Society - Culture
By: - at May 8, 2014

15 Unique Aspects of Japanese Culture

Naval Ensign of Japan:
Naval Ensign of Japan
By David Newton via Wikimedia Commons

The Japanese culture is an ancient culture, and just like other similar cultures, has evolved a great deal over the millennia. From the prehistoric Jomon period until now, influences affecting the Japanese lifestyle have not only come from Asia but from Western Europe and the U.S. as well.

Middle Jomon Period Vessel:
Middle Jomon Period Vessel
By sailko via Wikimedia Commons

Still, that being said, and despite globalization, Japan still maintains ancient traditions, which can be deemed bizarre by most people in the West. Below are 15 of the most unique aspects of the culture of Japan, spanning from unusual traditions to customs that are very different than practices in the West.

15)  Raw Horse for Dinner
While horse meat is not exactly a culinary choice in the U.S., the practice of serving horse for dinner is especially appealing to the Japanese. Although people that savor the meat like to eat it cooked, the Japanese prefer to eat their meat like they eat sushi, sliced thin and in its raw form.

Raw Horsemeat is Called Basashi in Japanese Culture:
Raw Horsemeat is Called Basashi in Japanese Culture
By Richard W.M. Jones via Wikimedia Commons

*Other countries that like the meat cooked include France (which thinks horse meat is a rich and delicious cuisine), China (the top consumer), Kazakhstan (the second largest consumer), Indonesia, Germany (which likes to serve horse meat in a Sauerbraten roast), Switzerland, Belgium (who considers horse meat a staple), and Scotland.

Horse Butcher in Germany Located in Old Munich:
Horse Butcher in Germany Located in Old Munich
By Usien via Wikimedia Commons

Raw horse meat, when served in Japan, is known as sakura, or sakuraniku. The word sakura means cherry blossom, which is a reference to the meat's pink color. In true Japanese style, sakura is often served with ginger and onions, with the thinly sliced pieces of meat dipped in soy sauce.

Horse Meat Sashimi from Japan:
Horse Meat Sashimi from Japan
By Igorberger via Wikimedia Commons

However, horse is not always served raw in Japan. Sometimes the meat is eaten at a function known as a yakiniku, which is similar to a Western barbecue. Placed on a skewer, the meat is referred to as baniku. At a yakiniku, raw horse, wrapped in a shiso leaf, may be eaten along with the barbecued meat as well.

14)  An Almost 100% Literacy Rate
The Japanese are known for being a studious, academic and intelligent people, all which is confirmed by an amazing literacy rate. Hovering around 99%, the literacy of the country is attributed to the Japanese practice of beginning studies at an early age. Japanese children begin intense math and literary coursework at the tender age of six.

World Literacy Rates -Click to Expand:
World Literacy Rates -Click to Expand
By Andrew pmk via Wikimedia Commons

While Japan's state education system is considered to be prohibitive as it bars original and individual thought, the efforts toward teaching fact and theory have resulted in some of the best exam scores in the world.

Diligent instruction in math and language continues until children reach 15 years old, or the age that a young person can legally leave school. If a student so chooses, he can study at the senior level until he turns 17 and move on to higher ed coursework.

Young Woman Practicing the Kanji:
Young Woman Practicing the Kanji

Guidelines that have been implemented by the Japanese ministry of education state that a child should be able to read a minimum of 1,006 Chinese characters (known as the Kanji), by the time they leave the primary grades.

By the time a child reaches 15, he is expected to know an additional 1,130 characters. Students who choose to continue on to high school must learn the remaining characters at that time. It is during this point in their academic studies that students are encouraged to think critically, and to come up with original concepts and theories.

13)  Saying, "I'm Sorry," by Shaving One's Head
When someone wants to be forgiven for a misdeed, he shaves his head in Japan. Attention to the custom was brought to the forefront when a Japanese pop star shaved her head in February 2103.

Minami Minegishi of AKB48:
Minami Minegishi of AKB48
By Georges Seguin via Wikimedia Commons

The admission of guilt was made by Minami Minegishi of the all-girl band, known as AKB48. Minegishi was caught visiting the home of her boyfriend, violating the band's "no dating rule." A video was displayed across the media as well as on the band's website, and, has since, been seen by approximately six million viewers.

Minami Minegishi After the Infamous Shaving:
Minami Minegishi After the Infamous Shaving

Because of the story, the custom, which had declined in popularity, has now been brought back to life. Traditionally, only Japanese men shaved their head as an offering for penance. However, in modern times, women have also adopted the practice.

