In case you are planning a trip to Japan or would just like to increase your knowledge about Japanese culture and customs, here’s a glimpse into the amazing world where traditional culture and modern technology and beliefs coexist beautifully.
Japan is a country of diverse customs and culture, while on the other hand, it is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. This is what makes it so unique; the mix of tradition and modernity, that results in a wonderful blend appealing most to tourists and people belonging to different countries. In this article we will delve into the Japanese culture and customs to understand what sets this country apart from others.
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.
Though synonymous with Japanese food, sushi is not the only food that makes up for the vast cuisine that this country has to offer. Yes, sushi and sashimi and other types of raw seafood dominate Japanese cuisine, but there is also a huge variety in vegetarian food that foreigners are usually unaware of. However, this vegetarian food usually contains meat stock, so if you are a pure vegetarian, finding the right kind of food is going to be a little difficult. An example of a well-known and largely consumed type of vegetarian food in Japan is natto or fermented soy, the taste and smell of which can be a little too strong if one is not used to eating it regularly. Rice is a common ingredient in most food preparations, as are noodles of various types such as thick wheat noodles and buckwheat noodles. Meals have three courses along with a soup. These meals may be consumed raw, grilled, steamed, boiled or pan-fried. A recent development in Japanese cuisine is the rising popularity of processed food as compared to traditional Japanese food. However, Japanese food continues to be popular in different parts of the world, though authentic Japanese cuisine is yet to be deeply ventured into. Here’s a look into some very interesting facts about Japanese food for you to learn more about this unique cuisine type.
When speaking of Japanese food in general, one more aspect that must be explored is the Japanese tea ceremony, yet another unique ritual that contributes to the identity of this country. It is an elaborate cultural event and specific tea rooms are dedicated for this ritual to be carried out. Of course, now it is also conducted in the open in events such as the cherry blossom viewing. It is an elaborate manner of preparing and presenting matcha or powdered green tea, and this ceremony is known as chanoyu. The tea is prepared in the presence of guests and as per traditional formal rituals, one bowl of tea is passed around a maximum of five guests. Each guest takes a few sips and wipes clean the rim of the bowl before passing on the tea. There is a specific technique by which the kettle is held and the tea is scooped. Variations in the types of tea also exist. There is thick tea and thin tea, and each of these has its own set of accompaniments. Tea ceremonies are of several types, formal and informal, and can last for several days together. It is important to note the person who prepares and the guests who drink the tea should be clearly aware of the specific manner of doing so. For instance, guests should be familiar with certain phrases that should be said after taking the first sip of tea. In short, there is a protocol that needs to be followed in order to engage in a proper tea ceremony.
As with the other facets of Japanese culture and lifestyle, Japanese architecture too boasts of some unique characteristics. The oldest remnants of architecture in the country can be traced back to 57 B.C. where most homes were pit dwellings. Over a period of time, the style of architecture in Japan underwent major changes and was influenced majorly by the Korean style of architecture. One of the most conspicuous elements of early Japanese architecture was the use of wooden structures. Early buildings were generally single story structures with architects adding intricate details in the form of saddle roofs, ornamental gables, and other such design elements. The best way to study traditional Japanese architecture is to take a look at Shinto shrines. Most shrines have wooden columns, concentric fences, and thatched roofs. These features were symbolic of basic qualities like purity, quality, and simplicity that are integral to Shintoism. The Japanese style of architecture used some clever techniques that allowed light and breeze to ventilate even very huge structures by connecting the interiors of a house with a garden. Another characteristic feature of Japanese architecture was the use of large roofs. Japanese houses were generally built on a horizontal axis which was a feature that greatly influenced architecture styles in the west in the early 20th century. While today traditional Japanese architecture has been replaced by Western styles in a widespread way, you will still find several houses that have adapted traditional architectural features to suit modern designs for their homes.
Japanese customs are very important and though they stem from ancient Japanese culture, they are followed to this date, of course with a few adaptations to modern times. We’ve all heard about important social conventions and customs in Japan. However, it is time to take a look at what these conventions are, and how knowing them will affect the perception of Japanese people for you as an outsider. Though some customs in Japan are regional, the customs mentioned here are generally and widely accepted all over Japan.
