Ultimate Guide to Japanese Culture
By Alexis Goss | Revised December 20, 2021
Japanese culture is complex and profound, distinct from most other cultures around the world. This article, as part of our larger series of guides, will help you learn the major facets of Japanese culture and ease your way to living in Japan.
Sadly, Many foreigners who live in Japan remain in a bubble. They often have incorrect or incomplete understanding of the Japanese people, and they never dive into the rich culture of this land. Perhaps they've listened to the well-meant but inaccurate information provided by other foreigners. However it happens, these residents miss out on the amazing experiences available in Japan.
One thing to know about Japanese culture
"Culture" is essentially anything that gives a person a sense of belonging to the group. Food and art are prime examples of how groups differentiate themselves. The less obvious (and harder to understand) examples include shared experiences, common practices, and the individual's relationship to the world.
Culture is what distinguishes "us" from "not us." Not every member will have every characteristic, but everyone will know these distinctions.
With that bit of academics out of the way, let's explore Japanese culture!
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Japanese culture: Common sense is relative
Perhaps you've heard the expression: "Common sense isn't common." When entering a new culture, the better expression is: "Common sense is relative." Many foreigners have difficulty with Japanese culture because their common sense isn't the same as Japan's common sense. Let's look at one example.
Say that you are from a desert region or an area that receives little rainfall each year. You might be puzzled at seeing so many bed linens draped over balconies or laundry lines in Japan. "Wow!" you may think, "Japanese people are really concerned about being clean!" The real reason goes much deeper than that. Japan is subtropical. This makes mold a constant and real issue. Japanese common sense dictates that anything not aired out regularly becomes moldy and must be thrown out. To the dry-climate foreigner, common sense requires keeping the house tightly sealed to prevent moisture loss.
A point of note on common sense
Finally, It's crucial to remember that common sense isn't universal. The foreigner able to adapt their thinking to fit their new environment will be successful and most likely happier.
Respect in Japanese Culture
The general consensus among foreigners is that Japan is "very polite." The people are "reserved, formal, and shy." In truth, every culture is polite, reserved, formal, and shy, and every culture defines these terms differently.
In some countries, politeness comes from casual intimacy with friends and neighbors; formality indicates dislike or rudeness. For some cultures, only certain aspects of personal life are reserved or held back while others are commonly shared. Some societies express shyness with laughter while others use silence.
We all grow up with rules for engagement, and we learn them intuitively. Upon arrival in a new society, most foreigners have little idea how to deliberately adopt new manners, especially when those mannerisms are counter to what we grew up with.
Japanese culture: Japan is a collectivist society
A key feature of Japanese society is collectivism, or the priority placed on the well-being of the group as a whole. Harmony among members creates peacefulness and security, a cohesion that ensures all move forward together. “The group” can be the country, the family, the neighborhood, the company, the school, and many other collections of people with a shared goal. This sharply contrasts individualistic societies often found in western countries.
|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|
Japanese culture: Pros and cons
No social structure is entirely perfect. Individualistic cultures often place “me before we,” to the potential detriment of the culture that person lives in. Collectivist societies may prevent “rocking the boat” ideas regardless of how that impacts an individual member.
The folly of generalizations
The most cohesive society still contains individual members. Therefore, every society contains a range of traits. When someone goes to a foreign country, they often discover they’re capable of behaving differently than at home, breaking the stereotypes. To further complicate labeling, people with a diverse cultural backgrounds can often switch between social standards at will.
Those foreigners in Japan who are in teaching professions must be especially aware of the differences between collectivism and individualism because these social ideologies significantly impact classroom management. Fortunately, there are many resources available online, from academic to psychological studies and more. Whether your interest is professional or personal, you can learn more about these social structures with a quick web search.
Japanese culture: The Japanese hierarchy
A well-known core value of Japanese culture is “respect for elders and seniors.” Their language contains nuances to show the exact degree of respect each situation demands. Failure to show the correct level of respect usually causes a person to be labeled as rude and ungrateful, and it often results in roadblocks to your desired results. Making sure you show all proper respect in every situation will boost your reputation and smooth your progress.
