A Comprehensive Guide to Japanese Culture

By Alexis Goss | Created October 16, 2020

This article focuses on helping you learn every part of Japanese culture you’ll need to start living in Japan. This article is a part of our extensive series of guides on Japanese culture.

Many foreigners who reside in Japan never learn most of the concepts we include in our articles. These people end up living in a bubble. They develop false notions about Japanese people based on not diving deeply into the culture enough or they listen to the well-intentioned but limited knowledge of other foreigners who have little understanding of Japan.

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    Defining Japanese Culture

    So what is “culture” exactly? Well, that’s a hard question to answer. If you look in a dictionary you’ll get a definition like “the art and ideas of a set of people” or “social customs and behaviors” but what does that really mean? 

     

    Culture includes anything that gives a group member a sense of belonging. Food and art are common examples of culture because oftentimes, groups of people have distinct cuisines and visual styles that set them apart from other groups. However, culture also includes more vague things like ideas of politeness and respect or people’s relationship to the physical region they live in.


    At its core, “culture” is anything a given group sees as part of its collective identity. These attributes may not be shared by every individual in the society, but they’re recognized as having significance.

    Common sense is relative

    What is common sense in your culture might be strange in another. Similarly, some things that Japanese people would consider common sense are new to foreigners. Many foreigners have trouble bonding with Japanese people because they think their common sense is the universal common sense. They have trouble letting go and accepting that the other person has a different view of common sense or behavior.

     

    Would you interact with someone in your home country who lacked common sense? Would your parents or other people you know proactively try to interact with someone who lacked the common sense of your culture? Think about these questions as you navigate Japanese society.

     

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    Respect in Japanese Culture

    Generally, when you ask people to tell you what Japanese culture is like, they’ll respond by saying “Japan is very polite” or “the people there are formal and reserved”. Every society has rules of engagement. Most of us pick these up unconsciously while growing up, but when you enter a new society you have to start from scratch. Writing Japan off as a “polite country” ignores the whys and hows that are essential to interacting with Japanese people. 

     

    It also ignores the fact that most societies are “polite”, we just define “polite” differently. For example, in some places, it’s polite to refer to other people informally because it shows affection and familiarity. Showing curiosity and engaging in the culture will lead to further understanding.

    Japan is a collectivist society

    Collectivist cultures, like Japan, prioritize the well-being of a greater group over the needs of an individual. In this way, they are able to achieve further societal cohesion and maintain harmony to the benefit of all. This is in stark contrast to individualist societies, like the US, where personal freedoms are championed.

    Common differences

    Individualist Collectivist
    Values Independence Interdependence
    Communicates Directly Indirectly
    Prioritizes Personal success Community goals
    Wants to Stand out Fit in
    Negotiates for Efficiency and accuracy Harmony and emotional well-being
    Fears Inadequacy and loneliness Burdening others and rejection
    Works Alone In a group
    With others Focuses on personal improvement Helps struggling community members

    Pros and cons

    Both ideologies have upsides and downsides. Individualist people can be considered selfish, as such cultures place greater emphasis on personal achievement rather than providing support to those who need to. On the other hand, collectivist cultures get labeled as repressive, since they place emphasis on fitting in to maintain group harmony.

    The folly of generalizations

    It’s important to understand that these are societal trends and there will always be individuals who fall elsewhere on the spectrum. In addition, people might act differently in different environments. Those who belong to multiple cultures often will display traits associated with the culture they’re presently interacting with. 

     

    If you’re interested in learning more about collectivism and individualism, there are many freely accessible academic articles on the internet, as well as psychology resources. These cultural factors can also have a big impact in the classroom, so if you’re in the teaching profession it’s important to research this.

    Japan bow senior

    The Japanese hierarchy

    Japan greatly values respect and showing proper respect towards those “above” you can go a long way towards getting that respect yourself. If you fail to show proper deference, it will be difficult to fix others’ perceptions of you as being “rude” or “ungrateful”.

    Respect for your seniors

    In Japan, you need to master the foundation before you can create something unique. Therefore it’s imperative that those who came before you are given proper respect and thanks for paving the way for you. This includes both those who are older than you in age and also those who have been doing an activity longer than you (senpai). In exchange, these people are beholden to help you out and explain things to you, sometimes even going as far as assuming responsibility for your mistakes.

    Who is your senpai?

    Traditional Japanese company structures promote based on age and years at the company. Everyone who enters in the same year, regardless of age, will treat their coworkers who started before them as senpai. In return, next year the newcomers will treat them as senpai. There is a certain amount of respect for age in the senpai system - there’s a phrase “jinsei no senpai” (senpai of life) referring to older people - but primarily what determines senpai status is the length of time they’ve been involved with the group. Another important thing to note is that senpai are not managers or bosses, but people you’re working alongside.

     

    Here are a few examples of senpai:

    • Someone who has been playing tennis longer than you
    • An older student who graduated from the same school as you
    • A fan who has supported a sports team longer than you
    • A coworker who entered the company before you
    • Someone who’s worked in the industry longer than you
    • An online friend who’s been involved in a fandom longer than you
    • A friend who’s been a parent longer than you

    The benefits of a senpai

    Senpai have a social obligation to help their kohai. This involves helping out with work projects, training them, making sure they’re fitting in, and generally protecting them from harm. In companies that don’t have an official training system, senpai are the ones doing the heavy lifting.

    Why it’s important to respect senpai

    Many foreigners have trouble accepting that they’re supposed to be deferential and respect someone based not on ability but instead on age. This is difficult if you think that your senpai is not as competent at their job as you are. However, cozying up to a senpai can benefit you even if that senpai isn’t the best mentor. 

     

    Not only can senpai check in on you to make sure you’re fitting into the work culture, but they may also have tips for dealing with particular managers or know people and resources that you’ll need. Many senpai will take responsibility for the mistakes of their kohai and warn you about social things you’d have no way of knowing. Showing your senpai proper respect (pouring their drinks for them, asking them for help instead of your boss, etc.) goes a long way in company politics.

    In-groups and out-groups

    Next time you’re at a Japanese department store, listen to the way the employees talk. When talking about their company they use humble language, but they use the politest register towards customers. The Japanese language frequently determines how polite someone should be treated by what group they belong to in relation to the speaker. “In-group” (uchi) refers to the group the speaker belongs to while “out-group” (soto) is anyone outside that. 

    Public and private attitudes

    This is connected to the concept of honne (true face) and tatemae (public face), where you are outwardly polite and respectful but show your true feelings with your friends. This concept is not unique to Japan, although the exact way it plays out depends on the culture. For example, you would never tell your boss their hairstyle is hideous, even if you might complain about it to your friends. In the same way, a Japanese person might concede to the will of the group in public to prevent hurt feelings but then go home and trash-talk people.

