Japanese Culture — Some facts you may not be familiar with

Somewhat Japanese Culture is often considered to have unique customs. Bowing to each other and shaking hands is probably one of the well-known customs in Japan. Is Japan truly a nation with distinctive features? Let’s take a good look and find out!

Geisha covering face with a fan with cherry blossoms in front

Japanese Culture Facts

If you’re from one of the countries far from Asia, you may have various questions about Japanese culture and customs. The modern Japanese culture is a complex of the continental Asian culture and is heavily influenced by the Western world. We’re introducing a brief history of Japan also known as the “Land of the rising sun” and keywords here.

Japanese culture vocabularies

  • culture: 文化 | ぶんか | bunka
  • custom: 習慣、風習 | しゅうかん、ふうしゅう | shuukan, fuushuu
  • tradition: 伝統、しきたり | でんとう | dentou, shikitari
  • religion: 宗教 | しゅうきょう | shuukyou
  • ethics: 倫理、道徳 | りんり、どうとく | rinri, doutoku
  • values: 価値観 | かちかん | kachikan
  • mannar: 行儀、作法 | ぎょうぎ、さほう | gyougi, sahou
  • behavior: 態度、立ち居振る舞い、 | たいど、たちふるまい | taido, tachifurumai

A Brief History of Japanese Culture

Like many other countries, Japan has a long history as a country. Ancient Japanese people started settling down in Japan about 35,000 years ago, and Japan has developed its own culture and language over time. Here are some of the well-known Japanese eras in the past centuries.

  • Yayoi period (300 BC-250): Chinese character Kanji (漢字 | かんじ) and the concept of Buddhism (仏教 | ぶっきょう | bukkyou) arrived.
  • Nara period (710-794): The capital in Nara prospered. Buddhism matured among the aristocrats so did Shintoism (神道 | しんとう) among farmers.
  • Heian period (794-1185): Music, Japanese literature, and various arts developed rapidly in Kyoto. Hiragana (平仮名 | ひらがな) and Katakana (カタカナ | かたかな) were born. The first geisha appeared as art performers.
  • Edo period (1603 and 1867): Science and diverse cultures developed in Tokyo, including national sport Sumou (相撲 | すもう), theater performance Kabuki (歌舞伎 | かぶき), and Ukiyoe (浮世絵 | うきよえ) art.
  • Meiji period (1868-1912): A political revolution brought modernization. Western-style clothing and western-influenced food appeared dramatically.
  • Shouwa period (1926-1989): Japan experienced a severe defeat in World War II. Later, modern Japanese culture and economy began growing.

Japanese Culture and Traditions

There is more to Japanese culture and traditions than the language and food. Japanese culture and traditions are influenced and made up of different concepts such as arts, religion, beliefs, etiquette, and others.

Japanese Religion

Buddism (仏教 | ぶっきょう) and Shinto (神道 | しんとう) are the two major Japanese religions, but most Japanese people claim themselves as atheists or non-religionists. Even though people don’t have strong beliefs, people still participate in traditional religious events and rituals.

Japanese Cultural Concepts

Japanese culture is considered a little unique. Presumably, the reason behind this is the unfamiliar concepts to many people. The Japanese cultural concepts below distinguish the country, and you can even see them in modern Japanese society.

Zen: 禅 | ぜん

The philosophy of Zen Buddism is about finding the truth of your existence in life. It’s not like many Japanese people meditate and pray every day, but the Zen mindset is in their hearts. It appears in their appreciation of nature, for instance.

Isshou-Kenmei: 一生懸命(一所懸命) | いっしょうけんめい(いっしょけんめい)

Isshou-Kenmei means doing things with utmost effort. It has roots in the 武士 | 侍 (ぶし、さむらい | bushi, samurai) culture during the Kamakura period. The similar phrase Ganbaru (頑張る | がんばる) stands for doing one’s best and derives from the Edo period. The idea stretches everywhere like education, work, and sports.

Wabi-Sabi: 侘び寂び | わびさび

Wabi-Sabi is the traditional aesthetics regarding the acceptance of transience and imperfection. It was widely spread through the tea culture around the 12 to 16 centuries. The feeling of Wabi-Sabi stimulates people’s sensitivity and imagination.

Mono no aware: 物の哀れ | もののあわれ

The concept represents the aesthetic of the Heian period. It’s about empathy toward things, emotions inspired by nature, and impermanent melancholy.

Omotenashi: おもてなし

Omotenashi implies providing hospitality with respect while not asking for compensation. It originates in the Japanese tea ceremony (茶道 | さどう | sadou) of the Heian to the Muromachi period. If you want to experience the superior Omotenashi, staying at a traditional inn (旅館 | りょかん | ryokan) is recommended.

Mottainai: 勿体無い | もったいない

Mottainai is a sense of regret over something going to waste. Sometimes people mention it to express concern about taking excessive tasks or gifts, or it simply means don’t be wasteful for food and goods.

Japanese Festivals

In every season in Japan, there are also different holidays celebrated. They usually celebrate them in festivals. We have listed some of the popular Japanese festivals below.

