Japanese Culture

Brief Overview of Japanese Culture

Definition of “Culture”
The term "Culture" refers to anything including art and learning, which was generated by people and has a high level of achievement (high culture), and also refers to a system of custom or behavior which has been formed by a human society over the years. The latter meaning covers a very wide category from customs relating to general daily life including clothing, food and housing, entertainment, moral and religion, to a social structure including politics and economy.

Japanese Culture Influenced by Many Other Cultures
The Japanese culture cannot be bracketed simply because it contains various elements, the Japanese culture in a period from ancient times to the medieval period was affected by neighboring countries in Asia around China, and in the period from early modern times to modern times after the Meiji period was affected by western countries. As a result, the Japanese culture developed in a unique way through processes of repeated absorption and refusal, and various arrangements.

The Core of Japanese Culture is Unchanged
The Japanese traditional culture was founded based on the Shinto religion and other religions while incorporating those, and has changed with times. However, even though it changed drastically on a superficial level, the Japanese traditional culture has an aspect of being able to point out very Japanese coherent elements and trends (e.g. even if rooms in the house changed from zashiki (Japanese style tatami room) to a Western-style room, the custom of taking off shoes when entering a house is not changed).

The Term of “Wa”
a concept distinctively indicating the Japanese culture, the term ‘Wa’ is often used (e.g. Wago (words of Japanese origin), Wabun (Japanese text), Waka (a traditional Japanese poem of thirty-one syllables), Wafuku (traditional Japanese clothes), Washoku (Japanese food), Wafu-ryokan (Japanese hotel), etc.). The term 'Wa' has meant Japan from old times, and is used in contradistinction to things from foreign countries such as Han (China) and Yo (Western Europe).

The Term of “Yamato”
At the same time, the term 'Yamato' is also sometimes used (e.g. Yamato-kotoba (words of Japanese origin), Yamato-damashii (Japanese spirit), Yamato-nadeshiko (woman who displays the feminine virtues of old Japan), Yamato-e painting (a traditional Japanese style painting of the late Heian and Kamakura period dealing with Japanese themes), etc.). The term 'Yamato' (大和) itself originally referred to the Nara district, and at the same time, it is an old word indicating the whole of Japan. This term has been often used as a word indicating phenomena considered to be unchanged in this country since ancient times.

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Japanese Culture and Religions

Inseparable Relationship between Religions and Japanese Culture
From ancient times, a culture forming Japan, or a mode of life or custom of people living in this country has rooted in the sense of worth based on a religion, and an influence of religion can be seen in various scenes such as industries including agriculture, forestry, fishery, civil engineering and construction, or seasonal events and festivals including New Years festivals, Shichi-go-san (a day of prayer for the healthy growth of young children), etc., traditional performing arts, Budo (Japanese martial arts), etc.

From ancient times, Japan has had a religious culture based on polytheism (yao yorozu no kami (eight million gods)) worshiping nature or spirits like shamanism or animism including the 'Shinto religion. 'A religion in Ryukyu (Okinawa) with a limited influence by Buddhism still has an ancient form of Shinto religion.

Furthermore, 'Buddhism and/or Esoteric Buddhism' (there is an opinion that Buddhism and Esoteric Buddhism are different religions from a religious scientific viewpoint) originating in India far from Japan, came down from the Continent, and Japan has established its original Buddhism or Esoteric Buddhism culture.

As in the case of other East Asian countries, Japan has also accepted 'Taoism' and 'Confucianism' (there is an opinion that Confucianism is a philosophy or thought, but not a religion), but was not influenced by those as much as the Korean and China. Inyogogyo (the cosmic dual forces (yin and yang) and the five elements (metal, wood, water, fire and earth)) and Hakke (eight trigrams) which originated from Taoism were extremely prosperous during a period from the Nara period to the Heian period.

Along with Onmyoji (Master of Yin yang) gaining power, their thoughts which became a mode of life were transformed to Japan-specific thoughts, and have been passed down to the modern age. Major people who directly accepted Confucianism were not only the samurai and townspeople who mastered Sinology, but Confucianism also influenced common people in Japan in an indirect manner.

It is said that Budo (Japanese martial arts) was also based on the Shinto religion, and developed into arts having kaigan seishin (spiritual awakening) and philosophy through practices after thoughts of Taoism, Confucianism and Zen sect were added. Many of the various traditions and customs originated from foreign Buddhism, and such foreign Buddhism formed Japanese religions and cultures while it interacted with the Shinto religion.

Syncretization of Shinto with Other Religions
In Japan, the Shinto religion and Buddhism have coexisted and amalgamated for a long time in the form of a synchronization of Shinto and Buddhism. However, in the modern times, the new Meiji Government performed a re-separation of Buddhism and Shinto, and the Shinto religion which was treated as State Shinto was merged with militarism, and became a means of hegemonism. In the era of State Shinto, the religious position of the Shinto religion was made indistinct (the Government united the Shinto religion with the Emperor and obligated the people to respect the god under the theory that 'the Shinto religion was not a religion' (Jinjahishukyoron (theory that the Shinto religion was not a religion), and the Shinto religion was treated as an absolute thing. However, shrines and the Shinto religion were separated from politics after the war, and the Shinto religion has been officially treated as one of the religious fields since then.

