Japanese Culture

Core Concepts

  • Regional Character (Kenminsei)
  • Formality
  • Face (Menboku)
  • Politeness
  • Pragmatism
  • Pacifism
  • Artistry

Japan is an island country located in the northeast Pacific Ocean. Since the 1950s, the country has emerged as one of the most economically and technologically advanced societies in the world. This development has occurred alongside the continuation of intricate and longstanding cultural traditions. For example, modern buildings and high-rises can be found next to historical structures, temples and shrines. The historical trading route that ran from Tōkyō to Kyōto (known as Tōkaidō) continues to be heavily travelled, albeit on high-speed railroad lines and express highways. While the country develops and manufactures many of the world’s modern appliances and gadgets, families continue to pass on the skills and techniques of long-practised crafts through generations. This relationship between the past and future has become a globally recognised feature of Japanese culture and society.


Japanese culture is often stereotyped as homogenous, although there are multiple aspects of Japanese culture and society that are diverse. In particular, many take pride in their place of birth and the regional differences throughout Japan. Nonetheless, common themes found throughout Japanese culture include a sense of identity based on social groups and place of birth, a polite and humble style of communication, a pragmatic approach to situations and challenges, as well as an appreciation and enjoyment of artistic activities and forms of entertainment.


Geography and Landscapes

There are five main island groups that form Japan: Hokkaidō, Honshū, Shikoku, Kyūshū and Okinawa (also known as Ryūkyū Islands). Each region is geographically, historically and culturally distinct, particularly the northernmost island of Hokkaidō and the southernmost island cluster of Okinawa. Japan’s climate is generally monsoonal, governed by wet and dry seasonal winds. However, the country is home to numerous local climatic variations, ranging from heavy snowfall and sub-zero winter temperatures in Hokkaidō to the humid subtropical climate of Okinawa. These local variations of climate have influenced regional diversity in landscapes and material culture, such as cuisine and clothing. Japan is also home to approximately 1,500 volcanos, which have contributed to the common occurrence of earthquakes and other natural disasters.


Nature and landscapes play an important role throughout Japanese culture. For example, local animals (such as tanuki, bears and foxes) are often symbolic to a region’s identity and are woven through narratives in popular culture. Certain flora and fauna are also associated with the seasons; the summer rain occurring through June and July is commonly referred to as baiu (plum rain) as it is the time when plums ripen. Similarly, sakura (cherry blossom trees) are often associated with the coming of spring, while momiji (maple trees) signify autumn. Seasonal blossom viewing is a popular cultural activity for both locals and tourists. While cherry blossom viewing in the springtime is most famous (in part due to the short-lived bloom of the flowers), other seasonal trees and flowers are celebrated across the year.


Urbanisation and Space

Many of Japan’s cities have an extensive history that can still be seen through architecture and city layouts. For instance, the old imperial capitals of Kyōto and Nara have largely retained their historical layout as a castle town. Almost all major cities were heavily damaged during World War II, which led to reconstruction of older structures, as well as new housing built in Western architectural styles. The large-scale industrialisation of the country in the post-war period led to mass urban migration. As a result, contemporary Japan is heavily urbanised, with approximately 91.8% of the population residing in urban areas located by the coastline or in the Kantō Plain.1 The country’s capital Tōkyō, located in east-central Honshū, is one of the world’s most populous cities (approximately 37 million).2


A common characteristic of Japanese cities is the diverse use of land, due to the absence of strict zoning in urban cities. For instance, an urban district may contain small shops, residential and office buildings, factories and green spaces all within walking distance. Some rural and regional towns and villages have retained traditional features, such as autonomous and cooperative agricultural practices. Nonetheless, such traditions are often combined with modern farming practices and employment diversification. With only approximately 12% of the land suitable for agriculture,3 most villages maintain commercial activities with nearby towns. Many who reside in regional areas temporarily or permanently move to urban areas for education and employment while others may commute weekly or seasonally to urban centres for industrial work.


