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Flag of JapanThe islands of Japan, lying between the “Sea of Japan” (Korea’s East Sea) and the Pacific Ocean, are part of a chain running along the coast of Asia opposite China, Korea and, in the north, the former Soviet Union. Japan consists of a number of islands: Kyushu, Hokkaido, Honshu and Shikoku and around three thousand small islands, including the Volcano Islands and Iwo-jima. Tokyo is the capital city. Other important cities – all on Honshu, the largest of the islands – are Osaka, Nagoya, Kyoto and Yokohama.

Many thousands of years ago the islands separated from the Asian mainland. Lying on the Pacific Ring, a region where the Asian and Pacific plates making up the earth’s crust meet, around the Pacific Ocean, Japan is geologically very active. There are around one hundred and sixty volcanoes in the area of which around a third are active. Mount Fuji, the highest mountain in Japan, was last active in 1707. In the last one hundred years Japan has suffered from more than twenty major earthquakes, such as the quake in Kobe. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and typhoons are all too familiar to the Japanese people.

The islands are very mountainous; between seventy and eighty percent of Japan is occupied by hills and mountains. The towns and cities are mainly squeezed into the flat lands along the coast, with very high levels of population density.

The climate is tropical in the south and cooler in the north. Humidity is high in the western regions of the main islands, with heavy rainstorms. On the Pacific coast the weather is less extreme. Winter snowfalls are heavy in the north.

Japan’s forests cover almost seventy percent of the country. The forests contain a wide variety of trees: cedar, conifer, willow, beech, banyan, camphor and mulberry trees. The cherry with its spring blossom is a particular favourite, although the national flower is the chrysanthemum. Japan’s other flowering plants include wisteria, azaleas, peony and the lotus.

Birds native to Japan include cranes, storks, swallows and sparrows. These are among the birds of Japan which can be seen in prints by artists such as Hokusai. Wildlife includes deer, bears, mink, otters, squirrels and other small animals. The macaque monkeys of Honshu are famous as a tourist attraction.

It is now recognized that Japan’s rapid economic development after the war has damaged the environment: native plant species are facing extinction and rivers have been polluted. The Environment Agency was established in 1971 to tackle these problems. In 1988 a law was passed regulating the manufacture and use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which damage the ozone layer. Measures have been taken to improve the environmental situation: such as the Recycling Law of 1991 and the Basic Environment Law of 1993. Japan has a framework to deal with all environmental and conservation issues.

Japanese architecture has always drawn on the country’s great resources of forest timber. Houses, temples and castles and other traditional buildings were made from wood. The Horyuji Buddhist Temple near Nara is said to be one of the world’s oldest wooden buildings. Timber buildings, though at risk from fire, are less of a hazard in earthquakes.

Japan’s modern buildings are designed and built so that they can withstand earthquakes, sometimes by allowing movement and flexibility.

The traditional house was built with sliding room dividers as internal walls and its interior design is very clear and uncluttered.

Because of the high population density and the high cost of land, most Japanese people live in small homes or apartments. A famous use of small spaces is the capsule hotel found in Tokyo and other big cities. Instead of a hotel room, visitors sleep in cells with just enough room for a bed and a miniature television.

Japan has some of the world’s most dramatic new architecture. Architects such as Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and Philippe Starck all have exciting new buildings in Japan’s major cities.

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