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Japan could soon add more than 7,000 islands to its official list of land masses, more than doubling the number found in a tally conducted in 1987.
It may sound absurd to have overlooked so many hulking chunks of land in previous counts, but with 370,000 square kilometers (140,000 square miles) of territory making up modern day Japan, some bits are bound to be missed or misidentified.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea defines an island as a “naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide”.
Defining precisely where areas of land are completely bordered by water and aren’t regularly swallowed by the ocean isn’t always as easy at is seems.
What’s more, as part of the Pacific Ocean’s Ring of Fire, the Japense archipelago is geologically active, making a number of its islands come and go with volcanic activity and other natural forces.
The Japanese coast guard recorded just such a birth of a new island in 2013. More recently the small island of Esanbe Hanakita Kojima succumbed to wind and ice and was finally forced beneath the waves. Standing just 1.4 meters (4.6 feet) above the water before its disappearance, the loss may have gone unnoticed if the island hadn’t marked a disputed western edge of Japan’s territory.
Prompted by a 2021 parliamentary session, Japan’s government harnessed modern digital mapping technology to achieve a more precise overview of its scattering of land masses.
“An accurate understanding of the number of islands is an important administrative matter that is related to the national interest,” a lawmaker from the incumbent Liberal Democratic Party said at the time, Kyodo News reports.
Based on the previous count, the current official tally records 6,852 islands, of which just 260 are inhabited. But the 35-year-old survey had categorized some clusters of islands as single land masses, missing a large number of the smaller islands altogether.
With the help of aerial photos, existing maps, and other data, the Geospatial Information Authority (GSI) has now identified a total of 14,125 islands in Japan’s territory.
The computer survey detected 100,000 land masses that fit the US definition of an island, but only those that are 100 meters (330 feet) or more in length will be officially recognized on Japan’s list of islands.
The number is yet to be finalized, and when it is given the official stamp of approval, isn’t expected to redefine the shape of Japan’s territory in any way.
“The results of this survey will not affect Japan’s territory and territorial waters,” explains GSI in a statement.