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Japan’s unique culture is a fascinating blend of old and new. With deeply-rooted customs and a continuously-evolving lifestyle, Japan is both proudly traditional and ultramodern. This is a nation that celebrates its strong cultural identity, from food and everyday etiquette to art and education. Whether you’re planning a trip or just want to learn more about the country, these 20 facts on Japanese culture will give you a deeper insight into the nation’s unique and fascinating culture.
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Good table manners are highly regarded in Japanese culture and correctly using chopsticks is an important part of polite dining. So when using chopsticks in Japan, don’t stab or cut your food with them. Instead, you should lift the food as it is to your mouth. Don’t point at something with your chopsticks, as this is rude in Japanese culture. Meanwhile, you should never leave your chopsticks sticking upright in a bowl of rice, as this is associated with funeral customs. Instead, place them on the chopstick rest in between bites or when you finish eating.
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Bowing (known as ojigi) is the traditional form of greeting in Japan. However, bowing can also be used to indicate gratitude, congratulations, or an apology. In casual daily situations, a bow is often a simple nod of the head. Meanwhile, a longer and deeper bow is more respectful and can signify a formal apology or sincere thanks. Don’t worry if you’re just visiting – it’s completely acceptable for foreigners to shake hands in Japan.
3. Bathroom Slippers
In Japanese homes, there’s typically an area inside the front door, known as genkan, where people swap their shoes for house slippers. Going to the bathroom involves changing slippers again, as cleanliness is an inherent part of Japanese culture. The most important thing to remember is to swap slippers again as soon as you leave the bathroom. It’s considered very embarrassing to leave bathroom slippers on when you reenter a living space.
One of Japan’s best known cultural exports, anime is popular on a global scale. Anime refers to Japanese animation that’s either hand drawn or created digitally. Although Japanese anime accounted for 60% of the world’s animation in 2016, it’s biggest impact has been on modern Japanese culture. If you travel around the country, look out for anime statues, snacks in themed packaging, and character-based advertising.
5. Slurping Noodles
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There are lots of interesting dining traditions in Japan, but slurping noodles has to be one of the most fun. When Japanese diners slurp their noodles, it’s seen as both a sign of enjoyment and a compliment to the chef. So next time you order ramen or yakisoba in Japan, feel free to slurp to your heart’s content.
6. Eating Sushi
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Sushi isn’t just one of Japan’s most popular dishes – it’s loved all over the globe. If you want to embrace Japanese culture, it’s worth perfecting the way you eat it. The traditional way to eat maki and nigiri sushi is with the fingers, while sashimi is eaten with chopsticks. It’s also worth remembering that when dipping sushi in soy sauce, only the fish should touch the sauce. Rice soaks up too much soy sauce, so Japanese people tend to avoid doing this. Meanwhile, the only time mixing wasabi and soy sauce together is acceptable is when eating sashimi.
Most frequently associated with sumo wrestlers, chankonabe is a traditional Japanese stew. Packed with fish, vegetables, meat, and tofu, this high-calorie dish is eaten daily by sumo wrestlers. Sumo wrestlers eat chankonabe with bowls of rice and it provides them with the necessary nutrients for their training.
8. Onsen Etiquette
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Visitors to onsens, or hot springs baths, are required to bathe naked in Japan. Traditional onsens do not allow swimsuits, so everyone must shower thoroughly before entering the baths. This means that visitors leave their clothes and large towels in the locker room and take just a small towel with them to the bathing area. As there’s usually nowhere to put the small towels, the traditional solution is to put it on your head.
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At a rate of almost 100%, Japan’s literacy rate is one of the highest in the world. This is largely thanks to the country’s excellent education system, which is compulsory at the levels of elementary and Junior High School. Japan’s wealth of great writers may also be linked to the country’s focus on literacy. You can experience Japanese literature for yourself by reading the works of some of the nation’s best authors.
Every year, incorrectly prepared fugu causes food poisoning in Japan. Fugu, Japan’s toxic blowfish, is one of the most lethal natural products on the planet. Yet it remains an expensive and sought-after delicacy in Japan. Chefs must train for a minimum of three years before undertaking an examination to legally cook and serve it.
11. Morning Exercise
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Health is important to Japanese culture and the country’s tradition of morning exercise reflects that. Rajio Taiso, introduced by Emperor Hirohito, is a radio exercise program that’s been broadcast daily since 1928. It plays every morning for 10 minutes and it’s mostly followed by school children and the elderly.
12. Sitting Seiza
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Seiza, which means sitting with your legs folded underneath you, is the traditional way to sit on Japanese tatami floors. At formal occasions, sitting seiza is considered appropriate and respectful. Even so, it’s a difficult position for the average person to hold. Older Japanese people sometimes sit with their legs out in front of them, which is completely acceptable.
13. Colds and Allergies
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When you suffer from a cold or hayfever in Japan, it’s polite to wear a mask. Japanese people also avoid blowing their noses in public, as it’s seen as rude.
In Japan, a bath at home is for relaxation, rather than for cleaning. So Japanese people do not use soap in their baths. Instead, they shower first and then soak in the bath afterwards.
15. Walking While Eating or Smoking
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Walking down the street while eating is not acceptable in Japan. So you’ll sometimes see people standing by vending machines, finishing their drink or snack. Meanwhile, smoking while walking is illegal in many areas. There are designated smoking areas, so don’t light up until you reach one.
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Although tea is a huge part of Japanese culture, the nation is also known for its love of high-quality Jamaican coffee. About 70% of Jamaica’s exported Blue Mountain Coffee goes to Japan.
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A geish, which translates as “performing artist” in English, is a traditional female entertainer. Although surprisingly, the first geisha were men. As time passed, it became regarded as a mostly female profession and today, geisha are still a much-loved part of Japanese culture.
18. Pouring Drinks
The Japanese consider it impolite to pour your own drink at dinner parties. So it’s best to pour everyone else’s drinks and then wait for someone else to pour yours.
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Japanese restaurants often give customers a moist towel, known as oshibori, to clean their hands before eating. Depending on the season, the towel will be cold or hot. Just don’t use it to clean your face or use it throughout the meal.
20. Non-Verbal Communication
For most Japanese people, non-verbal communication is an important part of social interactions. In Japan, facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language are all seen as influential on the tone of a conversation. Words can have various meanings, so Japanese people often observe non-verbal signals to work out what someone really means.
These interesting facts about Japan are just a taster of all there is to learn about the nation’s culture. In Japan, cutting-edge trends sit side by side with ancient traditions. This dynamic cultural mix is part of what makes it such an exciting country to explore.