Japanese Culture: Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About the Land of the Rising Sun
Japan has a rich culture that spans thousands of years, with prehistory dating back as far as 14,500 BC.
With proud traditions of elegance, simplicity and formality, Japan has some of the finest cultural offerings in the world.
However, parts of Japanese culture are seen as unfamiliar and inaccessible to some Westerners.
There’s no need to worry, though—you’re about to get a crash course in all things Japan, from the language to food to anime.
Let’s dive in!
- The History and Influences of Japanese Culture
- The Language of Japan
- Japanese Religion and Spirituality
- Japanese Customs and Traditions
- Japanese Work and Business Culture
- Food and Drink in Japanese Culture
- Japanese Sports Culture
- Japanese Art Culture
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The History and Influences of Japanese Culture
Ancient Japan had Chinese and Korean influences. Many technologies, such as rice farming and ironwork, came from China and Korea. Buddhism got its start in Japan through the Korean peninsula, while Japanese kanji comes from Chinese characters.
Even ever-popular tea was imported from China, first brought to Japan by Buddhist monks returning from their studies in China in the 8th century.
Confucianism and its teachings, also from the Asian mainland, diffused throughout Japan, leading to the development of Japan’s group-oriented culture. This Confucian principle holds that the harmony of the group is largely placed above the feelings of the individual.
As such, Japanese people view themselves as a collective group, taking great care to act in the best interests of those around them to preserve integrity. Being able to read the atmosphere, kūki o yomu (空気を読む, くうきをよむ), is necessary for all situations so that everyone’s feelings are taken into account before an individual makes a decision.
But that’s not to say that Japan doesn’t have any home-grown traditions. Far from it!
Japanese customs revolve around the four seasons. Japan places a lot of emphasis on its four distinct seasons: warm pleasant springs, hot humid summers, crisp blustery autumns and cool frosty winters.
As such, life in Japan tends to follow the ebb and flow of the seasons. Japanese people look forward to hanami (花見 , はなみ, cherry blossom viewing) in the springtime and wearing yukata, a more casual version of the kimono, at summer festivals. Different foods are served depending on the time of year as well.
Another Japan-native custom is the immense influence of Tokyo on everything. Beginning in feudal times, when the families of nobility and military officials were required to live in Tokyo, a common “Tokyo culture” became pervasive and seen as the standard for all of Japan.
A quarter of Japan’s population lives in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area, and Tokyo is the political, financial and cultural hub for the entire country. It also tends to get attacked by giant monsters in movies—much like New York or Los Angeles in the United States!
The Language of Japan
Japanese is spoken by 125 million people worldwide. It’s also one of the most difficult to master, with three writing systems, complicated grammatical structures and an entire subsection of hierarchical language.
Don’t worry, I won’t quiz you on the language at the end of this post. What I will do, though, is give you an introduction to it.
Japanese is considered a language isolate, meaning it has no relationship to any other language. This makes Japanese unique in its structure, with no other language quite like it in the world.
Despite the many difficult aspects of Japanese, pronunciation isn’t one of them. Spoken Japanese has 15 consonants and only five vowels, so pronouncing Japanese is pretty easy once you get the hang of the accent.
The consonants and vowels are combined to form syllables, which is what hiragana and katakana are used to convey. The best part? Every syllable is pronounced the same, no matter where it is in a sentence. English could sure learn a few things from Japanese!
Speaking of kana, hiragana and katakana are the two indigenous systems used to write Japanese. They are classified as syllabaries, meaning that one character translates to one syllable (consonant + vowel) in the language.
Kanji, on the other hand, was borrowed from China. Kanji is a pictographic system, with one character translating to one idea. Fun fact: hiragana and katakana were actually derived from kanji!
Japanese has gendered speech, meaning that it has differing speech styles for men and women. The two main differences lie in personal pronouns and sentence-ending particles.
In Japanese, there are several different ways of saying “I.” あたし is exclusively female, while 俺 (おれ) is exclusively male. 私 (わたし) can be used regardless of sex.
As for Japanese particles, which are bits of grammar that elaborate the meaning of a sentence, some of them lean more towards a specific gender. わ, なの and かしら are preferred by women, while ぞ, ぜ and よ are used in rough, male speech.
