If one wants to understand in depth the culture of this so fascinatingly exceptional country, he should definitely get an idea of its ancient and modern history at first. Japan is probably the only country in the world which combines the extreme high tech cultural elements with the old traditions and arts.
History, Culture, Arts, Financial Development, Infrastructures
Japan, also known as the “Land of the Rising Sun”, is called by its inhabitants Nihon or Nippon and its name is a combination of two ideograms which mean “sun” and “origin”.
It consists of 4 big islands (Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku) which are accompanied by thousands of smaller ones. The volcanic archipelago of Japan consists of 6.852 islands in total, islands with many mountains and volcanoes. The highest mountain peak is the Fuji.
The islands of Japan (with their 192 volcanoes in total) are located in the volcanic zone of the Pacific Ring of Fire, at the conjunction of three tectonic plates, which are responsible for the many earthquakes in the area.
Tokyo, along with the metropolitan surrounding areas, is considered to be the largest metropolis in the world (population over 30.000.000).
The habitants of Japan originate from many Asian ethnicities (Korean, Chinese and others) that were settled in the islands.
Around 14.000 BC appears a Mesolithic semi-sedentary hunter gatherer culture (ancestors of the Ainu people and the Yamato people).
During 300 BC started the period of the Yayoi people. This period saw the introduction of practices like rice farming, new style pottery and metallurgy (introduced from China).
Japan first appears in the written history in the Chinese Book of Han (Han-shu). Accordingly to the Records of the Three Kingdoms, the most powerful one was the Yamataikoku.
Buddhism was first introduced to Japan from Korea, but the subsequent development of the Japanese Buddhism was primarily influenced by China, was promoted by the ruling class and gained widespread acceptance.
During the 7nth century, a strong Japanese State rose, centered on an imperial court, in Heijo-kyo (modern Nara).
The Nara period is characterized by the appearance of the literature and the development of Art and Architecture, inspired by Buddhism.
In 784, the Emperor Kanmu moved the capital from Nara to Nagaoka-kyo and then to Heian-kyo (modern Kyoto) in 794.
During Heian Era (794-1185) a distinctly indigenous Japanese culture emerged, noted for its art, poetry and literature.
The lyrics of Japan’s National Anthem Kimigayo were written during that period.
This era is characterized by the emergence and dominance of the ruling class of warriors, the Samurai, who weakened the absolute, up to that point, power of the emperor. The military commanders in that strict military hierarchy, and literally the “de facto” rulers of the country’s territories, at the time, were having the title of Shogun.
The feudal warlords (Daimio) started the Civil War (Onin) in 1647. The war lasted for more than a hundred years.
In 1600, Tokugawa Ieyashu defeated the rival clans and was appointed Shogun in 1603. He established the Tokugawa shogunate (in modern Tokyo). The shogunate enacted measures, including the Buke shohatto (code of conducting the autonomous powerful Daimio.
Japan’s isolating policy lasted for two and half centuries, but in 1854 Commodore Matthew Perry and the “Black Ships” of USA forced the opening of Japan to the outside world with the Convention of Kanagawa.
The resignation of the shogun led to the Boshin War and the establishment of a centralized state nominally unified under the Emperor again. (Meiji restoration).
During this period, the Empire of Japan widens its influence and territorial holdings and the population increases from 35.000.000 (1783) to 70.000.000 (1933).
The expansionist policy led to the occupation of Manchuria (1931), whilst Japan already had under its control Taiwan, Korea and parts of Sakhalin.
In 1936 Japan signed the Anti- Comintern Pact with Nazi Germany and in 1940 the Tripartite Pact made it one of the Axis Powers. Meanwhile, the Empire had invented other Chinese territories.
In 1940, the Empire invented French Indochina, after which the USA placed an oil embargo in Japan.
On December 7-8 1941, after Japan’s surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, USA was brought into World War II.
After the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan agreed to an unconditional surrender, on the 15nth of August in 1945.
The War cost Japan millions of lives and left much of the country’s industry and infrastructure destroyed.
In 1947, Japan adopted a new constitution emphasizing liberal democratic practices. The Allied Occupation ended in 1952 and Japan was granted membership in the United Nations in 1956.
The development from then on was extremely rapid and soon Japan became the second largest economy in the world, until surpassed by China in 2010.
Japan has a large industrial capacity and it is home to some of the largest and most technologically advanced producers of textiles, chemical substances, electronics and processed foods. Japan also accounts for 15% of the global fish catch, only second to China.
