What is Japanese Culture Like?
Japanese culture is a set of values that puts importance on social harmony and hard work. Up until the 10th century, Japanese culture was similar to the Chinese culture, but the rise of the samurai in the Heian Period and the isolation during the Edo Period changed the rules of society. Overall, the culture was influenced by the local Shinto religion, Buddhism, Confucianism and the limited natural resources.
While Japanese lifestyle has been Westernized recently, Japanese people still do everything possible to preserve their rich cultural heritage by practicing tea ceremony, wearing kimono and studying traditional arts and crafts from early childhood.
Japan’s Customs and Traditions
Since harmony is very important in Japan, there are many customs, traditions and etiquette rules to create social bonding between people. Some of the interesting traditions that surprise foreigners are:
- Taking off shoes when entering someone’s house
- Wearing a mask when sick
- Not shaking hands and not hugging when meeting with loved ones
- Bowing 45 degrees to show respect
- Making the slurping sound when eating noodles
- Symbolically washing hands when entering a shrine
- Wearing slippers when using the restroom
- Decorate one’s house with dolls for the annual “girls day” and decorate the house with the samurai figure for the annual “boys day”
- Throwing beans at people who dressed as demons during the “setsubun” festival
- Eating a special meal called “osechi” during the new year’s day
- Bathing in the evening rather than in the morning
- Participating in the firework festivals or bon odori festivals during the summer by wearing a yukata.
Some Basics of Japanese Culture
Japanese people always display modesty and humility. People often bow to convey the message: “I am not above you. I respect you.” Bowing longer with a higher degree of angle means more respect. Additionally, Japanese people have two religions at the same time: they are both Buddhist and Shintoist. When a Japanese baby is born, the ceremony is held in the Shinto shrine and when someone dies the ceremony takes place in a Buddhist temple. Lastly, in Japan, people are obsessed with hygiene: they take off their shoes when entering someone’s house and take a bath almost everyday. Many foreigners are surprised that there are no trash cans in public areas but everywhere is still clean.
Festivals in Japanese Culture
There are relatively a higher number of festivals in Japan compared to other countries because Japanese religions are related to celebrating the harvest seasons and seasonal changes. Each of the 47 Japanese prefectures has a different festival which usually takes place in the summer. Locals usually participate in these festivals by wearing a yukata and sandals. The most famous Japanese festivals are:
- Gion Festival in Kyoto. The largest parade in Japan which started in the 800’s when there was an epidemic similar to the Coronavirus.
- Awa Odori Festival in Tokushima. A Dance festival held during the Obon-Week (the week when the spirits of the deceased are believed to visit the world).
- Nebuta Festival in Aomori. A festival dedicated to ancient warriors in Northern Japan.
Holidays and Celebrations in Japanese Culture
If you look at the Japanese calendar, you would notice that there is a major cultural celebration almost every month. Japanese people like celebrating seasonal changes to show their appreciation of new beginnings. The three most important celebrations in Japan are:
- 1) The new year’s day. Japanese people visit a shrine after the midnight on Dec 31 to make a wish.
- 2) Cherry blossom celebrations in April. It is a custom to have a picnic under the cherry trees.
- 3) The Obon Holiday in August. Japanese people visit their hometown to commemorate the spirits of those who passed away.
Etiquette in Japanese Culture
Since Japanese people believe individuals are less important than the group, everyone strictly follows the rules of the etiquette. Some of the most common etiquette social faux pas foreigners make in Japan are:
- Speaking on the phone while riding a train
- Not returning a personal favor by gifting a box of sweets
- Eating something while walking or eating something on the train
- Taking or giving something by only using one hand
- Showing up for a meeting just in time (People are supposed to come to meetings 5-10 minutes earlier, NOT at the exact beginning time)
- Passing food to someone by using chopsticks (this act is a reminder of funerals)
- Not taking off shoes when entering someone’s house
- Writing someone’s name in red ink
- Giving white or yellow Chrysanthemum flowers to someone who is sick (this act is a reminder of funerals)
- Not showering before entering a hot spring
Food in Japanese Culture
The staple food in Japan is rice, not bread. In the past, the tax was collected as rice and samurais’ salary was paid in rice. Japanese people believe rice is healthier than wheat which has more carbs and is more difficult to digest. Up until the 19th century, the Japanese rarely ate meat because of Buddhism which bans eating animals. For the same reason, they also did not consume dairy, that is why some Japanese tend to be lactose intolerant. Fresh sushi is the most popular food throughout Japan even though it used to be the cheap fast-food for workers in the 1800’s. Nowadays, a typical Japanese breakfast consists of fried fish and miso soup while a typical lunch is ramen noodles or rice bowl with deep fried meat.
