Essential Etiquette in Japan for Foreigners

Essential Etiquette in Japan for Foreigners

Japanese mannerisms are abundant, and some might say that there are a bit too many to remember in a short period of time for those travelling to the country for just a short trip.

In our Season 10 Episode 7 of the Nihongo Master Podcast, this special long mid-season episode is for those in a rush to get into the minimal Japanese manners mode for that week-long Japan trip we all hope to be on this year (like finally). 

Public Manners

The first category of mannerisms for travellers we’re going to touch on is public manners. How you act in public is a tad different from what you might be used to. The concept of “public” and “private” in Japan can be quite different from other cultures, so if you don’t exactly know if it’s a private or public space, just treat it as public just to be safe.

As unspoken rules are a big thing and everyone abides by them in Japanese culture, we loop you in on the 5 most important ones.

1. Keep volume down

The first one is to keep your volume down in public spaces. The Japanese people are really mindful of their space, especially when out in public. Speaking in a high volume is not encouraged in Japan, as you would affect others around you. This is seen as respecting the space that you share with other strangers.

When you’re with a group of people, try your very best to keep your volume down, especially on public transport. Even when you’re alone, you’re expected to not blast music too loud on your headphones, as this might disturb the person next to you. You’ll hear announcements to turn your phone to “mana mo-do” which is silent mode, when on trains. 

2. Queuing

The next unspoken rule in public spaces is the queuing system. The Japanese love their queues – they queue for the ramen shop, outside of a store before it opens, and even for the escalators and lifts! Evenon street pavements and public transport platforms, there are signs to indicate which side to stick to or where to queue so as to not cross paths and walk into each other. 

Follow the queue system for everything in Japan. Fall in line and you won’t have to dodge people’s shoulders like it’s a game of dodgeball.

3. Stop to eat and drink

The third rule of this category is to not eat and drink while walking on the streets. This is because when you do this, it’s considered as disrespecting others walking in the same area as you, so don’t drink or eat on the trains either.

Now this raises the question, what if you’re hungry or thirsty? Japan is scattered with convenience stores and vending machines, and the Japanese would eat or drink there and then. You’ll notice that they would be standing outside the store and finishing their food before walking. This is the same for cans from the vending machines. Finish up your food or drink before continuing walking. 

Indoor Manners

You might think you wouldn’t need this, because you think you wouldn’t be in someone’s house during your time in Japan, but trust me, this also applies to ryokan (旅館, traditional Japanese hotels) and events like tea ceremonies. 

1. Leave your shoes at the door

The first one is a crucial one to remember whenever entering any indoor space, and that is to leave your shoes at the door! Some of us come from cultures and countries where it’s normal to wear your outdoor shoes in your house, but in Japan, there’s a very clear distinction between outside and inside. If you don’t know if you need to take them off, ask a staff member. You could also observe the people around you to see if they’re taking off their shoes. 

Oftentimes, when entering an indoor space, you will find an entrance area. This bit is considered as ‘outside’, even though you’re indoors, and it’s where you remove or put back on your outdoor shoes. The indoor space is usually elevated and can be covered by a different type of flooring, so that’s your best way to differentiate the two. 

2. Wear socks if possible

Wear socks if possible, because they’ll be on display quite a bit. Some places don’t offer indoor slippers, and the Japanese believe that having socks on in the house is better than bare feet so as to not carry dust around. 

One time you should definitely consider wearing socks is when you’re visiting a traditional indoor space. Say, for example, you’re going to a traditional tea ceremony in Japan. Most of the time these events take place in a tatami mat room, and it’s better to walk on tatami with socks so as to not damage the flooring.

3. Bathroom slippers

The third rule for indoor spaces is to take note of bathroom slippers. Sometimes in bathrooms, there will be bathroom slippers offered. In this case, leave your house slippers (if you have them on) outside the bathroom and switch for the bathroom slippers when you enter. Don’t forget to switch back after you’re done.

Visiting Holy Grounds

Moving on to the third category of Japanese mannerisms for travellers, and that’s when you’re visiting holy grounds. There are a lot of temples and shrines in Japan — so many that you might even find yourself on holy ground without even realising! 

1. Don’t touch

The first rule of this category is don’t touch anything. I know, curiosity kills the cat, but refrain from mindlessly touching things you don’t know about on holy grounds. If there’s something on holy grounds that looks unique and intriguing, it’s because it’s meant to be there for a purpose, and that’s not for you to touch. You can admire something’s beauty without having your fingerprints all over them!

But of course, there are also things that you can touch, and oftentimes there are signs to signal that you can. 

2. Ask if you don’t know

The next thing to remember when visiting holy grounds is that it’s okay to ask if you don’t know something. In fact, I recommend asking. Say for example you want to know if something is okay to touch — we’re linking it to the first point here — go up to any official staff worker on premises and ask them. 

In smaller, more local temples and shrines, there aren’t that many signs that explain things, so I found myself always asking if I could enter a space, or if I should take off my shoes. Basically any question you have in your head, it’s so much better to get that clarified instead of wandering around and potentially misstepping. 

3. Behave respectfully

Now the last rule, the general rule, is to behave respectfully. The first two points actually fall under this one, because if you think about it, the reasoning behind those two rules is because you’re respecting the holy grounds.

If you’re entering a church or a mosque, you’re going to behave respectfully just naturally, right? Similarly, with shrines and temples, you should do the same. Things like keeping quiet, whispering instead of talking at a normal volume if you want to talk to your friend, observing what others are doing to give you a sense of what you can do.

Vocab Recap

We used quite a few new Japanese words in the episode, so here’s a list of them for you to refer back to: 

Koukyou no basho (公共の場所) — public space. Koukyou is public, and basho means place

Densha (電車) — train

Sasuga (さすが) — as expected 

Narabu (並ぶ) — to queue

Konbini (コンビニ) — convenience store

Shinkansen (新幹線) — Japanese bullet trains 

Uchi (内) — inside

Soto (外) — outside

Ryokan (旅館) — traditional Japanese inn

Izakaya (居酒屋) — Japanese style pub

Genkan (玄関) — the entrance bit in homes and other types of establishments

Seiza (星座) — the proper way of seating in Japanese culture

Tera (寺) — temple

Jinja (神社) — shrine

Shitsumon (質問) — question

Sonkei (尊敬) — respect

Conclusion

Basically, as long as your actions are out of respect, you really don’t have to worry as much.

And these are the absolute minimal, essential Japanese etiquette that you should know when you travel to Japan. While these are general rules for travellers, it doesn’t mean you should ignore them if you plan on living in japan. In fact, you should know more than just these mannerisms! Tune in to Season 10 of the Nihongo Master Podcast for more in-depth topics under the theme “Japanese Mannerisms”!

The Ultimate Guide to Japanese Dining Etiquette

The Ultimate Guide to Japanese Dining Etiquette

In our Season 10 Episode 5 of the Nihongo Master Podcast, we covered a topic that is on one of the top Google searches when it comes to Japanese etiquette: table and dining manners. We bet it was the food of Japan which got a fair few of you interested in the culture in the first place. 

While we covered a bit of this in our Season 1 Episode 11: The Picture of Politeness, this episode goes into further details of eating etiquette as well as drinking etiquette in Japan! This article is a recap of the topics discussed in the episode, so check the full episode out for more in-depth information!

Eating

As soon as you sit down at a table in a restaurant in Japan, you’re going to be served with an oshibori (お絞り, wet towel). These are provided to customers to clean their hands. You get a cold one in summer, and a hot one in winter! Now here’s your unofficial first tip: only use the oshibori to wipe your hands, and not anywhere else like the face!

If you stick to these three table manners for eating, you’re not going to totally come across as a gaijin at restaurants in Japan. Promise.

