The world's most destructive earthquake.

 An examination of Japan’s world-beaters yields a “superlative” understanding of the country

If you want to paint a picture of a country and its people, there are different ways of going about it. The most obvious one is to look at averages. For example, the average Japanese man is 41 years old, 169.9cm tall, weighs 61.9kg, and works 151.3 hours a month for a salary of ¥332,485. He’s most probably called Sato, and enjoys a temperature of 14.5°C when’s he’s out and about.

Not only is this rather dull, but, as the example shows, it creates its own distortions: you’d be hard pressed to find an individual exactly like this, and even if you did, what would it really tell you about the country?

A much more interesting and revealing way is to ignore the bland, gray middle ground and instead focus on the sharp, delineating lines of the country’s extremes and superlatives. With this in mind—and with unprecedented access to the data files of Guinness World Records—we present a revealing picture of the country through its sensational record breakers, both human and otherwise.


Like any society with very deep roots, Japan is a creation of its environment. While the country’s warm, mild climate hasn’t earned it many records, its restless geology, the source of countless earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, has.

The greatest physical devastation due to a quake occurred on September 1, 1923, when the Great Kanto Earthquake (measuring 8.19 on the Richter scale) destroyed 575,000 dwellings in Tokyo and Yokohama, killing around 142,000 people. Japan also suffered the worst natural disaster in terms of financial cost: the bill for the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake was US$100 billion.

The biggest apples
Although it is easy to see such seismic activity in negative terms, Japan’s volcanism also has its beneficial aspects. It is the reason the country has so many natural hot spas, like the largest outdoor spa bath in the world at the Spa Resort Hawaiians in Fukushima. Occupying a total area of 1,000m2, this single bath can hold 1,500 people at once.

More importantly, the country’s volcanic nature also makes its soil and coastal waters nutrient rich, stimulating fertile agriculture and plentiful fisheries. This has seen not only impressive examples of fruit and vegetables—the heaviest apple (1.849kg) and radish (31.1kg)—but also impressive sea life, like the Japanese spider crab, whose average leg span of 8-9 feet makes it the longest marine crustacean.


Due to the rich harvest of its volcanically fertilized sea and soil, Japan’s land can support a dense population. This has shaped the Japanese character and also led to some of the nation’s most remarkable world records.

If you reside in Tokyo or its urban sprawl, you are to be congratulated, because you too are a record breaker. According to the rigorous record keepers of GWR, the Greater Tokyo area is the most populous urban agglomeration in the world, with around 26 million people.

Such overcrowding has honed the ability of the Japanese to do things in large groups and build teamwork. This has led to records such as the fastest 31-legged race over 50m (8.8 seconds, by students in Ehime Prefecture), the longest “human centipede” (2,026 people), the largest tea party (14,718), and the most people collecting litter together (74,206).

31-legged race: building teamwork
Japan’s extremely high population density has also seen the creation of the world’s busiest rail network, with over 8.6 billion passenger journeys per annum, and the world’s busiest fish market, Tsukiji, which handled an amazing 615,409 tons of produce in 2003.


Another result of Japan’s population density is that it has come to rely heavily on imports and exports, in the process developing a high-powered business culture that’s set numerous records. The country is home to the world’s biggest bank (Bank of Tokyo–Mitsubishi UFJ), telecommunications company (NTT), motorcycle manufacturer (Honda), and travel agency (Japan Travel Bureau).

Aware of the prestige that a world record can bring, Japanese corporations have often sought out the superlative. In 2005, 900 employees of the pen company Pentel made the longest-ever drawing, measuring almost 4,000m. Not to be outdone, Mitsubishi Materials Corporation set the record for the biggest gold bar, weighing 250kg.

Biggest gold bar.
The power of Japan’s corporations in what is still a relatively closed market also allows them to exert much greater control in shaping demand. This is undoubtedly one of the factors behind some impressive sales records.

Helped by an extensive network of subscription salesmen and control of kiosk space, Yomiuri Shimbun has managed to build up a circulation of over 14 million, making it the largest newspaper in the world. A similar level of market control can be seen in the music industry, where powerful record companies and entertainment agencies find few obstacles in dominating teen taste. Between 1997 and 2007, the unremarkable music of the KinKi Kids duo scored a record-breaking 25 consecutive number one singles. A similar phenomenon can be found in the movies, where the 47 sequels of the first Tora–san movie suggest that Japanese companies are able to stretch successful formulas longer than elsewhere.


The power of the corporations has also been one of the factors behind Japan’s impressive record of technical achievements, much of which centers on miniaturization.

Smallest sculpture
At 360g, Sony’s HandyCam DCR-PC55 is the world’s smallest camcorder. Japan has also given the world the smallest thermometer, digital cassette player, helicopter, motorized model car, and laser sculpture. This last is a three-dimensional bull created by researchers at Osaka University, measuring 0.007mm high—about the size of a human blood cell.

Such miniaturization not only saves space, but also powers other advanced technologies. It is no surprise that the nation with the smallest external hard drive and the thinnest computer chip (7.5 microns thick) also makes the fastest maglev train (581km/h) and the toilet with the most functions. Named the Washlet Zoe, the bidet has a seat and a lid that lift automatically, a flush sound effect to cover “embarrassing noises,” a built-in heater, a self-cleaning capability, and a range of “services” to offer the user, including a remote control.

