As one of the oldest civilizations in Asia, Japan has a rich culture full of ancient rituals, social customs, traditions, and powerfully held beliefs all with a strong connection to religion and nature. It is the influence of the country’s religions, and the people’s respect of nature, that has initiated the evolution of the Japanese culture over hundreds of years, marrying ancient practices with more modern discoveries turning the Japanese culture into a variable mixture of the old and the new, the past and the present. It is this diversity and the richness of the Japanese culture, as well as strict adherence by the Japanese people, that gives endurance to strongly held beliefs about life and death, diet, healthcare, social interactions, the roles of men and women, blood donation, as well as controversial topics like abortion and organ donation, to name a few.
Considered a proud people whose culture is most notably influenced by Buddhism and Shinto, many Japanese consider themselves polytheistic, describing themselves in most cases as both Buddhist and Shinto. Shinto is the native religion of Japan and ties all of its rituals and beliefs to nature, including the worshiping of ancestors and nature spirits including Sun Goddess Amaterasu who is the guardian of the people and Mother of all creation. Buddhism arrived many years later and is now interwoven with Shinto. This closely knitted relationship between these two religions can be seen in many of the cultural rituals such as weddings that are typically performed under the auspices of the Shinto religion, while funerals tend to lend themselves to the Buddhist teachings. The religious teachings also lend themselves to superstitions and the belief in deities with supernatural powers. Superstitions such as “your parents will die young if you don’t hide your thumbs.” It is the merging of the value systems of these two religions that can be seen throughout the Japanese culture.
View on life and grieve death
The Japanese formalized the rituals surrounding death during the Edo Period (1603-1867) creating the customs of family grave sites, the worshiping of ancestral spaces in Buddhist Temples, along with elaborate publicly held funeral rituals and a wake, all closely tied to Buddhism. Today, cremation is on the rise, along with more intimate family funeral proceedings. Family and friends send baskets and cards to relay their condolences, household shrines are covered with white paper, and white paper lanterns are displayed outside the homes. If a burial takes place, the body is washed, knives are buried on the chest of the dead for protection, along with a beloved item, six coins for the crossing of the Sanzu River, and women are buried in kimonos and men in fine suits. The Japanese use the rituals surrounding grief, both public and private, to prepare the dead for their resting place and to help the mourners heal. As for reincarnation, the Buddhist believe in rebirth and Shinto believe in kami, not reincarnation. Both believe that a person’s consciousness is gone at the time of death and recycled or as the Buddhist call it, skandhas. As for life, the Japanese culture believes in living a good life, respecting elders, worshiping ancestors, preparing for your death by meditating in order to have influence over your rebirth, releasing bad habits, and working toward ending suffering by ceasing to chase after things that don’t make you happy or will not last forever.
The Japanese culture marries the more traditional practice of Kampo, along with healing at religious shrines, with more modern western medical doctrines. Patients can receive prescriptions for herbal treatments or be prescribed medications. They can visit a healer or see a physician. When it comes to physicians, Japan is predominately male, and doctors have a higher social status than nurses and therefore handle most of the patient treatmen. Even though acupuncture originated in China the Japanese have their own version of this treatment. They use thinner needles and a more shallow needle placement, as well as the use of heat. Since most of Japan’s views on health center around maintaining balance in ones life and body, healers are utilized to help maintain this balance. There is no cultural prohibition to surgery, in fact the most popular surgery in Japan is a cosmetic eyelid surgery. Blood transfusions are accepted since the products come from living people, abortion is also widely accepted, but there is a more negative attitude toward organ donation due to the religious interpretations surrounding brain death since it’s seen as an impure death; however despite this negativity, transplant surgeries are still performed.
Child birth, emotions and illness
The Japanese have one of the lowest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world; however, the Japanese physicians restrict the weight gain of the mother during pregnancy. If born with a physical disability there is great care to ensure the child has every resource necessary for a normal life as dictated in the Law of Welfare for People with Physical Disabilities, the Public Assistance Law, and the Child Welfare Law. On the flip side, there is a stigma toward mental illness, which limits the access to proper mental health care. As for genetic disorders, Kabuki-Syndrome is rare while Moyamoya is the most prevalent. Despite the Japanese culture promoting a healthy balance in the body, high risk behaviors such as smoking, alcoholism, and inactivity are widespread especially among the younger population.
The roles of men and women in society
Japan is a culture with clearly defined gender roles. These roles align themselves with the societal obligations publicly and privately, where women are in charge of the household, family decisions and the budget, while men work outside the home. After World War II (WWII) these roles were challenged and women started to find employment outside of the home, but they were still governed by men’s expectations. The feudal system was eliminated after WWII occupation and women now pursue careers and stray further away from marriage and having children. Still today women are trapped between traditional values and modern values and men are struggling with the idea of being stay-at-home fathers. As for social interactions, the Japanese culture expects punctuality at all times for any occasion, direct eye contact is considered rude, they use body language to determine how someone is feeling, and when it comes to personal space, they prefer to stand at arms lengths with almost no touching between men and women.
Diet and special foods
The Japanese diet consists of more fish than red meat and is balanced with vegetables, fruit and some rice or tofu. They have smaller portion sizes and eat slowly. For special occasions such as holidays and other festivals, red, considered a lucky color, dominates, even when it comes to food choices like red beans and sweet rice wine. You serve lobster at a birthday celebration and for New Year celebrations you have a whole fish broiled with salt. When Japanese women are pregnant they can drink tea and on birthdays they have cake. When Japanese are sick they eat green onion and ginger. The Japanese have the lowest obesity rate in the world and their life expectancy is also number one in the world due to their diet.
The Japanese culture is a balance of religious teachings from Buddhism and Shinto, along with a need for balance in body and life through the many rituals and other observances that are tied to nature with influences from the around the world. All of these combined give us the Japanese culture of today a mix of old and new, past and present.