Japanese people and their unique culture (2023)

Japanese people appear at first glance to be one of the most socially and ethnically homogenous groups in the world.

It is reasonable to equate Japan's rapid post-war economic development to the 1990s with social solidarity and conformism. Despite labour shortages since the 1960s, authorities resisted officially sanctioning foreign workers until the 1980s, relying on increased mechanisation and an expanded female workforce instead (1).

Until recently, Japanese workers have associated themselves primarily with the company they work for - a businessman will introduce himself as "Nissan no Takahashi-san" (I am Nissan's Mr Takahashi). By extension, we might get the idea that a Japanese person subordinates the self to the objectives of society.

In 2008, however, long-serving Japanese politician Nariaki Nakayama resigned after declaring that Japan is "ethnically homogenous", showing that the old "one people, one race" idea has become politically incorrect.

Criticism of Mr Nakayama's statement focused on its disregard for the indigenous Ryukyukan people of southern Okinawa, and the Ainu people from the northern island of Hokkaido - colonised by the Japanese in the late nineteenth century.

In 1994 the first Ainu politician was elected to the Japanese Diet, suggesting that the Japanese are keen to officially recognise distinct ethnic groups in Japan.

Modern demographic development

The most recent census asked people to define themselves only by nationality and not ethnicity, so the true demographic of the country is still unclear Although only around 15,000 foreigners are naturalised each year, immigration has continued officially and unofficially since Japan ended its policy of isolation in the mid-eighteenth century.

Apart from foreign immigration, Japanese people and their descendants have moved freely since the borders were opened. Although the census does not recognise them, there are now an estimated 750,000 Japanese citizens with mixed heritage, as well as 1.5 million permanent foreign residents in a total population of around 126 million.

Some "harufu" (Japanese people of mixed heritage)have gained a high profile in Japan, contesting the nationalist assertion that homogeneity is synonymous with Japanese prowess. In 2004 Yu Darvish, of mixed Japanese and Iranian heritage, pitched an entire game for the professional Nippon Ham baseball team without a batsman reaching first base. More recently, Finnish-born Tsurunen Marutei became a member of parliament.

Since Japan's main indigenous and immigrant ethnic groups tend not to reside in the densely populated Kanto and Kansai areas of central Honshu where holidaymakers generally go, a tourist would probably conclude that the non-Japanese population is a relatively tiny number of white Caucasians. There is a floating population of Western English language teachers and finance sector workers, particularly in Tokyo, but the authorities have extremely tight restrictions on extending specialist work visas beyond three years so very few become permanent residents.

(Video) The Culture of Respect in Japan

The largest ethnic groups represented are in fact originally from Korea, China, Brazil and the Philippines. Since the 1970s there has been a steady inflow of Brazilians of Japanese descent, and this group now make up 5-10% of the population in some industrial towns in Japan. These days the younger generations speak only Japanese and not the language of their forebears. In addition to these families, tens of thousands of long-term "guest workers" have been drafted in for factory and menial work under agreements since the 1990s.

The case for ethnic diversification is evident throughout Japanese society. The UN predicts that Japan will reach an economic crisis point by 2050 where the non-working population will outnumber the working population. Initiatives such as the 1994 Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement suggest that Japan is seeking a solution by granting more three-to four-year stays for trained workers and caregivers, though it is still very reluctant to grant permanent residency.

Conservative politicians still advocate increased mechanisation as the solution; swift advances are being made in robotics, particularly in the field of elderly care, but production would need to increase exponentially if the UN estimate of a ten million shortfall in workers by 2050 is remotely accurate.

Beyond ethnicity, there are cultural distinctions between the regions, most of which have existed for a long time but are not immediately obvious to a foreign visitor.

For example, Osaka-ben, the idiomatic language used in the Kansai area, espouses the open discussion of money whereas Tokyoites are likely to take great pains to avoid discussion of the raw figures (2). Residents of Kyushu - the most southern of the four large Japanese islands - compare themselves with the Mediterranean, "with traditional Japanese reserve taking a backseat to more demonstrative temperaments." (3)

Challenges for the next generation

Japanese people and their unique culture (1)

Distinct differences are also evident between the generations since the economic bubble burst in the 1990s. Younger generations are facing a dramatically different working culture in which a job for life is no longer guaranteed.