Although a pure sense of worship for religion was not realized, an environment of present-day Japanese spirit and culture was formed based on the Shinto religion from the ancient times while adding mixtures of various kinds of foreign religions including Buddhism, Esoteric Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, or 'Christianity' (also including a Christian culture in old times). It is impossible to talk about the essence of Japanese culture and spirit without religions focusing on the Shinto religion.

As a characteristic which is broadly seen in traditional performing arts, traditional sports, or in manners in Japanese daily life such as bowing, civility and rules of etiquette and table manners, a respect for 'kata' (standard form of a movement, posture, etc. in martial arts, sport, etc.) (or called katachi (pattern)) is pointed, and has been considered to be a virtue of Japan. In many cases, this kata implicitly contains a sense of respect or consideration for others because of an influence of jukyo dotoku (Confucian ethics) or based on shinsho (real nature) of avoiding a conflict with others and respecting a harmony.

Sensoji-temple is one of the example of syncretization of Shinto and Buddhism
Sensoji-temple is one of the example of syncretization of Shinto and Buddhism

16 Japanese Cultural Principles

Wa (Culture of Harmony)

Wa (和) is a Japanese cultural concept usually translated into English as "harmony". It implies a peaceful unity and conformity within a social group, in which members prefer the continuation of a harmonious community over their personal interests. The kanji character Wa (和) is also a name for "Japan; Japanese", so this cultural concept is deeply connected with Japanese people.

Wa is considered integral to Japanese society, and derives from traditional Japanese family values. Individuals who break the idea of Wa to further their own purposes are brought in line either overtly or covertly, by reprimands from a superior or by their family or colleagues tacit disapproval. Hierarchical structures exist in Japanese society primarily to ensure the continuation of Wa. Public disagreement with the party line is generally suppressed in the interests of preserving the communal harmony.

Japanese businesses encourage Wa in the workplace, with employees typically given a career for life in order to foster a strong association with their colleagues and firm. Rewards and bonuses are usually given to groups, rather than individuals, further enforcing the concept of group unity.

Japanese garden represents the harmony between human and nature
Japanese garden represents the harmony between human and nature

Haji (Shame Culture)

Haji (shame) is said to form the core of Japanese culture. Japanese culture is described as "shame culture " in contrast to Western "guilt culture". In the west one can say that one's behavior is based, or dictated, by a sense of guilt resulting from one's actions. The feeling of guilt in the west is an internal feeling; the feeling of shame in Japan is an external feeling. This is not to suggest that the west is shameless, but rather that historically, Japan, has placed a great deal upon the feeling of shame. One can look to the samurai period for an example of shame. For a samurai, being put to shame in front of the public was as good as death.

The honorable worrior Samurai was caring the most for Haji
The honorable warrior Samurai was caring the most for Haji

Hare and Ke

The dichotomy of "Hare and Ke" is a traditional world-view of Japanese people accompanied by time theory. It was discovered by Kunio YANAGIDA. In folklore and cultural anthropology, "Hare and Ke" mean the following.

Hare (noticeably cheerful and formal situations or such places) represents rituals, festivals and annual events that are "non-ordinary," while Ke represents "ordinary," that is everyday life. In addition, when the life of Ke does not go well, it is called “Ke gare” (withering of Qi). Food, shelter and clothing, behavior and the types of language used at the time of hare were definitely distinguished from those of Ke.

Originally, hare was a concept that referred to specific changes or milestones. The origin of the word hare is "hare" (fair weather). It is used in expressions such as "Hare no butai" (a situation so important that it happens almost only once in a life time) and "Hare gi" (clothes worn at rituals that take place at milestones or specific changes). On the other hand, everyday wear was called "Ke gi," but it was no longer used as a word after the Meiji period. In addition, nowadays, simply good weather is called "Hare." However, going back to the Edo period, there is a record that indicates that "Hare" was used only for the days that marked a change, when the weather recovered and the clear sky peeked out after many days of rain.

On Hare days, food and drinks such as mochi (rice cakes), sekihan (glutinous rice cooked with azuki beans), white rice, fish with the head and the tail, and Japanese rice wine were consumed. These items were not consumed in everyday life. Furthermore, dishes for such occasions were for Hare days only, and they were not used on a daily basis.

Traditional festivals are the typical occcasion for Hare
Traditional festivals are the typical occcasion for Hare

Wabi and Sabi

Wabi and Sabi are sense of beauty in Japan. In general, it refers to a simplicity and serenity. Originally, Wabi and Sabi were two different concepts.

The meaning "Wabi," the noun form of the verb "Wabu," is better understood from its adjective form "Wabishii" (wretched); that is, it means "an inferior state as opposite to splendor." Then it means a "humble like state" or a "simple look" now. In the extreme, it may mean a "poor look" or "poverty." Originally it was not a good concept, however, by an influence of the Zen sect and so on, it was regarded favorably and taken as a sense of beauty.

