The Ultimate Guide to Japanese Culture, Traditions, Language and Beyond
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.
In this post, we’ll explore everything you need to know about Japanese culture—the Japanese language, food, anime, religion and spirituality, you name it.
- Japanese Customs and Traditions
- Japanese Arts and Entertainment
- Food and Drink Culture in Japan
- Japanese Sports Culture
- History and Influences of Japanese Culture
- Japanese Religion and Spirituality
- Work and Business Culture in Japan
- The Japanese Language
Japanese Customs and Traditions
Japan is generally a conservative society with many unique customs. Some dating back thousands of years. Traditions are highly regarded as pillars of what makes the Japanese people unique.
Here are a few aspects of the modern-day Japan customs:
- Clothing tends to be modest, muted in color and concealing compared to Western clothes. Japanese people still wear traditional clothing at festivals and during important ceremonies though.
- Tattoos are traditionally associated with yakuza—the Japanese mafia. They boast detailed full-body works of art that affiliate them with their clan. This means that your ink might raise a few eyebrows. However, younger people tend to 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 usually show less affection and instead show subtle signs that they care. Also, kissing your significant other in public is a big no-no!
- Mascots do more than 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 a cultural purpose. These beloved characters promote tourism and increase awareness of important issues.
Japanese Arts and Entertainment
Japanese art has beautiful aesthetics of elegance and simplicity. Some arts have been carefully crafted over centuries, while others were developed more recently.
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 Japan’s artistic culture. Many classics such as “Astro Boy,” “Dragon Ball” and “Naruto” have become household names.
Anime has its roots in the Edo period, when shows called utsushi-e that involved glass slides cast through a wooden lantern became popular.
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, written by Japanese author Murasaki Shikibu.
Japan has a rich literary tradition that continues today thanks to the contributions of Japanese authors from across the centuries. Many have works renowned worldwide, including Kenzaburo Oe and Haruki Murakami.
Short stories also have a massive place in Japanese literature, with collections of stories compiled in books and monthly magazines.
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 global audiences.
Their rich stories reflect the history and themes popular in Japan, making them a great way to get familiar with the culture.
Japanese singers have also created music that charms the hearts of the populace and niche communities.
Kabuki theater—perhaps the most widely known—involves thrilling, stylistic performances 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 are 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. It’s the ultimate show of hospitality.
This highly formal ceremony involves using bamboo tools to serve and whisk the tea in a series of steps so 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. There’s also ikebana, which involves arranging flowers into a specific 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!
Manga is one of Japan’s most popular inventions and is now famous worldwide. It consists of comics and graphic novels.
Manga covers various genres, from action and adventure to romance and comedy. It also often features distinctive visual styles and storytelling techniques.
You can find countless manga series in weekly or monthly magazines in Japan and online. They’re often later compiled into tankobon volumes—which are basically comic book collections. Many animes are also based on manga series.
Some popular mangas include Naruto, One Piece, Attack on Titan and Death Note.
Food and Drink Culture in Japan
Traditional Japanese food 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 considering the balance of colors, flavors and nutrients.
Fish and seafood are the staple protein of Japanese meals, although Japan has many delicious meat dishes (yakitori, anyone?). Miso soup and pickled vegetables are found on every washoku menu. And delicious, fluffy white rice!
Dozens of varieties of tea are cultivated in Japan, with bottles of warm and cold tea available in vending machines nationwide. Green tea, oolong tea, black tea… going into every single kind would take ages.
Alcohol holds a special place in Japanese culture. From traditional sake to chuu-hai and beer, Japanese people are big drinkers. Many bonding sessions between colleagues are held over glasses of beer at an izakaya.
When drinking, filling your friends’ glasses before your own is a must—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 unite 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 ever.
Tennis, soccer and golf are also enjoyed throughout the country, both recreationally and competitively.
However, traditional Japanese sport 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.
Kendo swordsmanship has roots in samurai techniques, as duelers let out 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.
And of course, there’s aikido and jujitsu.
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 started in Japan through the Korean peninsula, while Japanese kanji comes from Chinese characters.