Respect for your seniors
When building a house, you must lay a solid foundation before you can raise sturdy walls. To put this into a social context, you must respect those who came before you and made it possible for you to do what you’re doing. “One who came before (you)” is a more literal translation of “senpai,” and it can refer to both age and seniority.
A senpai teaches you how to do the job, whether it’s schoolwork or office work. Sometimes your senpai is younger than you, but they have the experience you don’t. Showing proper respect to those “above” you not only results in better mentoring for your job, but also a layer of protection. For instance, A senior employee who knows that you’re doing your best and paying attention to their experience will often cover for any mistakes you make while learning.
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Who is your senpai?
Here are a few examples of senpai:
- A coworker who entered the company before you
- Someone who’s worked in the industry longer than you
- An older student who graduated from the same school as you
- A friend who’s been a parent longer than you
- Someone who has been playing tennis longer than you
- A fan who has supported a sports team longer than you
- An online friend who’s been involved in a fandom longer than you
Important point about Senpai culture in Japan?
It’s important to note that senpai are not managers or bosses, but rather people you’re working alongside. Everyone who enters a job in the same year, regardless of age, will treat their coworkers who started before them as senpai. In return, the newcomers of the following year will treat them as senpai. Yes, there is a certain amount of respect for age in the senpai system —the phrase “jinsei no senpai” (senpai of life) refers to older people —but what usually determines senpai status is the length of time a person has been involved with the group.
More on Senpai culture
Another item of note is that a junior member —called kohai —will never become the “equal” of their senpai. It’s tempting to think that you’ve graduated through the system and no longer need to consider your mentor with the formality of senpai/kohai, but that’s not true. No matter how many juniors look up to you as their senpai, you will always be kohai to your senpai.
The benefits of a senpai
Senpai have a social obligation to help their kohai. This involves training them, making sure they’re fitting in, helping them with work projects, and generally protecting them from harm. In companies that don’t have an official training program, senpai are the ones doing the hands-on instruction. This is why it’s crucial to show respect to your senpai.
Why it’s important to respect senpai
Many societies base their system of respect on having “earned” it. This mindset makes it difficult for foreigners in Japan to show respect to senpai who don’t appear to have skills or knowledge. A junior member who has more practical information about the position than the senior member may be frustrated, but there are still benefits to cozying up.
As already mentioned, senpai often takes the blame for their kohai who haven’t had time to learn a particular corporate-culture rule or who make an honest mistake. Experienced seniors know how to deal with That Manager or how to work the imperfect system, and they’ll share that information with a respectful kohai. Furthermore, they will warn their mentees about a potential faux pas or upcoming announcements, so make sure to pour your senpai’s drinks and go to them for advice instead of the titular boss.
Japanese culture: In-groups and out-groups
The Japanese language generally indicates 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 everyone else.
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. For example, you would probably 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 but then go home and trash-talk people.
Generally, you can assume that your family is always your in-group and strangers are always your out-group. If you are talking to another person as a representative of a particular group, then that group becomes your in-group, even if only for the length of that conversation.
Determining what group you’re in
This concept is not unique to Japan, although the exact way it plays out varies worldwide. Understanding which group is which becomes complicated by the fact that groups are not static. They regularly shift depending on 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. When talking to a representative of a different company, one's entire company becomes the in-group. Because these constant changes confuse even native Japanese people, you don't need to think you're missing every last cultural clue.
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 beyond Japan. The essential Japanese self-image consists of fierce pride in things considered uniquely Japanese and perception of Japan being a “small island nation.” This gives rise to the assumption that foreigners don’t think Japan is important and are unable to fully understand Japanese culture. Consequently, many Japanese people are nervous around foreigners and hesitant to connect with them.
Foreigners are often treated as a conglomerate society of English-speakers. Japanese people will absolutely be polite to foreigners, attempting to speak English even if the foreigner in question speaks Japanese (or doesn’t speak English at all). Foreigners in Japan will always be foreigners before they are anything else.
Humility in Japanese culture
Among the most prized character traits in Japan is humility. It's so important that most people present a facade of humility in order to be socially acceptable. This includes not complimenting oneself, no bragging about accomplishments, and generally describing oneself in condescending terms. The Japanese person is an extension of their uchi, so they will often down-play the abilities of their children, company, social group, or other in-group in order to avoid being arrogant. In truth, most people are proud of their children or spouses or coworkers, but it's considered rude to say so.