During the Edo period, the fundamental sense of beauty of tea ceremony became established and even famous books emerged such as "Shoo Wabi no Bun" (Shoo essay on wabi) defining wabi as "honestly and prudence," and "Nanporoku" which described Wabi as "Buddha"s world of purity." Moreover, in the Taisho period and the Showa period items and utensils used in the tea ceremony were evaluated as art work and tea spread and became a word associated with showing the beauty of form and shape. It was frequently used when Muneyoshi YANAGI, Shinichi HISAMATSU and so on, praised the beauty of Tea Bowls.

As a result, it was established to represent Japan"s sense of beauty. In "The Book of Tea" by Tenshin OKAKURA, the expression of "imperfect" was often used to represent Wabi, and it was made known to the world through it.

Sabi is the noun form of the verb "Sabu," and originally means the deteriorated state over the passage of time (secular distortion). A substitute Kanji character "寂" (Sabi) was then attached that means a tranquil state without people. Similarly, for "rust" that appears on the surface of metal, the Kanji character "錆" (Sabi) was applied. It was quoted as being similar to the beauty of patina (green corrosion) in English, and the atmosphere that green corrosion and so on creates is expressed as patina.

Originally it was not a good concept, however, in "Tsurezuregusa" (Essays in Idleness) in Kamakura period, there was a description thought to deeply appreciate a book that became old and it has been verified that around this time the meaning of discovering the beauty of an antiquated state arose. During the Muromachi period, it became treasured as important especially in the world of Haikai (seventeen-syllable verse) and was even incorporated into the Noh music, and so on, and was systematized into theory. In Haiku since Basho MATSUO, it became the central sense of beauty, however, seldom did Matsuo himself talk or write directly about the elegant simplicity of Sabi. The elegant simplicity of Sabi in Haikai is a common characteristic especially among old things and elderly persons and according to Torahiko TERADA, it oozes out from the inside of something old and is a beauty that doesn"t relate to the exterior, and so on.

A typical example is a stone on which moss grows. Stones that no one moves grows moss on the surface and become green in the climate in Japan. Japanese people used it to resemble thing coming out from the inside of the stone. Because it is an attitude of seeking beauty from an antiquated state, it is deeply related to antiquarianism (taste for collecting items). For instance, while there are different features seen in British antiques, and so on, there are also some things in common. While the elegant simplicity of sabi places more emphasis on the action of nature, antiques in the West emphasize the historical respects.

Usually Shishi-Odoshi shows wabi and sabi in the garden
Usually Shishi-Odoshi shows wabi and sabi in the garden

Uchi and Soto

Uchi-Soto in the Japanese language is the distinction between in-groups (Uchi, "inside") and out-groups (Soto, "outside"). This distinction between groups is a fundamental part of Japanese social custom and even directly reflected in the Japanese language itself.

The basic concept revolves around dividing people into in-groups and out-groups. When speaking with someone from an out-group, the out-group must be honored, and the in-group humbled. That is achieved with special features of the Japanese language, which conjugates verbs based on both tense and politeness. It may also include social concepts such as gift giving or serving. The Uchi-Soto relationship can lead to someone making great personal sacrifices to honor a visitor or other person in an out-group.

One of the complexities of the Uchi-Soto relationship lies in the fact that groups are not static; they may overlap and change over time and according to situation. Uchi-Soto groups may be conceptualized as a series of overlapping circles. One's position within the group and relative to other groups depends on the context, situation, and time of life. For example, a person usually has a family, a job, and other groups or organizations to which they belong. Their position within the various groups and in relation to other groups changes according to circumstances at a given moment.

The workplace is a typical example: the employees below a middle manager are in his in-group and may be spoken to using casual speech. His bosses or even, in large companies, people in other departments, are in an out-group, and must be spoken to politely. However, when dealing with someone from another company, the middle manager's entire company is the in-group, and the other company is the out-group. Thus, it is acceptable for the middle manager to speak about his own company, even his bosses, in non-honorific speech. That emphasizes that his company is one group, and although the group may have subdivisions inside of itself, it does not include the other company.

For example, when speaking with subordinates, a manager might omit the honorific -san, but he would be unlikely to do so when addressing his superiors. On the other hand, when dealing with an outsider, essentially any person not directly connected to his company, he omits all honorifics to speak about anyone in the company, including his superiors. However, when the same manager speaks to a subordinate about the subordinate's family, he refers to the subordinate's family, which is the subordinate's in-group but not his, in polite terms. However, he refers to his own family, which is his in-group but not the subordinate's, in plain language. Thus, the manager and the subordinate both refer to their own families as kazoku (family) and to the other's family as go-kazoku (honorable family).

In addition to features of the Japanese language, Uchi-Soto also extends to social actions. For instance, in a Japanese home the most senior family member, usually the father or grandfather, normally takes a bath first; the rest of the family follows in order of seniority. A visitor to the home, however, is offered the first bath. Similarly, an overnight guest is offered the best sleeping arrangements even if it greatly inconveniences the rest of the family. That case is a difficult point for Westerners in Japan, who usually have to taught to be polite by refusing accommodations that inconvenience others.

