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Finding much more to explore in Japan

A geography text that maps out the nation's limits while introducing industry, culture and environment to students and foreign residents alike

by Stephen Mansfield

If you are unsure whether Kinki lies to the east or west of Chugoku, what the principal city of Kagawa is, or which prefectures are landlocked — rest assured that you are not alone. If we have one failing in common, it is geography.

DISCOVERING JAPAN: A New Regional Geography From Teikoku-Shoin 152 pp., ¥1,900 (paper)

How you look at the world, of course, depends on where you are coming from. Scale for one thing, is relative. If you hail as I do from Britain, then Japan is a big country. If you are from California, it will likely be the opposite.

The single commonality among all overseas visitors to these shores is the impression of depth and complexity, the sense that there is much more to be seen and experienced than the size of the nation would at first indicate.

Thus “Discovering Japan” proves to be ideal as a text not just for overseas high school students and travelers to Japan who like to know their coordinates, but also for foreign residents.

More reference than sequential narrative, readers can start at any point in the book that interests them, moving backward, forward or sideways through the material. For those interested in exacting details, there are tables listing prefectural population densities, primary industries, monthly temperatures and precipitation, livestock counts, the ratio of foreign to native workers, even the number of convenience stores and the amount of waste produced per day per person.

The book subdivides into what you might call “hard” and “soft” areas. The former includes sections on mining, industry, fisheries, stockbreeding, chemical recycling plants, textiles, transportation, and interesting developments born equally of economic and geographic necessity, like the vast rice cropping practiced on reclaimed land in Okayama Prefecture. The latter focuses on culture, nature and the environment. This includes commentary on Nambu ironware, Takaoka copperware, Echizen paperwork, the Ainu people’s Atsushi fabric, and craft items even long-term residents may not have come across, such as the round, wooden magewappa boxes made in Akita.

On the natural habitat there are concerns and caveats, but the tendency to blame other countries for Japan’s problems is absent. There is, for example, a whole section on the consequences of organic mercury poisoning in Minamata Bay; while on the link between tourism and environmental problems in Okinawa, the writers highlight the damage caused by “the removal of large amounts of earth and sand for hotel and resort-related construction sites as well as for new golf courses,” and the contamination of the seas and destruction of precious coral.

Wild animals in the Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido are singled out for their recent habit of depending on tourists for food rather than hunting for it themselves. A section on southern Kyushu highlights the negative impact on the environment and the livelihoods of local fishermen of a sea dike across Ishihaya Bay.

There is also an interesting section on internationalization and multiculturalism. The book acknowledges the plurality and diversity of the country today, not only in areas of multinational commerce but in the multi-ethnicity of the more complex, international society that Japan has become.

The front cover of this book depicts a shinkansen-type 700 train storming passed plum trees and a snow-capped Mount Fuji. The legend on the side of the train reads “Ambitious Japan!” The photos, maps and charts in this book, however, convey not the sense of a country performing somersaults of change and high-speed development, but one of well-grounded agricultural plots, an established web of roads, harbors and airports that are more than adequate, and cities that may have reached their “natural” limits.

For the expatriate reader, those limits are more expansive. And one is left with a strong sense of the infinite possibilities within the borders of this narrow but deep country.