How Japanese Traditions Work

Is this what comes to mind when you think of the Japanese?
Is this what comes to mind when you think of the Japanese?

When you hear the phrase "Japanese traditions," you may immediately think of sushi. Or your brain might conjure an image of a bowing Japanese businessman, a kimono-clad geisha, a sumo wrestler or a sword-wielding samurai. How about origami, haiku or bonzai? You may know all of these things as traditionally Japanese, but that's just scraping the surface of Japanese culture

Japan's interactions with other countries have had an immeasurable effect on its traditions, with China being the biggest influence. The two countries are separated by a small body of water -- the East China Sea -- with just 512 miles (824 kilometers) between Shanghai, China and Nagasaki, Japan. To say that Sino-Japanese relations throughout history have been complicated is an understatement, but numerous Japanese traditions have their roots in Chinese ones. Religion is probably the single largest influence that China has had on Japan.


While today the majority of Japanese do not claim a religious affiliation, lingering effects from ancient religious and spiritual traditions have a permanent place in secular life. Buddhism spread to Japan from India in the second century B.C. by way of the Silk Road, intertwining with the indigenous Shinto to create a complex system of spirituality, ritual and ancestor worship. The two religions, separated by an official act in the mid-1860s (although not entirely in practice), have had lasting effects on everything from Japanese architecture to its system of writing.

Despite the long history of interactions with its neighbors, Japan's island status and ability to isolate itself was also a major factor in the development of its culture. Fearing colonial imperialism and religious influences from Western missionaries, the Tokugawa shogunate, a feudal regime that ruled Japan from 1603 to 1868, imposed a closed foreign policy on the country for more than 250 years. This prevented the Japanese from leaving and foreigners from entering the country, with controlled exceptions for trade purposes. The isolation strengthened Japanese nationalism and allowed more indigenous philosophies to flourish. The country was "opened" to the West in 1853 after U.S. Naval Commander Matthew Perry appeared with heavily gunned ships and essentially forced the shogunate to sign a treaty. This led to the Meiji period of modernization and industrialization, but nationalism and emperor worship grew stronger as Japan attempted to retain its own culture despite the growing influence of the West.

Less than one hundred years later, Japan was a member of the League of Nations and considered a major world player. Aiming to dominate Asia and already at war with China, Japan officially entered World War II by attacking American and British holdings in the Pacific, including Pearl Harbor, in 1941. In the years following Japan's defeat, the country has become a key ally for the United States and the two nations have come to share a lot of cultural traditions.

Even when incorporating foreign elements, Japanese traditions remain uniquely Japanese at the core and are often puzzling to outsiders. Next, we'll look at some of the most confounding customs -- social etiquette.

Traditional Japanese Social Conventions

To understand Japanese traditions, it helps to have a general understanding of their society. Overall, it's vertically-structured -- think of a large corporation and its chain of command, but applied to every situation. For the Japanese, knowing exactly where you fit into the chain is necessary to functioning in society as a whole. There are also many formal, standardized rituals that must be carefully followed to avoid embarrassment and a loss of honor. For example, a seemingly simple interaction between businessmen, including bowing and the exchange of business cards, can be a very sticky situation for someone unaware of the rules.

Although there are minorities, the Japanese think of themselves as a homogenous society that is largely group-based. Children are taught that serving the needs of the organization (whether it be at work, home or school) is more important than individual freedom. Open dissent or confrontation with another person is uncommon and understanding non-verbal communication is key. Japanese children have rigorous school schedules and work hard to gain entrance to a prestigious university, but once there, they rarely study and enjoy an active social life. This may explain the domination of what many Westerners consider to be youth-oriented culture -- such as pop music, Hello Kitty and manga -- amongst adult Japanese.


Many of these cultural ideals were instilled in the Japanese through the teachings of Zen Buddhist monks, who brought with them Confucian concepts of ritual, obedience and filial piety as a way to foster a harmonious society. This order and sense of ceremony extends to practices that most Westerners consider to be mundane and everyday. Taking a bath in Japan, for example, has nothing to do with getting clean. Next, we'll learn about the Japanese tradition of public bathing, or onsen.

