Japanese culture is fascinating in lots of aspects. First, it is imbued with the deepest traditions dating back thousands of years ago, and on the other hand, it is a modern society in perpetual change, with fashions and trends in constant evolution and technological development that constantly pushes the limits of the possible.
This is part of what makes it such a fascinating country to visit. If you are looking for something different, take a look at our article to discover the best Japanese Culture Facts! #intro
Japanese people refers to the ethnic group of individual that is native to the ancient Japanese archipelago, known nowadays as the modern country of Japan.
Japanese population constitute more than 98.5% of the total population of Japan. It is known by studies that approximately 129 million people in the world are descent from the Japanese ethnic. Most of them, approximately 125 million people, are currently residing in Japan.
The Japanese country is known worldwide for its supposed homogeneity, but the Japanese population is much more diverse than you might think. At first glance, the Japanese seem to be one of the most socially and ethnically homogeneous peoples in the world.
It is reasonable to equate Japan’s rapid post-war economic development in the 1990s with social solidarity and conformism. Despite labour shortages since the 1960s, the authorities resisted official sanction of foreign workers until the 1980s, relying instead on increased mechanization and an expanded female labour force.
Until recently, Japanese workers mainly associated themselves with the company they worked for – a businessman would introduce himself as “Nissan no Takahashi-san” (I am Nissan’s Mr. Takahashi). By extension, one could have the idea that a Japanese person would subordinate himself to the objectives of the company.
In 2008, however, long-time Japanese politician Nariaki Nakayama resigned after declaring that Japan is “ethnically homogeneous,” showing that the old idea of “one people, one race” has become politically incorrect.
Criticism of Mr. Nakayama’s statement focused on his contempt for the Ryukyukan indigenous people of southern Okinawa, and the Ainu people of the northern island of Hokkaido – colonized by the Japanese in the late 19th century.
In 1994, the first Ainu politician was elected to the Japanese regime, suggesting that the Japanese are eager to officially recognize the distinct ethnic groups in Japan.
In Japan, there is multiple religions that coexist together in the same land. According to recent studies, most Japanese people are either Shintoists, Christians or Buddhist.
Japan’s indigenous religion, Shintō, coexists with various derivates of of Buddhism, Christianity and ancient shamanic practices, as well as with a number of “new religions” (shinkō shukyō) that have emerged since the 19th century.
None of these religions is dominant, and each one of them is affected by the others. Thus, it is not uncommon for a person or family to believe in several gods Shintō and to belong to a Buddhist religion at the same time.
Intense religious feelings are generally not very common in Japan, except among followers of some of the newer religions, and most of Japanese children generally do not receive formal religious training. On the other hand, many Japanese homes have a Buddhist altar (butudan) in which various rituals – some daily – commemorate deceased family members.
Japanese Traditions and Customs
To understand Japanese traditions, it is useful to have a general understanding on their society works. To simplify, try to visualize it with a vertical approach – think of a large company and its chain of command, but apply it to every situation.
For the Japanese people, it is necessary to know exactly where your place is in the chain, in order to function in society as a whole. There are also many formal and standardized rituals that must be carefully followed to avoid embarrassment and loss of honor.
For example, a seemingly simple business-to-business interaction, including greeting and exchanging business cards, can be a very delicate situation for someone who is unfamiliar with the rules of Japanese customs.
One thing is sure, if you have never set foot in Japan, you are going to these mistakes and that could well taint the quality of your trip. So let’s take a look at the two customs of politeness that you should know and respected when you interact in public in Japan.
One of the most obvious and known social conventions is the Japanese bow greeting. In Japan, Forget about handshakes and kisses on the cheek, Japanese people bow when they say hello, goodbye, thank you or sorry. Bowing is a Japanese personification action for respect, remorse and gratitude.
It is believed that the practice of bowing in Japan began during the Asuka and Nara periods (538-794 A.D.) with the introduction of Chinese Buddhism. According to these sources, bowing was a direct reflection of social status: if you met someone of a higher social rank than you, you would put yourself in a more “vulnerable” position, a meaningful way to show respect to a superior or wealthier person.
Japanese Custom of Removing Shoes
This is something that sometimes triggers the attention of many visitors to Japan, but is so easy to understand. It is customary in Japan to take off your shoes when entering a traditional ryokan (guesthouse), a house, a temple or an occasional restaurant for example.
Traditionally, the Japanese removed their shoes when entering a house because people slept, sat and ate on a tatami floor and shoes worn outside spread dirt in the living room. Today, people still remove their shoes, partly to keep the interior of the building clean, but also as a sign of respect.
The Land of the Rising Sun has a wide range of sports specific to its history. From the most famous to the most traditional, we reveal the main Japanese sports practiced by the inhabitants of this beautiful country!