12)  Sumo Culture
The sumo culture that surrounds Japanese wrestling is not something that is made up or exaggerated in animations or film. Sumo wrestlers are serious contenders that follow a life of strict discipline and training, all with the idea of becoming as strong as humanly possible. Two wrestlers compete in the sport with the goal of pushing the other outside of a circular ring. The sport is only practiced professionally inside of Japan.

Sumo Wrestlers Shirnaui Dakuemon (center left), Tsurugizan Taniemon (center right):
Sumo Wrestlers Shirnaui Dakuemon (center left), Tsurugizan Taniemon (center right)

As a result, a professional sumo wrestler has a regimented life. In fact, wrestlers are not permitted to drive a car, and must follow other stringent rules. Breaking any of the rules will either result in suspension from the profession, or a series of fines.

Sumo Wrestlers Manazuru Sakiemon and Musashino Konai (1780):
Sumo Wrestlers Manazuru Sakiemon and Musashino Konai (1780)

Known as a rikishi, the wrestler must reside in a stable, where he eats, sleeps, and trains. His training is overseen by a stable manager.

Modern Sumo Match in Tokyo, Japan:
Modern Sumo Match in Tokyo, Japan
By Gusjer via Wikimedia Commons

One of the customs that may seem particularly strange to Westerners is the sumo's bathing ritual. Younger sumo wrestlers, who are in the process of training to become professionals, must bathe veteran sumo wrestlers as a sign of respect.

11)  Bathing Culture
Every culture has its own etiquette when guests visit homes. In some cultures, it might be respectful to bring a gift. In another culture, it may be good etiquette to greet everyone in the home when you enter the household. However, in Japan, anyone who stays as a guest in a home is required to bathe.

In a typical Japanese home, the whole family shares one bath. When a home features a small tub though, each family member uses the bath, one by one, in order of age, with the senior member of the family going first. However, if you are a visiting guest, you are accorded the honor of entering the tub before everyone else.

Bathhouse Women:
Bathhouse Women

If a Japanese home has a larger tub though, everyone gets into it. Generally, both parents will bathe with their young children. While the tubs are found in modern Japanese homes, many traditional homes do not have bathtubs. For this reason, the Japanese public bathhouse, known as sento, is still used. Heated water is available, often from a hot springs, and each sex is segregated. Customers bathe in the water in the nude.

Modern Japanese Sento:
Modern Japanese Sento
By sanmai via Wikimedia Commons

Patrons take off their clothes in a changing room and lay them inside a basket with their bath towel. Lockers are available for storing valuables. While bathers enjoy the hot spring waters of a sento naked, small towels provide privacy outside of the bath.

Entrance to the Tsubame Yu Onsen (Kanji for Swallow and Hot Water) in Tokyo:
Entrance to the Tsubame Yu Onsen (Kanji for Swallow and Hot Water) in Tokyo
By Chris 73 via Wikimedia Commons

Before entering the sento, bathers rinse their body with water from a washbowl or at a tap. Today, many younger bathers prefer to take a shower instead. After entering the bath, people soak for a while. If you are not used to the water, it can feel exceptionally hot.

After soaking in the bath, bathers wash their body with soap, and from a tap. They sit on a stool during the process. Then, the bathing continues - bathers enter the bath once more. After bathing this second time, the ritual is done.

10)  Lost and Found in Local Police Boxes
If you are going to misplace or lose an item, the place to do it is in Japan. That's because the country features a number of police boxes. Because the Japanese people are typically honest and caring, the koban, or police box, can fill up pretty steadily with lost items.

Japan, then, is one of the best places to lose your wallet, if there really is an ideal place for doing so! In Japan, you will find a number of police boxes throughout the cities, which, again, are known as kobans. Not like they sound, kobans are actually police stations that are run and manned by officers.

Koban Police Box in the Ginza District of Tokyo, Japan:
Koban Police Box in the Ginza District of Tokyo, Japan

So, if you lose a wallet or other item, you simply have to visit a box. Youíll need to fill out forms and supply your contact information to confirm that any lost item belongs to you.

9)  Mobile Phone Etiquette
Unlike cell phone users in the Western world, the Japanese frown on speaking on a phone inside public transport, whether it is a bus, tram, or train. Therefore, signs are often posted asking passengers not to make calls. Passengers are also asked to mute their phones when riding the conveyances.

By Charlotte Marillet via Wikimedia Commons

Phone are especially popular among Japanese youth, as were pagers when they were used in the 80s and 90s. Initially, users were only able to send numbers to other pagers, which showed that somebody had received a call from a specific number.

Young Japanese Girl Using Her Phone For Taking Photos at the Aquarium:
Young Japanese Girl Using Her Phone For Taking Photos at the Aquarium
By Tom Purves via Wikimedia Commons

However, messages soon started being sent by way of numerical codes. When cell phone devices became more affordable in the 90s, young people started using short messages, and, thus, the mobile phone culture began. The use of the phone is continually evolving among the younger generation, thanks to the technology's use and influence in the media.

