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ETHNONYMS: Nihonjin, Nipponjin


Identification. The Japanese people, the majority of whom live in the archipelago known as Japan, which lies off the eastern coast of the Asian continent, speak the Japanese language. Japan, the most technologically advanced society in the world today, officially was transformed from a feudalistic country to a nation-state in 1871. It remains a homogeneous society in that less than 1 percent of the population is classified as non-Japanese and immigration to Japan is regulated carefully. A considerable amount of emigration has taken place since the end of the last century, largely to the United States, Canada, and South America, The indigenous religious system is Shinto; Buddhism was brought to Japan from China via Korea in the sixth century. The majority of Japanese people today classify themselves as both Shinto and Buddhist, and just over 1 percent as Christian. A large proportion of the population is, however, effectively secular in orientation. The Japanese identify themselves in terms of what is taken to be a shared biological heritage, birth in Japan, and a common language and culture. Although Japan is a postindustrial society and has, particularly since World War II, been thoroughly exposed to North American and European cultures and values, the sense of a shared past and unique cultural heritage remains central in creating a modern Japanese identity.

Location. Japan consists of four main islandsfrom north to south, Hokkaidō, Honshū, Shikoku, and Kyūshūin addition to a number of island chains and a thousand smaller islands. It occupies less than 0.3 percent of the world's land area and is about one twenty-fifth the size of the United States. Japan lies in the temperate zone, at the northeastern end of the monsoon region, and has four distinct seasons. Rainfall is abundant. Japan is subject to numerous earthquakes and, in late summer, to typhoons. Rugged mountain chains, several of them containing active volcanoes, account for more than 72 percent of the total land area, and numerous swift, shallow rivers flow from the mountains to the sea. Relatively little land is available for agriculture, just over 14 percent today; dwellings and roads occupy another 7 percent, leaving most of the countryside covered by dense, cultivated forests.

Demography. The population of Japan is just over 123 million people, with a density of 326 persons per square kilometer in the habitable areas, making it one of the most densely populated countries in the world. About 76 percent of the Japanese people live in cities; well over half of urban dwellers reside in one of four metropolitan areas made up of the sixteen prefectures around Tokyo, Ōsaka, Nagoya, and Kitakyūshū. The Tokyo megalopolis is comprised of about 30 million people and contains the administrative unit known as the Central Tokyo Metropolitan Areaapproximately 11 million people, a population on the decline because of a small but steady exodus of families who favor suburban residence.

Life expectancy at birth is 75.91 years for men and 81.77 years for women, the longest in the world for both sexes. In 1935 the average life expectancy was 47 for men and 50 for women, and thus it has increased by about 30 years in just over half a century, an extremely rapid rate of change. The proportion of those aged 65 and over is increasing rapidly. At present the elderly comprise about 15 percent of the population, but this figure is expected to rise to more than 23 percent early in the next century. At the same time the birthrate is falling; it is estimated at present to be 1.37 live births per 1,000 population per year, insufficient to replace the current population.

In 1721 the feudal government instituted regular, nationwide census taking with surveys repeated every six years. It is estimated from these records that Japan's population remained stable at about 30 million from the early eighteenth century until the latter part of the nineteenth century. From 1872 to 1975 it grew threefold, and Japan now ranks seventh in the world in terms of population.

Linguistic Affiliation. Japanese is a polysyllabic, highly inflected language. It is usually assigned to the Altaic Group of languages, which includes Korean, Mongolian, and Turkish languages and is not related to Chinese. The indigenous peoples of Japan were most probably the Ainu, a very small number of whose descendants now live in the northernmost island of Hokkaidō. It is widely accepted that the Ainu and Japanese languages are unrelated and that the Japanese of today are primarily descended from peoples who migrated long ago from the Asian mainland and displaced the Ainu, driving them northward.

It is estimated that Proto-Korean and Proto-Japanese separated from each other about 6,700 years ago, sometime after the first distinctive society, known as the Jōmon, was established in Japan. However, pottery dating back about 12,000 years, the oldest known in the world, indicates that a well-developed social organization (possibly that of the Ainu) was present before the arrival of peoples from the Asian mainland. Although Japanese is predominantly an Altaic language, it has some similarities to Austronesian, a linguistic group associated with Micronesia, Melanesia, and Southeast Asia; it is usually assumed that continuous cultural contact and possibly repeated migrations from these areas to Japan over many centuries account for these similarities.

From about 300 b.c. the Jōmon culture was gradually transformed and largely replaced by the vital Yayoi culture, whose archaeological remains give clear evidence of sustained contact with China. With the establishment of the Yayoi culture the foundations for the present-day Japanese language were clearly established.

Written Japanese is complex because it makes use of Chinese characters (kanji ), of which approximately 2,000 must be used just to read a newspaper. The reading of Chinese characters in Japanese texts is particularly formidable because most have more than one reading, usually depending on whether they appear singly or in combinations. In addition, two separate forms of phonetic syllabic script, both derived originally from Chinese characters, are used together with the Chinese characters. One, katakana, is used largely to express words of foreign origin; the other, hiragana, is reserved principally for inflectional endings and suffixes, which are extensively employed in Japanese but which do not exist in Chinese. In addition many technical words, acronyms, and so on are expressed today in roman letters.

Both syllabic scripts were developed by the eighth century, but at first they were not integrated with the Chinese script. At that time hiragana was used for personal correspondence and classical Japanese poetry: it was known as "women's hand." Early Japanese literature was set down entirely in what was thought of as this "pure" Japanese style, while Chinese characters were used for official and religious documents.

History and Cultural Relations

The most comprehensive record of early Japan that remains was written by the Chinese some time before a.d. 300. It portrays the Japanese as law-abiding people, fond of drink, concerned with divination and ritual purity, familiar with agriculture (including wet-rice cultivation), expert at fishing and weaving, and living in a society where social differences were expressed through the use of tattooing or other bodily markings. Among the early rulers of Japan some were women, the most famous of whom is Himiko of Yamatai. Current mythology reconstructs the first Japanese state as created around a "divine" emperor, a direct descendant of the sun goddess Amatarasu, in about 660 b.c., in what is now known as the Kinki region. Historical records dating to about the fifth century A.D. can be accepted as reasonably reliable. Early historical society was tribal in organization, divided into a large number of family groupings established as agricultural, craft, and ritual-specialist communities, some of which were exceedingly wealthy. In the early seventh century Chinese-style centralized bureaucratic rule was adopted; later, with the Taika reform in the mid-seventh century, many more Chinese institutions were embraced, followed by the building of the Chinese-style capital city of Nara in the eighth century. Although all authority theoretically was concentrated in the hands of the emperor, throughout Japanese history until the late nineteenth century, in contrast to China, emperors were usually dominated by a succession of court families and military rulers.

After the transfer in a.d. 794 of the capital to Heian-kyo, later to become Kyōto, a period of artistic development took place until the early twelfth century. During this period contacts with China were disrupted, allowing Japan to develop its own distinctive cultural forms. The world's first novel, The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, was written at this time together with other major literary works; Buddhism not only was consolidated as a religion but also became a political force to reckon with. A succession of civil dictators, all members of the Fujiwara family, manipulated successive emperors in order to control the country. Under them taxation of peasants became oppressive, but at the same time the state entered into opulent decline, leading to an eventual loss of power over the outlying regions. Competing dominant families, notably the Minamoto and the Taira, who had been thrust temporarily into the background by the Fujiwara, returned to Kyōto to impose military control there. The Taira ruled for thirty years but eventually succumbed to Minamoto Yoritomo, who ousted them and took firm control of Japan. Yoritomo went on to establish a military government in Kamakura in eastern Honshū and persuaded the emperor to grant him the hereditary title of shogun; thus began an era of military rule that lasted for seven centuries. It was at Kamakura that the samurai code of discipline and chivalry was conceived and developed, while the imperial household remained in Kyōto, producing a succession of puppet emperors.