Visitors and tourists are universally Soto. "Soto" people (such as foreigners, ethnic minorities) wishing to become "Uchi" (Japanese citizens) face many obstacles. Theoretically, it is possible for a foreigner to become a part of Japanese society. However, in reality, it is very difficult for non-Japanese to be accepted as an "Uchi" member of Japanese society.

Traditional Japanese rooms shows clear separtion of Uchi and Soto
Traditional Japanese room shows clear separtion of Uchi and Soto

Honne and Tatemae

First, Honne is the term to indicate one's real feelings and desires. These feelings and desires may sometimes differ from what are expected or demanded by one's social status, so that it often happens that Honne is not expressed honestly in Japan. On the other hand, the term Tatemae refers to one's behaviors and opinions to be expressed officially. These behaviors and opinions are expected and demanded from one's social status, and are sometimes at odds with one's real feelings and desires.

The Honne–Tatemae divide is considered by some to be of paramount importance in Japanese culture. Researchers on theories of Japanese cultural and racial uniqueness consider that the existence of such wording to express discrepancy between personal feelings and social view is an element of austerity of Japanese people in their courtesy and culture.

It is said that Honne and Tatemae as a cultural necessity resulting from a large number of people living in a comparatively small island nation. Close-knit co-operation and the avoidance of conflict are considered to be of vital importance in everyday life. For this reason, the Japanese tend to go to great lengths to avoid conflict, especially within the context of large groups. Honne to Tatemae has close connection with Wa (harmony) culture in terms of the avoidance of conflict in Japan.

Japanese traditional Noh masks represent two contraversial emotions
Japanese traditional "Noh" masks represent two controversial emotions

Mono no Aware

Mono no aware (written as もののあわれ or 物の哀れ) is the key literary and aesthetic notion in the study of dynastic style literature in the Heian period. It is a profound mood or pathos occasionally provoked and inspired by what one sees or hears. It is an inenarrable heartfelt 'touching (aware)' feeling experienced on encountering things (mono) remote from daily life.

Mono no aware was proposed by Norinaga MOTOORI, a scholar specialized in the Japanese classical literature who lived during the Edo period, in his treatise titled "Genji Monogatari Tama no Ogushi" (Jeweled Comb of The tale of Genji), in which he argued that mono no aware culminated in "Genji Monogatari" (The Tale of Genji). In the Edo period, the notion of 'kanzen choaku' (rewarding good and punishing evil), which originated from Confucianism and was protected and encouraged by the bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun), prevailed. During the period, the literature in the Heian period was argued and explained from the standpoint of kanzen choaku. The discovery of mono no aware not only denied the trend but also provided a new perspective.

Kyoto is a place where you can touch the sense of Mono no Aware
Kyoto is a place where you can touch the sense of Mono no Aware


Mujo is a concept that points out that all beings in the present world disintegrate and are in constant transition without being stationary. Medieval Japanese Classic Literature such as the 'Tale of Heike' that begins with "the voice of bells of Jetavana Vihara," "Tsurezure gusa" (Essays in Idleness) written by Kenko YOSHIDA, "Hojoki" (An Account of My Hut) of KAMO no Chomei that begins with 'no water is present when the flowing river stops running,' cannot be told without the Mujo concept. To simply say 'flower' means cherry, and the Japanese love cherries because they are not permanent but give a feeling of Mujo. While Westerners sought beauty in 'eternal beings,' many Japanese have a strong tendency to seek beauty in transforming things. The 'Mujo' and 'Mujo views' could be said to be unique characteristics of the Japanese concept of beauty that has grown over many years since the medieval era.

Japanese feel Mujo from fallen sakura petals
Japanese people feel Mujo from fallen sakura petals


It is customary for Japanese to be punctual. As Japanese are especially concerned about not being late, most have naturally acquired this habit. In fact, being on time every time, is the first step towards building trust and reliability in Japan. This is true both in business as well as personal relationships. For example, in companies and public institutions, and for meetings with others, it is considered common sense to “be prompt.” Though it’s possible to turn up late for a date with someone close to you, it’s always necessary to text to say you’ll be late.

The Japanese believe strongly in 'no hidden surprises' and are committed to a very high degree of predictability and consistent reliability (not just reliability). This is reflected in their business practices and everyday living, such that the train or bus schedule would read "Arrival: 8.23 p.m." and the train or bus would pull in exactly at that time. If a train arrives even one-minute later than scheduled, Japanese railway companies announce their apologies. Moreover, Shinkansen (bullet train) arrival and departure times are timed within 15 second periods.

One of the theories about the origin of this cultural characteristics is that the samurai class considered tardiness and absence to be a sign of foolishness and those beliefs have remained strong in the national consciousness. It is also said that this punctuality originates from the astronomical and orientation systems the Japanese traditionally used; marking seasons and time according to the direction and length of the shadow made by the sun, rather than by the moon and the stars.

While many history books from around the world have no record of the date, month, or year they were written, old Japanese literature such as the “Nihon Shoki” (Chronicles of Japan) is marked with the date, month, year, and even the Oriental zodiac. This also proves that the Japanese have long been conscious of the passage of time.

