Cultivating an ancient legacy, modern Japan continues to hold on to its past. And while today many of the ancient crafts are struggling to survive, they provide the foundation for modern Japan's technological success. What the Ancient Japanese knew helps explain the industrial marvel of one of the largest economic powers in the world.
Hosted by Jack Turner. Published by Discovery Channel, 2007.
20 Facts On Japanese Culture You Probably Never Knew
Photo by Giuseppe Milo via Flickr
Japan’s unique culture is a fascinating blend of old and new. With deeply-rooted customs and a continuously-evolving lifestyle, Japan is both proudly traditional and ultramodern. This is a nation that celebrates its strong cultural identity, from food and everyday etiquette to art and education. Whether you’re planning a trip or just want to learn more about the country, these 20 facts on Japanese culture will give you a deeper insight into the nation’s unique and fascinating culture.
Photo by Jessica Spengler via Flickr
Good table manners are highly regarded in Japanese culture and correctly using chopsticks is an important part of polite dining. So when using chopsticks in Japan, don’t stab or cut your food with them. Instead, you should lift the food as it is to your mouth. Don’t point at something with your chopsticks, as this is rude in Japanese culture. Meanwhile, you should never leave your chopsticks sticking upright in a bowl of rice, as this is associated with funeral customs. Instead, place them on the chopstick rest in between bites or when you finish eating.
Photo by Akuppa John Wigham via Flickr
Bowing (known as ojigi) is the traditional form of greeting in Japan. However, bowing can also be used to indicate gratitude, congratulations, or an apology. In casual daily situations, a bow is often a simple nod of the head. Meanwhile, a longer and deeper bow is more respectful and can signify a formal apology or sincere thanks. Don’t worry if you’re just visiting – it’s completely acceptable for foreigners to shake hands in Japan.
3. Bathroom Slippers
In Japanese homes, there’s typically an area inside the front door, known as genkan , where people swap their shoes for house slippers. Going to the bathroom involves changing slippers again, as cleanliness is an inherent part of Japanese culture. The most important thing to remember is to swap slippers again as soon as you leave the bathroom. It’s considered very embarrassing to leave bathroom slippers on when you reenter a living space.
One of Japan’s best known cultural exports, anime is popular on a global scale. Anime refers to Japanese animation that’s either hand drawn or created digitally. Although Japanese anime accounted for 60% of the world’s animation in 2016, it’s biggest impact has been on modern Japanese culture. If you travel around the country, look out for anime statues, snacks in themed packaging, and character-based advertising.
5. Slurping Noodles
Photo by Masaaki Komori via Flickr
There are lots of interesting dining traditions in Japan, but slurping noodles has to be one of the most fun. When Japanese diners slurp their noodles, it’s seen as both a sign of enjoyment and a compliment to the chef. So next time you order ramen or yakisoba in Japan, feel free to slurp to your heart’s content.
6. Eating Sushi
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Sushi isn’t just one of Japan’s most popular dishes – it’s loved all over the globe. If you want to embrace Japanese culture, it’s worth perfecting the way you eat it. The traditional way to eat maki and nigiri sushi is with the fingers, while sashimi is eaten with chopsticks. It’s also worth remembering that when dipping sushi in soy sauce, only the fish should touch the sauce. Rice soaks up too much soy sauce, so Japanese people tend to avoid doing this. Meanwhile, the only time mixing wasabi and soy sauce together is acceptable is when eating sashimi.
Most frequently associated with sumo wrestlers, chankonabe is a traditional Japanese stew. Packed with fish, vegetables, meat, and tofu, this high-calorie dish is eaten daily by sumo wrestlers. Sumo wrestlers eat chankonabe with bowls of rice and it provides them with the necessary nutrients for their training.
8. Onsen Etiquette
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Visitors to onsens, or hot springs baths, are required to bathe naked in Japan. Traditional onsens do not allow swimsuits, so everyone must shower thoroughly before entering the baths. This means that visitors leave their clothes and large towels in the locker room and take just a small towel with them to the bathing area. As there’s usually nowhere to put the small towels, the traditional solution is to put it on your head.
Photo by Mika Ueno via Flickr
At a rate of almost 100%, Japan’s literacy rate is one of the highest in the world. This is largely thanks to the country’s excellent education system, which is compulsory at the levels of elementary and Junior High School. Japan’s wealth of great writers may also be linked to the country’s focus on literacy. You can experience Japanese literature for yourself by reading the works of some of the nation’s best authors.
