Nihonjin & Nihongo: Japanese culture & language


A few days in Japan and every visitor gets the feeling that it might be a good idea to study Japanese. Of course thinking about it is always much much easier that actually starting to learn anything at all. This is especially true of something as hard as Japanese, one of the five most difficult languages in the world. On the other hand, if you think it is going to be hard, it probably will be.

Start off on the right foot by believing that you can learn a little and then from there a little more and so on. What ever you learn, even if it seems totally useless, will, in the end lead you to something new. Start at the place that interests you or that is the most interesting for you. Some people get into the kanji (Chinese ideograms), some enjoy creating grammar patterns and others take a more practical approach by memorizing verbs, nouns and adjective. No matter where you start you will find that your understanding of the Japanese and their culture will improve. In the end, you can’t lose!

Unlike nearly all languages in the world, written Japanese is a mixture of two historical realities. First of all, spoken Japanese came before written Japanese (which was developed some time in the late 8th century in Kyoto). Therefore, when they modeled their words onto the Chinese writing system everything did not exactly fit. For example raku, kyaku or koku, key Japanese sounds, do not exist in Chinese. Therefore, Japanese is a combination of kanji and hiragana. Second of all, many Japanese words (more and more every year) are borrowed from other languages, especially English and German. These words, though written using katakana, which makes them easier to identify, are usually quite different from the sound of the original word. For example, mass communication, is masukomi in Japanese. Even the words ‘situation’ and ‘all mighty’ have Japanese counterparts. To make things even worse, the meaning of the original word and the Japanese version of it may be entirely different. Consider the German word for work, ‘arbeit’; in Japanese arubeito means part-time job.

For many the biggest challenge of any new language lies in the grammar. Japanese grammar is not really difficult. It is simply quite different from most European languages, where the verb is between the subject and the object. Japanese sentences are constructed with the verb at the end, after the subject. In English and Spanish, you would say: “I went to the fish shop”. In Japanese, you would say: “I fish shop to went.”

If you are German, then you do have an advantage as German sentences also end in the verb. This explains why Japanese people learn German much more quickly than they do English. German’s strict obedience to its rules versus English’s maddening disobedience to the rules it is supposedly built on, most likely also makes German easier for the Japanese.

Some people say sentences ending in verbs are perfectly suited for a culture that is as hierarchal and deeply polite as Japanese society is. If you get the feeling, clearly or just as an intuition, that the person you are speaking with is already displeased with what you are saying, you can simply change the verb at the last minute. For example instead of saying: “I don’t want to compromise.” you can say: “I will compromise.” In this way you can avoid conflict, an core desire in Japanese social interaction.

One of the aspects of Japanese that can be the most difficult for Westerners lies in the appropriate level of politeness. There are three levels of polite language: keigo or “formal Japanese”, the polite “masu” verb form, and the straight verb form style. If you really want to be safe, then two levels are probably enough: the masu form for formal or polite situations and the straight, almost brutal, plain verb ending for informal situations. The first form is always safe but can be a bit stiff at times. The key lies in knowing when which form is truly the right one. When in doubt choose the more polite form.


If you have a good memory, then learn Japanese the super fast way: memorize words and expressions only and forget about, at least for the time being, grammar all together. The best mix is: 40% verbs, 40% nouns and 20% adjectives. A superb book for this is Japanese for Native Speakers, Hokuseido Press. It has what is considered to be the essential of all essential vocabulary lists, broken down into nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc. at the back: these 20 pages are priceless for any serious Japanese student. Kyoto also has more than its share of excellent Japanese schools with courses suited to every type of person and level. See page 14 for a list and call today! Get further into Japan and Japanese culture: learn a little Japanese every day.

For a deeper look into Japan consider Your Japan Private Tours: Quality Japan travel expertise since 1992: private guided tours, itinerary design, off-the-beaten track destinations no matter where you travel in Japan:



Shinto: All about deities, shrines and symbols


Shinto is Japan’s original religion and today it maintains a strong position next to the country’s other main religion: Buddhism. It is interesting to note that nearly all Japanese do not even know what the word Shinto means. The word Shinto comes from the Chinese characters: god and path. Elegantly translated Shinto means The Way of the Gods. Today, if you want to get onto the subject of Shinto you more or less have to begin talking to people about the world of the jinja or shrine.