Some of the largest Enterprises in Japan are: Toyota, Nintendo, NTT Docomo, Canon, Honda, Takeda Pharmaceutical, Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba, Sharp, Nippon Steel and Nippon Oil. The Tokyo Stock Exchange (Nikkei) stands as the second largest in the world.
Japan’s road spending has been extensive. Its 1.2 million kilometers of paved road are the main means of transportation.
More over, dozens of Japanese railway companies compete in regional and local passenger transportation markets. Some 250 Shinkansen (high speed trains) connect major cities and are well known for their safety and punctuality.
The largest international gateways are: Narita International Airport, Kansai International Airport and Chubu Centrair International Airport. Nagoya Port is the country’s largest and busiest port, accounting for 10 percent of Japan’s trade value.
Japan is a Constitutional Monarchy and the power of the Emperor is therefore very limited. He is defined by the Constitution as “the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people”. Japan’s current emperor is Akihito.
In Japan there is still on the Death Penalty and the country has been repeatedly accused by International Amnesty for continuing this extreme law policy.
Traditional Japanese Arts
Traditional Japanese Arts include crafts such as ceramics, textiles, lacquer ware, swords and dolls, performances of theater Bunraku, Kabuki and Noh. Other cultural practices are the art of Calligraphy, the tea ceremony, ikebana, martial arts and origami. Extremely popular “cult” art is the anime and the manga. An ancient art which fascinates still the West is the art of the Geisha, while Sumo is still highly appreciated and honored in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Its name is a combination of the words “ori” (meaning folding) and “kami” (meaning paper). In this particular form of art, the folding of the paper is used for the creation of intricate artworks. Almost any laminar strong paper can be used, although cutting is forbidden. The art of Origami goes back to 1600. It is considered extremely refined art and lately has become very popular in the West, at its simpler form, since it is considered to have therapeutic effect on people suffering from daily stress.
Kabuki is a traditional genre of Japanese theatre, well known for the stylization of the drama and the very impressive, luxurious costumes worn by the actors.
Firstly, women were also participating in Kabuki. Moreover, as the tradition has it, a woman has initiated it. Her name was Okuni and she was a servant at a Shinto temple. She had started then a very particular and exceptional dance putting the roots to this famous Japanese traditional Theatre. Later on, though, the participation of women was strictly forbidden and that fact influenced in various ways its repertoire.
The Kabuki actors, in the beginning, were not of good reputation and they were associating with criminals. Many fights were taking place between its younger actors too. The Shoguns had to forbid, at some point, the participation of the young actors in it and the parts were played only by elderly artists.
After 1653, kabuki evolved into an extremely refined and stylized genre of theatre. The male actors who were playing the roles of the women were called onagata or oyama.
During the 18nth century Kabuki lost again its finesse and Bunraku took its place. After the fall of the Shoguns and the disappearance, practically, of the Samurai, Kabuki adapted itself to the new times and became popular again, especially among the high upper classes.
During the World War II, many Kabuki theatres were destroyed, but after 1947 this kind of theatre came back and flourished in respect and fame.
It appeared first in the 14th century. It has its roots to the religious ceremonies, but it evolved through aristocratic and folkloric forms of art.
In the beginning of the 17nth century women were excluded from theatre Noh (something that had also happened with Kabuki) for moral reasons mainly.
In our days there are almost 1500 professional actors, serving this genre and its modern repertoire includes 250 plays.
Manga and anime
The combination of traditional Japanese formwork and Western Art led to the creation of the Manga, a kind of comics, which became globally popular among children and youngsters. Anime are called the Japanese animations. The very popular Japanese video games too helped this kind of pop art to spread rapidly all over the world. Also, the Japanese video game consoles have been popular since the 80s.
The Shrines of Ise have been celebrated as the prototype of the Japanese architecture. The traditional houses and the temples are mainly made of wood, while the floors are usually tatami mats and their sliding doors are known as shogi.
The Japanese paintings exhibit synthesis and competition between native Japanese aesthetics and adaptation of imported ideas. The ukiyo-e painting “The Big Wave” (19th century) is world wide known as one of the most recognizable works of art.