1. Chopsticks

Chopsticks take up a crucial chunk in Japanese dining etiquette. If there’s a poster for it, chopsticks will be the main graphic. One of the big-time Japanese dining rules is to know your way around the ins and outs of proper chopsticks usage. If you can work a pair of chopsticks, you’re about halfway there — you just have to keep in mind the acts that are strict no-go’s. 

Say you’re at dinner with a couple of friends and decide to share a few dishes. Your own pair of chopsticks are considered dirty, so dipping directly into shared dishes and sauces is frowned upon — it’s similar to passing food from one pair of chopsticks to another. Instead, use the serving utensils or a separate pair of hashi. But if you absolutely can’t avoid it, use the back of your personal chopsticks instead.

While some groups of friends will overlook that last rule, there is one chopstick custom that is essential: never stick your chopsticks upwards in a bowl of rice. That’s because this is the way rice is offered to the dead, and it also resembles sticks of incense at funerals — not the most pleasant image to have at the dinner table, don’t you agree?

2. Bowls

The next eating etiquette has to do with dishes and bowls. Food is often served one at a time, rarely all at once. Most of the time, waiting for everyone’s meals to arrive before eating is the way to go. Then, the green light to start eating is when the “itadakimasu” has been said. This loosely translates to “Let’s eat!”

If you have a dish that’s better eaten right away, there’s a way out: say “Osaki ni itadakimasu” which translates to “allow me to start before you”. If your friend has a dish like that, say “osaki ni douzo”, “please go ahead”.

Dishes are often served in small bowls, and when eating, it’s better to pick up the bowl with your hand and bring it closer to your mouth when eating it, rather than bending down to get closer to the bowl. This is the ideal way, as compared to cupping your hands to catch falling food, which is considered bad manners! 

Here’s a fun tip: if you’re sharing a dish and there’s one last piece of food left, don’t snag it up instantly! Oftentimes people are reluctant to eat this. The best thing to do is leave this to the seniors of the group! This last piece of meal is called “enryo no Katamari”.

And when everyone’s finished their meal, conclude it with a “gochisousama deshita!” This translates to “thank you for the meal!”. Return your dishes to how they were at the start of the meal, like putting back the lids on bowls and chopsticks back on the chopstick rest. 

3. Slurping

The third and final eating etiquette we’re covering today is slurping! In Japan, the louder you slurp your noodles, the better. When you slurp your noodles, you’re indirectly letting the chef know you’re enjoying the meal.

For a conservative society, the Japanese aren’t afraid to shout out their satisfaction from one end of a restaurant to the other. If it goes against some of your personal customs, don’t worry, it’s not compulsory. 

Drinking

Now we move on to everyone’s favourite part: drinking! Yes, the Japanese have drinking etiquette too! In Japanese culture, drinking is more of  a shared experience, and there’s a bit of expectation to get the same drinks. But don’t worry, in my three years of living in Japan, I haven’t had anyone pressure me to not get my gin and tonic cocktail and get a haiboru instead. 

1. Wait for everyone

The first thing you need to know when drinking in Japan is to wait for everyone’s first drink to come first. When everyone’s drinks have arrived, if no one has said it yet, you do the honours of raising your glass while saying “Kanpai!” That’s the Japanese equivalent of “cheers!”

This “kanpai”-ing can happen a few times in a night, especially with every new drink. Some may expect the group to drink at the same pace and get another round of drinks at the same time, but don’t feel pressured to do so if you’re not as strong with alcohol. Keep your pace, and when the second round of kanpai comes around while you’re still at your first drink, just raise the same glass.

2. Pour for each other

The next drinking etiquette you ought to know is to not pour your own drink, but instead pour for each other. When drinking in Japan, it’s customary to let others refill your glass from communal bottles. Not only are you supposed to thank them, but also reciprocate when someone pours a drink for you. 

As hierarchy is a big thing in Japan, typically, the ones lower in the social ladder pours for the senior members. This is especially so during work drinking events or anything formal.

Hold your glass or sake cup when another is filling it up for you as a gesture of goodwill. 

3. Drink up

And the final drinking etiquette is…drink up! Japanese people love a good pint of beer or two, and it’s a common sight to see a group of businessmen at a bar as soon as it’s the end of the workday. Accepting an invitation for a few pints after work is pretty expected.

The thing is, Japanese drinking sessions can turn into a full-on drinking marathon that can go on till the sun comes up. Others might pressure you to get another round after another round. The trick here is to not start strong and fail to finish. Maintain a good pace and sip water in between. While we’re all about the team spirit here, we’re also all about drinking responsibly. 

Now, what if you’ve drank too much and need to stop? Hey, it’s bound to happen. And all you need to do is stop. Leave your glass full so no one refills your glass. And if you need to leave, don’t feel pressured to not do so. A simple farewell of “otsukaresama deshita”, which loosely translates to “you’ve worked hard” is the most common way to end a drinking session.

Vocab Recap

We used a lot of new Japanese vocabulary words in the episode, and here we list them down for your reference:

Oshibori (おしぼり) — wet towel

Hashi (箸) — chopsticks

Yūshoku (夕食) — dinner. The other meals of the day are chōshoku (朝食) or asagohan (朝ご飯) for breakfast, and chūshoku (昼食) or hirugohan (昼ごはん) for lunch

Osaki ni (お先に) — this translates to first, or to go ahead

Enryo no katamari (遠慮の塊) — the last piece of food

Itadakimasu (いただきます) — Let’s eat!

Gochisousama deshita (ご馳走様でした) — thank you for the meal

Gaijin (外人) — short for gaikokujin (外国人), to mean foreigner

Haiboru (ハイボール) — high ball, which is whiskey and soda water

Izakaya (居酒屋) — a Japanese bar that not only serves drinks but small dishes as well, like skewers

Kanpai (乾杯) — cheers!

Tokkuri (徳利) — sake bottles

Otsukaresama Sama deshita (お疲れ様でした) — you’ve worked hard

Conclusion

Japanese table manners are not at all hard to get used to. They’re pretty straight forward when it comes to why it exists, and mostly it’s the social awareness aspect and the team spirit. Don’t you think so? Check out the full episode of the Nihongo Master Podcast: Season 10 Episode 5!

Cherry Blossom Festivals in the US!

Cherry Blossom Festivals in the US!

While there has been a bit of news of borders opening up in Japan, it hasn’t quite reached the point where the country is fully open. It’s another Japanese sakura spring that we have to miss. But not to worry, for those living in the US, there are a few sakura events that you can go to in place of it.

In this article, we list five of the many sakura events in the US. Keep reading to see which ones can be found in your city or an area near you! 

National Cherry Blossom Festival (Washington, DC)

One of the most popular sakura events is the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, DC. This festival is run by a non-profit organisation and features a few events, exhibits and even performances related to cherry blossoms as well as US-Japan relations. You will get your fill of fireworks, concerts and parades at this festival. 

As the festival doesn’t take place on just one day but a few weeks, there’s hope the cherry blossoms will bloom during the festival. This year, DC’s cherry blossom reached peak bloom on March 21st 2022.

The National Cherry Blossom Festival runs from March 20th to April 17th. Key events include Kite Festival on March 26th, the Parade on April 9th, Sakura Matsuri – Japanese Street Festival on April 9th and 10th, and the PetalPalooza on April 16th.

More information on the official website: https://nationalcherryblossomfestival.org

Sakura Taiko Fest 2022 (Washington, DC)

This next sakura event was on hiatus for two years, but is now up and running again. On March 26th, the Sakura Taiko Fest 2022 will have a full day of drumming, including performances by Kyo Daiko, River City Taiko, Nen Daiko and Dounen Daiko, Miyako Taiko, MHTX and students in the Mark H Taiko School. 

