Category Archive: Japanese Culture
Ningyō (人形) are traditional Japanese dolls that come in various forms — from babies and imperial court personalities to warriors and gods. Many of the dolls have a long standing tradition in Japanese culture and history, and each one has a story. Ningyō is made today for shrines, festivals, souvenirs, and gift giving.
Daruma dolls are one of the many traditional Japanese dolls. They are spherical in shape with red bodies, white faces, and no pupils. They typically represent Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism. It is customary to paint one of the doll’s pupils at the beginning of New Year and make a wish, and if it comes true, to paint the second pupil. Daruma dolls are supposed to bring good fortune, prosperity, and fortitude to reach goals.
Similar to the daruma doll is the hime-daruma, “hime” meaning princess. It originated from Matsuyama and is still popular in the area. The doll signifies the legendary Empress Consort Jingu who, according to history, conquered Korea. As the story goes, Empress Jingu along with her husband Emperor Chūai stopped by a hot spring at Dogo while on their way to Korea. Empress Jingu discovered that she was pregnant, so she had a doll made and offered it to the local gods in prayer for the health and safe delivery of her child. She was said to have carried the child for three years, after which a son was born who later became Emperor Ōjin. Isaniwa Shrine, the site where Emperor Chūai and Empress Jingū bathed in Dogo Onsen, still stands today.
Hime-daruma. | Akinori YAMADA
Hime-daruma dolls were originally made of wood, but the dolls today are made with either brocade or papier-mâché. The papier-mâché dolls are usually painted bright red resembling conventional daruma dolls. The faces are made of white bisque ceramic, painted by hand, with charcoal black eyes and red lips. The hair can either be artificial or painted on. They are often given as gifts to pregnant women for a safe delivery and quick recovery. The brocade dolls come as a couple and represent Empress Jingu and Emperor Chūai. The female dolls are usually dressed in red brocade, while the male wears blue or gold. The dolls are often given as wedding gifts. Hime-daruma dolls are lightweight and make wonderful souvenirs from Matsuyama, Japan.
Katsuhito Noshi,mayor of Matsuyama, presents daruma dolls to President Van Rompuy, Brussels. | President of the European Council
Superstitious beliefs are a big part of Japan’s culture. Most Japanese folklore has roots that can be traced to local customs and are meant to offer practical advice from lessons learned throughout Japan’s long history.
Lucky charms are a huge part of Japanese religion and culture. Engimono are lucky charms often given out at New Year events at temples and shrines all around Japan. These lucky charms offer wishes for good luck in harvest, business, health, love, and the like. Many engimono have been passed down over the years. Engimono make popular souvenirs or gift items from a particular area of Japan.
Here are some more examples of popular Japanese lucky charms:
Omikuji – these paper fortunes are sold at most Japanese temples and shrines. About half of the omikuji predict bad fortune. It is customary to leave the fortune behind by tying it at a designated spot at the temple or shrine. If one receives a good luck paper fortune, it should be kept.
Omikuji. | Andrew
Ema – these are wooden wish boards found at Shinto shrines. It is from an old Japanese custom of donating horses to shrines. People purchase an ema, write their wish on it, and hang it at a designated area. Wishes from other people make interesting reading.
Ema. | i_yudai
Ehomaki – this is a “lucky direction sushi roll.” Setsubun tradition dictates that one must eat an entire uncut thick sushi roll in silence while facing a lucky direction. There is aspecific direction that is supposed to be lucky, and it changes every year. This was originally an Osaka tradition that quickly caught on with other parts of the country because it was a fun thing to do.
Akabeko – a traditional Japanese craft that originated in Fukushima Prefecture. They are traditional children’s toys that are believed to prevent illness. The toy’s origin can be traced to the story about a cow from the 9th century that helped build Enzoji Temple. According to the legend, the cow became a stone Buddha once the temple was completed.
Akabeko. | Kanko
KitKat – a popular chocolate bar in Japan and other countries. In Japan, KitKat chocolate bars have more than 400 flavors. The term KitKat is synonymous to the word “kitto katsu”, meaning “a sure win.” The red packaging of the chocolate bar has also added to the lucky image of the product since red is a lucky color. KitKat is also a popular gift for students during examinations.
