3 Aspects of Japanese Culture and Tradition

Since I am currently learning Japanese, as well as participating in the Japanese Literature Challenge, I thought I would talk more about Japan, and its culture and tradition. Below, I will briefly and very generally highlight 3 aspects of the traditional culture of Japan which I find fascinating.

kitsune statuteI. Inari Shrines

Inari is a deity (a Shinto God) associated with foxes, rice, prosperity and household-wellbeing. There are many Inari shrines in Japan (close to 3000!) since this deity is much respected in the country (rice, as well as its protection, is very important). The origin of this worshipping goes back to ancient times, and both Shinto and Buddhist traditions have this deity in their ranks. Inari’s messenger and guardian is a fox or kitsune (a fox in Japanese) – probably because foxes were traditionally seen as rodent-eating creatures who help to preserve rice. Thus, often, you can find small kitsune statues near the shrines, under which one can leave their offering to the spirit in the form of cooked rice soaked in rice liquor (inari-zushi). No statue of kitsune resembles any other, and there is a great variety of them. It is said that Inari shrines even have symbolic holes somewhere so that spirit foxes may have an ease of access to the shrine. There is also a special festival called Motomiya-sai (“Main Shrine Festival”) held during the summer at Fushimi Inari-taisha or the head shrine of Inari in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto to celebrate this kami (or a spirit in Japanese). 

Stone lanternsII. Tōrō (Traditional Lanterns) 

I love lanterns – of different sizes and varieties. Tōrō in Japan is a traditional lantern that can be made of stone, wood or some other material. Originating in China, they were originally used solely in Buddhist temples, but their use spread far and wide to include other shrines and private housing. The tsuri-dōrō are hanging lanterns and look impressive on the sides of Japanese homes guiding owners to their homes in the evenings. The dai-dōrō are platform (usually stone) lamps and there are many varieties of those too. They can look magnificent in Japanese gardens. Lanterns are so important in Japan that there are whole festivals revolving around them, such as the Toro Nagashi (“Floating Lanterns/Cruises”) or the Glowing Lantern Festival, when participants send off their candle-lit lanterns down rivers so that spirits of their loved ones could have guidance.

floating lanterns

III. Moon-Viewing (Festivals/Platforms) 

kogetsudai-ginkaku-ji-kyoto-bigTsukimi or Jugoya denotes the custom of Moon-viewing in Japan, and Tsukimidai are Moon-viewing platforms or decks. During the festival of Tsukimi (a version of a Mid-Autumn Festival to honour autumnal Moon), that usually falls on the 15th day of the 8th month of the traditional Japanese calendar (September/October), people traditionally gathered to view the Moon, eat special rice dumplings prepared for the occasion (tsukimi-dango), as well as to drink special sake (rice wine) – tsuskimizake, expressing their thanks for the good harvest this year. Members of the Japanese nobility also loved to view the Moon from their boats so that they could see the Moon’s reflection on water. The most famous “moon-viewing platform” in Japan is the Kogetsudai moon-viewing platform at Ginkaku-ji Zen Temple in Kyoto (picture above).

Are you interested in Japan? What aspect of the country’s culture fascinates you the most?

23 thoughts on “3 Aspects of Japanese Culture and Tradition

  1. How fascinating! I have read about mythical foxes in several pieces of literature, but never realized their importance to the Japanese as a deity. (I must say, as much as I respect and admire the Japanese people, they worship some crazy things (to me). Even though protecting crop and home is surely important, I trust God for that. I can’t even talk about how they have to clap to get Buddha’s attention at the temple.) We have a stone Japanese lantern in our yard, as my husband has always loved them, and we took so many pictures od them there that resemble the photograph in your post. How very beautiful. And then moon viewing, that is another thing I never really knew. Thank you for teaching me about these Japanese ways. What a marvelous culture, what a special people. They always intrigue me.

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    1. Yes, I think I have seen some Japanese stories that feature foxes, but I am yet to read one. And I do agree that there are some very eccentric traditions and some superstitions are even stranger in Japan. It must be great to have a Japanese lantern in the garden! I think to have something from a different culture close to you is so refreshing and fulfilling somehow because it stimulates you to think slightly differently maybe and ponder things?, if I make any sense by saying this? 🙂 I am glad you enjoyed the post, and I agree that the Japanese culture is very intriguing. The most wonderful thing is that there is always something interesting to discover there even if you think you know stuff already.

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  2. Super fascinating! I always thought Japanese, (as well as other cultures that differ from mine,) are so fun to learn about. I wish you luck in learning Japanese! It is a difficult language! (I am learning Korean and Spanish, still a little hard but not nearly as tough as Japanese!)

