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Continuity And Change: Japans Relations With The Sea

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Autor:  anton  24 June 2011
Tags:  Continuity,  Change,  Japans,  Relations
Words: 1903   |   Pages: 8
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Continuity and Change: Japans Relations with the Sea


In every place where people live, the surrounding environment has a profound effect on the way people act and live. When large amounts of people live in a certain area the environment dictates the development of intricate and unique ways of acting and interacting, and those people can be considered as having their own culture. Everyone has their own culture, and the people of Japan are no different. Ever since the first humans came to the islands now known as Japan, a culture has been developing and the geography of Japan has been shaping that culture. The purpose of this essay is to examine how the oceans surrounding Japan, one of the most prominent geographic features, have affected and molded the Japanese culture in both the past and present.


Since Japan consists entirely of islands, this means that it is completely surrounded by oceans. There are four main oceans: the Sea of Okhotsk to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the east, the East China Sea to the south, and the Sea of Japan to the west. The stretch of sea between Japan’s lower islands and mainland Korea spans roughly 100 miles, and it is roughly 450 miles to reach China (Reischauer and Jansen 1995, 31). In the seas exists two main ocean currents, the warm Kuroshio Current from the south and the cold Oyashio Current from the north. These currents have drastic impacts on weather, causing typhoons in the Sea of Japan, large amounts of precipitation in the north, and spells of warm dry weather in the south (Collcutt et al. 1988, 15).


The surrounding seas have relatively cut off the Japanese from the rest of the world. Towards the east one would encounter the Pacific Ocean, vast and empty; if any contact were to be made with other empires it would have to be made with the West, towards what is now mainland China. While the stretch of water separating Japan from the mainland might seem like an easy passage for modern sailors, in the past the lack of sophisticated navigation techniques and seasonal storms would have made frequent travel both difficult and dangerous.

The Sea of Japan then would act like a barrier, on the one hand keeping the Japanese confined within their own borders, and on the other hand preventing any invading armies from entering. For instance, in 1281 the Mongols, who had already conquered the Chinese empire, launched one of the largest invasion attempts that Japan would ever see. With 4,400 ships and 140,000 soldiers, the Mongols completely outnumbered the 40,000 samurai that Japan had to defend itself. Despite having the disadvantage, the samurai warriors managed to hold off their would-be invader’s fleet of ships until the monsoon season, at which point a large typhoon swept down the west coast of Japan, destroying most of the attacking ships and causing the remaining ships to retreat back to the mainland (Collcutt et al. 1988, 61). After that, no invasion of such magnitude would ever be attempted, leaving Japan relatively free from outside influences.

Despite internal conflict, this allowed for Japan, unlike most states at that time, to continue to develop its own distinct culture. Although Japanese culture has remained fairly homogenous over time, this does not mean that there were no outside influences entering Japan. For example, Buddhism was introduced from China in 550 and quickly spread throughout Japan (Reischauer and Jansen 1995, 42). However, because of Japan’s relative isolation, Buddhism there was slowly assimilated into Japanese culture, becoming its own religion, separated from its original sect of Buddhism. It can be said that most things introduced throughout their history have been transformed in this way, resulting in the Japanese maintaining their unique culture.

One thing that has been traditionally unique to Japan is their food. It is thought that influence from China did have a role in shaping Japanese cuisine, but like Buddhism, was soon adapted into something distinctly Japanese. Despite foreign influence though, one aspect of the Japanese diet has always been present, that of their dependence on seafood. In terms of physical geography, Japan is comprised of volcanic islands, most of which feature steep terrain that is ill-suited for agriculture. For this reason, it was only through the sea that the relatively high population of Japan has always been maintained. In the Sea of Japan the cold Oyashio current from the North and the warm currents of the South merge together, creating a rich habitat for sea life. Archaeological evidence shows that the first inhabitants of Japan relied heavily on the sea for sources of protein. For instance, artifacts found from sites once occupied by Jamon - a prehistoric culture that once flourished across Japan – consisted mainly of fish hooks and net making material (Clark 1977, 329). This evidence shows that fishing was a central part of daily life for the early inhabitants of Japan. Considering that in that time, every family would be responsible for obtaining their own food, fish harvesting and processing would have been practiced by all, making it a crucial element of early culture.


Although Japan has gone through a lot of change throughout history, geographically speaking things have remained more or less the same. The surrounding oceans that have influenced Japanese culture in the past continue to have effect today. This is not to say that the effects have not changed though, on the contrary, in regards to the isolation of Japan, things have changed dramatically in this new era.

