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.