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Japanese culture is very interesting, especially to Western observers, many of whom immediately think of sushi, sumo wrestling, and samurai when they think of Japan. While these three things are very much part of Japanese culture and history, they only scratch the surface of this country and its people. At first glance, Japan appears to be a land of conflict, embracing its ancient past, while at the same time spearheading almost frighteningly futuristic technology, and the simple sushi dishes that help define the culinary landscape and history are served next to groundbreaking molecular gastronomy delights.
Roughly the size of California, this interesting country, as well as its 130 million inhabitants, refuses to lose its cultural identity among the din of smart phones and bullet trains. Today we will be telling you all about some interesting tidbits about the culture of Japan. Whether you’re planning on visiting someday, or would just rather flip on The Travel Channel and visit from home, these Japanese culture facts will probably cover things you didn’t already know. If you’re the adventurous type, and would like to see Japan in person, but are a little intimidated, this course on traveling with courage and confidence, and this article on how to pack for travel will both prepare you for a trip to Japan, or anywhere else in the world.
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Facts About Japan’s Culture
Rather than fill you in on the facts about the country, like the tallest peak, or chief exports, we’ll be focusing on the cultural aspects of Japan, discussing what the people themselves have accomplished and what their interests and practices are. As beautiful as a foreign land can be, the main reason we travel and study other cultures is to learn about their history, as well as their everyday life. And as unusual as some of the foods or music of Japan may seem to us, remember that they’re just regular folks like you and me, but they just happen to be from the other side of the world. If you’re curious to learn about another ancient and influential people, this course on Greek history and culture will introduce you to the inventors of philosophy and democracy.
While China may be known for its tea consumption, the Japanese are more into coffee. They are responsible for the importing and consuming of about 85% of Jamaica’s coffee production.
The literacy rate (people who can read and write) of Japan is one of the highest in the world, at almost 100%. Many think that Japan’s rigorous education system is the reason behind it. Japan’s unemployment rate is less than 4%.
Speaking of reading and writing, there are four different writing systems found in Japan: romaji (Romanized spelling used to translate Japanese), katakana (foreign words and names, loanwords, and scientific names), hiragana (used with kanji for native Japanese words and grammar), and kanji (adopted Chinese characters). Want to learn a little bit of the Japanese language before visiting? This course on conversational Japanese will familiarize you with this language so you can speak it with the natives.
Japan’s national sport is sumo. Dating back to at least the 8th century, sumo began as a prayer for a fruitful rice harvest, then evolved into a public sport in which two men fight in a circular ring, with one winning when the other was either knocked out of the ring, or any part of his body besides the bottom of his feet touched the ground. Sumo is a living Japanese tradition, containing ancient customs and dress.
Sumo may be the national sport, but baseball is also incredibly popular. Introduced to Japan in the 1870’s, the sport has evolved to be much like its American counterpart, with only slight differences existing in the size of the actual ball, the strike zone, and the playing field.
Japan is crazy about vending machines, which offers customers a multitude of convenient buys, including beer, Pringles, raw eggs, fried chicken, and even entire Smart Cars.
In addition to their unusual vending machines, there are cafes that cater to very specific desires. There are ones in which customers pay to play with puppies and kittens, and there are also “cuddle cafes” in which people pay to take a nap with a stranger.
Though only popular in the United States for just a few decades, sushi, which may be Japan’s biggest cultural export, has been around for much longer, at least since the 8th century. What started off as a way for fish to be preserved in fermented rice evolved into the culinary delight we know and love today. The most popular fish for sushi in Japan include salmon, red tuna, and medium-fatty tuna. The most expensive sushi in Japan can be found at a restaurant in the capital, Tokyo, called Sukiyabashi Hiro, where a 15-minute meal will run you about $300-500. If you’d like to learn to make your own sushi at home, this course on how to roll sushi will fill you in on this delicious and ancient art.
Also popular in Japan is horse meat. The most popular way to serve it is raw and sliced thinly, which is called basashi, where it’s dipped in soy sauce and eaten with ginger. For the brave eaters out there, there is also a basashi flavored ice cream, which, unsurprisingly, is limited in popularity.
Here in the U.S., slurping your food, such as a soup, or noodles, is seen as annoying, and you’ll get weird looks. But in Japan, if you slurp, it’s seen as complimentary to the chef, so slurp away if you find yourself enjoying soup in Japan.
Located in Tokyo is the Tsukiji Fish Market, which is the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. There is an “inner” and “outer” market, with the inner market auctioning off seafood wholesale, and the outer market having wholesale and retail shops, selling kitchen tools, supplies, seafood, and sushi.
One of the more dangerous types of seafood served in Japan is blowfish, or fugu. A chef must be properly trained for about 11 years and must eat their own fugu before being certified. If a poisonous part of the fish is ingested, dizziness, nausea, and headache affect the victim, followed by trouble breathing, and finally, death by asphyxiation. There is no antidote, but the victim may be saved by immediately emptying their stomach, fed activated charcoal, and put on life support until the poison wears off.
Japan has the second lowest homicide rate in the world, behind only Iceland. The homicide rate there is .50 per 100,000 people.
Japan has produced 18 Nobel Prize winners, coming from the worlds of chemistry, medicine, and physics.
Anime is huge in Japan, and their animated output, both for films and television, accounts for about 60% of the world’s animation. There are also around 130 schools for anime voice acting in the country.
While slurping your soup is seen as a compliment, blowing your nose in public is frowned upon.
Taking your shoes off in Japan is a widely practiced custom, but may confuse foreign visitors. If when you enter a home, and the floor is raised about six inches, that’s an indication that you should take off your shoes and put on slippers. If the house has a floor that is covered with tatami mat, and raised only one to two inches, that indicates that you should take off your slippers. There are also special toilet slippers that must be used when going to the restroom, then removed when finished.
The concept of losing face, or being embarrassed, is a very important concept in Japan. Someone may lose face if they are insulted, criticized, or otherwise put on the spot, and only through praise and thanks can honor be regained.
Non-verbal communication is a big social indicator in Japan, and colors most conversations in both positive and negative ways. The Japanese believe that context affects the tone of a conversation, and they notice any changes in a person’s tone, posture, or facial expression. Because words can have more than one meaning, they look to a person’s physical reactions to find the real meaning of their words, which is why many Japanese speak with a non-expressive look, so that any facial tics or movements don’t send the wrong message. To learn more about non-verbal communication here in the West, this course on how to read body language will show you how to interpret others’ movements.
Containing the highest proportion of elderly people in the world, about 23% of Japanese people are over the age of 65. Older people are revered and honored in Japan, even being the first to be served food and drinks at a meal.
There are many subtleties involved in meeting someone for the first time in Japan. One usually waits to be introduced, as it’s seen as impolite to introduce yourself. For foreigners, it’s acceptable to simply shake hands upon meeting, but the traditional form of greeting is a bow, with how far you bow being relative to the respect shown to the recipient.
As you would expect, table manners are many and stringent in Japan. Always wait to be told where to sit, and remember that the guest of honor, or the eldest guest, is usually seated at the center. Chopstick use is important and comes with its own set of rules. Never point with them, never pierce your food with them, and lay them on the chopstick rest when chewing, making sure not to cross them. Eat a little bit of everything, and make sure to not mix rice with other food, like many Westerners do – try some of the food, then the rice.
Even though it seems like a strict country, Japanese people understand that foreigners may not know about their cultural nuances, and are very understanding of any faux pas that might occur, as long as the offender is respectful. They will also usually feel a bit embarrassed with their English skills.
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