The groundwork for feudalism, built on the ruins of the centralized Chinese-style bureaucratic state, was laid down during the Kamakura shogunate. On the whole, the lot of the Japanese peasants was better than that of European serfs in that they often retained some rights over land and largely were protected from crippling taxes. During the fourteenth century there was a short-lived restoration of imperial rule, followed by a new military government established by the Ashikaga family in Kyōto, which lasted for two centuries. This was a time of prosperity and the full flowering of Bushidō (the way of the warrior), including the aesthetic and religious expression of this discipline. The Portuguese Jesuit Francis Xavier first arrived in Kyushu during the sixteenth century, followed by other Christian missionaries and then traders. Toward the end of the century a plague of civil wars broke out in Japan, which continued until order finally was restored by the military leader Hideyoshi Toyotomi in 1590. The pacification and unification of the country was completed by the first of the Tokugawa shoguns, Ieyasu, who then moved the seat of the shogunate to Edo, now Tokyo. As part of the process of consolidation, the shogunate virtually isolated Japan from the outside world, a situation that lasted for more than 265 years. Ieyasu and his son persecuted foreign missionaries and Japanese who had converted to Christianity. All contact with foreigners was restricted to the island of Deshima off the coast of Nagasaki.

Japanese feudalism reached a final, centralized stage under the Tokugawas, and neo-Confucianism, with its hierarchical ordering of society, was made a central part of the ideology. Strict class divisions were enforced between samurai, peasants, merchants, and artisans. Respect and obedience were the code of the day. During this period literacy and numeracy became widespread, and the foundations for a modern society were well established. A self-conscious cultivation of indigenous Japanese traditions, including Shinto, took hold among certain samurai, who would become politically active in the eventual restoration of the emperor. At the same time Japan came increasingly under pressure to open its shores to the outside world, and the resulting internal turbulence led to the collapse of the shogunate. This was followed by the Meiji Restoration of 1868, in which the emperor once again gained full sovereignty and set up the imperial capital in the city that was known from then on as Tokyo.

During the Meiji era a modern nation-state was firmly consolidated, a constitution was promulgated, a central government was established, the Tokugawa class system was abolished, a national system of education was put in place, a modern legal code was adopted, and a formidable military and industrial machine was assembled. The entire country threw itself into the process of modernization, for which purpose Europeanand, to a much lesser extent, Americanmodels were initially emulated. Japan's victories in both the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 and its annexation of Korea in 1910 established Japan as a world power. Its place in the modern world order was further consolidated at the end of World War I, which Japan had entered on Britain's side under the provision of the Anglo-Japan Alliance of 1902. During the 1920s the worldwide recession affected the Japanese economy, most particularly because of its great dependence on foreign trade. By 1925 most small industries had been crushed by the monopolies of the giant corporations headed by extremely wealthy and powerful families. Faltering confidence in the government was reinforced by the exposure of a number of scandals. The military, which was suspicious of both the giant corporations and politicians, seized the moment and thus helped propel Japan toward World War II, although undoubtedly the freezing of Japanese assets by the United States and the embargo placed by the Americans on oil shipments to Japan triggered an already inflammatory situation.

The Japanese finally surrendered after two atomic bombs had been dropped, one on Hiroshima and another on Nagasaki. During the American occupation, which lasted from 1945 to 1951, Shintō was abolished as a state religion; elections, in which women could vote for the first time, were held; new political parties were established; and a new constitution was formulated. Under Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida the country made formidable strides towards democratic self-government. Japan soon entered a phase of rapid economic growth, which has since been transformed into a low-growth economy geared to "internationalization." Today the Japanese are trying to integrate economic success with what they describe as a "humanistic" and more "spiritually" oriented life-style.


The history of housing in Japan reflects two primary influences: the indigenous influence of climate, land formation, and natural events (typhoons and earthquakes) ; and the external influence of foreign architectural design. Traditional Japanese architecture is made of wood with deep projecting roofs as protection against the monsoon rains. By the sixteenth century the typical Japanese house with a joined-skeleton frame of post-and-beam construction and elaborate joinery was common. The floor is raised above the ground, its posts resting on foundation stone, which allows the entire structure to bounce during an earthquake. This type of house is still dominant in rural settings and remains also in urban areas, usually squeezed among concrete buildings today.

In cities, most people live in apartments or housing corporations; land prices and taxes are exorbitant, making the buying of homes nearly impossible in the city centers. The suburbs have encroached ever deeper into the countryside, where house prices are a little cheaper, and many people commute for as many as four hours to and from work each day. The required coordination between government and the private sector makes city planning extremely difficult in Japan. Nevertheless, recent years have seen the emergence of policies systematically designed to develop larger-scale housing and industrial projects in regional areas rather than a simple restructuring of the megalopolis.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The postwar economy of Japan is based on a competitive-market, private-enterprise system. Less than 8 percent of the population remains fully occupied with agricultural production, although many families retain farming as a secondary occupation. The most usual pattern is that the wife works the farm while the husband is employed full-time in business or industry. Rice remains the principal crop, although its production is strictly controlled and there are financial incentives for diversification. Over the past forty years there has been a steady reallocation of labor from agriculture and a large number of relatively inefficient small-scale industrial and service occupations to highly productive, technologically sophisticated enterprises. The majority of the population is occupied today in manufacturing, business, financing, service, and the communication industries. Japan consistently has kept its unemployment rate at 2.5 percent or lowerby far the lowest in the industrialized nations. Most businesses are privately owned, and demand for goods and services determines what will be produced and at what prices. The role of government in the economy is indirect, largely through close cooperation with business, wide dissemination of information to shape incentives, and provision of research and development funds.

Despite the steady reallocation of labor, not all production is concentrated in giant companies. Small units of production remain very prevalent; for example, more than half the workers in manufacturing are in enterprises with fewer than 100 workers. Japan is an exceedingly wealthy country, with the second-largest gross national product (GNP) in the world. There is a reasonably good distribution of income across the population; abject poverty is virtually nonexistent.

Industrial Arts. Throughout Japanese history the production of ceramics, cloth, silk, paper, furniture, metal implements, and so on has been carried out by individuals in extended households, by professional artisans, and in cottage industries. Techniques were usually passed on from one generation of specialist families to another, sometimes over hundreds of years. A few such families remain in existence, although it has become increasingly difficult to find successors. Distinguished craftspeople are sometimes recognized by the government as "national treasures." Today the bulk of industrial arts is mass-produced, and workers are trained in an apprenticeship system or in technical schools, but handmade crafts continue to be highly valued and play a major role not only in the art world and the tourist industry but also in daily life.

Trade. Most trade in Japan is organized and conducted by the nine very large, highly diversified commercial houses known as sōgō shōsha, which structure and facilitate the flow of goods, services, and money among client firms. These trading houses operate both within Japan and internationally. The total sales of these nine firms account for about 25 percent of Japan's GNP, and the imports and exports handled by them amount to about half of foreign trade. These companies originated in the Meiji period, and today maintain a system of domestic offices linked by the latest communication techniques to a worldwide network of overseas offices. Japan's trade is characterized by the export of finished products and the import of raw materials, of which oil is perhaps the most strategic. At present the nation has an enormous trade surplus with most of its international trading partners.

Division of Labor. Since 1945 Japan has adopted a comprehensive legal framework dealing with labor conditions including labor relations, labor protection, and social security. Labor conditions are managed largely by the Ministry of Labor. The Labor Standards Law of 1947 contains a "bill of rights" for individual workers and guarantees minimum wages, maximum hours of work, and so on. Many white-collar workers are nevertheless required to put in long hours of overtime work. About one-third of Japanese workers are unionized; almost all Japanese unions are organized at the level of the enterprise, and they include in their membership blue- and white-collar workers and, often, low-level managerial personnel. Branch unions often form an enterprisewide federation, which in turn may participate in a national industrywide federation. Most union activity takes place, however, at the level of the enterprise.

The school system is designed to be egalitarian and, in theory, entrance into the work force is based on educational merit. In practice, graduation from certain schools provides a greater guarantee of entry into the top universities, graduation from which facilitates entry into the professions and high-ranking civil service jobs. Employment based on personal connections is still prevalent in Japan. A provision for equal wages for equal work regardless of gender was adopted in 1947, but discrimination against women in the workplace continues to the present time. In April 1986 the Equal Employment Opportunity Law, designed to eliminate gender inequalities, was passed, followed in 1988 by the Labor Standards Law. These laws remove many of the restrictions placed on working womenin particular, the number and timing of the hours they can work each day. In practice, considerable social pressure remains for a woman to give up work during her first pregnancy. When they return to work, women are very often hired as part-time employees, although their working hours are long, and many of them work a six-day week. Employers are not required to pay benefits to such employees, who can be hired and fired easily during economic cycles of expansion and contraction.