This event started out as a small concert held in a dance studio for free, giving opportunities for taiko groups to showcase their taiko styles and celebrate Japanese-American culture. 

Below is the event schedule:

12:00pm: Welcome and opening!

12:10pm: Mark H Taiko Intermediate Styles Class

12:20pm: Mark H Taiko Recreational Taiko Class

12:30pm: Audience Participation!

1:00pm: River City Taiko

1:45: Miyako Taiko

2:30pm: Kyo Daiko

3:15pm: Nen Daiko & Dounen Daiko

4:00pm: Audience Participation!

4:15pm: MHTX

4:45pm: Mixed ensemble finale – Shin-En

For those unable to attend, there is even a livestream that you can tune in to on the day: https://youtu.be/ed6KK0rOK30

Sakura Matsuri: Cherry Blossom Festival (Long Island)

This festival welcomes spring to Long Island with the blooming of sakura and taiko drum performances. Sakura Matsuri: Cherry Blossom Festival will be held on May 7th at the Wang Center.

The Wang Center is a place that offers activities like Japanese traditional dances, martial arts demonstrations, ikebana flower arrangements, tea workshops, cosplay, calligraphy and more. Join the event for all of these while welcoming spring!

Oh, and one more thing: guests are encouraged to come in their favourite manga character costume!

More information can be found at: https://ryushukan.com/cherry-blossom-festival-sakura-matsuri-home/

Buffalo Cherry Blossom Festival (Buffalo)

Coming back in 2022 as well after a long hiatus, the Japanese Garden in Delaware Park and The Buffalo History Museum is bringing back the Buffalo Cherry Blossom! Kicking it off on April 28th is the fundraiser for the festival, featuring a basket raffle, refreshments, as well as performances including cellist and multi-genre artist Leah Rankin and indie rock duo tuesday nite.

The festival itself will be on April 30th to May 1st at Delaware Park. Check this link for more up-to-date information come the time: https://www.buffalocherryblossomfestival.org

41st Annual Conyers Cherry Blossom Festival (Georgia)

Marking 41 years of the event, the 41st Annual Conyers Cherry Blossom Festival will celebrate the generations that have shaped this celebration on March 26th and 27th. The festival has been awarded tons of awards over the years, including Best Event in the Southeast, as well as selected as a Top 20 Event in the Southeast. 

There will be performances from acts including Ricky Gunter and Mary Kate Farmer. There’s also the Miss Conyers Cherry Blossom Festival, canvas painting kits, children’s art walk, a dog show and more.

Plus, it’s free admission! More information can be found here: https://www.georgiahorsepark.com/p/calendar-of-events/conyers-cherry-blossom-festival

Find Public Events in Your Area!

These listed are just a few out of the dozens of festivals happening in the US for sakura. If you do a quick Google search, not only are there festivals, but there are also so many open, free-admission public events organised by the people. While it may not be a full festival with performances, there are those who organise walks, picnics, gatherings and parties. 

Japanese Etiquette When Travelling!

Japanese Etiquette When Travelling!

As Japan slowly opens up the borders again, who else is looking up flight dates to Japan? Finally, we can visit our favourite country again! But when we do get there, let’s not forget that we have to be on our best behaviour, since Japanese customs and etiquette are very different from the rest of the world.

Japanese mannerisms are abundant, and some might say that there are a bit too many to remember in a short period of time for a short trip. So to get you prepared for your trip, we’ve done up this article for travellers in a rush to get into the minimal Japanese manners mode for that week-long Japan trip we all hope to be on this year (like finally).

There are three parts of this episode: public manners, indoor manners and holy grounds etiquette, indoor manners. This article is a snippet and recap of our Season 10 Episode 7 of the Nihongo Master Podcast! The whole season focuses on Japanese mannerisms, so tune in to that for your on-the-go learning of Japanese etiquette!

Japanese Public Manners

The first category of mannerisms for travellers we’re going to touch on is public manners. This is arguably the most important category in this collection of manners. In Japanese culture, unspoken rules are a big thing, and everyone abides by them. The concept of “public” and “private” in Japan can be quite different from other cultures, so if you don’t exactly know if it’s a private or public space, just treat it as public just to be safe.

There are tons of unspoken rules for how to act in public, but don’t worry, I’ll loop you in on the 5 most important ones.

1. Keep volume down

The Japanese people are really mindful of their space, especially when out in public. Speaking in a high volume is not encouraged in Japan, as you would affect others around you. This is seen as respecting the space that you share with other strangers.

When you’re with a group of people, try your very best to keep your volume down, especially so when on public transport. Even when you’re alone, you’re expected to not blast music too loud on your headphones, as this might disturb the person next to you. 

2. Queuing

The next unspoken rule in public spaces is the queuing system. The Japanese love their queues! They queue for the ramen shop, outside of a store before it opens, and even for the escalators and lifts! Even on street pavements and public transport platforms, there are signs to indicate which side to stick to or where to queue so as to not cross paths and walk into each other. 

With that in mind, follow the queue system for everything in Japan. I think this etiquette is extremely convenient during rush hours and crowded streets. Fall in line and you won’t have to dodge people’s shoulders like it’s a game of dodgeball.

3. Stop to eat and drink

Eating and drinking while walking on the streets are not taken positively. This is because when you do this, it’s considered as disrespecting others walking in the same area as you. That being said, don’t drink or eat on the trains either, for the exact same reason. Oh, this excludes long-distance train rides like the Shinkansen (新幹線), which are Japanese bullet trains. 

So what if you’re hungry or thirsty? Japan is scattered with convenience stores and vending machines, and the Japanese would eat or drink there and then. They would be standing outside the store and finishing their food before walking. This is the same for cans from the vending machines. Finish up your food or drink before continuing walking. 

Indoor Manners

Now we’re moving on to indoor manners. You might think you wouldn’t need this, because you think you wouldn’t be in someone’s house during your time in Japan, but trust me, this also applies to ryokan (which are traditional Japanese hotels) and events like tea ceremonies. 

4. Leave your shoes at the door

The first one is a crucial one to remember whenever entering any indoor space, and that is to leave your shoes at the door! Some of us come from cultures and countries where it’s normal to wear your outdoor shoes in your house, but in Japan, there’s a very clear distinction between soto (外, outside) and uchi (内, inside).

In fact, you might find yourself taking off your footwear quite often. Traditional places like shrines and temples, ryokan and izakaya, and even restaurants would require you to take off your shoes before entering. If you don’t know if you need to take them off, ask a staff member. You could also observe the people around you to see if they’re taking off their shoes. 

Oftentimes, when entering an indoor space, you will find a genkan, which is the entrance area. This bit is considered as soto, even though you’re indoors, and it’s where you remove or put back on your outdoor shoes. The indoor space is usually elevated and can be covered by a different type of flooring, so that’s your best way to differentiate the two. 

In some cases, you’ll be given indoor shoes, most likely slippers. I’ve picked up the habit of wearing indoor shoes in my home too.

5. Wear socks if possible

Now the next rule isn’t exactly a hard-and-fast rule, but it’s linked to the first one. Wear socks if possible, because they’ll be on display quite a bit. Some places don’t offer indoor slippers, and the Japanese believe that having socks on in the house is better than bare feet so as to not carry dust around.

One time you should definitely consider wearing socks is when you’re visiting a traditional indoor space. Say, for example, you’re going to a traditional tea ceremony in Japan. Most of the time these events take place in a tatami mat room, and it’s better to walk on tatami with socks so as to not damage the flooring.