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    1. I am glad you agree! And I wish you luck also with Korean and Spanish. Korean must be a tricky language to learn too, I imagine? With some languages you cannot just build mental bridges and connect them with something you already know because they are outside of the Latin (Romance) or Germanic groups of languages. That makes them very hard to learn. I did learn Spanish in the past and enjoyed the experience. It will always be my favourite language – I am actually planning listening to the Harry Potter audiobooks in Spanish soon. I did it in the past and helped me a lot with my learning.

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    1. Thank you! Even three weeks ago I was finding Japanese rather daunting to learn and it was hard to remember certain words, but now I think I have it more or less under control once I learnt the first alphabet – Hiragana (there are two other alphabets to learn – Chinese characters and the alphabet for foreign words). Before I learnt only conversational Japanese. Getting there slowly 🙂

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  3. Very fascinating! Great read!
    When it comes to Japan, first thing that comes to my mind is food! I love Japanese food! Also, I’m very interested with geisha, tea ceremony and I’m a big fan of their products! 🙂

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    1. Thank you! Food is definitely great (and interesting!), I agree! Traditional aspects of Japan are also fascinating – such as geisha, tea ceremony, as you say, but also samurai and ninja! – the list just goes on and on…!

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  4. It’s a fascinating culture, though one I know very little about and mostly from crime fiction, so that gives me a rather skewed version of it! I ike the idea of moon-viewing – I hope they don’t have the awful light pollution problems we have here. The moon is still visible of course, but the stars seem to have disappeared…

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    1. It is also precisely Japanese crime fiction that I want to explore more in future. My next post will be a review of a Japanese detective story! I cannot wait 🙂

      I guess pollution in big Japanese cities is a problem, and the countryside should be more or less ok, and it is in countryside where some of the old rituals remain. I guess I also meant in the historical perspective when I talked about moon-viewing, and how in the Edo period (1603–1868) the tradition of moon-viewing became popular. Also, I am also so amazed and intrigued how one culture could build whole platforms or other special structures for something “everyday” or “simple” like moon-viewing – as well as revolve whole festivals around it. I guess they could be more appreciative of small things in life, and don’t take for granted even this spectacle. Just my random thought 🙂

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  5. Such an amazing effort to learn Japanese Diana, such a cool goal to have.

    I loved this post, as it reminded me of a video I shot while in Japan of the deer and temples at Nara. There is a room filled with gorgeous illuminated lanterns in the temple, which you may like 🙂

    Japan is the most photogenic and interesting place on earth and I agree, there is so much to savour and enjoy, the curious and quirky things to love in Japan are endless.

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    1. Wow, that is an amazing video, thank you very much for sharing! It is so beautiful. Love the temples, lanterns and, of course, the deer there! I agree also about Japan being a country where one never stops discovering something new and surprising. If one is an outsider, I think the whole lifetime may not be enough to really discover and comprehend everything that it represents and has to offer. A truly magical place.

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  6. Aaaah great post!! I have always been drawn to Japanese culture, maybe because I feel it also resonates with my personality. I’ve visited it three times now and I’ve been to Fushimi-Inari and Ginkaku-ji, although sadly not during a moon viewing. Our guide there mentioned that the Japanese are drawn to more subtle and less flashy forms of beauty, which is why they often prefer viewing the moon’s reflection rather than the moon itself, and prefer take pictures of its near perfect reflection on the still Ginkaku-ji lakes! I found that very interesting. I am also drawn to the Japanese philosophy/aesthetic of wabi sabi, which emphasizes transience and imperfection.

    I hope your studying Japanese goes well. That is also on my bucket list. 🙂

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    1. That is interesting what you say about the Japanese preferring to view the moon’s reflection – I am very interested in Japanese philosophy too, and I also do understand what you mean by the Japanese being attracted to less flashy types of beauty – it is all so fascinating the way quietness, contemplation and imperfection play in their culture. I am glad to find another person who is so interested in Japan and willing to discuss it here!

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  7. Fascinating, thanks so much for your post. I love Japanese Literature and food. If I were younger, I would learn Japanese. I like the fact that Japanese people leave their outdoor shoes at the door, even in their own apartment, and keep everything so so bare. After visiting Japanese friends, I have started doing that, leaving my shoes at the door, and reducing things in the bathroom for instance to the bare minimum. Also so much easier to clean!!

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    1. Thank you for reading! I think that a language can be picked up at any age and one will be amazed at all the results if one practices it everyday even for a very short period of time. And, I love Japanese “obsession” for cleanliness and their minimalism too – there is something inexplicably holy, unpretentious and sensical about it all. Amazing.

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