Japanese culture, much like Chinese culture, is filled with codes of conduct that can be mind-boggling to many foreigners. From specific ways of accomplishing tasks to certain distinctions in speaking to individuals of varying ages, Japanese society is filled with a huge range of idiosyncrasies. Deep, rich history has formed since settlement in 10,000BC into an involved and multi-layered culture that has developed within and formed new facets over many centuries. Today, many stark contrasts illustrate the rich variety in Japanese culture, from the kimono-clad geisha tip-toeing down the street to an electric pop culture famous around the world. Visual and traditional arts, special social customs, and cosmopolitan cuisine make Japan a stand-out destination.
Traditionally, great importance is place on “wa,” a concept meaning “group harmony.” The value of individual needs is put behind the value of the common greater good. This ethic is applied in social groups, schools, and the workplace.
Japanese people also bestow great value on how they appear in public; the word “omote,” refers to this. It indicates conventional, formal, and public behavioral aspects. The Japanese word “ura” refers to unconventional, informal, and private cultural aspects but only in relationships with family and friends. The latter is viewed as more meaningful and valuable in Japanese culture.
Some of the better known Japanese traditions include the annual viewing of cherry blossoms when the vibrant flowers bloom across Japan from March through May. Tea ceremonies are also a cardinal tradition throughout Japan. The tea ceremony is a custom handed down through generations. It is essentially a ceremonial art of making and imbibing green tea. Public bathing at a sento is a tradition stemming from a time when most homes were without bathtubs. Today, it is still a tradition carried forth and a time for bathing, soaking, and socializing. The onsen, natural spring baths, are part of this Japanese custom. The art of Japanese gardening has been honed for more than 1,000 years and has gained popularity world-wide. Each garden has a different purpose and style including religious and strolling gardens.
In Japan there is nationwide freedom of religion. Buddhism and Shinto are the predominant religions. Buddhism was imported into Japan in the sixth century from the mainland while Shinto is equal in age to Japanese culture itself. Both religions have co-existed, mostly harmoniously, for centuries and are even complimentary in many respects. Most Japanese people consider themselves devoted to either one or both religions.
There are several religious minorities including Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Sikhism.
Japanese food comes in a huge array of regional specialties and dishes and is renowned as being some of the healthiest food in the world. In Japanese culture, traditional food staples include rice, eaten with miso soup and other regional dishes. Dishes are based on seasonal availability of ingredients. Side dishes revolve around pickled vegetables (some of which are very sour), fish, and vegetables prepared in broth. Fish is most often eaten grilled but is also served raw as sushi or sashimi. Tempura is vegetables and seafood battered and deep fried and is also very common. Japanese food staples include a variety of noodles such as thick udon and thinner soba, which are eaten with soup and solid food alike. Oden is a type of food that is simmered in broth, and can be anything from fish to vegetables.
Prior to the mid-19th century, meat was mostly avoided. However, with the country’s modernization came more and more meat dishes, which today have become an inherent part of Japanese culture. Along with the growing popularity of meat came the rise of foreign food, from steaks to hamburgers and fried dumplings to ramen (noodle soup). Varying traditional dishes are evident in different regions including Kyoto, Hokkaido, Okinawa, and Osaka.