Category: Japanese Culture

What is the Buddhist Swastika in Japan?

If you’ve been to an East Asian country, you’ve probably seen a swastika and thought, WHAT THE #$@& IS THAT DOING HERE? Well first of all, watch your language. But second of all, you should know that it’s not at all what you think. The word for this Buddhist swastika symbol in Japan is manji (まんじ)

manji swastika


Japanese Etiquette DOs and DON’Ts

Everyone knows that manners and etiquette can vary greatly from one country to the next, but some countries take their social standards much more seriously than others. Well, Japan is one of those countries. Almost everyone knows that you should bow in Japan instead of shake hands, but what other manners in Japan do you need to know? Use this list to learn important Japanese etiquette tips and make sure you don’t embarrass yourself on your next trip to Tokyo!


Do They Celebrate Halloween in Japan?

Yes, they do!

Halloween is almost upon us, but what exactly does that mean in Japan? Though Halloween is a decidedly American holiday more and more countries around the world are beginning to celebrate it in their own ways, and Japan is no exception. While it’s still not the national festival-for-all-ages that it is in America, you can find your share of parades, costume parties, and events.
Halloween in Japan first gained popularity when Tokyo Disneyland started holding Halloween events in the late 90s. Those events have continued ever since and have expanded across the whole country.

SO what exactly do they do for Halloween in Japan?

Japanese Sayings about Autumn (秋, aki)

Every culture has many different sayings that don’t always make sense when translated. Think about, “It’s raining cats and dogs!” Or, “This dinner costs an arm and a leg!” Japanese is no exception. Here we’ve put together a collection of Japanese sayings and proverbs that all talk about autumn. Some use it literally, while others have figurative meanings. Have you come across any of these before?

Aki no ougi

It is the time when summer warmth is completely gone from the air so grab your coat and put that fan away!
秋の扇 (aki no ougi) The autumn fan is no longer needed.


Silver Week in Japan

This week marked a relatively rare phenomenon: Silver Week in Japan. Silver week (シルバーウィーク, Shirubā Wīku) occurs every few years when several holidays happen to align, giving the Japanese a chance for a whole week of vacation. This week was the first Silver Week since 2009 and the next one won’t occur until 2026!

The holidays are:

Respect for the Aged Day (敬老の日, Keirō no Hi)

– The third Monday of September (September 21, 2015)

Autumnal Equinox Day (秋分の日, Shūbun no Hi)

– September 23rd, 2015

Kokumin no kyujitsu (国民の休日)

– Any day that falls between two holidays


Because Monday was 敬老の日 and Wednesday was 秋分の日 that means Tuesday was 国民の休日! In Japan you never have to go to work if two holidays are only separated by a single day. This means you could take a vacation from the 19th to the 23rd! I don’t know about you, but I think more countries should implement this as a national policy.

So let’s talk about the two holidays that brought on this special silver week.

Respect for the Aged Day, or 敬老の日

Is exactly what it sounds like. It is a holiday to pay honor to elderly Japanese men and women around the country and celebrate their lives. Many neighborhoods will hold small festivals and performances to entertain the elderly and 弁当 (bento) are often distributed to show thanks.

Silver Week in Japan
敬老の日 Parade

Autumnal Equinox Day

Is also an important holiday in Japan. The period surrounding the spring and fall equinoxes is known as 彼岸 (higan). There is a saying in Japan, 暑さ寒さも彼岸まで (Atsusa samusa mo higan made) or “The heat and cold end with higan.” Higan technically begins three days before the equinox and ends three days after. It marks not only the changing of the seasons from summer to fall (or winter to spring in March, known as 春分の日 (Shunbun no hi)) but also a time to pay respect to the deceased. On this holiday you may travel with your family to visit the graves of ancestors who have passed. When you visit the grave you can bring offerings such as flowers and food and make sure the tombstone is clean. But don’t be too sad, higan is a time to celebrate the passing of your ancestors to nirvana, not to mourn their passing from this world.

Higan Flowers

With both higan and 敬老の日 falling this week, many Japanese had the chance to take a vacation. Many probably spent this time with their families, but surely some took the opportunity to travel abroad or visit a new place in Japan they’ve never been.

If you were in Japan for Silver Week, how did you spend your holiday?

Matahara and the Decline of the Japanese Birth Rate

Japan’s population is currently around 130 million people. That’s a pretty big number for a relatively small island nation. But by the year 2050, that number could shrink to as low at 97 million, according to some estimates.[1] In 2015, Japan’s birthrate fell to a record low for the fourth straight year in a row.[2] Women are having fewer babies across the country and the Japanese government is desperate to reverse this trend. Obviously, in order to do this, the birthrate needs to be increased. But how low is the Japanese birth rate, really?

The average number of children born to one Japanese woman is 1.43. Japan needs to reach 2.07-2.08 just to maintain their current population levels. Reasons cited for these rates, which have been declining almost steadily since after WWII, are the rising cost of child care, the increase of women in the workforce, the age of marriage getting pushed back, and changes in social customs. These issues are all certainly contributing to the problem. But is there another, darker, reason why Japanese women aren’t giving birth?

Japanese Birth Rate Decline
Tokyo Disney; Image via Flickr

Like many countries around the world, women’s issues in the workplace have stirred up controversy of late. In America, there has been recent debate over the lack of mandatory paid maternity leave. While Japan does offer paid maternity (or paternity) leave, it may not always be so easy for women to take advantage of it. More often than not women are “encouraged” to quit their jobs if they want to pursue motherhood, rather than try to balance work and family life as so many women do around the world.