Every year, incorrectly prepared fugu causes food poisoning in Japan. Fugu , Japan’s toxic blowfish, is one of the most lethal natural products on the planet. Yet it remains an expensive and sought-after delicacy in Japan. Chefs must train for a minimum of three years before undertaking an examination to legally cook and serve it.
11. Morning Exercise
Photo by Justin C. via Flickr
Health is important to Japanese culture and the country’s tradition of morning exercise reflects that. Rajio Taiso, introduced by Emperor Hirohito, is a radio exercise program that’s been broadcast daily since 1928. It plays every morning for 10 minutes and it’s mostly followed by school children and the elderly.
12. Sitting Seiza
Photo by kasashine via Flickr
Seiza, which means sitting with your legs folded underneath you, is the traditional way to sit on Japanese tatami floors. At formal occasions, sitting seiza is considered appropriate and respectful. Even so, it’s a difficult position for the average person to hold. Older Japanese people sometimes sit with their legs out in front of them, which is completely acceptable.
13. Colds and Allergies
Photo by Stephan Geyer via Flickr
When you suffer from a cold or hayfever in Japan, it’s polite to wear a mask. Japanese people also avoid blowing their noses in public, as it’s seen as rude.
In Japan, a bath at home is for relaxation, rather than for cleaning. So Japanese people do not use soap in their baths. Instead, they shower first and then soak in the bath afterwards.
15. Walking While Eating or Smoking
Photo by C.K. Tse via Flickr
Walking down the street while eating is not acceptable in Japan. So you’ll sometimes see people standing by vending machines, finishing their drink or snack. Meanwhile, smoking while walking is illegal in many areas. There are designated smoking areas, so don’t light up until you reach one.
Photo by Tomohiro Ohtake via Flickr
Although tea is a huge part of Japanese culture, the nation is also known for its love of high-quality Jamaican coffee. About 70% of Jamaica’s exported Blue Mountain Coffee goes to Japan.
Photo by J3SSL33 via Flickr
A geish, which translates as “performing artist” in English, is a traditional female entertainer. Although surprisingly, the first geisha were men. As time passed, it became regarded as a mostly female profession and today, geisha are still a much-loved part of Japanese culture.
18. Pouring Drinks
The Japanese consider it impolite to pour your own drink at dinner parties. So it’s best to pour everyone else’s drinks and then wait for someone else to pour yours.
Photo by Charles Haynes via Flickr
Japanese restaurants often give customers a moist towel, known as oshibori , to clean their hands before eating. Depending on the season, the towel will be cold or hot. Just don’t use it to clean your face or use it throughout the meal.
20. Non-Verbal Communication
For most Japanese people, non-verbal communication is an important part of social interactions. In Japan, facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language are all seen as influential on the tone of a conversation. Words can have various meanings, so Japanese people often observe non-verbal signals to work out what someone really means.
These interesting facts about Japan are just a taster of all there is to learn about the nation’s culture. In Japan, cutting-edge trends sit side by side with ancient traditions. This dynamic cultural mix is part of what makes it such an exciting country to explore.
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"The selection and accuracy of the citations are excellent . . . includes many unusual, elusive, but valuable sources, and is the book's strongest feature."
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"An imaginative and comprehensive guide to Japanese history and culture, as valuable to the expert as to the beginner a bibliography that can be read as well as used, for it leaves almost nothing out."
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From the Edo Period to the Meiji Period
Bathing Culture in Edo Bathhouses
Bathing culture changed in the Edo Period (1603-1868) as sento (bathhouses) brought bathing to commoners’ daily life. Baths in this period were predominantly focused on steaming waters, with the bather often only soaking the lower part of his legs in water or enjoying other partial bathing. Only the most elite noblemen in the warrior class were able to enjoy the luxury of a bath in their own homes.
But this period also brought suefuro, the first bath in which bathers could submerge up to the shoulders. These baths were mainly pots heated by firewood, and include some memorable designs such as the goemon-buro (cauldron bath) and the teppo-buro (piped bath).
Edo period bathhouses allowed mixed bathing and shocked Commodore Perry on the opening of Japan to the West!
Mixed bathing with men and women sharing the same bath was commonplace in Edo period bathhouses and considered completely natural at the time. In some periods of Japanese history such as the Kansei edicts of 1790 and the reforms of Tenpo in 1830, mixed bathing was briefly banned as an affront to public morals but, by and large, it continued until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Indeed, when Commodore Matthew Perry and his black ships visited Japan between 1853 and 1854 he recorded his puzzlement at the practice of mixed bathing, which differed so greatly from his own culture.
