ukiyo-e of a courtesan
Japan has a rich traditional culture as manifested in art forms such as the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, calligraphy, ink paintings, haiku poetry, gardening, sculpture and textiles, doll making, origami, gold foil laquerwear, silk kimono painting, traditional dance, ancient court music, bunraku puppetry, geisha dances, and kabuki drama. Some forms of traditional culture are not as authentic as they are purported to be. Toshiya Ueno, a sociology professor at Chubu University told Foreign Policy, “I can’t always distinguish elements of traditional culture from Japan culture invented for tourists.”

Japanese culture has become a global phenomena. Parents buy Pokeman backpacks for their kids in the Middle East. Diners down large quantities of sushi in Sao Paulo. Women take flower arranging classes in South Africa. University students read the latest mangas in New Jersey. Japanese film directors win prizes in Venice, Berlin and Cannes. According to the Japan Foundation and Tokyo’s Marubeni Research Institute, three million people were studying Japanese abroad in 2003, compared to only127,000 in 1997.

The Order of Culture is the top cultural prize given in Japan. Only a few handpicked individual are given it each year and they are presented it in a special ceremony presided over the Japanese Emperor. Among the recipients in 2008 were conductor Seiji Ozawa and American scholar and Japan expert Donald Keene.

Interest in traditional Japanese art forms in Japan is waning. According to a 1997 government White Paper on Leisure, twice as many women are interested in personal computers than the tea ceremony and three times more would rather go bowling than engage in traditional flower arranging.

Good Websites and Sources: Spacious Planet, Good Japan Culture Blog spaciousplanet.com ; Famous Personages in Japan kyoto-su.ac.jp ; Inside Japan.com inside-japan.com ; Japan Society japansociety.org ; Wikipedia article on the Culture of Japan Wikipedia ; Chronology of Japan’s Fine Arts kanzaki.com ; MEXT, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology mext.go.jp/english ; Essay on Japan Cool aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Nipponia, Quarterly Web magazine on Japanese Culture and Life nipponia/archives ; Monumenta Nipponica, Respected Journal on Japanese History and Culture Japanese Culture Links sabotenweb.com Statistical Handbook of Japan Cultural Assets Section stat.go.jp/english/data/handbook ; 2010 Edition stat.go.jp/english/data/nenkan Book: “Encyclopedia of Japanese Culture” by Mark Schilling

Links in this Website: JAPANESE CULTURE Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE CULTURE AND HISTORY Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; CLASSIC JAPANESE LITERATURE Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; TALE OF GENJI Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; BASHO, HAIKU AND JAPANESE POETRY Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; CLASSIC 20TH CENTURY JAPANESE LITERATURE Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; MODERN LITERATURE AND BOOKS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; HARUKI MURAKAMI Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; POPULAR WESTERN BOOKS AND WESTERN WRITERS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan

Culture, Copying and Refining in Japan

17th century Japanese ceramics
The Japanese have a long history of taking cultural and art forms from outside Japan and refining them and absorbing foreign ideas into a Japanese aesthetic framework and then adapting them to Japanese needs.

Many traditional Japanese cultural forms were introduced from China and Korea and refined. Beginning about 400 years ago Western ideas were introduced but absorbed slowly over time. It is only in the last 150 years or so that Western forms have been embraced and look at how some of them — the corporation, the automobile, the comic book, and Western-stye military for example — have been refined and adapted.

The tradition continues today. Japan is full of Beatles copycats and teenagers wearing hip hop fashion. There are Japanese that play salsa music, accordions, bagpipes, and American football. Some forms they copy and play with great skill. Some they adapt and refine. Others they look ridiculous imitating.

Naoki Takizawa, a top Japanese fashion designer told the Washington Post, “Japanese culture absorbs things, but then puts a different interpretation to it...We attach a different creativeness to things...our own sense of beauty...Japan is creative culture.”

Japanese Culture and Quiet Beauty

The Japanese have traditionally had a passion for precision and aesthetics. Their art is prized for it technical brilliance, refined aesthetics and feeling for nature. The famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright said, "The Japanese lavish loving care on their beautiful things. To them beautiful things are religious things and their care is a great privilege."

Rooted in part in Shintoism, the traditional Japanese concept of beauty and nature manifests itself in a love for natural materials, unadorned surfaces and a wildness and strangeness that is not found in Chinese art.

When talking about traditional art Japanese often use the words “wabi” (quiet taste) and “sabi” (elegant simplicity) and “shibui” (austerity). These overlapping concepts describe art that is cerebral and spiritual rather than mechanical and things that are simple, refined, and contemplative like the tea ceremony and traditional Japanese painting.