We start with the Japan’s de facto national sport (although it is not an official status), the captivating and sometimes disconcerting spectacle that is Sumo.
Deeply rooted in Japanese culture, sumo has a history of more than 1,500 years. Legend has it that the very survival of the Japanese people depended on the outcome of a sumo match between the gods, and sumo was indeed created as a form of Shinto ritual.
Although it became a professional sport, elements of these rituals are still apparent, from the use of salt thrown by each Sumo wrestler to purify the ring, to the sanctuary-shaped roof hanging above.
Sumo or basho tournaments are held every two months in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka and are a really fantastic way to spend the day. Although the preliminaries are strict and formalized, the fights are a spectacular blur of flesh, noise and power as the two men try to push, pull or slap each other out of the ring, or on any part of their bodies other than the soles of their beautiful feet.
Although it is a typically Japanese sport, the number of foreign wrestlers has been gradually increasing in recent times and a growing number of non-Japanese wrestlers are excelling in the sport and in the complex set of cultural traditions it conveys.
Kendo, a noisy and furious sport, is perhaps the oldest martial art in the Land of the Rising Sun. It combines power, skill and bravery.
Kendo could be described more generally as “Japanese fencing”, although “swords” today are made from four solid bamboo slats, usually held together with leather straps. Its origins go back to the Kamakura period (1185-1333) with the samurai, who needed to practice their sword art.
Although it is undoubtedly one of the most famous martial arts in the world, the beginnings of karate are somewhat uncertain. Often considered Japanese, the earliest history of karate is believed to have originated on the Indian subcontinent.
From there, it moved to China, where it was developed and perfected. Chinese traders brought these fighting techniques to the Ryukyu Islands as early as the fourteenth century. Now incorporated in what is known as Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture of Japan, the Ryukyu were once an independent kingdom with a culture completely distinct from that of Japan. It is there that karate as we know it today was developed.
For hundreds of years, various styles of these martial arts were practiced, and karate was not properly introduced to mainland Japan until the early 20th century. The term karate originally meant “Tang hand” or “Chinese hand”, but after World War II, the name (and character) was changed to mean “empty hand”, which is also pronounced “karate”: an effort to develop the art in a Japanese style. As a result, karate is characterized by largely unarmed combat, with a spectacular range of blows and blocks delivered by fists, feet, legs and arms.
Aikido is sometimes loosely translated as “the way of harmonious spirit“. It is a less overtly aggressive martial art that focuses on defense by redirecting the power and energy of the attacker, with the ideal result that neither the attacker nor the attacker is injured.
Aikido was founded in the 1920s by Ueshiba Morihei. Morihei was born in Tanabe, located in the southern part of the Kii Peninsula. It is a remote and beautiful area south of Kyoto and Osaka and a place of great spiritual importance. This sense of spirituality was imbued in the essence of aikido, as were aspects of Japanese dance, Shintoism, Buddhism, karate and kendo.
Of all the Japanese martial arts, Judo is perhaps the most widespread in the world. The essence lies in speed, subtlety and the ability to use the opponent’s size and strength against himself.
Judo martial art is practiced both recreationally and professionally; epic fights are one of the highlights of every Olympic Games. Judo means “gentle way” and was created by a man named Kano Jigoro in 1882. The inspiration for Judo came from the intimidation Jigoro witnessed at the English boarding school in Tokyo when he was only fourteen years old.
Jigoro wanted to be trained in the art of jiu-jitsu, an ancient form of self-defense favored by samurai. Although it was difficult to find a teacher, he ended up studying with two masters before founding his own school and dojo at Eisho-ji Temple in Tokyo, and from there judo was born.
Japan is a paradise for people who love to eat good, healthy and cheap. With one of the finest and most varied cuisines in the world, here is why the Japanese Food is so respected and famous!
When it comes to dishes, the Japanese are among the most enthusiastic and passionate of all ethnics. Ask any Japanese person about a recent trip to Japan and the conversation almost always revolves around local food. In fact, for many Japanese who travel outside of their hometown, food is often one of the main motivations for traveling.
For this reason, many towns and villages in Japan are known primarily for their local specialty, whether it is a type of sweet, fish, noodles, seaweed or tofu, etc. The Japanese passion for food is such that you can turn on your television at almost any time of the day or night and, without a doubt, watch a program about food.
Careful preparation and meticulous presentation are crucial elements of Japanese cuisine. Food is an art form and even the simplest dishes are often prepared by chefs who have been trained for many years.
Japan is a country of drinkers, and some rituals should be considered before having a drink. For example, do never pour a glass for yourself, your friend or host must do it for you and you in turn must fill your companions’ glasses to the brim! One word you will hear quite often is kanpai (“Cheers!” in Japanese).