Traditional Japanese Bathing

Even Japanese monkeys love a good onsen!
Even Japanese monkeys love a good onsen!

You're probably starting to get the sense that the Japanese are generally very reserved, so the sight of hundreds of nude or nearly-nude Japanese people bathing together might initially shock you. If you visit one of the thousands of onsens (hot springs) across the country, however, it's something you will quickly become accustomed to seeing. Geothermal springs -- the result of volcanic activity -- provide hot, mineral-rich water for indoor and outdoor baths. Some are owned by communities, while others are attached to hotels or resorts. People visit onsen not only with their families, but also with friends and co-workers.

When it comes to onsen etiquette, Shinto, with its emphasis on purity and cleanliness, has an influence. Visiting an onsen begins with getting clean before you get into the water -- bathing is about relaxation and socializing only (and this pre-cleaning practice extends to bathing at home, too). Onsens always have showers, or at the very least faucets and buckets, and most provide soap and shampoo as well. It's unacceptable to get into the springs while dirty or even soapy.


Most onsens do not allow anything in the water but the bathers themselves, and this includes swimsuits. Everyone has a small white hand towel, which is usually placed on the head or by the side of the bath (although a few onsens do permit bathers to use their towel in the water). Many do not allow bathers with tattoos -- especially if they're large -- as these were traditionally associated with the yakuza, or mafia. There are usually different baths or specific bathing hours for each sex. Bathers are expected to slip gently into the water (no diving) and mill around quietly -- no swimming, splashing or rough play allowed. Many onsens have areas for napping, eating or just socializing after getting out of the bath.

In addition to onsens, there are also public bathhouses known as sentos, although they aren't as common today since many people have baths in their homes. Bathing at home doesn't provide the social aspect, but it's still all about the contemplative experience, not washing. After filling the tub with clean, hot water, it's used by multiple family members, who bath in order of age (more on Japanese bathrooms later).

This overarching sense of order -- even when socializing -- may make it sound like the Japanese don't have fun, but remember that these are the people who invented karaoke bars. If you're getting the idea that Japanese culture can be a bundle of contradictions, you'd be correct. Now, let's move on to the fresh, pure deliciousness of traditional Japanese food.

Traditional Japanese Food

Rice is the main staple of Japanese cuisine and was traditionally eaten three times a day.
Rice is the main staple of Japanese cuisine and was traditionally eaten three times a day.

Japanese food isn't just sushi, although the main components of sushi -- seafood, rice, seaweed, soy products, and pickled or salted condiments -- are found in most every traditional Japanese meal. The influence of Buddhism further ingrained the natural preference for seafood -- it is an island nation, after all --, as consumption of other animal proteins was prohibited by imperial degree at various times in history. Chopsticks were also brought to Japan from China and became the preferred eating utensil by the 9th century A.D.

Rice was first cultivated in Japan during the Heian period (784 to 1185 A.D.) as the society shifted from hunter-gatherer to agricultural. It's perfectly suited to being grown in small areas -- including on hills and terraces and became the main grain, traditionally eaten three times a day at the minimum. The Japanese generally prefer polished, short-grained white rice, which is very sticky. There are many different strains of rice with subtleties in flavor. In addition to being eaten as part of sushi or by itself, rice is also made into noodles, crackers, cakes, sweets and sake.


Rice is usually cooked in an electric rice cooker, while other foods are prepared on gas burners. Every way of preparing food that you can think of -- with the exception of baking, because most Japanese homes don't have ovens -- is employed. Some well-known types of cooking include tempura, lightly battered and fried meat and vegetables; teriyaki, grilled or broiled meat in a sweet sauce; and sukiyaki, a winter dish in which sliced beef and other ingredients are simmered in broth.

A traditional Japanese meal, especially dinner, tends to be low-fat but high in sodium. The emphasis is on very fresh, high-quality, seasonal ingredients -- although Western foods and more convenience foods have become common. Soup, usually the first course, is made with dashi broth, which typically contains kombu (kelp) and katsuobushi (preserved tuna flakes). Rice is the main shushoku (staple food), although the Japanese also eat noodles made from wheat or buckwheat. Thin buckwheat noodles are known as soba, and udon are thicker wheat noodles.