Clothing in Japanese Culture – Kimono
Traditionally, Japanese people wear a one-piece garment called kimono which emerged during the Heian Period (794-1185). Kimono is made out of silk and each motif has a meaning. Cranes represent longevity; pine-trees represent the new year; the Chrysanthemum flower represents the imperial family. The summer kimono is called “yukata” and the wedding kimono is called “uchikake.” Kimonos usually have long sleeves for wind to pass through and cool down the body. While children wear kimono with bright colors and flower designs, the elderly wear simple kimonos with simple motifs. Nowadays, Japanese people wear Western clothes at work and school but prefer kimono for social occasions and ceremonies.
Arts in Japanese Culture
Japanese arts can be traced back to the indigenous populations who roamed the main island thousands of years ago. The pottery vessels made by the “Jomon” 12,000 years ago are considered as the oldest in the world. Later, the Japanese arts were influenced by Buddhism and Chinese culture. The earliest forms of Buddhist statues and monochrome paintings at temples show resemblance to the Chinese arts. However, many unique forms of art, such as ikebana, ukiyo-e and kabuki, started emerging when the influence of China started diminishing after the rise of the samurai class in the 10th century.
Aesthetics in Japanese Culture
Japanese arts were influenced by Zen Buddhism where minimalism, modesty and simplicity are very important. The perception of beauty is different from the ideal beauty concept in the West. Japanese artisans believe things that are old, asymmetrical and natural are more aesthetically appealing than perfectly symmetrical new objects. Silence, open space, elegant simplicity and rustic patina are always visible in all aspects of Japanese arts.
Values in Japanese Culture
Japan is a conformist society where harmony, mutual respect and group consensus are valued. Other values such as collectiveness, diligence and conflict avoidance are actually the results of the need for social harmony. Japanese religion also has an influence on common Japanese values. The values of purity and cleanliness come from Shintoism while perfectionism and minimalism come from zen Buddhism. Additionally, the spread of East Asian teachings in Japan may have affected the culture. It is said that the values of long term thinking, perseverance, respect for social hierarchy and respect for the elderly come from Confucianism.
Communication in Japanese Culture
Japanese communication style is very unique mostly because Japan was isolated to the outer world between the 16th and 19th centuries. There also was hierarchy, similar like the Caste system in India, where the elite samurai were on top and those who took care of dead animals were at the bottom. It was very costly to become an outcast in this closely-knit hierarchical society, so people were careful not offending others.
One of the most unique aspects of Japanese communication style is the lack of rejection. Japanese people rarely use the word “no” because rejecting someone is considered as a sign of disrespect. Because of the same reason, Japanese people use symbolism and usually make a request indirectly so that the other side doesn’t have to feel the pressure. When it comes to writing, Japanese people express their ideas less clearly. Westerners usually clearly state the most important point at the beginning or ending of an essay but Japanese people vaguely mention the important point somewhere in the middle.
Religion in Japanese Culture
There are two dominant religions in Japan: Shinto and Buddhism. Neither of them has a clear definition of God and the judgment day. Shintoism does not even have any holy book or the concept of sin. So, in a Western sense, Japanese religions are more like traditions rather than holy belief systems. Shintoism is Japan’s own religion where some natural objects are considered sacred but not necessarily worshipped as gods. Buddhism proposes that everyone can become a Buddha (the enlightened human) if he/she leaves worldly desires and lives a simple life. Japanese people traditionally go to both Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines; so they are both Shintoist and Buddhist.
Symbols in Japanese Culture
Japan has an indirect communication style, so there are many symbols in everyday life. Some of the Japanese symbols and their meanings are 1- Salt: Purity 2- Crane: Longevity 3- Sakura: Beautiful things don’t last long 4- Carp: Perseverance 5- Red Gate: The door to the sacred world 6- Dragon: Strength 7- Chrysanthemum flower: Imperial family 8- Japanese flag: The Sun 9- Round Circle: Universe 10- Beckoning Cat: Good fortune & money.
