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The islands are of volcanic origin and have a total area of approximately 1,030 km2. (approximately 397 square miles) The climate is subtropical. The highest elevation is mount Miyanoura-dake of about 1,935 meters (about 6348 feet) on Yakushima island.
The archipelago consists of the 3 major islands
and a number of smaller islets the largest being
- Magejima west of Tanegashima
Additionally, these 3 islands are sometimes included too.
- Nishinoomote City on Tanegashima
- The towns of Nakatane and Minamitane on Tanegashima
- Yakushima Town on Yakushima and Kuchinoerabujima
- Mishima Village on Kuroshima, Iōjima, and Takeshima
The population is about 50,000 people with about 19,000 living in the City of Nishinoomote located on the northwest coast of Tanegashima. The island group is part of the Kagoshima Prefecture.
It is uncertain when the islands were discovered. The first notes mentioning them are in the Nihon Shoki from 720 AD.
In 1543 a Chinese vessel with the Portuguese Mendes Pinto stranded on the island thereby introducing sugarcane and firearms to Japan. Until modern times firearms were colloquially known in Japan as "Tanega-shima," due to the belief that they were introduced by Pinto. In fact, Pinto was probably not present at the first Portuguese contact with the Japanese, although he did visit Tanegashima soon after and legend says he did marry a local woman and had a son. The Europeans had arrived to trade not only guns, but also soap, tobacco and other goods unknown in medieval Japan, for Japanese goods.