“Custom, then, is the great guide of human life,” wrote Scottish philosopher David Hume. Knowing the customs of a country is, in effect, a guide to understanding the soul of that country and its people. The following Sidebar is intended to provide a glimpse into the unique world of this nation’s customs: how people marry, how families celebrate holidays and other occasions, what people eat, and how they socialize and have fun.
Marriage and Family
The Japanese generally marry in their mid- to late 20s, with men usually marrying slightly later than women. Weddings can be elaborate and expensive, and usually take place in hotels.
The couple may wear traditional clothing for the ceremony, European-style wedding outfits for photographs and socializing, and different clothing for an evening party. Wedding guests bring gifts, often cash, and leave with gifts from the couple.
The family is bound together by a strong sense of reputation, obligation, and responsibility. A person’s actions reflect on his or her family. While the father is the head of the home, the mother is responsible for household affairs. Many women now work outside the home. Although many aged parents still live with their married children’s families, this is becoming less common. On the other hand, there has been an increase in the number of adult children who remain in their parents' homes, due to the high cost of housing. In cities, most families live in high-rise apartment buildings or small homes. Larger homes are found in less crowded areas.
The Japanese diet consists largely of rice, vegetables, seafood, fruit, and small portions of meat. Rice and tea are part of almost every meal. The diet has been changing in recent decades, however, as the Japanese have begun to consume more red meat and milk. The additional meat and dairy have contributed to a growth spurt—young people are taller, on average, than are members of their parents' generation.
Popular Japanese foods include miso (bean paste) soup, noodles (ramen, udon, and soba), curry and rice, sashimi (slices of raw fish served with soy sauce and wasabi, a pungent form of horseradish), tofu, and pork. Sushi is cold rice, flavored with vinegar, and served with fish (usually raw). Norimaki is a similar dish, with rice, fish, and/or vegetables wrapped in dried seaweed.
In a traditional meal, the Japanese typically eat from their bowl while holding it at chest level instead of bending down to the table. Chopsticks (hashi) are used to eat most meals, but people generally use forks and knives when eating non-Asian food. Fast food is popular among the young. The main meal is eaten in the evening.
When being entertained, it is polite to follow the lead of one’s host. The ability of a visitor to use chopsticks will help create a favorable impression, but it is important not to point them at anyone or leave them crossed. An empty glass will usually be refilled, and it is polite to fill others’ glasses before one’s own.
A bow is the traditional greeting between Japanese. Someone wishing to show respect or humility bows lower than the other person. Japanese might shake hands with foreigners. Personal space is important, and people do not stand too close to each other when greeting or conversing. In this hierarchical society, titles are important in introductions. The family name is used with the suffix -san, for both men and women. For example, a Mr. Ogushi in the United States would be called “Ogushi-san” in Japan. The use of personal names is reserved for family and friends. In professional situations, the exchange of business cards (offered and accepted with both hands) is an important ritual. The card should be studied carefully upon receipt and treated with respect; to play with or bend the card would be an insult.
Greetings used depend on the situation. A worker might greet a senior colleague with Ohayō gozaimasu (“Good morning”), but would greet a customer with Irasshaimase (“Welcome”). When people doing business together meet for the first time, Hajime mashite (“Nice to meet you”) may be used. Konnichi wa (“Good day”) is a standard greeting. Ohayō (an informal “Good morning”), or Genki? (an informal “Are you well?”) are common casual greetings among young people.
Visits are usually arranged in advance; spontaneous visits between neighbors are uncommon in urban areas. Shoes are removed before stepping into a Japanese home. There is usually a small genkan (hallway) between the door and living area where one stands to remove one’s shoes. After being removed, shoes are placed together pointing toward the outdoors, or in a closet or on a shelf in the genkan. Coats are removed before stepping into the genkan. Slippers are often worn inside but are removed before entering rooms with straw-mat floors (tatami). There are often special slippers for use in the bathroom. Guests are usually offered the most comfortable seat. In traditional Japanese rooms, people sit on the floor.
When visiting, it is customary to take a gift (usually fruit or cakes) to the hosts. Gifts are given and accepted with both hands and a slight bow. Traditionally, gifts are not opened in the presence of the giver. A gift says a great deal about one’s relationship to, and respect for, the recipient. Gifts, therefore, play an important role in establishing and maintaining business relationships. A key time for exchanging gifts comes at the end of the year, when giving gifts to family, friends, officials, and business contacts expresses thanks for the kindness they have shown throughout the year.
Many people spend their leisure time in groups. Baseball, soccer, tennis, skiing, jogging, and swimming are all popular in Japan. Traditional sports such as sumo wrestling (a popular spectator sport), judo, kendo (fencing with bamboo swords), and karate are also enjoyed. Baseball, brought to Japan in the 1870s by a U.S. citizen, is the national sport and is highly competitive at all levels. The entire country becomes involved in the annual national secondary school championships. Golf is an obsession but, because it is very expensive to join a club, most people have to limit themselves to teeing off at one of numerous driving ranges or watching it on television.
Television and cinema are popular. In cities such as Tokyo and Ōsaka there are many young people who devote their evenings to keeping up with the fast-changing nightlife scene. Family outings to the park or to see relatives are a well-established part of the weekend routine for many. Travel abroad has also become a national pastime in recent decades.
The traditional performing arts continue to thrive, and include puppet theater (Bunraku) and highly stylized drama (Nō, Kabuki). Music and dance are also well supported.
Holidays and Celebrations
Ganjitsu is the Japanese New Year and is observed on 1 January. Japan’s New Year celebration, called Oshogatsu, lasts three days, from 1 January through 3 January. It is a time to exchange gifts and send cards. The streets are decorated and many homes feature traditional small pine trees on both sides of the door, which represent longevity and constancy.
On 15 January, those who will have their 20th birthday in the current year are honored during Coming-of-Age Day (Seijin no Hi). National Foundation Day (Kenkoku Kinen no Hi) on 11 February marks the founding of the nation in 660 bc. Vernal Equinox Day (Shunbun no Hi) celebrates the coming of spring each year, around 21 March.
Greenery Day (Midori no Hi) on 29 April is a day to celebrate nature’s beauty. Constitution Memorial Day (Kempō Kinenbi) on 3 May is followed by Children’s Day (Kodomo no Hi) on 5 May. This holiday used to be called Boys’ Day, but since 1948 girls have been included in the celebration. Marine Day is celebrated on 20 July.
Every year September 15 is set aside to honor the elderly. It is called Respect for the Aged Day (Keirō no Hi). Autumnal Equinox Day (Shūbun no Hi), around 23 September, is a holiday to welcome the arrival of autumn and to honor family ancestors.
In 1966, 10 October officially became National Health and Sports Day (Taiiku no Hi), when it was established to commemorate the opening day of the 18th Olympic Games held in Tokyo. On 3 November, Culture Day (Bunka no Hi), a different kind of activity is honored: Those who have made significant contributions to the arts and sciences are awarded medals by the government.
Labor Thanksgiving Day (Kinrō Kansha no Hi) is on 23 November. On 23 December the birthday of Emperor Akihito (Tennō Tanjōbi) is celebrated.
On New Year’s Eve (31 December), some Japanese don a kimono and set off to visit a shrine. More than half of the population, however, settles in front of the television to watch a national singing contest. It pits men against women, but the last notes must be sung before midnight, when Buddhist priests begin ringing the bells in temples. The bells are rung 108 times—one peal for each of the human failings in Buddhist belief. This ringing of the bell is said to purify believers of sinful desires accumulated during the year.
Source: Encarta Interactive World Atlas