The movement between regional and urban centres is facilitated by Japan’s highly developed and expansive transportation and communication networks. This connects some of the most remote regions to the rest of the country. Many of Japan’s regional hubs and major urban centres (such as Tōkyō, Nagoya, Ōsaka, Kyōto, Hiroshima and Fukuoka) are linked by shinkansen, which is colloquially known in English as the ‘bullet train’. In the past few decades, the widespread transportation system has helped facilitate the popularity of local tourism. It has also enabled people who cannot live in the inner-city to commute daily to work, though it is common for commuters to travel up to two hours each way.


Nihonjinron and Diversity

Japan and its culture has often been portrayed as ‘unique’ and ‘homogenous’ in public discourse, often to evoke a sense of nationalism.4 This rhetoric, in turn, has informed many foreign stereotypes by outsiders. These ideas imply that Japanese people and society are completely homogeneous, and that the cultural characteristics that define the country are unique to Japan. The notion of Japan’s uniqueness and homogeneity as well as the literature on the topic is often referred to as nihonjinron, meaning “theories of Japanese-ness”. Though there are different strands and aspects of nihonjinron, such ideas commonly portray Japan as an ethnically homogenous and egalitarian society, and presume people share the same characteristics, behaviours and attitudes. These unique characteristics of Japanese people are seen as ‘mysterious’ and elusive, echoing Orientalist and essentialist ideas and stereotypes. Such ideas and theories have been explored since World War II, but became particularly popular in the late 20th century.5


Though overt expressions of nihonjinron have lessened over the last couple of decades, it is not uncommon for Japanese people to encounter such attitudes from other Japanese (especially from the government) and non-Japanese. However, many observations indicate Japan is more diverse and heterogeneous than theories of nihonjinron suggest.6 For instance, there are many historical differences between the various regions of Japan that continue today. The country is also home to a number of indigenous and ethnic communities, such as the Ainu, Ryūkyūan and Koreans. Lifestyles in Japan vary across many different aspects of society, particularly between urban and rural settings. Thus, it is important to be mindful of assumptions that present Japanese culture and society as unusually unique or completely homogenous.


Regional Identity and Differences

Cultural diversity is highly noticeable across the different regions of Japan, each of which have their own distinct identity, cultural practices and traditions. Japan is divided into forty-seven prefectures (local government areas) that form the basis of these regional identities. Each prefecture varies in terms of size and political structure, and oversees matters relating to labour, health, education, social welfare, land preservation and development, as well as disaster prevention and control.


Historically, regional differences generally occurred across economic, political, social and cultural lines. However, many of these aspects of society are now monitored and standardised at the national level. This standardisation, along with the highly urbanised nature of contemporary Japan and extensive transportation and telecommunications networks, has led to regional differences becoming less pronounced. As such, today most distinctions usually relate to social and cultural practices (e.g. food, art, language, clothing). For example, the Kantō region (Tōkyō and surrounding areas) and the Kansai region (Ōsaka, Kyōto and surrounding areas) were once seen as economic, political and cultural competitors. While there is still a sense of competitiveness, most contemporary differences between the two major urban hubs relate more so to language, cuisine and architecture. Moreover, there are considerable variations within regions and prefectures.


Nonetheless, Japanese people often have a sense of pride associated with their prefecture. Thus, it is not uncommon to hear someone speak of a regional or prefectural character (kenminsei), rather than a Japanese national character (nihonkokuminsei).7 The identity and culture of a prefecture is often symbolised through an aspect of material culture, such as local cuisine, dialects, distinctive folk crafts and traditional performing arts. Regions are commonly associated with a famous local product created with locally sourced resources or unique industries to the area, such as ceramics, tools or handicrafts. Sometimes, regional identity is also connected to personality traits or social characteristics and attitudes. For instance, those from Tōkyō are sometimes considered to be more formal and hierarchical, while those from Ōsaka are oftentimes seen as informal and pragmatic.8


Ethnic and Linguistic Composition

Japan is a fairly ethnically and linguistically homogeneous society, with the majority of the population being ethnic Japanese (Yamoto). Similarly, the official and most commonly spoken language is Japanese (Nihongo). Spoken and written forms of Japanese are standardised throughout the country, largely due to the creation of a national education system and the use in government and business communication. Standardised Japanese is based on the dialect spoken in Tōkyō. However, there are varying dialects and linguistic peculiarities across different ethnic groups and regions. Speakers of regional and local dialects can often understand one another, though certain words or phrases may be incomprehensible. Older generations tend to speak in their regional dialects. People may also have distinctive accents depending on which part of Japan they are from.