Rather than one "main" dish, several different dishes made from meat, poultry, eggs, fish, seafood, tofu and vegetables accompany the rice. The Japanese use salt, pepper and sugar as seasoning, but they also flavor their foods with sesame oil, miso (fermented bean paste) and soy sauce. Dessert as a separate course isn't a typical Japanese concept; sweets, or wagashi, are eaten with tea or as part of the meal and are usually made of rice flour, fruit or beans. Tea, of course, has its own ceremonial place but is served at meals as well.

Bentos, the traditional Japanese box lunch, were once only the labor of Japanese housewives, who worked hard to carefully pack an attractive, healthy and appealing meal for their husbands and children. Today, they can be bought from vending machines and convenience stores, but creating a beautiful bento is still considered an art. These sectioned containers typically hold fish or meat, rice, and one or more vegetables.

Breakfast in Japan used to include rice, fish and other foods that we don't think of as traditional for a morning meal. Today, it tends to be Western -- things like eggs, toast, and coffee -- because it's quicker and easierwhen you have a long commute to work like many Japanese. The same is true for clothes.

Next, we'll check out the quintessential, traditional Japanese garment.

Traditional Japanese Clothing

Kimonos seem simple on the surface...
Kimonos seem simple on the surface...
Jupiterimages/Getty Images/Thinkstock

If you went to Japan expecting to see everyone strolling the streets in kimonos, you'd be highly disappointed. As in most industrialized countries, everyday wear is Western-style, or yofuku. Suits for business professionals, jeans and t-shirts for casual wear, and uniforms for students and certain professions, are all the norm. The kimono is still much loved in Japan, however. This national garment evolved from one worn by the Chinese, and originally it was worn open with divided trousers or a split skirt on top.

At its most basic, a kimono is an ankle-length, T-shaped robe with long, wide sleeves and an attached collar. To wear a kimono, you cross the left side over the right and tie it with a sash called an obi. Traditional footwear include geta and zori, both of which resemble flip-flops. Geta have elevated wooden bases with "teeth" on the bottom, while zori are flat, less formal and can be made of a variety of materials. They are often worn with ankle-high, split-toe socks called tabi.


Of course, kimono-wearing is anything but basic, and that's partly why they've mostly been relegated to special occasions and ceremonies. In addition to the kimono, obi and special footwear, there are also numerous related garments, such as the shorter jackets known as haori and under-kimonos, or hiyoku. A formal kimono of the highest quality, with accompanying accessories, can cost tens of thousands of dollars. In the past, kimonos were hand-sewn from a single bolt of hand-dyed silk, and they were often hand-painted as well. Cleaning one meant taking it apart and restitching the garment. Today silk kimonos are often dry-cleaned and worn with a nagajuban -- a plain robe -- underneath to prevent the silk from getting dirty.

Although today's formal kimonos aren't typically as elaborate, there is still a dizzying array of rules and differences regarding how they can be worn, when they're worn and by whom. Women don kimonos far more often, and things like the formality of the event, their age, social status, and marital status dictate the type of kimono they will wear. This includes the material, colors, pattern, placement of the pattern, sleeve length and overall kimono length. The longest, most flowing and most heavily-patterned kimonos are donned only by unmarried women while attending weddings or ceremonies that celebrate 20th birthdays (the age of majority in Japan). Geisha have their own kimono culture and associated accessories -- see How Geisha Work for more details. Getting dressed in a formal kimono is an elaborate, multi-stage process, involving as many as a dozen different pieces and sometimes the assistance of a professional.

Men's kimonos are usually very simple and come in dark, muted colors. Both men and women wear less formal kimonos made of printed cotton or polyester during summer festivals; the simplest of these truly are just robes with sashes and bathers put them on when getting out of public baths.

The design and wearing of a kimono both provide a means of artistic expression for the Japanese. In the next section, we'll explore traditional Japanese art, music and literature.

