From Slippers to Shinto—20 Surprising Facts About Japanese Culture

by Christian Monson
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Japan is full of sights, events, and nightlife, but by far the best part of visiting the country is the rich and unique culture. Since it’s both an island nation and in the Far East, a lot of aspects of Japanese culture can be new and strange for Westerners.

Discovering the differences of other cultures can be a rewarding experience. Japan is one of the best examples of this. There’s no substitute for traveling, but learning some of the things that make it special is always fun. A list of Japanese cultural facts could be endless, but a shortlist will at least give you a glimpse of what draws people around the world to the country. At the same time, maybe you’ll realize a few strange things about your culture that you’d never considered.

These 20 facts are some of the most interesting and quirky about Japanese culture. Read on for an eye-opening adventure.

20 Facts About Japanese Culture

1. Japan has a lot of rules for slippers.

Americans traveling abroad tend to discover that the rest of the world has very strict customs regarding shoes. Every country seems to have its own specific rules about when you take your shoes off and where. 

While the US is on the relaxed extreme of this spectrum, Japan is on the completely opposite end. Japan has complex etiquette when it comes to shoes and slippers.

First of all, you may be required to take off your shoes in business establishments like hotels and public baths. This keeps filth from the street from entering the building. There’s usually a shelf of slippers that you can use at the entrance.

In houses and other residences, slipper culture is even more complicated. Generally speaking, when you enter a Japanese home, the entrance will be about six inches below the main floor. This is the area where you trade your street shoes for your house slippers. However, if the floor is made of the woven tatami material, you should just go in socks. Slippers can damage the material.

Finally, there are usually separate slippers for the bathroom. Again, this is for isolating filth. When you go to the bathroom, you change your house slippers for your bathroom slippers. When you’re finished, you change back again.

2. Japan has four different writing systems.

It’s strange for Westerners who are used to a single phonetic alphabet, but in Japan, there are actually numerous ways to write.

Kanji is the Japanese adaptation of traditional Chinese characters. These characters represent “morphemes” which can be full words or parts of words. Because they usually represent a native Japanese morpheme as well as the loan morpheme from Chinese, there are multiple ways to pronounce them.

Katakana and hiragana are two different forms of the Japanese phonetic syllabic alphabet. Each symbol represents a syllable—the combination of a consonant and vowel. Hiragana is the most common way to write Japanese, usually combined with Kanji. It’s the standard way to write that children learn at a young age. Katakana is a similar system, but it’s mostly just used with words adapted to Japanese from foreign languages. Sometimes brands or artists use Katakana for their names for stylistic reasons. Together these two systems are called Kana.

Lastly, Japanese uses the Latin alphabet just like English and other Western European languages. They call it Rōmaji. You may see things like street signs in Japan written in the Hiragana-Kanji mixture with the Rōmaji version underneath. It’s also fashionable for companies, brands, and artists to use Latin letters for their logos and products.

3. Japan has the oldest population of any major nation.

The median age in Japan is 47.3, higher than any other country besides the city-state of Monaco. Over a third of the country is older than 60. This is due to a number of factors.

For one, Japan also has the highest life expectancy of any country—84.5 years. On top of this, it has a very low birth rate that’s steadily declining. It’s currently at 1.4 babies per woman, one of the lowest in the world. Together, this leads to a very old population.

The high proportion of elderly affects the culture. In Japan you’ll see many things designed and marketed to old people. One common example is that you’ll see more adult diapers than baby diapers. You’ll see a lot more elderly people than children and special places for them on public transportation.

More and more Japanese people are retiring, too, which means more work for young people. You may have heard of Japan’s intense work culture where young people work long hours that leave them exhausted. The aging population has a lot to do with that.

4. Sleeping in public is perfectly normal.

For people from the West, sleeping in public seems strange. Taking a nap on a park bench or in the train station may feel awkward. It’s usually associated with homelessness and at least seen as a little embarrassing.

This isn’t the case in Japan. Don’t be surprised to see a professional businessman in a pressed suit curled up on a street bench using his briefcase as a pillow. Nothing strange is going on here. He’s just getting some shuteye while waiting for the train.

A big part of this is Japan’s low crime rate. For example, Japan has one of the lowest homicide rates in the world. That’s not to say there isn’t any crime at all. There certainly is, but Japanese people may feel less vulnerable taking a nap in the middle of a crowded public place.

5. It’s rude to eat and walk.

For the American reader, this is not really exclusive to Japan. The American tendency to eat and walk or eat and drive is very unique. However, like many aspects of etiquette, Japan takes it to the extreme. While eating and walking is becoming increasingly common in Europe, the Japanese will still give you strange looks. At local markets, signs are often posted prohibiting you from walking while you eat the food you buy.

It’s also impolite to drink and walk, but drinking next to a vending machine is tolerated. If you’re in Japan and feeling hungry, it’s best to sit down and take your time. You’ll enjoy it more that way anyway.