6. Bathroom slippers

Now the third rule for indoor spaces is to take note of bathroom slippers. Sometimes in bathrooms, there will be bathroom slippers offered. In this case, leave your house slippers (if you have them on) outside the bathroom and switch for the bathroom slippers when you enter. Don’t forget to switch back after you’re done!

Visiting Holy Grounds

The third category of Japanese mannerisms for travellers is when visiting holy grounds. Temples and shrines are scattered all around the island — so many that you might even find yourself on holy ground without even realising! 

Now you might not find these pointers on any of the articles you Googled online, because these three tips are from my own personal experience and observation. 

7. Don’t touch

The first rule of this category is don’t touch anything. I know, curiosity kills the cat, but refrain from mindlessly touching things you don’t know about on holy ground, out of respect. If there’s something on holy grounds that looks unique and intriguing, it’s because it’s meant to be there for a purpose. You can admire something’s beauty without having your fingerprints all over them!

But of course, there are also things that you can touch, and oftentimes there are signs to signal that you can.

8. Ask if you don’t know

The next thing to remember when visiting holy grounds is that it’s okay to ask if you don’t know something. In fact, I recommend asking. Say for example you want to know if something is okay to touch, go up to any official staff worker on premises and ask them. In smaller, more local temples and shrines, there aren’t that many signs that explain things, so I found myself always asking if I could enter a space, or if I should take off my shoes. It’s so much better to get that clarified instead of wandering around and potentially misstepping. 

9. Behave respectfully

Now the last rule, the general rule, is to behave respectfully. The first two points actually fall under this one, because if you think about it, the reasoning behind those two rules is because you’re respecting the holy grounds.

If you’re entering a church or a mosque, you’re going to behave respectfully just naturally, right? Similarly, with shrines and temples, you should do the same. Keep these things in mind: keeping quiet, whispering instead of talking at a normal volume if you want to talk to your friend, observing what others are doing to give you a sense of what you can do.

Vocab Recap

In the podcast episode, we used a lot of useful and related vocabulary words. Here we summarise them in a list for listeners to refer back to!

Koukyou no basho (公共の場所) — public space. Koukyou (公共) is public, and basho (場所) means place

Densha (電車) — train

Sasuga (さすが) — as expected 

Narabu (並ぶ) — to queue

Konbini (コンビニ) — convenience store

Shinkansen (新幹線) — Japanese bullet trains 

Uchi (内) — inside

Soto (外) — outside

Ryokan (旅館) — traditional Japanese inn

Izakaya (居酒屋) — Japanese style pub

Genkan (玄関) — the entrance bit in homes and other types of establishments

Seiza (星座) — the proper way of seating in Japanese culture

Tera (寺) — temple

Jinja (神社) — shrine

Shitsumon (質問) — question

Sonkei (尊敬) — respect

Safe Travels to Japan!

These are the absolute minimal, essential Japanese etiquette that you should know when you travel to Japan. While these are general rules for travellers, it doesn’t mean you should ignore them if you plan on living in Japan. In fact, you should know more than just these mannerisms! So tune in to the other episodes of Season 10 of the Nihongo Master Podcast for all you need to know about Japanese Mannerisms! 

How Do The Japanese View Tattoos?

How Do The Japanese View Tattoos?

Tattoos have made a mark (pun intended) way back in Japanese history — would you believe me if I say that it goes as far back as 5,000BC? The primeval tale of Japanese tattoos carved the scene of this art-on-skin today. From generation to generation, Japanese tattoo artists were taught the ancient skills that shaped the tattoo culture today.

Japan has built quite a reputation for itself when it comes to tattoos — on both ends of the stick, actually. While people all around the world look up to the unique Japanese tattoo art, the locals aren’t exactly fond of them. Despite the negative association, it’s undeniable that tattoos are deeply ingrained in Japanese culture.

This article is a recap of an episode of the Nihongo Master Podcast. Discover the full backstory of this Japanese body art and how it has evolved to this day over at the full episode: Season 3 Episode 5.

History of Tattoo in Japan

An actor as ruffian Tsuribune no Sabu, full face, revealing his tattoos. Colour woodcut by Kunisada I, 1859. The actor has slipped off the top of his robe to reveal his arms and shoulders tattooed with a pattern of thunder god’s drums and lightning flashes. He wears a deep blue vest Full face portraits are rare Half-length figures. Created Month 5, 1859. Actors – Japan. Contributors: Toyokuni Utagawa (1786-1865). Work ID: q42b4bk7.

By now we can safely assume that various aspects of Japanese culture have rich and long histories — Japanese tattoos are no different. Known as wabori (和ぼり) in Japanese, its existence dates back to the fifth millennium BC, and the earliest rendition of wabori can still be seen today, influencing the state of modern Japanese tattoos. Not only is there evidence of face-engraved figurines but wabori had also made a few appearances in ancient Chinese historical records. 

Back then, social ranks were practiced more vigorously than now, and it was said that the people used tattoos to mark where on the rank they fell under. Others also have them to fend off evil spirits, a superstitious belief which is pretty much gone now.

Early days

Around the 7th century, marks of social status and evil wards were gone — instead, anyone who had a tattoo during that time would be seen as a criminal. Irezumi, referring to the general act of putting ink onto the skin, was used as punishment in place of the death penalty for severe crimes like murder and treason. There was no specific part of the body for criminal irezumi, but the most common areas were the face and arms.

An interesting fact is that the tattoo designs weren’t the act of crime, but it was instead categorised by the region that the crime was committed in. So the Hiroshima criminals were identified by the dog symbol tattoo and Fukuoka criminals had lines tattooed around their upper arms. If one person from a city merely stole wood from the next village, he was basically grouped together with the city’s murderers.

Back in the day, a criminal’s a criminal, regardless of how serious the crime you committed was. And tattoos were a way to identify them in those days. Generally, they were outcasted, disowned by families and banned from participating in any sort of public or combined activities. All in all, it was a tough life for the lot of them.

Becoming an art form

It took centuries before the use of tattoos moved past from being a symbol of crime to a decorative art form. Tattoos were still prohibited at the beginning of the eighteenth century, but it was also the time woodblock printing was all the rage, especially those in the ukiyo-e art style.

Regardless of the demand during that time, woodcarvers didn’t earn much at all for the effort they put in — so they sought out other potential works which led to the creation of tebori (手彫り), a technique of tattooing unique to Japan where they do it by hand and based on wordcarvers’ carving techniques.

This conversion of woodcarvers to tattoo artists resulted in a spike of the number of tattooed people, particularly in the lower social class. Today’s Japanese tattoo designs have been influenced by the ukiyo-e art style, and we have these woodcarvers-turned-tattoo artists to thank for.

Peak of Japanese tattoos

Tattoos only reached its peak in the late eighteenth century when a Chinese folklore story was translated into Japanese as Suikoden, accompanied by ukiyo-e illustrations. The story narrates the journey of outlaws fighting their corrupted rulers and becoming heroes of the common townspeople. The people of Edo strongly identified themselves with the characters of the narrative and it became an extremely popular tale among them.

There were various artists that illustrated Suikoden with tattoos in their art, but what shook the grounds of Japan was when a woodblock print artist, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, portrayed the popular characters of the story with full-bodied engravings. This revolutionised Japanese tattoos with a newly-formed style, known as the horimono (彫り物) which translates to “things that have been engraved”.

The beginning of the nineteenth century might as well have been considered as the Golden Age of horimono as full-bodied engravings were seen in more than just Ukiyo-e prints — songs and traditional plays portrayed characters fully tattooed, horimono-style.

Unfortunately, every good thing has to come to an end — and so did the horimono. While it wasn’t completely wiped out, the horimono style suffered a dramatic decline during the Meiji Restoration when the strict, oppressive regulations were implemented.