Traditional Japanese Art and Music

A woman plays the koto, the national instrument of Japan, which is a whopping six feet long (1.83 meteres) and has 13 strings.
A woman plays the koto, the national instrument of Japan, which is a whopping six feet long (1.83 meteres) and has 13 strings.

Japanese art -- like many of its other traditions -- has been heavily influenced by concepts imported from China, as well as Buddhist philosophies. The earliest examples of Japanese art, however, come from indigenous peoples who first arrived in Japan more than 10,000 years ago. These include pottery and other functional ceramics. The most prolific form of fine art in Japan, however, is painting, with its roots in brush-based writing. Chinese characters, or kanji, were borrowed and adapted to the Japanese language in the 5th century A.D. along with the calligraphic writing style. The discipline required to form the flowing characters perfectly became known as the art of shodo. The brush strokes are more than words - -they're an expression of one's mindset and capture a specific moment in time. Although pens have been in use for everyday writing since Japan modernized, children are still taught shodo in school and through private lessons.

Many of the earliest Japanese paintings can be found in Buddhist temples dating to 710 B.C. and depict Buddha's life, as well as other religious iconography. As varying sects of Buddhism rose to prominence, landscape-based paintings appeared on house screens and scrolls, known as Yamato-e (Japanese-style painting). "Other types of scroll painting include emakimono, long picture scrolls that also tell a story. One of the most famous of these is the Genji Monogatari Emaki. This oldest surviving non-Buddhist scroll in Japanese history dates to the early 12th century A.D. and depicts scenes from the novel "The Tale of Genji."


During the medieval age, bold screens and sliding doors painted for the castles of the elite warrior class showcased a wide variety of animals and nature spirits. In contrast, Zen Buddhism's influence in the 14th century A.D. introduced a more subdued, monochromatic style known as ink painting. Traditional sculpture in Japan, using clay, wood or other materials, was also religious in nature, showing either Buddhist iconography or Shinto deities. Other visual arts, such as ukiyo-e (woodblock printing), depict a "floating world" full of beauty and pleasure. "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" by Hokusai is one of the best-known examples of Japanese art in the world.

Speaking of pleasure, traditional Japanese music, known as hogaku, is considered a national treasure. Prior to World War II, Japanese girls were routinely trained in playing courtly and traditional styles of music. While many of the latter are known country-wide, in the modern era, geisha and entertainers are generally the only people still learning the traditional instruments. These include stringed instruments such as the shamisen, a small lute, and the koto, a six-foot-long flat stringed instrument that vaguely resembles a guitar sans neck; wind instruments like the shakuhachi, a bamboo flute; and various types of drums. The music itself can be classified by its purpose. For example, the oldest type of traditional music, gagaku, was originally written and performed solely in imperial courts, while theatrical music is composed and played specifically for theater such as noh or kabuki.

Speaking of theater, we'll catch some (traditional) Japanese theater in the next section.

Traditional Japanese Theater

For a people known to be reserved bout their emotions and feelings, performing arts such as theater can provide an acceptable outlet for more open expression in Japan. In fact, preserving these traditions is considered integral to Japanese culture. There are four main types of traditional theater in Japan: noh, kyogen, kabuki and bunraku. Noh is the oldest of these, with the same few hundred plays put on today that were first written and performed back in the 15th century. Noh is a dramatic, musical dance performance rich with symbolism. Plots draw on Buddhist and Shinto mythology. Noh actors were traditionally men, dressed in lavish costumes and often wearing expressive masks. The main character is known as the shite, and his foil is the waki.

In stark contrast to the formal, serious noh, kyogen are wild comedies. These short plays are often performed as interludes between noh acts (although kyogen may be put on by itself), and both forms of theater developed at the same time. All characters are still usually men (although some companies do allow for female actors), and the emphasis is on lively, slapstick action with elements of satire and parody.


Kabuki theater has more in common with noh -- it's a highly stylized combination of dance and drama, featuring actors with heavily painted faces. Kabuki originated in the mid-1600s and began with female performers who were often prostitutes as well. Unlike noh, historically, kabuki was very sexually suggestive. Women were banned from kabuki in 1629 (and today's kabuki is all-male), but the bawdy content continued until it another edict by the shogunate in the late 1600s prohibited it. Kabuki plays fall into one of three categories: shosagato, with an emphasis on dance; jidai-mono, historical stories of military conflict and political intrigue covering the Sengoku period from the mid-15th to the early 17th-centuries; and sewa-mono, post-Sengoku period stories of domestic life.

