The culture of Japan is one that has grown and evolved into something completely unique to its people. While some of the traditions and customs have spread to other parts of the world and influenced the traditions in those areas, Japanese culture is recognizable in all its forms. The traditions and culture found in Japan today include influences from North America, Europe, and other parts of Asia mixed with the culture of Japan from millions of years ago. Language, art, religion, tradition, and much more are all major parts of Japanese culture as a whole.
Shinto, which translates to "the way of the gods," is a religion that is native to Japan, and like Buddhism, is one of the country’s major religions. Shinto practices and beliefs are rooted within Japanese traditions and the Japanese people. "Kami" are Shinto gods and Japanese people believe that all things contain kami. When people die, it is believed they become kami and are worshipped by their families.
Buddhism began in India more than 2000 years ago and although there was some conflict when it was introduced in Japan at a time when Shinto was already well-established, the two religions were able to live alongside each other. Many Buddhists believed that Buddha's spirit was present in kami (Shinto gods). The teachings of Siddhartha Gautama are the basis for the religion which states that true freedom can be reached by all people.
Japan’s official currency is called the yen. After the American dollar and the Euro, the yen is the third most highly-traded currency in the foreign exchange market. Coins were brought to Japan by the Spanish in the 1800s and soon after their introduction the Japanese decided to officially create and use a silver dollar coin system of their own. As time went on, the size of the coins, which started out fairly large, were made smaller. In the late 1930s, silver was very expensive so silver coins were being made from other metals. Bronze coins – the 10 yen coin – were produced in the early 1950s and remain in circulation. The word ‘yen” means “a round object.” Some coins have a hole in the middle!
Festivals take place in different areas all throughout the country of Japan and recognize various events and seasons. In early times when farming was a way of life for the majority of Japanese families, festivals were a way to take a break from the harvest and enjoy family time. They often display great symbolism of the history of the country. There are a variety of festivals that celebrate the culture and traditions of Japan. One of the most unique and widely celebrated of the Japanese festivals is Hinamatsuri, or Girls’ Day. This festival takes place on March 3rd and is also known as the doll festival.
The most detailed holiday festivals to take place in Japan are those that happen from the 1st – 3rd of January. Other popular and widely celebrated festivals include Hanami or the Cherry Blossom Festival and the Lantern Floating festival.
In Japan, the New Year (called shogatsu or oshogatsu) is the country’s most important holiday. Businesses close from the 1st through the 3rd of January and families spend that time together. Tradition says that as one year ends, all of the year’s duties should be completed by that time, as well. Bonenkai parties take place to leave the previous year’s troubles in the past, and each new year is treated as a fresh start. Many Japanese begin a new year by watching its first sunrise, called hatsu-hinode, and its appearance is believed to be an indication of the year to come. There should be no stress or anger on New Year's Day in Japan. In preparation of the holiday, families decorate their doors with bamboo, pine, and branches of the Japanese plum tree. Households are thoroughly cleaned and clothes are laundered because New Year’s Day is a day of no work with clean household surroundings.
Shrines are very popular attractions to visit at the turn of a New Year; the Meiji Shrine of Tokyo attracts millions. When the clock strikes midnight, to ring in the New Year, bells of large temples across the land will ring out. Other holidays celebrated in Japan include Coming of Age Day – a holiday to celebrate people who have reached 20 years old that year, Culture Day, and Labor Thanksgiving Day.
In Japanese history, music called “gagaku” was performed in operas and concerts, or courts, and was preferred by noble people and those of the upper, wealthy class. Later, as theatre grew in popularity, traditional Japanese music saw the introduction of Noh drama, or very symbolic drama usually performed by men. The Nohgaku was a form of music specific to Noh. Nohgaku has two parts: the vocal and the instrumental. Called the utai, the vocal part is sung by eight singers (a chorus) along with the male actors, and the song tells a story.
J-pop is pop music that tends to be most liked by those in their late teens and early 20s. It is Japan’s pop music which in its early development, was simply songs that were popular in America that were sung in Japanese. Today, J-pop is a combination of traditional music of Japan with pop music of America and centers on topics like friendship and love.
The art of Japan reflects was influenced by China’s style of painting until the 17th though the middle of the 19th century. Japan closed itself off from contact with the western world after an American ship admiral said Japan would be forced to trade with people of the West. Finally, contact between Japan and the West was made, trade began, and Japanese art entered the U.S. and Europe and became very popular. From sculptured clay art in human forms, to single-color ink prints on blocks of wood, to peaceful landscape drawings, ceramic engravings, and colorful paintings of contemporary fashion, art in Japan has seen remarkable change.
One of the staples of Japanese meals is rice and noodles, often eaten with soup flavored with fish, vegetables, chicken, tofu, or some other “okazu”. Noodles are most often made from wheat or buckwheat and can be eaten cold or hot. To season, Japanese people commonly use soy sauce, dashi, and miso. Some of the ingredients most often found in a Japanese home kitchen are mushrooms, beans, seaweed, vegetables, soy, flour, eggs, meat, and rice.