There are also a number of ethnically or culturally distinct groups in Japan, such as the indigenous Ainu and Ryūkyūan populations, as well as ethnic Koreans. These groups have an extensive history in Japan yet continue to face numerous unique challenges as minority groups, being relatively small in terms of population size. The Japanese census does not record data on the ethnic composition of the population, but rather by nationality (see Nationality and Citizenship). Nonetheless, the following provides a brief overview of Japan’s ethnic groups.


Japanese (Yamato)

The term ‘Japanese’ is often used to refer to the dominant ethnic group in Japan. There are various Japanese and English terms used to refer to those who are ethnically Japanese, such as Yamato, Nihonjin, ‘ethnic Japanese’, ‘Japanese people’ or simply ‘Japanese’. Those who are ethnically Japanese make up the overwhelming majority of the population. Some people consider the Ainu and Ryūkyūan indigenous groups as ethically Japanese yet genetically distinct from the Yamato. However, others may not necessarily accept this categorisation. Most of the information in this cultural summary describes Yamato cultural practices.


Ainu

The Ainu are an indigenous people who mostly reside in the northernmost island of Hokkaidō, with some residing in northern Honshū and the Sakhalin and Kuril islands in Russia. Estimates suggest that there are approximately 24,000 Ainu in Japan.9 Though previously living throughout northern Japan, the expansion of Japanese settlement throughout the past millennium pushed the Ainu further northward until the government of the Meiji period (1868-1912) confined them to Hokkaidō.10 Consequently, the last two centuries has seen the Ainu population significantly dwindle due to diseases and low birth rates.11 Many aspects of traditional Ainu culture have largely disappeared and only a small number are fluent in the Ainu language, which is classified as ‘critically endangered’.12 Attempts to preserve the Ainu language have mainly been through poetry and songs passed down orally over generations. Though the Ainu people have widely adapted their lifestyles to Japanese mainstream society, many have sought to recover lost cultural traditions.13


The view of Japan as an ethnically homogenous society has seen the Ainu face challenges in gaining social and legal recognition as an ethnically distinct and indigenous people. Ainu also encounter economic and social marginalisation, such as access to education, employment opportunities, hate speech, and inter-ethnic marriage. Progress in recent years has sought to address the marginalisation of the Ainu.14 For example, a new act passed in 2019 that formally acknowledges the Ainu as an indigenous people and attempts to adopt proactive measures that support and protect Ainu cultural identity.15


Ryūkyūan

The Ryūkyūan (also referred to as Okinawans) are another ethnic group of Japan that reside primarily in the southernmost island cluster of Okinawa (also known as Ryūkyū Islands). The Ryūkyūan comprises several groups with distinct languages and cultural practices. The exact numbers of those who identify as Ryūkyūan in Japan are unknown. However there are approximately 1.4 million residents throughout Okinawa,16 most of whom are indigenous Ryūkyūan (although there has been some migration of ethnic Japanese to these islands). There are also large Okinawan diaspora communities in Brazil, Peru, Argentina and Hawai’i.17


The distinctive climate and geographical distance of the Ryūkyū Islands from the main islands of Japan led Ryūkyūans to develop distinctive political, cultural and religious traditions, as well as unique languages.18 While Ryūkyūan languages and Japanese are thought to have common origins, the former is incomprehensible to Japanese visitors.19 The various local languages in Okinawa, such as Uchināguchi, Amami, Miyako, Yaeyama and Yonaguni are all recognised as ‘severely’ or ‘definitely’ endangered languages.20 Many Ryūkyūans seek to affirm their heritage and culture through a number of ways. For instance, aspects of traditional Ryūkyūan culture are often celebrated and shared through cuisine and music.


