Unlike most other countries, Japanese food must be beautifully displayed as well as tasty so Japanese cooks take great care in arranging food on the table. Rice, the primary dish, is prepared in many different ways. The Japanese eat rice cakes, rice crackers, and mix rice in various dishes with red beans, fish, and vegetables. Rice is often formed into balls, filled with fish, meat or a vegetable and then wrapped in dried seaweed. Called onigiri, they’re popular for lunches and snacks. Rice is also made into wine called sake.
The next most important foods are noodles and pickled dishes. Noodle dishes are eaten for lunches and snacks. Japanese love pickled foods and they eat pickles at every meal. Also important are soybeans. Tofu, soybean curd, is used in many different ways including making donuts and ice cream. Miso, a paste for flavoring soup and marinating fish, is made from soy beans and rice. Soy is also made into a sauce.
A common breakfast in Japan is a bowl of rice, a bowl of miso soup, a pickled vegetable and a side dish of fish. Dinners are similar to breakfast but have three side dishes. Each side dish needs to be cooked a different way. Two foods unique to Japanese cuisine are sashimi and sushi. Both are made from raw seafood. But sashimi is eaten dipped in soy sauce and sushi is combined with rice.
Japan’s traditional beverage is green tea which may be served hot or cold. It is also canned and sold in stores like soft drinks are in the west.
The traditional Japanese garment is the kimono which is worn by both men and women. However, in modern Japan kimonos are usually reserved for special occasions although one may see elderly women wearing them. Younger men and women prefer western dress as it is less expensive and more comfortable.
A kimono is fastened with a long, wide sash called an obi.The obi is wrapped around the waist and tied in the back. Young girls and single women wear a special type of kimono called a furisode which has long sleeves, is made from colorful fabric and tied with a brightly colored obi. An informal kimono called a yukata is worn at the beach, and at hot springs. Young women and girls often wear gaily colored yukatas to summer festivals.
Plain, black kimonos are worn for funerals by both men and women. Although today black suits are also acceptable. Brides in traditional weddings wear intricately embroidered white kimonos with ornate headpieces. The groom’s kimono is made of black silk embellished with the family crest.
Kimonos are worn with flat thonged sandals called zoris or wooden plat formed sandals called getas. Zoris may be made from rice straw or lacquered wood. Getas are always constructed of wood with two slats of wood fastened to the underneath part of the sole, one near the heel and the other near the arch. The 4 to 5 centimeters high slats keep the geta soles from touching the ground. Zoris are for formal wear while getas are worn with yukatas.
Festivals, Holidays and Celebrations
The two most important holiday celebrations in Japan are New Year’s and Bon Obon. New Year preparations begin in mid-December when everyone cleans and decorates their houses, offices and buildings in anticipation of a visit fromToshigami, the god who brings the blessings of the New Year. Businesses send New Year’s cards to their customers and individuals send them to everyone they know. These are taken to the post office in December to be held for delivery on January 1. People also exchange gifts and give money to children. During the last part of December forget-the-year parties (bounenkai) are hosted. However, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are spent quietly with the family. On New Year’s Eve they listen to the 108 tolls of the temple bells which cleanse us of all sins and bring new life. While Westerners stay up until midnight, Japanese get up early to see the first sunrise. They also eat noodles to bring good fortune in the coming year. New Year’s Day includes a visit to a shrine and a special family dinner.
Obon is the Festival for the Dead usually celebrated in mid-August. It is a Japanese belief that the spirits of the deceased relatives come back to earth to visit their living families during this time. Houses are cleaned in preparation for the visits. Lanterns are hung in front of houses to welcome and guide the spirits. Families also visit the graves, where they pray and place offerings of flowers, food and drink. Community dances called Bon Odori are held. Here people erect a high wooden structure (yagura) which houses the musicians. The dancers dance in a circle around the yagura. When Obon ends, the people place floating lanterns in various bodies of water to guide the spirits back home.
A famous story is about a god called Okuninushi who had eighty brothers. They all wanted to marry the same princess and undertook a journey to visit her. The brothers encountered a rabbit without fur and in pain. They told the rabbit it could get well by bathing in salt water but this only worsened the pain. When Okuninushi met the rabbit, he told it to bathe in clear water. When this was successful, the rabbit, who was actually a god, rewarded Okuninushi by letting him marry the princess. Another popular children’s story is about a parrot that rewards his kind master with a prosperous life but punishes the mean wife after she cut the sparrow’s tongue.
Japanese children love to play kendema and it is encouraged in elementary school as a means of developing eye hand coordination. Kendema is played with a ball on a string that is attached to a stick and three cups. The object of the game is to toss the ball into the air and catch it either on the end of the stick or in one of the cups.
Teenagers love to play board games such as go and shogi. Both are similar to chess but more complex. Unlike chess, there is no good computer program for Go. However, various organizations have offered high monetary prizes to the first player who develops a program that will defeat a champion.
Verbal and Nonverbal Communication
The spoken language contains honorific endings that show respect. The type of respect depends upon one’s age, gender and social status. Employees must show respect to a supervisor, younger people must speak respectfully to their elders and women need to be more polite than men. There is also a neutral language to use with strangers when you don’t know their social status.
Bowing is another way of showing respect. When Japanese people are introduced they bow instead of shaking hands. At the beginning of classes in school, all students stand and bow to the teacher who bows in return but the students must bow lower.
In Japanese society the group is more important than the individual. Harmony is an important value so the Japanese do not like confrontations. Japan has a hierarchal culture which means that everyone has a place and must respect those who are above them. For instance, a student in tenth grade in a Japanese school would address eleventh and twelfth grade students as senpai. Students in ninth grade and below would be kohai.
Japanese teenagers have been creating their own words and the new Japanese dictionaries contain five pages of these. This mostly involves shortening words or phrases. For instance kimochi ga warui which means disagreeable has been shortened to kimoi. And using the name of a business can mean inviting a friend to go there. For example, dotoru would be an invitation to visit a Doutour coffee shop, deniru takes you to Denny’s and makuru to McDonald’s.
Mt. Fuji or Fujiyama is one of the most popular destinations in Japan for both Japanese and tourists. Japanese refer to Fujiyama as The Holy Mountain and its name indicates everlasting life.
Kyoto is a city noted for its historical sites. Over fifteen of these have been classified as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Kamakura, a town close to Tokyo, is the home of the famous Great Buddha, a 44 foot high bronze statue weighing 100 tons. At one time it sat in a wooden temple however when a massive tsunami ravaged Kamakura in 1945 the temple washed out into the ocean so now the statue sits out in the open air.
Important Note: This article was written by a person who is familiar with Japanese culture based on his or her personal anecdotal observations. Additionally, there are quite a few generalizations to make the article easier to understand for the children. Dino Lingo does not accept any responsibility for errors, omissions or subjectivity in the content of this post.
We are wondering what you know about Japanese culture…Why don’t you tell us what you know by leaving a comment below? (make sure your comment is written in a language that can be understood by small children)