Japan is a mixed bag of traditional palaces and temples, idyllic natural landscapes, futuristic cities, and a history so rich and unique. The result? A culture that continues to fascinate people all around the world.
There’s so much to unpack about this East Asian wonderland, as you’ll see in this list of interesting facts about Japanese culture. Let’s dig in, shall we?
Historical facts about Japanese culture
1. Japan was closed to the world for over 200 years
Japan had the unique opportunity of molding its identity with minimal influence from other nations, thanks to its 220-year isolation.
Sakoku (literally chained or locked country) was a policy enacted by the Tokugawa shogunate (the military government during the Edo period) from 1633 to 1853. This policy meant that most foreigners couldn’t enter Japan and most Japanese couldn’t leave the country. This was done to remove any religious and colonial influence, primarily from Christian crusaders.
Japan was not completely isolated though. During this time, trading and foreign relations were permitted, albeit strictly. Five entities were allowed to trade using four gateways:
- Matsumae domain in Hokkaido traded with the Ainu people
- Tsushima domain (now part of Nagasaki) traded with Joseon Dynasty Korea
- Bafuku in Nagasaki traded with the Dutch and Chinese
- Satsuma domain (present-day Kagoshima) traded with the Ryukyu Kingdom
Sakoku ended in 1853 when the Perry Expedition sailed into Yokohama and demanded that Japan open trade with America, and by extension, to the West. This led to the modernization of Japan.
2. The first geisha were actually men
The geisha is an iconic Japanese figure and a mysterious one at that. Mistaken by some as courtesans who provided artistic entertainment as well as sexual services, the present-day geisha are forbidden from selling sex.
The word ‘geisha’ translates to ‘person of the arts’ in Japanese and that’s what they do — perform art styles such as singing, dancing, and playing instruments.
But here’s one of the most surprising facts about Japanese culture: the first geisha were actually men! Female geisha (onna geisha) didn’t exist until 1750. The taikomochi, male attendants and entertainers of feudal lords, came many years before the female geisha. During their peak, it was said that there were around 600 working taikomochi.
The onna geisha became extremely popular. By the end of the 18th century, they outnumbered taikomochi, who then became known as otoko geisha (male geisha).
3. There’s an all-male theater performance
Kabuki is a traditional form of Japanese performing art combining dance and drama. Aside from its highly-stylized performances, kabuki is known for its glamourous costumes and the elaborate make-up worn by its all-male cast.
Its history, however, is the inverse of the geisha’s. The all-male kabuki traces its origins in 1603 when Izumo no Okuni gathered a group of traveling dancers and actors (some of whom were also engaged in prostitution) and began performing a new style of dance-drama in Kyoto. This performance came to be known as kabuki otori.
Almost three decades later, the government banned the female kabuki for being too erotic. They were replaced with young boys, who were also banned from performing later on. Today, most performers are older men.
4. A Japanese woman wrote the world’s first novel
If like me, you love reading Japanese literature, then you probably know that the very first novel to come out of Japan — and the world — was written by a woman.
Written in the early 11th century by a lady-in-waiting in imperial Heian, The Tale of Genji follows the romantic adventures of a son of an emperor and the lives of nobility at the time. This novel by Murasaki Shikibu (pen name only) remains an important work in Japanese literature.
5. Hanami is a centuries-old practice
Speaking of The Tale of Genji, it was the novel that first used the term hanami to refer to “cherry blossom viewing”.
Hanami, the Japanese term for flower viewing, is the custom of enjoying the transient beauty of flowers, particularly sakura or cherry blossoms. People gather in parks from late March to early May and hold picnics under the full bloom.
This Japanese custom is said to have started during the Nara period (710-794). At the time, people admired ume or plum blossoms. Today, sakura is more popular among the younger generation but older people prefer umemi (plum blossom viewing) over sakura parties because there are fewer crowds.
Facts about Japanese beliefs and traditions
6. Many Japanese practice Shinto and Buddhist rituals
Only 40% of the Japanese population subscribes to organized religion. However, as many as 69% of the people in Japan participate in Shinto ceremonies, and 66.7% practice Buddhism.
Yes, the numbers don’t tally but that’s because, in Japan, there’s a view that both sets of practices or ways of life can be practiced in conjunction with other beliefs. Don’t be surprised if you see Buddhist temples attached to local Shinto shrines, and vice versa. This amalgamation of Buddhism with Shinto is known as shinbutsu shugo.
7. You can find Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples everywhere
Speaking of Shinto and Buddhism, did you know that there are over 100,000 Shinto shrines and more than 80,000 Buddhist temples in Japan?