    Determining what group you’re in

    Generally, you can assume that your family is always in your in-group and strangers are always in your out-group. If you are talking to another person as a representative of a group, then that’s your in-group. However, this is complicated by the fact that groups are not static. They regularly shift depending on the context. In a business environment, one might consider their particular department to be their in-group and the rest of the company to be the out-group, but when talking to a representative of a different company, their entire company becomes the in-group.

    The foreigner in Japan

    Foreigners, whether they’re tourists who don’t speak the language or permanent residents who’ve raised a family in Japan, are almost always considered part of a greater out-group that consists of the entire world outside Japan. The commonly shared Japanese self-image consists of fierce pride in things considered uniquely Japanese simultaneous to a perception of Japan being a “small island nation” - i.e. that foreigners don’t think Japan is important and are unable to fully understand Japanese culture. 

     

    To this effect, foreigners are often treated as a conglomerate society of English-speakers. Japanese people will take care to be polite to foreigners, attempting to speak English even if the foreigner in question speaks Japanese (or indeed doesn’t speak English at all). However, many are hesitant to truly get close to foreigners or get nervous when interacting with them. Foreigners in Japan will always be foreigners before they are anything else.

    Japan society arcade foreign

    Humility in Japanese culture

    This trait is especially prized in Japan, although more commonly what is displayed is the façade of it. You are expected to avoid complimenting yourself or arrogantly bragging. This is extended to cover your whole in-group, so it’s not uncommon to hear a parent saying their child is not so smart or someone claiming their work was inadequate even if it was. Everyone vaguely understands this is just what you say so no one thinks you’re being arrogant; you probably don’t actually think that way.

    Deflecting praise

    Just like you are expected to refuse a gift twice before accepting it, you are expected to deflect praise towards you or your in-group. This can be difficult! Here are some examples to help you out.

    “Your Japanese is very good.” “Oh no, I still have so much to learn.”
    “You learn very quickly.” “Everyone is being so patient with me.”
    “You’re so talented.” “You’re being too kind.”
    “I love that watch of yours.” “It’s nothing special.”
    “You scored so well on that exam!” “It was just a fluke.”

    Careful, if you keep deflecting and they keep insisting that no, they mean it, you’ll end up in a never-ending cycle. At some point, you might have to just accept it or change the subject.

    Apologies

    People in Japan are quick to apologize for any inconvenience. Cultural attitudes value not burdening others, since people often feel obligated to help those who ask even if they can’t spare the resources. If you are criticized or mess up, it’s best to apologize even if you don’t feel you deserve the blame. It is far quicker to take responsibility and move on rather than start a fight that may upset several other people. 

     

    To learn more about how to apologize, check out our article on Japanese customs!

     

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    The Japanese Cultural Life Cycle

    The life cycle refers to the cycle that most people go through, eternally repeating for each generation. Simplified, it looks something like this:

    Japan culture birth puberty maturity starting a family aging death

    Image created by Alexis Goss

    Obviously, not everyone goes through all the steps. In fact, the declining percentage of adults having children is a major concern in Japan, where immigrants are thought to never properly be able to join Japanese society. Regardless, it’s agreed that at least everyone is born and everyone dies.

    Traditional family roles in Japanese culture

    It used to be that the men of the family worked hard to provide monetarily while women ran the home and raised the children. Grandparents lived close enough nearby that they could help with the kids. Housewives would manage the household’s finances as well, giving their husbands an allowance with which to go out drinking with their coworkers. 

     

    There is still less shame in being a housewife in Japan, but many women are choosing to be active in the workforce. Declining birth rates and an aging population drive an increasing number of government policy decisions, which have resulted in increased funding for childcare.

    Spousal communication

    If you watch a lot of Japanese cinema, you’ll find a trend of married couples who don’t speak to each other or have severe communication issues. Proper communication can be challenging in a collectivist society that emphasizes indirect words and protecting everyone’s feelings. There is also an ideal in Japan that couples who have been together a long time are able to communicate without words, perfect understanding one another. This places stress on those who can’t measure up to that standard and also makes it harder to talk about or address.

     

    While these attitudes are shifting generationally, you may find that a couple acts incomprehensibly or coldly to each other. Generally, we recommend staying out of others’ marital affairs unless the situation is extreme and merits legal intervention. Even if you don’t understand their relationship, they may have other ways of communicating that you aren’t picking up on.

    Calling strangers your uncle

    One linguistic trait that Japan shares with a few other collectivist societies is the tendency to call strangers terms like oji-san (uncle) or onee-san (big sister) when you don’t even know them. This does not mean everyone is secretly family. Rather, this has roots in seeing the wider community as an extension of oneself and one’s family. These terms are now used to refer to actual family members or random people who fit the age range.

    onee-san (F) / onii-san (M) older sibling 15-35
    oba-san (F) / oji-san (M) aunt/uncle 35-55
    obaa-san (F) / ojii-san (M) grandparent 55+

    Note these are extremely rough ages. Also note that many people get upset at being called “uncle/aunt” or “grandparent” because you’re implying they’re old. It’s best not to use these yourself.

    Confused about the difference between oba-san and obaa-san? Check out our article on how to get started speaking Japanese!

    The family registry system

    The Japanese government uses family registries to legalize marriages and adoptions. Each household has a little book in which each member is recorded, along with birth dates and death dates if applicable. The family must also update the registry when a member is born or dies. Only one surname can be listed, which means married couples must legally go by the same last name.

    Japan society life cycle children kids birth babies

    Birth in Japanese culture

    It’s typical for grandmothers to be very active in Japanese pregnancies. The mother may move in with her parents as the birth approaches or, if this is not possible, the grandmother may move into their house. This provides an extra pair of hands for chores and non-infant children until the mother begins to go out again, about a month after the birth. 

    Staying at home for a month

    In fact, mothers with babies younger than a month may get scolded if they bring their baby out in public! In exchange, the mother gets a vacation from chores during this time to bond with her new child. One month is also the traditional age at which an infant is brought to a shrine and their name is presented to the Shintō gods, although some regions wait until up to 100 days after the birth.

    Dog days

    Dogs are said to have simple pregnancies so pregnant women often go to shrines to pray for safe deliveries on “dog days”. These are calculated via the Chinese zodiac and occur about twice a month.

     

    Here’s an article that goes into more depth on dog days and includes a calendar.

    Umbilical cords

    Umbilical cords are said to represent the bond between mother and child and are usually preserved by the doctors and given to the parents. Sometimes mothers keep them, other times the child is given their umbilical cord later in life to store somewhere.

