Japanese traditional culture

Bonsai 盆栽

A potted dwarf tree as distinguished from potted plants in general. While the charm of a potted flower or a foliage plant lies in its own beauty, that of bonsai is said to consist in the natural atmosphere it creates. Bonsai culture dates back to the Heian period , and it became the fashion as the southern school of Chinese painting (nanga) gained popularity in the late Edo period. A dwarf tree planted in a pot is trained and trimmed into a graceful shape so that it may represent a beautiful landscape in miniature. Although great care and artificial aid are given in raising it, a dwarf tree is expected to appeal to the viewer’s imagination by expressing natural beauty. Although it is actually “man-made”, it must look like a natural object.
There is a famous village as a bonsai village in Saitama-shi, Saitama-ken in Japan.

Geisha 芸者

A lady who professionally provides entertainment and lighthearted company at a feast.
Around the end of the seventeenth century, geisha girls came on the scene, replacing an first-class of “courtesans” who were skillful in such arts as music and dancing. Geisha no longer carries the sexual implication which is often suggested by the English use of the word.
Some geisha girls live in okiya (a geisha boarding house) whose landlady acts as manager and sends them around to Japanese-style hotels and restaurants where drinking feasts are held. Others live in their own houses and practice their business independently.
Dressed in kimono and often with their hair done in the old Japanese style, they entertain a group of men by playing the shamisen (traditional musical instrument), singing traditional songs, dancing a classical dance, serving food and drinks, or through lighthearted talk with a sympathetic smile. Some of them, especially in urban areas, are highly educated and are intellectually stimulating enough to entertain elite businessmen.

Hanami 花見

Hanami is literally “flower viewing”. Japanese people appreciate cherry (Sakura) blossoms greatly. Since cherry blossoms remain in bloom only for a few days, they were formerly considered a reminder that this world is mutable and impermanent.
During the cherry blossom season, newspapers provide sakura-dayori (cherry blossom reports), which can be a handy guide for the viewers in deciding when and where to enjoy beautiful cherry blossoms.
When they bloom, usually late March to early April, people go on a picnic. Sitting under the cherry trees, they enjoy the beauty of the blossoms. And they enjoy foods and drinks under the trees.
This annual custom started as a Buddhist ceremony among court nobles of the twelfth century. It gained widespread popularity by the seventeenth century. It still remains popular, though the religious implication has died out.

Hinamatsuri 雛祭り

The Doll Festival. It is the Girls’ Festival celebrated on March 3. It is also a seasonal festival called Momo-no-sekku featuring peach blossoms.
A group of beautifully dressed dolls are displayed on tiers of shelves in the home of the family that has a young girl. The dolls represent members of the ancient imperial court. The Emperor and the Empress (dairi-bina) are displayed on the top shelf, and their two eminent lords (udaijin and sadazjin), three ladies (sannin-kanjo), five musicians (gonin-bayashi), and three servants are arrayed below them. Even small representations of furniture and foods are displayed on the lower shelves. Hinamatsuri dates from the medieval times, but the custom of displaying dolls in this fashion started in the eighteenth century. Whereas originally the handmade dolls were thrown into the river along with offerings on March 3, today the commercially made and expensive dolls are stored away for the next year. They are often passed from generation to generation. Sweet rice wine called Shirozake is prepared as well as special dishes on this girls’ day.


The symbol designating the rising sun. A red circle against a white background symbolizing the rising sun, also represents the Japanese national flag.

It was officially selected as the Japanese national emblem by the Meiji Government in 1870.
This symbol is very popular in Japan.

Junishi 十二支

The twelve symbols of the Chinese zodiac. Based on the twelve years which Jupiter takes to circle the heavens, the ancient Chinese were able to indicate a season by the position of this mysterious star in the sky. After this system came to Japan, the Japanese used animal names to designate the twelve positions. They are ne(rat), ushi (cow), tora (tiger), u (rabbit), tatsu (dragon), mi (snake), uma (horse), hitsuji (sheep), saru (monkey), tori (rooster), inu (dog), and i (boar). This zodiac cycle was also used to tell the direction, the hour and the day as well as the year.
Today it is mainly used in reference to the year. For example, the years 1950, 1962, 1974 and 1986 are all “tiger” years. As a matter of fact, instead of asking how old you are, people are likely to ask in what year of the zodiac you were born. Thus they are able to guess your age almost correctly.