No Cell Phone Sign from Japanese School:
No Cell Phone Sign from Japanese School

8)  Public Urination is Acceptable
In Western Europe and the United States, it is generally illegal to urinate in the street. Japan, however, is very different in this respect. Often people struggle to find a public toilet in the U.S., lest they buy something from a shop or cafe so they can use the facilities.

Contemporary Japanese Squat Toilet:
Contemporary Japanese Squat Toilet
By 浪速丹治 via Wikimedia Commons

However, in Japan, people may urinate in the street, as long as it is discreet. Therefore, anyone who needs to relieve himself will take to a side street or find a spot behind a bush or shrub. As the country is generally very focused on being clean, polite, and organized, this aspect of the culture is rather surprising.

Modern Japanese Toilet with Bidet in Operation:
Modern Japanese Toilet with Bidet in Operation
By Chris 73 via Wikimedia Commons

7)  Bicycle Licenses
Japanís cities are much like modern Western cities in that many people choose to ride bicycles instead of driving cars. Unlike places such as London, however, it is not possible to simply ride a bike around cities like Tokyo. In Japan, you cannot borrow a bicycle to use for one day.

Bicycle Rental Shop in Tokyo:
Bicycle Rental Shop in Tokyo
By Shoestring via Wikimedia Commons

Therefore, the bicycle laws in Japan can be rather confusing. So, if you are visiting a city, it is wise to look up specific laws regarding certain varieties of bikes and the local guidelines.

A Yamato Transport Electric-Assisted Bicycle in Japan:
A Yamato Transport Electric-Assisted Bicycle in Japan
By H Okano via Wikimedia Commons

While some Japanese jurisdictions do not require a bike registration or license, other places require that the bike be driven with a registration plate. An electric bike is one of the cycles that does not require a license or needs to be registered.

6)  Snoozing in the Streets
When you see people sleeping on the streets in the U.S., you automatically assume the people are homeless. However, in Japan, regardless of one's background, sleeping in the street is acceptable night or day.

Sleeping on Park Bench:
young japanese kids sleeping on bench

Therefore, it is not uncommon to see businessmen sound asleep on the streets using their sports jacket or brief case as a makeshift pillow. Some people sleep outside the train station late at night as well. So, if a rider misses his train, he frequently finds a place to lie down and settle in for the night.

Sleeping on Commuter Train:
sleeping on commuter train

5)  Watch the Toilet Seats
Technology is a huge part of Japanese culture, with the nation being particularly well known for its innovations. The toilets in Japan are not exempt from this rule, and can be noticeably different than those in the United States.

Example of a Modern Japenese Toliet:
Example of a Modern Japenese Toliet
By Fboas via Wikimedia Commons

The oldest kind of Japanese toilet is the squat toilet, which is just a hole in the ground. However, because times have changed, Toto toilet seats are used frequently, all which come with a wide range of features. Some of the toilet seats are heated for comfort and many of the bathroom accessories feature an automatic lift system. Therefore, bathroom users do not have to touch the seat in order to lift it. Some of the toilets even come with proximity sensors, which allow the lid to open or close. Other toilets play music that is designed to relax the sphincter.

Close-up of Electronic Toilet Features:
Close-up of Electronic Toilet Features
By Peter Van den Bossche via Wikimedia Commons

Many of the modern toilets store the time when the accessory was last used, and place the high-tech system into power-saving mode. Some toilets even glow in the dark, or are supported by an AC system installed beneath the toilet's rim.

4)  No Shoes Please
In Japan, removing your shoes is an important custom. Therefore, it is considered disrespectful if you enter somebodyís home without taking off your footwear. At one time, it was considered practical to take off one's shoes. However, now the the ritual has just become ingrained into the culture.

Exterior of Japanese Company and the Employees' Shoes:
Exterior of Japanese Company and the Employees' Shoes

While people offer various explanations as to the reason for shoe removal, many in Japan claim that the origin for the habit is due to Japan's heavy rains, all which can make things pretty muddy. Therefore, the Japanese must take off their shoes to avoid tracking in mud or dirt. To make such a mess is considered disrespectful as rooms in homes generally serve more than one purpose, and are organized and clean.

So, when you visit somebody in Japan, you should remove your shoes at the entrance. Take off the shoes while you are facing the entryway. When they are taken off, you are required to kneel and turn the shoes so they are not in the way of the door. Never show your back to the host when you are placing the shoes down as it is considered rude.