Not only the normal trains, but also the bullet train runs in 15 second periods schedule
Even the bullet trains run in 15 second periods schedule


Kaizen is a Japanese concept for "improvement." When used in the business sense and applied to the workplace, Kaizen refers to activities that continuously improve all functions and involve all employees from the CEO to the assembly line workers. It also applies to processes, such as purchasing and logistics, that cross organizational boundaries into the supply chain. It has been applied in healthcare, psychotherapy, life-coaching, government, banking, and other industries in Japan. Kaizen was first implemented in several Japanese businesses after the Second World War. It has since spread throughout the world and is now being implemented in environments outside of business and productivity.

By improving standardized activities and processes, Kaizen aims to eliminate waste. Kaizen is a daily process, the purpose of which goes beyond simple productivity improvement. It is also a process that, when done correctly, humanizes the workplace, eliminates overly hard work, and teaches people how to perform experiments on their work using the scientific method and how to learn to spot and eliminate waste in business processes. In all, the process suggests a humanized approach to workers and to increasing productivity: "The idea is to nurture the company's people as much as it is to praise and encourage participation in kaizen activities."

Kaizen is one of the most important philosophy of Japanese companies
Kaizen is one of the most important philosophy of Japanese companies


Fuzei is one of the aesthetic feelings which have existed from ancient times in Japan. Generally speaking, it means that the objects are deteriorated by the wild nature for a long time or that we find some beauty, Omomuki (taste, meaning) or mood in the fragile, the simple or the empty which are created by Japanese four seasons, and feel it in our minds. Also we make our minds calm by feeling it and sometimes stir our minds and make them rich. However, the term 'Fuzei' can also be used to refer to matters concerning a person's personal history, education, or aesthetic sensibilities, so it is a fairly ambiguous word that can not be precisely defined.

White snow and golden temple shows Fuzei of winter season
White snow and golden temple shows Fuzei of winter season


Fudōshin is a state of equanimity or imperturbability (literally and metaphorically, "immovable mind", "immovable heart" or "unmoving heart"). It is a philosophical or mental dimension to Japanese martial arts which contributes to the effectiveness of the advanced practitioner.

Fudo-Myouou is the deity which represents the Fudoshin in the buddhism
Fudo-Myouou is the deity which represents the Fudoshin in the buddhism


Zan-shin is a term used in Japanese Budo (martial arts) and Geido (accomplishments). Literally interpreted, it means "without interruption of mind." It refers to consciousness, especially the state of being alert after a performance while the performer is loosening up and relaxing. This also suggests that one should not forget about the performance which has been done, and should linger depth to the performance; this is a concept related to Japanese aesthetics and Zen.

It refers to being careful, attentive, and fair; in other words, it is continuation of "beautiful shosa" (beautiful behavior and poise). When there is an opponent, one should be fair, modest and calm, and should be thankful to have the opponent to compete against. It is also tension of mind for always remembering to acknowledge mutual aid, so as to improve his or her own techniques, understand oneslf, or reset oneself, owing to the presence of the opponent of any kind. It is also respecting and thinking of the other party. In everyday life, the term is used for teaching manners as in the expression "there is no Zan-shin" or "Zan-shin is not performed well", when one forgets to close or roughly handles fusuma (Japanese sliding door) or shoji (partitions that can divide the interior of a building into separate rooms), or when an apprentice of craftsmanship neglects cleanup. It also means putting an orderly end to a thing or action.

Zan-shin in Budo refers to not lowering one's guard, both in mind and body, even after making a successful move against the opponent. Even if the opponent seems to have lost fighting power completely, it can be camouflage, and the opponent may return the attack by taking advantage of one's being off guard. Zan-shin avoids this and leads to a complete victory. The following is an example of doka (Japanese poems about moral teaching) which sings about the spirit of Zan-shin.

"Orietemo kokoro yurusuna yamazakura sasou arashino hukimokososure"
(Stay alert even after you gain the cherry tree. You can never tell when a storm may break.)

For example, zan-shin used in kyudo refers to retaining the posture, both in mind and body, even after sending an arrow, with the eyes focused on the place struck by the arrow. In kendo (Japanese art of fencing), zan-shin refers to bracing oneself to be able to instantly respond to the opponent's attack or counterattack by maintaining the state of alertness; without zan-shin, the attack is not counted as yuko-datotsu (a point) even if it is accurately made against the opponent. In a kendo match, if an air of enjoying the victory (such as pumping one's fists into the air) is observed, it may be regarded as an act of arrogance and having no zan-shin, and the winner may be judged as the loser. Zan-shin in karatedo (the way of karate) refers to the state of complete alertness, in which one is aware of his or her surroundings and the opponent, and is ready to make a counterattack. Zan-shin in jujitsu (classical Japanese martial art, usually referring to fighting without a weapon) means the preparedness to make the next attack, such as pulling back the fist at the speed faster than that of landing a bow, and not losing balance even after throwing the opponent. Also in aikido (art of weaponless self-defense), zan-shin means being aware of the uke (the opponent) whom one has thrown, and positioning oneself to be ready for a possible counterattack.

Zan-shin in sado (tea ceremony) is expressed in SEN no Rikyu's doka.