These temples and shrines may be popular sightseeing spots for tourists. But for the Japanese, these are places of worship, prayer, and reflection. And it’s part of their everyday life. It’s not usual for people to stop at their local shrines on the way to or from work.
8. Shrine etiquette dictates a strict prayer ritual
Thinking of visiting a Shinto shrine? Be ready for an elaborate ritual, should you wish to follow tradition.
All shrines have a torii gate and you have to bow once in front of the torii before entering. It’s also best to walk a little to the left or right of the center path. You will also see a water pavilion inside the shrine’s grounds. This is where you’ll “purify” your body and mind before praying at the altar.
Once you reach the deity’s altar, you quietly throw a coin into the offering box, ring the bell to greet the deity, bow twice, and clap your hands twice to express your joy and respect.
Then, you can start saying a prayer with your hands still clasped. You’ll end the ritual with another bow.
9. Christianity was an underground religion
Several decades before the closure of Japan, the first Europeans came from Portugal and landed on Kyushu in western Japan, bringing both gunpowder and Christianity. The weapons were welcomed by the Kyushu lords, and the missionaries that came along were tolerated.
By 1549, Francis Xavier started leading missionaries and even went to Kyoto to seek an audience with the emperor. But in 1587, Toyotomi Hideyoshi banned missionaries and an even more serious edict led to the executions of Christians in Nagasaki. By the 1600s, only a handful of Christians remained.
In 1864, a commercial treaty allowed Christianity among foreigners in Japan, but not the Japanese people themselves. Locals were only allowed to practice Christianity starting in the 1870s. Today, there are between one to two million Japanese who are Christians.
10. There’s such a thing as the Japanese age
Similar to its neighbors Korea and China, the traditional Japanese age system dictates that a child is counted as one year old at birth. This is because the nine months that the unborn baby stays in his/her mother’s womb is counted in age. In addition, people turn one year older every New Year’s Day, along with everybody else.
This traditional Japanese age system has been used since the old times. Wanting to modernize, a law was passed to enforce the Western style of counting age.
However, the traditional system was so popular and continued to be used privately. So, in 1950, the Japanese government passed another law stating that citizens should no longer use the traditional system.
11. Japanese aesthetics embrace imperfection
It’s hard to define the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi in a single sentence, or even a few sentences. But to put it simply, wabi-sabi is the philosophy of accepting imperfection and the natural cycle of life. It reminds us that life is transient, flawed, and incomplete yet beautiful.
Wabi-sabi relates to landscapes, objects, and even humans. The concept is embodied in aesthetics and principles such as asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, modesty, slowness, and authenticity.
You’ll see this concept tangibly in the Japanese arts: ikebana (flower arrangement), bonsai (miniature trees), Zen gardens, Japanese pottery, tea ceremony, and more. Kintsugi or the art of mending broken ceramics has particularly gained worldwide attention, especially among designers.
Interesting facts about Japanese culture and etiquette
12. Japanese people are known to be polite, kind, and quiet
One of the cultural facts about Japan that I love is that the Japanese people are extremely polite, kind, and quiet. You’ll notice this everywhere but it becomes more obvious in close quarters like trains. People talk in hushed tones and rarely take a call on a train.
Many Japanese tend to be reserved, especially when it comes to strangers. But if you ask for help, they’d be willing to dispense it. Japanese people often mind their own business and don’t want to bother anyone.
However, Japanese people are people. It would be wrong to say that all of them are polite, kind, and quiet. Some can also be talkative depending on the person they’re with and the situation they’re in. And let’s not forget that many Japanese like drinking and they can let loose when drunk.
13. They value punctuality
The Japanese are famous (or infamous?) for being punctual and strict about time. This is especially true in the workplace and the transport system. If you’re even one minute late for work or school, that counts as late. Late trains are unusual and when they do happen, the railway staff and management apologize.
But what’s surprising is there were also instances when rail companies had to apologize for leaving a few seconds ahead of schedule.
Even more baffling is that although people are expected to show up early or on time, they’re also expected to stay late. Meetings can drag on and the official end of office hours is not always followed.
14. Japan is one of the cleanest countries in the world
Something that strikes many visitors is how clean Japan is. Ironically, it’s also hard to find litter bins in the streets. And yet, Japan is indeed among the cleanest countries in the world.
In Japanese schools, cleaning is part of the students’ daily routine. Neighborhoods hold regular street-cleaning events. People bring their own trash and throw it at home if they don’t find litter bins outside. They recycle and upcycle.