    Growing up in Japan

    Japan uses the same grade system it inherited from the US back in the 1940s. Children start official schooling at age six when they begin elementary school. Before this, most children attend either a “kindergarten” facility called a yōchien (3 - 6yo.) or a daycare (3mo. - 6yo.). Although the differences can be confusing, kindergartens are more educational while daycares provide more social activities.

    The Japanese school system

    Elementary school lasts six years and then students continue to middle school, which is three years long. This is when the rules begin in earnest, as many elementary schools don’t require uniforms. The first year of middle school is equivalent to seventh grade in the US, although grades are not referred to this way. Instead, people would say “elementary second year” for “second grade”, “middle school third year” for “ninth grade”, and so on. The Japanese government only designates elementary and middle school as compulsory so while uncommon, it’s legal for children to not attend high school, which lasts another three years.

    Club activities

    After school activities are, as a whole, taken much more seriously in Japan. As one might expect of a collectivist society, students often define themselves by their belonging to a particular group. Schools have a wide variety of clubs, mostly student-run and simply supervised by an adult. Besides sport and music clubs, you can find clubs based on enthusiasm for specific school subjects or even casual hobbies. Even outside those that require practice, many students attend clubs for several hours each week. Some schools even meet on weekends!

    Cram schools

    Japanese education is very exam-centric. The vast majority of schools, including public schools, require entrance exams to get in. The competition increases with age; the third year of both middle and high school is focused on the upcoming entrance exams most students will be taking. Many students therefore attend cram schools, which are after-school tutoring facilities that help students maintain good grades and pass exams.

    Higher education

    Since high school and university entrance exams are so rigorous, Japanese students relax a bit once they start college. Although they are of course academic institutions, college students have more leeway to focus on social activities or part-time jobs. Instead of clubs colleges have “circles”, which are essentially the same thing but with more drinking.

    Adulthood in Japan

    The legal age of adulthood in Japan is twenty. Once you’re twenty, you can vote, drink alcohol, and do anything else you like. Japanese people, like young adults worldwide, start their job-searching once they finish school. Those lucky students who make good connections can find positions through their upperclassmen or teachers, while everyone else enters the workforce normally. 

     

    While this article does mention some aspects of Japanese work culture, it does not go in-depth. If you’re looking for more information or job-searching yourself, check out our extensive article series on jobs in Japan!

    Japanese marriage

    Skipping ahead in the life cycle, what do people do when they want to settle down and start a family? They get married of course! After graduation, the next big life event in marriage. For those lucky couples, the guests bring gifts of cash envelopes (usually around ¥30,000 in fresh notes) and the couple will give them a gift in return. When you buy an envelope for anything, tell the clerk what it’s for since tiny details like cord colors have significance.

     

    The average age at first marriage is rising in Japan, related to the aging population issue. Here’s an article that has more data on Japanese marriages.

    Legal restrictions on marriages

    The minimum age for marriage in Japan is 16 for women and 18 for men, although anyone under 20 will need their guardian’s consent. In addition, divorced women must wait 100 days before officially filing for remarriage. There is no such restriction on divorce men; this law was intended to help with determining legal paternity.


    Same-sex marriages are not formally recognized in Japan, although you can find venues who are willing to host weddings. Certain cities and wards have legalized civil partnerships, but the legal status varies wildly based on region. To learn more about the state of same-sex marriage in Japan, this newspaper has a variety of articles on the topic.

    Shinto marriage culture Japan

    Religion in Japanese weddings

    There’s a common saying in Japan that Japanese people are “born Shintō, marry Christian, and die Buddhist.” Although we have further information on Japanese religious society in our religion section, suffice to say Christian-style weddings (“white weddings”) are very common in Japan even when the family is not Christian. Brides wear white western-style dresses and get married in churches regardless of their religious affiliation because it’s trendy to do so and is considered romantic.

    Shintō weddings

    For those looking for a more traditional style, Shintō weddings are not infrequent. The bride and groom wear special (usually rented) kimono with the groom in black and the bride in white, symbolizing purity. The bride also wears an elaborate headdress to hide her “horns”, as she will be docilely entering her husband’s household. The traditional hair knot for brides is intensely elaborate and therefore it’s more common to wear a wig already styled.

    Receptions and after parties

    Like weddings, receptions cost a lot of money. Therefore the guests pay for the right to attend. There’s plenty of drinking and cheerful chatter at these events, but dancing like at US weddings isn’t customary. Some couples hold multiple parties afterward, separating their families and friends.

    Changing clothes

    The bride will wear either a bridal kimono or dress for the wedding itself and then switch into multiple different outfits, each as fabulous as the next, for the reception and party. Typically this ensemble will include one or two kimono, one or two western-style dresses, and perhaps an evening dress as well. All of these outfits are likely rentals, including the groom’s get-up. This tradition of changing clothes through the event originally symbolized the bride’s ability to acclimate into daily life.

    Exchanging sake cups

    Weddings worldwide are full of celebratory drinking and Japan is no exception. In Shintō weddings, and sometimes Christian ones as well, the couple exchange sake cups. This is called san san kudo (three three nine times) because the bride and groom will sip from three stacked cups, three times per cup. Sometimes the parents will join in as well. The interpretation of the meaning behind this is varied, with some saying it represents the love of the couple, the integration of two families, or even heaven and earth.

    Toasts and speeches

    Toasts are also an integral part of the process. Nowadays the bosses of the couple give the keynote speech, praising their efforts and apologizing for work interfering with home life. The reception may be entirely speeches from various coworkers, friends, and family praising the couple. The bride and groom may also give speeches thanking their parents for raising them. These are all usually followed by toasts and drinking to happiness and longevity.

    Wedding superstitions

    Cranes, which symbolize longevity in life and marriage, are often featured in wedding decorations and even bridal dresses. Guests avoid saying the words modoru (to return), kaeru (to go home), or kiru (to cut) because this might curse the bride, forcing her to leave her husband and return to her parents. In addition, even numbers of notes are unlucky to include in your wedding gift. 

     

    To learn more about lucky and unlucky numbers, scroll down to our superstitions section!

    Japan society elder old person

    Retirement in Japan

    The average age at retirement in Japan is 63, although the legal limit has recently been raised to 65. Because Japan’s population is heavily skewed towards the elderly, this has put strain on their pension system and on adult care facilities. 

     

    Although work culture is changing, the generation currently retiring emphasized the workplace as the source of identity, fulfillment, social activity, and meaning. This has created several common problems for those aging out of work.