Land Tenure. At the end of World War II, nearly 50 percent of the population still lived in rural surroundings. At that time 36 percent of the farm families owned 90 percent or more of their land; another 20 percent owned between 50 and 90 percent; 17 percent owned 10 to 50 percent; and 27 percent owned less than 10 percent. Tenants paid rent in kind. Landholdings were, and remain, small (1 hectare on average). Land reform was carried out during the Allied occupation, including the transfer to the government of all land owned by absentee landlords. Today 90 percent of the farmland is owned and worked by individual families. Of urban land area, over 77 percent is residential, nearly 11 percent industrial, and just over 12 percent commercial. Urban residences are small and prohibitively expensive, on average more than three times the cost of housing in the United States. Many families live in apartments for years until they can afford a down payment on a house. Approximately 65 percent of the families in Japan own their home, but in the metropolitan areas this number falls below 30 percent.


Kin Groups and Descent. The most usual living arrangement in Japan today is the nuclear familymore than 60 percent of the households are of this type, and the number has increased steadily throughout this century. Another 16 percent are single-person households. Just over 20 percent of households are extended, most of which are in rural areas. This type of household, known traditionally as the ie, is thought today to have been typical of living arrangements in Japan until well into this century, although in reality there was always considerable regional and class variation in connection with household composition. The ie usually was comprised of a three-generation household of grandparents, parents, and children; it was not extended laterally under one roof. In many regions of Japan in prewar years more than one household could comprise the ie, and households existed in a hierarchical grouping known as the dozōku, composed of one senior household and "stem" or branch households situated nearby. The traditional ie, a corporate economic unit, was patrilineal and patrilocal, and the head of the household was held responsible for the well-being and activities of all family members. The household, rather than individual family members, was taken as the basic unit of society, a situation that still applies for many purposes today.

Kinship Terminology. The kinship system is bilateral, and includes relatives connected to both husband and wife. Cognates and affines are addressed by the same terms. In this system horizontal ties are usually stressed over vertical ties, and hence the kinship system is ideally complementary to the hierarchical lineage system. Honorifics are built into the terms used to address or refer to grandparents, parents, and older siblings within the family. Terms for brothers and sisters are differentiated according to age. When referring to one's own family members beyond the confines of the family, however, the honorifics are dropped and the terms are changed.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage in Japan until the Meiji period had been characterized as an institution that benefited the community; during the Meiji period it was transformed into one that perpetuated and enriched the extended household (ie) ; and, in postwar years, it has again been transformedthis time into an arrangement between individuals or two nuclear families. Today marriage in Japan can be either an "arranged" union or a "love" match. In theory an arranged marriage is the result of formal negotiations involving a mediator who is not a family member, culminating in a meeting between the respective families, including the prospective bride and groom. This is usually followed, if all goes well, by further meetings of the young couple and ends in an elaborate and expensive civic wedding ceremony. In the case of a love marriage, which is the preference of the majority today, individuals freely establish a relationship and then approach their respective families. In response to surveys about marriage customs, most Japanese state that they underwent some combination of an arranged and love marriage, in which the young couple was given a good deal of freedom but an official mediator may have been involved nevertheless. These two arrangements are understood today not as moral oppositions but simply as different strategies for obtaining a partner. Less than 3 percent of Japanese remain unmarried; however, the age of marriage is increasing for both men and women: early or mid-thirties for men and late twenties for women are not unusual today. The divorce rate is one-quarter that of the United States.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family is the usual domestic unit, but elderly and infirm parents often live with their children or else in close proximity to them. Many Japanese men spend extended periods of time away from home on business, either elsewhere in Japan or abroad; hence the domestic unit often is reduced today to a single-parent family for months or even years at a time, during which period the father returns rather infrequently.

Inheritance. Freedom to dispose of one's assets at will has been a central legal principle in Japan since the implementation of the Civil Code at the end of World War II. Inheritance without a will (statutory inheritance) is overwhelmingly the case today. In addition to financial assets, when necessary, someone is named to inherit the family genealogy, the equipment used in funerals, and the family grave. The order of inheritance is first to the children and the spouse; if there are no children, then the lineal ascendants and spouse; if there are no lineal ascendants, then the siblings and the spouse; if there are no siblings, then the spouse; if there is no spouse, procedures to prove the nonexistence of an heir are initiated, in which case the property may go to a common-law wife, an adopted child, or other suitable party. An individual may disinherit heirs by means of a request to the family court.

Socialization. The mother is recognized as the primary agent of socialization during early childhood. The correct training of a child in appropriate discipline, language use, and manners is known as shitsuke. It is generally assumed that infants are naturally compliant, and gentle and calm behavior is positively reinforced. Small children are rarely left on their own; they also are not usually punished but instead are taught good behavior when they are in a cooperative mood. Most children today go to preschool from about the age of 3, where, in addition to learning basic skills in drawing, reading, writing, and mathematics, emphasis is on cooperative play and learning how to function effectively in groups. More than 94 percent of children complete nine years of compulsory education and continue on to high school; 38 percent of boys and 37 percent of girls receive advanced education beyond high school.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Japan is an extremely homogeneous society in which class differences were abolished at the end of the last century. An exception was the burakumin, an outcaste group, the majority of whom are descendants of ritually "unclean" people (leatherworkers, butchers, grave diggers). Although discrimination against burakumin was made illegal after the war, many continue to be severely stigmatized, and most of them live close to the poverty line.

Japan is widely recognized as a vertically structured, group-oriented society in which the rights of individuals take second place to harmonious group functioning. Traditionally, Confucian ethics encouraged a respect for authority, whether that of the state, the employer, or the family. Age and gender differences also were marked through both language and behavioral patterns. Women traditionally were expected to pay respect first to their fathers, then to their husbands, and finally, in later life, to their sons. Although this hierarchy is no longer rigidly enforced, it is still very evident in both language and interpersonal behavior.

Social groups of all kinds in Japan frequently are described as "familylike"; a strong sense of group solidarity is fostered consciously at school and work, leading to a highly developed awareness of insiders and outsiders. Competition between groups is keen, but the vertical structuring of loyalty, which overarches and encompasses the competing entities, usually ensures that consensus can be obtained at the level of whole organizations and institutions. The finely tuned ranking order that pervades Japanese organizations today is modeled on fictive kinship relationships characteristic of superiors and their subordinates in the traditional workplace. These relationships are often likened to bonding between parents and children and are present not only in the labor force but also in the worlds of the arts and entertainment, in gangster organizations, and so on. Despite the pervasiveness of hierarchy, institutional affiliation is recognized as more important than social background in contemporary Japan. This preference combined with the existence of a highly uniform educational system leads, paradoxically, to a reasonably egalitarian social system.

Political Organization. The 1947 postwar constitution proclaimed the Diet as the highest organ of state power and the sole law-making authority of the state. The Diet is divided into two elected chambers: the lower chamber, or the House of Representatives, where a term of office lasts for four years; and the upper chamber, or the House of Councillors, whose members serve a six-year term. Of the two, the House of Representatives holds more power. Much of the business of each house is conducted in standing committees to which special committees may be added as the need arises. Executive power resides in the cabinet, at whose head is the prime minister. The cabinet is directly responsible to the Diet. The House of Representatives chooses the prime minister, who then selects the cabinet. The power of the prime minister is curbed severely by rival intraparty factions, and cabinet posts are reshuffled frequently, both of which processes influence decision making. The judiciary is, in theory, independent of the government, and the supreme court has the power to determine the constitutionality of any law, regulation, or official act. However, supreme court judges are appointed by the cabinet and in turn influence the appointment of other judges.

Throughout the postwar years the authority of the central government has been consolidated. The relatively conservative Liberal Democratic Party has been repeatedly reelected to power ever since its formation in 1955, a situation brought about in part by its close connection with wealthy interest groups, a highly effective and far-flung bureaucracy, and an electoral system imbalanced in favor of votes from rural areas. Since the 1960s a series of active citizens' movements interested in consumer and environmental issues has repeatedly challenged the ruling party, resulting in some policy changes. Japan is frequently described as a society where a preponderance of political power that takes precedence over all other social activities exists at every level of society. Furthermore, the implementation of power is designed above all to carry forward group objectives rather than individual rights or interests.