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The Japanese culture encompasses sublime beauty and is so vast that each realm can be written about in several different pieces. Here however, we have made an attempt to provide to you a glimpse of the different aspects of this vast culture.
Traditional Japanese Clothing
Almost everyone is familiar with the traditional Japanese clothing item, i.e. the kimono. In the past kimono was a blanket term used to define all types of clothing. However, its contemporary definition is that of a long garment worn by men, women, and children. In fact, the types of kimonos worn vary based on occasion, marital status, and even the season. Here’s a look into three types of kimonos worn by Japanese women.
• Tomesode: This is the kimono of a married women and can be distinguished by the fact that its patterns are not prominent above the waistline.
• Furisode: This is the kimono belonging to unmarried women and is distinguished by its extremely long sleeves. Such kimonos are worn by unmarried girls only on very formal occasions to indicate that they are of age and available for marriage.
• Uchikake: The uchikake is a special kimono worn by Japanese brides. It is made of silk and is much longer than the regular kimono. This is a characteristic trait of the bridal kimono and just like in the western culture where there are designated bridesmaids to carry the train of the bride, there are assistants required to help the bride walk in the uchikake.
Apart from these specific kimonos, it is interesting to note that the patterns of kimonos vary based on the prevalent season. Those in fall are less brighter than those of spring, while those of winter are made in heavier fabrics such as flannel. A popular type of kimono worn in summer is known as yukata, made of cotton. It is a casual kimono worn at most summer events in Japan. Kimonos worn by men and women can be differentiated by the colors they wear. Men wear lighter, neutral colors while women wear brighter colors and prints. One more element that sets these kimonos apart is the obi, a sash worn around the kimono at the waist. The obi worn by men is thin while that worn by women is much wider. In today’s day and time, kimonos are not worn regularly, but primarily on special occasions. However, men and women do wear kimonos while entertaining guests at home.
• Girl’s Day – Hina Matsuri:Popularly known as the doll festival, Hina Matsuri falls on March 3 each year. On this day parents of girls display dolls of an ancient Imperial couple in their houses, and in some cases, dolls of the couple’s courtesans and other servants along with peach blossoms and rice cakes are displayed at multiple levels to make one huge display. These dolls are displayed to take away bad luck from the girls of the house so that good fortune prevails. At the end of the day, i.e. midnight, the dolls should be put back into their boxes, else it is believed that the daughters of the house may never get married.
• Cherry Blossom Viewing – Hanami: The viewing of blooming flowers (sakura) of cherry blossom trees is an ancient practice that continues with the same amount of popularity to this day from the months of February to April each year. The duration however, varies from region to region depending on when these flowers bloom. Trees are planted across parks and people are known to enjoy tea ceremonies and picnics under these trees to celebrate the end of winter and the beginning of spring. The sakura disappear weeks after they bloom and fall to the ground, that is symbolic of the ancient belief of the fleeting nature of youth and life in general.
• Golden Week: The golden week is so called because three public holidays tend to fall in the same week and are sometimes clubbed with a weekend that turns out to be one long vacation for everyone. This week falls between April 29 and May 5, and the public holidays it encompasses includes Green Day, which falls on April 29, Constitution day, which falls on May 3, and Children’s Day (primarily celebrated by boys), which falls on May 5.
• Star Festival – Tanabata Matsuri:This festival is celebrated based on a legend about two lovers having been separated by the Milky Way, who are allowed to meet only on one specific day in the 7th month based on the lunar calendar. Since the lunar calendar is different from the regular calendar that we follow, this festival falls on different dates between July and August. July 7 however, is the day when the festivities first begin. People celebrate this day by writing different types of wishes on small paper pieces and hanging them on bamboo. This bamboo is then burned once the festival ends, that is on the next day. This festival is celebrated on a large scale across the country.
• Seven-Five-Three – Shichi-Go-San:This is a festival specifically held for children aged 3, 5 and 7 and marks the coming of age of children into middle childhood. To be a little more specific, this festival is important for girls who are 3 and 7 years of age, and boys who are 3 and 5 years of age. Observed on the weekend closest to November 15, this festival sees children dressed in elaborate kimonos who then visit various shrines in their city. Children are given what is known as Chitose Ame, a long red and white candy as a symbol of good health and a long life.
• Christmas – Meri Kurisumasu: Japan hardly has a Christian population, yet Christmas is as popular in the country as is any other festival. However, the essence behind the celebration of Christmas is completely different. There is no turkey and no going to church. All that is followed is the ritual of gift-giving and celebrating with a dinner. It is not a family occasion (as is New Year’s Day), yet it is celebrated with beautiful decorations. Christmas is not a holiday in Japan but parties are still organized to celebrate this day.
