Basic Concepts of Japanese Culture



According to statistical findings, many Japanese are adherents of several religions. What can seem a little unusual for somebody of a Christian background has been anchored in Japanese culture for centuries. In this way most Japanese carry out Shintoist as well as Buddhist practices. Both of these allow room for other religions, which brings about a mixture of various aspects of different religions. While Shintoism concerns itself with the every day and represents a view of the world in the here and now, Buddhism rather answers the questions concerning the Afterlife. There are equally great differences in their places of worship. The shrine, always separated from the earthly world by a large gate, a torii, is the place of Shintoist deities, whereas Buddhism is practiced in a temple. The fact that they can often be found in immediate proximity to each other is a further sign of the friendly co-existence between the two religions. There are also traces of Taoism and Confucianism, but became strongly suffused with Buddhism and Shintoism from the early stages. Christian adherents, with one percent, make up a small share of the Japanese population. Islam is practically non-existent in Japan, and is practiced only by a small number of individuals.

Language and Writing

Although there are still other languages in Japan, such as Ainu and Ryuku, for reasons of simplicity this section will be limited to a discussion of Japanese, the only official language. Linguistics has still not been able to identify unambiguously where the origins of the Japanese language lie. It is taken as certain that Japanese is closely related to Korean and grew out of the same language. This explains why the grammar structure is very similar to Korean, even though the vocabulary has strongly diverged. The word order is subject-object-verb. Japanese nouns do not have a differentiated plural; Japanese does not have grammatical gender, articles, or cases. There is also no conjugation of nouns or declension of verbs. The role of the case in European languages is communicated in most cases by which particle is used next to the subject, verb or noun, and in this way the particles perform the function of the preposition. The Japanese language recognizes precise differences in social structures.. Whether one is addressing a superior, a colleague or a spouse will determine the type of language used, and there are many different levels. There are also differences in the style of language between men and women. These differences are not only the use of gender-specific vocabulary, but are also grammatical. Women, for example, use polite or honorific forms much more frequently than men. The Japanese system of writing emerged relatively late, and has its origins in Chinese. The oldest recorded Japanese language extracts date from the 7th century. Before then, all important documents were written in Chinese, which only the most educated Japanese were able to do. From the 7th century, however, Japan’s own writing system emerged. The writing system consisted of Kanji (the borrowed Chinese characters), Hiragana and Katakana, both of which are syllabic scripts developed and simplified from the Kanji. The Latin alphabet, known in Japan as romaji, is also sometimes used. Traditional Japanese is written in columns from top to bottom, from right to left. Some texts, however, follow a western style and are written in lines from left to right. Many kanji characters have two or more readings: the on reading, which derives from the Chinese, and the kun reading, which is the Japanese rendering of the word. The hiragana syllabic script is taught first in schools. In later years, hiragana is used primarily for grammatical identification. This is followed by katakana, which is widely used for foreign words. Kanji is taught last; kanji characters have their own independent meaning and are also used as stem words.




The oldest recorded literature in the Japanese language is the Kojiki and Nihonshoki. These are chronicles which appeared in the beginning of the 8th century, telling of the mythological origins of Japan, and contain poems as well a prose. In addition to the poems in the Chinese style, there are the waka, poems which were written in Japanese a prescribed 5-7 syllable metre. Originally they could only be written by the court ladies because they could not, or were not allowed to, write in Chinese. The oldest recorded volume of poetry is the Manyoshu, a collection of poems, some of which date back to the 4th century. The Kokinshu, an anthology of waka poems produced by imperial edict, appeared in the 9th century as waka became increasingly popular. In the 11th century women started to become famous as authors of literary works. These included Sei Shonagon, who wrote Makura no Soshi (The Pillow Book), and Murasaki Shikibu, the author of Genji Monogatari), the world’s oldest remaining novel. Monogatari means ‘tale’, which developed at this time into a distinct literary genre. Poetry also developed further at this time., and newer forms such as renga (Japanese love poems) and haiku (linked poetry created from the first verse of the renga) began to appear alongside the already well-known choka and tanka (long poems and short poems). Among famous haiku poets were Matsuo Basho, a traveling poet of the 17th century, and Masaoka Shiki, a 20th century poet who is remembered for combining Japanese poetry with reality, and is seen as a reformer of the genre of Japanese poetry.