Kodomo no hi (Tango no sekku)
Children’s Day. It falls on May 5, and is one of the most popularly celebrated national holidays.
Although it is called Children’s Day, it is actually celebrated as the Boys’ Festival. (The Girls’ Festival is March 3, which is called Hinamatsuri)
It is also a seasonal festival called tango-no-sekku (Iris Festival), because May 5 marks the beginning of summer on the old lunar calendar. To drive away bad spirits and celebrate the future of their sons, families hoist koinobori (cloth coustructed carp streamers) from balconies and flagpoles, and indoors display gogatsu-ningyo (samurai dolls and their armaments) on layered ledges. Children take shcbuyu (a bath with a bunch of floating iris leaves), and eat kashiwa-mochi (a rice cake wrapped in an oak leaf) and chimaki (a dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves). Carp, samurai, irises, oak trees, and bamboos all symbolize strength.
Parents prepare these decorations and foods with the earnest wish that their children may grow up to be healthy and robust.


Meishi 名刺

A name card. The Meishi plays an important role in Japan, especially in the business world. People usually exchange their cards at their first meeting. Because Japanese people often adjust their behavior and language depending on people with whom they are speaking, knowing the social position of someone with whom they are dealing is of vital significance.
One’s Meishi provides this information, as it includes one’s occupation or company and position as well as one’s name and business address. With a few words written on its back, the Meishi can also be used as a short letter of introduction.

Oni 鬼

Oni an ogre.

The most commonly found image of Oni is a human like figure with a horned head and an ugly red face. A loincloth of a tiger’s skin covers its naked body. The Oni are rather familiar beings in the life of Japanese people, and often appear in folktales, legends, and proverbs as a symbol of evil with violent and cruel natures and of Herculean strength.
Parents often tell children that if they misbehave, Oni will come and eat them. On the day of Setsubun (a time-honored Buddhist festival of bean throwing held on February 2 or 3), people drive away the oni from the household by throwing roasted beans at them. These beans have been used as a charm against demons since ancient times.
In Akita Prefecture, young men dressed as Oni go from house to house, scolding lazy children who do not do their best in their work. In Aichi Prefecture, there is an annual event called Oni-matsuri (the Ogre Festival) to drive away evil spirits and pray for abundant farm crops in the coming year.

Onsen (Hot spring) 温泉

There are many hot springs in Japan and most of them are developed as tourist spots. Japanese people are fond of hot spring bathing.
The water is hot enough (more than 25°C or 77°F) and contains various kinds of mineral elements and/or natural gasses. People consider it as an ideal means of relaxation. Vacationers visiting spas usually stay in hotels, inns (ryokan), or family-run lodging houses (minshuku), and spend several days enjoying their hot spring bathing facilities. Deep in the mountains, local people may relax in a public open-air spa (rotenburo).
Hot springs have also been recognized as medically effective. They are used not only for recuperation and rehabilitation but also for therapeutic treatment of many chronic diseases (such as rheumatism, gout, neuralgia, hypertension, etc.).

Ryoutei 料亭

A high-class Japanese restaurant.
It is principally a place where sophisticated Japanese cuisine is served. It sometimes serves as an establishment where traditional artistic performances are presented by geisha girls. Delicate and crucial business talks and political negotiations are often conducted there and, in many cases, the cost is put on the company expense account.

Sado 茶道

Tea ceremony. Sado, which is also called chado or cha-no-yu, is the traditionally ritualized way of preparing, serving, and drinking matcha (powdered green tea stirred in hot water).
Tea drinking, introduced from China, was first practiced only by Buddhist priests, and then by samurai warriors in the early days. Later it gradually spread among common people. Sen-no-Rikyu in the sixteenth century raised it to an art form, which lays the greatest emphasis on spiritual tranquility and simplicity of taste. Greatly influenced by Zen Buddhism, the tea ceremony has in turn influenced many aspects of Japanese culture such as architecture, fine arts, and ways of thinking and living.
Chakai (tea parties) are held not only in chashitsu (tea rooms) but in the open air. Today there are a number of tea ceremony schools, including two major ones : Omote-senke and Ura-senke. Many girls study tea ceremony as part of their preparation for marriage.

Senbazuru 千羽鶴

One thousand paper cranes (cranes origami). The crane (tsuru) has been a symbol of longevity along with the tortoise (kame) for centuries. The former was believed to live for a thousand years, and the latter ten thousand years. In its contemporary sense, the word senbazuru commonly refers to strings of folded-paper cranes. Customarily, one thousand small paper cranes are folded with a prayer wishing for the quick recovery of a sick person. The folded paper cranes are meant to show the maker’s care and concern for the sick person.
When a thousand paper cranes are made, they are tied together with a few strings and presented to the sick person, who hangs them in the room for decoration.