Part of being humble is refusing to be honored. Rather, one should pretend to refuse honors such as gifts, awards, and praise. 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.”|
Many cultures have personal jokes about polite people becoming stuck in the cycle of "No, after you," and Japan is no different. At some point, the Japanese person (or foreigner) will have to accept the honor or change the subject. The purpose of the deflection is to avoid rudeness, and refusing a gift is rude.
People in Japan are quick to apologize for any inconvenience. They 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's far quicker to take responsibility and move on to fixing it rather than start a fight that may upset other people.
Japanese culture values maintaining deep connection with others, and this results in immediate and profuse apologies for every inconvenience. The Japanese person asked for assistance has a social obligation to help, even if they can't spare the time or resources to do so. The person making the request is expected to apologize for interrupting or inconveniencing the other person, usually while making the request.
More on Apologies
Also, if someone makes it known that you've caused any problem, however minor, you're expected to apologize immediately and fully. Many foreigners have trouble with this, as we tend to immediately defend ourselves. Remember that "public face" and "true face" are separated in Japanese culture. Keep the peace by accepting the critique, and you'll prove yourself humble and easier to get along with.
To learn more about how to apologize, check out our Ultimate Guide to Japanese Customs
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Japanese culture: The Japanese Cultural Life Cycle
The life cycle refers to the events that most people experience, eternally repeating for each generation. Simplified, it looks something like this:
Image created by Alexis Goss
Everyone is born and every dies, but the stages in between vary. In fact, the decreasing percentage of adults having children is a major concern in Japan. Declining birth rates and an aging population drive an increasing number of government policy decisions.
Traditional family roles in Japanese culture
Historically, the men of the family worked hard to provide monetarily while the women ran the home and raised the children. Grandparents lived close enough to 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 less shame in being a housewife in Japan than in some other cultures, but many Japanese women are choosing to be active in the workforce.
If you watch a lot of Japanese cinema, you’ll see the trope of married couples who have severe communication issues. There is an ideal in Japan that couples who have been together a long time are able to communicate without words, perfectly understanding one another. However, healthy communication can be challenging in a collectivist society that emphasizes protecting everyone’s feelings.
While these attitudes are shifting generationally, you may observe that a couple acts coldly to one other. We recommend staying out of others’ marital affairs unless the situation is extreme and merits legal intervention. Therefore, Even if you don’t understand their relationship, they may have other ways of communicating that you aren’t picking up on.
Japanese culture: Calling strangers your uncle
One linguistic trait that Japan shares with a few other collectivist societies is calling strangers oji-san (uncle) or onee-san (big sister). This doesn't mean everyone is secretly family. Rather, this is seeing the wider community as an extension of oneself and one’s family. These terms are used to refer to both actual family members and 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+|
These are extremely rough ages. 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 without permission.
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 book in which each member is recorded, along with birth dates, death dates, and any other changes. Only one surname can be listed, which means married couples must legally go by the same last name.
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 the grandmother may move into the mother's house. This provides an extra pair of hands for chores and non-infant children until the mother begins to go out again.
Staying at home for a month
Mothers with babies younger than a month may get scolded if they bring their baby out in public. When a grandmother is able to stay and help, the mother gets a vacation from chores during this time to bond with her new child. Additionally, 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.
Growing up in Japan
Japan uses the grade-level system it inherited from the US 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.). Kindergartens are more educational while daycares provide more social activities. Elementary school lasts six years, and then students continue to middle school, which is three years long. The Japanese government only designates elementary and middle school as compulsory; while uncommon, it’s legal for children to not attend high school, which lasts another three years.
The Japanese school system
Junior High School is when social rules become crucial to a student's education. Elementary schools tend to be more relaxed about the nuances of manners, and few require uniforms. Grades 1-6 are in elementary school. However, the naming of grade levels changes in junior high compared to the US. You will hear Japanese students referred to as "junior high school first year students" instead of "seventh grade students." A graduating high school student is a "high school third year student." It's important to specify the level of school (elementary, junior, or high) as well as the grade and class to avoid confusion.