There are many different forms of theatre in Japan. They differ in how they came into being, and also developed independently of each other. Noh theatre was shaped by Buddhism, and began in the 14th century. The performers were also the authors of the pieces. Only in the 20th century were women allowed to become professional Noh performers. From the 16th to the 18th centuries only members of the samurai class were permitted to participate in this form of theatre, whether as performers or spectators. Noh plays can follow the classical division of religious dramas, war dramas, love dramas, or dramas of horror and insanity. This form of theatre is traditionally performed in detailed masks. The kabuki theatre is less formal than Noh theatre and was traditionally enjoyed by the middle classes. Derived from dances at shrines during the 17th century, kabuki consists of songs, pantomime and dance. It was originally performed by women, but later exclusively by men. Bunraku is a form of puppet theatre that started in the 17th century. The puppets are almost human size and require three operators, who control a specific body area. The operators also appear on stage, but with their black kimonos and hoods they blend into the dark background, and with their unobtrusive movements the audience is almost completely unaware of them.

Tea Ceremony

The tea ceremony, sado, is a ritual of tea preparation that is close to Zen Buddhism, and is conducted according to formal rules and principles. The procedures are exactly prescribed both for the guest and the host, but can vary slightly in their execution according to the different schools of tea ceremony.


This genre of Japanese painting and woodblock printing is translated as “pictures of the floating world”, and became popular in the 18th century. The genre described the everyday life of the middle classes. The term is sometimes incorrectly used to refer solely to woodblock prints and also landscapes.


The art of representing the harmony between man and nature in miniature form originated in China and appeared in Japan in the 10th to 11th centuries. Through various cutting, binding and wiring techniques, the growth of the tree is restricted and its aesthetic form preserved.


Ikebana is known as the art of flower arranging. As well as the flowers, the vase, stem, leaves and branches are also brought into a particular contemplation of the aesthetics of the harmony of colour, lines and shapes.


Often encumbered with a cruel image in western circles, the Geisha in traditional terms is solely a companion who, through her skillful mastery of such art forms as dance, calligraphy, conversation, flower arranging and tea ceremony, becomes a perfect and entertainer and hostess.


In origami, paper folding, usually square pieces of paper are folded into artful shapes, without the use of either scissors or adhesives. Animal and plant shapes are produced in this way, and the most famous theme is the crane.

Calligraphy (Shodo)

Shodo, the way of the written word, reached Japan from China. It is the artistic reproduction of script with the aid of ink, brush and paper.

Inside a Japanese House

A traditional Japanese room is known as a washitsu. The floor is finished in straw matting (tatami) onto which a futon, a thin mattress, would be laid out for sleeping. There is no bed frame. A washitsu should only be entered in socks or barefoot. Japanese characteristics are found not just in the rooms, but also in the entrances of Japanese homes, such as the genkan, the porch at the entrance to the house, where shoes are removed. One then enters the home in socks or in the slippers that have been provided. Other traditional Japanese interior features are sliding walls known as shoji, which are a wooden frame covered with stretched paper or board, sliding partition doors known as fusuma, and oshiire, which are special in-built cupboards where the futons are kept.

Popular Culture, Leasure and Sports



Enka are referred to as Japanese folk songs, and are similar to German pop hits. They are often sung solo, and occasionally in duet. The singer is usually accompanied by classical instruments, such as the shamisen.

J-Pop, J-Rock

These two terms encompass the entire realm of Japan’s home-grown rock and pop music. The various styles can differ widely and cover the spectrum from ballads, pop, rock, metal and gothic. Westerners often find the appearance and the music of these artists as bizarre, and an acquired taste.

Manga, Anime

Manga is the term mainly used in Germany to describe Japanese comics, but in Japan both terms are used synonymously. The market for these kinds of visual stories has reached astronomical proportions, and with it, manga have developed for different target groups: young children, boys, girls, men, women, juveniles, seniors, history fans, and so on. Anime refers mainly to animated cartoons, which are nearly always based on famous manga. Both manga and anime have enjoyed increasing popularity in Germany in recent years.


The world’s oldest board game still played today has its origins in China. It is a complex game of strategy and is played by arranging white and black stones to form straight lines. It has a similar reputation in Japan to chess in the west.


The pachinko parlor jumps immediately into the awareness of every visitor to Japan, as they can hardly fail to be noticed due to the ovwewhelming number of them, their garish design above all for their noise. The player pays for number of small silver balls, which are played through the machines, and which can be exchanged at the end for money or prizes.

Martial Arts

Martial arts have deep roots in Japanese culture, and many world-famous martial arts have their origins in Japan. Sumo, the traditional wrestling, is one of the most popular sports, and is highly regarded. Other popular Japanese martial arts are jiu-jitsu, judo, kendo, karate and aikido.


