The multifaced culture of Japan is extremely fascinating, and more and more people can’t wait to explore it. The recent boom of tourists is a strong witness of this new interest.
Japanese culture has been formed through the centuries, and it is so strong and peculiar that everyone is familiar with some concepts of it, for example the samurai, tea ceremony, geisha, Zen Buddhism, sushi. But, of course, the culture of a country is not limited to a few easily recognizable elements, but it goes much deeper, and it takes a lot of effort to come to understand just a small part of it.
- Japanese culture is the result of many influences, but the result is unique and easily recognizable.
- 98% of the people living in Japan are of Japanese ethnicity, and Japanese is the official language.
- Shinto and Buddhism are the two main religions.
- Samurai, bushido, noh theater, and traditional gardens are some of the most peculiar features of Japanese culture.
- Food, a fundamental part of every culture, relies on seasonality and freshness.
People and Language
98% of the people of Japan are of Japanese ethnicity, and the official language of the country is Japanese. There are some minorities like the Ainu, Yamato and Ryukyuan people. Japanese people originated from the Jōmon people and, around 300 BC, they intermingled with the Yayoi people, who contributed to the technological development of the country.
Japanese language, spoken by 130 million people worldwide, is part of the Japonic family, but its origin and relation to other languages are uncertain. For example, we don’t know exactly how Japanese formed, and we don’t even know when it first appeared in Japan.
A peculiar characteristic of Japanese are the different levels of speech. People will use a different level of speech according to who they are talking to and at what occasion. The relations that govern these variations are fairly complex and hard to grasp for a foreigner.
There are two main religions in Japan: Shinto and Buddhism. However, just a small part is purely one or the other; most people, in fact, admit to confessing a religion that is a mixture of the two.
Shinto is the native religion of Japan. Purification is a pivotal concept, and every rite revolves around it. Its deities are called kami, spirits that dwell in every natural object. The most important kami are believed to live inside the shrines, and so believers visit them to clean themselves and to pay their respect to the indwelling kami.
Buddhism, after originating in India, arrived in Japan through China around the 6th century. In Japan, Buddhism has been heavily influenced by Hellenism, and this can be seen in the representation of its deities and its architecture. The Buddhist school of Japan is the Zen one, where connection with nature and the possibility of sudden enlightenment are profoundly stressed.
Samurai and Bushido
Samurai were a class of proud and highly-trained warriors that served the daymio (feudal lord) and greatly contributed to maintaining its power. They appeared in Japan in 633 AD, and became extremely powerful throughout the centuries. Around the 14th century, they improved their weapons and war tactics, but during the following centuries, their power began to decline.
With the Meiji era, the samurai were abolished. They couldn’t carry their peculiar weapon, the katana, in public, and many became officials or scholars, founding universities inside and outside Japan.
Bushido was the code of conduct followed by the samurai (something close to the European chivalry). Honesty, loyalty and honor were the fundamental values of a samurai. Violence must be tempered with wisdom, and the most important relationship was the one with the lord. Meditation was important in order to develop a calm mind and to control the body. Needless violence was abhorred.
As everywhere else, festivals in Japan are an important occasion for people to gather together, celebrate what is important to them, and to have a good time. Festivals in Japan can be religious, coming from Buddhism or Shinto or they can revolve around nature: for example, the Cherry Blossom Festival and the Snow Festival in Sapporo.
Every festival brings its own traditions, food, costumes and activities, and discovering all of them can be an incredibly rewarding experience.
One of the most stunning festivals every year, the Cherry Blossom Festival, attracts millions of tourists. Parks and streets will be colored by a beautiful shade of pink, and people will hang out under the blooming trees, having picnics and other fun activities.
Contemplating the beautiful and ever-changing nature is what this festival aims to do.
In Japanese, matsuri indicates any traditional festival held during the year. As every Shinto shrine organizes its own matsuri, there are hundreds of them all over the country. The biggest ones are Kanda Matsuri and Gion Matsuri, with processions of the shrine going around the city and thousands of people wearing traditional costumes.
Creating and taking care of gardens is an art by itself in Japan. The custom started during the 7th century, and gardens slowly developed through different styles that lay importance upon different aspects.