It is widely believed that Ryūkyūans are indigenous to Japan. However, the Japanese government does not formally recognise the status of Okinawans as indigenous people.21 There have been tensions between Ryūkyūans and Japanese (particularly the government) since World War II, mainly due to the immense loss of Okinawans during the war and the United States’ subsequent occupation of Okinawa until 1972.22 The US has had a continued military presence on the main island of Okinawa since, with up to 75% of US military bases in Japan located on Okinawa Island.23 These military bases occupy up to 20% of the land, much of which was historically used for agricultural purposes.24


Korean

Koreans make up the second largest ethnic group in Japan, with estimates suggesting approximately one million Korean permanent residents or citizens reside in the country.25 Many live around major industrial and economic centres, such as Ōsaka and Tōkyō. The presence of a large ethnically Korean population in Japan reflects an extensive and complex history between the two regions, particularly during the early to mid-twentieth century. Japan’s colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945 saw hundreds of thousands of Koreans relocate to Japan to work as labourers in various industries, such as mining and construction.26 This migration was particularly high during World War II as many Korean men and women were drafted to participate and aid in Japan’s war efforts.27 By 1945, there were approximately 2.3 million Koreans living in Japan. Nearly three-quarters returned to Korea within the first six months after the end of World War II, while approximately 600,000 chose to remain.28


Those Koreans who remained in Japan faced discrimination and significant barriers, particularly regarding citizenship. Many were faced with the choice to either renounce their Korean citizenship in order to become Japanese citizens, or remain as Korean citizens residing in Japan. This choice continues to impact ethnic Koreans in Japan today. Some families who accepted Japanese citizenship have assimilated into society and adopted Japanese names. However, there is an overwhelming number of Koreans permanently residing in Japan who do not have Japanese citizenship – often described as zainichi Koreans (‘Koreans staying in Japan’). They often encounter discrimination in employment and promotions, accessing social welfare, exercising civil and political rights as well as social stigmas and stereotypes.29 Some may use Japanese names as a way to avoid social discrimination.30


Experiences and attitudes within the Korean community tend to differ among generations. The first generation has generally remained committed and loyal to their home country and their identity as Korean. They make up a smaller proportion of the Korean community yet continue to have considerable influence over Korean organisations in Japan. Many may maintain hope of eventually returning to Korea. Second- and third-generation Koreans tend to experience more ambivalence about their relationship to Korean and Japanese culture. Many have struggled to retain their Korean identity, having limited knowledge of the Korean language, history and culture. Simultaneously, many have studied in Japanese educational institutions, speak Japanese as their first language and intend to live in Japan permanently.


Nationality and Citizenship

Nationality and citizenship status is a common focal point in Japan’s public discourse due to the lack of official data on ethnicity. The Japanese census does not record data on the ethnic composition of the population, but rather by nationality. This means that all Japanese citizens (naturalised or by ancestry) are recorded as “Japanese”, regardless of their ethnic identity.


Further, Japanese law adopts an ancestral rather than territorial principle of nationality. This means citizenship is determined according to whether an individual has at least one parent who is a Japanese citizen, rather than according to the nation of one’s birth.31 As such, children of foreign nationals born in Japan cannot obtain Japanese citizenship (unless becoming naturalised).32 Meanwhile, children born to a parent who is a Japanese national automatically become Japanese citizens at birth, regardless of where they are born. This has implications for certain ethnic groups. For example, those without Japanese citizenship cannot register themselves or their family in the koseki (family registration system), which distinguishes them from Japanese citizens.33


Historical Transitions and Current Attitudes

Imperial Japan and World War II

Historical events that occurred over the last century have had profound cultural, societal, political and economic effects throughout the whole of Japan. In 1868, the Meiji Restoration instated imperial rule over Japan, marking the beginning of the historical Japanese empire (referred to as the ‘Empire of Japan’ or ‘Imperial Japan)’. This was a time known for massive reforms, such as rapid industrialisation and the end of the societal dominance of the warrior class (samurai). The state was headed by the Emperor who was deemed as ‘sacred and inviolable’ and held supreme command over the military.