"Naninitemo okitsukekaheru tebanarewa koishikihitoni wakarurutoshire"
(When withdrawing hands from tea utensils, give its movement the yoin as when parting from someone you love.)

Also, Naosuke II teaches that one should not talk loudly, slam doors, or hurry into the house and quickly clear up, as soon as the visitor leaves. The host should see off the guest until the leaving guest is no longer visible, even if the host cannot actually see the guest. Later, the host should silently return to the tea room alone and make tea, and ponder the thought that the same meeting as today will never occur again (called "Ichigo Ichie" (treasuring every meeting, which will never recur)). This manner is the expression of the host's lingering farewell, or "yojo-zan-shin", as taught by II.

Zanshin is essential element of Japanese martial art Budo
Zanshin is essential element of Japanese martial art Budo


Mottainai is a Japanese term conveying a sense of regret concerning waste. The expression "Mottainai" can be uttered alone as an exclamation when something useful, such as food or time, is wasted, meaning roughly "what a waste!" or "Don't waste." In addition to its primary sense of "wastefulness", the word is also used to mean "impious; irreverent" or "more than one deserves".

In ancient Japanese, Mottainai had various meanings, including a sense of gratitude mixed with shame for receiving greater favor from a superior than is properly merited by one's station in life. Buddhists traditionally used the term mottainai to indicate regret at the waste or misuse of something sacred or highly respected, such as religious objects or teaching. Today, the word is widely used in everyday life to indicate the waste of any material object, time, or other resource. Compare also the concept of tsukumogami "artifact spirit", which are said to live in old objects that have gained self-awareness and are angered if the object is thrown away wastefully.

Japan is the leading country of recycling in the world
Japan is the leading country of recycling in the world


Translated simply, Omotenashi means the Japanese way of treating a guest. It blends a welcoming spirit with warmth, understanding, and above all respect. The concept is all encompassing. Etymologically, Omotenashi is a hybrid of “omote” (surface) and “nashi” (less), concepts that translate together into “single-hearted.” From the perspective of a host, this is the rendering of service without expectation of favor or reward.

Interestingly, the Japanese language makes no distinction between ‘guest’ and ‘customer.’ In English, the concept of ‘service’ suggests a hierarchy between the ‘server’ and the ‘customer.’ The Japanese Omotenashi, however, is based on a non-dominant relationship between equals – between the person offering the service (the host) and the person receiving it (the guest or customer).

To practice Omotenashi, the host pays close attention to detail and is committed to anticipating the needs of the guest, smiling sincerely and setting a happy, relaxed mood. When authentic, Japanese hospitality and service exceed the expectations of the guests. At its most exquisite, Omotenashi offers a guest a once-in-a-life-time experience. The idea resonates with Ichigo-ichie, the tea master’s belief that every encounter is single and unique.

In form, Omotenashi may be governed by precise written rules describing how the host should compose herself or himself in front of the customer. Yet true Omotenashi can never be attained with a manual alone. It is a one-to-one relationship that changes from customer to customer, from moment to moment. Gratitude towards the customer is a key part of Omotenashi, the part that warms the encounter and makes the host smile.

Omotenashi is the key philosophy in Japanese service industry
Omotenashi is the key philosophy in the Japanese service industry


Kawaii is the quality of cuteness in the context of Japanese culture. It has become a prominent aspect of Japanese popular culture, entertainment, clothing, food, toys, personal appearance, behavior, and mannerisms. As a cultural phenomenon, cuteness is increasingly accepted in Japan as a part of Japanese culture and national identity. Tomoyuki Sugiyama, author of Cool Japan, believes that "cuteness" is rooted in Japan's harmony-loving culture, and Nobuyoshi Kurita, a sociology professor at Musashi University in Tokyo, has stated that "cute" is a "magic term" that encompasses everything that is acceptable and desirable in Japan. In 2014 the Collins English Dictionary in the United Kingdom entered "Kawaii" into their then latest edition, defining as a "Japanese artistic and cultural style that emphasises the quality of cuteness, using bright colours and characters with a childlike appearance."

You can find Kawaii things everywhere in Japan, even in construction site
You can find Kawaii things everywhere in Japan, even in construction site

Japanese Culture in Japanese History

Primitive period
It is considered that people coming from the Continent or the south brought a culture before Christ, but, with respect to spoken language and life, a culture endemic to Japan grew.

Ancient times
Japan started paying tribute to the court of dynasties in China around from the era of the Former Han, and came to accept products of culture in China which was an advanced cultured country. Representative products were metalware (mirrors, swords, etc.), Kanji characters (Chinese characters) and Buddhism. Thereafter, Japanese envoys to Sui and Tang Dynasties China were dispatched, and scholars sent to China learned an advanced culture, and brought it back to Japan. In this way, foreign cultures were added to and incorporated in the culture endemic to Japan.

After the sending of envoys to Tang China were abolished (894), influences of foreign countries were digested in a manner specific to Japan, and the period of 'native Japanese culture' came. Kana characters were created from Kanji characters by noblewomen, and literature including Waka (a traditional Japanese poem of thirty-one syllables), tale and diary literature as typified by The Tale of Genji and Makura no soshi (the Pillow Book) was popularized. In the field of art, the architecture of Horyu-ji Temple and Toshodai-ji Temple was largely influenced by China, but, the Uji-byodoin Temple was constructed as preferred by Japanese people. This kind of cultural style is called a Japanese style.