Religion in Japan
Religion is not predominant in Japan, but there are followers of the two prominent religions in this country, i.e. Shinto and Buddhism. In today’s day and time, the beliefs, faiths and rituals overlap with each other’s and it is difficult to identify one religion from another. Shinto is a belief in the fact that a superpower resides in all the elements of nature rather than one single god. There are specific sites that have been developed into shrines, dedicated to sun worship and the like. Each site is associated with a deity known as kami. Buddhism in Japan came from Chinese influence, and is far more popular in the country. There are several Buddhist temples and in some cases, these are built alongside Shinto shrines. The Japanese are not found to be a very religious lot, with them visiting these places of worship primarily on the aforementioned festivals. Other religions that exist in minority in the country include Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. Recently new religions have been founded based on certain specific tenets of Shinto and Buddhism. One such religion is Soka Gakkai, a form of Buddhism.
Geisha have always been synonymous with Japan. Geisha or person of the arts are primarily women who entertain guests by engaging in various forms of performing arts such as playing musical instruments, dancing, carrying out a tea ceremony, Ikebana or flower arrangement, and reciting poetry. It is interesting to note that in the beginning, geisha were all male. It was after some time that women began to follow suit and soon this became a completely female-dominated profession. Geisha were trained since childhood in what were known as okiya houses. Now geisha can choose to enter the profession based on personal choice and train whenever they enter the profession. Contrary to popular belief, geisha do not engage in prostitution. This is a myth that has been spread because during the Second World War, a lot of girls sold themselves to American soldiers by calling themselves geisha girls. Geisha are hired primarily for entertainment in the aforementioned forms, which may include engaging in conversation and even flirting a little with their male clients. However, their job does not go beyond these functions. Initially geisha belonged to a close community, but in today’s time, geisha are openly visible in Japan. They even participate in several festivals dedicated to them.
Markus Wiener Publishers
A collection of seven bibliographies on Japanese history and culture from ancient to modern times. It should be useful as a research list, and seeks to include many unusual, elusive and valuable sources.
“An imagination and comprehensive guide o Japanese history and culture, as valuable to the expert as to the beginner a bibliography that can be read as well as used, for it leaves almost nothing out.” —Carol Gluck, Columbia University
“The selection and accuracy of the citations are excellent… Dower’s selection of English-language primary sources includes many unusual, elusive but valuable sources, and is the book’s strongest features.” —Choice
John W. Dower, a professor of history at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of War Without Mercy and numerous other books and articles.
Timothy S. George, a previous Fulbright grant recipient, now teaches history at University of Rhode Island and is a current visiting professor at Harvard University.
The Study of Japanese Mindscapes
[I] call mindscapes the various geographical areas chosen by the Japanese in the course of their history to either project onto them particular mental structures or representations of reality, or to infer from them particular representations helping them to establish meaning in experience. In either case we confront a dialectic between nature and culture, be it that nature is to be “decoded” in order to reveal its hidden meanings which are necessary in order to survive, or that culture is seen as the sum of actions which are informed by particular perceptions of the “being” of nature.
These mindscapes are generally located in landscapes of great natural beauty which have been protected over the centuries and many of which form today the National Parks of Japan. It seems that the origin of these mindscapes is in ritual, when sacred space was defined in order to perform the rites of purification necessary to come into contact with the divinities which should guide human action. Natural elements form the basis of sacred space: a stone or a pillar, or a tree. These were in principle situated near sources of water, at the foot of mountains or at their top. It is there that specialists of ritual would manipulate fire and water, and play musical instruments in order to be possessed by the divine. This possession led to the uttering of “meaningless” sounds, which then had to be decoded and interpreted by specialists. In other words, it was thought that nature spoke a language which needed to be decoded.
This aspect remained true for centuries in Japan, even in the texts proposing highest reflections on the philosophy of Buddhism. Some sacred spaces thus came to be seen as the natural abode of the divinities, and were not to be entered except at the time of ritual feasts some of these, after the introduction of Buddhism, were forbidden to women, over whom the rotten characteristic of nature had been projected by mythology. Being the natural abode of the divinities, these areas became the focus of particular attention, and, as sedentary communities emerged, shrines were built for rituals. When Buddhism came in, temples were built next to the shrines, and associations between the Shinto divinities worshipped in the shrines and the Buddhist divinities worshiped in the temples were established, leading to complex combinatory systems of syncretism. The divinities worshiped in the shrines were often spirits of natural elements, or protectors of the community, or ancestral divinities in most cases these merged to form a single complex deity. But the rituals show that we are always facing an attempt, on the part of the ritualists, to manipulate or influence nature with culture: food offerings are made, magical formulas which are believed to be the language of nature are expressed, thus making communication with nature possible.
