It is 14 cm long and has a conical, grey bill, pinkish-brown feet and brown eyes. The male is grey-green above with black streaks on the back. The underparts are yellow-green (brightest on the throat and belly) with streaks on the flanks. It has black lores, a narrow black chin, a pale eyering and white outer tail-feathers. There are two bars on the wing, formed by pale tips to the median and greater wing-coverts. The female is similar to the male but paler without the black on the lores and chin. The species has a twittering song and a soft 'tsip' call.
The Yellow Bunting breeds only in Japan where it is uncommon. It is found mainly on the largest island Honshū but may also breed on Kyūshū and possibly bred on Hokkaidō in the past. It occurs in forest and woodland between 600 and 1500 metres above sea-level, mainly in the central and northern parts of Honshū. A few birds winter in the warmer regions of Japan but most migrate further south. It has been recorded from the Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong and south-east China at this season but is scarce everywhere. It occurs in woodland, scrub, grassland and farmland during winter. Small numbers pass though Korea on spring and autumn migration.
The total population of the Yellow Bunting is small and decreasing and the species is classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN. It is threatened by habitat loss, the use of pesticides and trapping for the cagebird industry.