Music and Cinema
Japanese music is eclectic and diverse. A main part in it plays the Japanese guitar (shamisen) which is used since the 16nth century. The imperial orchestra (Gagaku) has influences of modern Western composers. Remarkable classic Japanese composers are the Toru Takemitsu and Rentaro Taki. One can also mention the great Shigeru Umebayashi and the Yoshida Brothers.
Japan has also celebrated and very important directors and among them are the world wide known: Akira Kurosawa and Nagiza Ossima.
The Samurai culture
The word samurai comes from the verb samuro or saburau which means “I serve” or “I wait orders for serving”. The term was initially used so as to describe the ones who served in closed attendance to the noble and extremely powerful feudal lords of the 8th century.
The feudal lords were aristocrats and had created an extended network of clans, with their personal army for their own protection. From those clans emerged and flourished the class of Samurai.
The Bushi warriors who, firstly, were responsible for the safety of the Emperor were called Saburai.
The class of Samurai got empowered by Yoritomo Minamoto, just before he established the first Shogun government in the country.
The Samurai became extremely powerful, through the continuous battles amongst the three rival clans: The Minamoto clan, the Fujivara clan and the Taira clan.
The term Samurai was referring, since 12th century, to the noble knights, while the Bushi were the warriors.
The Samurai were paying absolute respect to their lords and were under their absolute power.
Through the years the Samurais’ families became more powerful than the families of the Emperor’s descendants.
Their code, The Bushido, (The Road of the Warrior) based on the main moral principals of Confucianism and Zen Buddhism, was dictating all the expressions of their lives and influenced significantly the cultural picture of Japan.
One of the most important pieces of that code was the ritual suicide, the Seppuku, which was taking place in order to preserve the honor of the Samurai. The word Seppuku is not exactly equivalent, from an importance point of view, with the word hara-kiri, since the second one was taking place in a hurry and while in battle, so as the warrior not to die dishonored by the enemy. The Seppuku was taking place either into a temple (not Shinto, though) or at a yard of a mansion, or into a house. The atmosphere had to be serene and the respect should also be predominant. There were always witnesses and usually, after the ceremonial cut in the stomach (done by the samurai himself and with his own sword), one of the people attending the ceremonial suicide was cutting the dying man’s head off, so as to offer him a less painful end.
The Seppuku was taking place either by the Samurai’s decision or after an order given to him by his lord. In any case it was an honorable death. Those who did not obey to the code and refused to do the Seppuku were dishonored for life and the stigma of the indignity was following their generation.
A specific category of Samurai were the Hatamoto (warriors from a noble class).
Their weapons were varying, but in the end of 16th century they started wearing two swords in their belt. One was long (daito-katana) and the other one was short (shoto-wakizashi). They were often giving names to their swords and believed that they were representing the “soul” of their capacity as warriors.
In the beginning there were also women Samurai and it is worth mentioning two of them, who were also wives of warriors: Tomoe Gozen and Hojio Mashako. Later on, the code prohibited the title to the women and they were only taking care of anything that had to do with their home. Nevertheless, many of those were performing the ceremonial seppuku themselves, in case their husband was dead, and since it was necessary to protect the family’s honor and pride.
Because of the importance of the particular sword and its mystical significance, the construction craftsmen were considered a noble class. Before forging the blade of a Katana, the craftsmen were fasting and then were working in a ceremonial way, wearing white dolmans. They were forging together different layers of steel, (of diverse hardness) and they were connecting them into a sort of “metallic sandwich”. This “sandwich” was forged several times, while before it had been heated and folded. At the end, the blade was having thousands of extremely thin layers made of hard and soft metal. When the edge of the blade was taking its final form, the hard external metal was very resilient to the blunting, while the internal soft metal was prohibiting the braking of the sword.
The external part of a Katana had been forged 20 times with more than 1.000.000 hammer hits!!
The external coverage was becoming even harder with the initial heating and then with the abrupt freezing of the blade, while it was sank into water.
Japan Sword Company in Tokyo still preserves the ancient construction techniques and the Shinto rituals of the first metallurgists.
Armor and helmets of the Samurai
The initial armor was the O-Yoroi and later on it was replaced by the Tosei Gushoku. The helmets were very impressive, painted with bright colors and decorated with horns. They were a sign of the warrior’s bravery and were underlying his noble origin. The first ones were called Hatsi, then they were replaced by the Zumari-batchi and eventually by the kavari Kabuto.