Tattoo businesses today

But despite its relaxed laws on tattoos, there is still a bit of coldness on the matter. From public perception to the difficulties attached to it, tattoo businesses aren’t exactly having a walk in the park. Tattoo studios in Japan aren’t like the ones in other countries where you’ll see them evidently on the streets. While you still do see Western-style parlours on the streets, the most popular type of tattoo studios in Japan is the private studio.

Private tattoo studios are extremely popular in Japan. These private studios are generally home-based, usually a separate room or area for the tattooing procedure at the tattoo artist’s own home. Sometimes, it could be a separate apartment altogether where the artist rents out the room just for his work, but don’t expect any signage to indicate where the studio is.

How are tattoos perceived in Japan

Nude photography of tattooed Japanese man with tattoo (1870s –1890s) by Kusakabe Kimbei. Original from The Getty. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

It wasn’t until the mid-1900s that the ban was lifted and the tattoo scene in Japan started setting down roots again. However, regardless of the substantial historical evidence of tattoo culture in ancient Japanese culture, it’s proven to be difficult to change the mindset that tattoos are linked to illegal activities. As soon as you have a tattoo in Japan, you’re automatically a “bad guy”.

This is partially due to movement of lower class citizens to modern-day Tokyo in the eighteenth century, and part of them were the Yakuza who consisted of people like gang members and outlaws. A lot of the Yakuza members would be seen with a bunch of tattoos to symbolise courage and loyalty — because to get a tattoo meant that you have to endure extreme pain, and have it forever. Seizing the opportunity of the rising tattoo popularity, criminal outlaws covered up their existing punishment tattoos with decorative ones. 

To this day, tattoos are still associated with organised crime because of this.

Some Japanese people do have their own tattoos but just keep it well hidden and covered. Purely for social and employment reasons, it’s rare to expose or reveal tattoos. If you do have a lot of tattoos exposed, glances, stares and blatant avoidance are common occurrences.

Tattoo ban at public facilities

While it is still tolerated to expose body art in general, there are some very specific places that implement a strict ban against tattoos. The most famous places are public facilities, like the onsen (Japanese hot springs), spa, gym and swimming pool. All these places forbid entry to anyone who is seen with tattoos on their body.

If you’re wondering why, some believe it’s to prevent contamination of the waters and consideration for other users; others believe that it’s to keep out the Yakuzas from onsens.

In recent years, with the boom in tourism, more and more tattooed people are visiting Japan and wanting to use local facilities. With the increased demand comes this temporary answer: special facilities just for people with tattoos. A few onsens are also less strict on their rules now, and you can just cover up your tattoo if you want to enter.

Vocab Recap

Here are the list of new vocabulary words we used in the episode:

Wabori (和ぼり) — Japanese tattoos

Irezumi (刺青)  — the act of putting ink on skin

Hannin (犯人) — criminal

Tebori (手彫り) — the technique of tattooing by hand

Horimono (彫り物) — a new style of tattoo, to mean “things that have been engraved” 

Kinshi (禁止) — ban or prohibition 

Onsen (温泉) — Japanese hot springs 

Sutajio (スタジオ) — studio

Japan is ever-evolving!

If you’re covered head to heel in tattoos, don’t let the negative perception chase you away from coming to Japan — most of my Japanese friends, if not all, don’t care at all whether people have tattoos or not. After all, body art is deeply ingrained in their culture.

Check out more intriguing facts about Japanese culture over at our Nihongo Master Podcast! We have a new episode every Wednesday, and also a language learning series formatted like our online learning system, Study Saturday, with new episodes every Saturday! 

What is White Day in Japan?

What is White Day in Japan?

Valentine’s Day is one of the most romantic holidays worldwide, right? We all know what that is, but in Japan, Valentine’s Day is celebrated with the women giving the men chocolates. To know more about Japanese traditions for Valentine’s Day, give our Valentine’s Day special episode a listen on the Nihongo Master Podcast!

But anyway, do you know what White Day is? 

White Day is when the men reciprocate exactly a month later, on the 14th of March. It’s the day for repayment and basically the male counterpart to Valentine’s Day.  All the pink and red decorations get replaced with white ones. 

This article is the basics of what you need to know about this other Japanese romantic holiday!

History of White Day

To understand White Day, we first have to take a look at its history. So who was the genius that invented this day? We’d have to go back to the 1970s again when a small confectionary shop called Ishimura Manseido in Hakata started selling marshmallow-chocolate treats. 

An executive of the company, Zeno Ishimura, read a letter where the woman writer wasn’t happy with how the men get chocolates. She wrote, “it’s not really fair that men get chocolate from women on Valentine’s Day but they don’t return the favor. Why don’t they give us something? A handkerchief, candy, even marshmallows…”

So after countless meetings and collaboration agreements, the first ever White Day celebration was on March 14th, 1978 with the help of a local department store, Iwataya. Back then, it was known as Marshmallow Day, since most of the treats were marshmallows, or marshmallow-stuffed chocolates. The store later suggested changing the name to “White Day” instead.

Fun fact: the name “White Day” is a reference to marshmallows, actually. Some would say that white represents the purity of happiness, but to each their own, I guess.

How to Celebrate White Day

Now it has become a tradition for couples to celebrate both Valentine’s Day and White Day together. For both days, most couples take the opportunity to go on a fancy, romantic date. Many opt for a nice meal at a restaurant, but it doesn’t always have to be the case. Some couples might opt for a picnic instead, or a thrilling day at the amusement park. 

For singles, White Day is usually not celebrated. If a girl gives chocolates and confesses to a guy on Valentine’s Day but he rejects her, the two won’t be celebrating this romantic holiday together. He doesn’t even have to return the gift. 

There’s no one way to celebrate White Day, just like how there’s no one way to celebrate Valentine’s Day. The real deal is what you give to the ladies on this special day. 

What to Give on White Day

While the ladies would give the men chocolates on Valentine’s Day, what would the men give to the ladies on White Day as a way to return the gift? Even though it started off with marshmallows, nowadays, it’s not only marshmallow delights. White chocolate and other similar gifts are included as acceptable gifts for okaeshi (お返し, return gift). 

On top of that, the guys will have to add on gifts on top of sweet treats. It’s not a hard and fast rule but it is said that the gifts men give to women are supposed to be at least two or three times the price of what the women gave during Valentine’s Day. So, on top of marshmallows and chocolates, men would often include luxury product gifts to give on White Day.

If a guy were to give a gift on White Day that’s lower in price as what the woman gave on Valentine’s Day, it’s disdainful; if you give it equal in price, it’s a sign that you want to end the relationship. I don’t know how accurate this is, but I do know that some men and women in Japan have stopped practicing Valentine’s Day and White Day traditionally altogether due to this social pressure of gift-giving.

Traditional associations with sweets

If you’re planning in advance on what to give your girlfriend for White Day, there are different levels of tiers for gifts. Traditionally, of course. You could be traditional and give her marshmallows, but because they melt and dissolve, this can send the message of “I don’t like you”. 

Cookies are a safe bet, but they scream “we’re just friends” because cookies are dry, and they’re implying that your relationship is dry. 

Go for hard candy — macaroons are on the same level as this, as they are treats where you can hold in your mouth for a longer period of time, so it says “I like you”.

As I said, these are traditional understandings of gifts. If you know your partner well, you’ll get her sweets that she loves, and it wouldn’t matter if it had any association with old school meanings!

Happy White Day!

Now that you know about White Day, will you be celebrating this second romantic holiday this year? I’ve been celebrating it for years now, I don’t think I’ll ever stop celebrating this occasion! And for all the single gals, don’t get upset. Just like how there’s Galentine’s Day, I bet girls celebrate White Day with each other too…and if not, make it a thing with you and your gal pals!

The best things to do in Japan: Spring Edition!