Japanese literature refers to the written materials produced by Japanese authors in the past. The two most well-known Japanese literary works are “the tale of genji,” and “haiku” poems. The tale of Genji is a novel written in the 11th century which is sometimes called the world’s first novel. It is a story about a prince who was kicked out of the imperial family and had love affairs among commoners. Haiku is the name given to minimalistic poems that consist of three phrases uttered in 17 syllabi (5-7-5). The topic is usually about seasonal changes and the phrase in the middle connects two distant concepts. Recently, Haruki Murakami became famous for his novels based on strange characters and absurd moments of life. His style is considered Western but his novels still reflect everyday life in Japan.
Folk Stories and Heroes in Japanese Culture
Japanese folklore and folktales are heavily influenced by Chinese culture and collective norms of the isolated Japanese islands. The Short stories and folk tales always try to teach the importance of patience, honesty, and hard work. The stories usually include 1- Old grandpa and grandma 2- A strong little boy 3- A beautiful little girl who grows up to be a princess 4- Devil (Oni) 5- Samurai. Samurais usually cooperate with the protagonist. 6- Forest 7- An animal that turns out to be a human or a creature with supernatural powers. The most famous children story is perhaps Momotaro (the peach boy). An old woman finds a tiny boy inside the seed of a peach. The little boy grows up by eating the dumplings made by the old lady. He then goes to the demons’ island and retrieves the treasures stolen by the demons. He gets help from 3 animals during his fight agains the demons: a monkey, a dog and a bird.
Japanese Mythology and Legends
The most popular Japanese myths are about how Japanese islands were created and how the emperor of Japan was ascended to the world. These myths were originally mentioned in Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, the first history books written in Japanese around the 8th century. According to the legend, the islands of Japan were created by 2 divine gods Izanami and Izanagi who were siblings. Izanagi later gave birth to 3 gods including the Sun God Amaterasu. The grandson of Ameterasu turned into a human being and ascended to the world. That person was Gimmu, the first emperor of Japan. There are many gods in Japanese mythology but the sun god Amaterasu is the most important god and her 3 sacred belongings (the mirror, jewel and sword) are still kept by the imperial family today.
Creatures and Monsters in Japanese Culture
In Japanese folklore, monsters, demons and supernatural creatures are usually called “youkai” or “akuma”. Their origins go back to the creation legends of Shinto and the Buddhist beliefs. You can also think of them as evil characters in folk stories. The three most commonly known “youkai” characters are
- 1- Tengu: It has a distinctive long nose. It is not always evil; Tengu is also known as the protective demon of Buddhist temples.
- 2- Yuki Onna: The snow woman with long dark hair wearing a white dress. More common in stories from Northern Japan.
- 3- Hitotsume Kozo: A one-eyed bald child in folk stories.
Japanese Beliefs and Concepts
- Mottai Nai: Nothing should be wasted, nothing should be thrown away.
- Wabi Sabi: Things that are old and natural are more aesthetically pleasing.
- Shibumi: Simple is the best.
- Mono-no-aware: It is the reality of life that beautiful things in our lives don’t last forever.
- Kaizen: Continuous improvement. Things are never perfect, we should keep improving.
- Johakyu: Slow start and sudden finish. Many Japanese movies follow this structure.
- Omote nashi: Serve your guests from the heart.
- Zen: Simple actions in our lives lead to awakening of our spirits.
- Isogeba maware: If you are trying to take a shortcut, you are likely to make a mistake.
- Ryouyaku wa kuchi ni nigashi: Good medicine usually tastes bitter.
- Fukusui bon ni kaerazu: If something is done, there is no going back
- Ueni mo ue ga aru: Even the top has a top.
- Shitashiki naka nimo reigi ari: Even among friends, you should follow the etiquette
- Nanakorobi yaoki: Even if you fall 7 times, you must stand up for your 8th challenge.
- Deru Kui Utareru: Those who are different get hammered down.
- Taisetsuno koto ha meni mienain da: Important things are not visible to the eye.
- Saru mo ki kara ochiru: Even monkeys fall from trees. It is natural to make mistakes.