Consequently, the identification of the self with the company is weakening. Japanese companies now routinely outsource work and lay off workers who may have been with the company for decades, as dramatised through the character of the father in the 2008 film Tokyo Sonata.

(Video) What Makes Japanese Culture Unique

While that movie is of course a work of fiction and does not necessarily represent a typical situation, it does highlight the cultural shift away from an often-quoted Japanese idiom: "the nail which stands up must be hammered down."

The movie espouses individual development over conformity, as the son flourishes as a piano prodigy despite his father's attempts to have him conform to the existing system of education and employment. The wide generation gap and imposition of values is evident in the fact that the average politician is in his or her sixties.

In a highly competitive job market where learning fluent English is seen as one of the keys to success, more and more young Japanese people are studying abroad - mainly in the United States. This means that some are developing more stereotypically western individualist outlooks in their formative years.

There is also the social phenomenon of furita: young people who take a number of part time jobs instead of a single full-time role, and intersperse these with stints in places like Bali and Australia.

Traditionalists are particularly troubled by the number of hikikomori, a population of young adults estimated to be between one and three million who never leave home. In a significant number of cases, they are not employed and not paying taxes. This adds to the state's dilemma of how to provide for an increasing elderly population - the largest in the developed world- while the population as a whole is decreasing and some young people are only entering employment part-time, if at all.

The long-established equation between age and standing in a clearly defined hierarchy appears to be holding firm, and the relationship between the senpai (experienced) and kohai (inexperienced) is evident everywhere from college baseball teams to offices and factory hierarchies. Nonetheless, these structures are under scrutiny in economically uncertain times, and may belie a paradigmatic shift in the values and goals of young people questioning what it means to be Japanese.

1 - Japan's Minorities: the Illusion of Homogeneiety, Michael Weiner
2 - Jazz Up Your Japanese Onomatopoeia contains contrasting chapters to illustrate this.
3 - National Geographic Traveler: Japan ed. Nicholas Bornoff

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    (Video) Japan's Culture and Tradition

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What is Japanese unique culture? ›

Shinto. Shinto is widely considered to be the native religion of Japan. While most locals would deny being religious at all, Shinto traditions and festivals play a huge role in everyday life. In Kyoto alone, there are over 400 Shinto shrines dedicated to various kami (deities).

What are Japan's main cultures? ›

Japan's indigenous culture originates primarily from the Yayoi people who settled in Japan between 1000 BCE and 300 CE. Yayoi culture spread to the main island of Honshū, mixing with the native Jōmon culture. Modern Japanese have an estimated 80% Yayoi and 20% Jōmon ancestry.

What are some unique cultures? ›

Take a look through some of the most unique and beautiful cultures in the world, in pictures.
  • SINHALESE PEOPLE. The Sinhalese people are native to Sri Lanka and constitute about 75% of the Sri Lankan population. ...
  • THE SAMI. ...
  • THE HIMBA. ...
  • BERBERS. ...
  • NUBIANS. ...
21 Aug 2022

What are common Japanese traditions? ›

In Japan, people greet by bowing to one another. A bow can range from a small nod of the head to a deep bend at the waist. A deeper, longer bow indicates sincere respect while a small nod is more casual and informal. Additionally, bowing with your palms together at chest level is not customary in Japan.

What is Japanese famous for? ›

Japan is famous for natural sights like cherry blossoms and Mount Fuji, cutting-edge technology like Japanese cars and bullet trains, wacky inventions like karaoke and vending machines, cultural values like politeness and punctuality, popular anime and manga, and mouth-watering food like ramen and sushi.

What is the most popular culture in Japan? ›

Japanese popular culture includes Japanese cinema, cuisine, television programs, anime, manga, video games, music, and doujinshi, all of which retain older artistic and literary traditions; many of their themes and styles of presentation can be traced to traditional art forms.

What is Japan's national animal? ›

Macaque monkeys are the national animals of Japan. Also known as snow monkeys because they often live in snowy mountain ranges, they have long, thick hair and red faces.

What are 7 examples of culture? ›

They are social organization, customs, religion, language, government, economy, and arts.