Medieval period
When the samurai gained power during a period from the end of the ancient times to the medieval period, a culture peculiar to samurai such as yabusame (horseback archery) and inuoumono (dog-hunting event, a skill of archery) was born, and war chronicles (The Tale of the Heike, etc.) under the theme of battle were also created. Graven images were also transformed to those having a strong body (most notable is considered to be the Todai-ji Temple, Buddhist temple). Noh (Japanese traditional masked dance-drama) and dengaku (Japanese traditional style of dancing and music performed at agricultural festivals) developed in the capital and farming villages.

After trading with the Sung by TAIRA no Kiyomori, the trade between Japan and the Sung Dynasty in China was performed actively. In this period, coming and going by Zen (Buddhism) monks were implemented actively, and cultures (a vegetarian dish, ink-wash painting, custom of tea drinking) brought along with the Zen sect had a big influence on subsequent developments of Japanese culture. Since the coming from and going to China were never discontinued due to Tenryuji-bune (Heavenly Dragon Ship) and the tally trade (between Japan and the Ming dynasty), a large amount of copper coins were imported, and karamono (things imported from China) were highly esteemed.

In the Muromachi period, when it was the age of wars, sarugaku (form of theater popular in Japan during the 11th to 14th centuries) (Noh), tea ceremony and Shoin (reception room) (Shoin-zukuri style (a traditional Japanese style of residential architecture that included a tokonoma) developed, and many cultures considered to be a 'Japanese-style' culture at present were created in this period.

Early-Modern period
A new and different culture was imported from Europe in the Azuchi-Momoyama period. Firearms drastically changed the form of battle, and opened the road to the unification of the whole country. In addition, words of foreign origin and food such as Tenpura (deep-fried dish) were imported.

Missionaries of the Society of Jesus enhanced the propagation of Christianity. However, since territorial ambitions of Spain and Portugal (the San Felipe go incident, etc.) were known, missionaries were exiled, and a measure to ban Christianity was taken. The Edo bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun) which firstly aimed at friendly diplomacy could not remove the crisis, and decided to choose a policy of crackdown on Christianity and a road to national isolation. Around this time, missionaries and engineers captured in the Bunroku-Keicho War introduced the technique of movable type, and publications from the continent.

In Japan where the administration was stabilized and which was isolated from foreign countries due to national isolation policy, a peaceful time lasted long, and its own culture developed again. Due to the spread of Terakoya (Temple elementary schools during the Edo period) and Hanko (a domain school), reading, writing and arithmetic penetrated widely, and in addition to Confucianism recommended by the bakufu, natural science including herbalism developed.

Among common people, performances (Kabuki (traditional Japanese performing art) and Bunraku (Japanese puppet theater)), and publications (Ukiyozoshi (literally, Books of the Floating World), Yomihon (copy for reading), Ukiyoe (Japanese woodblock of prints), etc.) were loved, and secular culture was prosperous (it was around this time when a grand sumo tournament which was the start of Sumo (Japanese-style wrestling) as a professional sport started). In addition, the study of Japanese classical literature to review Japanese original traditions arose, and an ideological environment of "Revere the Emperor and expel the barbarians" movement in the end of Edo period was formed.

Even under the circumstance of national isolation policy, exchanges with China and Korea continued in restricted form. Even though exchanges with western countries were strictly restricted, trades with the Netherlands were implemented through Dejima island in Nagasaki. Chinese culture and western culture coming from Nagasaki stimulated the intellectuals' curiosity, Western studies (medicine) and Chinese (herb) medicine developed. This flow became a power responding to approaches at the end of the Edo period by European countries in the imperialism period, and became one of motivations to mark the end of a long period of isolation.

Late-Modern period
Through the opening of the country to the world at the end of the Edo period, and the Meiji Restoration, Japan accepted products of culture and systems in European countries, and set its modernization as a national goal. Unprecedented modes of life were brought one after another, and trends of westernization and enlightenment spread. The government took the initiative in actively introducing western culture, and the rapid westernization was enhanced superficially in the period of Rokumeikan (Deer-cry-Hall). However, a subversive movement of respecting Japanese traditions again arose. The term 'wakonyosai' (Japanese spirit with Western learning) was often used.

In addition, the development of media such as newspapers and magazines, and transportation facilities such as railroad spread a new culture across the country, and this new culture had a great influence on the common people's lives. However, traditional events and lifestyles based on agriculture still continued in areas (rural areas) far from urban areas.

In around the Taisho period, Western culture gradually penetrated mainly in cities against the backdrop of the increasing advancement rate, and a consumer-driven culture typified by department stores, and popular culture were established. Due to the influence of American popular culture, apolaustic culture such as cafes and movie theaters spread in cities, and erotica, grotesque and nonsense became popular. On the other hand, a gap between the rich and the poor was widened, and disputes and socialism came to arise.