Like many things in Japanese culture, this zealousness for cleanliness has roots in Shinto and Buddhism. The respect for nature, surroundings, and other people is so ingrained in the Japanese psyche that even if they don’t feel like cleaning, they still do it because they’ve gotten used to it.
15. They take off their shoes before entering a Japanese home
You probably know this already but the Japanese take off their shoes before entering a house or select public places. But do you know why?
As mentioned earlier, the Japanese are known for cleanliness. And this is also why they take off their shoes. Traditionally, the Japanese ate meals sitting on tatami mats instead of chairs. They also traditionally slept on futons laid out on tatami floors. If you eat and lie down so close to the floor, you’d also want to maintain its cleanliness, right?
But they don’t just take their shoes off. They also have to change into house slippers. When entering the bathroom of a house, they also change into the bathroom slipper. In some areas, they’d have to enter barefoot or with socks.
Aside from houses, the Japanese remove their shoes in some traditional restaurants where there are low tables, inside shrines and temples, tea ceremony rooms, onsen (hot springs), sento (public baths), and some traditional stores.
It might be confusing for foreigners to tell when they have to remove their shoes unless they see slippers by the entrance. Here’s a tip: if the floor is raised at the entrance, it means you should take off your shoes in the doorway before stepping inside.
16. Mind your chopsticks
Of course, we can’t go through facts about Japanese culture without mentioning chopsticks. Over 20 billion chopsticks are used in Japan every year and you’ll have to know how to use them correctly if you want an authentic experience and exhibit good manners.
There are several things you have to remember when using chopsticks. Here are some:
- Don’t stab or cut your food with them. Instead, lift the food as it is to your mouth.
- Don’t point at something with your chopsticks.
- Your bowl is not supposed to be a resting place for your chopsticks. Use the chopstick rest or the paper binding that your chopsticks came in.
- Never stick your chopsticks into your food to rest them when you’re not eating. This is not only rude but also considered a bad omen that resembles a ceremony performed at Japanese funerals.
- Don’t share food by passing it from chopsticks to chopsticks.
What if you just find it difficult to use chopsticks? In that case, you’re better off requesting a fork and knife. Locals will generally be forgiving towards foreigners. Just don’t stab your sushi or sashimi with a fork; pick it up with your fingers instead.
17. Yes, you can slurp your noodles
The object of confusion among foreigners, slurping is actually seen as a compliment in Japan. It’s also encouraged as it helps to cool down the noodles, which are often served hot.
That said, it’s important to remember that Japanese people practice eating quietly as a sign of respect. So, while slurping noodles is fine, other noises such as chewing, munching, blowing your nose, burping, and loudly setting down tableware are not well-received.
18. Eating or drinking while walking is rude
It may be perfectly fine to eat a sandwich or sip coffee while walking down the street in other countries. But you’ll risk receiving the stink eye if you do this in Japan.
While it’s not considered as rude as it used to be, eating or drinking while walking is still seen as poor manners. For one, it goes against the Japanese culture of appreciating food. For another, in some places, it produces litter and invites unwelcome wildlife. The city of Kamakura even introduced a policy asking people to stop eating while walking in public.
What should you do? If buying food or drink from a vending machine, consume the whole thing while standing beside the machine. Or find a place where you can seat and finish your food there. Also, remember to dispose of your trash or food remains properly.
19. There’s a culture of gift-giving
The idea of giving gifts to your loved ones and colleagues is nothing new. But in Japan, it’s less about the gift and more about the ritual of gift-giving. The Japanese give gifts on several occasions including:
- Business meetings
- When returning from a trip – The Japanese give omiyage or souvenirs to their loved ones or work colleagues from any trip that they go on.
- During summer – Gifts called ochugen are given as a sign of gratitude to others.
- In December – Gifts called oseibo are given as a sign of indebtedness
- Birthdays and Christmas – a practice from the West that has been adopted by some Japanese
Much attention is also given to the wrapping of presents. They are typically wrapped in beautiful paper along with bows or ribbons, or reusable cloths. If not nicely wrapped, the gift should at least be handed over in the bag by the shop the present was purchased at.
Facts about Japanese food
20. Japan was vegetarian for over a thousand years
This is one of those crazy facts about Japanese culture, considering the popularity of sashimi, wagyu, and Kobe beef. But yes, for over a millennium, Japan subsisted on rice, soup, and seasonal vegetables.
In 675 AD, Emperor Temmu banned the consumption of cattle, horses, dogs, monkeys, and chicken meat following Buddhist practices. Empress Koken took this a step further by banning fish during the Nara period.