The kimonos worn by the Samurai were actually two: One used during the winter and one used during summer, which was usually made of silk. The samurai did not prefer the very bright colors, since that was a sign of arrogance and superciliousness. Their kimonos therefore were usually either brown or grey. Their sandals were called garangi and they were also wearing the getta (made of wood). The socks were usually white and were called tabi. Also popular were the boots made of bear’s skin.
The kimonos later on were replaced by the hitattare and the swords were put into the belt obi.
Hitatare gave its place to kamisimo. The trouser hakama (part of the kamisimo) was quite remarkable since it was large and comfortable and was allowing better movements of the warriors during the battles.
The Samurai, although warriors, by nature and position, were also interested in poetry, calligraphy and literature. They were enjoying the ritual of the tea too in beautiful gardens. That was a practice which was believed to lead into some kind of soul purification, while at the same time the warrior was able to empty his mind of any kind of bad energy and to focus on his values and duties.
The culture of the Geisha
The word Geisha originates from the word gei which means art and the word sha which means person.
Geisha was the educated woman, with specific studies, who was wearing ornate and elegant kimonos, was wearing her hair and make up in a ceremonial way, knew perfectly the ritual of the tea and was playing the shamisen. The geishas were in no case associated with prostitution, a view which, very wrongly, has come from the West.
Of course, many prostitutes had tried to imitate the geishas, but the big difference (among other things) was the fact that the obi belt was tied in a very specific way at the geisha’s back , while the obi belt of a prostitute was tied on her belly without a ritual way.
The geishas who were still at the preparation state were called maiko (child who dances).
Many poor girls were sold at times of famine to the okiya (house for geishas), but that was usually considered as an act that lucked dignity and the house was loosing some of its prestige, by accepting such kind of girls.
The Geisha’s lessons always used to begin at hanamatsi (neighborhood of the geishas). The first stage of their education was called shikomi.
When the geisha was managing to pass the test of the ceremonial dance, at the second stage, she was excluded of the domestic works and could attend social events along with older geishas (old sisters) at places where they were entertaining important guests.
At the third stage of her education, the Geisha was becoming maiko and she was changing her name. This stage could last for years. In Tokyo the procedure was shorter and was lasting for 6 months, but in Kyoto it could last for six years. Only then, a maiko could become a real geisha.
The refined and elegant world of the geishas is called karyukai ( the world of the flowers an the willows). A geisha knew how to perform a traditional dance, she had conversational skills and she was playing shamisen (Japanese guitar) and sakuhatsi (Japanese flute).
In the old days it was necessary for a geisha to have a patron (Dana), who could be married or single, but definitely rich, so as to be able to cover her huge expenses. It was not necessary for a geisha to repay her patron (Dana) with sexual services and usually there was no intimacy developed between them.
The Geisha’s make-up was ritual and time consuming. She was covering her face and neck with white rice powder, her lipstick was red and there were dark lines drawn with black pencil around her eyes and eyebrows. The only place which was remaining free of make up was a little part at her nape, an almost invisible mark of gently covered eroticism.
A maiko was wearing kimonos that were more colorful and the obi belts were more impressive. A geisha, though, in any case, was never wearing the same kimono twice. Her shoes were wooden and were called okobo. Inside the house she was wearing flat sandals which were called zori. The geisha was sleeping by putting her head on props so as not to damage her elaborate hairstyle. She was always wearing ornate, beautiful hair clips.
Even in modern Japan, a girl can still follow the art of the geisha, after ending her studies in the college or in the University.
Sumo is highly appreciated in Japan and the athletes are respectable members of the Japanese society. They are called rikishi and during the Sumo wrestling what is needed from them is to take out of the circle (the Dohio) their opponent. There is an ancient ceremony in Sumo and the purification of the Dohio is done by salt and characterizes the whole philosophy of this kind of wrestling. The sumo wrestlers live in special places that are called hejia and all their habits are dictated by strict traditions.
Japan, a country which combines at its every cultural expression the strict tradition with the extremely high tech modern Western culture , combines naturally many diverse genres of music too, while its music market is the second largest in the world (profit 2.6 billion $ in 2014).
Folk Music, Kayokyoku (Westewrnised music)
Western Classical Music, Jazz, Pop, Rock, alternative, punk, Heavy metal, Electropop, Theme music, Video game music
The Japanese folk songs, known as “Min-yo”, are divided in 4 categories: The working songs, the religious songs, the songs for festivities and the songs for children.