Shinto for the average Japanese of today is a world of superstitious beliefs and practices that most people do. Few understand very much about the religion and this is understandable as there are basically no holy texts. Shinto has no real founder, no religious laws and only a very loosely organized hierarchy of priests. It is a religion of the wild world of nature, of which humans are just one tiny part.

Shinto is an ancient Japanese religion. Evidence indicates that its main beliefs came into existence before 500 BC. These beliefs are a combination of many things: nature worship, shamanism, fertility cults, and techniques for divining the future. Until the end of WWII, the Emperor of Japan was regarded as one of the many gods or kami in the Shinto pantheon. He descended to earth from heaven as the kami that would live among men.

The divine couple, Izanagi-no-mikoto and Izanami-no-mikoto, gave birth to the islands of Japan and their other children became the deities of Japan’s many clans or tribes. Their daughter, Amaterasu Omikami (the Sun Goddess) is the mother of the Imperial family. Her shrine at Ise is one of the largest in Japan and the emperor journeys there every year to pay his respects. Indeed, much of the emperor’s yearly life revolves around the many rituals and ceremonies that he, as a god, has been performing throughout the year for over 1,500 years.

The gods or deities of Shinto are very unlike the gods of other religions. They do not get angry and they do not try to influence people with the ideas of sin and guilt. Many of the Shinto gods do not have a human form, for example, mountains, rocks, trees, rivers, which are usually considered to be guardian deities of a particular area and clan.

Shinto and Japanese Buddhism are also quite accepting of each other. The Buddha is just another kami or deity. And the many kami of Shinto were viewed as nothing more than manifestations of different Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. In traditional Japanese homes it is quite common to find two altars: one for Buddhism (called a Butsudan) and another for Shinto (called a Kami-dana or Shelf of Gods).

In the shrine people do many things. When entering the sacred zone of a shrine people wash their hands and rinse their mouth in a practice know as misogi (body purification). Then they shake the rope to call the deity and pray, finishing with two claps of the hand. All shrine ceremonies and rituals, including sacred Shinto dance (kagura) and music (gagaku), and sumo (in ancient times), are directed to the deity.

Jinja Things
Ema Prayers: at many shrines, especially bigger ones, you will see small pieces of wood, all hanging together in one place, on which are written prayers to the diety of that shrine; many of these boards have colorful paintings of symbols (animals, etc) of the shrine on them. Guardian Animals: At the entrance to the central grounds of any shrine, you will find a pair of animals; they guard the shrine from evil; common guardian animals include Chinese dogs, Korean lions, foxes (inari), cows, even rats or monkeys. Omamori Goodluck Charms: every shrine sells charms or omamori—small, finely made bags with an amulet in them—that protect against evil, bad fortune, poor health, and many other things; people hang them in their cars and homes. Omikuji Goodluck Slips: tied to trees in the shrine precinct you will see many white slips of folded paper; these are fortune bearing pieces of paper that predict a bad fortune and thus they are left behind, just in case something the diety can reduce or change what is predicted. Shimenawa: in many shrines you will notice thick pieces of rice straw, always woven of an odd number of strands for good luck wrapped around a tree or stone; this rope indicates that the thing encircled is sacred. Zigzag Paper: called gohei this paper marks the boundary of a sacred space.

For a deeper look into Japan consider Your Japan Private Tours: Quality Japan travel expertise since 1992: private guided tours, itinerary design, off-the-beaten track destinations no matter where you travel in Japan:

Giving Gifts: A way to understand the ways of Japan


Gift-giving is as much a custom of every day life as it is an art. And few cultures in the world place as much importance on gifts as Japan does. Naturally, Kyoto was for the longest time the place in Japan where gift-giving customs developed and were refined.