Shinto 神道

Shinto is Japan’s native religion. It is based on the Providence of Kami (God), the laws of nature, and ancestor worship. Historically, it existed from the dawn of Japanese civilization, but it became more clearly defined after Buddhism entered Japan in the middle of the sixth century.
According to Shinto mythology, Amaterasu-omikami, the goddess of the sun, was born to rule in Takamaga-hara (the Plain of High Heaven). The misbehavior of her younger brother upset her so much that she hid away in a cave, leaving the universe in complete darkness and chaos. Many gods enacted a lot of merrymaking to bring her out. Finally she came out and shone again, thereby restoring order.
Six generations after her, Jinmu became Japan’s First Emperor. This legend supported the hegemony of the Imperial family over other ancient great families, and thus Shintoism became part of the emperor system (tennoism) of Japan.
With the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Shinto became the state religion promoting the authority of the emperor, and shrines were supported by the Government. The state religion union took on a nationalistic tone. Especially in the jingoistic decade of the 1930s, “State Shintoism” was prevalent. But after World War II, it was disbanded, and only “Shrine Shintoism” and “Sect Shintoism” remained. Today people visit a Shinto shrine to pray for the materialization of their wishes and to attend certain self-purification services.

Sho-Chiku-Bai (Pine-Bamboo-Plum) 松竹梅

This word consists of three Chinese characters which mean “pine, bamboo, and plum”, respectively. Since these three plants are all very hardy against the cold, they were appreciated during winter and came to be used for a symbolic decoration on happy occasions such as New Years, weddings, commencements, etc.
They are always used together as a set. Real trees, branches, leaves, or blossoms of Sho-Chiku-Bai are often used as a ceremonial decoration, but a picture or a figure of these three may also serve the same purpose.

Shogatsu 正月

The first month of the year, or historically the first month of the lunar calendar. The word shogatsu, however, more often means a particular period of the New Year, especially the first three days or the first week of January, rather than the month itself. The customs prevailing during this festive season originated in the religious observances performed by the ancients, who prayed at year’s beginning for the favor of their ancestral deities and for an abundant crop for the year. However, the religious implication has been lost, and people now follow the time-honored customs simply in celebration of the New Year.
Spiced sake (toso) and rice cakes boiled with vegetables (zoni) are what characterize the breakfast taken on the morning of New Year’s Day. Some people start the New Year with new resolutions, since New Year’s Day is, as the proverb says, the day to make one’s plans for the year. People enjoy reading New Year’s cards (nenga-jo), often delivered in a batch on this day, and see how friends and relatives are getting along. Many people pay the year’s first visit to temples and shrines. Some famous shrines are so thickly thronged with the multitude – with men and women, the young and the aged, the pious and the indifferent – that the police are needed to handle the crowds. Small children are given good luck gifts (otoshidama) and enjoy playing what are the traditional games for the shogatsu season, such as kite-flying (tako-age), top-spinning (koma-mawashi), Japanese badminton (hane-tsuki), and card games (karuta-tori). Younger children usually enjoy iroha-karuta (cards of the Japanese syllabary), whereas older children and teenagers may take more interest in playing hyakunin-isshu (cards of one hundred famous short poems).
On January 7 some people eat rice porridge with seven kinds of spring herbs (nanakusa-gayu), which was believed in ancient times to be capable of preventing and curing every known disease. The custom which marks the end of shagatsu is the cutting and eating of the New Year’s rice cakes (kagami-mochi) offered on the household altar. On January 11, or in some districts on January 20, those round mirror-shaped rice cakes are cut or broken to pieces, toasted, put into heated sweet red-bean soup (oshiruko), and then eaten by the whole family.


Tatami 畳

Tatami (straw mat)
Traditional Japanese rooms have, as a floor-covering, tatami mats. They are made of straw and rush. Since a tatami mat is always of a designated size (roughly 6 by 3 feet), it also serves as a unit of measurement for the size of a room. Rooms that have 4 .5, 6, or 8 tatami mats are most common.
Most houses now have both Western rooms and traditional tatami rooms. Elder people prefer to sit and relax on the tatami, while youngsters find themselves more comfortable on chairs or sofas. Traditional arts such as the tea ceremony and flower arrangement are almost always practiced on the tatami.

Washi (Japanese traditional paper ) 和紙

“WA” meaning is “Japan” and “shi”meaning is “paper”.Washi has a long history(about 1400 years) in Japan.
The Shosoin (National Treasure temple’s warehouse) has a 1200-year-old book.
Washi is made from the fiber of the tree and that making in the traditional handmade.
It is used for the door called a “Shoji” and “Fusuma” the sliding paper-door in Japan.
Washi was registered by UNESCO with the Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2016.