However, what’s more important is the creation of a space of peace and beauty, where people can silently stroll and meditate. Gardens should appear natural, and this can be achieved only by the masterful hand of the artist, that places rocks, water, sand, trees and lanterns, always aware of their relation to the surroundings.
Some of the most beautiful gardens of all of Japan are to be found in Kyoto. They are mostly minimalistic, using rocks and sand, and they are specifically designed to let people meditate on the beauty and on the changing nature of the world.
The history of theater in Japan is rich and precious. The three main forms of Japanese theater, kabuki, noh and bunraku, have entertained people and shaped the imagination of artists for centuries.
Kabuki and noh are fairly similar. They are a complex representation of old stories, with colorful costumes, stunning masks, dances and songs. The main difference: A kabuki representation aims to amaze its spectators with powerful, sometimes gruesome, stories, while the noh theater is, in a way, more calm and stylized.
Bunraku is the puppet theater. Building and maneuvering a puppet is extremely difficult, and it requires skillful artisans and artists.
All these representations are usually accompanied by live music played by an ensemble of traditional instruments.
Geisha used to work in pleasure quarters, offering many different kinds of entertainment. When harbors were closed during the Edo period, rich merchants invested money to develop the arts, especially music, dance and poetry. Geisha started to work back in that time, alongside the courtesans.
At the beginning, geisha were men, but women soon took the scene. Around the 18th century, courtesans began to fade, and geisha knew a high popularity, especially during the 1900s.
Nowadays, the geisha capital is Kyoto. There are slightly less than a hundred geisha in the city, working in the traditional teahouses. A geisha starts her life in an okiya, a geisha house, at the age of 15. After learning hospitality and arts, she will become a maiko (an apprentice). The maiko will then follow a more experienced geisha to appointments and hence further develop her skills.
A geisha plays music, and dances, and she will strive to make the customer feel at ease, using witty conversation and playing drinking games. To find a geisha is not easy; they are expensive and hard to meet. Exclusivity is really important, and new clients are found mostly thanks to recommendations.
The tea ceremony originated in the 9th century as a Buddhist rite. Soon it became a status symbol for the wealthy and the officials of the army. The ceremony is a presentation of matcha (powdered green tea), and it aims to form a bond of respect and generosity between the host and the guest.
The ceremony was formalized by Sen no Rikyū, a tea master, who introduced its four principles: wa (harmony), kei (respect), sei (purity), and jaku (tranquility). A tea ceremony cannot be performed without certain elements like the tea caddy, a hemp cloth, a whisk, a tea scoop, tea bowls, and the iron pot.
Food and Drinks
Japanese food is becoming increasingly popular all over the world and, beside sushi, many people have become acquainted with ramen, udon, sashimi, sake, among others. Even though Japan is not a huge country, the variety of its cuisine is incredible. In every region, in fact, you will find different flavors and ingredients, and different cooking methods.
Wherever you go, you will find some peculiar characteristics. For example, seasonality is highly revered by every Japanese chef; meals are chosen and prepared according to what nature is offering at the moment. Japanese dishes can be seen as the ambassadors of the four seasons, in a way to thank nature and to appreciate fully what it offers.
Manga and Anime
Nowadays, manga and anime are a global phenomenon. In Japan, they are a strong part of the culture, and knowing them will help you find common ground with local people.
Manga are so varied that they are aimed at almost everyone. They are printed in black and white, and its stories can be about romance, action, adventure, comedy, sports, sci-fi, etc. Some manga are intended for adults and talk about darker subjects.
When you visit Japan, you will see manga sold everywhere and people reading them all the time. Every town has at least a small bookstore, and the bookshelves of the waiting rooms in restaurants have dozens of manga.
Manga for children features cute (kawaii) characters, with incredibly big eyes, used to convey strong and easily recognizable emotions. Manga for grown-ups can be more realistic and dark, with the underlying idea of good overcoming evil.
If a manga becomes extremely popular, it will be soon transformed into an animated series (but anime also come from other sources, for example video games). Anime can be seen as manga brought to life, with voices, sounds, colors, and a theme song written by popular pop artists.
One of the most successful Japanese animators of all times is Hayao Miyazaki, who, during his long career, created moving anime that got recognition all over the world. His characters have small eyes, and many of his protagonists are strong women.
Explore Japanese Culture with Asia Highlights
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