Doc. MUDr. Jaroslav Zvěřina CSc., Member of the European Parliament

7. Japanese Culture

Japanese culture is greatly influenced by Europe, America, and Asia, especially Korea and China.  Yet, Japan has developed its own, unique culture.

Probably you have heard of some elements of the traditional Japanese culture, such as ikebana (flower arrangement), tea ceremony, Japanese calligraphy, origami, ukiyo-e painting, urushi lacquerware, kabuki (theater), noh (theater), rakugo (comedy talk show), sumo, kimono, sushi, and so on.  And yes, they are important elements of Japanese culture.  Nevertheless, Japanese culture of today is not just about these traditions.  The modern Japanese culture includes manga (comic books), anime (cartoons), karaoke, video games, Hello-Kitty, and Miyazaki and Kurosawa movies.  These aspects of Japanese popular culture are appreciated by various generations in many different countries.

In Japanese society, harmony of relationships is extremely important.  In order to keep the harmony, the Japanese give and receive gifts in various occasions.  When travelling, you buy souvenirs for family members, friends, and neighbors.    There is a tradition of gift exchange in summer called o-chugen and in winter called o-seibo to show gratitude for kindness.  Also, it is a tradition to send greeting cards on New Year's Day and in summer.  In addition, gifts are exchanged in many other occasions such as birthday, anniversary, wedding, childbirth, entrance into school, and even hospitalization and mourning.  Usually, it is not very polite to open gifts at the moment they are given.

Furthermore, paying respect to elders is very important in Japanese society.  In the Japanese language, there is a specific type of language called keigo used to show respect to others by elevating them or lowering yourself.  For greeting and other occasions, the Japanese bow to honor others by lowering themselves.

Besides the harmonious relationships, modesty is valued in Japanese society.  The Japanese try not to stand out but prefer team effort.  Until recently, society would come before individual.  So it was more important to integrate into group than to express uniqueness and individual thoughts.  This is part of the reason for uniforms.  Most schools have uniforms.  So pupils and students wear uniforms, and they even have uniformed clothes and shoes for sports classes, too.  Uniforms help unite children and cooperate with each other.

In other words, Japanese culture is shame-sensitive.  Part of the reason why the Japanese respect and care about others is because they care about what others think of them.  Samurai did harakiri in order to save their family names.

Also, Japanese culture is a high context culture, as opposed to a low-context culture in which people have to express themselves constantly to be understood.  The Japanese do not express inner emotions and feelings all the time.  Instead, they guess or sympathize with feelings of others.

As far as fashion and clothing are concerned, Japanese girls are very fashion-conscious.  The Japanese traditional clothing, kimono, is usually only worn in special occasions such as New Year, marriage, and tea ceremony.  Instead, the Japanese wear western clothes, with some own taste added.  Yukata is another type of kimono for summer.  Some girls wear yukata to go to summer festivals and fireworks.

Another important social value is punctuality.  The Japanese are generally on time, if not early.  Trains and other transportations are always on time, meaning usually they are exactly on time without a minute of delay.

Japan has unique education system.  Compulsory education is 6 years of elementary school and 3 years of junior high school which is grade 1 through 9.  Most children go to kindergarten at the age of 3 before starting elementary school, and go on to high school for 3 years after junior high school.   Many even go on to university.  But entrance examinations for university is very difficult and competitive compared to those for high school.  In fact, if students are not accepted in the school they want, it is not uncommon to wait another year and  take the exams until they are accepted in the school they want.  Often students go to private preparatory school called juku after class for one or two years in advance.  Instead, once students are enrolled in university, they are engaged in part-time jobs and club activities.  Thus not many people take studies serious.

In school, children learn Japanese, history, maths, science, music, art, and physical education.  They learn English as the first foreign language in junior high school and high school for 6 years.

There is no school bus for public schools.  High school students and college students often have to commute and take trains and buses to go to school.  School can be far away because students can choose where to go depending on the academic level and sometimes sports club activity.  For example, I studied in an English course which was offered only in two public high schools at that time.  So I did not have choice but to go to an international high school which was an hour away from home.  So I commuted every morning by bus, train, and on foot.

Women's status in the Japanese society has improved since 10 or 20 years.  Recently, more and more women receive higher education and hold a high position at work.  Although it is true that it has become easier than before for women to continue working after marriage and childbirth, there are some difficulties left.  Thus this empowerment of women contributes to late marriages and low birth rate in Japan.  This leads to the issues of aging society.

Before, father or eldest male had been the most important and respected in the family.  But this is not true anymore.  A family's lifestyle is now greatly influenced by children and their schedules.