Japan also boasts different dialects depending on the region of the country. From Hokkaido to Osaka and all the way down to Okinawa, varieties of the Japanese language abound throughout the nation. How one person speaks in Fukuoka can sound downright odd to someone from Aomori.
Japanese Religion and Spirituality
Japan has two major religions: Shinto and Buddhism. These religions coexist peacefully within Japanese society, with traditions from Buddhism and Shinto found in everyday life. Shinto shrines can be found at Buddhist temples and Japanese people will commonly have a Shinto wedding and a Buddhist funeral.
Shinto is the religion indigenous to Japan, which places beliefs in the kami (神, かみ) that inhabit all things, from animals to mountains. Kami may be translated as “god” or “spirit,” but those words don’t quite cover the essence of what kami are. They are natural forces that inspire a sense of awe and reverence which can manifest in places, things or even people.
Shrines are built to house and worship kami, and it is here that rituals of worship and offerings are made to these deities. Priests and miko (巫女, みこ, shrine maidens) are the ones who traditionally carry out these rituals and care for the shrines.
Rather than an organized religion with strict doctrines and holy texts, Shinto is more of a set of customs and traditions.
Buddhism was imported to Japan via the Korean kingdom of Baekje. In short, Buddhism encompasses a variety of spiritual paths that seek to release an individual from earthly suffering and the cycle of rebirth by attaining enlightenment.
Initially, Buddhism was embraced by the ruling class of Japan before eventually gaining acceptance among the common people. Buddhism and its teachings spread across the country, with grand temples being built and monks traveling to China to study.
Over time, Buddhism evolved into several Japanese sects, including Nichiren, Pure Land and Zen Buddhism. These sects each have different specific practices, but they all tend to revolve around keeping a pure heart and mind as one diligently performs rituals and introspective meditation.
Other religions, such as Christianity and Islam, are not very prevalent in Japan. However, Japan does celebrate Christmas as a romantic holiday.
Despite all of these practices, Japan is not especially religious in a traditional sense. Among everyday people, religious rituals are more observed as a cultural habit rather than devout practice.
Visiting shrines and temples are common to pray for good luck or fortune, and many festivals are held at Shinto shrines. On New Years’, people flock to the shrines for the first visit of the new year, and Buddhist temples ring a bell 108 times to drive out the misfortune for the previous year.
Superstition and Japan
More than religion, Japan is very superstitious. Many of these superstitions have roots in old folklore and involve word associations, as Japanese has many homophones (words pronounced the same with different meanings).
For instance, unlucky years known as yakudoshi (厄年, やくどし) are ages of an individual’s life when it is believed they are more prone to bad luck. Speaking of ill-omen numbers, the numbers 4 and 9 represent death and suffering, respectively, so they tend to be avoided in room numbers and gift-giving.
Fortune telling is also popular, and visiting a shrine to receive a fortune or make a wish to the gods is a common activity.
Japanese Customs and Traditions
As a whole, Japan is a rather conservative society with many unique customs, with some dating back thousands of years. Traditions are held in high regard as pillars of what makes the Japanese people unique.
I’m going to highlight a few aspects of the modern day here, to give you an idea of what goes on in Japan today.
- Clothing tends to be modest, muted in color and concealing compared to Western wear. Not everyone walks around wearing colorful Lolita (frilly, Victorian-style) dresses! Additionally, Japanese people do still wear traditional clothing at festivals and during important ceremonies.
- Tattoos are traditionally associated with yakuza, the Japanese mafia, who boast detailed full-body works of art that affiliate them to their clan. This means that your ink might raise a few eyebrows. However, younger people may be more accepting of tattoos.
- Dating doesn’t begin until someone confesses. This mutual acknowledgment of each other’s feelings provides the springboard to begin a relationship. Japanese people may also be less overtly affectionate, instead opting for showing subtle signs that they care. Also, kissing your sweetie in public is a big no-no!
- Mascots do more than just look cute. Japan’s mascots have gained a reputation for being cute and cuddly representations of companies, products, cities and more. But they also serve an important purpose. These beloved characters promote tourism and increase awareness of important issues.
Manners and Etiquette in Japan
Japan is famous for being respectful, and for good reason. Whether it’s taking your shoes off before entering someone’s home or giving up your seat to the little old lady who just hobbled onto the train, having good manners is vital to getting along in Japan.