“Aware” is Japanese word that surfaces in discussion of Japanese culture. It describes a feeling experienced by the poignant beauty of an ephemeral thing — for example, cherry blossoms — and is often tied to the fragility or loss of the thing.

But not all Japanese art is austere and simple. “Kazari”, a term derived from 8th century poetry to describe the effect of adorning the hair with flowers, was used to describe highly decorative art that was popular from the 15th to 19th centuries. Examples include drums decorated with gold sea shells and sea animals, a kosode garment with multi-colored, horse racing scene made with elaborate dying techniques and a pointillist style painting made with 86,000 individually-painted squares. Some tea ceremony pieces are quite bold. (see Oribe).

“Kodo “ (the ancient incense ceremony) is regarded as one Japan’s three major traditional arts along with the tea ceremony and flower arranging. Kodo is the formal, aesthetic enjoyment of the fragrance of burning aromatic woods such as aloeswood. The Shinto school is the most well-known Kodo schools. In addition to keeping the art form alive the school is also involved in planting fragrant woods in Southeast Asia to ensure fragrant trees are not overharvested.

Artists and Craftsmen in Japan

washi paper maker
The Western approach to craftsmanship is that some people have talent and some don't so that those with talent should be singled and nurtured. The Eastern approach is that most people have average talent but given the proper training they can become masters.

Many craftsmen comes from long lines of craftsmen who practiced the same craft. Traditionally the oldest son carries on the craft. If there is no oldest son then anther oldest son from a related family takes on role. The craftsmen were trained in apprenticeship system.

The traditional outfit of a Japanese craftsman is dark-blue “happi” (short coat) and matching pants. Sometimes they also wear shoes that separate the big toe form the other toes.

Learning and the Arts in Japan

Japanese artists have traditionally learned their crafts from senior family members or masters, whose wisdom has been regarded as beyond reproach and whose authority has not been questioned. Experimentation, improvisation and innovation have traditionally been taken as an insult to the master and have been undertaken only if a student becomes a master himself. The Socratic approach of learning through questioning is not encouraged. There is a risk of humiliating the master if he doesn't known the answer, plus asking a lot of questions is considered rude.

19th century geisha singing class
One Japanese American told the Boston Globe, "Modesty is considered a virtue in Japan in a way that isn't here and that's difficult for an artist or person who has excelled. To be a great performer or any kind of creative person, you have to express yourself and be as individualistic as you possibly can be. This is very difficult in that society."

Students are often like apprentices. During the early stages of their the learning process, they are often treating like servants. They spend their time cleaning and serving, doing tasks that have nothing to do with the craft, and supposed to take every opportunity they can to observe their master at work.

Later when the learning process begins, the student is student is expected observe and copy his master. Students are supposed to hang on every word their masters say and are supposed to do things exactly as the master and not ask any questions.

Japanese masters who have had foreign students often complain they ask question when they should be listening, pick and chose what they think is worthy to learn, get angry and hurt when they are corrected , and expect to be patted on the back when they do something good.

Classical Japanese music has a different philosophy than Western music. Form is often emphasized over content. In accordance with the concept of “hogaku”, an emphasis is placed on the position of the instruments, posture and handling the instrument with the understanding that if a musician can get these things right then good things will follow. Also part of this idea is that of you get the form right a spirit will enter you and give you the skill to play well.

The process of learning hogaku is called “keiko”, which essentially means exercise. Teachers spend a lot of time teaching form, sometimes with things like social etiquette, proper dressing and grooming and carrying oneself in a dignified manner included. Unlike Western musical students who are taught to practice and drill, Japanese musical students are taught to mimic their teachers and immerse themselves in the music.

Human Treasures in Japan

19th century kabuki actor
Kamakura Gongoro
Some Japanese craftsman and artists are considered so skilled and talented, they are honored as Living National Treasures. Subsidized by the government and given the official title "Holders of Important Intangible Cultural Properties," artist have be involved in a traditional craft, art or performing art to qualify.

As of 1990, 97 people had been named in the performing arts of kabuki, no and bunraku and 92 were named for their work in crafts such as ceramics, papermaking, weaving, swordmaking, and lacquer. One dollmaker who was recognized used to spend as much as 10 years working one a single doll. A Kabuki actor that was honored was the great-great-great-great grandson of a famous Kabuki actor.