Bunraku, or Japanese puppet theater, has been around since the late 16th century. Performers in Bunraku operate four-foot tall puppets with elaborately-carved heads, and the plays share themes with kabuki. They also include music and chanting. There are usually three different types of performers: shamisen players, the chanters (tayu) who both narrate the story and recite the characters' parts, and ningyĹŤzukai, the puppeteers. A traditional bunraku puppet requires three different puppeteers to move it. The main puppeteer controls the right hand and head, while another wields the left hand and a third operates the feet and legs. Puppeteers wear black robes and are in full view of the audience.

Traditional theater began to take a backseat in the entertainment world with the dawn of film. The century-old Japanese movie industry has not only spawned its own genres, but filmmakers who have influenced the medium world-wide. What makes Japanese movies unique? Find out on the next page.

Traditional Japanese Film

Kurosawa, regarded as one of the world's greatest filmmakers.
Kurosawa, regarded as one of the world's greatest filmmakers.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In terms of both age and output, the Japanese film industry rivals that of the United States -- it is the fourth largest in the world in the number of movies produced. The first silent film produced in Japan was shown in 1897, and silent films continued to be made well into the 1930s. Many of the earliest movies were "ghost films" featuring spirits and the supernatural, known as yurei. Period pieces, or jidaigeki, featured stories from the Edo period, when Japan was ruled by the shogunate. Early film in Japan was also influenced by kabuki and bunraku; in 1899, a short film called "Momijigari" showcased a performance by two famous kabuki actors.

The introduction of the "talkie" in 1930 also meant more experimental and avant-garde works. Socially-conscious movies known as "tendency films" were a natural expression of left-wing political movements, government dissent and labor-union organizing in the 1920s and 1930s. These were heavily censored and eventually banned as militarism was on the rise in Japan. The government gained control over the film industry in the late 1930s and made documentaries about real life in Japan and propaganda films to showcase the country as an invincible military power.


In the late 1940s, influential filmmaker Akira Kurosawa wrote and directed his first film, "Sugata Sanshiro." The golden age of Japanese film followed in the 1950s, including films by Kurosawa as well as Yasujiro Ozu and Hiroshi Inagaki that garnered worldwide acclaim. Samurai films, as well as the kaiju, or monster films, also dominated. "Gojira" (translated into English as "Godzilla") is the first and best-known of the latter genre, while Kurosawa's epic "Seven Samurai" is often considered one of the best films ever made. The ninja and the yakuza (Japanese-style mafia) genres made their appearance in the 1960s and 1970s. Also notable in 1970s Japanese film is the introduction of the "pink film" -- softcore erotic films with a special emphasis on aesthetics.

Although it had been in existence almost since the beginning of Japanese cinema, the ghost film, or yurei, became popular in Western culture in the 1990s. Known as J-horror, movies in this genre are psychological thrillers and contain elements of suspense and audience anticipation. Themes focus on elements of traditional Japanese folklore, such as yokai (spirits, demons and monsters). Japan is also well-known for its wide variety of animated productions called anime, which incorporate other genres such as fantasy, science fiction, action and horror. Hayao Miyazaki produced "Porco Rosso" and "Princess Mononoke", which were more popular in Japan than movies like "E.T" and "Titanic." Today, anime movies make up more than half of all films produced in Japan.

In the next section, we'll step back from the world of art and entertainment and into the traditional Japanese home and garden.