With gestures and actions, Japanese people nurture their relationships with one another and maintain harmony in the group. Some basics to keep in mind are:
- Take off your shoes when entering someone’s house. This can’t be said enough!
- Silence your phone on the train or bus.
- Never stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice. This is only done at funerals. Don’t play with them, either!
- Carry your garbage until you find the proper bin to dispose of it.
- Make sure you stand on the proper side of the escalator.
Japanese society is very formal and hierarchical. Whenever Japanese people interact with each other, they consider their age, occupation, social standing and degree of familiarity as they choose their words and actions.
Japanese formality is wrapped in a series of complex rules and customs, and upon first glance may make you want to give up on interacting with anyone!
But not to worry—you’re not expected to master them all. For those curious about Japanese formality, here are a few facts to help you navigate polite Japanese society:
- Formal Japanese is an entirely different type of language. There are different politeness levels of speech, ranging from extremely casual to polite Japanese keigo. These levels help you show the proper amount of respect to your conversation partner.
- The polite way of sitting is known as seiza. On formal occasions, such as a fancy dinner, when the guests are required to sit on the floor, it is good manners to sit with your legs tucked underneath you and your hands on your thighs (for men) or folded in your lap (for women).
- How you bow matters. While it’s common knowledge that bowing in Japan shows respect, there are actually different degrees for bows depending on the situation. The most casual bow, eshaku (会釈, えしゃく), is at 15°, while keirei (敬礼, けいれい) for bosses or in-laws is performed at 30°- 45°, with the deeper bow being more respectful. Visiting temples or apologizing for something big requires a deep, long bow of 70°.
Japanese Work and Business Culture
It’s hard to find a world more rigid and formal than the Japanese business world. There are manners for where the supervisor sits in a room, how to greet superiors and customers and showing due deference.
If you hope to do business with Japanese companies, it’s worth taking note of the differences in work culture between your country and Japan.
Exchanging business cards (名刺交換, めいしこうかん) is a standard custom in Japan and is crucial if you hope to make any headway with your new Japanese contacts. Business cards are seen as the face of the individual they belong to, and must be handled with the utmost respect.
Speaking of respect, there are strict hierarchies in the Japanese workplace. Seniority is king, with those who have been at companies longer earning higher wages and being offered better promotions. Because of this value placed on hierarchy, Japanese employees are required to check with their supervisor on any issues.
Rather than the go-getter individual that’s valued in the West, a person who diligently checks with their boss before making any sort of decision is seen as a good employee in Japan.
Socialization After Work
Japanese businessmen do know how to unwind. Socializing at bars or karaoke places after work with your coworkers, in a practice called nomikai (飲み会 , のみかい), is common in order to build relationships among the team.
The strict social regulations of the workplace ease up in these situations, which allows coworkers to gripe to each other about the stresses of the job.
Sometimes a few members of the group will go out for a second party called nijikai (二次会 , にじかい), literally meaning “second party,” where things can really get wild!
Food and Drink in Japanese Culture
Sushi, ramen, tempura… my mouth is watering just thinking about Japanese food! However, there’s more to the cuisine than the menu at your local teriyaki joint.
Traditional Japanese fare is known as washoku (和食, わしょく, Japanese food). It’s known for its simple, clean flavors which vary from region to region. Food is taken very seriously, and the ideal meal is created while keeping in mind the balance of colors, flavors and nutrients.
Fish and seafood are the staple protein of Japanese meals, although Japan has many delicious meat dishes to choose from as well (yakitori, anyone?). Miso soup and pickled vegetables are found on every washoku menu, and of course, delicious, fluffy white rice!
When it comes to drinks, few are more beloved than tea. Dozens of varieties of tea are cultivated in Japan, with bottles of warm and cold tea available for purchase in vending machines all across the country. Green tea, oolong tea, black tea… going into every single kind of Japanese tea would take ages!
Alcohol holds a special place in Japanese culture. From traditional sake to chuu-hai and beer, Japanese people are big drinkers, and many bonding sessions between colleagues are held over glasses of beer at an izakaya. When drinking, it’s important to fill your friends’ glasses before your own—preferably before they get empty.
Japanese Sports Culture
From martial arts to modern sports, Japan loves athletics. They even have a dedicated holiday called “Health and Sports Day” where schools and communities come together for huge athletic events!