The best things to do in Japan: Spring Edition!

Spring is one of the most highly anticipated seasons in Japan. It’s the time of the year where you get to say goodbye to the winter breeze and hello to the new spring blooms. Foreigners and locals alike travel nationwide to witness various aspects of Japanese spring. 

If your next trip to Japan is planned for this blooming season, you’re going to have a packed schedule. There are so many things to do during this season! We’ve highlighted the top 10 fun things you can do in Japan during the spring season!

1. Hanami

Of course, what’s spring in Japan without sakura (桜)? Sakura are Japanese cherry blossoms, and unofficially the flower of the nation. The most popular activity to celebrate these pale pink flowers is by going for flower viewings, called hanami (花み).

This is when you lay down a mat under the cherry blossom trees, a packed bento (弁当) in one hand an a can of beer in another. You can enjoy this activity with friends, family or colleagues. I like to go hanami when it’s towards the end of the blooming season to witness the petals falling down on me!

2. Festivals 

Japan is full of festivals, or matsuri (祭り), all year round. The spring season is no exception. If you’re wondering what to do in Japan in spring, definitely look out for festivals all throughout the nation.

Festivals in Japan feature food stalls, performances and other cultural events. Sanja Matsuri, one of the most popular ones in Tokyo and half in Asakusa, is a three-day long festival. You’d get to see portable shrines, parades and tons of traditional dancing! 

Another famous spring festival is the Hana Matsuri, or Kambutsu-e nativity. This falls on the 8th of April, and Japan celebrates the birth of Buddha on this day. You can go to any Buddhist temple and see tons of vibrant flowers decorating the area. To pay your respects, pour scented water or sweet hydrangea tea over the child statue of Buddha.

3. Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route

This next activity isn’t something one would normally do in spring, but you’d want to do this in Japan when you’re here. Visit the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, available only from April to November. This mountain sightseeing route is covered in snow, but during winter, it’s actually closed! 

Some call this place the “Roof of Japan”, because the route is carved from an 18 meter high snow wall! It’s not a normal sight – I can tell you that much. Change up that spring landscape of blooms with snow walls going on for miles!

4. Clam digging 

One of the most popular activities for when the weather gets warmer is clam digging. It might not be something you thought of doing in Japan, but when in Rome, as they say. This is also known as shohigari (潮干狩り).

Typically from March to July, shores of Japanese beaches are full of people participating in this activity. Tokyo Bay, especially, is crowded just for this because it’s known for asari (あさり), or short-neck clams. If you plan to do this in Japan, be sure to pack some clothes suitable for the activity!

5. Strawberry picking

If you want a calmer activity to partake in, how about strawberry picking? The early spring season is known for the beginning of strawberry season, and it’s one of the most popular harvest periods in the country. 

Depending on the farm that you go to, you might be charged by either the weight of the fruits picked or by the period you’re in for. I recommend S-Berry Farm in Hari Cho in Nara Prefecture. Regardless of where you go for your strawberry picking adventures, be sure to make a reservation in advance! 

6. Miyako Odori

What you should do in Japan during the spring season is go to a geisha show. Usually, geisha performances are exclusive and held during private gatherings. Fortunately, there are annual shows open to the public. One of them is called Miyako Odori (都踊り), translated to “capital city dance”. 

This famous show is held in Kyoto and performed by Gion Kobe geisha. It came about when Tokyo became the capital city, and the people of Kyoto were in low spirits as they used to be the capital city. This means that the first performance was held in 1872!

7. Daruma Doll Fair

Other than festivals and shows, Japanese spring offers unique fairs, including the Daruma Doll Fair. This is held in Jindaiji Temple where daruma dolls are available in various colours and designs. These dolls symbolise perseverance and good luck. 

The dolls’ eyes are completely white, and tradition has it that when you buy one, you draw in one of the eyes after deciding a goal. You should only fill in the other eye when your goal is achieved. 

8. Savour seasonal cuisine

Japan is very attentive to the changing seasons. When a new season comes around, new seasonal dishes come out on menus. Why not include this in one of your to-do activities in Japan?

Of course, spring cuisine involves a lot of sakura-themed dishes, like sakura mochi (桜もち). This traditional rice cake is made from real cherry blossoms! And that’s not the only seasonal dessert you can get. All around Japan, you can try all sorts of spring seasonal Japanese cuisine to your heart’s desire.

9. See koinobori

Don’t forget to look out for carp kites when you’re in Japan during spring! Known as koinobori (鯉のぼり), these are placed outside houses to celebrate Children’ Day (Kodomo no Hi, 子供の日). While it falls on the 5th of May, these carp kites are on display from April.

There are also specific areas in the country that have them, too. For example, in Tokyo, Tokyo Tower has 333 carp kites (because the tower is measured 333 meters) hoisted from the 5th of April!

10. View spring flowers

Last but not least, what you should do in Japan during spring is to view other spring flowers. Sure, sakura are pretty and all, but they’re not the only flowers to bloom during this season. You can find everything from hydrangeas and wisterias everywhere. Parks, botanical gardens and some shrines are great places for this activity. 

Are you excited for spring in Japan?

These 10 activities are just the tip of the iceberg. There are tons of other things you can do in Japan during the season. This island nation is full of nothing but activities! So pack your bags and get pumped for your trip to Japan during spring! 

How Does Japan Celebrate Valentine’s Day?

How Does Japan Celebrate Valentine’s Day?

One of the highlights of February is Valentine’s Day! This holiday of love and chocolate is just around the corner! People all over the world take this day as an opportunity to express their love and celebrate it with gifts. Men, especially, scramble to plan the perfect date and to pick the perfect present. 

This Western holiday is relatively new in Japan, but the Japanese already have their own customs and traditions. On February 14th, the guys take it easy while the women prepare days in advance. Wanna know how to celebrate Valentine’s Day the Japanese way?

History of Valentine’s Day in Japan

As mentioned earlier, the current celebration of Valentine’s Day is a relatively new tradition in Japan. Compared to the UK and the US, where they have been celebrating since the 1800s, the first Valentines celebration started in Kobe in the 1930s. However, this holiday only became popular in the country in the 1970s. 

Morozoff, a Russian confectionery shop, had an advert in the local English newspaper to promote their special chocolates for this romantic holiday. This was aimed at foreign residents, originally.

Over the span of the next few decades, other businesses started having campaigns for Valentine’s Day, too, encouraging Japanese women to buy gifts for the men in their lives on this day. Not long after, the confectionery business seized this opportunity and started selling heart-shaped confections whenever February is near. Fast forward to now, and we have every convenience store, supermarket and restaurant offering exclusive Valentine’s Day deals and menu options. 

How is Valentine’s Day Celebrated in Japan

Men around the world try to get the perfect bouquet of flowers to go along with a perfectly arranged box of chocolates. All of that for that ideal date on the 14th of February. The roles are reversed in Japan. It’s the women who are the busy bees. 

You read that right. Women are the ones planning the dates, making reservations and searching for the best presents. Valentine’s Day kind of became part of the kokuhaku (告白) culture in Japan. The word translates to “love confession”. This is when someone confesses their love for another, and if they reciprocate those feelings, the two start a relationship together. On this romantic holiday, women have the opportunity to ask that hot guy out. 

Together with this confession is a box of chocolates. This is the biggest tradition in Japan, similar to the rest of the world. The only difference is that women sometimes make chocolate from scratch, for this occasion, in Japan. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never made chocolate from scratch before.

Now, guys, don’t be so quick to be relieved. These chocolates are reciprocated one month later, on March 14th. This day is called “White Day”, which is a whole other article. 

Another thing that’s different is that, in Japan, Valentine’s Day isn’t just exclusively for your romantic partner. Isn’t that great news for our single ladies and guys out there? 