6. Baseball is as popular as it is in the US.

Baseball is as classically American as apple pie and blue jeans, but did you know it’s a big part of Japanese culture, too? Called yakyū, it’s one of Japan’s most popular sports. In fact, it’s so popular that Japanese people are often surprised to discover that it’s also a major sport in the United States.

Part of this is that baseball’s history in Japan is almost as long as its history in the US. It was introduced to the country in 1872 by Horace Wilson, an English professor living in Tokyo, and the first professional competitions began in the 1920s. 

Nowadays the highest level of professional competition is organized by Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB). The game is essentially the same as Major League Baseball in the US, but there are some small differences. For example, the balls are smaller as well as the strike zone and field area. Regular season games are also limited to 12 innings, and ties are allowed.

It’s not just professional baseball that gets national attention, though. People watch and follow high school baseball with considerable fanaticism, and the national team competes in international tournaments like the World Baseball Classic. 

7. There are many laws to curb obesity.

There is a myth going around the West that it’s illegal to be fat in Japan. While this is false, there are a number of laws aimed at preventing obesity and lowering the rate of obesity in the population.

In 2008, Japan passed something called the “Metabo Law” with the goal of reducing the overweight population 10% by 2012 and 25% by 2015.  This law requires people between the ages of 45 and 74 to have their waistlines measured on a yearly basis. People who are larger than the set limits of 35.4 inches for men and 31.5 inches for women may be required to get treatment for obesity. Treatment includes counseling from nutritionists and health experts about their dietary habits.

While there are no penalties on individuals for being obese other than the potentially required counseling, local governments can be fined if their citizens don’t meet standards. Similarly, companies can be fined if their employees are outside the guidelines.

8. Shinto and Buddhism are both widespread.

Shinto is a religion unique to Japan and a major part of their cultural identity. Buddhism is an international religion very prominent in the far East. Most people who visit Japan are surprised to find how integrated both of them are into Japanese culture.

Not only will you find both Shinto and Buddhist shrines all over the cities and countryside, but many Japanese people actually identify with both religions. In some cases, they may visit the shrines of both and take part in the rituals of both. 

For example, Japanese weddings are traditionally held in the Shinto custom. Shinto, however, is very focused on purity. Since death is considered an impurity, funerals are rarely held in Shinto shrines. Most people opt to have their funerals in the Buddhist tradition instead.

9. Theme restaurants are very popular.

There’s no reason you should ever have a boring meal in Japan. On top of great food, the country is full of theme restaurants, each offering a different immersive dining experience.

The most popular example these days is that of the maid cafe, which can be found in the Akihabara electronics district of Tokyo. At these restaurants, instead of being attended to by waitresses, women dressed as Victorian French maids give you the experience of being served by a maid in your own home. 

There are endless other themes, though. There are restaurants designed to feel like insane asylums, the Wild West and Alice in Wonderland. You can interact with robots, monsters, and ninjas. There are even restaurants where you can play with hedgehogs and owls before your meal.

10. Manga is mainstream.

In the West, manga is primarily associated with specific subcultures and only consumed by special fans. In Japan, this is not the case. In fact, there are around 1.9 billion manga books and magazines sold in Japan each year, about 15 per person.

You’ll find Japanese people from all walks of life reading manga—elderly women and teenage boys. There are stories for every genre—action, comedy, drama, horror, mystery, romance, fantasy, even sports, and business. The history of the art form dates all the way back to the 12th Century, making it a central part of the culture.

11. Bathing is complicated and ritualistic.

Purity and cleanliness are important aspects of Japanese culture, often reflected in the rituals of Shinto, the unique Japanese religion. For example, before prayer at a Shinto shrine, worshipers wash their hands and mouth with water from a special basin.

You can see this focus on washing and bathing most prominently at the onsen hot springs. Onsen are natural springs heated by the geothermal activity close to the surface in Japan. Facilities are usually built around these springs so people can use them. Before entering the spring, you shower and clean yourself and then enter the hot water. You cannot be wearing any clothing at all, and you cannot allow your hair to be submerged. Most onsen even ban people with tattoos to further emphasize the idea of purity.

12. Horse meat is common.

If you have a problem eating horse, you need to order carefully in Japan. Horse meat is a big part of Japanese cuisine. It’s called sakura or baniku and is often served as raw sashimi slices dipped in soy sauce with ginger and onion. It might also come wrapped in shiso leaf.

In addition to raw, horse meat is also served as part of Japanese barbecue and included in many canned meat mixtures. Japan raises its own horses for meat, but it doesn’t meet demand. Instead, the Japanese import a lot of horses from Canada, Mexico, Italy, Argentina and Brazil for food.

13. You shouldn’t pour your own drink.

In Japan, it’s rude to pour your own drink. Instead, your focus should be on everyone else’s drinks. You pour drinks for your companions, and one of them will inevitably pour yours. You shouldn’t drink unless everyone’s glass is full, and if at some point during the meal, you see that someone needs a refill, you should do it. Everyone else will watch out for you, too.

If you’re not used to it, this custom can get you drunk fast. That’s because as soon as you finish your glass, you’ll have more to drink. As a result, you might want to drink a little more slowly than you normally would when you have control over your own pouring.