Past vs.Present School System
In the past, school in Japan was seven days a week, year round. Recently, administrators and officials reviewed research showing that children learn better when they have time to rest between school days, so most schools have adopted the five-day schedule used in other countries. It's still common, however, for Saturday school to occur, with the occasional Sunday lessons.
After-school activities are, as a whole, taken 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 casual hobbies. Many students attend clubs for several hours each week.
Japanese education is exam-centric. The vast majority of high schools, including public schools, require entrance exams. The competition increases with age; the third year of both middle and high school is focused on the upcoming entrance exams. Many students therefore attend cram schools, which are after-school tutoring facilities.
Since high school and university entrance exams are so rigorous, Japanese students relax a bit once they start college. Although they are attending 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 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 senpai 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!
Moving along in the generic life cycle, what do people do when they want to start a family? They get married, of course! 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 gifting, tell the clerk what it’s for, since tiny details like cord colors have significance.
Want to learn more about Japanese marriage? Read our Ultimate Guide to Getting Married in Japan.
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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 divorced men; this law was intended to help with determining legal paternity.
Same-sex marriages are not traditionally recognized in Japan, although you can find venues that will host weddings. Certain cities and wards have legalized civil partnerships, but the legal status varies wildly based on region. Recent changes to policy and interpretation of Japan's constitution have made equality of marriage more accessible to natives and foreigners alike. To learn more about the state of same-sex marriage in Japan, this newspaper has a variety of articles on the topic.
Religion in Japanese weddings
There’s a common saying that Japanese people are “born Shintō, marry Christian, and die Buddhist.” Christian-style weddings (“white weddings”) are 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 and romantic.
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. Furthermore, the traditional hair knot for brides is elaborate, so it’s more common to wear a wig already styled.
Receptions and after parties
Like weddings, receptions cost a lot of money, and the guests pay for the right to attend. There’s plenty of drinking and cheerful chatter at these events, but dancing isn’t customary. Some couples hold multiple parties, separating their families and friends.
The bride will wear either a bridal kimono or dress for the wedding itself and then switch into different outfits during 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, as is 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. Moreover, 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 wedding process. 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.
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 bank notes are unlucky to include in your wedding gift.
Retirement in Japan
The average age at retirement in Japan is 63, although the legal limit has recently risen to 65. Because Japan’s population is heavily skewed towards the elderly, this has put a strain on their pension system and on adult care facilities.
The generation currently retiring emphasized the workplace as one's 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 and may lack a strong connection with their family members. Some expect their wives to take care of them all hours of the day, while others follow their wives around, looking for something to do.
Since Japanese culture from this era encouraged men to contribute to society primarily 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 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
The unique blend of Shintō and Buddhist philosophies around death created Japanese cultural ideas of death that are very interesting. As 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.
Shintō traditions on death
The concept of kegare (impurity) features heavily in Shintō philosophy, and death always 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 mourning process begins. The family will also cover their household shrine to prevent unwelcome spirits from coming. Finally, there are traditional Shintō funerals, although most people stick to Buddhist services.
Oftentimes a chief mourner is designated, perhaps the surviving spouse or 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.
Buddhist funerals in Japan
During the ceremony, a Buddhist priest will chant prayers and the mourners will light incense. Once the official ceremony ends, the coffin is opened and mourners will pay respect to the deceased and give condolences to the family members. 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.
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. Crisp notes suggest you were prepared for the death, so get some crumpled bills. Also, check before sending flowers, as many consider flowers inappropriate. The family will give you a return gift, usually a towel.
Gravesites in Japan
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 inter them. Buddhist tradition requires more ceremonies to honor the dead at various later dates, but not all families follow these rules.
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, 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 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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Have you seen the tall, rectangular arches at the entrance to shrines? 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 sacred, because the more gates you pass through, the more spiritual the space becomes.
Washing your hands
When you enter a shrine (and sometimes temples) there is usually a well with ladles. This is for visitors to wash their hands and cleanse the impurities. This process is more symbolic than medically sanitary, so you won't find soap dispensers, and you shouldn't use your own. During the global pandemic, most shrines adopted government-sanctioned sanitizers instead of the shared well, and it's doubly important to use them to show your physical as well as spiritual cleansing. Many of the wells have directions with pictures for visitors who don't know the proper procedure.