The first Living Treasures were named in 1955 in accordance with Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties of 1950. The idea behind the human treasures belonged to, of all people, Douglas MacArthur, who was appalled by the destruction of priceless art during World War II, and wanted to make sure that Japan's ancient arts weren't lost and that the people who carried on the art forms were well taken care of.

Japanese Culture and History

8th century Buddist statue
People living in Japan were the first known people to use pottery. Pottery from Japan dated to 10,000 B.C. is the oldest known in the world. Pottery is made cooking soft clay at high temperatures until it hardens into an entirely new substance — ceramics. The pottery of the Jomon people was decorated with markings made by pressing lengths of cord into the wet clay before firing. The people who made it did not use a potter’s wheel.

While Japan was still in the Stone Age, China was making great advances in the arts and sciences. It makes sense then that the Japanese, once exposed to these advances through contacts with China, would try to bring some of them to Japan. Many of the cultural and artist forms brought from China and Korea were rooted in Buddhism, which in turn was influenced by the cultures of India and Tibet. Other forms from Persia and even Europe arrived via China and the Silk Road.

Between the fifth and ninth centuries Japan was a active importer of culture, particularly from China and Korea. Among the major imports were written characters, Buddhism, Confucianism, and knowhow and plans to build cities.

The 19th century and the early 20th century — when much of the world first learned about the extent and depth of Japan’s culture — was s a time when Japan exported culture: van Gogh copied Japanese woodblock prints, Charlie Chaplin befriended kabuki actors and “Madame Butterfly” and “ The Mikado” were popular among Western audiences.

See Separate Article

Japanese Culture in the 19th and 20th Century

The Meiji Period also resulted in the revival of traditional Imperial art forms such as waka and haiku poetry and nurtured an interest in Western painting and sculpture. Japanese culture also made its way west. Westerners were excited about buying silks and porcelains in the 1880s. Artists like Van Gogh and Gauguin were inspired by Japanese art.

A Japonism craze swept Paris in the late 19th century. Europe as a whole and the French in particular were enthraled with all things Japanese, particularly wood block prints, geishas, and kabuki.

U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant visited Japan in 1879. During the trip he was particularly impressed by a Noh performance he saw and said Japan must takes pains not to modernize too quickly and lose its traditions.

Pop Culture in Modern Japan

neko bus from Miyazaki anime
Japan has a rich modern culture: manga, anime, fashion, film, video games, robots, J-pop music, electronic music, modern art, cell phone art, graphics, sound and light shows, Wii consoles and dance machines. Revenues from the sales and royalties of music, video games, anime, art, films and fashion reached $12.5 billion in 2002, an increase of 300 percent from 1992.

Identifying Japan’s as an emerging cultural “soft power,” Douglas McGray wrote in the May/June 2002 issue of Foreign Policy magazine, “From pop music to consumer electronics, architecture, and animation to cuisine, Japan looks...like a cultural superpower.” McGray described the phenomena as the “gross national cool.” Harvard Professor Joseph Nye, the person coined the term “soft power” was mentioned as a possible ambassador to Japan under U.S. President Barrak Obama.

The market in Japan is so big and lucrative that trendsetters often don’t concern themselves with the expensive, complex task of marketing overseas. Culture trends change very quickly in Japan, more so than in the United States. Many Japanese cultural phenomena have not exported well in monetary terms, inspiring fascination and curiosity but not generating sales.

Japanese pop culture has traditionally been controlled by large companies but that is changing. A successful Tokyo graphic designer told Foreign Policy, “Good art is appearing, young strong art. Young fashion is appearing. A lot of interesting smaller magazines have appeared...A lot of small little business, people running their own shops, people running their own music labels.”

Books: “Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture” by Mark Schilling; “Eastern Standard Time: A Guide on Asian Influence on American Culture From Astro By to Zen Buddhism” by Jeff Yang; “Japan Edge: The Insider's Guide to Japanese Pop Subculture” (Cadence Books, 1999) with essays on anime, manga and cyber realms.

Japan Cool and Fantasy Culture

“Japan cool” is a term that describes popular, modern Japanese culture particularly in the form of manga, anime, otaku culture and fashion. It has also come to embrace the novels of Haruki Murakami, the pop art of Takashi Murakami and Japanese-produced video games. Murakami and acclaimed animator Hayao Miyazaki reportedly both hate the term "Cool Japan"

The Japanese government has issued orders to private sector to exploit Japanese cool and make as much money from it as possible. One of the objectives was for fashion and clothing companies to exploit certain styles promoted in certain Japanese magazines that ar e popular in China and Asia. Hollywood and American publishers arguably make more money from anime and manga in the United States than Japanese companies do.

