What Makes Japanese Culture Unique
Is it the anime, manga, and karaoke subcultures or its customs and traditions?
What comes to your mind when you think of Japanese culture? Do you think of the subcultures such as anime, manga, or karaoke? Or are they more of traditional images such as kimonos, festivals, temples and shrines? Are they activity-related to Japan’s seasons such as cherry-blossom viewing (hanami) in the spring or autumn-foliage viewing in the fall?
The Japanese culture is so diverse that it is simply impossible to join them in a single group. This uniqueness is fresh, exciting, and attractive for tourists and travelers, but for those who live here, they get to engage in the culture on a much deeper level.
Here are some of the more esoteric cultural encounters one meets in daily Japan.
Japan is often described as unique and has a specialized structure. Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji characters make up the base of the language. What makes it difficult for non-Japanese speakers to learn is that the words that have the same meaning sometimes have various expressions and usage depending on the situation. These subtle differences are what makes it fascinating, and hard to learn at the same time.
Japanese Traditional Culture
Japanese traditional culture is its own thing, stemming from many centuries of history. The country has formed this culture while incorporating the culture of neighboring countries (such as kanji characters and Buddhism) since ancient times.
Around the Heian period, culture was mainly formed by aristocrats. In the Middle Ages, the samurai-led society called the shogunate or bakufu was formed, and many of the currently-known Japanese traditional cultures such as the tea ceremony and shoin-style architecture were created during this time.
Following the Sengoku period, a more stable administration called the Edo Shogunate was born and this peaceful era lasted for quite a while. This era was also known for Japan’s isolation from other countries and cultures, and in this period the development of the “common people’s” culture such as the kabuki theater and Ukiyo-e art form were created.
Eventually, the Edo Shogunate collapsed, and in the following Meiji government, a more modern system was adopted. This rapid modernization of Japanese society happened due to actively incorporating Western culture and institutions—unknown to Japan before then. The glamorous culture flourished, but militarism gradually emerged and this led to several war tragedies such as World War II.
Japan, who lost in the war, was quite devastated at the time. However, it began to recover with rapid industrialization, and soon became an industrial powerhouse, manufacturing automobiles and home appliances, which became synonymous with Japan. With this Japan’s economy developed rapidly. Around this time, food culture, as well as animation, manga, and karaoke—that all became popular all over the world—were born.
What kind of image pops to your mind when you think of Japanese people? Are they polite and demure? Or do they not speak their mind which makes them hard to understand at times?
Japanese people generally feel ”humility” (haji) and “modesty” (kenson) strongly. This makes them very conscious of what other people or how the society perceives them. Japanese people are also known for the concept of honne and tatemae, which is the differentiation of one’s true feelings and expressions or facade that one displays in public.
In the Japanese culture, there is an ever-existing concept called Do which literally means “Way” or “Path.” This exists in Japanese activities and art forms such as Kendo, Judo, Shodo (Japanese calligraphy), Sado (Tea Ceremony), and Kado (Flower arrangement). There are both philosophical or religious implications in the Japanese Way as well.
While these are all key components in the Japanese culture, this is only the tip of the iceberg. You would have to come, see, live, and experience it all for yourself.
(5 July 2019)