KitKat. | jpellgen
The New Year in Japan begins with Shichifukujin Meguri (七福神めぐり), a traditional pilgrimage to pray for good luck for the whole year. Many Japanese participate in the pilgrimage to visit seven local shrines and temples in honor of the Seven Lucky Gods of Fortune. This can be a daunting task in midwinter, but many welcome the tradition in the hopes of having a blessed year.
The Seven Gods of Fortune (七福神/Shichi Fukujin) are well known in Japanese mythology and folklore and are popular subjects for figurines or carvings. These Japanese divinities are derived from native religious beliefs and traditions derived from Shintoism, Taoism, or Buddhism. Many of the deities in Japanese folklore and all of the Seven Lucky Gods, except for Ebisu, originated from China (with some Indian influence).
The New Year crowd at Meiji Jingu Shrine. | Nokton
The Seven Lucky Gods are a familiar sight not just during the New Year, but all year round. Benzaiten is the goddess of everything that flows, Bishamonten the god of fortunate warriors and guards, Daikokuten the god of wealth, Fukurokuju the god of wisdom and longevity, Ebisu the laughing god, Jurōjin also represents longevity, and Hotei as the Laughing Buddha.
Ukiyo-e print of the Seven Lucky Gods. | Stuart Rankin
Shichifukujin Meguri or the the Seven Lucky Gods pilgrimage is not exclusive to the New Year, but it is said that the gods arrive with gifts for the deserving in their treasure ship towards the beginning of the New Year, making January the traditional time for the pilgrimage. Participating in the Shichifukujin Meguri is a wonderful opportunity for many visitors to see various shrines and temples all around Japan. There are several recommendations for the pilgrimage with suggested sites to visit.
The pilgrimage tradition’s main objective since the Edo period is to collect stamps called shuin (朱印), from each of the seven temples or shrines that you visit along the entire course. The shuin are stamped on a piece of decorative cardboard called shikishi (色紙) and are available at any of the participating temples and shrines. The stamped shikishi should then be placed in your house to bring you good fortune for the entire year.
Shuin. | Christian Kaden
The Seven Gods of Fortune pilgrimage is a wonderful cultural experience that should not be missed whenever in Japan for the New Year.
Who wouldn’t love getting a great buy on sale? In the United States, Thanksgiving is a much anticipated holiday, and not just because of its actual meaning and cultural relevance in American society. It also marks the day-after nationwide sale at most stores across the country. Hordes of people flock to their favorite stores, some lining up the day before the sale to get that much coveted item at a discounted price.
In Japan, the New Year is considered the most anticipated and important holiday. The long celebration runs from December 31 to January 3. During this period, all sorts of ceremonies and customs are practiced.
The crowd during Sendai Hatsu-uri.
Something similar to the Black Friday sale is “Sendai Hatsu-uri.” From the first burst of sunlight on the 2nd of January, early bird shoppers flock downtown ready to shop until they drop. In Japan, the 2nd of January is supposed to be a lucky day for doing things for the first time in the new year and is called “kotohajime.” Other examples of activities done for the first time in the new year include “hikizome” (first playing of an instrument), “kakizome” (first time to write calligraphy in the new year), “hatsuni” (first shippimg of stores), and “sendai hatsu-uri” (first shopping, first sale).
Screengrab of YouTube video of Sendai Hatsu-uri. | とうほく復興カレンダー
Sendai Hatsu-uri can be traced back to a book entitled “Sendai Nenchu-gyoji.” It was published during the the Bunka and Bunsei eras (1804–1824). Sendai Hatsu-uri has been a tradition for over 200 years and today is a popular event that attracts both local and foreign attention. The big sale event also includes traditional Japanese drum performances, lion dances, free drinks, and more. The lively atmosphere is catchy and has the vibe of a full blown festival. Shoppers try to zoom in on lucky bags that contain items more expensive than their actual tag price. Sendai Hatsu-uri is a unique Japanese traditional event with both sellers and shoppers praying for a blessed New Year for one and all!
The Japanese New Year or Shōgatsu is probably the most important holiday in Japan. Many businesses close during this time so people can spend time with their families.
Shōgatsu is celebrated from the 1st of January to the 3rd of January since it was officially celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar in 1873. The traditional Japanese New year is still on the same day as the contemporary Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese New Years.
Most Japanese mark the arrival of the New Year with traditional Japanese New Year food such as osechi and other customs such as kadomatsu (bamboo-pine arrangement placed at the entrance of the home), otoshidama (give money to children) and hatsumōde (first trip to a shrine or temple in the New Year).