Japan is also a place where people dress and act like their favorite manga characters and live out their sexual fantasies in places call image rooms. A 27-year-old American who works in a “butler” café for women” told AFP, “Japan has a huge fantasy culture. They often want to escape from daily life and they are good at engineering alternative reality.”

Even with all this Japan has been eclipsed by China as the happening place in Asia. The number of students studying Japanese language and Japanese culture is declining. In Europe, Japanese studies programs are being axed or reduced or absorbed into Asian studies programs at many universities. In the United States, Chinese has clearly became the language and culture of choice. One of the few places where interest in Japan is growing is Russia.

Government Support of Japan Cool

In April 2010, the Japanese government said it would promote “Cool Japan” culture by funding promotional events for Japanese fashion and lifestyle in major cities and creating a public investment fund to support the manga, anime, fashion and video games industries. In December 2010, the Japanese government panel in change of “Cool Japan strategy” said it hopes to generate ¥12 trillion to ¥17 trillion by exporting Japan anime, manga, fashion, food and culture products in the coming years.

In its “strategy to promote culture-oriented industry” the Japanese government has called for an integrated support system — from product development to the signing of overseas sales deals — for small and mid-size companies that lack expertise and funds needed to develop their business abroad.

There seems to be a lack of strategy on how to cash in on the “Japan Cool” phenomena. There is for example a lack of merchandising to ride the popularity of manga and anime characters and a lack of capitalizing on interest in Japanese culture to market Japanese fashions, movies and food. Some have argued that the Japanese government has not helped matters much as its promotion efforts are divided among at least three government ministries.

Galapagos Syndrome

Japan's "Galapagos syndrome," a phrase first coined to characterize the nation's highly evolved but globally incompatible cell phones, is lately being applied to other isolated industries, even to its people. "The Galapagosization of Japan continues," trumpeted one U.S. newspaper in the autumn of 2010, when a survey of Japan's white-collar workers revealed that a full two-thirds of them never want to work abroad. [Source: Roland Kelts, Daily Yomiuri, October 29, 2010]

Roland Kelts wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: “Such attitudes won't surprise anyone involved with Japan's producers of popular culture, whose minimal and often blinkered efforts to capitalize on the global appeal of their products have resulted in the downsizings, pinched margins and scant optimism plaguing Tokyo. Most of them are overworked, understaffed and underfunded; they don't have time to look up from their desks, let alone pay attention to the rest of the world.”

“Galapagosization is a two-way roadblock: Insiders cannot survive outside, outsiders cannot get in. Almost every one of those overburdened staffers is Japanese.” "We have nothing to offer [foreign artists] here," says Shogakukan Co.'s Masakazu Kubo, veteran manga editor and executive producer of Pokemon. "That's shameful."

Japan Losing Ground Culturally to China and Korea

Teresa Watanabe wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “It's tough to be Japan these days. China is bigger, with an economy that surpassed Japan's two years ago. South Korea is more hip, with addicting soap operas and "Gangnam Style" cool. On high school campuses, more students are shifting to study Mandarin amid China's economic rise. Enrollment in Chinese language classes at public high schools tripled from 2004 to 2008, compared with a 17 percent rise in Japanese studies during that same period, according to a survey released last year by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.[Source: Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times, December 17, 2012]

Douglas Erber, president of the Japan America Society of Southern California. said American interest in Japan has waned since that nation's once-booming economy dropped into a long and deep recession beginning in the 1990s. Reflecting those trends, the century-old society's membership declined by half from the 1980s to the late 1990s but has begun to recover and now totals about 2,000 individuals and 125 corporations, Erber said.

Jon Kroll, a Los Angeles TV producer, said cultural trends may come and go in America — the film "Slumdog Millionaire" helped fuel interest in India for a time, and South Korea seems hot today, he said. But the inventive genius that produced such global hits as sushi, Hello Kitty and "Iron Chef" will keep Japan in the forefront, he said. "Japan will rise again," Kroll said.

Popular Japanese Culture Abroad

foriegners engaging in cosplay
Pop culture tours of Japan sponsored by U.S.-based Pop Japan Travel includes a stop at Tsukiji fish market, a tea ceremony in Ginza, a ride on the Sumida River to Odaiba on the Himiko water bus (designed by manga legend Leiji Matsumoto), sampling virtual reality rides ay the Sega Joyopolis, chatting with famous manga artists and anime art directors, and bathing with "friendly otaku.”