- Hana yori dango: Instead of appearance you should care about substance.
- Japanese people believe that breaking a comb brings bad luck.
- In Japanese language the number 4 sounds the same with “death” so many buildings do not have the 4th floor (4th floor is simply called 5th floor).
- In Japan people don’t whistle at night because it may bring out snakes.
- Seeing a spider in the morning brings good luck. Killing a spider in the morning brings bad luck.
- If you hear a crow’s caw it brings bad luck. If you take a rest after eating you may become a pig.
- Cutting fingernails at night sets a curse on your family.
- Sleeping by facing north brings bad luck because only at the funeral house the deceased faces north.
Architecture in Japanese Culture
Japanese architecture is similar to that of other East Asian countries. Japanese buildings tend to be simple with dull colors as a result of the zen philosophy. The temples, shrines and private houses are traditionally made out of wood. Most structures have elevated basements and big roofs because of high humidity and frequent rains throughout the year. The roofs also have curves at the corners that provide more light in the winter and more shadow during the winter. Rooms are separated by light wooden screens (fusuma) or paper windows (shoji) that can be easily moved when seasons change. Visitors of Japan are surprised by the green mats set on floors (tatami) which are made out of plant straws.
Gardens in Japanese Culture
Japanese gardens are considered as the miniature versions of vast landscapes. Rocks symbolize mountains, bushes represent forests and ponds are reference seas and lakes. There are three main types of Japanese gardens: pond garden, rock garden and the courtyard garden. The pond garden is the most popular type of Japanese garden adopted from Chinese culture. The rock garden (karesansui), also known as the zen garden, consists of white pebbles and stones often found in zen monasteries in Kyoto. The courtyard garden (tsubo niwa) is a miniature garden built inside traditional houses. The courtyard garden is usually located in the middle of a house to get more sunshine indoors and help the residents feel like living in nature.
Tea Ceremony in Japanese Culture
Japanese tea ceremony is preparing and drinking matcha tea in a ceremonial way by using traditional utensils. The purpose of Japanese tea ceremony is to create bonding between the host and guest and also gain inner peace in our busy daily lives. Japanese people consider tea ceremony very important because it was started by the elite zen monks and practiced by noble warlords for most of history. During the ceremony, the participants practice silence, respect, mindfulness and symbolic purification. While some Japanese perform Tea ceremony as just a hobby today, most people consider it as a form of traditional arts and call it the art of tea.
Sumo Wrestling in Japanese Culture
Sumo wrestling emerged as a shinto ceremony to entertain gods. People believed that if the gods were not pleased, they would not bring a good harvest season. That is why, the sumo stage, dohyo, has been considered very sacred. On the ceiling of the sumo wrestling ring, there is usually a roof of a shinto shrine. The wrestlers throw salt on to the stage for symbolic purification and do irregular warm up routines to scare evil spirits away. The rounds usually last only 20-30 seconds and If the round takes more than 4 minutes the referee asks for a break.The sumo wrestlers usually eat a high-calorie dish called “chanko nabe” which is beef stew and vegetables hot pot. Young sumo wrestlers consume around 20,000 calories of food a day. That is why they can get fat so easily and quickly.
Martial Arts in Japanese Culture
The focus of martial arts is not beating the enemy but building a strong personality and character. Japanese people believe martial arts should be used for self-defense only. Most Japanese policemen practice Aikido to catch criminals. While Karate, judo and Aikido emerged in the 19th century, the samurai class practiced martial arts in the past for unarmed combat. There are so many different types of martial arts in Japan including kyudo, ninjutsu, kendo, jujitsu, naginatajutsu and etc.. These are the principles of martial arts in Japanese Culture a) “Dojo” is a sacred place, it must be clean, safe and quiet b) Students can only learn by watching the “sensei” c) Mental strength is more important than body strength d) Cleaning the “dojo” is part of the training e) Show respect to your opponent at all times f) You must memorize “kata”: simulated defense moves g) Junior members must follow and obey senior members.