The emperor presently is described in the constitution as the "symbol of the people and the unity of the nation" but holds no formal political power. On New Year's day 1946 the then Emperor Hirohito formally announced that he was an ordinary human being, thus breaking the tradition, which had existed since prehistory, of attributing semidivine status to Japanese emperors. Nevertheless, at the enthronement of Hirohito's son in 1991, Shintō ceremonies were performed, including rituals involving divinities. The lives of the imperial family remain very secluded and carefully controlled by the Imperial Household Agency; their existence provides, among other things, a focus for nationalistic sentiment, which at times is strongly expressed.

Social Control. Law enforcement is carried out by a police system organized into prefectural forces and coordinated by a National Police Agency. Public safety commissions supervise police activities at both the national and prefectural levels. Particularly at the local level, the police force enjoys wide public support and respect, although this is tinged with a certain ambivalence because the police remain strongly associated with prewar authoritarianism. Local police are required to visit every home in their jurisdiction twice a year to gather information on residents; this activity is generally regarded positively by citizens. Police are also required to participate actively in community organizations and activities, and they maintain close links with local governments. The crime rate in Japan is exceptionally low for an urban, densely populated society, in part because segments of each community cooperate actively with the police in crime-prevention activities.

Conflict. Serious conflict in Japan is dealt with under the rubric of the legal system, which is organized so that out-ofcourt resolutions are by far the most usual. Compromise and conciliation by third-party mediators are widely practiced. Japan has relatively few lawyers and judges, and cases that go to court take an exceptionally long time to reach settlement.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. There are more than 200,000 religious organizations in Japan, the majority of them either Shintō; or Buddhist in orientation. Since neither of these religions is exclusive, a situation of religious pluralism has existed for more than ten centuries and today most of the population claims to be both Shintoist and Buddhist, with about 1 percent being Christian. Shintō is the indigenous animistic religion of Japan. Known as the "way of the kami (deities)," it is both a household and a local-community religion. The doctrine is largely unwritten, religious statuary is uncommon, and Shintō shrines are simple but elegant wooden structures usually situated in a sacred grove of trees, entry to which is gained through an archway known as a tōri. The divine origin of the imperial family is one of the basic tenets of Shintō; after the Meiji Restoration and particularly during World War II, Shintō came to be regarded as a state religion with the emperor as its head and was intimately associated with nationalism. State Shinto was abolished under the postwar constitution, but as a community religion it does still play a very important role in many aspects of Japanese ceremonial and symbolic life, in particular with childhood ceremonies and weddings.

Buddhism was introduced to Japan from India via China and Korea in the middle of the sixth century. By the eighth century it was adopted as the state religion, but practitioners still turned to China as the source of authority. From the ninth century Buddhism spread throughout the population in Japan and gradually took on a distinctive Japanese form associated particularly with the Pure Land, Nichiren, and Zen sects. From the seventeenth century, for more than 250 years, Buddhism enjoyed political patronage under the Tokugawa shogunate, but with the restoration of the emperor and the establishment of state-supported Shinto in the second half of the nineteenth century, there was a movement to disestablish Buddhism. In the postwar years, most of the population has become essentially secular, and Buddhist priests are contacted almost exclusively for funerals and memorial services. The tourist industry is now a major source of support for the better-known temples and shrines.

Neither Confucianism nor Taoism constitutes a separate religion in Japan, but these traditions have contributed deeply to Japanese life and have influenced both Shintō and Buddhism. Confucianism, largely in the form known as Neo-Confucianism, provided the foundation for ethical relationships in both government and daily life, particularly from the seventeenth century onward. Although no longer officially sanctioned, its tenets continue to influence daily life. Religious Taoism, like Confucianism, was imported from China to Japan and actively supported from the sixth century. It has had a long-lasting influence on popular religious beliefs, particularly in connection with sacred mountains, firewalking, and purification rituals of all kinds. All of these religious traditions have contributed to a greater or lesser degree to the following features that characterize Japanese religious principles: a veneration for ancestors; a belief in religious continuity of the family, living and dead; a close tie between the nation and religion; pluralism in religious beliefs; a free exchange of ideas among religious systems; and religious practice centered on the use of prayer, meditation, amulets, and purification rites.

Religious Practitioners. Any male may train for the priesthood, but in smaller temples and shrines the position of head priest is often passed on from father to son or adopted son. Celibacy is not required, and the wives of priests often receive some formal training and participate in the running of the temple. Larger temples take in acolytes who, after years of discipline, may be assigned to subsidiary temples. Buddhist priests are often very accomplished at traditional arts, in particular calligraphy. In Shintō shrines young women, often daughters of priests and supposedly virgins, assist with many shrine activities.

Ceremonies. Religious activities at a Shintō shrine reflect the seasonal changes and are associated particularly with the planting and harvesting of rice. These celebrations are still held in many shrines, together with important purification ceremonies at the New Year and midyear to wash away both physical and spiritual pollution. The major festival days are the New Year's festival, on the first day of the first month, the girls' festival on the third day of the third month, the boys' festival on the fifth day of the fifth month, the star festival on the seventh day of the seventh month, and the chrysanthemum festival on the ninth day of the ninth month. These festivals are celebrated both in the home and at shrines. A newborn child is usually dedicated to the service of a deity at a shrine on his or her first trip out of the house, and at ages 3, 5, and 7 children are again presented at the shrine dressed in traditional clothes. Marriage is also associated with the Shintō shrine, but most people, although they often use traditional dress replete with Shintō-derived symbolism, have secular marriages. Public ceremonies at Buddhist temples are less frequent, the most important being the annual bon ceremony, in which the dead are believed to return for a short while to earth, after which they must be returned safely to the other world. Some temples occasionally hold healing ceremonies, conduct tea ceremonies, or participate in setsubun, a purification ceremony to welcome spring.

Arts. Prehistoric artifacts, such as the haniwa figures found in the tombs of the Yamato rulers of early Japan, are often thought to represent a purity and simplicity of design that has remained characteristic of Japanese art until the present day. Art of the early historical period is dominated by Buddhist statuary, which reveals a mastery of both woodwork and metalwork. During the Heian period a distinctive style of literature and art associated with the court was developed, including long, horizontally rolled narrative scrolls and a stylized form of painting that made use of brilliant color and a formalized perspective. The mid-fourteenth to the mid-sixteenth centuries are considered to have been the formative period for all the major Japanese art forms that survive to the present time, including ink painting and calligraphy, the Nō drama, ceramics, landscape gardening, flower arranging, the tea ceremony, and architecture that makes extensive use of natural wood and subordinates the building to its natural surroundings. The Tokugawa period was characterized by the emergence of literature and art forms associated with the newly emerging urban classes, which flourished side by side with earlier forms of religious and ruling-class artistic expression. Extensive use was made of the wood-block print by urban residents of feudal Japan as a medium for portraying daily life at that time. Since the middle of the nineteenth century Japanese art has come under the influence of both Europe and North America. Traditional art forms still flourish and change in a society that today produces some of the most sophisticated and innovative art, photography, architecture, and design in the world.

Literature and poetry (of which the haiku and the tanka are perhaps the most famous forms) have both flourished throughout Japanese history. The Kabuki theater, for popular consumption, in which the performers are all male, first appeared in the Tokugawa period, as did Bunraku, the puppet theater. The modern Japanese novel took form in the middle of the last century and is particularly well known for its introspection and exploration of the concept of self, together with a sensitivity to minute details.

Medicine. Japan has a complex, pluralistic medical system that is dominated today by a technologically sophisticated biomedicine. The earliest references to healing are recorded in the chronicles of mythological and early historical times. Shamanistic practices were present from at least a.d. 400 together with the use of medicinal-plant materials. Two theories of disease causation were dominant at this time: contact with polluting agents, such as blood and corpses; and possession by spirits. The secular, literate Chinese medical tradition was first brought to Japan in the sixth century by Buddhist priests. Grounded in the philosophical concepts of yin and yang, in which a harmonious relationship between the microcosm of the human body and the macrocosm of society and the universe is central, this system, known in Japan as kanpo, makes use of herbal material together with acupuncture, moxibustion, and massage as therapeutic techniques. It remained dominant until shortly after the restoration of the emperor in 1867, at which time European medicine was adopted as the official medical system.