When it comes to change, Japan has undergone much more then most other countries. This change did not occur abruptly though, more likely it was brought about by major world events and factors ingrained in the Japanese culture itself. One such change that Japan has undergone is the transition from one of the most isolated countries, to what is now considered to be one of the least isolated. This dramatic shift away from isolation is largely due to outside influences and western countries and their interactions with Japan. After first contact with Western peoples in 1543, Japan maintained a minimal relation with the West for almost one hundred years. Fearing that Christianity would bring the downfall of Japanese religion and culture, all interactions with the West were prohibited and Japan adopted an official policy of national isolation. This lasted until 1853 when the United States dispatched a large part of their navy to the port city now known as Tokyo and demanded that Japan open up for trade or face military assault (Jansen 1975, 43). Due to the United States advanced weaponry, the Japanese were forced to begin trade relations. Soon other western nations demanded an equal opportunity to access the Japanese market, and thus Japans days of isolation were over. Although trade had been conducted before with other Asian countries and with the Dutch, it was now being conducted on a much larger scale. After those first crucial steps, trade increased dramatically over the years and along with it came industrialization and modernization, thus permanently changing the face of Japan. This led to Japans present state as one of the world’s largest economies and with one of the highest rates of import and export on many goods and services (Bowring and Kornicki 1993, 367). One reason for their high rate of import/export is due to their lack of natural resources. For this reason the majority of raw materials are imported, and then in turn are either consumed or manufactured for export to foreign markets. Virtually all of their trade is dependent on sea transport in large cargo-container ships. Since most of Japan’s inhabited land mass is reasonably close to the sea as compared to other countries, transport costs are kept relatively low. This has resulted in economic success for many companies and for the country as a whole. The sea barrier that once allowed Japan to keep secluded is now the instrument that allows for a connection to the rest of the world. These interactions with other countries are not only made possible by way of their oceans, but also in part are responsible for Japans current economic success. While success on the global market is a good thing for most Japanese people, it may come at the cost of losing their homogenous culture. As goods and services are imported and exported, along with it come ideas and trends from around the world. It would then seem that the more successful Japan becomes, the more Japan ceases to be distinctly Japanese.

While Japans relationship to the sea as a barrier has changed dramatically, in other areas things have remained unchanged throughout time. Japan is now considered a fully modernized nation, but just like the first inhabitants, most of the population still relies on the ocean as a main source of protein. Currently the ocean sustains a major market for Japan, mainly dependent upon commercial fishing and shallow sea aquaculture (Ashkenazi and Jacob 2000, 201). Even though traditional fishing methods have been lost to intensive harvesting techniques, seafood still remains a large part of the Japanese culture. Sushi, a Japanese food consisting of rice, pickled vegetable, seaweed, and fish (the later two of which are traditionally harvested from Japanese waters), is considered an integral part of the Japanese diet. Before the days of refrigeration, this recipe was originally used as a way of transporting fish from the coast to the inland population without it spoiling. With a Japanese desire for a seafood based diet, mixed with a unique geography, distinctive foods such as sushi now help to shape what is considered to be Japanese culture.


When people first came to Japan and a population started to flourish, a new culture was developed. As a result of being isolated from the rest of the world, that culture remained unique, free from any major foreign influences. Once being forced out of isolation, the seas that acted as a barrier are now the instrument Japan uses to stay connected to the world. Along with this also came a shift from traditional fishing techniques to more industrialized processes. Regardless of that though, seafood has always and still is a major part of Japanese culture. So it seems that the ocean is a force that has the ability to either change or maintain certain aspects of Japanese culture. However, with dwindling fish stocks and an ever increasing confusion of cultural identity, it is uncertain what the future will hold for Japan or its oceans.

Works Cited

Ashkenazi, Michael, and Jeanne Jacob. 2000. The Essence of Japanese Cuisine: An essay on food and culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Bowring, Richard, and Peter Kornicki, eds. 1993. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Japan. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Collcutt, Martin, Marius Jansen, and Isao Kumakura. 1988. Cultural Atlas of Japan. New York, NY: Facts On File.

Jansen, Marius B. 1975. Japan and its World: Two centuries of change. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Reischauer, Edwin O., and Marius B. Jansen. 1995. The Japanese Today: Change and continuity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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