Culture For Kids: Guide To Japanese Traditions
The culture of Japan is one that has grown and evolved into something completely unique to its people. While some of the traditions and customs have spread to other parts of the world and influenced the traditions in those areas, Japanese culture is recognizable in all its forms. The traditions and culture found in Japan today include influences from North America, Europe, and other parts of Asia mixed with the culture of Japan from millions of years ago. Language, art, religion, tradition, and much more are all major parts of Japanese culture as a whole.
Shinto, which translates to "the way of the gods," is a religion that is native to Japan, and like Buddhism, is one of the country’s major religions. Shinto practices and beliefs are rooted within Japanese traditions and the Japanese people. "Kami" are Shinto gods and Japanese people believe that all things contain kami. When people die, it is believed they become kami and are worshipped by their families.
Buddhism began in India more than 2000 years ago and although there was some conflict when it was introduced in Japan at a time when Shinto was already well-established, the two religions were able to live alongside each other. Many Buddhists believed that Buddha's spirit was present in kami (Shinto gods). The teachings of Siddhartha Gautama are the basis for the religion which states that true freedom can be reached by all people.
- Shinto – This is the original religion of the Japanese people. Learn about it here.
- Shinto Shrines See some photos of what can be a shrine, or a place of prayer, for the Shinto religion.
- Shinto – Ancient religion of Japan Learn more about Shinto, “the way of the gods,” which worships “kami” or spirits that take the form of things in nature and in life.
- Buddhism for Children – This is an explanation of Buddhism.
- The Noble Truths of Buddhism – See this site for the core of Buddhist beliefs.
Japan’s official currency is called the yen. After the American dollar and the Euro, the yen is the third most highly-traded currency in the foreign exchange market. Coins were brought to Japan by the Spanish in the 1800s and soon after their introduction the Japanese decided to officially create and use a silver dollar coin system of their own. As time went on, the size of the coins, which started out fairly large, were made smaller. In the late 1930s, silver was very expensive so silver coins were being made from other metals. Bronze coins – the 10 yen coin – were produced in the early 1950s and remain in circulation. The word ‘yen” means “a round object.” Some coins have a hole in the middle!
- Japanese coins – See photos of some more modern and very early coins of Japan.
- Japan’s 50-yen coin – Here you’ll find a photo of the two different sides of this coin.
- Various coins – Check out this site for images and descriptions of coins of Japan as they moved through time.
- The Japan Times –This is a newspaper story about Japan’s coins, the only ones left in the world that still have a hole!
- U.S. Mint – Go to this site for pictures of the different Japanese yen coins.
- Exchange Rates – Here’s a look at how the American dollar compares in value to the money of other countries, including Japan.
Festivals take place in different areas all throughout the country of Japan and recognize various events and seasons. In early times when farming was a way of life for the majority of Japanese families, festivals were a way to take a break from the harvest and enjoy family time. They often display great symbolism of the history of the country. There are a variety of festivals that celebrate the culture and traditions of Japan. One of the most unique and widely celebrated of the Japanese festivals is Hinamatsuri, or Girls’ Day. This festival takes place on March 3rd and is also known as the doll festival.
The most detailed holiday festivals to take place in Japan are those that happen from the 1st – 3rd of January. Other popular and widely celebrated festivals include Hanami or the Cherry Blossom Festival and the Lantern Floating festival.
- Festivals Throughout Japan – Find a map with links to a brief description of the various festivals shown here.
- Bon Festival – Visit this site for information on a festival that recognizes the return of spirits of family members who have passed on.
- HinaMatsuri – This is Japanese for “doll festival” which is a separate event for boys and for girls and what the dolls mean.
- Hanami – It’s cherry blossom season! Read why this is important to the Japanese, and see a calendar of the country’s national festivals and observances.
- Sapporo Snow Festival – Read this page to find out more about this huge event that happens every year.
- History of the Snow Festival – Read this page to find out how the Snow Festival began.
- Annual Festivals – This page gives a list of some of the national festivals held annually in Japan.
- Obon Festival – This is called the Festival of Lanterns. Read about it here.
In Japan, the New Year (called shogatsu or oshogatsu) is the country’s most important holiday. Businesses close from the 1st through the 3rd of January and families spend that time together. Tradition says that as one year ends, all of the year’s duties should be completed by that time, as well. Bonenkai parties take place to leave the previous year’s troubles in the past, and each new year is treated as a fresh start. Many Japanese begin a new year by watching its first sunrise, called hatsu-hinode, and its appearance is believed to be an indication of the year to come. There should be no stress or anger on New Year's Day in Japan. In preparation of the holiday, families decorate their doors with bamboo, pine, and branches of the Japanese plum tree. Households are thoroughly cleaned and clothes are laundered because New Year’s Day is a day of no work with clean household surroundings.