By the early 20th century, Imperial Japan had annexed land from surrounding territories, including Taiwan (1895), the Korean Peninsula (1910) and parts of China (1931). The country declared war against the United States and the United Kingdom in 1941 amongst growing international concerns of its expansion and increasing military strength. This marked the beginning of the four-year-long Pacific War (1941-1945),  fought between the Allied Forces against Japan as part of World War II throughout the Pacific Ocean, East Asia, Southeast Asia and Oceania. The numerous and complex battles that occurred saw mass casualties and destruction throughout the region.


Much of the devastation within Japan occurred in the lead-up to the end of the war in 1945. Massive air raids over dozens of Japanese cities saw widespread destruction of many factories and homes, many of which were built of inflammable materials like wood and plaster structures, causing the fires to spread rapidly. The air raid in Tokyō alone killed 80,000 and left nearly one million homeless.35 The most catastrophic event occurred when the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were hit with atomic bombs on August 6th and 9th respectively. The combination of the heat and blast reduced everything in the immediate vicinity of the explosion into cinders or rubble, and caused spontaneous fires to break out some distance away. Hundreds of thousands either died, were immediately injured, or subsequently suffered from the effects of radiation poisoning.36 Two weeks later, Imperial Japan formally surrendered, thus marking the end of the Pacific War.


Post-War Rebuilding

The casualties of the Pacific War were enormous for all countries and regions involved. Estimates suggest three million Japanese people, including up to 800,000 civilians, were killed due to military action, and hundreds of thousands more from disease and starvation.37 Approximately 30% of Japan’s entire urban population lost their homes, and 66 Japanese cities saw 40% of their built-up areas destroyed.38 The cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki also suffered the lasting damage caused by the atomic explosions and subsequent radiation. Much of the population became disillusioned with the cultural and social frameworks of pre-war and wartime Japan.


From 1945 to 1952, Japan was occupied by the Allied Forces under the command of US General Douglas MacArthur. The early postwar years brought a massive overhaul to Japan’s political and economic structures, as well as large-scale rebuilding of the country’s urban centres. The 1889 Meiji Constitution was heavily revised, and the new Japanese constitution came into effect in 1947. Though Japan remained a constitutional monarchy, Shintō was removed as the state religion and the Emperor renounced both his divinity and political power. His function became mainly one of ceremonial and symbolic purposes. Democratic principles such as universal suffrage were also enacted, and all territories annexed after 1895 were returned. Constitutional reforms were followed by economic reforms, particularly in agricultural land distribution and the reinstatement of trade unions.39 Such economic reforms helped the country rapidly develop to eventually become one of the world’s leading economies (see Social Stratification and Education).


Pacifist Attitudes

One area of reform that continues to influence contemporary Japanese society is the demilitarisation of the country. Article 9 of the Constitution states that Japan has forever renounced war as a sovereign right of the nation, international disputes would not be settled through threat or the use of force, and armed forces with war potential will not be maintained.40 These constitutional reforms to Japan’s military and the introduction of a pacifist foreign policy approach was widely welcomed by the population. Since then, much of Japan’s national identity has centered on a discourse of peace and pacifism, which can be found in politics, media, schools and other public institutions (especially museums) across the country.41 One example is how official documents representing Japan often describe the country as a ‘peace nation’ (heiwa kokka).42


Pacifist attitudes are also prevalent throughout the population.43 For example, one survey found that, when asked whether Japan should play a more active military role in the Asia-Pacific region, just over two-thirds (68%) wanted Japan to limit its military activity.44 Attempts to reinterpret or amend Article 9 of the Constitution often lead to rigorous public debates. Part of the debate centres on the creation of the Japan Self-Defence Forces (JSDF) in 1954. Originally, the Japan Self-Defence Forces were never to be used outside Japan. However, subsequent participation of Japan in UN peacekeeping missions or disaster relief work has been controversial both in Japan and abroad, particularly among countries that were victims of Japanese aggression during the Pacific War (see Other Considerations).


