Climate and Geography

What makes Japan Japan?  What makes Noto Noto?  Part 2
But just how are all those interconnected factors of geography, topography, climate and patterns of weather and everything else modified when we consider people who live on a peninsular.  There is something else to consider, too.  Although the culture of a particular people living in a particular location is also shaped by that all-encompassing environment, culture itself is an influence, so is history, and so is the proximity of other cultures.  Where does it end?  The answer to that question is of course elusive and, if the reasoning is too much of a generalisation, it can be misleading.

Focusing on the people of Noto for the moment, they are Japanese and therefore share a common national identity.  What’s that?  Well, once again borrowing Watsuji’s parlance the Japanese people as a whole are subjected to the rigours of a monsoon climate and must therefore endure heat and humidity.  As mentioned before, this basically means people are tolerant and yet submissive.  Is this too much of an over-simplification?

After all, Japan is a chain of islands spread out over almost 3,000 kilometres spanning 25 degrees of latitude and 22 degrees of longitude.  As a consequence it has a subarctic climate in the extreme north and experiences subtropical conditions in the far southwest.  The mountains of Japan also produce conditions in contrast to their location simply because of their height.  The climate is also subject to rapid changes as well as stable periods of weather.  One thing for sure:  its people must be prepared to endure what nature throws at them.  And that includes, tsunami, typhoons and earthquakes.

Typhoons, tsunami and earthquakes are tracked and recorded. 
It is not unusual for one meter of snow to fall in a night in the mountains of Central Japan.
So while the summers in Noto may be hot and humid, what of the winters?  In a few words they are cold, windy and wet and snow is a constant threat.  While the Pacific coast of Japan enjoys clear skies, low levels of humidity and precipitation during the winter months, in Noto it is often raining or snowing and from November to March the sky is more often than not dull and cloudy.  This has much to do with the fact that it is a peninsula that extends into a cold sea and therefore takes the full force of the winds, which blow from the Asian continent.

The peninsular is well-known for its changeable weather.  This is born out by the saying, “Beware of the mother-in-law’s hoots of laughter and a bright clear morning”.  Of course, this not only tells us something about the weather—it cannot be relied on—but also about attitudes towards one’s spouses mother. 

There is something else, too.  The Japan Sea coast of the peninsula is known as the Sotoura coast.  It is ravaged by rough seas especially during the winter months and the coastline itself is rugged too.  The height of the sea wall along this coast bears witness to the roughness of the sea.  Although crashing waves can be a magnificent sight, people tend to distance themselves from the sea on this side of the peninsula.

The strong winds along the Sotoura Coast in winter whip up the sea and produce a froth, which is poetically termed "flowers of the waves".  Shinji Takagi © Photo Copyright
The eastern, Uchiura coast of the peninsula, however, is far less austere and blessed with a number of sheltered bays and calmer areas of water.  The sea on the eastern coast is calm enough even for oyster farming. The climatic and geographic contrasts on the peninsula are therefore quite extreme.

In fact, some people who visit Japan are prompted to sum up their experience of the country as a whole as one of extremes.  The urban conurbations, for example, are so frenetic and yet beyond them the natural environment is lush, vital and engaging.  Some places are pitifully ugly whereas others are so overwhelming beautiful it is difficult to reconcile.

With Mt. Fuji as a backdrop, Yokohama's Bay Bridge forms a gateway to the harbour. 
Watsuji did not think to include large urban settlements in his catalogue of what kinds of environments affect our very being.  He concentrated on the natural not the man-made environment.  Perhaps Watsuji was right to concern himself so much with geography and climate.

Urban development east of Tokyo is far from inventive.  The
postage stamp layout of detached houses aims to make the
most of the land which is available.
The geography of a country can, of course, produce other effects that impact on our lifestyle and ultimately our attitudes.  As an example of what I mean, take Japan as a whole for instance.  80% of the population lives on 18% of the land area.  This means, therefore, if you live in a built-up urban area in Japan, you have to get used to living in very close proximity with very large numbers of people.  It also means that trains can be very crowded, the traffic murderous and even a shopping trip can be an expedition undertaken with many others, with whom you have little or more commonly absolutely no connection, except perhaps nationality.

Land reclamation in Tokyo Bay began in the early part of the
17th century.  It's still going on here in the port of Yokohama.
This kind of reality, of course, helps to define the situation on the Noto Peninsula.  Shin’ichi Shioyasu, whose family has lived on the peninsula for five generations says, “The peninsula is like a remote island on which the mountains dominate and there is very little flat land.  It makes moving around difficult.  Being so “isolated” would seem to suggest that the people of Noto would shun or would be nervous of outsiders.  On the contrary; they give strangers a warm welcome”.

So, although Watsuji’s thinking on monsoon climate peoples is a useful, meaningful guide, it is never going to be definitive.  It is never going to be right in all situations.  There are always going to be variants due to what we might call micro-climates or very particular circumstances of geography or topography.

Nevertheless, I still believe that Watsuji Tetsuro’s philosophical approach helps to define what makes Japan Japan.  And, what makes Noto Noto.

Should you wish to leave a comment, please do so by clicking on the comment mark at the bottom left of this or any of the other posts.  Thank you.

Except where indicated, all photographs and images by Bill Tingey © Photo Copyright

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