    Retired husband syndrome

    When husbands retire after a life of long hours and after-work socializing, they return to a home that has always been run by their wives. Husbands may have never done household chores or lack a strong connection with their family members. Therefore, they’re not sure what to do with themselves. Some expect their wives to take care of them all hours of the day and laze around, while others follow their wives around looking for something to do.

     

    As one might expect, this creates a lot of stress for these wives, who previously were able to run their dominion as they wished. It’s such a problem that there’s a term for it. “Retired husband syndrome” can have physical effects on older wives such as high blood pressure, depression, and other adverse symptoms. Such older women may complain that they suddenly have another infant to care for.

    Silver workers

    Since Japanese culture encouraged men of this era to contribute to society through their work, many of them lose their purpose in life when they retire. They feel like a burden on society. Additionally, most of their friends were friends from work and they no longer have avenues to socialize. This, along with economic problems, led to the rise of “silver workers”, retired people who go on to work part-time jobs as a way to feel helpful.

    Death in Japanese culture

    Because of the unique blend of Shintō and Buddhist philosophies around death, Japanese cultural ideas of death are very interesting. As we mentioned in the marriage section, most Japanese funerals follow Buddhist customs regardless of the family’s religion. Land restrictions and congestion also result in 99% of all funerals involving cremation. In fact, it is very difficult to find a plot of land to bury a loved one.

    Shintō traditions on death

    The concept of kegare (impurity) features heavily in Shintō philosophy and death brings kegare with it. Therefore, the days before the funeral are spent following ritual cleanings, washing the body, and various other customs before the official Buddhist mourning process begins. The family will also cover their household shrine to prevent other spirits from coming. There are traditional Shintō funerals as well, although most people stick to Buddhist services.

     

    To learn more about the exact steps followed, check out this article on Shintō death traditions.

    Buddhist wakes in Japan

    The day before the funeral, the mourning family will hold a wake for the deceased. Everyone wears black clothes as a Buddhist priest chants prayers and the immediate family says their farewells. Generally, you will attend either the wake or the funeral. Only close friends and family attend both.

     

    Note that black ties are a funeral constant, to the point that wearing a black tie anywhere else is unlucky.

    Japanese condolence money

    Whether you’re attending a wake or a funeral, every guest brings an envelope of cash to help the family with the funeral expenses. The closer you are to the deceased, the more cash you’re expected to bring. This ranges from ¥3,000 to ¥30,000. Avoid crisp notes as these suggest you were prepared for the death. Also, remember not to send flowers as many consider flowers inappropriate. The family will give you a return gift, usually a towel.

    Buddhist funerals in Japan

    Once again a Buddhist priest will chant prayers and the mourners will light incense. Once the official ceremony ends, the coffin is opened and mourners will address the deceased and the family members to give their respects and condolences. There is a superstition that spirits will follow you home, so when leaving a funeral stop somewhere else first, like a restaurant or public park.

    Chief mourners

    Oftentimes a chief mourner is designated, perhaps the spouse of the deceased or their oldest child. This person will be the first to offer their respects and the one who thanks guests for attending.

    The Japanese cremation ceremony

    Finally, everyone outside the family will head off. The family may have a feast before the cremation ceremony begins. If there is a chief mourner, they will be the one to push the button sending the body into the furnace. Afterward the family will use chopsticks to methodically remove every bone from the ashes and place them in an urn. Some believe picking certain bones will give those remaining blessings, such as bones from the head fostering intelligence.

    Japan funeral Buddhism death burial

    Gravesites in Japan

    Many families have a joint grave where the ashes are interred. Japanese gravestones are often tall slabs or pillars with a name carved into the stone. Families may display the ashes on their home altar until they are ready to put them in the grave. Buddhist tradition requires more ceremonies to honor the dead at various later dates, but not all families follow this tradition.

    Visiting Japanese graves

    Families will visit the graves of loved ones on the anniversaries of their death and again during Obon, the holiday when ghosts return to the world of the living. Offerings of incense, flowers, or food are left.

    Japanese household shrines and altars

    Most families keep a shrine or altar in their home with pictures of any deceased family members; many have both a Shintō shrine and a Buddhist altar. Even those families not mourning anyone will have shrines to pray or leave food offerings at.

    The Shintō afterlife

    The land of the dead in Shintō is called Yomi and is a nebulous and shadowy realm that bears little similarity to Christian concepts of heaven and hell. Yomi is ruled over by the mother goddess Izanami.

    The afterlife in Japanese Buddhism

    In contrast, the world of the Buddhist afterlife is very busy. The various circles of hell are ruled over by the chief judge Enma, the king of hell. There are many, many hells under his rule for every possible sin. The exact number depends on the source, but some list thousands of specific hells. Souls that have the potential to reach enlightenment will reincarnate while sinners are stuck in the hells. Enma and his fellow judges put souls on trial and determine their fate.

    The Japanese holiday of Obon

    Obon is a Buddhist summer holiday when ghosts return to visit their families, who put up lanterns to guide them home. Families will head out to the countryside to visit family both living and dead. They also craft horses out of vegetables for the spirits to ride. Although it is a festival for the dead, it’s a happy occasion when families can reunite.

     

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    Religion in Japanese Culture

    According to a 2018 survey conducted by the NHK, Japan’s primary broadcasting corporation, about 62% of Japanese people identify as mushūkyō (no religion) followed by Buddhism (32%), Shintō (3%), and Christianity (1%). If the majority of Japanese people aren’t religious, how come everyone celebrates religious holidays and prays at shrines?

    The Japanese conception of “religion”

    Fundamentally, this comes down to an important distinction in how religion is seen in Japan as compared to the west. Western countries are often majority Christian, a monotheistic religion that disallows the worship of unrelated gods. Contrast that with Buddhism and Shintō, neither of which has any such prohibition, and you’ll start to understand. 

     

    When people say they are mushūkyō they aren’t saying they aren’t spiritual, but rather that they aren’t exclusively following one religion. Most Japanese people practice both Shintō and Buddhist traditions and therefore consider themselves neither. In fact, a government study in the same year found that 69% of Japanese people practice Shintō, and 67% practice Buddhism. This is why you’ll often find Shintō shrines and Buddhist temples sharing the same plot of land.

    society Japan gate shrine

    How religion has impacted Japanese culture

    Now you may be asking, “why should I bother to learn about religion in Japan? It won’t affect my daily dealings with Japanese people.” If you think this you are wrong! Japanese culture is filled with religious influence and many non-religious people still act on values taught by religion. 

