12 things you didn’t know about Japanese culture

Culture japonaise, les choses à savoir avant d'aller au Japon

Japan is known for its culture, which differs enormously from Western culture. So we thought it would be a good idea to bring you up to speed if you’re planning a trip to Japan in the near future!

It’s been over 150 years since Japan opened up to the Western world after centuries of isolation, but some things about this country still leave us baffled. Here are 12 things you probably didn’t know about Japanese culture.

1. Baseball is extremely popular

Culture japonaise, baseball

Photo credit: Flickr – : : Ys [waiz] : :

Sumo may be Japan’s national sport and the country’s most inseparable, but baseball is actually the most watched and played sport. It was introduced to the country during the Meiji era and gained in popularity thanks to the strong American presence in Japan after the Second World War. Japan has two professional baseball leagues, as well as countless university and high school leagues across the country. Japanese baseball games are particularly notable for their groups of fans, who sing war chants throughout the games.

2. The positions of the rods have significance

When dining in Japan, it’s essential never to sink your chopsticks into your food when pausing between bites. This is reminiscent of a funeral ceremony in Japan, and is considered a bad omen. For the same reasons, it’s also taboo to share food with someone else by giving them your chopsticks. If you want to share your food, place it directly on your friend’s plate with your chopsticks.

3. Eating horsemeat is common practice

Horse meat has been consumed in Japan since the late 16th century. Its use in cooking increased dramatically in the 1960s, as the role of horses in agriculture and transportation declined. Raw horsemeat, known as basahi, is commonly served in restaurants. It is usually eaten with grated ginger and shoyu (soy sauce). It is nicknamed sakura niku (« cherry blossom meat ») for its pale pink color.

4. The Japanese think you speak English

Whether you’re an expatriate in Japan and have learned the language from a Japanese teacher, or you’re just traveling in Japan as a tourist, Japanese people will automatically speak to you in English. Even though you may speak Japanese, you’ll be addressed in English. Many Japanese will insist on speaking English to a foreigner, even if their level is limited and their interlocutor speaks Japanese better than they do Shakespeare’s language. So don’t be surprised if someone comes up to you regularly in the street.

5. The first Geisha were men

Culture japonaise, geishas hommes

Photo credit: Flickr – Japanexperterna.se

Geisha means « person of the arts » and the first geisha were men, who advised feudal lords as well as entertaining the court with various artistic performances and storytelling. Female geisha appeared in the late 18th century and were originally known asonna geisha (female geisha). Female geisha became extremely popular, outnumbering male geisha within 25 years of their appearance.

6. Making noise while eating noodles or soup is a compliment.

For a country with so many strict ethical rules, it’s a real shock to many Westerners to make noise while eating noodles or soups, but it’s perfectly acceptable in Japan. In fact, sucking loudly is not only tolerable – it’s even encouraged. It’s considered a sign that the food is delicious, and a compliment to the person who cooked it. It’s easier to eat noodles quickly while they’re still hot, and it’s the best way to appreciate their flavor.

7. Omiyage is more than just a memory

Culture japonaise, Omiyage

Photo credit: Flickr – jpellgen (@1179_jp)

The term « omiyage » is often translated as « souvenir » in French, but omiyages are much more than that. Unlike souvenirs, which people often give to themselves, omiyages are something people bring back for friends, family and work colleagues after a trip. Omiyages are typically culinary specialties from different regions, which are packaged in beautiful, colorful boxes with the food individually wrapped inside for easier sharing. While bringing back souvenirs in the West is always appreciated, in Japan, bringing back an omiyage after a trip is like an obligation.

8. In Japan, Christmas is a romantic celebration

Christians make up only 2% of the Japanese population, so Christmas is more of a fantasy in Japan than a religious holiday. Christmas lights and trees are commonplace, but most people celebrate Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. Moreover, Christmas Eve is considered a date night, similar to Valentine’s Day, when couples go out for prestigious dinners and exchange romantic gifts.

9. Japanese women used to blacken their teeth

For centuries, tooth darkening, known asohaguro, was a common practice in Japanese culture, particularly among married women and geishas. As well as being considered aesthetic, the practice was also seen as a means of protecting teeth against cavities and other dental problems. Women applied various substances to their teeth, such as mixtures of dental wax and ink, to maintain their black appearance. This practice was banned from the late 19th century onwards, with the aim of modernizing Japan and making Japanese culture more attractive to Westerners.

10. It’s impolite to eat or drink while walking

Culture japonaise, machine boissons

Photo credit: Flickr – Danny Choo

It’s quite common to see someone eating a bag of chips or sipping coffee while walking down the street in Western countries, but this is not the case in Japan. Although it’s not as impolite as it used to be, eating or drinking while walking is still considered poor behavior. When most Japanese buy food or drink from a vending machine on the street, for example, they consume it while standing next to the machine to avoid walking into it.

11. At the table, everyone serves each other

When friends drink together and share a bottle of sake at the table, for example, it’s customary for everyone to fill their neighbor’s glass rather than pouring their own. Wait for someone else to fill your glass when it’s empty, and keep an eye on other people’s glasses, as they’ll be waiting for you to refill them. If you don’t want to drink any more, simply leave your glass full.

12. There are rules to follow for your shoes

You may know that it’s polite to take off your shoes when entering someone’s home in Japan. But it can be hard to tell if you should take them off in many other places, such as temples, shrines and restaurants. Fortunately, there are a few clues to look for, such as when slippers are placed around the entrance, this is a clear indication that guests are invited to take off their shoes and put on the slippers instead. Also, if the floor is raised in the entryway, this means that you must remove your shoes in the entryway before entering the interior and walking on the raised surface.

Main photo credit: Flickr – Yiannis Theologos Michellis