Views on the hypothetical amendment of Article 9 vary on a scale ranging from pacifists who believe Article 9 should be maintained and the Japan Self-Defence Forces is unconstitutional, to nationalists who believe Japan should revise Article 9 to allow the country to remilitarise and build nuclear capabilities.45 However, despite public debates and diversity of views, many Japanese tend to lean more towards maintaining a pacifist stance. For instance, a recent public opinion poll found that 69% of respondents oppose a revision to Article 9, with just over three-quarters (76.2%) of those believing that the article made a significant contribution to peace and stability.46


Social Stratification and Education

Japan has experienced rapid economic growth since overhauls to its economic structure in the post-war era. Today, it is the third largest industrialised market economy,47 and one of the world’s leading countries in manufacturing (particularly automobiles, electronics, machinery and tools, optical and precision equipment, and chemicals).48 Japan also has one of the largest consumer markets,49 with just under two-thirds (65%) of the working population falling within the middle-income class bracket.50 Overall, household inequalities tend to be less pronounced in Japan than in other developed countries.51 However, there are socioeconomic differences that often vary between ethnic groups, social classes and rural-urban regions.


Lower socioeconomic classes in Japan are commonly associated with those employed in unskilled, low-paying jobs and manual or physically demanding labour. Such forms of employment are often referred to as the three undesirable Ks: kitanai (dirty), kitsui (difficult) and kiken (dangerous).52 Japan’s rapidly ageing population has led to shortages in the workforce available to undertake these physical jobs. As such, they have become increasingly undertaken by foreign workers over the past twenty years, as well as the burakumin.53


The burakumin are one of the largest minority groups in Japan, thought to have an ancestral connection to the lowest social class during the feudal period (1185-1600 CE). Traditionally, their occupations related to impure (kegare) tasks, such as butchers and leatherworkers. Burakumin are not racially or ethnically different from Japanese and there are no biological differences or other means of distinguishing them. Rather, the ‘status’ of burakumin is assumed from the location of one’s family home or occupation. Estimates suggest there are between one to three million burakumin in Japan.54 Ongoing prejudice has seen many live in secluded communities under relative impoverishment.55 They can also face significant challenges and discrimination in education attainment, employment opportunities and marriage.56 In recent years, there have been efforts made to help reduce such social stigmatism and prejudice.57


Education is highly valued in Japan and is viewed as an important means of social and economic mobility. This can be seen in the level of educational performance and attainment. For instance, Japan is consistently one of the highest performing nations in mathematics, science and reading literacy among the OECD countries.58 Moreover, approximately 62% of those between the ages of 25 to 34 had a tertiary degree in 2019, compared to the OECD average of 44.9%.59 A university or college degree is the usual prerequisite for most middle-class occupations. Some companies restrict recruitment to graduates of specific universities, which adds to the pressure of gaining entrance into the country’s most prestigious institutions. However, academic expectations tend to be less strenuous at university or college, especially since graduation from the country’s top universities often leads students into high-paying companies.


Uchi-Soto Groups and Hierarchy

Social hierarchies play an important role in Japanese culture, often influencing social behaviour and communication. People tend to be highly attentive to the social status and relation of the person they are speaking with, as this dictates the honorific expressions and levels of respectful speech (keigo) used in Japanese conversation. Similarly, etiquette and behaviour shows deference to these social ranks. For example, it is customary for the most senior member of the family (typically the father or grandfather) to partake in activities such as bathing or eating first, followed by the rest of the family in order of seniority.


The way these hierarchies operate may also be influenced by the level of familiarity one has to a person. Indeed, people tend to draw a distinction between those they consider part of their inner circle (the in-group) and those they do not (the out-group). This is commonly expressed through the related concepts of uchi (‘inside’) and soto (‘outside’), a foundational concept in Japanese customs and sociolinguistics. Such categories extend past one’s personal relationships and social groups to all aspects of life. For instance, an individual may consider their work colleagues 'uchi' and competing companies 'soto'. The uchi-soto distinction often determines the way someone behaves and conducts themselves around other people, as well as the kind of respectful speech they use to communicate to others (see Verbal in Communication).