     

    Learning about Japanese religion is especially important if you’re trying to market something in Japan, whether it’s a product or an idea. People may reject your product just because you gave them an unlucky number of gifts (see our section on superstitions below). It’s important to consider religion when buying or developing land as well, since if you bulldoze a tiny shrine you didn’t even know about people will think you’ve angered the gods. The Shintō emphasis on tradition has also made Japanese culture resistant to change, which can sometimes feel like slighting ancestors. In order to properly communicate with Japanese people, you need to understand the cultural traditions they grew up in.

    Shintōism, the native Japanese religion

    Shintō is written as 神道 (way of the gods/spirits), using the kanji for kami (god/spirit). Kami are essential to understanding Shintō and Japanese culture. While the English word “god” implies a named and powerful being, Shintō’s kami range from tiny spirits inhabiting pebbles to the mighty Amaterasu, chief deity and goddess of the sun.

    A brief history of Shintō

    Shintō falls under a category of beliefs known as animism, where animals and nature are worshipped. The first written records of Shintō practices date to the 8th century, but historians and archaeologists suspect the religion might be as old as 1000 BCE. It was considered the primary native Japanese religion and was used to legitimize the rule of the imperial family. After the Meiji Restoration, Shintō was declared the national religion, and attempts were made to untangle it from Buddhism until Japan was made to adopt a secular constitution in the wake of World War II.

    The Shintō philosophy

    Unlike Christianity, Shintō has no strict religious commandments or holy texts. Followers are instructed to simply live together peacefully with nature. However, there are said to be “four affirmations” in Shintō which nicely encompass all of their beliefs.

    Tradition and family

    After they die, people become ancestral spirits and watch over their family members. These spirits are worshipped and celebrated. It is also important to bring a newborn child to a shrine so their name can be registered, assuring their soul a place among the ancestral spirits once they pass on. Shintō, therefore, emphasizes filial piety and honoring those who came before you. It is a family’s duty to pass on traditions to their youngest members and a person’s duty to show respect to their elders.

    Nature

    According to Shintō thought, every pebble, animal, plant, and stream has a kami. These god-spirits respond kindly to those who respect them. Ancient or unique natural objects gain holy significance. Humans are urged to live harmoniously with nature. In fact, ancient Japanese had no one word for “nature” because it was not considered separate from people. Humans saw nature as part of themselves and not as a resource to be commodified. 

     

    Read more about this in our section on nature below!

    Purity

    The concept of kegare poses a great risk in the Shintō worldview. Impurities such as filth and death bring disaster to those who do not purify themselves. Therefore, followers are asked to maintain good hygiene, and washing oneself is a part of many Shintō rituals. Contact with death also requires purification to it doesn’t spread its taint.

     

    Even today, companies hire priests to purify and bless new buildings and businesses. Even scientific research companies will regularly pray to kami when they embark on new projects.

    matsuri religion society Japan
    Festivals

    Japan is full of matsuri (festivals) celebrating the kami. Although summer is the peak season for them, they are held all year-round. Many localities have traditional festivals celebrating various local occurrences. It is vital to dance and celebrate and show your joy to the kami!

     

    This practice also has fostered the Japanese values of finding joy in your work and celebrating the community. When agriculture, prayer, and festivals became intertwined, so did the idea of celebrating work. Many Japanese people, particularly the older generations, see their job as a way of contributing to society and their reason for being.

    The organized Shintō religion

    Although the Shintō head church used to be affiliated with the national government, there is now a governing body called the Association of Shintō Shrines which organizes shrines and events. There is no figure analogous to the Catholic pope, although the Emperor is still technically the head of the religion.

    Shintō priests

    Shrines of Shintō are run by priests of various ranks. Most of these priests are male, although female priests do exist. Shintō has traditionally seen men as purer than women despite having the chief god be a goddess; this perception is slowly changing. Priests have to pass exams to be certified.

    Priestesses

    Miko (shrine maidens) are a popular trope in the media, but today’s miko have very little influence in Shintō. Traditionally miko were young unmarried women who performed dances and purification rituals. However, most miko today have no training or qualifications and are simply working part-time jobs tending to shrine grounds and selling protective fortunes.

    priestess society Japan working shrine
    The Emperor and Shintō

    The Emperor of Japan is considered the head of the Shintō religion as a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, although this was legally denied after World War II. The Imperial family performs many rites and ceremonies for Shintō to this day and is said to hold onto the three imperial regalias handed down by the gods: a mirror, a sword, and a magatama bead.

     

    There is still controversy over whether the government should be allowed to perform Shintō rites.

    Shintō shrines

    Japan has over 90,000 staffed shrines and they’re absolutely everywhere. You can find small abandoned shrines every other block in some places. Here are a few of the symbols and rituals you might see at a shrine.

    religion society Shinto Japan shrine gate
    Torii gates

    Have you seen the tall red arches that signal the entrance to shrines? They’re quite common once you start looking for them. Torii signal that you are entering a sacred space. They are typically red, although they come in all sorts of colors, sizes, materials, and designs. Shrines that have multiple torii are more holy as the more gates you pass through, the holier the space becomes.

    Sacred ropes

    Shintō marks holy objects by tying a rope with white paper tassels around them. You can see these ropes on shrines, rocks, trees, and other respected objects. If something’s marked with a rope, don’t touch it!

    Washing your hands

    When you enter a shrine (and sometimes in temples too) there is usually a well with ladles. This is for visitors to wash their hands and cleanse the impurities. Most of them have directions with pictures, so don’t worry about the specifics.

    Shrine emple religion Shinto Buddhism ladel
    Lucky fortunes

    Visitors can pay to draw omikuji (fortunes) to tell if they will be lucky or not. Local practices vary, but often you’re supposed to take good fortunes home but tie bad ones to ropes at the shrine, in order to ward them off. Many shrines sell lucky charms called omamori (protection) as well, made for all sorts of situations including exams, health, love, and even traffic safety. As part of the New Year’s celebrations, people will write their goals out on wooden plaques called ema in the hopes that the gods will grant their wishes.

    Shintō mythology

    Since there is a god in every natural object, there are countless gods in Shintō. However, there is a main pantheon that receives significantly more worship. These gods typically have a few names and titles, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll stick to the simplest and most common ones.

    Amaterasu, Tsukuyomi, and Susano’o

    The head god of the Shintō pantheon is the sun goddess and ancestor of the Imperial family, Amaterasu. Her brothers Tsukuyomi, the god of the moon, and Susano’o, the god of storms, are also quite prominent. Amaterasu’s most famous myth is one in which, saddened, she withdrew from the world and entered a cave. The earth couldn’t survive without the sun so all the gods cajoled her into returning and, after several attempts, she finally came out of the cave.