The Japanese government established a national health-insurance system in 1961, becoming the first Asian country to do so. Today, Japan has a well-supplied, reasonably efficient modern health-care system. Nevertheless, healing practices conducted by religious practitioners, both Shintoists and Buddhists, remain prevalent, and there has been an extensive revival of kanpo. The practice of herbal medicine is limited today to qualified physicians, and acupuncturists and other traditional practitioners must be licensed; some of these practitioners work within the national insurance system. Many ordinary physicians make use of herbal medicines in addition to synthetic drugs.

Death and Afterlife. In Japan death is believed to take place when the spirit is separated irrevocably from the body. Between life and death is an interim stage of forty-nine days in which the spirit lingers in this world until finally it is settled peacefully in the realm of the dead. Annual memorial services must be held for the dead and it is not until the thirty-third or fiftieth year after death that the spirit loses its individual identity and is fused with the spirits of the ancestors. Most Japanese do not adhere closely to this tradition today, but they still retain some sensitivity to these ideas. Yearly Buddhist observances in August at the bon festival for the souls of the dead continue to remind people of the links between the living and the dead, and of the possibility of spirits of the dead returning to earth. There is also a widely shared Buddhist-derived belief that one can attain a form of eternity or enlightenment while still in this world through the realization of one's full potential on earth. This tradition is associated particularly with the martial arts, the tea ceremony, and other forms of traditional arts and crafts, as well as with meditation.

See also Ainu; Burakumin


Beardsley, Richard K., John W. Hall, and Robert E. Ward (1959). Village Japan. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Bestor, Theodore C. (1989). Neighborhood Tokyo. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Boscaro, Adriana, Franco Gatti, and Massimo Raveri, eds. (1990). Rethinking Japan: Social Sciences, Ideology, and Thought. 2 vols. Folkestone, Kent: Japan Library; New York: St. Martin's Press.

Embree, John F. (1939). Suye Mura, a Japanese Village. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gluck, Carol (1985). Japan's Modern Myths: Ideology in the Late Meiji Period. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Hardacre, Helen (1989). Shinto and the State, 1868-1988. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Jansen, Marius B. (1980). Japan and Its World: Two Centuries of Change. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Nakane, Chie (1970). Japanese Society. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Norbeck, Edward (1976). Changing Japan. 2nd ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Okimoto, Daniel L, and Thomas P. Rohlen (1988). Inside the Japanese System: Readings on Contemporary Society and Political Economy. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.


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POPULATION: 125 million

LANGUAGE: Japanese

RELIGION: Shinto; Buddhism; Confucianism; Christianity


The Japanese islands have been inhabited by humans since Paleolithic times. Archaeologists there have discovered some of the oldest pottery known to exist.

Migration has not been a significant feature of Japan's history. The Japanese are a mixture of northeast Asians with others from the China coast, Southeast Asia, and Polynesia. By the Heian Period (AD 7941185), the dominant Japanese population extended control over the northern region of the island of Honshu, displacing (pushing aside) the indigenous (native) Ainu people. In the nineteenth century, the Ainu were displaced from the island of Hokkaido when the majority Japanese settled there.

Throughout Japan's history, the government has been dominated by emperors, whose authority has decreased in modern times. During various historical periods, the Japanese government has been in the hands of the military (bakufu), with power shifted to warriors (samurais).

Japan suffered an economic crisis following World War I (191418). Tokyo and Yokohama were devastated by an earthquake in 1923. During World War II (194145), Japan attacked the United States and Great Britain (in 1941). Defeat in World War II stripped Japan of its overseas empire and military. Its economy and most of its large cities were devastated. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by atomic bombs. Allied military forces (mostly American) occupied Japan (194552) and imposed sweeping reforms to promote democracy. After the occupation Japan rebuilt its country.

Japan grew dramatically as an economic force beginning in the 1960s, and has enjoyed a high standard of living since that time.

Politically, Japan is a parliamentary democracy modeled on the British system. Representatives are elected to the Diet, a parliament (government council) with two legislative chambers. The majority party in the lower house, the House of Representatives, elects its Prime Minister, who forms a cabinet. The conservative Liberal Democratic Party is the largest party, but its long-running control of the lower house was broken in 1993. Parties are now going through a period of reorientation.

Mythology says that the ruling line of Japanese emperors descended from the Shinto sun goddess. Since the late Yamato Period (AD 300710), one family has occupied the thronethe world's oldest dynasty. In 1990, Akihito (1933) succeeded his father, Hirohito (19011989), becoming the 125th ruler in the dynasty. During most history, the emperor exercised no political power but only validated the rule of others who claimed to act in his name. The Meiji government (18681912) created a cult around the emperor to rally popular support. This culminated in the excesses of emperor worship in the wartime 1930s and 1940s. Since World War II (193945), the emperor has publicly denied his divinity, and mythology has been removed from school history texts.


Japan's population is about 125 million. Practically all Japanese speakers live in Japan. Small communities have moved to Hawaii and North and South America, but most of their descendants no longer speak Japanese.

Japan is a chain of approximately 3,000 islands off the eastern coast of Asia. Throughout history the main islands of Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku have been the homeland of the Japanese. During the seventeenth century political influence was extended southward over the Ryukyu Islands, including Okinawa. These are occupied by a closely related population that speaks a variant of Japanese. The Ryukyus became part of Japan in the nineteenth century. Hokkaido was fully annexed in the nineteenth century.

Approximately two-thirds of the land area is too mountainous for development. This compresses the population into a few large plains, the Kanto (around Tokyo), the Kansai (around Osaka), and the Nobi (around Nagoya), mountain basins, and coastal strips. The population is overwhelmingly urban, drawn by jobs and city life.

Japan suffers extensive seismic activity. It has many active volcanoes and experiences frequent earthquakes. A huge earthquake on September 1, 1923, destroyed Tokyo and Yokohama and killed approximately 130,000 people. Kobe was devastated by an earthquake on January 17, 1995, which took over five thousand lives. Japan also endures seasonal typhoons. While often destructive, these storms cause little loss of life.


The Japanese language is essentially spoken only in Japan. It is an Altaic language and its nearest relative is Korean. It is not related to Chinese, but writing was learned from China. Chinese characters (kanji), each with a meaning and multiple pronunciations, are part of the writing system.

Japanese words are composed of many syllables, and endings are attached to change tense, form a negative, or otherwise modify meaning. The standard sentence order is subject, object, verb.

Japanese English
Ohayoo-gozaimasu good morning
Kon-nichi wa good day
Kon-ban wa good evening
O genki desu-ka How are you?
O-kagesama de I'm well, thank you.
Sayoonara goodbye (formal)
Arigatoo-gozaimasu thank you
Doo itashimashite you are welcome

Family names come first and given names second. Hence, Tanaka Junko is a female name for Junko of the Tanaka family. Titles of respect follow a name. San is a universal title of respect equal to Mr., Miss, Mrs.; therefore Tanaka-san could mean Mr. Tanaka, Ms. Tanaka, Miss Tanaka, or Mrs. Tanaka.


Japanese folklore combines Shinto religious myths, stories of nature spirits, Buddhist tales, and historical figures to whom mythical deeds are attributed. For example, Minamoto Yoshitsune helped his half brother, Minamoto Yoritomo, win the Gempei War (118085). He was a brilliant general who supposedly learned warrior skills as a boy from tengu half-man, half-bird figures who live in mountain forests. Later, Yoshitsune used these skills to defeat a giant Buddhist warrior-monk, Benkei, in a duel on the Go-jo Bridge in Kyoto. Overwhelmed by Yoshitsune's skill, Benkei surrendered and became his loyal follower. Benkei has become a model of loyalty. Yoshitsune and Benkei died in a battle against Yoritomo, who became jealous of his brother and turned against him.

Japanese folklore is rich in strange beings who inhabit nature. In addition to tengu, mentioned above, there are kappa, water demons about three feet tall that have bird beaks and turtle shells on their backs. They often lure people into the water to drown. They love cucumbers, and one can protect oneself from kappa by carving one's name on a cucumber and tossing it into the local stream. When out of the water, kappa carry water in a depression on their heads. If encountered, it is advisable to bow to the kappa. It will return the bow, spilling the water and becoming too weak to cause harm.

