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UNDERSTANDING THE JAPANESE CULTURE
- August 20, 2021
- Posted by: elanwp
- Category: Japanese Blogs
In the 17th century, after many decades of civil unrest, the Tokugawa Shogunate (the last feudal Japanese government), established a new military-led dynastic government. This heralded a long period of political peace and stability which lasted until 1868. During this time Japan was not under the influence of foreign powers which facilitated the expansion of the indigenous culture. Japan began to open up its ports and, on March 31st, 1854, signed the Treaty of Kanagawa (Japan-US Treaty of Peace and Amity). This led to establishing diplomatic relations with other western powers and the development and modernization of Japan’s manufacture and industry. During the latter half of the 19th century and until the early part of the 20th century, Japan became a formidable power, crushing the forces of Russia and China. They occupied Korea, Taiwan, and the southern island of Sakhalin. In 1931, Japan occupied Manchuria and then, in 1937, launched an invasion of China. Soon they occupied much of East and Southeast Asia.
On 7th December 1941, Japan attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbour which precipitated the US entry into the Second World War. Following their defeat in the Second World War, Japan developed a strong economic power and became allied to the US. In 1947 the Constitution of Japan was enacted which provided for a parliamentary system of government. The Emperor of Japan, whilst remaining the ceremonial head of state, no longer had Imperial rule. After thirty years of economic growth, Japan experienced economic decline which began in the 1990s, although they remained an economic power. In March 2011, Japan experienced a devastating earthquake and attendant tsunami which destroyed the northeast of Honshu Island killing thousands of people and damaging several nuclear power plants. This catastrophe seriously impacted Japan’s infrastructure and economy. Shinzo Abe, the longest-serving Prime Minister of Japan, has embarked upon an ambitious program of economic reform in order to restore the economy and maintain international standing.
The dominant spoken language is Japanese (Nihongo) which is the sixth most spoken language in the world with more than 99% of the population using it. Linguistically, Nihongo is related in syntax to the Korean language although, in spite of the similarities, both contemporary languages are incomprehensible to one another. The Meiji reformation in 1868 was followed by the significant social and political change which included the establishment of a dominant national language to replace regional dialects. The subsequent dialect, hyōjungo, became the standard language, based upon the linguistic patterns of Tokyo’s warrior classes. Some dialects are still used in certain areas, particularly in Kyoto and Osaka, but standard Japanese, based on the speech of Tokyo, has become more popular through the use of television, radio, and movies.
Family patterns have changed over the decades from multi-generational households to the typical ‘nuclear family’ with two parents and their children (particularly in the more urban areas). Some families may have an elderly parent or relative residing with them. During the second half of the 20th century, new laws were introduced reducing patriarchal authority and awarding greater legal rights for women.
Marriage is based upon mutual attraction rather than the once traditional ‘arranged marriage’. During the Meiji era, the government set out to make Japan a democratic state affording equality between social classes. Although boundaries were broken down to some extent there are still vestiges that continue to have some influence upon attitudes to social position and entitlement.
In both rural and urban areas, there are differences in family composition, educational achievement, and workforce inclusion. Among the urban population, there are social differences between the ‘white-collar’ salaried middle class and the ‘blue-collar’ working classes. Historically, women in Japan were expected to be subordinate to men and were confined to domestic matters only. They were excluded from certain sacred areas and were expected to show deference to hierarchical authority in both speech and behavior.
In 1947, a new legal framework was established affording equality to both sexes, thus giving women more access to education, job opportunities, and career advancement. However, the changes in the gender gap, equal pay, and educational attainment are slow-moving and the concept of total equality remains an ‘ideal’ rather than the norm at present. Children are the center of the family in Japan and child-rearing is seen as an extremely important role. Strong family bonds are developed early on, particularly between the mother and children. Compulsory education commences from the age of six with six years in elementary school which is followed by three years in middle school.
Although compulsory education ends with middle school, many go on to further education. Prior to compulsory school, there are two strands of pre-school education: nursery school from the age of three and kindergarten from five years. Whilst Japan has its own identity of traditional cuisine there are early influences from Korea, China, and Southeast Asia. White rice is a staple element of almost all meals and other ingredients include soy products, grilled or raw fish, thinly sliced stir-fried pork with bean sprouts, and vegetables. Miso soup is a popular dish made from a miso paste (fermented soya beans and barley) and containing various accouterments such as tofu and/or vegetables. Sushi is also a popular Japanese meal that involves vinegared rice with seafood, raw fish, or vegetables. A typical Japanese meal usually involves a number of dishes on the table rather than the main course.