Unlike the West, the culture of going out for a drink does not really exist in Japan. The drink is almost always accompanied by a meal or otsumami (a light snack).
Otsumami usually comes in the form of a plate of edamame (soy beans), surume (dried and shredded squid) or arare (small rice crackers whose name literally translates as “hailstones”!).
While sake (rice wine) is Japan’s national drink, lager (pronounced “beer-ru” in Japanese) is the most popular drink. The most popular brands are :
- Suntory et
They are all worth tasting and represent on average about 5% of Japan’s total consumption.
Be careful with cheaper brands, however, because this is not beer at all, but happoshu, a drink with a malt taste. It looks and tastes like cheap beer, but the low malt content means that brewers can avoid taxes on beer!
When times are hard and the strong yen raises the price of a pint, one word to remember is nomihodai (drink as much as you want). Go to the nearest izakaya (a Japanese establishment that also serves food) to get the best offers of nomihoda, usually between 2,000 and 3,000 yen per person.
Many restaurants also have similar offers, even if they are not on the menu. It is therefore worth asking if you intend to stay in the same place for a while, as it can be cheaper than paying for individual drinks.
Whisky is very popular among Japanese men – scotch is considered to be the best and is much sought after. Many Japanese whiskies are now gaining popularity in the West. The two biggest brands are Nikka and Suntory. Yoichi and Yamazaki are considered to be among the best whiskies in the world.
With sake, whisky, beer, green tea and a multitude of soft drinks: Japan has something for everyone!
Beautiful, mysterious and sexy, the Japanese Geisha is the most famous Japanese female entertainers trained to be an expert of traditional styles of performing art, such as Japanese dance, instrument playing and singing. Any one of them will know how to entertain and seduce you with her amazing skills, against a bit of money of course.
The distinctive white face, red lips and richly decorated hairstyle of the geisha are a lasting image portrayed around the world as the entrance to a world to which most of us mere mortals are not invited. After a somewhat dark beginning, the world of geisha today remains a mystery to most foreigners and Japanese.
Like most nations, Japan has always had a kind of pleasure district offering various forms of entertainment. As Japan cut off all contact with the outside world during the Edo period, wealthy city merchants continued to develop the country’s arts in large urban areas.
With the many courtesans of the time providing an area of contentment, merchants sought other types of entertainment, including music, dance and poetry. From these early days, the world of geishas developed, offering entertainment and charm, working alongside the highly desirable, and for most inaccessible, courtesan.
As this form of entertainment progressed, the first geishas on the scene were in fact men, appearing around the beginning of the 18th century. Women quickly understood, and the geisha as we know her today appeared with strict rules so as not to overshadow the courtesans, or steal their clients. As the entertainment of courtesans ran out of steam after the mid-18th century, geisha took their place, with a peak around the 1900s in Tokyo.
Japanese garden, in landscaping, is a type of garden whose main aesthetic is a simple and minimalist natural setting designed to inspire reflection and meditation.
Japanese gardens use elements such as ponds, streams, islands and hills to create miniature reproductions of natural landscapes. The following elements are among the most commonly used:
Since ancient times, stones have played an important role in Japanese culture. In Shintoism, large prominent stones are revered as kami, while gravel was used to designate sacred lands, as seen in some ancient shrines such as the Ise Shrine or the Kamigamo Shrine in Kyoto.
In today’s gardens, large stones symbolize mountains and hills, give decorative accents, and serve as building material for bridges and paths. Smaller stones and gravel are used to line ponds and streams. Dry gardens, on the other hand, are made entirely of stone, with larger stones symbolizing mountains, islands and waterfalls, while gravel and sand replace water.
Manga and Anime
Once almost completely unknown to the world outside Japan, manga (Japanese comics) and anime (Japanese animation) have become a worldwide phenomenon – and their popularity is growing every day.
Manga is one of the most popular forms of Japanese entertainment media. Extremely popular with adults and children, some manga are read every week, while others are broadcast as series in national daily newspapers.
The fact that annual sales of manga books and magazines reach between thirty-five and forty percent of all publications in Japan shows the breadth and diversity of the audiences for this type of material. Manga is a powerful means of influence in the youth subculture, and serves as an important cultural entertainment.
In fact, Japanese manga has a long history; it originated in the 1900s with an artist named Kitazawa Rakuten, who was first inspired by the comic strips of early American newspapers. But the current popular form is a post-war phenomenon, dating from the second half of the 20th century.
Thus, manga encompasses an enormous variety. They are funny, creative, inspiring, philosophical, artistic, trashy, and even edifying. They illustrate many themes, from romance and work to sports in schools, homes, kitchens, offices and even parliament.
