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A Visual Guide to Japanese Customs & Culture


25 Aug

Japan (Nihon), the Land of the Rising Sun, is a country that seamlessly blends old traditions with modern ideals, booming industry with lush nature, and the logical with the supernatural. Whether you’re planning to travel to, need to send a gift to Japan for a celebration, or just want to learn about the culture, this guide will help you discover more about its vast history, mythologies, and holidays as you navigate your way on your far out journey to the Far East.

A Guide to Japanese Customs & Culture

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Japanese Historic Eras and Periods

  • Yayoi (300BC-250) – introduction of rice, hundreds of small countries start unifying into larger countries
  • Asuka (538-710) – introduction of Buddhism, the Fujiwara era starts
  • Heian (794-1185) – Kyoto becomes the capital, the Gempei war
  • Kamakura (1192-1333) – the Mongols try and fail to invade due to bad weather conditions, Samurai (warriors) replace nobles as rulers
  • Muromachi (1338-1573) – Onin war, Portuguese introduce firearms and Christianity, unification
  • Edo (1603-1867) – capital moves to Edo (Tokyo), begins 250 years of almost complete isolation from rest of world under military
  • Rule, the term ‘manga’ was created by Hokusai (creator of the woodblock The Great Wave)
  • Meiji (1868-1912) – 1st railway between Tokyo and Yokohama, Sino-Japanese war, Russo-Japanese war, Annexation of Korea
  • Taisho (1912-1926) – joins allied forces in WWI, the Great Kanto Earthquake devastated Tokyo and Yokohama
  • Showa (1926-1989) – Manchurian incident, 2nd Sino-Japanese war, Pacific war, atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and
  • Nagasaki, Allied Occupation begins, become member of U.N., oil crisis, the first ‘anime’ is released
  • Heisei (1989- present) – Great Hanshin Earthquake kits Kobe, Sarin Gas attack in Tokyo subway, Democratic Party becomes ruling party, Great East Japan Earthquake, Japan as a world power

Animals in Japanese Folklore

  • Heikegani – The Samurai Crab – They look like they have a samurai mask and were thought to be reincarnations of slain samurai
  • Kitsune – Japanese Fox – Can have up to 9 tails depending on its age, wisdom, and power. They can only be killed by cutting off all of its tails
  • Tanuki – Racoon – Thought to be tricksters that can shapeshift into object or people
  • Bakeneko – Ghost Cat – It’s thought that if a cat lives for long enough (over 13 years) they will turn into a bakeneko and be able to shapeshift. The most common disguise is a human with a towel wrapped around their head as they merrily dance around

What Are Lucky Symbols in Japanese Culture?

  • Owl (Fukurou) – is a symbol of future luck and it’s believed that they will protect people from hardships
  • Lucky Cat (Maneki neko) – Based on an old legend, this symbol is believed to bring wealth, good luck, and good business. The basic story is that a rich lord was standing under a tree that was about to be hit by lightning when the cat beckoned him to move, saving his life.
  • Daruma Dolls are papier-mache figures designed to look like a 6th monk known as Bodhidharma, with thick eyebrows and moustaches. They’re traditionally sold with no eyes, filling in one eye with a black marker when you set a goal and then the other eye when you meet your goal. Different colors represent different goals; red for luck, blue for health, yellow for protection, gold for prosperity, and white for harmony.
  • Crane (Tsuru) – The Japanese historically believed that cranes were powerful creatures who lived 1000 years and that anyone who finishes a string of 1000 origami cranes within a year will have a wish granted. Cranes are also symbols commonly used to bring good luck to weddings
  • Black Eggs – Kurotamago are eggs cooked in the Owakudani volcanic valley in Hakone. It’s believed that eating 1 Kurotamago adds 7 years to your life.
  • Kit Kat has become a popular abbreviation for the phase “kitto katsu”, meaning “a sure win.” In Japan, this popular brand of chocolate bar comes in more than 400 flavors and is thought to be extremely lucky with its red packaging and are a popular gift to bring students luck at exams time.

Lucky Numbers

  • 8 – Hachi – Because of the shape of its kanji, it’s considered ‘suehirogari’, a folding fan. Suehirogari also means to become more prosperous.
  • 7 – Nana – The number 7 is a commonly lucky number in many countries and religions, including Buddhism.

Unlucky Numbers

  • 4 – Shi – is also the same pronunciation for the kanji for death. It’s common to not use the number 4 in hospitals and special occasions.
  • 9 – Ku – The kanji for pain or suffering is also pronounced as ‘ku’.

What Are Important Japanese Holidays and Observances?

  • New Years Day (shogatsu) – Jan 1 – Most important holiday in Japan, most businesses remained closed through the 3rd
  • National Foundation Day (kenkoku kinebi) – Feb 11 – In 660 BC the 1st Japanese emperor was crowned
  • Valentine’s Day – Feb 14 – Women give chocolates to men
  • Doll’s Festival (hina matsuri) – March 3 – Families wish their daughters a successful and happy life and display dolls with peach blossoms in their homes
  • White Day – March 14 – Men give chocolates or cakes to women (opposite of Valentine’s Day)
  • Greenery Day (May 4) – observance of the birthday of former Emperor Showa and his love for plants and nature
  • Respect for the Aged Day (keiro no hi) – 3rd Monday in September – Celebrate the elderly and longevity
  • Christmas – Dec 25 – Not a national holiday but many people follow local traditions of gift giving, eating chicken (KFC is very popular at Christmas time), and a Christmas cake

You’ve Learned A Lot About Japan…What Now?

Find great gifts for family and friends in Japan.

Check out our infographic about another interesting culture: A Guide to Filipino Culture & Traditions

Or, read more about Japan with these awesome articles:

  • Japanese History: A Chronological Outline – http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/timelines/japan_timeline.htm
  • The Beginnings of Anime and Manga- http://www.umich.edu/~anime/info_animehistory.html
  • The Father of Anime & Manga – https://novaonline.nvcc.edu/eli/evans/HIS135/Events/Anime62/Anime62.html
  • Kitsune – http://www.mythicalcreaturesguide.com/page/Kitsune
  • 3 Popular Animals in the Japanese Mythology – http://jpninfo.com/11809
  • Bakeneko – http://yokai.com/bakeneko/
  • 20 Lucky Things In Japan – http://www.japan-talk.com/jt/new/lucky-japan
  • 10 Popular Engimono (Japanese Good Luck Charms) – Better have one at home! – http://jpninfo.com/8046
  • Discover Japan! – http://discover-jp.blogspot.com/2006/11/luck-and-unlucky-number.html
  • Annual events – http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2062.html