14. The Japanese wear masks to protect others.

Westerners are usually familiar with the image of the masked Japanese population. Newsreels of pedestrians and public transportation always show a good portion of the people wearing surgical face masks. What most Westerners don’t understand is why.

Most people think the masks are to protect the wearer, but that isn’t the case. In fact, experts insist these simple masks do little to prevent infection. Rather, Japanese people wear them to be polite to those around them. The masks prevent you from passing any germs to other people, so you can see why they’re popular in a country where the culture says you should always have the well-being of others in mind.

15. Bowing is so important the animals do it.

Bowing is a famous symbol of Japanese culture and very recognizable to foreigners. In Japanese, the practice is referred to as ojigi. Modern customs are based on a school of etiquette around 800 years old and are used in many situations from salutation to apology.

When performing ojigi, you must keep your back straight. The body only bends at the waist. A bent back is rude because it appears lazy and therefore insincere. 

In general business and social situations, the depth of the bow reflects the respect it’s meant to convey. It’s divided into three categories. A slight bow is called eshaku and you use it for general greetings between colleagues. You use a medium bow, or keirei, to greet clients or superiors. Finally, use the deepest bow, saikeirei, to greet very important people, apologizing or asking for large favors. For religious ceremonies and other activities, there are even more kinds of bows.

If you want proof, just travel to any area filled with Japanese deer. Nara Park is one of the most famous examples. There you can buy rice crackers to feed the deer, and the deer will approach you and bow to ask for food. Around the park, you’ll see many children and even adults bowing back to the deer in greeting. Bowing has been central to Japanese culture for so long that the wild animals have even picked it up.

16. New Year’s is the biggest holiday.

Christianity, of course, has never been fundamental to Japanese culture. Therefore, Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter are not especially popular. These days, thanks to Western influence, there is a bit of Christmas celebration and decorating, but it’s more of a minor romantic holiday.

Instead, New Year’s is the major event for the Japanese people. The holiday itself is January 1, but businesses often close for several days around it. Traveling to Japan during this time can be a lot of fun because you get to participate in the local traditions. For example, you can go to a shrine at midnight to watch the monks ring the bell. Just keep in mind that if you’re wanting to visit museums or other sights, they may be closed for the holidays. 

17. High-tech conveniences are everywhere.

The Japanese are experts at using technology to improve their lives. Don’t be surprised if you get off the plane to be greeted by a cleaning robot roving about the airport. After that you can travel all around Japan’s 47 prefectures with the lightning fast yet quiet and comfortable shinkansen bullet trains.

It doesn’t stop there, though. You’ll find little conveniences in places you’d never expect. For instance, tables at restaurants usually have buttons to call servers and sometimes ticket vending machines to make ordering easier. Many garages also have turntables that let cars enter and exit without ever having to go in reverse.

Of course, the best examples of Japanese technological convenience are their toilets. Japanese toilets are renowned for their comfort and utility, with heated seats and water and built-in bidets. The only problem is the buttons are always labeled in Japanese, so don’t get trigger happy. The toilets have plenty of abilities you might not be comfortable with.

18. Gambling is illegal. Sort of.

Historically, gambling has been illegal in Japan. In general, that’s still the case, but the country is becoming increasingly tolerant of gambling, and there are a few notable exceptions.

Recently, the government legalized betting on a specific list of public sports. These are horse racing, bicycle racing, powerboat racing, and motorcycle racing. Additionally, Japanese lawmakers passed a bill in 2018 that will allow three casinos in the country. Currently, companies are bidding for licenses. You can also find lotteries sponsored by prefecture or city governments. The funds from the lotteries fund government organizations and charities. 

The most notable exception, though, is pachinko. If you travel to Japan, you’re almost guaranteed to see a pachinko parlor. Pachinko is a game that’s like a combination of pinball and slots. You try to get your ball into a hole which then awards a jackpot. Instead of money, though, you just get more balls. You can then trade the balls for prizes including small tokens. You can’t get money because that would break the gambling law, but you can go sell the tokens at nearby shops for cash.

19. Slurping is polite and encouraged.

In the West, slurping is rude. From a young age, we try our best not to do it, to eat quietly and therefore politely. In Japan, the complete opposite is true. Slurping is considered polite and a compliment to the chef.

This is especially true when it comes to ramen. Ramen bars are pretty fast-paced. You place an order ahead of time, and by the time you sit down, a hot bowl of ramen is in front of you. You’re supposed to start eating immediately, but the scalding broth could easily burn your mouth. To avoid this, you have to slurp the noodles. Do it loudly and look to the chef so he knows you’re enjoying your meal.

20. There are lines for everything.

That’s not to say you have to spend more time waiting in Japan than any other country, just that waiting is a lot more organized. For example, instead of a free-for-all at the bar, patrons form an orderly line to order drinks. You’ll also find these lines waiting to be seated at restaurants or buying tickets for an event. For long waits like going up into the Tokyo Skytree, expect well organized and marked queues.

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