What are 10 examples of culture? ›

The following are illustrative examples of traditional culture.
  • Norms. Norms are informal, unwritten rules that govern social behaviors. ...
  • Languages. ...
  • Festivals. ...
  • Rituals & Ceremony. ...
  • Holidays. ...
  • Pastimes. ...
  • Food. ...
  • Architecture.
10 May 2018

What are the 7 unique components of culture? ›

  • Social Organization.
  • Language.
  • Customs and Traditions.
  • Religion.
  • Arts and Literature.
  • Forms of Government.
  • Economic Systems.

What is good about Japanese culture? ›

2. Japanese Culture

Japan is well known for its politeness and good manners. Not only that, but Japanese culture also include efficiency. Japan is a busy country but is well organised. I was already impressed with the work efficiency at the immigration gate at Narita International Airport.

What do Japanese people value the most? ›

Shared Cultural Values of Japan

In Japan, some of the core values are thinking of others, doing your best, not giving up, respecting your elders, knowing your role, and working in a group. These concepts are taught explicitly and implicitly from nursery school into the working world.

What is Japanese family culture? ›

The traditional family unit in Japan consists of a mother, father, and their children. This type of family group is called Kazoku. Traditionally, three-generation households were the norm, with adult children living with their parents and their own husband and kids.

Is Japanese culture strict? ›

Japan has a unique culture with a very strict code of etiquette. There are specific ways to eat noodles, good practices for accepting gifts, and certain rules to follow to avoid insulting a host.

Why do Japanese take off their shoes? ›

Japanese have developed the custom of eating meals sitting on tatami mats, not on chairs. They also roll out the futon on which they sleep on the tatami floor. Therefore, they take their shoes off when entering the house to avoid getting the floor dirty.

What is Japan's motto? ›

Japan: No official motto.

What is Japan best at? ›

Japan is known worldwide for its traditional arts, including tea ceremonies, calligraphy and flower arranging. The country has a legacy of distinctive gardens, sculpture and poetry. Japan is home to more than a dozen UNESCO World Heritage sites and is the birthplace of sushi, one of its most famous culinary exports.

How old is Japan? ›

6. Japan: 15 Million Years Old. Japan's first emperor, Jimmu, is reportedly the founder of this country. Japan came into existence in 660 B.C. Buddhism impacted Japanese culture to a large extent, if we go by historical records.

What Japanese culture is like today? ›

Modern Japanese Culture: International, adaptive, technology-oriented. Modern Japanese Culture is mainly defined by Western ideologies. With the advancement of technology, Japan has been capitalizing on being one of the leading nations. They prioritize change and are always looking for something different.

What symbolizes love in Japan? ›

Using the Kanji Character Ai

Writing love in Japanese is represented as the kanji symbol 愛 which means love and affection.

What symbolizes pretty in Japan? ›

Bijin (美人) is a Japanese term which literally means "a beautiful person" and is synonymous with bijo (美女, "beautiful woman"). Girls are usually called bishōjo (美少女), while men are known as bidanshi (美男子) and boys are bishōnen (美少年).

What is Japan's most loved animal? ›

1. Cat. After all, Cat is the most popular one!

What 3 cultures influenced Japan? ›

The influence of Buddhism, Confucianism, and other elements of Chinese culture had a profound impact on the development of Japanese culture.

How many cultures are in Japan? ›

138 Types of Japanese Culture - Japan Talk.

What do Japanese people wear? ›

The traditional dress of Japan is the kimono. Kimonos, which are generally made of silk, have large sleeves and reach from the shoulders all the way down to the heels. They are tied with a wide belt called an obi.

What do Japanese people value? ›

Shared Cultural Values of Japan

In Japan, some of the core values are thinking of others, doing your best, not giving up, respecting your elders, knowing your role, and working in a group. These concepts are taught explicitly and implicitly from nursery school into the working world.

Are Japan religious? ›

Total adherents exceeds 100% because many Japanese people practice both Shinto and Buddhism. Religion in Japan is manifested primarily in Shinto and in Buddhism, the two main faiths, which Japanese people often practice simultaneously.

How do Japanese show respect? ›

In Japan, people greet each other by bowing. A bow can ranges from a small nod of the head to a deep bend at the waist. A deeper, longer bow indicates respect and conversely a small nod with the head is casual and informal. If the greeting takes place on tatami floor, people get on their knees to bow.


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