Types of Chocolates

When we talk about chocolates on Valentine’s Day in Japan, we aren’t only talking about romantic chocolates. Remember when I said that the Japanese don’t celebrate this day only with their significant others? Sometimes, it’s with friends or family. And depending on who you celebrate the day with, you have different types of chocolate.

Honmei Choco 

The most popular type of chocolate is the most obvious one, and that’s for someone you have feelings for or your partner. This is known as the honmei choco (本命チョコ), which translates to “true feeling chocolate”. Because this type of chocolate is the most expensive, high-end type of chocolate, it’s like the Rolls Royce of Valentine’s Day chocolate. 

If the name isn’t clear enough, this type of chocolate is reserved for a romantic interest. You can’t give them to just anyone. Some girls would want to pour their emotions into the chocolate by making homemade chocolates themselves.

Giri Choco 

The second most popular type of chocolate is the giri choco (義理チョコ), which translates to “obligation chocolate”. Since gift-giving is a huge part of Japanese culture, everyone participates in giving out chocolates on Valentine’s Day, to colleagues, friends and family. They all fall under this category of chocolate. 

Now, giri chocolates aren’t going to be expensive at all. In fact, this is how you can differentiate between honmei and giri choco. If you receive a limited edition box of chocolates, then be prepared to be confessed to. If it’s a mass-produced wrapped candy, you got a bar of obligation chocolate then.

Gyaku Choco 

Valentine’s Day in Japan doesn’t mean only girls are allowed to give chocolates. The guys are still allowed to, but it won’t be honmei’ choco. It’ll then be called gyaku choco (逆チョコ), where “gyaku” means “reverse”. It has the same meaning as honmei choco, just the other way around for genders. If you boys can’t wait till White Day, get your girlfriend some gyaku choco!

Tomo Choco 

Single ladies, you won’t miss out on chocolates at all. We get our fair share this time of the year, especially from our friends. The chocolates we get from them are called tomo choco (友チョコ), which translates to “friendship chocolate”. The word “tomo” is a short form of the word “tomodachi” (友達). 

The name is straightforward enough, so you get chocolate from friends. This type of chocolate is between girls, so if you’re a guy and you get chocolates from another guy friend, it’s called homo choco (ホモチョコ).

You don’t have to wait for someone else to get you chocolates, get yourself some jiko choco (自己チョコ). What better way to celebrate a day of love than showing love to yourself! 

Happy Valentine’s Day!

So as you can see, the Valentine’s Day traditions for Japan differ quite a bit from the rest of the world, but nothing short of festive either. How will you celebrate this day of love this year? The Japanese way of celebrating or the Western way? Regardless, remember that self-love is also worth celebrating on this day. You don’t need a partner to enjoy this holiday. Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!

10 Cultural Facts About Japanese Food

10 Cultural Facts About Japanese Food

Who doesn’t like Japanese food? Known as washoku (和食) in Japanese, it’s one of the most popular traditional cuisines in the world! There’s no doubt you’ll see a Japanese restaurant in a city near you, if not in your city. Isn’t that proof enough that Japanese cuisine is the bomb?

But what is it that makes Japanese food so delicious and popular? There are actually a few cultural facts about Japanese cuisine that might have something to do with it. In this article, we list out 10 cultural facts about Japanese food. One or two of them might be the main reason why washoku is so delicious! The only way you can find out is if you keep reading!

1. Japanese cuisine prioritises simplicity

The best thing, in my opinion, about Japanese food is that the cuisine is often simple because of the cultural fact of prioritising simplicity. This factor applies to all parts of Japanese life, and that includes its cuisine. 

A lot of their high-end courses include small items of fresh ingredients, made with simple flavours. That’s one of the top priorities of chefs: finding the best quality ingredients so that they can do as little work to the food itself as possible. This, in their perspective, brings out the flavours and umami (うまみ) of the ingredients the best. Umami is an extremely important factor when it comes to Japanese cuisine: it’s the rich flavour profile characteristics of Japanese cuisine.

Because of this perspective, the way food is cooked includes searing, boiling, minimal seasoning and even eating the ingredients raw. That’s why they have sushi! Oftentimes you find that the umami is enhanced with bonito flakes, soy sauce, miso, seaweed and bonito broth. Seasonings include pickles, citrus and wasabi.

2. Seasonality is also key

One of the most important cultural facts about Japanese cuisine is that they take seasonality very seriously, and it’s incorporated in the dishes. The four seasons bring out a ton of opportunities for Japanese chefs to select ingredients and curate the perfect seasonal dish. 

For example, strawberry is often associated with spring because of the sakura (桜) season; eel is popular in summer because it’s in-season for it; sweet potatoes and chestnuts are for fall; apples and radishes are big in winter. These are just a few ingredients in a long list of them for each season.

But the ingredients aren’t the only thing important in seasonality. Seasonal dishes created are made to suit the occasion of the season. As we mentioned before, strawberries are popular because people celebrate cherry blossoms during this time. Because locals are enthusiastic about seasonal changes, the foods have to suit these celebrations too. 

3. Japanese cuisine is one of the three national food traditions that is recognised by the UN

Some of us may not know this, but traditional Japanese cuisine is one of the three national food traditions that’s recognised by the United Nation. UNESCO added washoku into its Intangible Cultural Heritage list, to bring significance that the preservation of the way of eating is crucial to the survival of the traditional culture. 

4. Matching dishware to food

Some may not put much thought into the kind of dishware when eating at a restaurant. Heck, sometimes we don’t put in much thought when we cook at home either. But the Japanese are extremely particular about their dishware. They would match the dishes based on colours, patterns and shapes. Seasonality is also an important factor.

If you go to a more formal restaurant, they often use antique ceramics and lacquerware. Don’t be surprised if the server tells you about the food as well as the dishware. You never know if the bowl you’re eating your ramen from is a handmade, hand-painted ceramic from centuries ago!

5. Japanese food has a lot of vegetables, but is not fully vegetarian

One Japanese cultural fact about food that most people often get confused with is that washoku is not fully vegetation. Sure, there are a lot of vegetables in Japanese cuisine. In fact, Japanese cuisine has a much higher ratio of plant-based foods than in the US, but that’s not the point.

A lot of the time, Japanese food is cooked in fish broth or served with bonito flakes sprinkled on them. I once tried to ask a Mexican restaurant in Japan if their shrimp tacos were okay for pescatarians, but they said that the oil they used was not suitable as it contains meat fat. So those with strict diets, this is quite important to take note of.

6. There are a lot of rules and etiquette to Japanese cuisine

A super important cultural fact of Japan that is closely related to their food is etiquette. There are a lot of rules and etiquette when it comes to eating Japanese cuisine. To list out all of them would require a whole other article, but we actually touched base on them in our Season 1 Episode 11 episode “Picture of Politeness”: click here to listen! Alternatively, you can read our recap article on the episode. 

To name a few important ones, chopsticks have certain rules – you can’t play around with them or stick them up in your rice bowl; slurping is considered polite instead of rude; you can’t walk while eating on the streets in Japan.

7. Local ingredients are massively featured in Japan’s various cities 

On top of seasonal ingredients, Japanese people pride themselves on local, regional ingredients to create their dishes. Depending on the city or prefecture you’re in, you’re going to get a lot of the same ingredients that they provide. For example, Miyagi prefecture is proud of edamame (枝豆), which are immature soybeans, and you’ll get them in everything from appetisers to desserts.

8. Tea is a form of art in Japan

If you don’t know what a Japanese tea ceremony is, read our article on it first! This practice is one of the highest forms of art in Japan. Yes, tea is considered a form of art in the country! There are even schools that teach you the right ways of preparing tea, and everything that comes with it. Our article has a more in-depth explanation and insight into this art form.