While the ban ended in the Heian period, meat and fish were still rare until the Meiji period. It’s said that the emperor himself celebrated the New Year in 1872 by eating meat, which encouraged the citizens to also begin eating meat.
21. There’s a special dish for sumo wrestlers
Ever wonder how sumo wrestlers meet their calorie requirements? Here’s how: chankonabe and bowls of rice.
Chankonabe is a traditional Japanese hotpot dish that’s associated with sumo wrestlers. It contains chicken balls, vegetables, and a dashi or chicken broth seasoned with soy sauce, sake, or mirin. Thin slices of pork beef, tofu, or fish may be added.
This high-calorie and protein-rich dish, along with bowls of rice, is eaten daily by sumo wrestlers. The dish is so strongly associated with sumo wrestlers that it’s not surprising to find chankonabe restaurants owned by retired wrestlers.
22. Matcha is over 1,000 years old
It can be easy to assume that matcha is a new drink, especially since it got attention in the West only around 2015. Indeed, the matcha craze is relatively new. But the Japanese have been drinking it for over a thousand years.
Brought by Japanese Buddhist monk Eisai from his China trip, powdered matcha was whipped with hot water and was initially part of religious Buddhist rituals. Eventually, the nobles of the Kamakura shogunate showed interest in the drink and it became a status symbol among the warrior class.
The drink was so expensive back then that only monks and samurai could afford it. Thankfully, matcha is everywhere now and it’s quite affordable!
23. Eating out solo is normal
As someone who enjoys dining alone from time to time, this is one of my favorite facts about Japanese culture. Yes, solo dining is not weird or sad in Japan. In fact, some restaurants specialize in this dining set-up.
This practice of eating alone became popular among people who preferred to eat in silence rather than socialize. From partitioned booths to one-person grills, solo diners have lots of options. A win for introverts, if you ask me.
24. “Japanized” Western cuisine exists
One of those interesting facts about Japanese culture is how Japan has reinvented some Western dishes. And no, this isn’t simply fusion food. Rather, these dishes, known as yoshoku (washoku is the traditional Japanese cuisine), are distinctly Japanese adaption of Western foods.
Some of the most popular yoshoku dishes are:
- Omurice – seasoned rice wrapped neatly in an omelet parcel and served with tomato ketchup)
- Kareraisu – curry rice (curry was introduced to Japan by the British)
- Hambagu – hamburger but served with rice, salad, and sauce
- Korokke – flavorsome version of the French croquette
- Napolitan – spaghetti (with the consistency of udon) stir-fried with vegetables and meat, seasoned with ketchup
- Doria, baked casserole, similar to a French gratin
Facts about everyday life in Japan
25. Japanese is among the most widely spoken languages in the world
The Japanese language is the most geographically concentrated language, with the majority of its 128 million speakers living in Japan. The dense population of the country contributes to its large number of speakers.
However, there are also Japanese speakers living in the United States, the Philippines, and Brazil. Called Nihongo by locals, the Japanese language boasts three distinct writing systems: the Chinese characters known as kanji, and the syllabic scripts hiragana and katakana.
26. Yes, you’re supposed to be naked in communal baths
Visiting an onsen or sento in Japan? Be prepared to get nude with other people.
It might feel strange to foreigners but in Japan, communal bathing — and doing so stark naked — is very much normal. And they do it often. The Japanese love soaking in hot springs and bathtubs. More than cleaning their bodies, these baths are meant to relieve themselves of fatigue.
Separated by gender, a bathhouse typically consists of rooms for the baths and a locker room where you leave your clothes and towels. Many places don’t allow wearing swimsuits in the bath so there’s no need to bring one.
27. And you can bathe in the forest
If communal baths are not your thing, you can destress with another type of bathing that the Japanese have mastered: forest bathing.
Around 73% of Japan’s land area consists of forested mountains and hills. Perhaps, it shouldn’t come as a shock that many locals relax by heading to the woods and practicing shinrin-yoku. Shinrin translates to “forest” in Japanese while yoku means “bath”.
Make no mistake, forest bathing is not exactly hiking or exercising. It’s simply connecting to nature by being in it. You spend a good couple of hours without your gadgets and simply walk slowly and aimlessly, following where your feet lead you as you savor the sights, smells, and sounds of the forest.
28. Rajio Taiso keeps the Japanese moving
I first knew of rajio taiso or radio calisthenics from Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. In the book, Toru’s roommate (whom he calls “Storm Trooper”) religiously gets up every morning to practice rajio taiso.
Storm Trooper is a fictional character but he does what many other Japanese do. In Japan, a 10-minute exercise program is broadcasted via NHK every morning and afternoon and people follow the instructions from their homes or public parks.