Japanese myths include Shinto tales collected in the oldest surviving Japanese book, the Kojiki. These describe the creation of the world and the Japanese islands by Izanagi and Izanami, a pair of male and female deities (gods). The primary deity is the Sun goddess, Amaterasu. On sending her descendant to rule Japan, she gave him three sacred treasures: a bronze mirror, a sword, and a string of comma-shaped jewels called magatama. These items are still associated with the imperial family. Amaterasu is honored at the Ise Grand Shrine, where the original mirror is supposedly housed.


Traditional Japanese religion includes Shinto, Buddhism, and Confucianism.

Shinto ("The Way of the Gods") is the name given to religious practices that were indigenous to Japan before Buddhism was introduced. It is concerned with humanity's relationship to nature, to agriculture, and to society. Prayers and offerings petition deities (kami) for health, a good crop, children, and safety. Harvest festivals are Shinto events. Shinto also concerns itself with community relationships; hence, marriages are usually Shinto ceremonies.

The richness of Buddhism and its ties to Chinese culture helped it gain support at the Japanese court. Buddhism also answered spiritual needs that Shinto neglected, including questions of morals and life after death. By the Nara Period (AD 710794), Shinto and Buddhism began to exist side by side. Shinto deities (gods) were explained as Japan's local versions of the universal beings represented by the many Buddhas. Shinto dealt with issues of this world (crops, social relations, clan ancestors), while Buddhism concentrated on ethical (moral) and metaphysical (supernatural) issues. This division still works for many Japanese. Weddings may be Shinto ceremonies, but Buddhism deals with morality, funerals, and questions about the future life of the human soul.

Confucianism is imported from China. Confucianism emphasizes the need to find one's place within the greater social order, and to be a responsible member of the social units to which one belongs. Confucianism is hierarchical: in social relations one party is superior, the other inferior. It is the duty of the superior to teach, protect, and nurture the inferior. The inferior should respect and learn from the superior. Ideally, Confucianism leads to a highly ethical, supportive social order. It also stresses study, a value widely accepted in Japan.

Christianity was introduced to Japan by St. Francis Xavier in 1549. Catholic missionaries had considerable success for nearly one century before the military government expelled them and made the practice of Christianity a crime punishable by death. Christianity was again made legal in the 1870s. At that time Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox missions were established. They are all active throughout the country today, especially in education and charity work. Only 1 percent of Japanese are Christians. However, Christian teachings have significantly influenced Japanese thinking.


Holidays celebrated by the Japanese include the following:

January 1, New Year's Day: The major holiday of the year with three days off from work. Buddhist temple bells are rung 108 times at midnight. People eat noodles for long life and visit Shinto shrines, as well as friends and relations.

January 15, Coming of Age Day: Honors all who have become legal adults (those who have turned twenty).

February 11, National Foundation Day: Anniversary of the enthronement of the mythical first emperor, Jimmu Tenno.

March 3, Hina Matsuri: Not a legal holiday, but girls display elaborate sets of dolls representing a prince, princess, and their court.

March 21, the Vernal Equinox: Has Buddhist origins; it is a day for visiting and tending family graves.

April 29, Greenery Day: Previously marked the Showa Emperor's birthday; after his death, it became a day to appreciate nature.

May 3, Constitution Day: Commemorates the 1947 Constitution.

May 5, Children's Day: Celebrates Japan's children. Families with children fly carp (fish)-shaped streamers. The concentration of holidays between April 29 and May 5 is called "Golden Week."

July 1315 (August 1315 in some areas), Bon Festival: Not a legal holiday, but traditionally considered second only in importance to New Year's Day. This Buddhist festival honors deceased family members. Celebrations include visiting the ancestral home, tending family graves, and prayer services. Publicly, communal dancing (bonodori) takes place during the three evenings of the festival.

September 15, Respect the Aged Day: Honors Japan's elderly.

September 23, The Autumnal Equinox: Similar to the Vernal Equinox; a day for visiting and tending family graves.

October 10, Sports Day: Commemorates the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and encourages good health through sports.

November 3, Culture Day: Fosters cultural activities.

November 23, Labor Thanksgiving Day: Commemorates those who work and expresses thanks for the fruits of their effort.

December 23, the Emperor's Birthday: Current emperor's birthday.

In this non-Christian country Christmas is celebrated as a gift-giving holiday for children. Except for Christians, it has no religious significance.


One hundred days after birth, an infant is presented at a local Shinto shrine for blessing.

November 15 is "Shichi-Go-San," or "7, 5, 3." On that day, children of those ages are taken to a Shinto shrine to be blessed. Originally, this ceremony was for girls three or seven years old and boys five years old.

Educational milestones are celebrated. At the beginning of formal schooling, a child is presented with a leather backpack for books and may receive a private study desk. School entrance ceremonies and graduations are attended by parents in formal dress. University entrance examinations are a major turning point in a teenager's life. Admission to a good university can be critical to an individual's future. Much is made of the preparation, the exam, and the results.

January 15 is "Coming of Age Day." All who have turned twenty are recognized as legal adults. Fancy dressusually a kimono for young womenis worn to ceremonies, which are often followed by parties and the presentation of significant gifts.

Formal company ceremonies mark the hiring of new employees as well as an individual's retirement.

Marriage is usually celebrated at a commercial wedding hall. Shinto ceremonies are conducted in private with the couple, priest, witnesses, and parents. In place of vows, cups of sake are exchanged and drunk. Christian church weddings strike many Japanese as romantic; many wedding halls have an imitation church in which a church-style ceremony can be held before guests. The ceremony is followed by an elaborate dinner with multiple speeches and the formal cutting of a Western-style wedding cake.

Death is usually associated with Buddhist rituals. Visitors honor the dead at a wake, in which guests burn incense in front of a photo of the deceased. The body is cremated. Ashes are placed in a family grave, which has space for numerous urns under a single tombstone. A plaque bearing the Buddhist name of the deceased is added to the family Buddhist altar. Memorial ceremonies are held over several years to pray for the person.


Japan is more formal than America, and phrases and forms of polite exchange are more fixed. Manners require that the speaker use language to honor or elevate the other party, while denigrating (lowering in importance) oneself. Japanese society pays great attention to who is superior to whom in any relationship. This is reflected in language and gestures.

Japanese bow to greet each other. The person of lower status bows lower and should initiate the greeting. Shaking hands is rare among Japanese, who usually do not engage in physical contact. Distinctive gestures include pointing to one's nose to indicate oneself. Women cover their mouths with their hands when laughing. Men, when embarrassed, scratch the backs of their heads. If really uncomfortable, Japanese will often suck wind between their teeth.

Because houses are very small, Japanese usually entertain outside the home. Home visits are usually confined to a brief meeting over tea. The guest brings a gift such as flowers, fruit, or pastries. Such gifts are used to reinforce relationships with relatives, friends, teachers, doctors, business contacts, and so forth. Two gift-giving seasons, New Year's and midsummer, are marked by a large-scale buying and giving of gifts.

Dating is usually confined to high school students and young adults. Schools actively discourage it. Group dating is common and takes the form of outings, picnics, karaoke parties, or visits to amusement parks. Student couples who are dating usually limit themselves to a visit to a coffee shop or fast food restaurant. Japanese students rarely work (many schools forbid it) and often have limited extra incomes. This and busy study schedules restrict dating options. Dating among working adults is common. Most marriages today are based on romantic attachments rather than the arranged marriages that were the norm in the past.


Japanese generally enjoy good health and have the greatest life expectancy (predicted life span) in the world. Medical care is generally good and includes both modern scientific and traditional Chinese-style herbal medicines.

Housing is a major problem in Japan's crowded cities. While Japanese prefer single-family houses, the enormous cost of land prevents them from having a real yard; as many as forty houses may be built on one acre. Small apartments are very common. Traditionally, houses were furnished with wall-to-wall straw mats (tatami); recent trends are toward carpet or wooden floors and Western-style furniture.

The Japanese standard of living is very high. Material possessions are comparable to those in the United States, and the general safety of Japanese city streets adds a sense of well-being. The major problems are restricted living space and the limited personal time left by demanding work and study hours.