Otoshidama. | John Nakamura Remy
On New Year’s Eve, Japanese Buddhist temples ring their bells 108 times to signify the 108 human sins, as well as to get rid of the worldly sins made during the year just passed. The Japanese stay up until midnight to listen to the 108 chimes, then they generally eat a bowl of hot toshikoshi-soba, brown noodles in broth. The tradition of Nengajō, a Western-like custom of giving holiday greeting cards to relatives and friends, is observed. Japanese greeting cards are sent to post offices before the end of the year where they are kept until New Year’s Day. On this day, the post office delivers the cards all at the same time.
Bōnenkai and Shinnenkai parties are all the rage during Shōgatsu!
Bōnenkai (忘年会 literally ” ‘forget the year’ gathering”) is a Japanese drinking party held at the end of the year among close friends or groups of co-workers. Its main purpose is to forget the troubles and woes of the past year and to look forward to starting fresh for the new year by consuming quite a lot of alcohol and getting drunk. There is no specific day to celebrate bōnenkai, but it usually happens every December. Bōnenkai celebrations are often sponsored by a business office or a company for their employees.
Visiting Ikegami Honmonji Temple, Tokyo. | Jun Takeuchi
Shinnenkai (新年会, literally “new year gathering”) is the Japanese tradition of welcoming the New Year by yet again drinking alcohol. It is also usually celebrated amongst the company of co-workers and friends in January. Shinnenkai is also not a traditional part of the shogatsu celebrations. Shinnenkai is very similar to Bōnenkai in that it began during the same time period and is also sponsored by the employer. Shinnenkai celebrations are marked with wishing each other good fortune and luck for the New Year.
Happy New Year to one and all!
Empress Suiko (554–628 ) was the 33rd monarch of Japan and the first of eight women to take on the role of empress regnant (a female monarch who reigns in her own right). The seven women who reigned as empress regnant after Empress Suiko were Saimei, Jitō, Gemmei, Genshō, Shōtoku, Meishō, and Go-Sakuramachi.
Empress Suiko’s reign lasted from 593 until her death in 628. Before becoming a monarch of the Chrysanthemum Throne, Empress Suiko was known as Mikekashiya-hime-no-mikoto or Imina for short. She was the third daughter of Emperor Kimmei and was younger sister of Emperor Yōmei of the same mother.
Empress Suiko was initially a consort to her half-brother Emperor Bidatsu. After his first wife passed away, Suiko became his official consort and was given the title Ōkisaki (official consort of the emperor) and bore seven sons. After Bidatsu’s death, Suiko’s brother Yōmei became emperor for two years before succumbing to illness. After Yōmei’s death, there was a power struggle between the Soga clan and the Mononobe clan, with the Sogas supporting Prince Hatsusebe and the Mononobes supporting Prince Anahobe.
Depiction of Empress Suiko.
The Sogas were deemed victorious, and in 587, Prince Hatsusebe came to power as Emperor Sushun. Emperor Sushun began to question the power of the head of the Soga clan, Soga no Umako, and out of fear for the emperor striking first, Umako had Emperor Sushun assassinated in 592. When it came to deciding who would ascend to the throne after Emperor Sushun, Suiko became the first woman in all of Japanese history among seven others to be chosen as empress regnant.
Empress Suiko’s reign suggests she had strong political skills. In 599, an earthquake struck Japan and destroyed buildings all around Yamato province (now Nara Prefecture). Suiko’s refusal to grant Soga no Umako’s request to be given the imperial territory known as Kazuraki no Agata was a sign of her independence from his influence.
Ruins of Empress Suiko’s palace. | Takanuka
Under the empress’s reign, Buddhism was also officially recognized by the issuance of the Flourishing Three Treasures Edict in 594, with Suiko as one of the first Buddhist monarchs of Japan. She took the vows to become a nun soon after becoming empress. Suiko’s reign was also marked by the opening of relations with the Sui court in the year 600 with the adoption of the Twelve Level Cap and Rank System (officials wore silk caps decorated with gold and silver, and a feather that indicated the official’s rank) and the Seventeen- article constitution (a highly Buddhist and Confucian document that focused on the morals and virtues that were to be expected of government officials and the emperor’s subjects to ensure a smooth running of the state) as well as the adoption of the Sexagenary cycle calendar (a cycle of sixty terms used for recording days or years).