Oshougatsu: お正月 | おしょうがつ

The Japanese New Year celebration starts on 1st January. The first three days are called Sanganichi (正月三が日 | しょうがつさんがにち), and it’s the biggest holiday season in Japan. People visit a Buddhist temple or a Shinto shrine to start a new year. It’s called Hatsumoude (初詣 | はつもうで).

Setsubun: 節分 | せつぶん

Setsubun is a celebration for the coming spring in early February. While saying “fortune inside, evil spirit outside” (福は内、鬼は外 | ふくはうち、おにはそと | fuku wa uchi, oni wa soto), people throw roasted soybeans to purify their houses.

Ohanami: お花見 | おはなみ

The famous time to appreciate the cherry blossoms comes around March to May nationwide. Many people go on a picnic and enjoy the view of transient beauty.

Tanabata: 七夕 | たなばた

A summer star festival originates in China. In Japan, it’s called Tanabata Matsuri (七夕祭り | たなばたまつり) . People write down their wishes on a Tanzaku (短冊 | たんざく) paper and decorate bamboo trees on the 7th of July, and wear summer kimono Yukata (浴衣 | ゆかた) to attend festivals.

Obon: お盆 | おぼん

Obon festival is a Buddhist custom to commemorate one’s ancestors and family reunion in mid-August. It’s one of the major holidays in Japan.

Otsukimi: お月見 | おつきみ

People celebrate the harvest moon with rice cakes called Tsukimi-Dango (月見団子 | つきみだんご) in mid-September.

Tori no Ichi: 酉の市 | とりのいち

Tori no Ichi is an annual auspicious festival held in November. It’s common among the temples and shrines associated with birds, such as Asakusa’s Ootori shrine.

Oomisoka: 大晦日 | おおみそか

It’s New Year’s Eve in Japan on 31st December. People clean the house and have Toshikoshi-Soba (年越し蕎麦 | としこしそば) before midnight to prepare for a fresh and healthy start. People visit temples for New Year’s Eve bell called Joya no Kane (除夜の鐘 | じょやのかね) and stroll to see the first rising sun, Hatsuhinode (初日の出 | はつひので).

Japanese Celebrations

There are Japanese celebrations almost every month. Here are some of the celebrations in Japan:

Hina Matsuri: 雛祭り | ひなまつり

On 3rd March, families wish for the growth and happiness of the girls with Hina dolls (雛人形 | ひなにんぎょう), which represents the imperial court of the Heian period.

Tango no Sekku: 端午の節句 | たんごのせっく

On 5th May, families wish for the growth and happiness of the boys. Samurai dolls (武者人形 | むしゃにんぎょう) or a Samurai helmet (兜飾り | かぶとかざり) are typical decorations.

Shichi Go San: 七五三 | しちごさん

It’s the day for families to celebrate the growth of children on 15th November. Usually, it’s for 3 and 7 years old girls, and 3 and 5 years old boys.

Seijin Shiki: 成人式 | せいじんしき

A celebration in January for young people who turns 20 years old. People dress in Kimono (着物 | きもの) or formal clothing and attend a locally held ceremony.

Kanreki: 還暦 | かんれき

Kanreki is a day to celebrate a person who turns 60 years old. Traditionally, people wear something red as a lucky charm. There are a series of year celebrations for elders from 60 to 100 in Japan.

Japanese Cultural Greetings and Practices

As a foreigner, greetings (挨拶 | あいさつ | aisatsu) are one of the first cultures you encounter. Japanese people might seem a little awkward with a hug and kiss greetings, though they have a variety of verbal and non-verbal greetings.

Ojigi: お辞儀 | おじぎ

Bowing is probably the most well-known Japanese way of greeting. The bowing gestures show your welcome, gratitude, reverence, and apology. For a friendly greeting, try Eshaku (会釈 | えしゃく) by simply nodding your head once. On the other hand, shaking hands are a common way of greeting on formal occasions.

Ittekkimasu: 行って来ます | いってきます

It’s the combination of “see you later” and “I’ll get going now, and I’ll be back later”. Commonly used from home to work. If you visit someone’s home, Ojamashimashita (お邪魔しました | おじゃましました) is the correct greeting when you leave.

Itterasshai: 行ってらっしゃい | いってらっしゃい

It means good luck, and please come back safely, but it’s very similar to the French expression Bon voyage. Itterasshai and Ittekimasu are set phrases.

Tadaima: 只今 | ただいま

Literally, Tadaima means right now. People use it when they get home to Japan.

Okaeri nasai: お帰りなさい | おかえりなさい

It’s the greeting to answer the Tadaima. Simply, it means welcome back. Okaeri is a little more casual and commonly used at home.

Itadakimasu: いただきます

Itadakimasu is similar to the French expression Bon appétit. It also shows gratitude and respect for everything on the table. It’s also used when someone receives something as a gift.

Gochisousama deshita: ご馳走様でした | ごちそうさまでした

Together with Itadakimasu, Goshisousama is the mealtime greeting. It means thank you for the meal.