Traditional Japanese Home and Gardens

A Japanese family at dinner in their traditional wood and paper house.
A Japanese family at dinner in their traditional wood and paper house.
Ryan McVay/Lifesize/Thinkstock

In Japan, it's expected for a traditional wooden and paper house to last about 20 years (30 years for those with concrete exteriors) before requiring either extensive repairs or a complete rebuild [source: Harada]. Because of this, when this type of house is purchased in Japan, it tends to depreciate quickly. With its clean, simple lines and sloped roofs, these homes were inspired by Buddhist temples and traditional Chinese architecture, becoming common during the Edo period (1600s). Most Japanese still live in single-family homes that follow the traditional style, but some live in more modern, Western-style houses as well as apartments. Building codes require that houses comprise one or two stories. Most do not have central heating or air conditioning; they use space heaters or individual cooling units.

The entry (genkan), kitchen (daidokoro), bath room (sento) and toilet room (benjo) are usually the only specific-use rooms, which are arranged off one large main area called the ima. Hallways are wood-floored, while thick straw mats called tatami cover the floors in the rest of the house. The rooms are divided by fusuma, interchangeable wood and paper doors. There are generally no rooms called bedrooms or other types of living spaces in the house; these rooms are separated by lighter wood and paper sliding screens called shoji that allow light to pass through. Whenever a larger or smaller space is needed, you can simply remove or add more shoji. More modern houses may have designated bedrooms and living areas as well as all-wooden floors and Western-style furniture, but still retain elements of the traditional home.


Regular shoes are never worn inside a traditional Japanese home; this is another echo of the Shinto philosophy of cleanliness, as well as practical when your floors are straw mats. and most furniture is low on the floor. Instead, outdoor shoes these are left in the genkan and slippers are worn (there are also separate slippers to wear to the toilet, to keep your other slippers clean). Since the traditional soaking bath is about relaxation and not cleanliness for the Japanese, you would never find a toilet in the same room as a bathtub (ofuro). Besides the tub, the sento also has a separate area to shower off dirt before bathing. The sento may also be a waterproof room to make cleaning it easier. The benjo is usually a tiny space and could contain either a modern bidet-style toilet or a squat toilet. Japanese kitchens are typically equipped with a one or two burner gas range, a broiler, a microwave and a small refrigerator.

Another element you might find accompanying a traditional Japanese home/transition from homes to gardens…Traditional Japanese gardens can be found outside private homes as well as public spaces. There are many different types, but most contain the same basic elements and emphasize Zen Buddhist ideals of tranquility and contemplation. Typically, the gardens are enclosed, with fencing or hedges. If at a private residence, the house is often set in the center of the garden for maximum viewing potential. Water is also a necessary element (although there are all-stone and dry gardens as well). Of course, the water may not always be from a natural source; constructed ponds and water basins are common but must be built of natural materials to fit into the Zen philosophy. Flowing water sources should run from east to west, so that the path of the sun follows the water. Bamboo is often used to replenish the water supply. Japanese gardens are green year-round, with flowering plants only in the spring. There is generally more emphasis on stones and their placement than the plants. Not only are they used for walkways, they are also placed in symbolic groupings.

Traditional Japanese gardens are also important as settings for the tea ceremony. Read on to learn about this unique cultural phenomenon that also incorporates food, art and entertainment.

Traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony

No discussion of Japanese tradition would be complete without the tea ceremony, known as the chanoyu or chado. This carefully choreographed preparation and presentation ritual is designed to provide an experience for guests that is aesthetically pleasing and spiritually satisfying. The techniques and procedures used during the ceremony, which include everything from how a fire is laid to how the guests sip the tea, are called temae.

The host must consider a number of variables, including the season, occasion and the guests who will be present. Different tea and food preparations, decorations (including flower arrangements and hanging scrolls), attire, utensils and room arrangements may come into play. Tea ceremonies might be chakai, simpler gatherings with light tea and sweets, or chaji, gatherings lasting for several hours that include full-course meals and thicker, heavier tea. A fine, powdered green tea called matcha is always served.


Tea ceremonies may be conducted in garden tea houses, tea rooms or in multi-purpose rooms. Tatami mats are placed for guests to sit upon, arranged around a center mat used to showcase the utensils, tea and foods. The host will chose his or her kimono with not only the season in mind, but also the utensils (some of which are designed to be kept in the obi) and actions used to prepare the tea. The list of traditional equipment for in a tea ceremony, known as chadogu, is extensive. A few basic pieces include:

  • chawan, ceramic bowls for drinking tea
  • natsume, the caddy used for tea preparation
  • chashaku, a bamboo scoop
  • chasen, a bamboo whisk for mixing the powdered tea with hot water.