Another scientific field where Japan leaves the rest of the world behind is robot technology. Some analysts see this as a response to the country’s falling birthrate, combined with a reluctance to make up the resulting labor shortage by becoming a multicultural society. But robots have also long had a powerful cultural cache in Japan, something that has been strengthened by the rise of an otaku subculture obsessed with the human/technology interface. The robot is the perfect symbol of this.

Japan can claim the largest robot expo, the biannual International Robot Exhibition. The 2005 event attracted 152 companies and 99,713 visitors. Here they might have encountered Emiew, the fastest two-wheeled robot, which can trundle along at 6km/h; PaPeRos, the world’s first robot babysitter, or PARO, a robotic seal, which holds the official record for most therapeutic robot after a six-week trial at a nursing home, in which stress levels were monitored through urine samples following interaction with the robot.

The collective nature of Japanese society is often blamed for a lack of initiative and inventiveness among its people, but the high-tech nature of its economy has also provided immense opportunities for the truly inventive—like Shunpei Yamazaki, who holds the record for most patents held by a person, with over 3,245.


Yamazaki’s achievements point to another aspect of Japan’s corporate culture: the emphasis on unremitting hard work that has given the nation its workaholic reputation. Although it no longer holds the record for working the longest hours among developed nations, Japan still holds a number of impressive labor-related records, like the longest working career—98 years—which belongs to Shigechiyo Izumi, who first punched the clock in 1872 at age 7 and retired as a sugar-cane farmer in 1970, aged 105. This was almost matched by the record for longest singing career, held by Yoshie Yokata, who spent 91 years as a practitioner of musume gidayu, a traditional form of chanting that accompanies the shamisen.

No slacking: 98 years on the job
The country’s show business fraternity seems to be particularly hard-working, holding the records for the most variety shows hosted by the same presenter—over 6,000 episodes of Waratte Iitomo, hosted by Tamori—as well as the most hours of live television by a host in one week: the 21 hours, 42 minutes notched up by Mino Monta, who can claim the title of hardest working man in show business.

The pressures of a hard-working society also create a strong need for escapism. Perhaps this explains much of Japan’s otaku culture, with its emphasis on manga, anime, computer games and toys.

Japan is undoubtedly the greatest comic-reading nation on earth. Manga makes up an incredible 40 percent of all printed material. The record for the most comics published by one author is also held by Japan. Shotaro Ishinomori, the “King of Manga” has created over 770 titles in his career.

The computer-game and anime industries can claim similar popularity. Among its records, the gaming business has created the world’s longest-running and most successful character, Mario, who has been trotting around since 1981. Japan’s anime industry can claim an even more astonishing record: in 1997, an episode of Pokemon that used strobe-like effects induced the most seizures ever caused by a TV program, when more than 700 children had to be rushed to hospital.

As this last example proves, it’s not just adults who amuse themselves with juvenile pursuits in Japan. Kids are also a very big part of the picture. In 2006, the Friends of Thomas, a team of parents and kids, constructed the longest wooden toy train track, measuring 1,650m.


The stresses caused by Japan’s overpopulation and intense work ethic, combined with the refusal of a large segment of the population to “grow up,” has seen the nation’s birthrate plummet to near record lows. This has the effect of making Japan the most aged society in the world. But a great deal of this phenomenon is also due to Japanese people’s incredible longevity, the result of a number of factors, including a stable, homogenous society where the elderly are respected, combined with a healthy diet.

The oldest living man is now Tomoji Tanabe, who was born in 1895, while the oldest man ever was Shigechiyo Izumi—the same sugar cane farmer we met earlier. Izumi enjoyed a happy 15-year retirement following his 98-year work career, dying in 1986 at the age of 120.

Japan also holds the records for oldest person to climb Mt. Everest (Tamae Watanabe, aged 63), oldest person to sail round the world solo nonstop (Minoru Saito, aged 71), and the oldest hit recording artists: twin sisters Kin Narita and Gin Kanie had a combined age of 200 when their “granny rap” entered the Japanese charts in 1992.


Although Japan has 373 Guinness world records, many of them are in fields where they have an unfair advantage, like the most koinobori (carp-shaped windsocks) flown simultaneously (5,283), longest sushi roll (1,825m), largest rice cake (2.097 tons), largest paper crane (78m wingspan) and most simultaneous games of Go (500).
No competition: largest paper crane


The Japanese excel at miniaturization, but they have also managed to break some impressively large records. The tallest Buddha in the world, a 120m bronze statue, can be found at Ushiku in Ibaraki. Japan can also boast the tallest lighthouse (the 106m Marine Tower in Yamashita Park, Yokohama), the longest cable-suspension bridge (the 1.99km Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, which joins the islands of Honshu and Awaji), and the largest television display—an 11.2m x 66.4m monster installed by the Japan Racing Association at its Fuchu Racecourse.

The longest cable-suspension bridge

Colin Liddell
Metropolis Magazine
22nd of February, 2008

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  1. Very interesting and thanks for the great info. Please make font bigger.