- TRADITIONAL REGIONS
The concept of regions in Japan is inseparable from the historical development of administrative units. Care was always taken to include various physical features in the larger administrative units so as to create a well-balanced geographic whole. Many of the ancient terms for administrative units have survived in the form of place-names.
The Taika-era reforms of the 7th century established the ri (roughly corresponding to the later village community) as the basic social and economic unit and the gun (district) as the smallest political unit to be governed by the central government. The gun were grouped to form more than 60 kuni (provinces), the largest political units, which were ruled by governors appointed by the central government. Each kuni was composed of maritime plains, interior basins, and mountains to constitute a more or less independent geographic entity. Several adjacent kuni that were linked by a trunk road or a convenient sea route were grouped into a dō, the term signifying both the route and the region. The core region of the country was called the Kinai—i.e., the land adjacent to the shifting imperial capitals.
During the Nara (710–784) and Heian (794–1185) periods, the region of Honshu to the east of the three great mountain barriers of Arachi, Fuwa, and Suzuka north, east, and southeast of Lake Biwa was called Kantō and that to the west Kansai (kan, “barrier”; tō, “east”; sai, “west”). As the empire’s frontier shifted to the northeast, Kantō came to signify the region to the east of the Hakone Barrier (a pass near the town of Hakone), and Kansai gradually came to include limited areas near the capital of Kyōto as far as Ōsaka and present-day Kōbe. Northern areas that had not come under direct control of the central government were called Ezochi (or Yezochi), “Land of the Ezo (Ainu).”
A third regional system was applied after the 10th century, in which kuni were amalgamated according to their distance from Kyōto. The larger units were kingoku, or proximate kuni; chūgoku, or intermediate kuni; and engoku, or remote kuni. Mutsu and Dewa in northeastern Honshu and islands such as Sado, Oki, Tsushima, and Iki were termed henkyō, or peripheral, lands.
In 1871 the feudal system was dissolved and the ken, or prefectural, system was established. At first the more than 300 prefectures were mostly the former fiefs of feudal lords, who were appointed as governors. Through amalgamation and partition there were frequent changes in the ken pattern, until by 1888 the present configuration of 43 ken (including Okinawa), three fu (urban prefectures) of Tokyo, Ōsaka, and Kyōto, and one dō (Hokkaido) was established; in 1943 Tokyo was given the status of to, or metropolis.
Early in the 20th century it was recognized that larger geographic divisions were needed. By 1905 a system of eight chihō (regions) had been set up, dividing the country from northeast to southwest. The chihō are Hokkaido, Tōhoku (northern Honshu), Kantō (eastern Honshu), Chūbu (central Honshu), Kinki (west-central Honshu), Chūgoku (western Honshu), Shikoku, and Kyushu (including the Ryukyus). Another system used by some governmental agencies is a modification of the chihō system. The Chūbu region, for example, is subdivided into Hokuriku, Tōsan, and Tōkai. This system is devised so as to group prefectures of similar geographic character into one chihō and is more effective for illustrating regional contrasts and comparing statistics. In addition, planners have come to refer to the string of industrialized and urbanized areas along the Pacific seaboard between Kantō and northern Kyushu as the Pacific Belt Zone (Taihei-yō Beruto Chitai). This zone includes most of the Japanese cities with populations of more than one million, as well as more than half of the country’s total population.
RURAL SETTLEMENT From the late 19th century, economic and social changes affected even the remotest rural villages, but many traditional aspects of rural life have survived. In the villages, many features that are in common with those of other Asian villages are well preserved. Autonomous and cooperative systems of agricultural practices and rituals, as well as mutual assistance among the villagers, have been handed down to the present. These traditions are mixed with modernized farming practices and employment diversification. An autonomous rural unit, generally known as a mura, consists of some 30 to 50 or more households. Now called an aza, this unit should not be confused with the administrative terms mura or son in use after 1888.
The origins and histories of most rural settlements are lost in time. Historically traceable settlements largely originated through land reclamation after the 16th century. They are commonly called shinden, “new paddy fields,” but in terms of social structure they do not radically differ from the older settlements.
Considerable local difference is evident in the settlement pattern. Some villages are agglomerated, as are those of the Kinki region; some are dispersed, as in northeastern Shikoku; some are elongated, such as those on the rows of sand dunes in the Niigata Plain and on the natural levees of deltas; while others are scattered on the steeper mountain slopes. Although these differences are only superficial, the traditional ties that bind the inhabitants together to form a firm village community are changing as industry moves into the countryside and offers farmers attractive employment options.
No village is regarded as purely rural. Those that are near industrialized urban centres include large numbers of commuters and industrial workers. The more remote settlements send out seasonal labourers during the winter months, though outright migration to urban centres is now more common. The villages of Hokkaido are based on commercial agriculture, and each household has direct contact with a nearby town.
Fishing villages were absent in Tōhoku until the beginning of the 17th century, when northward movement began. They originally depended on nearby rice-producing villages, although some dried, salted, or smoked fish found more distant markets. The fishing villages are most numerous in the southwest, where an exchange economy has long been in practice. Mountain villages that rely solely on local products other than rice are exceedingly rare. Many of them were founded after the 17th century, when lumber, charcoal, and other such commodities found markets in the growing towns on the plains. There were also some villages in the mountainous interior of western Tōhoku that relied purely upon hunting, but these have all but disappeared.
URBAN SETTLEMENT Urbanization is generally of relatively recent origin. Except for the former capital cities of Nara, Kyōto, and Kamakura, no sizable town of any significance appeared before the 16th century. Most of the provincial capitals, or koku-fu, of ancient Japan were only administrative centres that contained official residences and were not developed towns. After the latter part of the 16th century, influential temples and feudal lords began to build towns by gathering merchants and craftsmen close to their headquarters. The power of the feudal lords stabilized when they built jōka-machi (castle towns), which were located so as to command and control the main transportation routes and surrounding areas; the majority of Japan’s important cities, including Tokyo, developed from them.
Next in importance were the port towns, such as Hakata and Sakai, which experienced more vicissitudes than the castle towns. In addition, some of the religious towns eventually grew to a considerable size, as in the case of Ise and Izumo. Under the regime of the Tokugawa shogunate (1603–1867), peaceful conditions fostered nationwide pilgrimages on a scale unknown in the preceding periods, and temple and shrine towns such as Kyōto and Nara flourished.
Widespread urban growth began in the late 19th century with the development of the international ports of Kōbe, Yokohama, Niigata, Hakodate, and Nagasaki and the naval bases of Yokosuka, Kure, and Sasebo. With industrialization came the rapid growth of Japanese cities, and some of the industrial towns (e.g., Yawata, Niihama, Kawasaki, and Amagasaki) were founded in response to economic development. Most of the former castle towns, and especially those along the Pacific side of the country, have been expanded directly or indirectly by industrialization. In Hokkaido and southern Kyushu, raw materials and power resources have attracted a limited number of industrial plants, which alone are responsible for the existence of cities such as Tomakomai, Muroran, Nobeoka, and Minamata.
Japanese cities are jumbled mixtures of old and new, East and West. Mixed land use, including agricultural activity, can be found side by side with the most modernized business centres and industrial establishments, and the fragmented, patchwork pattern of landownership is a formidable obstacle in ever-expanding cities of skyscrapers, subways, and underground plazas. Other serious problems are the shortage of better housing, the increasing use of the automobile, overcrowded public transportation systems, the shortage of open space for recreation, environmental pollution, and the constant menace of earthquakes and floods.