9. There’s a way to pour sake

This is a cultural fact that I didn’t know until I experienced it myself: there’s a way to pour sake! It’s said that restaurants will pour sake until it overflows into the saucer as a way to welcome their guests. This symbolises gratitude and abundance. To prepare you for this cultural act, here’s a video that you can watch that does exactly that:

10. Raw foods is common

This last one isn’t an uncommon Japanese food cultural fact: raw foods are so common in Japan. As we mentioned before, this has to do with the simplistic nature of Japanese culture, as well as the umami concept. So brace yourselves for a whole lot of sushi and the like!

What’s the best Japanese food fact? 

So, which one out of the ten Japanese food cultural facts is the best, in your opinion? Which one are you surprised by the most? Japanese food, just like the culture it’s from, has abundant to give, and both of them are things you have to experience yourself to grasp the uniqueness fully!

The Top 4 Contemporary Artists in Japan! (NM Recap! S2EP11)

The Top 4 Contemporary Artists in Japan! (NM Recap! S2EP11)

In our Season 2 Episode 11 of the Nihongo Master Podcast, we got artistic…without the brushes and paint. Instead, we drew inspiration from some of the top Japanese artists of today!

The Land of the Rising Sun is constantly brewing creativity — if you’ve seen the famous Great Wave print by Hokusai, you somewhat know that Japanese artists have been around and creating revolutionary works since centuries ago. But the new wave of contemporary artists go beyond traditional woodblock printing and the likes, bringing a new generation of the country’s rich artistry. From paintings and sculptures to visual media and perspective photography, these four Japanese artists of today transform Japan’s art scene on a global scale.

In the episode, we touched on Takashi Murakami’s anime-style crafts, Yayoi Kusama’s polka dots, Tatsuo Miyajima’s illuminating creations and Hiroshi Sugamoto’s refreshing captures. This article is a recap of what we covered in detail in the podcast.

1: Takashi Murakami

Image: Photo by RK (IG :@rkrkrk) ©︎ 2019 Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved. ©︎ Fujiko-pro

Takashi Murakami is undoubtedly the country’s most successful Japanese contemporary artist to this day. He wouldn’t be called the “Warhol of Japan” if that wasn’t the case. This revolutionary artist saw similarities between traditional Japanese painting and Japanese anime and manga. He created the now-world famous artistic movement, “Superflat”, which refers to the flat, two-dimensional imagery using flat planes of colour. Combine that with popping colour combinations as well as his intriguing play on compositions, and you get Murakami’s iconic aesthetic. Murakami brings Japanese traditional art into the world of popular culture.

Despite his extremely modern creations, Murakami has his artistic inspirations rooted in cultural theories that are based on Japanese subcultures. He takes elements that are considered “low” and repackage them as “high”. His collaborations — particularly with Louis Vuitton to produce fashion accessories — and other activities like the auction of a fiberglass sculpture called Miss Ko2 for USD567,500 (the highest price for a Japanese artist) has earned him celebrity status.

And to top it all off, Murakami proves himself to be quite the influence in the art scene when he opens up his own art production company called KaiKai KiKi Co., Litd. This company provides a platform for up-and-coming artists to gain international exposure through exhibitions, selling merchandise and art festivals in both Japan and in the US.

If that’s not proof enough that Takashi Murakami is a ground-breaking force in the art world, I don’t know what is. 

2: Yayoi Kusama

When you hear the name Yayoi Kusama, you automatically think of the polka dot print. That’s when you know, she’s the real deal. In the span of seven decades, Kusama has explored multiple mediums including (but not limited to) painting, sculpture, installation, film and fashion. From Dots Obsessions paintings to walk-in installations of rooms covered entirely with colourful dots and mirrors, it’s safe to say that’s her trademark.

This Matsumoto-born artist described herself as an “obsessional artist”. Her earlier works, Infinity Net, were full of repeated tiny marks on large canvases. While Murakami embraces 2-D, Kusama is all about infinity, and she began venturing into physical and psychological boundaries — one of her adventures led her to paint tiny dots on participants’ bodies near New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Started out minimalist, but eventually moved on towards the full-on pop art and avant-garde.

When Kusama moved back to Japan from New York, she continued exploring various mediums — with her obsessional artistic style, of course. Eventually, she opened up a museum to showcase her works.

3: Tatsuo Miyajima

© ANNA KUCER

If you’ve been to Japan during winter, you’d realise that the country’s huge on illuminations. One of Japan’s foremost sculptor and installation artists, Tatsuo Miyajima literally lights up the Japanese art scene. Unlike the previous two artists who are more of paintings and prints, Miyajima uses materials like electric circuits, videos, computers and other “gadgets” — as he would call it — in his works, bringing technology into the world of traditional art. 

Miyajima’s works aren’t just about lights — there’s a whole concept behind it. He’s inspired by Buddhist teachings and humanist ideas which brought about his core artistic concepts: “Keep Changing”, “Connect with All” and “Goes on Forever”. Miyajima uses LED number counters that flash in cycles from one to nine repeatedly and continuously, skipping the finality of zero. Zero never appears in his work. This signifies the journey from life to death, but never reaching the end, ever — kind of like saying, life and death are constantly repeating. It’s all about connectivity, continuity and eternity. Miyajima’s works have been presented in all kinds of structures — grids and towers, using simple to complex counters.

Since 2017, Miyajima has devoted himself to social participatory projects. One of them, called Revive Time: Kaki Tree Project, involves taking saplings from persimmon trees in Nagasaki that survived the atomic bombings and planting them all over the world. Another one is an ongoing project called “Sea of Time — TOHOKU”, where the end-goal is to install 3,000 LED counters permanently in the Tohoku region of Japan as a tribute to the souls that were lost in the 2011’s Great East Japan Earthquake.

So it’s safe to say that Miyajima’s works are more than just a light show — every single one of them tells a story, and some of them are even movements of their own.

 4: Hiroshi Sugimoto

If a picture speaks a thousand words, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s works scream a billion. Sugimoto dabbles in a few different mediums including architecture and antiques, but he excels in photography and videography. Well versed in everything from politics and history to arts, his works capture the expression of exposed time. The different series of works each have its own distinct theme, and each one is like a capsule of time, encompassing a series of occurrences.

Using long exposures and large format photographs alongside conceptual aspects featured in his works, Sugimoto has caught the attention of many. His first series Dioramas in 1976 captured the displays inside a museum and making the fake look real — “Polar Bear” from this series is also the first work to be in public collection, acquired by New York Museum of Modern Art. The same approach of turning reality into fiction was used for the Portraits series in 1999 where he captured wax figures, all looking like they were basically posing for the camera.

Sugimoto has other tricks up his sleeve, like capturing a reality and making it look surreal through long exposures, like in his 1978 Theatres series.

Vocab Recap

Here’s a quick vocab recap: 

Eikyou (影響) — inspiration or influence 

Kaisha (会社) — company

Matsuri (祭り) — festival

Porukadotto (プロカドット) — polka dot 

Hatsubutsukan (初物館) — museum 

Choukoku (彫刻) — sculpture

Gijutsu (技術) — technology

Seikatsu (生活) — life

Shi (死) — death

Shashin satsuei (さ神撮影) — photography

Shashin (写真) — photo

Genjitsu (現実) — reality. It comes from the word “jitsu” (実) to mean “truth”

Fikushon (フィクション) — fiction

Conclusion

Each one of these contemporary artists of Japan paints beautiful pictures of Japan and Japanese culture. This article  merely scratched the surface of Japan’s contemporary art scene — head over to the Nihongo Master Podcast if you’re interested in similar content to this!