Even tea was imported from China, first brought to Japan by Buddhist monks returning from their studies in the 8th century.
Confucianism and its teachings diffused throughout Japan, developing Japan’s group-oriented culture. This Confucian principle holds that the group’s harmony is primarily placed above the individual’s feelings.
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 Japan has no home-grown traditions.
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.
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 the nobility and military officials were required to live in Tokyo, a typical “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 gets attacked by giant monsters in movies—much like New York or Los Angeles in the United States!
Japanese Religion and Spirituality
Japan has two major religions: Shinto and Buddhism.
These religions coexist peacefully in Japanese society, with traditions from both found in everyday life.
Shinto shrines can be found at Buddhist temples, and Japanese people commonly have a Shinto wedding and a Buddhist funeral.
Shinto is the religion indigenous to Japan. It believes that the kami (神, かみ) inhabits 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 where 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.
Shinto is more of a set of customs and traditions rather than an organized religion with strict doctrines and holy texts.
Buddhism was imported to Japan via the Korean kingdom of Baekje.
It 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 have different specific practices, but they all revolve around keeping a pure heart and mind as one diligently performs rituals and introspective meditation.
Other religions—such as Christianity and Islam—are uncommon 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. Religious rituals are more observed as a cultural habit than devout practice among everyday people.
Visiting shrines and temples is common to pray for good luck or fortune, and many festivals are held at Shinto shrines.
On New Year’s Day, people flock to the shrines for the first new year visit. And Buddhist temples ring a bell 108 times to drive out the misfortune of the previous year.
Superstition and Japan
Japan is more superstitious than religious.
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 your life when it’s believed you’re more prone to bad luck.
Speaking of ill-omen numbers, 4 and 9 represent death and suffering. 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.
Manners and Etiquette 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.
- 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.
When Japanese people interact, they consider their age, occupation, social standing and degree of familiarity as they choose their words and actions.
But don’t—you’re not expected to master all the formalities.
Here are a few facts to help you navigate polite Japanese society:
- Formal Japanese is different from informal language. Different politeness levels of speech range from extremely casual to polite speech called keigo. These levels help you show the proper amount of respect to the other person.
- 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’s 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 different degrees of bows depending on the situation. The most casual bow is eshaku (会釈, えしゃく) at 15°. Keirei (敬礼, けいれい) is for bosses and in-laws, and is performed at 30-45°. The deeper the bow, the more respectful it is. Visiting temples or apologizing for something significant requires a deep, long bow of 70°.
Work and Business Culture in Japan
It’s hard to find a more rigid and formal world than the Japanese business one. There are rules for where the supervisor sits in a room, how to greet superiors and customers, showing due deference and more.
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.
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 the value placed on hierarchy, Japanese employees are required to check with their supervisor on any issues.
Rather than the go-getter individual valued in the West, a person who diligently checks with their boss before making any decision is seen as a good employee in Japan.
Socialization After Work
Japanese businessmen 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 to build relationships among the team.
The strict social regulations of the workplace ease up in these situations, which allows coworkers to complain 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.” Things can really get wild there!
The Japanese Language
Japanese is spoken by 125 million people worldwide.
It’s also one of the most difficult to master, with three writing systems, grammar structures much different from English and an entire subsection of hierarchical language.
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.
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.
Hiragana and katakana are the two indigenous systems used to write Japanese.
They’re classified as syllabaries, meaning one character translates to one syllable (consonant + vowel).
Kanji, on the other hand, was borrowed from China.
Kanji is a pictographic system, with one character translating to one word. Fun fact: hiragana and katakana were derived from kanji!
Japanese has gendered speech, meaning it has different 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.
Some Japanese particles—little sounds that identify the role of words in a sentence—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 has different dialects depending on the region of the country. How one person speaks in Fukuoka can sound odd to someone from Aomori.
This is why I recommend immersing yourself in as much Japanese as possible from day one.
An easy way to do this is using a language learning program like FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
With so much culture to explore, Japan is a country you can get endlessly lost in.
Anybody can find something that piques their interest—athletics, arts, food and beyond.
And One More Thing...
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