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Culture & Society

Articles and resources on Japanese culture and society

Most Popular

  • Emoji

    Emoticons (顔文字 (かおもじ, “Kaomoji” or “Emoji”) are facial expressions pictorially represented by punctuation and letters in order to express the mood...
  • Japanese Family Names

    Modern Japanese names (日本人の氏名 nihonjin no shimei) usually consist of a family name (surname), followed by a given name. This order is common in...
  • Samurai

    Hand-coloured print from the 1870s (Photo: Peabody Museum) The word samurai (侍) has origins in the pre-Heian period, being derived from the...
  • Japanese Holidays and Festivals

    Japan has thirteen public holidays (marked with ▲) and a lot of nation-wide as well as local festivals. Find a short description of the public...
  • Japanese Manners and Etiquette

    Social behaviour and etiquette are considered very important in Japan. While certain rules of courtesy are supposed to be universal, quite a few...
  • Marriage in Japan

    Over the past several centuries, the institution of marriage in Japan has changed radically. The changes reflect new social realities and...
  • Shinto

    Literally meaning “the way of the gods”, Shinto (神道 shintō) is the native religion of Japan. It is a form of animism which stresses the importance...
  • Sokushinbutsu: Japanese Mummies

    Sokushinbutsu (即身仏) refers to a practice of Buddhist monks observing austerity to the point of death and mummification. It is a process of...
  • Underwear and shame in Japan

    Nihonbashi, Tokyo, December 16, 1932, around 9:15 am: a massive fire breaks out on the fourth floor of Shirokiya, a popular department store. It...
  • Teru teru bozu

    Teru teru bōzu (照る照る坊主) are traditional Japanese dolls made of tissue paper or cloth hung in front of the window to prevent rain. Teru (照る) means...
  1. Momotaro

    Momotarō (桃太郎, "Peach Boy") is a popular folktale recounting the adventures of a boy born from a peach found by an elderly woman washing clothes on a riverbank. When she and her husband try to eat the peach, they discover Momotarō who claims to be sent from heaven to be their son. He is adopted by the couple. Maturing quickly, he soon leaves the couple together to fight off a band of ogres (鬼 oni). On his way to their island he meets a dog, a pheasant, and a monkey who join him. Conquering Ogre Island (鬼ヶ島 Onigashima), Momotarō returns home with treasures for his foster parents. Momotarō...
  2. Kintaro

    Kintarō (金太郎, "Golden Boy") is a popular figure in Japanese folklore and was the childhood name of Sakata no Kintoki (坂田金時), one of the four trusted followers of the famous warrior Minamoto no Yorimitsu (源 頼光, 948-1021). Although Sakata seems to have been a historical figure from the Heian Period who appeared in the 11th-century anthology Konjaku Monogatari (今昔物語), he is later depicted as the son of a yamauba (山姥 or 山うば, mountain witch) born on Mount Ashigara (modern-day Kanagawa Prefecture). Being of Herculean strength, he said to have wrestled with bears and other beasts. Kintarō...
  3. Sengai Gibon

    Sengai Gibon (仙厓義梵, 1750-1837) was a Zen painter and calligrapher whose ink drawings are characterised by a warm, satiric, and often self-critical humour. He was born into a family of poor farmers in Mino (modern-day Gifu Prefecture) and became a monk of the Rinzai School of Buddhism at the age of eleven. He studied at Seitaiji (清泰寺) under Kūin Enkyo (空印円虚, 1704-1787) and received the priest name of Gibon. In 1768, he set out on his first pilgrimage and arrived at Tōki-an (東輝庵) temple near present-day Yokohama where he took up his studies under the guidance of Gessen Zenne (月船禪慧,...
  4. Nenbutsu

    Nenbutsu, commonly transliterated as nembutsu, is the invocation "namu amida butsu" (南無阿弥陀仏, "I take my refuge in the Buddha Amitābha) chanted in the hope of rebirth into Amida's Pure Land. While nowadays strictly of invocational nature (称名念仏 shōmyō nembutsu), there once were contemplative nembutsu (観念念仏 kannen nembutsu), the practice of envisioning the characteristics of a Buddha, and meditative nembutsu (憶念 okunen or 理觀 rikan), the meditation on Buddha-nature or the spiritual qualities of a Buddha. Nembutsu were not only directed to Amitābha but to other Buddhas as well and not always...
  5. Pure Land Buddhism

    Pure Land Buddhism (浄土仏教 Jōdo bukkyō) is a branch of Mahāyāna Buddhism and seeks rebirth into Amitābha Buddha's Western Paradise (the "Pure Land"), traditionally after death. Pure Land Buddhism achieved great popularity in China from around 800 CE, though it had existed there earlier. It never achieved the status of a separate school or sect in China, remaining a monastic cult and folk religion. Pure Land Buddhism was introduced to Japan along with other forms of Buddhism in the 6th century CE, but stayed dormant until it was picked up by the aristocracy during the middle of the Heian...
  6. Kegon School

    The Kegon School of Buddhism (華厳宗 Kegon-shū) flourished in the early centuries of Japanese Buddhist history and was one of the largest of the Six Sects of Nara (南都六宗 Nanto Rokushū). It is based on the Huayan or Flower Garland school of Buddhism and was introduced in Japan by the Chinese monk Tao-hsüan (道璿 Dōsen, 702-760 CE) and the Korean monk Kor Simsang (審祥 Shinjō, d. 742). Rōben (Tōdai-ji, Nara) Rōben (良弁、朗弁、良辨、朗辨, 689-773 CE), a priest at the Tōdai-ji in Nara, who had invited Shinjō to give lectures at the temple, was an early expert on the Kegonkyō (華厳経), the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, one...
  7. Shingon Buddhism