Japanese fashion, anime and manga are popular in Paris. There are manga cafes and boutiques that sell kawaii cute fashions there. The ninth Japan Expo in Paris in 2008 was held in a space twice the size of the Tokyo Dome. More than 130,000 people showed up.

Japan cool culture has made its presence known in New York. Japan Day in New York’s Central Park has been staged since 2005 and draws thousands of people. Tokyo Bar is new bar in Soho in New York with manga on the walls, sochu and approximations of Shinjuku. Kinokuniya, one of Japan’s biggest bookstore chains, has large branch Manhattan. Fashions by Nigo and Bathing Ape are popular with fashionistas.

The Kennedy Center in Washington hosted a “Japan: Culture and Hyper Culture” show. Pokemon appeared in theMacy’s Parade. Ultraman remains popular on television. Puffy has won new converts to Japanese pop culture.

Japanese music and fashion are very big in Asia, particularly Taiwan. See China, Korea, Taiwan

Generating Interest in Japanese Culture Abroad

Douglas Erber, president of the Japan America Society of Southern California, is involved in trying to generate interest in Japan in the United States. Teresa Watanabe wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “To help promote interest in Japan, Erber said the society planned to offer its first-ever Japan Bowl for Southern California high school Japanese language students next spring. The academic competition, modeled on popular quiz shows, will test knowledge of the Japanese language, culture and Japanese American experience; local winners will advance to a national competition in Washington, D.C., and a chance to win a trip to Japan. The society also hopes to expand its Japan in a Suitcase program, which brings Japanese school uniforms, lunch kits, textbooks and other items to Southern California classrooms. [Source: Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times, December 17, 2012]

The organization's other educational events include an annual Japanese kite workshop, in which a Japanese kite master teaches more than 1,000 underserved Los Angeles students in a dozen schools the art of traditional kite-making from bamboo and Japanese washi paper. The Japan America Kite Festival at Seal Beach attracts more than 12,000 people. Erber said the society hoped eventually to bring on a full-time educational director to expand such learning opportunities for students about Japan and the U.S.-Japan relationship. "We're hoping that, by opening their eyes to another culture, we'll help stimulate them to continue to explore the world around them," Erber said.

On Japanese government efforts to promote Shibuya and Harajuku culture abroad, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The trade ministry and private firms will work together to launch full-scale exports of Japanese fashion and other cultural trends, such as establishing mini versions of trendy Tokyo districts Shibuya and Harajuku overseas. The Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry plans to inject 1 billion yen into the project. The goal of the project is to encourage small and midsized firms and major companies, to work together to enhance exports and break into overseas markets. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 25 2012]

Working with fashionable shopping center operator Parco Co., Internet shopping mall operator Rakuten Inc., Mori Building Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and others, the ministry plans to create miniature versions of Japanese fashion districts in foreign countries--for example, a "Shibuya" in Singapore or a "Harajuku" in Taiwan. The ministry will also support the dissemination of Japanese anime, cuisine, designs and other cultural exports.

Parco, which is based in Tokyo's Shibuya district, will set up a special sales space at its Singapore store to help relatively new Shibuya-based specialty stores sell their merchandise. In Taiwan, import goods company H.P.France will play a central role in establishing a similar space in Taipei to sell and distribute information on Harajuku fashion and trinkets by cooperating with other Harajuku-based fashion affiliates.

Japanese Culture and the 2011 Tsunami

Overseas art museums and collectors were hesitant to lend their works to Japanese museums because of radiation fears. At least 10 major exhibitions, including the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts Exhibition and the Giorgio Morandi exhibition, were canceled or postponed. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, December 30, 2011]

In June, a law concerning compensation for damage to exhibition artwork was enforced and applied to Goya: Light and Shadows--Masterpieces of the Museo del Prado and Jackson Pollock: A Centennial Retrospective. As insurance premiums for exhibits have been rising, the law is aimed at ensuring the public enjoyment of art.

The Yokohama Triennale, an international exhibition of modern art, attracted about 330,000 visitors, with ticket sales of 160,000 in 2011, largely exceeding about 90,000 for the 2008 event. Although held on a reduced scale, due to the March disaster, it enjoyed immense popularity as the Yokohama Museum of Art was used as the main venue for the first time for efficiency reasons and made for a more attractive exhibition.

Image Sources: 1) Library of Congress 2) British Museum 3) Hector Garcia 4)Ray Kinnane 5) Visualizing Culture, MIT Education 6) Japan Arts Council 7) Onmark Productions, 8) Ghibli Studios 9) Tokyo Pictures 10) xorsyst

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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