Originating from the United States and introduced by Emperor Hirohito in 1928, this radio exercise program is mostly followed by school children and the elderly.
29. Manga is widely read by the Japanese
And not just by otakus (geeks).
This popular form of Japanese entertainment media traces its roots to the comics Tagosaku and Mokube’s Sightseeing in Tokyo, created by Kitazawa Rakuten for the Jiji Shimpo newspaper in 1902. The popular form of manga, however, appeared in the 1950s.
Manga is popular among both adults and children. It’s also a misconception that reading manga is a male hobby; many Japanese girls and women read manga, too. And while it began as a form of children’s entertainment, today’s manga is now a literary form that receives critical evaluation and annual literary prizes.
30. Japanese people work a lot
The Japanese are among the most hardworking people in the world. While Japanese law states 40 hours of work per week (or 8 hours a day), many people spend far longer hours in their workplaces and end up using very few of their days off.
While this is slowly changing with government intervention, there is guilt associated with taking time off and leaving work on time, especially if the bosses are still working. The pressure of the workaholic society is so overwhelming that the Japanese have even invented a word for it — karoshi or death from overwork.
31. Baseball is the most popular sport
One of the most interesting facts about Japanese culture is about sports. Japan has given birth to many sports and martial arts like sumo wrestling, judo, kendo, and ju-jitsui. While these sports are popular among the Japanese, the undisputed top sport in Japan is baseball.
Called yakyu in Japanese, baseball was introduced to the country in 1872 but it took 64 years before a professional league was formed. It became hugely popular post-war, thanks to the presence of Americans.
Thousands of supporters watch baseball games during the weekends. There are several associations (school, amateur, industrial, and professional) and all of them are taken seriously. It’s also not hard to find baseball stadiums or amateur fields anywhere.
32. Education is a big deal in Japan
You probably know that already, but education is very important for the Japanese. The country is known for its high literacy rate and high enrollment rate.
Japan boasts an excellent education system, which is compulsory at the elementary and high school levels. The public education system has been established since the late 1800s. Schools are well-funded and the process of hiring a teacher is very competitive, ensuring quality education for students.
Like their Korean counterparts (although this is likely due to Japan’s influence on Korea), Japanese students spend a lot of time studying. They typically go to school 240-250 days a year (U.S. students have about 180 days) and even spend time joining clubs, doing extra-curricular activities, and attending after-school classes.
Cool facts about Japanese technology
33. Japan has the most elaborate toilets in the world
An object of fascination for many tourists, Japan’s toilets are indeed state-of-the-art. Some don’t just include bidet sprays but also heated seats, buttons to control the spray and water temperature, a blow-dry option, and even music to drown out the noise as you do number two!
It wasn’t always like this though. There are two types of toilets commonly found in Japan: the squat toilet and the Western-style toilet. As you can guess, the squat toilet is set on the floor and you have to squat over it.
The high-tech toilets Japan has become famous for belong to the Western-style category. While some public places are still equipped with squat toilets, Western-style toilets are now installed in the majority of Japanese homes.
34. And unique hotels, too
Japan is home to some of the coolest and most unusual hotels in the world.
There’s the ultra-weird Henn-na Hotel that’s staffed by multilingual robots. Yes, robots! They serve to check guests in and porter robots carry luggage up to the guest rooms. Then there’s the Godzilla-themed Hotel Gracery, the Hello Kitty-themed Keio Plaza Hotel, and the bookworm-friendly Book & Bed Tokyo.
There are even modernized ryokans (traditional inns) for the perfect fusion of ancient tradition and modern convenience. And let’s not forget the sleek, futuristic capsules that even come with sleep monitoring technology!
35. Robots existed as early as the 1600s
Speaking of robots, the history of this modern technology has to be one of the most surprising facts about Japanese culture.
If you think robots are a new concept in Japan, well, you’d be wrong. Japan has been conceptualizing and building robots since the 1600s!
Of course, these ancient robots are far from today’s high-tech ones. You can think of them as mechanical puppets. Karakuri Ningyo, the world’s first wooden robots, were mechanical automatons that were developed in Nagoya. Most were used for the entertainment of the rich and some were able to shoot arrows, write simple messages, and serve tea.
With this list of interesting and fun facts about Japanese culture, there’s no doubt you know a lot more about Japan than when you just started reading. Hopefully, it also inspired you to know more about the rich culture and heritage because there’s still more to uncover!
You can start by reading these facts about Japanese cuisine and Japanese cities worth exploring. If you need more convincing (unlikely, but still), check out these reasons why Japan is worth visiting.