While some people own their own house, others rent apartment.  Apartments are seen more often in large cities because of higher population density and higher land prices.  Many people also live in danchi, which is an apartment housing complex with dozens of apartment buildings.  It is actually fun to live in danchi because there is a great chance to meet new friends of your age since there are so many people live close.

Inside the house, the Japanese take off their shoes.  Usually there are some tatami rooms as well as wooden floor.  Some people still sleep on futon, although others use bed.  Some use low table and sit on the floor with zabuton cushion.  Rooms with tatami usually do not have doors but have screen slide doors covered with thick paper.  The bathroom is equipped with a large, deep bathtub, a shower, and space to wash outside the bathtub.

Food: The Japanese mainly eat rice, seafood, and vegetables.  Actually, the word for meal is the same as the one for rice.  So rice is the fundamental element of Japanese food culture.  Soy sauce and miso (fermented soybean paste) are used mainly for spice.  You have probably heard of some names of traditional Japanese food.  For example, sushi is row fish put on rice.  In addition, miso soup, tofu, and surimi are well-known in other countries.

Sushi is more for special occasion because it can be pricy.  Then what do the Japanese eat everyday?  Well, let's take a look at possible menus of a day.

Rice, a grilled fish, pickles, miso soup
Toasts, eggs, fruits, coffee

Ramen noodles, gyoza (dumplings)
Soba or somen noodles with tempura (deep-fried vegetables)

Dinner is the main meal of the day
Often rice, miso soup, main dish, side dishes, and pickles
Example: curry, sashimi (sliced raw fish), sukiyaki (beef hot pot), nikujaga (meat and potatoes), natto (fermented soybeans with a slimy consistency), vegetables

Typical Japanese dishes tend to be healthy because they use vegetables, seafood, soy products, and so on but not much oil or meat.  The Japanese cuisine is simple, yet it is sophisticated and highly customized to the change of seasons.  There is a variety of pickled and fermented food because of high temperature and humidity.  The Japanese use chopsticks for almost everything except for western dishes.

Now you may be wondering how the Japanese can have miso soup everyday.  Well, miso is used as the base, but there is a variety of ingredients such as tofu, seaweeds, mushrooms, shellfish, and vegetables that change everyday.

My favourite Japanese foods are omerice (chicken rice inside omelet), katsu-don (deep-fried, breaded pork, egg, and onion with sauce on top of rice), and negi-toro (chopped leek and tuna fish).

Drinks:  While green tea is consumed very widely, oolong tea and roasted barley tea are also popular.

Japan is famous for sake.  Sake is a fermented beverage made from rice, and it contains alcohol from 13% to 16%.  It can be served warm or chilled in all different occasions.  Japanese beer is also popular both inside and outside of the country.  You have probably heard of Japanese beer such as Kirin, Sapporo, and Asahi.

Religion: Even though most of the Japanese people are not religious, religious rituals play important roles in their life.  Shintoism and Buddhism are the main religions in Japan, and there are small populations of other religions such as Christianity, Islam, etc.  At the same time, there are many people who do not have any religion.  I myself do not have any religion, and neither my parents nor many of my friends.  This might have to do with the fact that children are taught Darwin's evolution theory as the truth and that there is no religion education during the compulsory education.  Generally, the Japanese go to Shinto shrine to celebrate childbirth; have a wedding in Shinto shrine or Christian church; celebrate Christmas; go to Shinto shrine and/or Buddhist temple for New Year's Day; and have a funeral in Buddhist temple.  Thus, for the Japanese, religion serves as a tradition or neighbourhood activity.

Sports: In Japan, imported sports such as baseball and soccer are very popular as well as traditional sports like Sumo wrestling.

Today a typical family style in Japan is nuclear family.  Many families have only one or two children and live apart from grandparents.  In fact, I am an only child living with my parents.  We visit my grandparents in countryside twice or three times a year.  The tradition of one big happy family is disappearing.  This can be a social problem in this aging society where there are fewer young people to support elders.

Language: In the Japanese language, there are three types of alphabets for writing: hiragana, katakana, and kanji (Chinese characters).  All three types can be used in one sentence.  Japanese children learn hiragana and katakana in the first grade.  Then they learn kanji from elementary school through high school.  But there are so many kanji that you cannot learn them all.  In fact, small fraction of kanji is used in everyday life, except for classis literature and Chinese literature.

You may have become interested in learning Japanese.  Here is some vocabulary that may be useful.

        Hello = Konnichiwa

        How are you? = Genki?

        Fine = Genki

        Thank you = Arigatou

        Yes = Hai

        No = Ie

        Please = Onegai (shimasu)

        I am ... = Watashi wa...

        My name is... = Watashi no namae wa ...

        Awesome! = Sugoi!

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