing assembly plants in many foreign countries, especially in Southeast Asia, because: A. labor costs are becoming too high in Japan; B. it is cheaper to manufacture goods closer to the sources of raw materials; C. many countries want to buy goods made in their country; D. Japan is now short of the skilled labor needed for these plants; E. all of the above.

15. Which East Asian country has the lowest rate of population increase: A. People's Republic of China. B. Japan. C. South Korea. D. North Korea.

16. The highest population densities in the East Asian region are: A. on the northern island of Japan: B. in western China. C. In eastern China. D. in North Korea.

17. Towards the end of WWII the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on what two cities? A. Hiroshima and Tokyo. B. Nagasaki and Osaka. C. Hiroshima and Nagasaki. D. Hiroshima and Kyoto.

18. The largest population concentration in Japan lies in: A. the conurbation of Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe; B. the Tokyo-Yokohama conurbation; C. the Nobi Plain area, including the city of Nagoya; D. none of the above.

19. All of the following are true about agriculture in Japan, except: A. Japan is one of the world's leading agricultural nations; B. Helped by large government subsidies, the country's farmers actually achieve a net export of rice by intensive use of cropland amounting to only one eighth of the country's area; C. the level agricultural land, found mainly in small plains along the coasts, has been augmented by terracing many slopes that are too steep for tillage; D. Production of rice is heavily subsidized by the Japanese government, which aims at rice self-sufficiency, with other foods being imported as needed; E. Japan is not dependent on other nations for any agricultural products.

20. The Meiji Restoration: A. restored Japan to its former position of power and regional influence; B. marked the beginning of Japan's modernization; C. witnessed the rise of Kyoto as the country's modern capital city; D. halted Japan's explosive population growth; E. occurred after the disastrous defeat Japan suffered in World War II.

21. Japan's dominant urban and industrial region, which also contains the country's largest city, is the ________ Plain. A. Kinki. B. Nobi. C. Kyushu. D. Kanto. E. Nagasaki.

22. From a geographic perspective, North and South Korea may be said to be in a state of: A. joint state capitalism. B. joint economic development; C. Post apocalyptic anarchy; D. regional complementarianism. E. industrial inertia.

23. The capital of South Korea is: A. Pusan. B. Pyongyang. C. Taipei. D. Seoul. E. Canton.

24. The outcome of the Korean War in the 1950s was: A. defeated North Korea was returned to the control of Japan. B. victory for the South, which soon became communist. C. a military stalemate resulting in the continued division of the country. D. a short pause, followed by renewed war that still drags on to this day. E. the unification of the two Koreas.

Submitted by Tony McCormick on December 4, 1996. Submitted by Anastasia Privitera; April 1997. Submitted by Hatsuteru Mukai on June 3, 1998. Corrected and resubmitted by Matt Baum, on Nov 30, 1998. Submitted by Eric Hamilton and Jake Watson, on April 10, 2008.