    Izanami and Izanagi

    Amaterasu and her siblings were the children of the progenitor gods Izanagi and Izanami, who created the islands of Japan. In a myth similar in theme to the Greek tale of Orpheus, Izanami dies and goes to yomi, the land of the dead. Izanagi was told he could take her out if he didn’t look at his wife but he, of course, looked anyway. Shamed by her corpse-like appearance, Izanani fled back into yomi and declared she would kill 1,000 souls a day, to which Izanagi replied he’d give life to 1,500 souls per day.

    The seven gods of fortune

    Among the gods of Shintō, one other group stands out. The seven lucky gods are actually an eclectic mix of Shintō, Buddhist, Hindu, and Taoist figures. They appear together and bring great fortune to those who encounter them. These gods are Ebisu, the god of fishing; Daikoku, the god of wealth; Bishamon, the god of war; Benten, the goddess of fertility; Jurōjin, the god of longevity; Hotei, the god of popularity; and Fukurokuju, the god of wisdom.

    8,000,000 gods

    There is a saying in Shintō that there are seven gods in every grain of rice. This veneration for the mundane encourages people to give respect to all natural things and not take anything for granted.

    Japanese Buddhism

    Buddhism has had a major influence on Japanese culture. Many traditions have become so intertwined with Shintō that Japanese people can’t always tell them apart.

    temple otera religion

    A brief history of Buddhism in Japan

    Buddhism was founded in the 6th century BCE in India. It took nearly 1,000 years for the religion to spread through China, move onto Korea, and finally reach Japan in the 6th century CE. Buddhism gained prestige among the noble class for its association with Chinese scholarship. During the Warring States Era, Buddhist temples were attacked and lost their influence on the government. However, the culture is still strong today.

    The philosophy of Japanese Buddhism

    At its core, Japanese Buddhism is about reflecting deeply on yourself and the world and reaching a state of deep understanding. There are several sects of Buddhism originating in Japan. Here’s a link to an article with more information on the different sects, but for now all you need to know is that every sect has a different way to achieve enlightenment.

    The organized Buddhist religion

    There are over 75,000 Buddhist temples in Japan. The Japanese government officially recognizes thirteen schools of Buddhist thought. They do not have a governing body among them.

    religion Buddhism priest
    Buddhist priests in Japan

    Both monks and nuns exist in Buddhism, although as with Shintō men are more likely to become priests than women. They dress formally and shave their heads to show their devotion.

    Japanese temples

    Buddhist temples (otera) are almost as numerous as shrines and often share space with them. They tend to be larger buildings with pagodas rather than torii gates. Many have elaborate art and statues of Buddhas inside. You can buy omamori at a temple just as easily as at a shrine.

    The different Buddhas

    It would be a mistake to think that Buddha is a solitary figure. In fact, there are many different Buddhas and you can see them all over Japan. Significant Buddhas include Amitābha, who appears frequently in Japanese chants, and Vairocana, the model for the Great Buddha at Nara.

     

    Although this particular article lists Himalayan Buddhas, there is a lot of overlap if you’re interested in learning more.

    Zen Buddhism and its impact on Japanese culture

    Although Zen is not the only prominent Buddhist sect in Japan, it’s the one with the most obvious influence on the culture. Many Japanese art forms, especially painting, calligraphy, and tea ceremony, can trace their roots to Zen meditation. Zen espouses simplicity in all things and a focus on nature and one’s inner self. It has become associated with refinement, which is why traditional Japanese aesthetics may seem minimalist.

    religion statue art Buddha

    Christianity in Japan

    Although Japan has a complicated history with Christian missionaries, today it’s seen as somewhat trendy due to its association with the west. Most Japanese people are familiar with the trappings and aesthetic of the religion, even if they may have no interest in the actual doctrine.

     

    Christianity can at odds with Japanese culture, with its emphasis on condemning non-believers coming into conflict with Japan's collectivist society.

    A brief history of Japanese Christianity

    Portuguese Christian missionaries first began preaching in the 1500s. The government, suspecting them of being foreign agents, banned Christianity sixty years later and violently persecuted the Christian community until the late 1800s and the reopening of Japanese borders to western countries. There were small hidden Christian communities during this time who worshipped the Virgin Mary alongside Buddhist idols. Today about 1% of Japanese people are Christian, although there have been multiple Christian prime ministers.

    Cultural impact

    Despite the low numbers, Japanese weddings continue to be predominantly Christian, and religious imagery shows up everywhere. Christian private schools are relatively common, even though the student body may not be at all religious. Christianity is associated with the prestige of western culture, which has overall experienced much economic success. 

     

    Japanese people as a whole aren’t particularly interested in converting to Christianity, but they enjoy the aesthetic. It’s similar to how many people in the US think Zen Buddhism is cool and buy Buddhist art but they aren’t actually interested in converting. 

    The Japanese Christmas

    Christmas is widely celebrated in Japan as a day for family and lovers. It’s mostly non-religious. People tend to eat Christmas cakes and KFC at Christmas. This is similar to the way Valentine’s Day has become secularized in Japan.

    Other native Japanese religions

    Shintō and Buddhism may have dominated much of recorded Japanese history, but there are other faiths that developed in the region. These religions are still practiced today but have experienced persecution from the Japanese government in the past.

    The Ryūkyūan religion

    The native religion of Okinawa is also an animist religion, although it is distinct from Shintō. The belief system includes ancestor worship, nature worship, and the belief that women are holier than men. Okinawa has had a complicated relationship with the mainland and is still suffering the effects of colonialism. 

     

    Names for this religion vary; some call it Ryukyuan Shintō but this can be offensive.

    The Ainu religion

    The Ainu people of Hokkaidō also practice a unique animist religion. They believe in the spirits of nature (kamuy; not to be confused with kami) and practice communal rites. Bears have great significance.

     

    Learn more about the Ainu people!

     

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    Japanese Cultural Superstitions

    Every culture has superstitions, common beliefs unconnected to religion or science. They can be as seemingly arbitrary as unlucky numbers or be based on old historical traditions. These beliefs are often highly variable depending on the region or individual, but you will run across these as you traverse daily life in Japan.

    Lucky objects in Japanese culture

    The Japanese word for luck is 吉 (kichi). You’ll find this kanji in many place names. Japanese culture is rife with lucky and unlucky things, so keep these in mind when you’re giving gifts!

    Lucky numbers

    Like in many countries, the number 7 is considered lucky! There are many reasons why this is so, from there being seven gods of luck, to seven being an important number in Buddhism, to the number symbolizing unity. 8 is also a lucky number and symbolizes prosperity.