Japan, like other countries, has many traditional toys and games that have kept generations of children amused since olden times. Some traditional Japanese toys still remain popular among the young and old today, and lots of these are much in demand during the New Year holidays.
Some traditional Japanese toys include:
Kendama (けん玉) – this toy has three cups and a spike that fits into the hole in the ball. It is similar to the classic cup-and-ball game: the object is to catch one object with another where both are joined with a string.
The kendama was introduced to Japan through the Silk Road sometime in 1777 when Nagasaki was the only port open to foreign trade. The kendama was initially an adult’s drinking game where a player who made a mistake was forced to have another drink. The game grew more popular during the Edo period (1600-1868).
Kendama. | Tomomarusan
In 1919, Hamaji Egusa applied for a patent on the “ball and cup” style toy. The size and proportions of the toy were later altered and standardized. Hatsukaichi City in Hiroshima Prefecture is considered the birthplace of the modern kendama. Kendama competitions are periodically held in Japan.
Fuku warai – a game usually played during New Year. It is similar to the game pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. The game involves blindfolded players having an outline of a face on the floor in front of them, but a face without any features. The main object of the game is to place paper cutouts of eyes, mouth, and nose on the face. Originally, only one style of face was used for the game, a comical round face of a woman. This game became popular during the late Edo period and soon enough, people began playing fuku warai as a New Year’s game during the Taisho era (1912-1926). Over the years, other types of faces were used including popular actors, anime characters, and the like.
Fuku warai template. | Nesnad
Daruma otoshi – or “The Falling Buddha,” is a traditional Japanese toy based on the daruma doll modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism. Usually made of wood, it is tall and cylindrical with five separate stacked pieces in different primary colors. The head sits at the very top. The game is to use a small wooden hammer to knock away each section starting from the bottom without disturbing the rest of the stack until only the head remains.
Daruma otoshi. | Bpw
Japanese anime has grown in popularity over the years. It is known for fantastic themes, colorful characters, and stellar graphics. It is considered a diverse art form that uses distinct methods and techniques in the production process that continue to evolve with new technologies. The anime industry in Japan is composed of more than 400 production studios in the country alone, and it continues to gain significant international success.
Here are just some of the popular Japanese anime that have been all time favorites:
Serial Experiments Lain
This popular anime was derived from a PlayStation game of the same title, directed by Ryutaro Nakamura and first aired in Tokyo in 1998. Serial Experiments Lain is a contemporary series that ventures on philosophical concepts, identity issues, and interpersonal communication. The series stars a teenage girl named Lain Iwakura who is introduced to the wonders of the internet. She endeavors to explore a path that takes her deep into the network of her own subconscious and her discovery of of “The God in the Wired.”
Screenshot of Serial Experiments Lain. | Amber Case
Mobile Suit Gundam Wing
Mobile Suit Gundam Wing was created by Hajime Yatate and Yoshiyuki Tomino and was based on the anime Mobile Suit Gundam. The story revolves around the war between Earth and its colonies in space. The series lasted a total of 49 episodes.
Mobile Suit Gundam Wing action figure. | Kaleicascope
Space Battleship Yamato
This popular Japanese anime series features a spacecraft and the stories of its multicultural teenage crew as they journey through space in search of planet Iscandar. They battle the Rajendora aliens who keep placing obstacles as they go through their journey.
Space Battleship Yamato. | Philip Mozolak
Saint Seiya is originally a manga series adapted into anime television series that aired from 1986 to 1989. The story focused on mystical warriors called Saints who were garbed in sacred armor called Cloths. The warrior Saints swore to protect the reincarnation of Athena and her war against the Olympian Gods who are constantly attempting to rule over the Earth.
Saint Seiya. | Sebastian Gambolati
Dragon Ball Z
No doubt Dragon Ball Z is one of the most popular Japanese animated series that has been broadcast around the world. The popular anime was originally written and illustrated by Akira Toriyama and was inspired by the classic Chinese novel “Journey to the West.” It is about the adventures of Son Goku as he trains in martial arts as a young boy until he grows up to adulthood. He journeys around the world in search for the seven Dragon Balls that have the power to grant wishes with the help of a wish-granting dragon.
Dragon Ball Z. | Jordi Escoda
Historical records tell us a lot about how our ancestors lived and help future generations understand how things came to be. The Kojiki and Nihon Shoki of Japan are the two oldest written documents that chronicle the history of the country. There’s no better way to make a better future than to learn from the past.