Japanese Shoe Cubbies:
Japanese Shoe Cubbies
By Angie from Sawara via Wikimedia Commons

Usually, you will be given slippers to wear when you are in a home or business. You will also be given another pair of slippers if you have to use the restroom.

3)  Significant Birthdays
In the West, the most significant birthdays tend to be the 1st, 16th, 18th and 21st birthdays. In Japan, however, the aging process is more revered. The youngest significant birthdays are three, five and seven years old. There is a Japanese word, schichi-go-san, which means seven-five-three, and is the name of a celebration on November 15th. This national holiday celebrates the lives of the people who are currently the aforementioned ages.

The next significant birthday is 20, as this is when a young person becomes an adult. It is at the age of 20 that a person can legally drink and smoke tobacco. After this major milestone, the 60th birthday is considered the most significant. This birthday is noted as it is the time the five Chinese zodiac cycles have been completed.

Animals of the Chinese Zodiac:
Animals of the Chinese Zodiac
By Jakub Halun via Wikimedia Commons

The beiju celebration is an event that commemorates one's 88th birthday. The word beiju means "rice age." Therefore, the holiday refers to the Chinese character for the word "rice" as the "word" is similar to the characters used to represent the number 88.

Chinese Zodiac Statues:
Chinese Zodiac Statues

2)  The Kimono
The kimono is a cultural garment worn in Japan that, when translated into English, literally means "thing to wear." The kimono has changed in many small ways throughout the generations, but, basically, remains as a regular straight robe that reaches the ankles of the wearer.

How to Properly Fold a Kimono:
How to Properly Fold a Kimono
By Treditor via Wikimedia Commons

Featuring long sleeves, the garment is wrapped around the body. When it is wrapped, the robe should only be tied on the left side, with the material covering the right side. This rule is applicable unless the wearer is being prepared for burial. When the kimono has been wrapped, it is held in place using an obi, which essentially is a long piece of fabric that is tied at the back of the robe.

A number of kimono styles are available for both women and men. These styles include the susohiki, uchikake, tsukesage, tomesode, mofuku, komon, iromuhi, homongi and furisode. Kimonos come in both formal and casual styles.

students wearing kimonos
By Immanuel Giel via Wikimedia Commons

The degree of formality is dependent on the color and pattern of the garment. Generally, a younger woman's kimono will have longer sleeves, which also is an indicator that a woman is not married. Therefore, a single woman's kimono is considered more elaborate while a married woman's kimono is deemed as a standard garment.

Young Woman Wearing a Furisode Kimono:
Young Woman Wearing a Furisode Kimono
By Lukacs via Wikimedia Commons

The man's kimono is of one shape and features subdued colors. Often a family crest is presented on the material, which also determines the formality of the robe. The favorite fabric used tends to be silk. However, a regular-type fabric, such as cotton or polyester, makes the robe a more formalized type of apparel.

1)  Greeting Customs
Japan has a number of formal and informal greeting customs, but the main way a person greets another person is by bowing. The Japanese bow demonstrates appreciation or respect to the person that you are greeting. This kind of bow is performed by bending at the waist, and is often accompanied by a verbal greeting.

Proper Business Etiquette in Japan Involves the Proper Amount of Bowing:
Proper Business Etiquette in Japan Involves the Proper Amount of Bowing

Therefore, when saying good morning, good afternoon or hello, it is customary to bow. It is also customary to bow to somebody if you are saying thank you or are apologizing.

There are three kinds of bows that can be performed, all which involve bowing at a different angle. The bows are angled at 15, 30 and 45 degrees.

The most casual bow involves the 15-degree bend and is known as the eshaku bow. This bow often involves dipping the head slightly too, and is performed when you are greeting somebody casually, or are passing someone, while indoors or in the street. who is thought to be of a higher status. Oftentimes, using words is entirely acceptable, but the additional bow is seen as a greater sign of respect.

effects of greeting by bowing

The second bow involves bowing at 30 degrees, and is known as the keirei bow. This is the greeting that is used in business, and is typically performed when entering or leaving a meeting room. It is also used in retail settings when a manager or shop owner is greeting a customer.

The final bow is the most polite way to greet a person, and is known as the saikeirei bow. This bow involves a significant bend of 45 degrees, and is used to express either gratitude or apology.

The Japanese culture is very different than the culture of the West, and is defined by a rich and extensive history. While the above examples of the Japanese way of life give you a basic overview of Japanese customs and etiquette, there are many more traditions that remain to be considered.

The Japanese have their own customs relating to caring for children, eating in public, meeting the parents of a bride or groom, and communicating with business colleagues. So, if you are planning to visit or stay in Japan for any length of time, you will find that there is a lot to learn about Japanese traditions and communication.





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