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Regions and Cities for Expats in Japan

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: March 2014

Physical Features

Japan is an island chain in the northwest Pacific Ocean, consisting of 6,852 islands, running roughly in a line for 1,500 miles. Of the four main islands, Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, the largest by far is Honshu. Each of the main islands is up to 80% mountainous; the rest of the land features narrow coastal plains. The northernmost island, Hokkaido, is fairly frigid, while the southern Ryukyu islands are subtropical.

Political Divisions

Japan is politically divided into 47 prefectures, which have traditionally been grouped into eight larger regions. Basic information for these, running from north to south, is given in the table below:

Region Area (km2) Population Density (per km2) Largest City
Hokkaido 83,454 5,510,000 66 Sapporo
Tohoku 66,890 9,340,000 140 Sendai
Kanto 32,424 42,610,000 1,314 Tokyo
Chubu 72,572 21,720,000 299 Nagoya
Kinki (Kansai) 27,335 22,760,000 833 Osaka
Chugoku 31,922 7,560,000 237 Hiroshima
Shikoku 18,800 3,980,000 212 Matsuyama
Kyushu -Okinawa 35,640 14,600,000 410 Fukuoka

The first region, the island of Hokkaido, is colder, wilder, and considerably less densely populated than any other region. Apart from its beautiful and dramatic landscapes, the island is notable for the Ainu people. The Ainu were indigenous inhabitants of Japan and once inhabited most of the archipelago. Hokkaido also contains nearly a quarter of Japan’s arable land; agriculture and forestry are important, and there is also a little coal mining. Tourism is also significant, as some Japanese go to Hokkaido on summer holiday to escape the heat and humidity further south.

Tohoko (‘east-north’), takes up the northernmost part of Honshu. This region has a temperate climate with heavy snowfall in the mountains. It is known for its skiing in the west and its hot springs, especially those in Aomori. Some power is generated by the use of hydroelectricity. In the south-east of the region is Fukushima prefecture, which suffered a nuclear disaster in 2011. The prefecture is on the way to recovery, and now only the immediate area is considered unsafe.

Kanto features the largest plain on the Japanese islands, on which stands the gigantic metropolis of Tokyo. Nearby suburbs have gradually become absorbed to make Tokyo the most populous city in the world; more than 35 million people live in the Greater Tokyo area.  The city is an extraordinary blend of the hypermodern and the traditional, at the heart of cutting-edge technology but also containing ancient buildings such as the Imperial Palace. The largest of Tokyo’s suburbs is Yokohama, which is Japan’s largest port.

Chubu is a large region that occupies central Honshu. The largest city is Nagoya, Japan’s third-largest conurbation, known for its heavy industry and car manufacture. Northern Chubu holds most of Japan’s limited oil and natural gas reserves. The region also contains the most famous natural landmark in Japan, the elegant Mount Fuji.

Kinki, also known as Kansai, is the historical heart of Japan, as it contains two former capitals, Nara and Kyoto. Both have stunning architectural riches, and Kyoto is known as the City of a Thousand Shrines. The second-largest city in Japan is Osaka, and, together with nearby Kobe, the country’s second-largest port, forms an economic and industrial rival to Tokyo.

Chugoku is mostly rural. The largest city is Hiroshima, which has recovered well from being annihilated by an atomic bomb in 1945 to become an important regional centre. Shikoku, literally meaning ‘Fourland’ as it contains four prefectures, is the smallest of Japan’s four main islands and much less developed than Honshu or Kyushu. It does contain some delightful scenery and, as it is comparatively unspoilt, offers a glimpse of old Japan.  

The last region consists of Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main islands, and the Ryukyu Islands to its south and west. The island’s two largest cities, Fukuoka and Kitakyushu, are on a broad northern plain. Much of the rest of the island is mountainous. South of Kyushu are the Ryukyu Islands, which in many ways have retained their cultural distinctiveness from the rest of the country. Although they have mostly been suppressed, the Islands still have their own languages, which are related to Japanese. The islands, the chief of which is Okinawa, are subtropical and subject to typhoons.



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