    Unlucky numbers

    The most important thing to remember about numbers is that 4 is very unlucky. The kanji for 四 (four) and 死 (death) are both pronounced shi. The kanji for 9 (ku) similarly resembles 苦 (agony). Never give gifts in fours or nines!

     

    To learn more about number puns, check out our article on Japanese slang!

    Unlucky ages

    What’s more, some years are always unlucky. These yakudōshi (calamitous years) depend on the year you were born, not your birthday, and differ depending on gender and region. These years are ages 25, 42, and 61 for men and 19, 33, and 37 for women (this may vary). Japanese people may invest more in omamori during these years.

    Numbered groups

    You’ll often find lists of three important things. There are the three Imperial regalias, the three holy mountains of Japan, and even three samurai who helped unify the country. There are any number of reasons why the number three seems to have such unconscious significance, but to be honest it’s just a good steady number to have.

     

    In anime, the concept of the four heavenly kings also appears frequently. This stems from the Buddhist deities who ruled the cardinal directions but now can be any group of four powerful people. 

    Color symbolism

    The color red, used to paint shrine torii, is said to ward off evil. Red is also a lucky color in China and the envelope of money given to children on New Year’s is also red. The color white, representing purity in Shintō, can be lucky as well. However, it also used to be the color worn to funerals so this depends on the context. For example, giving white flowers is reserved for funerals still.

    Throwing salt

    According to Shintō tradition, salt has the power of purification. This is why you can find small bowls of salt outside restaurant doors. Throwing salt is said to get rid of ghosts and evil spirits as well.

    lucky cat superstition

    Lucky cat

    I bet you’ve seen maneki neko (beckoning cats) before, in store windows or souvenir shops. These lucky cats are a Japanese symbol of wealth and good luck, which is why many of them are holding large golden coins.

    Teru teru bōzu

    These ghostly “monks” are little dolls children hang in the window to prevent the rain. They are said to ensure sunny weather.

    Tea leaves

    This is unlikely to happen to you, but when you’re drinking loose leaf tea the leaves float around the cup. If one floats to the bottom and sticks straight up, it’s very good luck!

    Sandal straps

    Sandals are prominent in traditional Japanese footwear; the culture has many types. However, it’s unlucky if the strap of your sandal breaks. Maybe just stick to other shoes?

    Unlucky fingers

    The Japanese word for “thumb” is oya-yubi (parent-finger). Therefore, you’re supposed to cover your thumbs if a funeral hearse passes by you, to protect your parents from death. There is also a superstition that cutting your nails at night can curse your parents (or you).

    Unlucky fingers

    The Japanese word for “thumb” is oya-yubi (parent-finger). Therefore, you’re supposed to cover your thumbs if a funeral hearse passes by you, to protect your parents from death. There is also a superstition that cutting your nails at night can curse your parents (or you).

    Japanese superstitions around sickness

    People like to imagine our ancestors had no knowledge of medicine and went around using untested methods to solve preventable illnesses, but ancient people were smarter than they’re given credit for! That said, not all of their wisdom makes sense to us today.

    Idiots don’t catch colds

    This is a phrase you’ll hear frequently in anime. The idea behind this is that idiots won’t even notice that they’ve caught a cold, but it’s evolved to combine with the muscular idiot trope.

    Sneezing means someone is talking about you

    This shows up frequently in the media as well. Two characters will be discussing an off-screen person when it cuts to that person, who sneezes and looks up confusedly. The longer superstition elaborates that one sneeze means they’re saying two things, two sneezes means they’re saying bad things, three means you have an admirer, and four means you have a cold. Unless you’re an idiot, of course.

    Cover your belly button

    Children in Japan are often warned to keep their belly buttons covered, especially in storms. This is because the thunder god (raijin) might eat it! Some versions also include the wind god (fūjin). It’s speculated that this myth is connected to the belief that keeping your belly warm protects you from sickness and was originally a way to get kids to properly cover up.

    Japanese monsters

    Sure, Japanese pop culture has its fair share of vampires and werewolves, but those aren’t the only creatures haunting the Japanese night!

    Japanese ghosts

    Ghosts, or yūrei, are a common motif in Japanese folktales. Said to come out at night, these spirits of the dead carry grudges for their untimely deaths and haunt the living. They can be pacified by being given proper funeral rites or being exorcised by a priest or monk. There are many classifications and iterations of Japanese ghosts, but you can usually tell them apart from the living because they lack feet.

     

    In Japan, summer is the season for telling ghost stories, since they give you the chills. You’ll see the TV variety shows discussing ghosts over the summer instead of in autumn.

    Revenge stories

    Oftentimes these ghosts return from the land of the dead to torment those responsible for their death. These ghosts are usually the souls of lower-class people, particularly women, who were wrongly subjected to agonizing deaths. Two famous tales along these lines are the stories of the bureaucrat Michizane and the servant Okiku.

    Japanese yōkai

    You likely have heard the term yōkai before. It’s hard to translate. This word encompasses ghosts, monsters, and even supernatural events. Yōkai stories are both numerous and popular, inspiring countless tales such as the Pokémon franchise. For the sake of keeping this article a manageable length, we’ll list a few key ones for you.

     

    This article explains a few of the yōkai origins behind Pokémon!

    Kappa

    Probably the most famous yōkai, the kappa is a turtle-like creature that lurks in rivers and loves cucumbers. It wears a plate on its head that is very precious. Kappa stories range from your-friendly-local-cryptid to eats-genitals-and-souls, so be careful searching them on the internet.

    Foxes and tanuki

    Since Shintō emphasizes the divine in all natural things, there are many animals that also gain supernatural elements. Foxes are famous for this, as they supposedly gain tails for every century they live. The more tails a fox has, the more spiritual power it has. These foxes are illusionists who can shapeshift and deceive humans. 

     

    The tanuki, a Japanese animal related to foxes and raccoons (they’re real and they’re not raccoons I promise), is another trickster animal. Tanuki can also shapeshift, although they may not live as long as foxes. Both of these creatures are also used as insults one might call a crafty and untrustworthy person.

    yokai kitsune fox tanuki festival matsuri superstition
    superstition yokai monsters
    Tengu

    The tengu are red-skinned long-nosed creatures who are masters of magic and the wind. They are said to be extremely prideful; if a Japanese person says your nose is growing they mean you’re being arrogant, not that you’re lying.

    Oni

    The typical Japanese ogre, oni are usually brightly colored giants with clubs and horns. They’re usually powerful but not particularly intelligent. Oni are the grunt workers in the Buddhist hells and the ones who torture sinners, but they also feature in folktales as mountain-dwellers who ate humans.