Next to Sumo, baseball is Japan’s most popular sport. There are several professional leagues and various nationwide school tournaments. Baseball has a similar status in Japan to football in Germany.


A term coined from the English words ‘costume’ and ‘play’, this is a hobby in which one dresses as in idol from the films, music or manga, and carries the imitation though to the minutest detail.



New Year

The celebrations for the New Year festival in Japan, o-shogatsu, have a similar importance to Christmas in Europe. New year is traditionally spent with one’s family, and the festivities last several days. Special foods are prepared, o-sechi, which have quite wide regional variations throughout Japan. Generally, people also visit a temple on New Year’s Day to give thanks for the old year and to express their wishes for the new. It is also customary to send new year cars, nengajo, through the post.


Matsuri are regional popular festivals, which are often connected with a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple. There is usually a procession, and food and drinks are offered. Individual matsuri vary according to regional particularities.


Hanami is the spring custom of viewing cherry (mostly) and plum blossoms while they are in full bloom. For Japanese, the cherry blossom is idyll of beauty and transience. At this time people go to parks or gardens with family and friends to view the blossoms from close.

Eating & Drinking



Rice is probably the essential food in Japanese society and is eaten at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Rice was produced in Japan as early as 1,000 years BC, although rice culture not started until approximately 300 years BC, and was probably imported from China or Korea. Japanese rice consumption can be completely met by domestic production. Although rice has encountered competition from bread and noodles since the end of the Second World War, it has been able to hold onto its unchallenged position to the present day.

Sushi, Sashimi

Raw fish is used in both sushi and sashimi, and presented in an appealing way. Sushi is prepared with lightly-vinegared rice in rolled form, known a maki, whereas sashimi is not served with a rice accompaniment. Wasabi, a green and spicy herb paste, soy sauce, and frequently ginger, are offered with both.


Most widely known is the Japanese rice wine, sake, which is not ‘wine’ in the actual sense as it is produced with added yeast, which makes it more similar to beer. It can be drunk hot or cold, and has an alcohol content of at least 15 per cent. Another Japanese drink is shochu, which is distilled from fermented sweet potatoes, barley, sugar cane, or even rice, and has a higher alcohol content than sake. Umeshu is a plum wine with a rather sweet taste. Beer is not deeply rooted in Japanese culture, but in the intervening years is drunk by many Japanese in preference to sake and shochu.

Soy Sauce

Soy sauce, known as shoyu in Japanese, is used in Japan with almost every meal. It is made from soy beans, water, cereal and salt, and has been used since the 6th century. It is impossible to imagine a Japanese kitchen without it.


Wasabi is a green herb paste which is derived from a plant described as Japanese horseradish. The plant grows wild only in Japan and on the island Sakhalin, and was for a long time the only spicy seasoning in Japan, apart from chili.

Japanese Noodles (ramen, soba, somen, udon)

As well as western noodles (pasta), typical Japanese noodles are popular in Japan. Ramen, however, which has now become fully integrated into the Japanese kitchen, originated in China rather than Japan itself. Soba and somen are both noodles made from buckwheat, but are quite different in their consistency and appearance. Udon is made from water and flour, and can take various forms, but is mostly seen in a form similar in appearance to macaroni.


These small snacks are particularly popular between meals and when out and about. They are made from small mounds of rice, usually in a triangular form, wrapped in a leaf of nori, processed seaweed. There is often a filling in the centre of the rice, which could be meat, fish or vegetable. They are quite easy to prepare at home, but a wide selection is offered in supermarkets and convenience stores.


Bento is a meal that is ideal for when one is out and about, or indeed, at work. The term does not refer to a specific meal, but to its presentation. The meal is contained in a box, in which the individual components of the meal are separated by small internal walls. It is particularly well-suited for take-away, and bento can be found everywhere in Japan at affordable prices.

Miso Soup

The main ingredients of Miso soup is fish stock and soy bean paste, to which seaweed, small onions, tofu, or mushrooms are often added. Miso is served most meals, including breakfast.


Various kinds of teas are drunk in Japan, and the tea ceremony gives tea a special place in Japanese society. Apart from green tea, a kind of tea made from barley and known as mugicha, is very popular and is usually drunk cold in the summer.


The smell and taste of this nutritious food made from fermented beans is quite a challenge for many foreigners, but for the Japanese Natto is a fixed staple of the traditional cuisine and is often eaten at breakfast.