Geisha in Japanese Culture
Gei-sha means the person of art. The first geisha to appear were men who entertained groups of people enjoying parties. The apprentice geisha is called maiko when she has to live in the geisha lodging house for 5 years without using a cell phone and seeing her family only once a month. Professional geishas know all major Japanese cultural traditions and arts including tea ceremony, ikebana flower arrangement, Japanese buyou dance, shamisen playing, Japanese calligraphy and etc.. The most popular geisha neighborhoods are located in Kyoto where watching a private geisha dance performance may cost up to $5000 a night. Geishas’ silk kimonos and jewelry are also very expensive, costing more than a typical employee’s annual salary.
Japanese Popular Culture & Modern Japanese Culture
Most people associate modern Japanese culture with manga, anime. Manga and anime are not the same things. Manga is the Japanese word for printed comics although nowadays most people read them online. Anime is Japanese abbreviation for animated comics. Japanese anime market is estimated to be worth $20 billion, higher than the $4 billion manga market. The anime titled “Sazae-san” is the world’s longest lasting cartoon with more than 7400 episodes. Contrary to the common belief, the eyes of the manga characters are big not because Japanese want to have big eyes but because big eyes appear more appealing in general. Did you know that in Japan there is more paper used for manga books compared to toilet paper?
Kawaii in Japanese Culture
Kawaii simply means “cute” but this word is commonly used in various occasions especially by the young generation. In Japan, anything that is smaller than the original version can be called kawaii. However if a small thing is harmful (example: snake) it may not be called kawaii. The children, pet animals and tiny decorative items are always referred to as kawaii. You are supposed to call a baby “kawaii,” whether the baby is cute or not.
Japanese hobbies and Games
The most popular hobby in Japan is to travel as people love traveling domestically and internationally. Other three common leisure activities are karaoke, shogi and kendama. Kara-oke means empty orchestra. Even though karaoke was born in Kobe city of Japan, there are more than 100,000 karaoke venues all around the world. Shogi means general’s board game. It is similar to chess and consists of a wooden board and 40 pentagon-shaped pieces. Kendama is a popular cup-and-ball game among teenagers. The purpose is to put the ball at the end of the string into the cup without touching it.
Japanese Performing Arts
The top 3 most common Japanese performing arts are Kabuki, the Noh performance and the Bunraku puppet theater. Kabuki was born next to the Kamo River in Kyoto where female entertainers performed plays. During the Edo Period, Kabuki actors probably were the most famous people in the country whose images were widely distributed by Ukiyo-e prints. The red color on the face represents anger and the black color represents fear. Noh is a slow-paced dance-drama which is a combination of folk dance and the Shinto rituals. The topic is usually how a supernatural being turns into a human. Bunraku is the traditional puppet theater where puppeteers cover all of their body with black fabric to make themselves invisible.
Japanese Music & Music Instruments
During the Heian period, the music entertainment was very important for the court nobilities. The three musical instruments that existed back then were the lute (also known as biwa in Japanese), the Asian stringed instrument named “koto” and the big Japanese drum called taiko. Taiko was also used in battles by the samurai to communicate with clan leaders and intimidate the enemy. During the peace period shamisen became popular. Shamisen is the Japanese guitar played in kabuki and bunraku performances. Traditionally the strings of shamisen were made out of silk and the body is covered by snake skin or cat skin. The most well-known Japanese folk song is called sakura-sakura which talks about how beautiful the feeling of the cherry blossom in Japan is.
Samurai in Japanese Culture
Samurai means “the one who serves the master.”Although the samurai were the elite warrior class, the meaning of the word is not warrior.In the past, there was a social hierarchy in Japan and the samurai class was on the top of the chain. Commoners had to bow in front of the samurai and avoid eye-contact. The samurai used to follow the code called “Bushido.” Bushido consisted of 7 values including courage, respect, honor and loyalty. It is said that most Japanese people do not change jobs and work so hard for their companies as a result of the “Bushido” culture. Japanese companies usually do not advertise against their competitors because of the “respect the enemy” rule in the samurai culture.
Ninja in Japanese Culture
In Japanese, ninja are usually called “shinobi” which means spy. Ninja were most active in the 1600s and 1700s being hired as spies and assassins for the daimyos. There were only 2 regions in Japan, Iga and Koga, where people could become a ninja. Although their image is usually associated by assassination, most of the time they were spies who could walk very silently, run very fast and make poisons and explosives. Since the ninja could not own horses and did not carry swords, they had to run so fast in order to survive. Some ninjas could run more than 50km in one day. They also did not wear black uniforms and preferred casual clothes as they did not want to stand out as a spy.