The Great Depression in the first year of Showa weakened the economy, and ruined farming villages. Public expectations focused on the military, and politicians who were accused of vacillating weakness lost their trust. When the Sino-Japan war started before long, crackdowns on communism and socialism were strengthened, and liberalism also oppressed. In order to lift the spirit for the war, the excellences of Japan and Japanese people were taught.

In response to international criticism from Britain and the U.S., Japan concluded the alliance of Japan, Germany and Italy. Japan which was isolated from the world started the Pacific War with the Attack on Pearl Harbor, participated in World War II, and controlled food and resources for national warfare. At the end of the Pacific War, Japan suffered serious shortages of food and supplies due to sea blockades and air raids by allied nations, and a labor shortage because of the military draft of men in their most productive years. In order to carry out the war, the government also controlled the common and traditional cultures.

Modern age
When Japan surrendered by accepting the Potsdam Declaration, and was occupied by the Allied Forces consisting predominantly of the United States of America, the exclusion, disorganization and banishment of peerage, arming and militarism, and the democratization of industries and the economy were promoted. Withdrawals from former colonies and demobilization from the front proceeded, and Japanese people were forced to lead a rough life for a while after the war.

The American modern culture was longed for by Japanese people after the war, and Japan has accomplished drastic industrialization and urbanization through a high economic growth. In association with this, a conventional lifestyle has changed drastically, and many of the traditional customs were lost. However, postwar Japan was not a copy of the United States of America. While accepting American modern culture, Japan digested and transformed it into an original and Japanese style, and created various and rich food cultures, and a new Japanese culture typified by animation and Japanese comics. Japan which became a major economic power following the United States of America regained self-confidence, and in the Osaka Expo in 1970, a slogan, 'Progress and Harmony of Mankind,' was set out.

In various countries excluding countries in East Asia, only a part of the traditional cultures such as 'samurai,' 'geisha,' etc. were known as Japanese culture until recently. However, in and after the 1990s, the number of people having an interest in Japanese modern and popular culture and subculture has also increased in various countries. In particular, fields such as computer games, animations, and comics, and a food culture have penetrated urban areas of Western and Asian countries, and as a result, related shops and facilities (Sushi Bars and comic shops) came to be established.

Since recorded history, the Japanese culture which has belonged to Chinese culture has had aspects of imported culture and translated culture, and has actively ingested foreign cultures, and Japan has formed its original culture by fusing such foreign cultures with conventional culture, and Japanizing fused cultures. However, differently from other Asian regions such as Korea and Vietnam which also received a profound influence from Chinese culture, Japan has never been politically controlled by Chinese dynasties and the Yuan which had conquered China. Although Japan discontinued exchanges with foreign countries in the Heian period and in the Edo period, one characteristic is that a culture specific to Japan was prominently matured in these periods.

In the era when the strong Tang-Dynasty of the Chinese Empire was prosperous, nobles established the Tenpyo culture modeled on Chinese culture, and an advanced culture learned by scholars sent to China became the standard for policies. After envoys to Tang China were suspended, the 'native Japanese culture' arose, but the center of culture until this time were nobility and temples. The trade between Japan and the Sung Dynasty in China was implemented during a period from the Taira clan government in the late Heian period to the Kamakura period, and Chinese culture such as vegetarian dishes and literati painting were imported along with Kamakura Bukkyo (new Buddhist movements of the Kamakura period). Many of the subsequent Japanese traditional cultures were also descended from products of culture imported from the Sung in this period.

In the Kamakura period, a samurai culture rose suddenly into power mainly in Kanto as a culture comparable to the dynastic culture in Kyoto. In the Muromachi period, Chinese culture continued to be brought in by the trade between Japan and the Ming Dynasty in China, and textiles, earthenware, and calligraphic works and paintings which were imported during this time fed into techniques of traditional crafts remaining in the modern age. During the period from the Muromachi period to the Azuchi-Momoyama period, a localized culture was born in various regions by daimyo (Japanese territorial lord) in the Sengoku Period (Period of Warring States). In the Edo period, exchanges with China continued through Nagasaki even in the state of national isolation, and strong trends to admire China remained among Confucian scholars. However, due to a movement from awareness of the originality of Japan to return to traditions, studies including the study of Japanese classical literature also arose. The Edo period was the time when a townsmen culture was prosperous mainly in the three big cities of Edo, Kyoto and Osaka.

Thereafter, modern Japanese culture had a time of great transformation twice in the Meiji Restoration and the period of allied nations' occupation. In the period 'from the Meiji Restoration to the surrender in World War II,' how to take a Japanese identity before the overwhelming civilization and advanced culture of Western countries was an issue under the international environment where imperialistic countries unfolded captures of colonies. A movement to actively accept products of western culture for strengthening Japan (thought of leaving Asia) and a movement to strengthen traditions for independence (nationalism) coexisted, and Japan sometimes leaned toward an extreme worship of the West or toward exclusion of foreign countries. Although an imminent crisis had gone (has lessened) after World War II, both movements are considered to continue.

Shiromuku, the Japanese traditional wedding kimono
Shiromuku, the Japanese traditional wedding kimono
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Encyclopedia of Japan