Interesting Facts about the Japanese Culture

Japan has a clear definition of public and private, appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. Visiting Japan without knowing these facts, you might feel uncomfortable sometimes. But no worries, we give you some tips below. First, here are some interesting facts about Japan.

Toyota, Nissan, and Mitsubishi are everywhere!

Japanese characteristic automotive industry is well-known in the world. People drive big-name Japanese cars, and they tend to keep them clean and shiny. It’s hard to spot bumps or scratches. In 2018, white cars occupied 47.6 percent, silver 20.6 percent, and black 15.4 percent in a popular color ranking in Japan.

Comics, animations, and video games are for everyone!

Japanese Manga (漫画 | まんが) comics, animations, and video games are not only for children. Unlike the western countries, many grownups enjoy reading Manga and watching Anime (アニメ). For instance, the Manga market was worth 613 billion Japanese Yen in 2020.

Japanese people actually live long!

Life expectancy is very high in Japan. In 2020, an aggregate recorded 87.7 years old for women and 81.6 years old for men. Steady medical treatment levels, a universal insurance system, and eating habits are the assessed reasons.

Japanese Food Culture is big and unique!

Once you visit Japan, try to taste authentic Japan in your eyes and mouth. You probably would notice that it’s full of specialized restaurants and a variety of luxurious fruits and meat in supermarkets. Also, the fact you can get a glass of water and a hand-wipe free of charge might be a big surprise to some people. Food trip across the country is popular among Japanese as well.

Weird sounds and words? Well, it’s part of verbal communication!

The Japanese language is full of onomatopoeia. People use them frequently in daily conversations.

For example:

  • 日本語がペラペラですね。
  • にほんごがぺらぺらですね。
  • Nihongo ga perapera desu ne.
  • You can speak Japanese fluently.

Likewise, sounds like “Ahh,” “Hee,” and “Huhhn” during conversations are common interjections called Aizuchi (相槌 | あいづち) in Japanese. It’s similar to “Oh, yeah,” “I see,” and “Really?” in English to show the listener’s participation.

Can’t Japanese people say no? No, we say it in our way!

In Japanese society, respecting others and thinking group-oriented are essential. Also, the fact that Japanese people are indirect communicators leads them to avoid saying concrete no in many cases.

For example:

Do you feel like going to a party this weekend?

  • Western Answer: No, I’m busy. Some other time.
  • Japanese Answer: Oh, sorry. I’ve made a plan already. Can you invite me next time?

Together with Japanese people’s plain facial expressions and fewer body gestures, sometimes it might be hard to comprehend what they actually mean to foreigners. Japanese people are just not used to encountering a different culture since foreign nationality makes up only 2.3 percent in Japan in 2020.

Even a Japanese has difficulty using polite forms correctly!

There are levels of honorific speeches in the Japanese language. Altogether it’s called Keigo (敬語 | けいご), but there are following three types and used separately depending on the talker’s point of view and situations.

  • Honorific form: 尊敬語 | そんけいご | sonkei go
  • Humble form: 謙譲語 | けんじょうご | kenjou go
  • Polite form:丁寧語 | ていねいご | teinei go

However, many Japanese make mistakes using them when they write and talk. So you can take it easy when you reached the stage of learning Keigo.

Customs to Be Aware of When You’re in Japan

There are many customs in Japan, and here are some of them.

  • No eating and drinking while you walk in public. It’s considered vulgar behavior in Japan.
  • Talking on the phone or eating something on public transportation is often prohibited.
  • Don’t forget to take off your shoes when you’re in the buildings.
  • Wash well and tie your hair before entering a public bath or Onsen (温泉 | おんせん). Also, soaking a towel in the bathtub should be avoided.
  • Time punctuality is key in Japanese society. Try not to be late for any appointments.

Manners to Be Careful at the Table

Sushi (寿司 | すし) or not, you might be a regular customer of some local Japanese restaurants. Haven’t you wondered what kind of table manners you should keep in mind as you dig into some Japanese food? Even for a pair of chopsticks Ohashi (お箸 | おはし), there are more than ten rules in Japan. Here, we’re introducing some etiquettes.

  • Don’t lick, rub, and bite chopsticks.
  • No passing food using chopsticks.
  • Don’t stick chopsticks into your food. Especially don’t leave chopsticks stuck in a rice bowl. It means offering food to the departed.
  • Tea is not, but slurping noodles are alright.
  • Lift your rice bowl, soup bowl, and small plates when you eat.
  • Finish your food if you can.
  • No tipping, but chefs and servers are happy to hear your “ごちそうさまでした (gochisousamadeshita)!”

Discover Japanese culture on Your Own!

Learning the Japanese language is not only about knowing new words and grammar. It’s about getting a grasp of the background, people, and culture. Once you grab the contour of Japanese culture, you might recognize something similar to your country or other cultures you encountered.

がんばってください (Ganbatte kudasai)! ^^

    2 replies to "Japanese Culture — Some facts you may not be familiar with"

    • graliontorile

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      • 90 Day Japanese

        Awesome, thanks for your comment^^. If you want to find more great content on learning Japanese, you can visit the 90 Day Japanese Blog. You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel for video lessons. You’ll get updated when our latest videos become available.

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