    Shingon (真言宗 Shingon-shū) is a major Buddhist sect and a branch of Mahāyāna Buddhism, founded by the Japanese monk Kūkai (空海) in the beginning of the 9th century. It is also referred to as the Shingon-darani (Sanskrit: mantra-dharani) sect, or the Dainichi (Mahāvairocana) sect, and generally as mikkyō (密教, esoteric Buddhism). The basic doctrines and patterns of practice were established by Kūkai, who combined Indo-Chinese esoteric Buddhism on the basis of Madhyamika, Yogācāra, and Huayan or Flower Garland school of Buddhism (華厳宗 Kegon-shū) thought. No significant innovations in the...
  8. Ito Jakuchu

    Itō Jakuchū (伊藤若冲, 1716-1800) was a painter known for his almost surrealist, detailed depictions of exotic birds and fowl. He also painted traditional Japanese motifs and experimented with perspectives and other modern stylistic elements. He was the eldest of the three Edo-era "eccentrics" and is also considered to be the most serious of them. His eccentricity was not so much based upon outrageous behaviour but on his bold combinations of colours and elements. He regarded his own style as "something that will only be understood in a thousand years". Portrait of Ito Jakuchu painted by...
  9. Tendai Buddhism

    The Tendai sect of Buddhism (天台宗 Tendai-shū) is the Japanese counterpart of the Chinese Tiantai (Tiāntái zōng) sect and was first brought to Japan by the Chinese monk Ganjin (鑑眞) in the 8th century. In 806, the Japanese monk Saichō (最澄; or Dengyō Daishi 伝教大師, 767-822) returned from China and re-introduced its teachings. Together with Shingon, it was the dominant sect of the Heian Period (794-1185). Although the popular Buddhist movements of the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) such as the Jōdō sect (Pure Land sect, 浄土仏教 Jōdo bukkyō) and Nichiren sect evolved from it, Tendai itself was closely...
  10. Tanizaki Jun'ichiro

    Jun'ichirō Tanizaki (谷崎 潤一郎, 1886-1965) was a Japanese novelist who made his literary debut in 1910. He was an adherent of the romantic movement in Japanese literature which had emerged in reaction to Japanese naturalism, then at the height of its influence. In his later period, he went on to explore his personal sexual conflicts, seeking to discover how man could find spiritual salvation from carnal desires. The Great Tokyo Earthquake of 1923 marked an important turning point in Tanizaki's career. At that time, he moved from the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Tōkyō and Yokohama to the more...
  11. Tanka

    Tanka (短歌 literally "short poem") are classical Japanese poems consisting of 31 syllables in five lines in the pattern 5-7-5-7-7. Tanka were the dominant form in classical Japanese poetry (和歌 waka) from the seventh to the twentieth century. Tanka are still very popular and composed by amateurs and students of all ages. In the oldest anthology of Japanese poetry, the eighth-century Man'yōshū (万葉集, literally "Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves" or "Collection for Ten Thousand Generations"), the word tanka is used to distinguish the short 31-syllable poem from the "long poem" (長歌 chōka), a...
  12. Japanese New Year

    New Year's or ō-shōgatsu (お正月) is one of the most important and most elaborate of Japan's annual observances. There are regional differences in customs, but what is in common is that at this time homes are decorated and families gather to spend the holidays together. Shrines and temples are visited, and formal calls on relatives and friends are made. Officially, New Year is observed from 1 January through 3 January, during which time public offices and most companies are closed. In contrast to previous decades, supermarkets, convenience stores as well as many department stores remain open...
  13. Momijigari: autumn leaves

    Momijigari (紅葉狩) is the traditional Japanese pastime of viewing autumn foliage. Momijigari means literally “maple hunting”, from the Japanese word for maple or “red leaves”, 紅葉 (momiji) and kari (狩り), “hunting”. Another common reading for momiji is “kōyō” (紅葉). Like cherry-blossom viewing (花見 hanami, “flower-viewing”) in the spring, it was popular among the court aristocracy of the Heian period (794-1185). The nobles went boating on ponds in the gardens around their mansions, playing music and composing poetry while enjoying the fall colours, or went to excursions into the mountains to...
  14. Teru teru bozu

    Teru teru bōzu (照る照る坊主) are traditional Japanese dolls made of tissue paper or cloth hung in front of the window to prevent rain. Teru (照る) means “shine” as in sunshine, while bōzu (坊主) refers to a Buddhist priest or bonze. Therefore, teru teru bōzu means as much as “shine, shine, monk” and alludes to a priest’s magical powers to prevent a rainy day. Ghost-like in appearance, they became popular in the Edo era and were used by children the day before important events or festivities. How to create a teru teru bōzu 1. Prepare two pieces of tissue paper and some string. Crumble the sheet of...
  15. Tanabata

    Tanabata (七夕) is one of Japan’s five traditional festivals (五節句 gosekku) and is usually celebrated on July 7, or in other areas, on the seventh day of the seventh month based on the lunar calendar, which could in some years fall on the beginning of August. It is based on a Chinese folk legend concerning two stars, Vega, the Weaver Star, represented by the deity Orihime (織姫), and Altair, the Cowherd Star, represented by Hikoboshi (彦星), who – being lovers separated by the Milky Way (天の川 Amanogawa, the “heavenly river”) – could only meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar...
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