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Japan is the quintessential maritime nation. Its few pockets of flatlands are hard up on the sea and not connected to each other at all. So rugged are the Japanese home islands, boats and ships served the role of roads and tunnels right up to the third century of the industrial age.

What enabled Japan to be more than an isolated series of coastal patches is the Seto Inland Sea, a small body of water between the primary Japanese island of Honshu and the smaller Kyushu and Shikoku. At some 280 miles long, but never more than 35 miles wide, the Seto forms a band of moderate climate territory that is well-shielded from the ravages of the open ocean. It should come as no surprise that the region hosted the Japanese national government for much of Japan’s history, as well as the major population-industrial centers of Osaka, Kobe, Hiroshima, Kurashiki, Niihama and Innoshima.

For more on how the Seto and other features of the Japanese geography have shaped the past of the East Asian region – and how those same features will shape its future – see Chapter 14 of The Accidental Superpower.