The Kojiki (古事記), “Record of Ancient Matters” or “An Account of Ancient Matters” can be traced back to the early 8th century (711-712). It is the oldest extant chronicle in Japan written by Ō no Yasumaro (a Japanese nobleman, bureaucrat, and chronicler), on the request from the Empress Gemmei. The Kojiki is a compilation of origin myths of the four main islands of Japan and the Kami (the spirits that are worshipped in the religion of Shinto). The Kojiki is mainly composed of various songs and poems. The myths are written in a form of Chinese characters that is used to convey sounds. The special use of the Chinese characters is known as Man’yōgana, an ancient writing system that employs Chinese characters to represent the Japanese language, critical in understanding the songs written in Old Japanese.
A page from the Tanaka version of the Nihon Shoki.
The Nihon Shoki (日本書紀), “The Chronicles of Japan,” is the second oldest book of Japanese history. It contains more detailed and elaborate ancient written texts than the Kojiki, and is considered the most complete extant historical records for many archeologists and historians. The Nihon Shoki was completed in 720 under the supervision of Prince Toneri, assisted by Ō no Yasumaro. The Nihon Shoki begins with the myth of creation, explaining the origin of the world and the first seven generations of divine beings, followed by a number of other myths, and continues with accounts leading all the way to the 8th century. The Bihon Shoki is said to accurately record the reigns of Emperor Tenji, Emperor Temmu, and Empress Jitō. The ancient writings give details on the merits of virtuous Japanese rulers as well as errors of the bad rulers. They also tell us about mythological eras and Japan’s diplomatic contacts with other countries. The Nihon Shoki was written in classical Chinese with multiple transliteration notes that tell the reader how words were pronounced in Japanese.
Kojiki_den. | Yanajin33
The writings contained in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki are part of the inspiration behind many practices in Japan and are deeply ingrained in the culture and way of life of the Japanese people.
Who doesn’t love sushi? The original type of sushi known today as nare-zushi can be traced to Southeast Asia. The origin of sushi can be traced to an area along the Mekong River that runs from the Tibetan Plateau to China’s Yunnan province, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The term sushi comes from a no longer used antiquated grammatical form and literally means “sour-tasting.” The term reflects its historic origins as a type of fermented food. Today, there are several types of sushi that can satisfy every person’s fancy.
The types of sushi depend on the ingredients and how they are prepared. Makizushi or rolled sushi is a cylindrical sushi wrapped in seaweed (nori), formed with a bamboo mat, and cut into six or eight pieces. Tuna is a popular ingredient among all sushi lovers and it’s so simple to make. Try this quick and easy spicy canned tuna salad roll recipe!
Tuna sushi. | Frédéric Poirot
Spicy Canned Tuna Salad Roll
Sumeshi (sushi rice)
1 1⁄2 cups uncooked short-grain rice
1 1⁄2 cups water
6 tablespoons rice vinegar
5 tablespoons sugar
Spicy Tuna Salad
2 (6 ounce) cans tuna (albacore or regular)
1⁄3 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon chili paste
2 teaspoons chili oil
1⁄2 teaspoon garlic powder
1⁄2 teaspoon ginger powder (if using fresh ginger use 1/4 tsp)
1⁄2 teaspoon sesame oil
4 green onions, chopped
8 -10 lettuce leaves
Creamy Spicy Tuna Roll. | Larry
- Wash rice thoroughly. Cook rice in rice cooker with equal parts rice and water.
- Place rice vinegar and sugar in a small pot. Heat and pour in sugar. Stir until sugar has dissolved.
- Cool the cooked rice and vinegar mixture. Once cooled, pour in the vinegar (leave some for sealing the nori) over the rice and gently mix, careful not to break the grains.
- For the sushi, drain the tuna and mix all the tuna salad ingredients together.
- Take a piece of nori and place it on a bamboo mat or sushi roller. Wet your fingers with water so the rice won’t stick. Gently press a thin sheet of rice onto the nori and leave about half an inch of nori without any rice to seal the roll.
- With a spoon, place a generous line of the tuna mixture on top of the sheet of rice.
- Top the tuna with lettuce leaves.
- Begin rolling from the bottom working your way up.
- Seal the roll with leftover vinegar mix by putting some on the nori without rice.
- Using a sharp wet knife, slice the roll into eight bite sized pieces.
- Serve with soy sauce and wasabi.
Check out this other great California roll recipe!