As is true in many cultures, in Japan gifts can be used to express thanks or, more importantly, strengthen or create relationships. Indeed in a society as strictly tiered and densely urban as Japan, gift-giving is nearly always a communication about one kind of relationship or another. An excellent example is when one moves into a neighborhood. In this situation, the Japanese either give buckwheat or soba noodles (because they are long and thus imply a long relationship), or washing machine detergent or soap (to symbolize a clean, pure start to the relationship).
Gift exchange is so important in Japan that there are two primary seasons for giving gifts: oseibo and chugen. Both have historical connections to the ancestor worship rites of the New Year and Obon (mid-August), respectively. Today, both periods occur, not surprisingly, at the beginning of winter and summer, when even the business world, albeit briefly, enters a period of rest and quiet.
Oseibo and chugen were originally nothing more than a simple offering at the family altar. It served as a way to welcome the spirits of the ancestors to the ancestral home. Common traditional offerings included special kinds of preserved fish, rice, and rice cakes (see photo). Later gift-giving expanded to convey gratitude to village headmen, craft guild heads, marriage matchmakers, one’s boss, and anyone else upon whose kindness one’s own life depended. Naturally, corporate related gifts are very common. In a way, the annual winter and summer bonus seasons are a part of the gift-giving period. This is a time that the corporation or business expresses its gratitude, in the form of money, to its workers.
Gift giving and exchange is such a normal part of Japanese daily life that it has developed into something that is very practical. There is a joke that goes: If you wait long enough the gift you once gave will be given to you. Very well connected people have entire separate rooms in which to house their gifts. These gifts are carefully cataloged and to be passed on to the right person. Indeed, gift-giving is an industry in itself.
Naturally, given that space is limited in most Japanese homes and companies, food is a favorite gift. This is especially expressed in the idea of the omiyage or souvenir given to one and all of importance upon returning from a trip. Every place in Japan that attracts a modest number of tourists has it meibutsu or famous thing, usually a kind of cake, cracker, or pickle. In ancient times, all of these things had special merit: they were easy to preserve and yet differed greatly from place to place. Omiyage of this kind are available throughout the town or place they come from, especially stacked up in neatly wrapped (i.e. ready to go at the last minute) boxes at the train station. At any big international airport in the world, the Asian, but particularly the Japanese, custom of giving gifts is quite evident.
Another prominent gift custom involves weddings. In Japan gifts are given to everyone that is invited to the wedding and then another kind of gift to everyone that donated money (about half is returned in the form of a gift). All department stores have special catalogues of popular and naturally suitable items from which one can choose a few or many of the same thing. The “gift” department staff is trained in gift wrapping (an art and a subtle form of communication). In Kyoto, often how something is boxed and wrapped is equal in importance to the gift itself. In the old days and still often enough today, the person bringing the gift will wrap it in a furoshiki: a large, traditional cloth used to carry things and in many other ways (it is usually returned).
When you receive a gift in Japan, do not open it (unless you are asked to). Strange as it may seem, the person giving the gift will usually tell you what it is. This has much practical value: one must remember what one received; one must know what is inside to decide if and how to pass it on. Such are the secrets of gift giving!
In Kyoto the shopping opportunities, both traditional and modern are nearly endless. For a full look at all levels and perspectives, spend a few hours wandering around the world of Takashimaya Department Store (see their AD on page 14). If you do buy something for someone else, just tell the clerk at the counter, “purezento desu, tsutsunde kudasai” (it is a gift, please wrap it).

Performances for the gods: Japanese Noh Theatre


Japanese Noh theatre is one of the oldest dramatic forms in world. The early developments of Noh lie in the festive entertainment of various kinds (dance, simple plays) performed at temples and shrines in the 12tha and 13th centuries. Noh drama for much of its history was favored by the samurai, priest and aristocratic classes. Unlike Western theatre, the Noh performer is more a storyteller who suggests the meaning of the play with his movements and through his appearance or costume. Until 100 years ago, the audience was intimately familiar with the plot and the historical or mythological background of the play and knew how to interpret and appreciate symbolic and indirect references to Japanese history, much like early audiences at Shakespeare’s plays.