    Tsukumogami

    Another yōkai with obvious Shintō origins is the tsukumogami (tool spirits). It is said that a well-loved item will gain a spirit of its own after a hundred years of use. This is where you get images of sentient umbrellas and lanterns.

    Japanese urban legends

    Not all yōkai have ancient origins. Even today, new ghost stories are being spread, accelerated by internet forums and horror films.

    Kuchisake onna

    The most notable of these stories is the kuchisake onna (slit-mouthed woman). She approaches people at night asking if she is beautiful before revealing that her mouth horrifyingly stretches from ear to ear. No matter how you answer her questions she’ll kill you.

    The seven school mysteries

    It’s a common trope that schools (usually elementary schools) have seven supernatural “mysteries” (i.e. ghosts). Often the last is the scariest. These may include Hanako-san, the ghost haunting the bathroom, or a haunted anatomical model.

     

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    The Importance of Nature in Japanese Culture

    Japan is a large enough country to support stunning biological diversity and their long history of treating the natural as divine means a lot of natural spaces have been protected. Even in the massive metropolis of Tokyo, there are parks, trees, and even small forests. It’s not hard to find somewhere green.

    nature geography

    Simple geography of Japan

    Japan consists of four main islands: Honshū, Hokkaidō, Shikoku, and Kyūshū, with smaller islands like Okinawa stretching out in various directions. Most of the population lives on the main island Honshū. The entire country is slightly smaller than the state of California, although it is longer.

    Mt. Fuji

    The tallest mountain in Japan and a universal symbol for the country, Mt. Fuji (fujisan) is an active volcano and has erupted as recently as 1707. Its size and majesty have made it a sacred site in the Shintō religion. Mt. Fuji covers ground in both Yamanashi and Shizuoka Prefecture, west of Tokyo. This mountain has an overwhelming presence in Japanese culture.

    World natural heritage sites

    UNESCO has designated four world natural heritage sites in Japan, along with nineteen cultural heritage sites. The four natural ones are Yakushima, a western island known for its ancient trees; Shirakami-Sanchi, a northern mountain range with an expansive forest; Shiretoko, a northern peninsula with many hot springs; and the Ogasawara Islands, a remote island chain only accessible by boat from Tokyo.

    Japanese natural disasters

    Because Japan is situated on the Ring of Fire, where most of the world’s volcanic eruptions and earthquakes occur, the country is no stranger to massive natural disasters. This has influenced their culture immensely over the thousands of years humans have inhabited the islands. 

    Earthquakes in Japan

    Japanese buildings are constructed with earthquake resilience in mind. The government has an extensive warning alert system and citizens are well-prepared to take shelter when they feel the ground rumbling. There’s even a free wifi system (00000JAPAN) available during and after disasters.

     

    Japanese folklore holds catfish responsible for earthquakes. Some earthquake alert systems have catfish icons.

    Tsunami

    Earthquakes are disasters not only because of the destruction they cause, but also because they trigger other disasters like volcanic eruptions and tsunamis. The word tsunami (harbor wave) refers to massive waves that force residents to higher ground and flatten coastal towns and environments.

    Disaster prevention day

    Every year on September 1st, the anniversary of the Great Kantō Earthquake, local municipalities organize emergency drills and families double-check their emergency supplies. The government takes these drills very seriously!

    Impact on Japanese culture

    Because Japanese culture sees nature as divine and as intertwined with human life, the frequent disasters that have plagued the nation since its settlement have had a deep impact on the Japanese psyche. Nature is feared and respected in Japanese culture as something that is untamable. If you push nature too far, you will regret it. Sometimes you may live peacefully for years in coexistence and then an earthquake comes along and you have to start over again.

    The Japanese environmental movement

    For all of these reasons, environmental consciousness is high among Japanese people. There is a strong recognition of taking steps to protect natural areas from over-development and prevent natural disasters from worsening.

    How to sort trash in Japan

    Every locality has a different way of sorting waste. Some don’t sort it at all while others separate every material. Trash-sorting depends on the area, but generally, there is burnable, not burnable, bottles/cans, and oversized trash. You should be able to use common sense for this as long as you’re looking at the symbol on the garbage can.

    Litter in Japan

    Have you ever noticed how clean Japanese cities are? It seems like there’s no litter on the ground despite it being so hard to find trash cans. That’s because Japan has a culture of just carrying your trash home to throw out there. Littering is bad, you know!

    Nature in Japanese art

    It’s no wonder nature is such a huge theme in Japanese art! Here are a few art forms centered around nature.

    Japanese gardens

    Japan has a long history of aesthetically crafted gardens. They can include small bridges or simple structures, various trees and flowers, koi ponds, and raked pebble areas. They are meant to display the simplicity and elegance of nature. You can find Japanese-style gardens around the world!

    nature tradition

    Bonsai trees

    Bonsai are trees planted in pots as opposed to free-standing natural trees. Although the typical image of a bonsai is small, some are quite large, requiring multiple people to lift. The art of bonsai came to Japan through China over 1,000 years ago and has flourished ever since.

    Flower arrangement

    Called both ikebana and kadō, the art of arranging flowers for maximum aesthetic value is another ancient art form. It is often associated with tea ceremonies, which prominently feature arrangements. 

    Japan's four seasons

    “Japan is a country with four seasons.” This is a phrase you’ll hear bandied about as if Japan is indeed the only country with seasons. While this odd little belief is fading, Japan still takes great pride in natural seasonal beauty, holding hanami (flower-viewing) events in the spring and admiring red maple leaves in the autumn. Flower arrangements, haiku poems, and even traditional sweets are often themed to the season.

    Japan's four seasons

    “Japan is a country with four seasons.” This is a phrase you’ll hear bandied about as if Japan is indeed the only country with seasons. While this odd little belief is fading, Japan still takes great pride in natural seasonal beauty, holding hanami (flower-viewing) events in the spring and admiring red maple leaves in the autumn. Flower arrangements, haiku poems, and even traditional sweets are often themed to the season.

     

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    Why is it important to learn about Japanese culture?

    Culture consists of the environment people grow up in, the ideas that are shared by those around them, the images they see, and the themes that resonate with them. If you do not make an effort to connect with people from other cultures, you will never be able to understand perspectives outside your own. Japanese culture has a lot of things to teach people, and learning about the topics we’ve covered in this article can help you understand how to effectively communicate in Japan.

    Final remarks

    Learning about culture is a process that is never finished. Not only has culture had thousands of years to develop, but it also continues to change every day. Making an effort to learn about Japanese culture will help you connect with Japanese people and engage in Japanese society!

     

    Make sure to check out our other articles on living in Japan if you want more!

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