Visitors can pay to receive omikuji (fortunes) to learn if they will be lucky in the coming year. Local practices vary, but often you’re supposed to take good fortunes home, while you'll tie bad ones to ropes at the shrine in order to prevent the bad luck from coming to pass. 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.
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 multiple names and titles, but we’ll stick to the most common ones for now.
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 are Tsukuyomi, the god of the moon, and Susano’o, the god of storms. Amaterasu’s most famous myth is one in which, fed up with her brother Susanoo's flagrant disrespect, 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. In the end, after several attempts and some trickery, 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.
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.
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 on yourself and the world to reach 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, know 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.
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.
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. Notable 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.
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.
Despite the low number of dedicated Christians, the iconography frequently appears in pop culture, advertising, and design. Most Japanese weddings exclusively use Christian protocols because the western style is trendy and popular, even though the couple is unlikely to place any faith in the imagery. These are called "white weddings". 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 culture embraces symbols of success in all things, and religious symbols enjoy the same status.
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 (Kentucky Fried Chicken, an American fast-food chain) at Christmas. This is similar to the way Valentine’s Day has become secularized in Japan.
Want to learn more about Japanese Christmas? Read more in our Ultimate Guide to Japanese Christmas
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, though 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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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, then why does everyone celebrate religious holidays and pray at shrines?
The Japanese conception of “religion”
This distinction is in how religion is seen in Japan. 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.
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.
How religion has impacted Japanese culture
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). It’s important to consider religion when buying or developing the 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 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). 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.
The Shintō philosophy
Unlike monotheistic religions, Shintō has no strict commandments or holy texts. Followers are instructed to simply live together peacefully with nature. However, there are “four affirmations” in Shintō which nicely encompass all of their beliefs.
Tradition and family
After death, people become ancestral spirits and watch over their living family members. These spirits are worshipped and celebrated. This is why it's so important to bring a newborn child to a shrine to register their name, 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 everyone's duty to show respect to their elders.
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!
Japan is full of matsuri (festivals) celebrating the kami. Although summer is the peak season for them, matsuri are held year-round. Many towns 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.
Want to learn more about Japanese festivals? Check out our Ultimate Guide to Japanese Festivals
Shrines of Shintō are run by priests of various ranks, who must pass certification exams. Most of these priests are male, although female priests do exist. Shintō has traditionally seen men as more pure than women, despite the chief deity being a goddess; this perception is slowly changing.
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 employees tending to shrine grounds and selling protective fortunes.
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.
Japan has over 90,000 staffed shrines and innumerable corner altars, which means you can find shrines on nearly every other block. Here are a few of the symbols and rituals you might see at a shrine.
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!
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Japanese culture: 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!
As 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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).
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, and when the view cuts to that person, they will sneeze and look around in confusion. The superstition is that one sneeze means someone is 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 pop culture has its fair share of vampires and werewolves, but those aren’t the only creatures haunting the Japanese night!
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.
Oftentimes, ghosts return from the land beyond 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 are the stories of the bureaucrat Michizane and the servant Okiku.
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!
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 when researching 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 (they’re real and they’re not raccoons), is another trickster animal. Additionally, Tanuki can also shapeshift, although they may not live as long as foxes. Both of these creatures are used as insults for a crafty or untrustworthy person.
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 rather than lying (as is common in many western countries).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Simple geography of Japan
Japan consists of four main islands: Honshū, Hokkaidō, Kyūshū, and Shikoku, 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.
The tallest mountain in Japan and a universal symbol for the country, Mt. Fuji (fujisan) is an active volcano and 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.
World natural heritage sites
UNESCO 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.
Earthquakes are disasters not only because of immediate destruction 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. Therefore, 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 municipality 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 for the community, so please be respectful.
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Nature in Japanese art
It's natural that nature is a main theme in Japanese art; here are a few art forms centered around nature.
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.
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.
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. Therefore, Flower arrangements, haiku poems, and even traditional sweets are often themed to the season.
Why is it important to learn about Japanese culture?
Beucase 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.
Learning about culture is a process that is never finished. Not only has culture spent thousands of years developing, 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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