This issue was recently made famous by Sayaka Osakabe[3], who won the US State Department’s 2015 International Woman of Courage Award. After being denied a leave of absence and shorter working hours during her pregnancies (and suffering two stress-related miscarriages) Osakabe did finally quit her job under duress, and brought her company to the labor tribunal for “matahara” (マタハラ), a term she coined. It is a portmanteau of maternity and harassment, which has now become an official legal term.

Though Japanese law specifically bans demotion due to pregnancy, women continue to find themselves in these challenging situations. And in addition to worries about job security if they do become pregnant, many women simply work too much to even consider it. It seems in Japan most women have to choose between having a family and having a career, and an increasing number of women are choosing the latter. Of the women that do have a family, over 70% had to quit their jobs in order to do so.[4]

To make things more difficult, despite the fact that Japanese fathers are allowed to take paternity leave, less than 3% of them actually do. Many out of fear of losing their jobs or missing out on a promotion. According to a recent survey, more than 30% of men actually want to take child care leave. This has created a new name for these awesome dads: iku-men (イクメン or 育メン). The kanji, , means raising or child rearing, so as you can see it’s becoming increasingly trendy for men to want an active part in raising their children. But sadly, that doesn’t make it a reality. While husbands in Sweden, Germany, and the US spend three hours a day on average helping out with household chores and childcare, in Japan it’s only one hour. And the average time a father spends with their children is just 15 minutes a day.

It’s no wonder that so many women in Japan are overwhelmed at the prospect of starting a family. Hopefully, Osakabe’s website and support group, MataharaNet, will help bring these issues to light and give more women the confidence to confront the harassment they’ve faced in the workplace. In the meantime, Japan’s economy is facing a real pressure to replace the generations of earners that are quickly moving into retirement. And as long as women are postponing starting a family, or forgoing it altogether, there won’t be a younger generation there to take their place.



The Best Cherry Blossom Festivals Around the World

While cherry blossoms (さくら, sakura) are recognized around the world as a symbol of Japan, Japan isn’t the only country that celebrates their ephemeral blooming. With cherry blossom festival season in full swing, the beautiful blooms will last only for only a few weeks before falling to the ground and remaining bare for another year. In Japan, cherry tree viewing is known as 花見 (hanami), which literally translates to (more…)

Japanese Sports: From Sumo to Soccer

No one can deny that sports are a worldwide phenomenon. Baseball may be America’s pastime, but everyone knows that football is truly America’s sport. The large majority of the world is obsessed with the other kind of football, and it seems any country that has been ruled by England can’t get enough cricket. But what about Japanese sports? While sumo wrestling is Japan’s official national sport, it is far from the country’s most popular. So what sport holds the title for “favorite professional sport” in Japan?

If you guessed baseball (野球, yakyū), you’re right. 48% of Japanese people polled in 2013 chose baseball as their favorite sport. Since it was adopted from the United States in 1872 it has continued to grow in popularity. It is both the most played as well as the most watched sport in the country. According to Japan’s National Tourism Organization, “Baseball is so popular in Japan that many fans are surprised to hear that American’s also consider it their national sport.”

japanese sports sumo to soccer
Image credit:

If you go to a baseball game in Japan, however, you may be surprised to learn it’s a little different than its American counterpart. While you will still find hot dogs and beers, the Japanese take cheering for their teams to a whole new level. In addition to a team’s mascot, you will also find a literal cheer leader to keep the fans pumped up throughout the game. Everyone knows the cheers, so you’d better learn them quickly. Individual players each have their own cheers as well, making sure there is a never dull moment! In this way, Japanese baseball fandom much more closely resembles a European football match than it does American baseball.

Speaking of football, (サッカー, sakka) or soccer to Americans, it comes in as the second most popular sport in Japan. The J. League Division 1 (Jリーグ・ディビジョン1 J Rīgu Dibijon1) is the top division of the Japanese Professional Football League (日本プロサッカーリーグ, Nippon Puro Sakkā Rīgu), founded in 1992. Despite initial popularity, the league suffered throughout the late 90s, leading to its restructuring in 2005. Post 2005, the league much more closely resembles the European football leagues. Since then, attendance at games has remained relatively stable but the percent of Japanese claiming it as “their favorite” has risen from 23% to 36%!

Despite many countries being known for their rowdy soccer fans, violence, and football hooligans, Japanese fans actually have a reputation for being extremely well-mannered. As recent as the 2014 World Cup, Japanese fans made headlines by cleaning up after themselves. Though leaving a place “cleaner than you found it” is customary in Japan, in the Americas and Europe we are accustomed to seeing stadiums scattered with stale popcorn, piled high with empty nacho trays, and littered with empty beer cans when we leave.

japan's favorite sport

So why were the Japanese so polite even after losing the game? In Japan it’s known as 当たり前 (atarimae), which loosely translates as something reasonable, or obvious. It’s just something that is done by everyone so why wouldn’t you do it too? The Japanese take pride in their cleanliness and that applies to even the messiest of football stadiums in Brazil.

Have you ever been to a baseball or football game in Japan? Did you get swept up in the infectious cheering? Did you notice everyone cleaning up after themselves and follow suit? I hope so, because it’s atarimae!

Learning Japanese Holidays: Coming of Age Day

Almost every culture around the world celebrates the rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. In America, a Sweet Sixteen party is a common way to honor the occasion. In Latin America, a quinceañera marks a woman’s passage from girl to woman on the day of her fifteenth birthday. But in Japan, the day they are believed to come of age is at twenty years old. This is also known as 成人 (Seijin no Hi), literally, “Coming of Age Day.” While Japan adopted the Western age system known as 満年齢 (man nenrei) in the early 20th century, historically they used a traditional system of counting age known as 数え年 (kazoedoshi). In this system, everyone is born at one year old, and everyone ages together when the New Year passes.