The intriguing and rich culture of Japan is so much more than the neon lights and bustling city of Tokyo that many of us associate it with. It is a complex, intertwined, and multi-faceted culture that is deeply rooted in rituals, tradition and spirituality. The continual shifting of technology, fashion, and landscape changes the face of Japan but its core values remain ever present. Japan lies as an isolated island, which has shaped how its society has grown and evolved into the modern culture it has become today. Once you step away from the buzzing cities, you can begin to peel back the layers of history, and discover the unique and tranquil lifestyle of Japan. There is an ingrained culture of deep pride and care in the everyday rituals of life, however minute or subtle, which is often missed elsewhere in the world.
Respect and honour are cornerstones of Japanese lifestyle. Bowing is a fundamental part of daily life and social etiquette in Japan and is used in a variety of situations. The small act of bowing may seem simple but the meaning is enriched in a deep tradition. This practice dates back to the samurai period, where influences from Buddhist traditions were steeped into warrior culture. From this point, it evolved, becoming a sign of greeting, apology, and respect. By lowering yourself, it demonstrates that you are placing the person you are interacting with above you and that you are thankful for their interaction. The pride and care people take in everyday interactions, whether it is at a convenience store, a restaurant, or at the office, all starts with bowing. Furthermore, when leaving an establishment, it is common for some of the staff to bid you goodbye at the door. They will not leave until you are out of sight, bowing and saying thanks for your interaction. This is just one of the many simple, everyday practices that people take into consideration. Yet there are so many more intriguing and subtle nuances that you may not be familiar with.
One of the most important and common practices in everyday life is cleanliness, whether it is at home or at work. In most homes, it is common to take off your shoes before entering the house. Traditionally, Japanese homes were built using tatami mats as floors, which would ruin once walked upon with shoes. Nowadays, although most houses don’t have tatami mats anymore, this practice is still undergone without exception. This approach to cleanliness and attention-to-detail is found throughout other aspects of life. For instance, shop staff will always wrap any purchased gifts for you. No matter the price or size, they will pristinely wrap it, highlighting their care by taking the extra time and effort to make other people happy whilst also taking the utmost pride in their work.
Seasonality and nature are embraced in Japan with celebrations, festivals, and delicious food. Whilst in other countries, nature and the changing seasons may seem wild, and sometimes a hindrance to our lives, Japan welcomes each fleeting season. They believe in the emotional connection between nature and humans as transitional and ephemeral. Seasonal events such as hanami, or cherry blossom viewing, attract millions of people. Moreover, seasonal local ingredients used in food, such as kaiseki cuisine, are integral to the culinary makeup of Japan. The mindfulness in finding the beauty in the changing seasons is so unique to Japan and something we may take for granted.
There is a strong sense of community in Japanese culture, meaning that everyone is mindful of other people around them. Not eating in public, not talking in elevators, and no phone calls on trains are just some of the small gestures that are common to avoid any disturbance towards others. What is interesting is that these ideas stem from the samurai era, as well as practices from Shintoism, which is commonly practiced in Japan.
Shintoism has had a huge influence on the evolution of Japan and people’s lifestyle. Shinto is "first and foremost a ritual tradition” where no things are believed in, but a guide on how things should be done. Shinto’s focus is to maintain communal, ceremonial traditions for the purpose of humans and nature’s well-being. Looking at the many different festivals and events throughout the year, the attention to detail in these rituals is so elegant and precise. These values lie at the core of Japanese culture, society and everyday human life.
Japan’s ritualistic and traditional culture is something that can be admired and appreciated in many different ways. The thought and care that people have for the subtle details, as well as their daily routines, is a beautiful approach to living life mindfully. As we reflect on the Japanese way of life, what if we stop to consider what actions we can take to live a more mindful life, for ourselves and for others?
[ Photography © Yohei Sasakura ]