Social values place women secondary to men in status. However, even in traditional families Japanese women enjoy considerable autonomy (independence) and power. Japanese schooling treats boys and girls equally, guaranteeing well-educated women. Traditionally, the wife has charge of the house and oversees the children. This is her full-time job and includes two important responsibilities: money and education. The wife keeps the family budget, manages savings and large purchases, and even gives her husband his weekly allowance. She also monitors the children's education. Most Japanese children have few household chores, but devote regular time to study under their mother's watchful eye.

Family size has declined to an average of 1.8 children per couple. The average age for marriage has risen to about twenty-six years for women and twenty-eight for men. Most marriages are based on romantic attachment; however, the separate lives led by men and women in Japanese society often limits the emotional closeness of married couples. Expectations regarding the personal satisfactions to be gained from married life are not as demanding as in the United States. This, plus stress on the importance of the family unit, help to hold the annual divorce rate to 1.3 per 1,000 people (1990). The practice of the eldest son's family living with his parents in a three-generation household is rapidly declining.

Some Japanese have pet dogs and cats, but many are prevented from having them by limited living space. Goldfish and birds are popular. Some keep crickets for their song.


Traditional clothing is the kimono, a robe that is wrapped around the body, left side over right, and tied with a sash (obi). Women's kimonos vary from the simple everyday designs preferred by older women to the elaborate painted silk robes worn for ceremonial occasions. Men rarely wear kimonos except for formal occasions and when performing traditional arts. The light summer cotton style (yukata) remains very popular for relaxing at home, resorts, and summer festivals.

Traditional footwear is sandals (zori) or wooden clogs (geta) with a thong that passes between the big toe and the second toe. Tabi, a split-toed sock that accommodates the thong, is worn with them.

Most Japanese wear Western-style clothing for daily use. Japanese tend to dress more formally and neatly than Americans. Jeans are popular with the young. Middle-and high-school students wear dark blue or black uniforms with badges that indicate their school and grade.


Japanese eat a wide range of foods, including imports from China and the West. The staple of their diet is rice, usually eaten plain from a bowl without seasoning or butter. Rice is complemented with other dishes, including fish, meat, vegetables, various pickles, and soup. Japanese people eat much seafood. Some fresh fish is eaten raw with soy sauce as sashimi, or combined raw with rice in sushi. However, most fish is cooked, often grilled or deep fried in batter (tempura).

Buddhism discouraged the eating of meat, but this taboo (prohibition) has largely disappeared. Japanese eat chicken, pork, and beef, but servings are small. Soup is made from fermented soy bean paste (miso) or dried bonito shavings (katsuobushi). Noodles in various forms are a common main dish.

Most Western foods can be found in Japan. Hamburgers and pizza are popular, and many U.S. restaurant chains are well represented.

Meals do not include desserts. Sweets are served separately with tea or coffee. Japanese sweets are often based on sweet bean paste. Western baked goods are widely available.

The national beverage is green tea. Black tea, coffee, soda, and beer are all popular. Milk and dairy products, a recent addition to the Japanese diet, have become popular in recent years. A recipe for green tea ice cream, combining traditional and modern ingredients, follows.


Green Tea Ice Cream


  • 1 pint softened vanilla ice cream
  • 1 Tablespoon green tea powder


Blend together ice cream and green tea powder. Return to freezer until ready to serve.

Japanese food is served in numerous small dishes. Pieces are cut to be eaten with chopsticks. Soup is drunk from the bowl. It is inappropriate to stick chopsticks upright in a rice bowl or pass food from one pair of chopsticks to another; these gestures are associated with cremation ceremonies.


Japanese people place great value on education and see it as the major path toward self-improvement and a successful career. Japan claims a 100 percent literacy rate (percentage of the population able to read and write).

The academic year begins in April and ends in March. Japanese children begin kindergarten at age four and elementary school at age six. Compulsory (required) education covers only elementary school (six grades) and middle school (which consists of three grades), but 94 percent go on to high school (three grades). Most schools are coeducational. Elementary education stresses basic skills, especially reading and math, and seeks to develop the individual into a socially responsible group member. Elementary school teachers establish strong ties with their students, and children often find early education an enjoyable experience.

Middle- and high-school becomes more challenging as emphasis shifts to intensive study with limited electives (optional classes). For a professional career a university degree is essential, but university entry is by competitive examination. Preparation for these exams, called "examination hell," drives much of Japanese middle- and high-school education. Students often supplement regular classes by attending a juku (cram school) after hours. Critics rightly charge that Japanese education stresses memorization for university examinations, but Japanese schools also cultivate problem-solving and group work skills more than is usually recognized.

One-third of high school graduates enter college or university and most of those graduate. Two-year colleges are common for women and for vocational education. Four-year universities are similar to those in the U.S., but many students arrive burned out by "examination hell" and exert minimal effort. Graduate study is not as common as in the U.S.


Japanese classical musical instruments include the koto (thirteen-string, horizontal harp), the shakuhachi (vertical bamboo flute), and the shamisen (a three-stringed banjo-like instrument). The shakuhachi is usually played solo or with the koto. The koto is frequently played solo or in group ensembles. The shamisen is a popular folk instrument that is played solo.

Western instruments such as the piano, violin, and guitar are more popular now than traditional instruments. Modern popular music reflects strong Western influences, and Western classical music is well known in Japan.

In dance, stately classical forms continue to be studied, while a dynamic folk tradition preserves lively dances. The annual Bon Festival includes group dancing open to all.

Japan's literary heritage is very rich. The oldest surviving text, Kojiki ( published in ad 721), blends Shinto myth and history. Poetry anthologies, Manyoshu, date back to the Nara Period (ad 710794). The Heian Period (ad 7941185) produced a rich out-pouring of literature, especially by court women. During the Middle Ages (11851335) military tales were popular, the greatest being the Tale of the Heike. The Muromachi Period (13361568) produced poetic Noh play texts that often reflect Buddhist values. Most poetry was written in the tanka form, five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables. The first three lines of the tanka gave rise to the seventeen-syllable haiku. The most famous haiku author was Basho. The Tokugawa Period gave rise to the bunraku puppet drama and kabuki theater, for which Chikamatsu wrote tragedies. In the nineteenth century, Western influences inspired many autobiographical novels. Natsume Soseki's Kokoro is an early twentieth-century favorite. Japanese writers are read overseas in translation, and Kawabata Yasunari and Oe Kenzaburo have won Nobel Prizes for literature.


Most men join a company directly after graduating from high school (for nonprofessional jobs) or college (for professional jobs). The ideal is to remain with the same company until retirement around age sixty. In return for loyalty and long hours of work, the company makes a commitment to preserve the jobs of their employees. This "lifetime employment" ideal extends to only about one-third of Japanese workers. Many younger Japanese question the lack of mobility required by lifetime employment and opt for more risky and potentially rewarding career paths.

Most women work outside of the home in retail, service, or clerical jobs. They are expected to quit work upon marrying or when their first child is due. These women represent an affluent portion of the Japanese public and many enjoy their status prior to marriage. After raising children, many return to work. Until recently, true career options were not open to many women in corporations. Teaching and some government offices provided careers, but corporations only began to recruit women executives seriously in the 1980s. They are still rare in many industries.

The work environment in Japan is group-oriented. Employers expect employees to put company interests before personal concerns. Long hours are typical for office workers.

Wages start very low and rise with longevity (duration with a company). The average per capita income in Japan is higher than in America, but many things, especially housing, are more costly than in the U.S.


The Japanese are great sports enthusiasts. Physical education classes in high school include an elective (optional class) in one of Japan's traditional martial arts such as judo, karate, or archery. Baseball is extremely popular, and the annual national high school baseball tournament in August is followed throughout Japan. The teams of Japan's universities compete in baseball, rugby, martial arts, and other sports.

The most popular professional sport in Japan is baseball. Games in the two leagues, the Pacific and the Central, draw large crowds, including noisy but well-organized fan clubs. There is some interest in American football and basketball. The new "J-League," a professional soccer league, fostered a soccer craze in the early 1990s.

Sumo wrestling is a native sport centered upon six annual fifteen-day tournaments. Two wrestlers seek to force each other out of a circle or to touch the ground with some part of their bodies (other than the soles of their feet). A striking feature is the huge size of the wrestlers; top-ranked wrestlers usually exceed three hundred pounds and can weigh over five hundred pounds.