Baseball is Japan’s most popular sport, with the Japan Series and High School Baseball Championships drawing thousands to the stands every year. Some Japanese players have also reached celebrity status outside of Japan—Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners is undoubtedly one of the most famous ballplayers of all time.
Tennis, soccer and golf are also enjoyed throughout the country, both recreationally and competitively. However, traditional Japanese sport still remains popular. Sumo is the unofficial national sport of Japan, which originated as a Shinto ritual and evolved into a thrilling wrestling match where two giant men attempt to throw each other out of the ring.
Japanese Martial Arts
Japanese martial arts are a window into the cultural heritage of Japan. Judo, a martial art focused on technical takedowns of one’s opponent, has achieved global popularity and an Olympic category to boot. Kendo swordsmanship has roots in samurai techniques, as duelers let loose spirited shouts in a flurry of bamboo blades.
There’s also Japanese archery, kyudo, which uses large, powerful bows and has a subsection devoted to shooting on horseback!
Additionally, there’s aikido, jujitsu… truly, there’s no end to the vast world of Japanese sports!
Japanese Art Culture
The beauty of Japanese art has captured imaginations for generations, with aesthetics revolving around elegance and simplicity. Some arts have been carefully crafted over centuries, with others developing in more recent years. No matter the shape each medium takes, they all share the same Japanese soul.
It’s impossible to talk about Japanese art without mentioning anime. Anime has taken the world by storm and is one of the largest gateways to the country’s artistic culture. Many classics such as “Astro Boy,” “Dragon Ball” and “Naruto” have become household names.
In fact, anime has its roots in the Edo period, when shows called utsushi-e that involved glass slides cast through a wooden lantern became popular among the masses. Today, Japan boasts over 400 animation companies that have created hundreds of shows and movies.
“The Tale of Genji” is one of the world’s oldest novels, and its author Murasaki Shikibu called Japan her home. Japan has a rich literary tradition that continues today thanks to the contributions of Japanese authors from across the centuries. Many have works renowned the world over, including Kenzaburo Oe and Haruki Murakami.
Short stories have a huge place in Japanese literature as well, with collections of stories compiled in books and monthly magazines. No wonder reading is so popular in Japan!
Ever heard of Akira Kurosawa? Utada Hikaru? How about Takuya Kimura? These are just a few of Japan’s media icons.
Of course, who can forget “Godzilla” or “The Ring”? Both of these films are Japanese, and many Japanese movies have captured audiences around the globe. Their rich stories reflect the history and themes popular in Japan, making them a great way to get familiar with the country’s culture.
Japanese singers have also created music that charms the hearts of the populace and niche communities alike.
Understanding Japanese movies and music is a great way to gain even more insight into Japanese culture, especially with a language learning program that uses authentic content such as FluentU.
With FluentU’s interactive subtitles, you can also pick up the nuances of the Japanese language as native speakers use it, both on the web and on the go (iOS and Android).
Of course, we can’t forget traditional Japanese theater. Kabuki theater, perhaps the most widely popular, involves thrilling, stylistic performances carried out by actors in vibrant masks.
In contrast, Noh theater involves refined movements and carefully crafted poetic stories, with roots in performances at religious ceremonies.
There’s also the masterfully manipulated puppets in Bunraku, which continue to entertain thousands in the 21st century just as they did in 16th century Edo.
Japanese Traditional Arts
One of the most prolific of Japan’s traditional arts is the tea ceremony, an elaborate tradition of preparing matcha and serving it with delicious sweets in the ultimate show of hospitality.
This highly formal ceremony involves using bamboo tools to serve and whisk the tea in a series of specific steps, all so that the guests can enjoy a cup of thick green tea.
Other arts include calligraphy, which turns writing Japanese kanji into a flowing, graceful piece of art, and ikebana, the art of arranging flowers into a certain aesthetic style.
Schools and universities typically have clubs dedicated to practicing these arts, and community centers offer classes and events where anybody can experience them—tourists included!
With so much culture to explore, Japan is a country you can get endlessly lost in. Anybody can find something that piques their interest, whether it’s athletics, arts, food or beyond.
But above all, taking a dive into the customs and history of Japan will demystify this Asian nation and humanize the people who live there. Who knows—your journey might even spark a lifelong love affair with all things Japanese!