Nearly all of the Noh plays performed today were written by the start of the 17th century. The vast majority of the core Noh repertoire were written by Kan’ami Kiyotsugu (1333-84) and his son, Zeami Motokiyo (136-1443) in Kyoto. Zeami, as the father of Noh, developed most of the principles upon which Noh theatre has always been based. Today, of the roughly 2,000 Noh texts that are known to exist, only 230 core works are still performed regularly. Today, the Noh world has two centers: Kyoto and Tokyo

Dramatically, the Noh theatre is by no means as complicated as Western theatre forms. Essentially, there is no plot and everything on stage takes place very slowly. The plays are quite short: not much more an hour, during which only two or three hundred lines will be chanted. The plays are usually tragic and related to themes beyond the human realm in a space populated by gods, demons and ghosts. The setting is generally a very simple place that has some special significance to the main character or actor (shite). The other main performers on the stage are the waki (playing the role of a Budhdhist priest or the opposite role of the shite) and the one or two actors that “assist” the shite and waki. All the performers in a Noh play are men, even when the role is female.

In addition to the main actors on the stage, who often wear symbolic wooden masks and carry one of two simple props—a fan or a wooden staff—Noh performances involve a chorus of 8 singers and up to four musicians playing one of two kinds of instruments (3 sizes of drums and a flute). The rhythm of the drums indicated the degree of tension the main actor is trying to convey to the audience. All the elements blend into a single harmonic whole and no one single element dominates. In ancient times, when a theatre event could last most of the day, comic relief kyogen plays were often performed between each Noh play. Today, kyogen exists as a theatre form that is usually separate from Noh, though exceptions like the annual Takagi Noh (Fire-light Noh) in June have continued.

The moving spectacle of the Noh is inseparable from the striking, often haunting beauty of Noh men (masks), which can be divided into five basic categories: shin (gods), nan (men), jo (women), kyou (crazy entities) and ki (demons). There are about 80 distinct masks. It takes a master mask maker about one month to finish a single mask.

Though many Noh masks appear to be expressionless, they actually function to express any of the wide range of human emotions–joy, anger, sorrow or pleasure–common to Japanese dramas. Worn with a downward tilt, the mask is said to express sorrow. Tilted upward, the mask conversely is interpreted to express joy and laughter. A Noh mask contains the very soul of the character it depicts. When an actor begins to prepare for a role, it is to the mask that he or she looks to discover the essence of the character. Until the mask is in place, the actor is simply himself, but once it is on, he is transformed—body and soul—into that character. Given the central importance of the mask to Noh, it is no surprise that every Noh school treats its masks with a profound reverence. The leading schools often use masks in their performances that are hundreds of years old!

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Kawai Kanjiro, master folkcraft ceramic artist

Kawai Kanjiro Museum

This fantastic museum was originally the longtime residence, workplace, and studio of the ceramic artist Kawai Kanjiro (1890-1966), who, together with Bernard Leach (a world famous British ceramics artist) and many others, helped to save the fast disappearing traditional folkcrafts of Japan in the 1920’s. The museum would be interesting to anyone who likes wood, ceramics, or old Japan. It was built in 1937 according to Kanjiro’s own design. He also created much of the furniture. The extensive house includes an old rising kiln (noborigama), his studio workshop, a garden area, and small collection of his works.

The museum would be interesting to anyone who likes wood, ceramics, or old Japan. It was built in 1937 according to Kanjiro’s own design. He also created much of the furniture. The extensive house includes an old rising kiln (noborigama), his studio workshop, a garden area, and small collection of his works. The interior of the house has been preserved the way he left it and offers a fascinating and detailed insight into Kanjiro’s life and work. In his words, “life is work, work is life” and this house proves this point perfectly. The interior of the house has been preserved the way he left it and offers a fascinating and detailed insight into Kanjiro’s life and work. In his words, “life is work, work is life” and this house proves this point perfectly.

Open daily 10:00-19:00. Located a tiny bit south-west of the intersection of Gojo and Higashioji.  Closed Mondays, except for national holidays when the museum is closed Tuesday). Admission: ¥700 for adults, ¥300 for children. Tel: 561-3585.