Popular participatory sports include golf, tennis, skiing, hiking, swimming, and fishing. Gateball, similar to croquet, is popular with elderly people.


The Japanese people are fans of television and have more television sets per person than do Americans. Song and variety shows and celebrity quiz shows are popular, and there are extensive sports and news broadcasts. Family dramas are also popular. Historical dramas often feature stories about samurai (warriors).

Movies are a popular entertainment form but depend heavily upon imports, especially from America. Japan's own movie industry is productive but has faded since it achieved international fame for its art and sophistication in the 1950s and 1960s. The director Akira Kurosawa made a lasting international impression with films such as Rashomon and Seven Samurai.

Traditional live theater forms survive, including Noh drama, Bunraku puppet plays, and live kabuki theater. The Japanese also attend concerts, including those of classical Western music and pop groups.

A popular form of participatory entertainment is karaoke. This form of singing along with recorded orchestral accompaniment to popular songs began as entertainment in bars and has since spread overseas.

Appreciation of seasonal changes and holiday festivals are traditional pastimes that remain popular. Major festivals attract huge crowds, and famous sites for admiring plum and cherry blossoms, irises, azaleas, chrysanthemums, and the bright leaves of fall draw many visitors.


Japan is a land in which many handicrafts have been raised to the level of art. Japan has many regional variations on pottery. Some fine pottery is delicate and finely detailed; there is also a strong tradition of heavier folk pottery that is more simple and rustic. The aesthetic values of "wabi cha " (poverty tea) of the Tea Ceremony encourages this style of pottery.

Handmade paper, produced from mulberry bark, remains a popular art form. Special papers with distinct textures and patterns are prized for letter writing, calligraphy (decorative lettering), and wrapping. A variety of dying, painting, and decorative styles and methods have developed to decorate the panels of silk used for women's kimonos. Tie-dying is also employed.

The Japanese government cherishes these arts, recognizing masters as National Living Treasures to honor and support their work.


Japan's major social problem concerns its population. Japanese enjoy the greatest longevity (longest lives) in the world, but their low birth rate is below the replacement level. As a result, their population is the most rapidly aging in the world and will soon begin to decline in size. This raises serious questions about how, in the twenty-first century, a shrinking work force will support a huge population of retirees.

Civil rights are a problem for some small minority groups. Resident aliens (less than 1 percent of the population), primarily Koreans, may have been born and raised in Japan but are required to register as foreign residents and have been excluded from certain jobs. A campaign to remove these barriers is gradually easing restrictions.

Another minority group (about 2 percent of the population) is the burakumin (hamlet people). Physically indistinguishable from the majority Japanese, these are descendants of outcasts who suffered severe discrimination in pre-modern times. Despite attempts to legislate equality, they are subject to widespread discrimination. The tiny population of Ainu on the island of Hokkaido are an indigenous people who were overrun by the majority Japanese population. Most have intermarried with the majority Japanese.

An issue of concern in modern Japan is the status of women. Laws pertaining to women have changed faster than social values. Legally, Japanese women enjoy considerable protection. However, social values tend to emphasize gender-based career paths. While many Japanese women appear content with their status, those who wish to pursue careers previously limited to men find the door only partially open.

Japanese society tolerates and even encourages considerable drinking, and alcoholism is a problem. Relieving stress and renewing personal bonds over a drink after work is common in Japan, and leads to heavy drinking. Japan's island geography has helped to restrict the inflow of hard drugs and firearms to very low levels, but there are signs that these problems may be on the rise.


Castle, Coralie, and Margaret Gin. Peasant Cooking of Many Lands. San Francisco: 101 Productions, 1972.

Famighetti, Robert, ed. The World Almanac and Book of Facts 1996. Mahwah, NJ: World Almanac Books, 1996.

Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. New York: Kodansha International, 1993.

Japan: Profile of a Nation. New York: Kodansha International, 1994

. Reischauer, Edwin O., and Marius B. Jansen. The Japanese Today: Change and Continuity. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995.


Embassy of Japan. Washington, D.C. [Online] Available, 1998.

Microsoft. Encarta Online. [Online] Available, 1998.

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Japanese (jăp´ənēz´), language of uncertain origin that is spoken by more than 125 million people, most of whom live in Japan. There are also many speakers of Japanese in the Ryukyu Islands, Korea, Taiwan, parts of the United States, and Brazil. Japanese appears to be unrelated to any other language; however, some scholars see a kinship with the Korean tongue because the grammars of the two are very similar. Some linguists also link both Japanese and Korean to the Altaic languages. Japanese exhibits a degree of agglutination. In an agglutinative language, different linguistic elements, each of which exists separately and has a fixed meaning, are often joined to form one word. Japanese lacks tones, but has a musical accent and usually stresses all syllables equally. There is no declension for nouns and pronouns, whose grammatical relationships are shown by particles that follow them. Verbs are inflected and generally are placed at the end of a sentence. Extensive use of honorific forms is especially characteristic of Japanese; varying constructions are used to indicate differences in the social status among the individual speaking, the individual addressed, and the individual spoken about.

In the 3d and 4th cent. AD, the Japanese borrowed the Chinese writing system of ideographic characters. Since Chinese is not inflected and since Chinese writing is ideographic rather than phonetic, the Chinese characters do not completely fill the needs of the inflected Japanese language in the sphere of writing. In the 8th cent. AD, two phonetic syllabaries, or kana, were therefore devised for the recording of the Japanese language. They are used along with the ideographic characters (or kanji characters) to indicate the syllables that form suffixes and particles. The direction of writing is usually from top to bottom in vertical columns and from right to left. In scientific texts horizontal writing from left to right is sometimes employed. The Roman alphabet has also been used increasingly to transcribe Japanese. Since several thousand characters and two sets of kana are necessary for reading Japanese literature and periodicals, a need for simplification was felt when universal literacy became a national goal. Thus, after World War II, many kanji characters were simplified, and the number generally used was limited to about 2,000. Through another reform, phonetic kana characters are now used to correspond more closely to modern pronunciation than previously was the case. The large number of its speakers and the high level of cultural, economic, and political development of the Japanese people make Japanese one of the leading languages of the world.

See P. G. O'Neill and S. Yanada, An Introduction to Written Japanese (1963); R. A. Miller, The Japanese Language (1967); S. Ono, The Origins of the Japanese Language (1970); H. A. Okamoto, Rule for Conversational Rituals in Japanese (1988).

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Japanese Official language of Japan and the native tongue of more than 120 million people in Japan, and the Ryukyu and Bonin islands. Some scholars classify Japanese as a member of the Ural-Altaic family, which also includes Finnish, Hungarian and Turkish. Japanese uses a pitch accent. There are at least four different forms of spoken Japanese, and a modern literary style. Japanese writing uses a combination of some 1850 Chinese characters and tables of syllabic symbols called kana.

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Jap·a·nese / ˌjapəˈnēz; -ˈnēs/ • adj. of or relating to Japan or its language, culture, or people. • n. (pl. same) 1. a native or national of Japan, or a person of Japanese descent. 2. the language of Japan, spoken by almost all of its population.

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JapaneseAchinese, Ambonese, appease, Assamese, Balinese, Belize, Beninese, Bernese, bêtise, Bhutanese, breeze, Burmese, Cantonese, Castries, cerise, cheese, chemise, Chinese, Cingalese, Cleese, Congolese, Denise, Dodecanese, ease, éminence grise, expertise, Faroese, freeze, Fries, frieze, Gabonese, Genoese, Goanese, Guyanese, he's, Japanese, Javanese, jeez, journalese, Kanarese, Keys, Lebanese, lees, legalese, Louise, Macanese, Madurese, Maltese, marquise, Milanese, Nepalese, Nipponese, officialese, overseas, pease, Pekinese, Peloponnese, Piedmontese, please, Portuguese, Pyrenees, reprise, Rwandese, seise, seize, Senegalese, she's, Siamese, Sienese, Sikkimese, Sinhalese, sleaze, sneeze, squeeze, Stockton-on-Tees, Sudanese, Sundanese, Surinamese, Tabriz, Taiwanese, tease, Tees, telegraphese, these, Timorese, Togolese, trapeze, valise, Viennese, Vietnamese, vocalese, wheeze •superficies • Héloïse • Averroës •rabies • pubes • Maccabees •headcheese

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