As a broad generalisation, one usually shows more politeness and respect to those from outside groups (soto) that they want to impress. For example, a visitor to the household (considered soto) will be given precedence over the most senior member of the family (considered uchi, the in-group). Nonetheless, uchi-soto distinctions and social hierarchies are often very fluid, as categories may overlap and change over time. They may also vary depending on the social context or different identity markers (e.g. gender, age, ethnicity, nationality). Indeed, Japan is considered to be not as rigidly hierarchical as most of its neighbouring cultures.60 One example is the consensus-based decision making process found in government and corporate businesses, known as nemawashi (see Decision Making, Nemawashi and Hierarchy in Business Culture).


Face (Menboku), Collectivism and Harmony (Wa)

Behaviour and communication in Japan tends to be informed by the concept of face (menboku). As a concept found in many Asian cultures, ‘face’ refers to a person’s reputation, pride and honour, and can be saved or lost depending on the circumstances. As such, individuals tend to act and communicate in a deliberate manner and with restraint in order to maintain their face. Part of the motivation to act appropriately is not only self-reputation, but also the consequence an individual’s behaviour may have on their collective group.


Japanese society is generally collectivistic, whereby people often view themselves and others as members of a collective unit or group (whether it be uchi or soto groups, a family group or a broader social group). In this sense, members of a group hold collective responsibility (rentai sekinin) for the performance and actions of an individual.61 For instance, if one or a few members of the group indulge in poor behaviour, all others are collectively blamed. In turn, harmony (wa) is an important part of interpersonal relationships. As a cultural concept, harmony implies a sense of unity and conformity within a group, whereby interdependence may be emphasised over independence.


However, individualist attitudes are also prevalent in Japanese culture. Gradual social changes to the kinship system and community has seen individuals more closely connected to their inner circle than their extended groups.62 Moreover, individuals are often not only defined by their interactions and associations with others, but also through their individual personality. The individuality of people, especially those who seem sincere and hardworking, is often celebrated.63 Meanwhile, those who act out of self-interest without regard for others are frowned upon. The presence of both collectivist and individualist attitudes in Japanese culture means that it is often seen as collectivist from the perspective of the English-speaking West, and individualist from the perspective of neighbouring Asian cultures.64


Uncertainty Avoidance and Pragmatism

According to Hofstede Insights, Japan has one of the most uncertainty avoidant cultures in the world (with a score of 92 out of 100).65 This means people tend to be more comfortable with consistency and predictability, and look to create rules and social conventions that reduce ambiguity in situations. Japan’s uncertainty avoidance is partly attributed to the constant threat of natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons, which require people to be prepared for such contingencies. However, it also extends to other aspects of society.


Indeed, Japan is also a high context culture, meaning people share a complex body of 'understood' values and experiences that inform daily interaction. As such, daily life is prescribed by many implicit norms and social rules governing conduct and behaviour. This is especially evident when considering the various expectations of etiquette (see Etiquette). For instance, punctuality is the norm for meetings, appointments and visits. This expectation is carried through to services, such as public transport arriving exactly at the expected time. Such norms maintain the social order and remove ambiguity surrounding how one should behave across different contexts.


As part of mitigating uncertainty, it is common to find people adopting pragmatic approaches to situations. People often avoid limiting themselves to finding the ‘right solution’ to a situation, but rather seek out a variety of approaches and consider innovative or different ideas.


Artistic and Literary Culture

Artistry and literature have played an important role in Japanese culture for centuries. Today, many Japanese support, appreciate and participate in artistic culture, regardless of the form it takes. The government also encourages artistic endeavours (particularly of traditional arts) through the support and patronage of institutions such as schools, museums and libraries. Great effort is made to preserve traditional arts and crafts, with many being designated as mukei bunkazai (‘intangible cultural property’) and particular artists or important figures of artistry regarded as ningen kokuhō (‘living national treasures’).