The singers’ voices are accompanied by the lute with the three strings (shamisen), by the traditional drum (taiko), by the bamboo flute (shinobue), by the kane (a kind of bell) by the tsuzumi (a small hand drum) and also by the koto (musical instrument with 13 chords).
Japan’s Westernized Music appears first by the composer Shinpei Nakayama and the singer Sumanko Matsui in 1914. The super star Misora Hibari in 1950 made extremely popular the westernized Japanese music, since he added to it elements from the Cuban and the Argentinean music. The kind of tango which was produced by the mixing of those music genres is called dodompa.
was also an extremely popular genre of music in Japan during 1950 and 1970. It was a combination of traditional techniques and western influences. Its main representatives were: Hibari Misora and Saburo Kitazima.
Later on, the Westernised Japanese Music was influenced by all the modern musical genres and followed them, having an enthusiastic audience, especially among the youngsters. Among the musicians that experimented with traditional instruments and western sounds are the Yoshida Brothers.
The Western Classic Music has strong presence in Japan’s music culture. Its most significant representatives are Toru Takemitsu and Seizu Ozawa.
The “Tοkyo Kosei Wind Orchestra” is world wide famous, while the competition “All Japan Band Association Festival” is a main pole of attraction for musicians and audiences too.
Jazz in Japan was at first represented by the bands Sleepwalker and Grooveline, while more modern and experimental bands are the: Egowrapping and Sakerock.
Rock, pop, punk, heavy metal and electropop are music genres extremely popular amongst the Japan’s youth. The most important representative is the world wide famous super star MIYAVI, who is considered to be a virtuoso of the electric guitar (he also plays shamisen and piano) and experimented with all the above mentioned genres. MIYAVI also starred at the film “Unbrocken”, which was directed by Angelina Jolie, making a triumphant entrance in the music market of USA too, since he became widely known there, after his excellent performance in the particular mentioned above movie.
The Japanese created remarkable music for cinema and TV. Great representatives of this genre are the very good ones Mashato Shimon, Mishiru Oshima, Yoko Kanno and of course the great and very significant Shigeru Umebayashi, who has 40 cinematographic music themes to his credit, with mostly well known the ones in the movies “In the mood for love” and “House of Flying daggers”. The theme of the movie “In the mood for love”, “Yumenji’s theme”, is considered worldwide as a masterpiece.
Video Game Music:
This very specific and high tech genre is represented very successfully by Nobuo Uematsu, who wrote the music for the famous anime video game “Final Fantasy”.
The extremely sophisticated and elegant Japanese cuisine uses as basement products like rice and noodles, which are mixed in soups or in okazu (dishes with fish) and also vegetables and tofu. The Michelin Guide has given to the Japanese restaurants more stars that to all the other restaurants in the world put together.
This is a Japanese condiment made of dried bamboo shoots. It gives a beautiful aroma to the noodle soups, especially to the Ramen soup.
It consists of mullet’s eggs that have been dried under the sun, is considered a very elegant dish and is accompanied with sake (sweet rice wine). One of Nagasaki’s famous specialties is Karasumi with sea urchin eggs and konovata (kneaded fish entrails).
Dried calamari accompanied with sake
Rice with vinegar, seafood and fish
Tuna fish or salmon usually served without rice an accompanied with Wasabi sauce, soy sauce and ginger.
Cold, not parboiled rice, served in small squares. A piece of raw fish combined with seaweed is placed on top of it.
Rice kneaded with fish, or crab or prawns, along with crispy pieces of avocado or cucumber. It is wrapped into seaweed.
This is a kind of sushi which has been fermented. The fish is put into acidic rice which produces lactic acid. The procedure lasts from 2 to 12 months and the sushi in this form may be consumed in the next 6 months.
Vegetables or seafood fried in a large quantity of oil at a very high temperature.
The tempura gruel is made of special flour that is stirred only for a few seconds. The lumps that remain give to Tempura its characteristic and unique shape. The stirring needs to be done very carefully, either wise the lump will have a thicker texture and the result will feel more like donut.
Tempura is served piping hot accompanied with a sauce made of dashi, mirin and soy. It can also accompany soups like the Uban soup.
Ice cream with Green Tea:
This dessert has wan many gastronomy lovers, during the last years, since it has a very refined taste.
It is a drink made of rice, slightly sweet, with pale golden color. Its taste reminds of cherry.
Once it was the drink of the emperors, the nobles and the Samurai, but today it is accessible to anyone.