Japan has a population of about 126 million (the eighth largest in the world), 75% of whom live in urban areas where population density is very high. In the industrial areas there is no discernible gap between cities. Yokohama and Tokyo, although separate in name, really make up a single urban metropolis – the largest in the world. Much of Japan however is very sparsely populated; there are large national parks and vast mountainous regions where the people’s way of life is unrecognizable from urban Japan. In order to protect Japan’s rice crops from cheaper foreign imports, rural lives are government protected, although for how long no one can be sure.
Be it in the sparsely populated countryside or in the large cities, Japan is still a country of remarkable ethnic and cultural consistency. Inhabitants of non-Japanese origin make up only just over 1% of the overall population. The vast majority of these are Koreans. The ancestry of the Japanese is a matter of much debate. The indigenous population of Hokkaido originally included a variety of ethnic groups, now collectively known as the Ainu. Many place names in Japan can be traced back to the Ainu language.
One striking thing about Japan is that amongst the young there is a whiff of rebellion in the air. Their parents were brought up with the promise of a job for life and worked day and night as the post-war bubble grew seemingly inevitably bigger. However, for the younger generation the bubble burst in the 80s crash and the old certainties no longer hold true. Add to this concoction, kids who have until now been denied nothing, who see no need to work the inflexible and long hours their parents did and the specter of rising unemployment and it is clear why dissatisfaction is growing. Symbolic of this is perhaps the furita, the twenty-somethings taking on a number of part time jobs and then going to Bali to escape for a month or two of surfing.
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Change is a slow process in Japan, a cultural reality not helped by the fact that politics are stagnant and the ruling LDP coalition has been in power for nearly all the post-war years. Economic problems and general dissatisfaction with the Japanese work miracle has meant an increase in crime. Having said all this, Japan is still a very wealthy and relatively extremely safe country.
Until the Japanese suffered crushing defeat at the hands of the US in World War II, Japanese religion focused around the figure of the Emperor, a living God, whose subjects saw themselves as part of a huge family of which all Japanese people were members. Alongside this State religion was a varied assortment of different Shinto and Buddhist sects, all combining to form a spiritual framework for the Japanese. Shinto was the religion of life, of living spirits (kami), who affected everyday living; Buddhism, on the other hand, was a religion of death, focusing on one’s ancestors and the life to come. These beliefs were supported through a calendar of ritual and an intricate web of social custom.
The defeat in war, however, shattered many people’s beliefs, as the voice of the Emperor was broadcast to the nation renouncing his deity.
The period since has seen a secularization of Japanese society almost as dramatic as the economic miracle which saw Japan’s post-war economy go into overdrive.
However, much of the rituals have survived the collapse of religious belief. Japanese religion has become, for the vast majority of Japanese, a thing of action, behavior which defines more their Japanese identity than any spirituality and something which at periodic times of festival, helps strengthen family and community ties.
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There are, of course, exceptions to this. The spiritual vacuum left by the Emperor’s renunciation was rapidly filled by many new religions which, with their rights enshrined in article 20 of the new constitution, sprang up across Japan. Mainly concentrated in urban areas, these religions offered worldly benefits such as good health, wealth, and good fortune. Many had charismatic Christ-like leaders who inspired a fanatical devotion in their followers. It is here that the roots of such famous ‘cults’ as the ‘Cult of the divine truth’, who perpetrated the Tokyo subway gas attack of 1996, can be found.
However, the vast majority of new religions are focused on peace and the attainment of happiness, although many Japanese who have no involvement appear suspicious of such organizations. Some of the new religions such as PL Kyoden (Public Liberty Kyoden) and Soka Gakkai have, however, become very much a part of the establishment in Japan, and it seems their role in politics and business is not to be underestimated.
Manners and custom are an important part of many facets of Japanese life. When you walk into a shop or restaurant you will often be greeted by a deep bow and the very polite expression (although often shouted) irrashaimase – meaning welcome or come in. These social conventions are often very different from those of Western people and can seem quite bewildering at first. A strict code of behavior and politeness is recognized and followed by almost all Japanese.
However, the Japanese are well aware of the complexity of their customs and often talk up the uniqueness of Japanese culture, and so they expect foreigners to stand out and not understand. It is customary to take off your shoes in the reception area when entering a Japanese house, some restaurants and hotels will also require you to do this – there is normally clearly a place to put your shoes.When meeting people you can bow, although shaking hands is quite common these days. You may well be given a business card, these meishi are used by businessmen and high school students alike.