Shrines are very popular attractions to visit at the turn of a New Year; the Meiji Shrine of Tokyo attracts millions. When the clock strikes midnight, to ring in the New Year, bells of large temples across the land will ring out. Other holidays celebrated in Japan include Coming of Age Day – a holiday to celebrate people who have reached 20 years old that year, Culture Day, and Labor Thanksgiving Day.
- New Year’s Celebrations – Here is some good information about how the Japanese celebrate the New Year.
- Bonenkai - This is the name of parties that are held to welcome in a new year and bid farewell to the year coming to a close
- Golden Week - This is a festive celebration in Japan when several holidays are clustered together from the last part of April into the beginning of May.
- Seijin no Hi - This page provides a lot of valuable information on the Japanese Coming of Age day.
In Japanese history, music called “gagaku” was performed in operas and concerts, or courts, and was preferred by noble people and those of the upper, wealthy class. Later, as theatre grew in popularity, traditional Japanese music saw the introduction of Noh drama, or very symbolic drama usually performed by men. The Nohgaku was a form of music specific to Noh. Nohgaku has two parts: the vocal and the instrumental. Called the utai, the vocal part is sung by eight singers (a chorus) along with the male actors, and the song tells a story.
J-pop is pop music that tends to be most liked by those in their late teens and early 20s. It is Japan’s pop music which in its early development, was simply songs that were popular in America that were sung in Japanese. Today, J-pop is a combination of traditional music of Japan with pop music of America and centers on topics like friendship and love.
- Japanese pop music – Check out this site for some info on the popularity of certain Japanese band members and stars.
- Enka Music – This term, in the late 1800s, referred to a traditional type of Japanese music. In the early to mid-1900s, enka music evolved to resemble the popular country music of America. Enka music is sung most often by females in a kimono.
- Japanese Biwa – See photos of this traditional Japanese musical instrument.
- Koto – Another traditional musical instrument, photos and a description of how the koto is played can be found here.
- Make Up - The white faces and sharp designs seen in Japanese theatrical make-up (Kabuki Make-up) is applied and explained in this 6-minute video.
The art of Japan reflects was influenced by China’s style of painting until the 17th though the middle of the 19th century. Japan closed itself off from contact with the western world after an American ship admiral said Japan would be forced to trade with people of the West. Finally, contact between Japan and the West was made, trade began, and Japanese art entered the U.S. and Europe and became very popular. From sculptured clay art in human forms, to single-color ink prints on blocks of wood, to peaceful landscape drawings, ceramic engravings, and colorful paintings of contemporary fashion, art in Japan has seen remarkable change.
- Japanese Dogu – On this pdf, find photos of Japanese dogu and a description of how they were believed to be used.
- Dogu Figurines – From thousands of years ago, these were figures created by people in Japan who, at that time, survived by hunting and gathering methods.
- Haniwa Sculptures – See these photos of clay figures which were created by people from the year 1 through 500 A.D. These figurines were believed to be treasures that were buried along with the dead, which resulted in tombs that were large and mounded.
- Ukiyo-e – This is a very unique form of Japanese art. Read more about it here.
- Yamato-e – Meaning “Japanese pictures,” this term described art of the first and second centuries painted in a style that was Japanese, versus a style that was more Chinese, or kara-e. Read a brief description here and see a slideshow of examples.
One of the staples of Japanese meals is rice and noodles, often eaten with soup flavored with fish, vegetables, chicken, tofu, or some other “okazu”. Noodles are most often made from wheat or buckwheat and can be eaten cold or hot. To season, Japanese people commonly use soy sauce, dashi, and miso. Some of the ingredients most often found in a Japanese home kitchen are mushrooms, beans, seaweed, vegetables, soy, flour, eggs, meat, and rice.
- Food Pyramid – Here’s a look at the foods that are common and not-so-common in the Asian diet and where they fit into the food pyramid.
- Food Culture – This is a great site with photos and great explanations of what an “expensive” meal looks like, and what a Japanese version of a “home-cooked” meal would consist of.
- Miso – A salty, fermented paste made from soybeans, miso looks a lot like peanut butter. Read about how healthy it is, and read some ideas on how to use it in recipes.
- What is Wasabi? – This is a very spicy green condiment served with many Japanese foods. See a picture of where it comes from at this site.
- Japanese Cuisine – This site gives a list of several traditional Japanese foods; click on the pictures and find out more about each one.
- Japanese Food – Here is a look at some foods usually eaten on special days and foods that are commonly eaten at home.
- Tea Ceremonies – These are centuries-old ceremonies still practiced today. Find out more about them here.