They depict a wide range of emotions, virtues and vices such as konjō (fortitude), success through hard work, self-sacrifice, dedication, perseverance, virility, courage or unrequited love.
There are several thousand manga artists in Japan. The best and most successful are popular as celebrities and artists. They have become rich and famous, and also appear on variety shows and TV talk shows, as panelists, moderators, commentators, and even as models.
As soon as some manga have proved their popularity, the logical next step is the creation of an animated TV series, however, manga is not the only source of inspiration for anime. For example, Pokemon was a worldwide success as a video game by Nintendo before it was turned into a manga and an anime series.
The obvious differences from manga, such as color, movement and sound, bring anime to life, but there is an additional element that is extremely important: the theme (opening, ending and OST).
Artists from the world of J-pop and J-rock are all jostling to write the themes for the next big anime series, because it’s almost guaranteed success and it gives great visibility. The anticipation of the artist who will be chosen can often overshadow the anime itself, being the subject of hot discussions in school playgrounds and Internet forums.
Hayao Miyazaki, co-director of Studio Ghibli, founded in 1985, is one of Japan’s most famous, successful and critically acclaimed animators. His long career has seen him create many original feature films in animated form that have touched the hearts of Japanese people as well as the rest of the world.
Visually, his animation style is very unique and cannot be confused, especially since his characters tend to have small eyes, going against the usual trend for larger eyes as mentioned above. Another distinctive feature of his work is that most of the protagonists are strong and independent girls or women.
Among Miyazaki’s most famous works are Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, which won the Oscar for Best Animated Film at the 75th Academy Awards.
For those interested in Japanese history, samurai culture and the role that this military class played in the formation of Japan, it is fascinating.
Although the samurai no longer exist, the influence of these great warriors still manifests itself deeply in Japanese culture, and the heritage of the samurai can be seen throughout Japan – whether it is a large castle, a carefully planned garden, or beautifully preserved samurai residences. It is also deeply rooted in the psyche of the Japanese people.
The basis of samurai conduct is bushido, “the way of the warrior”. This unique philosophy values honor, bravery and selflessness, as well as duty to the warrior’s master in order to surrender one’s life and embrace death.
There was no room for fear on the path of the warrior and this conduct of self-discipline and respectful and ethical behavior was to become the model behavior for other classes throughout the history of Japan.
For most of the year, the theater you will see will be Kabuki, one of the three main genres of traditional Japanese theater. Kabuki began in the 17th century and quickly developed a very stylized type of play that has been popular ever since.
All the roles in Kabuki are played by men and some of its greatest actors specialize in playing female characters. Kabuki stars are part of Japanese celebrity culture and you will often see their faces on billboards or in TV commercials.
In addition to Kabuki, the puppet theater (Bunraku), where each puppet is manipulated by three puppeteers, also dates back to the 17th century, and Noh, a more majestic form of danced theater in which many of the main actors wear wooden masks, can trace its history back to the 14th century.
Bunraku is most regularly performed in Osaka at the National Bunraku Theater and guides with headphones are also available. Noh can be watched at the National Noh Theatre in Tokyo, and each seat is equipped with a personal subtitling system.
Sakura: Cherry Blossoms
The spring blossoming of cherry trees is a major event in the Japanese calendar, and the most popular time to visit Japan. Spring in Japan means only one thing: cherry blossoms.
Between the long, bitter winter months and the stifling humidity of summer, spring is by far the most popular period for tourism in Japan – both domestic and international. The atmosphere at this time of year is contagious, with parks filled with partygoers and supermarket shelves filled with the latest flower-flavoured snacks and drinks.
The cherry blossoms (or sakura) spread all over the country every year, starting with Okinawa in the far south in February and continuing along the Japanese border to the north of Hokkaido in May.
Various factors can affect the timing of cherry blossoms: a particularly cold winter can mean that the blossoms come out late, abnormally mild weather can cause them to come out earlier, and heavy rain can cause the petals of the trees to fall much more quickly than otherwise. That’s why the forecast is followed carefully throughout the sakura season!
“When you fold, the ritual and the act of creation are more important than the final result. When your hands are busy, your heart is serene” – credited to Akira Yoshizawa, the grandfather of modern origami art.
If you’ve tried to turn a thin, square piece of paper into a folded crane, you may not find this activity soothing. For the uninitiated, paper folding may seem like a mysterious art, as their previously reliable and capable fingers become strangely awkward. Who would have thought that folding a piece of paper exactly in half could be so difficult!
However, Japanese origami is increasingly recognized as an effective way to practice mindfulness and increase well-being. It has a meditative quality. It is slow and precise, each fold being carefully made. It requires patience and unwavering concentration to follow the steps and gradually bring the model to life.
And it has been shown that origami can help with relaxation, concentration, eye-hand coordination and memory. A true remedy for our times.