Almost everyone is aware that the Japanese way of greeting is bowing. It is such an integral and vital part of Japanese etiquette, that employees of various companies are trained to bow in the right manner. The reason why bows are so important are because they express reverence for the opposite person. As such, the practice of bowing while greeting should not be taken lightly.
Bows are informal and formal. While the general norm for men is to maintain the hands at their sides and bend forward from the waist, for girls it is the same with the hands placed on the lap, with the eyes looking down. Formal bows are deeper than informal bows. A bow is returned with a bow and should normally last only up to 2-3 seconds. Shaking hands, sometimes in combination with a bow, has now become a common practice in Japan, especially with outsiders and tourists. As a tourist, if you are applying this greeting, ensure you bend to the left and not straight, to avoid knocking down the opposite person. Any greeting should portray a dynamism, else it is considered rude.
While speaking to superiors and customers, there are very important rules of politeness that are followed. The Japanese are a cooperative lot, and do not believe in individualism, but conformity. They believe in universal good rather than individual gain. They are never forthright about their opinions, and are rather diplomatic in putting forth any point of view.
Visiting Houses and Hospitality
While visiting someone’s house in Japan, where being invited is a big honor, it is polite to remove shoes outside the house so as to avoid soiling the floors inside the house. When shoes are removed they should be pointed outward, facing away from the entrance door. It is important to maintain hygiene of the feet as foot odor is a rude deviation from the norm, and is generally a put-off. If you are wearing open footwear, carrying a pair of white socks to wear while entering the house is necessary, and is a gesture that shows concern for the host’s hospitality.
The hosts generally offer slippers to wear inside the house, but ensuring they are clean is the guest’s responsibility. A hat or coat is to be removed before the door to the house is opened, while it should be put back on only after the guest has left the premises of the house, and the door to the house has been closed. The norm followed while visiting someone’s house is to carry a gift, where going without one is considered impolite. The gift is placed on the paper bag in which it has been bought, and given with both hands, immediately upon entering the living room.
From the host’s point of view, a guest should be made comfortable on all accounts. As such, they will always appear to be busy, so that the guest can be at ease, assuming all the work is being taken care of. Also, the guest is given the best of everything, as receiving a guest is as big an honor as being invited to someone’s home in the Japanese culture. It is normal to receive a gift in return from the host. The guest may politely refuse to take the gift the first time, but should accept it upon insistence, the second time.
The Art of Eating and Drinking
In Japan, dining requires the knowledge of several customs. It is common to say ‘grace’ as it is in the western culture, before beginning a meal. This includes thanking the person who prepared the meal. Knowing how to use chopsticks is necessary. In Japanese restaurants, a rolled hand towel is given to customers to wipe hands. Wiping the face or neck with the same towel is not well received. Picking food from the plate while leaving out certain ingredients is rude. Passing food from one pair of chopsticks to another is taboo. Any food to be passed should be placed in the plate of the person taking it.
It is necessary that you clear your plate completely while eating. Slurping is not thought of as uncouth, and is in fact a gesture that shows you are relishing the soup or noodles. Additional and optional ingredients such as soy sauce are taken separately in a small bowl, and pouring too much sauce in the bowl implies greed and wastefulness. Japanese food, including sushi, is dipped in soy sauce before eating, if required. After the meal, a humble thank you is announced in the Japanese language, while joining both hands together. Learning how to use chopsticks before heading to Japan is a wise thing to do, and will be well appreciated among the Japanese people. While making payments, placing money in the hands is avoided, and is placed in a tray that is placed near the cashier. In case, money is to be placed directly in the hands, it should be given and received with both hands as a form of politeness.
The Japanese are very punctual people, and generally adhere to a predetermined agenda. This punctuality does not only apply to the workplace ethics, but any kind of social engagement. They consider leaving the work place to go home before the boss, a rude gesture. They are even apologetic when they leave before other co-workers.
It is important to have knowledge about any culture before you visit the place. It is polite and makes the host appreciative of the fact that you have made an effort to learn about their customs before visiting the place. In the case of Japan, learning Japanese language is an added advantage, though any foreigner there is spoken to in English, unless he is able to prove that he can speak and understand Japanese. The knowledge of Japanese culture and customs, thus, gives us an interesting insight into the coexistence of rapid economic and technological progress, along with deep rooted customs and traditions.