Furoshiki Cloth Wrapping
Japanese cloth wrapping is called furoshiki, and is the act of wrapping important items in Japanese cloth. This traditional craft emerged as a way to preserve old fabrics and utilize them in a practical way. Furoshiki is a good example of Japan’s “mottai-i nai” concept which means nothing should be wasted. Some furoshiki wraps look like baskets, bags or even more complex designs! Furoshiki has become very popular in Japan and overseas as wrapping items such as gifts has been seen as trendy and eco-friendly.
Japanese Calligraphy – Shodo
There are 3 different alphabets in Japanese which are hiragana (46 characters), Katakana (46 characters) and Kanji (approx. 20,000 characters). Japanese calligraphy, shodo, is the art of writing these Japanese characters in an aesthetically pleasing way. The samurai often practiced calligraphy especially during the Edo period. The four stages of Japanese calligraphy are: 1- Perfect Concentration 2- Continuity 3- Appreciation of Beauty 4- Formation of human character.One of the most surprising things about Japanese calligraphy is the brush. The best brushes are usually made out of horsehair. The weasel-hair brush would be ideal to make thinner lines but it tends to be expensive.
Origami is possibly the most well-known of all of Japan’s cultural activities. This is practiced as an art where paper is folded to create a range of shapes including animals, flowers or people. Japanese children learn origami at elementary school to improve their focusing skills and understand the importance of following the instructions to reach an ultimate goal.This is one of the best family activities for travelers visiting Japan where the members can learn from and compete against each other and keep the paper figure they make.
The Japanese have an art form called Kintsugi, which translates as “golden joinery.” It is a rather unusual practice involving mending broken pottery with lacquer mixed with powdered precious metals. The philosophy behind Kintsugi is similar to wabi-sabi, which teaches appreciation of the imperfect things in the world. Instead of discarding damaged objects, Japanese people often repair them and use them for centuries. This art also represents appreciating our scars and failures.
Onsen – Japanese Hot Springs
Onsen means hot spring in Japanese. As a volcanic island Japan has more than 3000 hot springs. Many Japanese visit hot springs in the fall and winter to wash their body and relax. Bathing together with others is a Japanese tradition which helps preserve hot water and sources. However, people are not allowed to wear a swimsuit in the hot spring because the water may get dirty. Visitors of Japan are surprised to see snow monkeys bathing in the hot spring during the cold winter.
Bonsai, also known as bongsai, means plant in a tray. Bonsai refers to small trees that grow in tiny trays but still look natural in terms of appearance and details. Just like a normal tree, the bonsai trees change during all four seasons. Contrary to the common view, bonsai trees are not dwarf trees and there is no special seed for them. Many different kinds of plants can be turned into bonsai by using wires to shape the branches and specific scissors to trim the edges. The art of bonsai was influenced by Zen. The bonsai master must patiently wait for years to grow the tree and still keep balance, harmony and the natural look on the tree.
Ikebana means making flowers alive or giving flowers life. It is the Japanese way of flower arrangement also known as kado. During the Heian period, the priests who took care of altar arrangements were called ikebono and they are the first known masters who developed the best way of arranging flowers. Ikebana has simple rules influenced by simplicity and minimalism in Buddhism. There are usually 3 types of main flowers: primary flower in the middle, the secondary flower right next to it and an ornamental flower down below. There are also 2 main types of vases: the wide and low vase called moribana and the tall thin vase called nageire.
PS: The images on this page belong to Takashi Mifune (みふねたかし). Copyright owner of the images on this page is Takashi Mifune.
Ukiyoe refers to handmade woodblock prints that emerged in the 17th century. Ukiyo means the floating world and e means picture. One of the interesting things about ukiyoe is you need many woodblock molds for each color to produce a ukiyoe print. Ukiyoe paintings are known for their bold lines and the lack of perspective. Most well-known ukiyoe prints are those that depict famous kabuki artists as it was forbidden to draw the samurai or anyone from the family of the shogun during the Edo Period. It was also forbidden to criticize the samurai class in the ukiyoe paintings. The most famous ukiyoe painting drawn by Hokusai in 1877 is called the great wave of Kanagawa.
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