The types and forms of art enjoyed throughout the country are diverse. For example, European artistic forms (such as classical and orchestral music) are popular and there are various institutions that allow for people to pursue careers as professional classical musicians. Japan is also one of the world’s leading manufacturers of classical instruments. Traditional Japanese forms of art are also widely celebrated. For instance, performance art such as puppet theatre (bunraku) and stylised dramas (noh and kabuki) are still enjoyed by many, while fine art such as calligraphy (shodō), woodblock printing (ukiyo-e), paper folding (origami) and ceramics continue to be circulated and practised, gaining global popularity. Other traditional cultural activities like the tea ceremony (sadō), flowering arranging (ikebana) and growing miniature trees (bonsai) are often viewed as art forms and can take years of training.


Much of Japan’s contemporary artistry, especially film and television, literature and music, have been developed from older artistic and literary traditional art forms. Japanese artistic endeavours over the last few decades have made major contributions to global contemporary art, especially in the fields of architecture, graphic design, textiles and fashion. In particular, Japanese artists continually play a major role in the development of video games and animation (anime), both of which are widely enjoyed both in Japan and abroad.


Reading is one of the most consumed forms of entertainment throughout the country. For example, newspapers are still widely influential despite readership declining in favour of more digital forms of media and news.66 Although the sale of books and magazines has declined in favour of electronic versions, Japan continues to be one of the world’s biggest publishers of books and translated works. Another particularly popular medium that has gained worldwide popularity are comics or graphic novels (manga). Produced in a variety of genres, manga is read by people of all ages in Japan, especially among salary workers during their commute to work.


1 Central Intelligence Agency, 2020

2 Central Intelligence Agency, 2020

3 World Bank, 2016

4 Brown, 2017

5 Brown, 2017

6 Sugimoto, 2021

7 Sugimoto, 2021

8 Sugimoto, 2021

9 Minority Rights Group International, 2018a

10 Dolan & Worden, 1994

11 Dolan & Worden, 1994

12 Moseley, 2010

13 Minority Rights Group International, 2018a

14 Minority Rights Group International, 2018a

15 Minority Rights Group International, 2018a; Umeda, 2019

16 Center for Okinawan Studies, 2010

17 Fukasawa, 2015; Center for Okinawan Studies, 2010

18 Minority Rights Group International, 2018d

19 Minority Rights Group International, 2018d

20 Moseley, 2010

21 Minority Rights Group International, 2018d

22 Ray, 2020

23 Hein & Selden, 2003

24 Minority Rights Group International, 2018d

25 Minority Rights Group International, 2018c

26 Sugimoto, 2021; Minority Rights Group International, 2018c

27 Minority Rights Group International, 2018c; Lee & Lew, 2020

28 Sugimoto, 2021; Minority Rights Group International, 2018c

29 Sugimoto, 2021; Minority Rights Group International, 2018c

30 Tamura, 2003

31 Sugimoto, 2021; Ministry of Justice, 2008

32 Ministry of Justice, 2008

33 Sugimoto, 2021

34 The Constitution of the Empire of Japan, 1889

35 Ray, 2017

36 Ray, 2017

37 Ishikida, 2005

38 Ray, 2017

39 Dolan & Worden, 1994

40 The Constitution of Japan, 1947. Chapter II Article 9

41 Hashimoto, 2017

42 Hashimoto, 2017

43 Ishikida, 2005

44 Pew Research Center, 2015

45 Hirata, 2008

46 The Japan Times, 2020

47 International Monetary Fund, 2021

48 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2021b

49 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2021b

50 OECD, 2019c

51 OECD, 2019b

52 Connell, 1993

53 Connell, 1993; Sugimoto, 2021

54 Minority Rights Group International, 2018b

55 Sugimoto, 2021

56 Minority Rights Group International, 2018b; Kobayakawa, 2020

57 Minority Rights Group International, 2018b; Sugimoto, 2021

58 OECD, 2019a

59 OECD, 2021

60 Hofstede Insights, 2020

61 Sugimoto, 2021

62 Sugimoto, 2021

63 Dolan & Worden, 1994

64 Dolan & Worden, 1994

65 Hofstede Insights, 2020

66 Sawa, 2019

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