When you address someone you should use the suffix san, so Mr. Suzuki becomes Suzuki-san. Before eating it is customary to put your hands together and say ‘ita-daki-masu’ (I will partake) and afterwards ‘gochi-so-sama-deshita’ (that was delicious).
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Gifts are very important in Japanese society and if you meet any Japanese you may well be given something, it’s a good idea to have some small trinkets form home to offer in exchange.
Sports are a big deal in Japan. It is said that the very origin of the Japanese race depended on the outcome of a Sumo match. Most large companies have various teams and exercises are done every morning in the office. At school, students attend club activities at the beginning and end of each day. Flamboyant players and outrageous managers fill the gossip columns and sports’ pages, and in case you forget your own need to exercise, there’s a National Sports day in October.
The most popular sport in Japan is not Japanese at all however; it’s professional baseball and was brought to Japan in 1873 by a US teacher. The players and etiquette however are very Japanese. Teams bow to each other before and after the matches and the emphasis is placed very much on team performance over individual talent. There are two professional baseball leagues in Japan – the Pacific League and the Central League; the 6 teams in each league compete for the pennant over a 10 month season which is followed by a playoff, the Japan Series, to decide the overall champions. Matches are played in the day and the evening.
Soccer in Japan, has been struggling to find a place in the nation’s heart lately. The one goal scored in open play against Jamaica in France ’98 did little to lift the gloom and attendance in the J-League, Japan’s professional division, has been falling since it was founded some 8 years ago. However, the national team has been making good progress, and of course, the imminent arrival of the 2002 World Cup carnival is sure to be a boost. Combine this with high profile Japanese players, such as Hidetoshi Nakata, beginning to secure places abroad and the future could be bright for Japanese soccer.
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In Japanese sports Sumo is the most popular and the wrestlers still command high celebrity status. In Sumo the basic idea is for each wrestler to force his foe out of the ring or onto the floor of the ring. It’s generally all over in a few seconds but watch carefully and there is immense skill and artistry in the wrestlers’ moves. There are six tournaments (basho) a year and it is well worth a visit.
Many Japanese restaurants specialize in one particular type of food. The best place to try Sushi and sashimi (slices of raw seafood dipped in soy sauce), is a kaiten-zushi bar. You sit round a conveyor belt and pick plates of it – you generally pay per plate eaten. But Japanese food does not stop with raw fish; other specialties include teriyaki, marinated beef/chicken/fish seared on a hot plate), sukiyaki (thin slices of beef, bean curd and vegetables cooked in soy sauce and then dipped in egg), and tempura (deep fried sea-food and vegetables).
There are also vegetarian options in Japan. Some of these options are; zaru soba (buck-wheat noodles served cold), a bowl of Udon (thick noodles) in a mountain vegetable soup, tofu steak or a vegetable okonomiyaki (savory pancake), or natto, this is a sticky and slightly smelly concoction made of fermented soya beans. If you want a more general selection, then the best place to go is an Izakaya (Japanese pub) where you will find an extensive and pretty cheap choice of food and drink. Izakaya often offer tabehodai or nomihodai – for a set price you get an hour or two to eat or drink as much as you like.
Choosing exactly what to eat is made easier by well illustrated menus or plastic food displays at the doorway. Western and Oriental foods are widely available in Japan. From a country that survived on a diet of mainly fish and vegetables just over a century ago, Japan has reached the stage where there is a steak house or McDonalds on nearly every corner. Italian and Indian restaurants abound too, as well as some very good Chinese and Korean places. For a late night snack, a Ramen bar is a good bet, these can be found serving up steaming bowls of Chinese noodles, Japanese style, in various broth, until very late at night.
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Japan is a country of drinkers – and there are a few rituals that must be considered. Never pour a drink for yourself; your friend or host should do this for you and you in turn should keep your companions’ glasses filled. A word that is heard quite often is kampai – this means ‘cheers’ in Japanese. While Sake (rice wine) is the national drink of Japan, beer (pronounced beer-rue in Japanese) is the most popular.
A wide variety of alco-pops called Chu-hai are available. Get them from a Konbini (convenience store) such as Lawson’s, Circle K or Family Mart, or in a restaurant or bar. Chu-hai is made from Shochu, a distilled spirit, which can be bought neat although this is not advised. Whisky is very popular amongst Japanese men – Scotch is considered the best and is highly sort after.