The actual ceremony differs, but there are some basic steps. At the beginning of a chado, guests examine the decor (usually placed in an alcove, or tokonoma, used for the purpose). After seating themselves, they will be served a meal (in the case of chaji) or a small sweet and then will observe the host or hostess laying the fire to heat the water for tea. Next, the host executes choreographed movements to clean each implement and prepare the tea itself. After exchanging bows with the most honored guest, he or she hands that person the bowl of tea. The tea is passed down through the guests by order of status, each of whom rotates the bowl to avoid sipping from the same spot. The ceremony becomes more relaxed after the initial tasting, and guests are then given individual bowls of tea and additional sweets. At specific times during the ceremony, guests examine the utensils and implements (which may be very expensive antiques or heirloom pieces) carefully, often using special cloths to avoid damaging them.

The Japanese enjoy the delicacy of traditions like tea ceremonies, but sports is one area where things can be less-than-delicate. To round out our whirlwind tour of Japanese traditions, let's close with a look at Japanese sports.

Traditional Japanese Sports

Sumo wrestlers in the ring during a tournament.
Sumo wrestlers in the ring during a tournament.

The national sport in Japan is not indigenous to the country -- it's baseball. A student returning home from his studies in America introduced the sport to his friends in 1878, and by the early 1900s, universities across the country had baseball teams. Formed in 1920, the Nippon Professional Baseball Association today comprises two leagues: Pacific and Central. The 144-game season culminates in a championship held in the fall. Japanese baseball differs from American baseball in several ways. The field, baseball and strike zone are all smaller. Games never go longer than 12 innings, and as a result, tie games are allowed.

Sumo is second to baseball in popularity as a spectator sport. It originated about 300 years ago and was associated with Shinto as a symbolic way to "wrestle" spirits. During the Heian period (794-1185), sumo wrestlers were used to demonstrate physical strength (as well as solve political disputes) in imperial courts. Sumo as a professional sport became popular during the 16th-century Edo period, and today professional wrestlers live a very proscribed life together in houses called stables, where they adhere to strict customs. Everything from the meals that they eat (a protein-rich stew called chankonabe), to their hairstyle (a samurai-style topknot) and the clothes they wear (kimono and geta) are set by the Japan Sumo Association. Sumo matches are won by the first loincloth-clad wrestler who can push the other outside of a ring. The other way to win in sumo is for one wrestler to touch the ground first with a part of his body other than his feet. Sumo matches can last from a few seconds up to a few minutes.


Martial arts have long been the most dominant type of sports in Japanese history. Many have pre-historic roots or were influenced by the samurai, a class of military nobility in the emperor's service that existed in Japan from the 1200s until the mid-1800s. Japanese martial arts are as much (or more) about spirituality, discipline, morality and strengthening the mind as they are about using strength and skill to attack and defend against an opponent. The five main types of martial arts still in practice in Japan today are all based on earlier forms or even combinations of earlier styles of martial arts. These include:

  • karate - incorporates kicks and punches from a fixed stance, combining elements of indigenous fighting styles and Chinese kenpo
  • judo - the "gentle way," originated in 1882 and is based on grappling with and throwing an opponent
  • aikido - a flowing style developed in the 1920s that uses the attacker's momentum to defend, protecting both people from injury
  • kendo - the way of the sword, Japanese fencing with bamboo swords, descended from samurai swordsmanship
  • kyudo - the way of the bow, Japanese archery refined by the samurai that emphasizes perfect technique to achieve accuracy

One pattern is apparent all traditions we've discussed in this article -- although they may have been heavily influenced initially by outside sources, the Japanese have a distinct way of making things their own. Their insular, rule-based culture can be a huge source of frustration and confusion to outsiders, but it's also endlessly fascinating. The most important thing that an outsider can take away from an article on Japanese traditions is that there's so much more to learn.

To learn more about the Japanese traditions discussed here and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

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