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Japan, Land and Resources

According to legend, the Japanese islands were created by gods, who dipped a jeweled spear into a muddy sea and formed solid earth from its droplets. Scientists now know that the islands are the projecting summits of a huge chain of undersea mountains. Colliding tectonic plates lifted and warped the earth’s crust, causing volcanic eruptions and intrusions of granite that pushed the mountains above the surface of the sea. The forces that created the islands are still at work. Earthquakes occur regularly in Japan, and about 40 of the country’s 188 volcanoes are active, a number representing 10 percent of the world’s active volcanoes.

Japan’s total area is 377,837 sq km (145,884 sq mi). Honshu is the largest of the Japanese islands, followed by Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku. Together the four main islands make up about 95 percent of Japan’s territory. More than 3,000 smaller islands constitute the remaining 5 percent. At their greatest length from the northeast to southwest, the main islands stretch about 1,900 km (about 1,200 mi) and span 1,500 km (900 mi) from east to west.

Japan’s four main islands are separated by narrow straits: Tsugaru Strait lies between Hokkaido and Honshu, and the narrow Kammon Strait lies between Honshu and Kyushu. The Inland Sea (Seto Naikai), an arm of the Pacific Ocean, lies between Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. The sea holds more than 1,000 islands and has two principal access channels, Kii Channel on the east and Bungo Strait on the west.

Japan also includes more distant island groups. The Ryukyu Islands (Nansei Shoto), made up of the Amami, Okinawa, and Sakishima island chains, extend southwest from Kyushu for 1,200 km (700 mi). The Izu Islands, the Bonin Islands, (Ogasawara Shoto), and the Volcano Islands (Kazan Retto) extend south from Tokyo for 1,100 km (700 mi).

Japan also claims ownership of several islands north of Hokkaido. These include the two southernmost Kuril Islands, Iturup Island (Etorofu-jima) and Kunashir Island (Kunashiri-jima), as well as Shikotan Island and the Habomai island group. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) took control of these islands from Japan after World War II ended in 1945. Since the USSR dissolved in 1991, Russia has administered the disputed islands.

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