In the case of mountains, the entire area was seen as sacred sometimes, the mountain itself was considered to be the “body” of the deity itself. Most often Buddhist temples were built next to these shrines, but as time passed, they came to be erected on the mountain itself: the ultimate in terms of culture could be realized in the deepest, or highest, or most ethereal parts of nature. The temples were granted tax-free domains at the foot of the mountains, thus gradually creating a large geographical unit that was under their spiritual influence and protection, in conjunction with the shrines. The result of these developments was the establishment of what could be called a sphere of influence, a self-contained unit of ritual and practice overlooking human activities in the plains.
These cultic centers came to be the largest single land-owners of Japan during the medieval period. The sum of the symbols they expressed, of the rituals they performed, of the ideas they exuded or developed, forms the “mindscape.” And in this mindscape, the presence of nature is overwhelming both in its outward appearance and in the culture it created this is why a systematic study of these centers of nature/culture dialectic is needed. Their role in Japanese history is immense, for they regulated patterns of land-ownership and use, and gained large economic and political power. It can be advanced that the official separation between Shinto and Buddhism which was ordered by the government in 1868 had as one of its goals the fundamental change of land-ownership systems in Japan therefore, the relationship between the cultic centers and the people living on that land became ever more tenuous, to the point of disappearing in the time-period of only one century. As a consequence, the content of the relationship of people to nature changed drastically and followed other patterns of use that are not informed anymore by what goes on in the religious centers. This rearrangement of Japan may have cut the umbilical cord to ritual allowing people to deal with nature in a totally different way, which may have been what we call today “ecological”.
Its not just sumo wrestling and puppet shows in Japan, oh no, state of the art entertainment abounds in the land of the rising sun.
This pin-ball type machine where one seeks to collect as many steel balls he can in order to exchange them in for prizes has its beginnings as far back as the early 1920’s. But these mechanical pachinko machines didn’t begin to resemble present day until the 1980’s when all the bells and whistles were so liberally applied.
In present day Japan there are over 16,000 pachinko parlors extant. Because players of Pachinko are able to win very attractive prizes (electronics like cell phones, computers) it is seen as a quasi form of gambling. Indeed so as there are some parlors where you can exchange the steel balls for cash. With the structure of the game being the more you play it the higher chances you have at getting a jackpot it because rather addictive.
You can find Pachinko parlors most anywhere in Japan, however they have a strong tendency to take up shop in the ‘seedy’ or ‘dodgy’ parts in town, next door to such fine establishments as night clubs and whore houses.
The Pride of Japan: Karaoke, swept over the world over in the 1980s and is now the unofficial past time of Japan, as well as Taiwan and the Philippines.
The format of Karaoke in Japan (and Asia in general) differs to that of the west, where in Japan you will sit either alone or with your group of friends in a medium to small sized room, with a pair of microphones and a TV to watch and sing from. While in the West you have bars with a stage and microphone, where the individual performs in front of strangers.
Pricing in Japan varies on location (in the city it is more expensive than the country), and time of the day, where you can pay 500 yen per hour during the day time you can end up paying 1000 yen per hour at night or on the weekends. This has resulted in people going for a Karaoke Quickies during their lunch breaks. As many parlors are open 24/7 there are usually ‘all night’ deals where the customer will pay a flat fee and have the whole night (11pm – 7am) to sing, or sleep for that matter.
Karaoke’s omnipresence is something to behold, as it is hard to find a train station or commercially zoned area that does not have a karaoke parlor near by.
It is important to note that Karaoke is enjoyed by ever single demographic and age range in Japan, be it children after school, or business men after a days work.
The Japanese game center mirrors that of the west, big loud flashy games, some of them from which you can win prizes. They are most popular and almost exclusively used by the youth. Game Centers are always found at malls or train stations. Westerners will get a few kicks out of the Game Center, with games like ‘taiko drumming’ and other marvels like ‘glamour’ photo booths or ‘purikara’ as they are called. You can get professional photos of yourself done with extras like air brushing and eye enlargement.
It will make girls look like monsters and men look like girls.. Read me!
It is almost as if the Japanese make a past-time of thinking of different things they can sell in vending machines.. Read me!