The uniqueness and peculiarity of the Japanese is a favourite topic of both Western observers and the Japanese themselves. It’s worth starting any discussion about the people of Japan by noting that there is no such thing as ‘the Japanese’. Rather, there are 127 million individuals in Japan with their own unique characters, interests and habits. And despite popular stereotypes to the contrary, the Japanese are as varied as any people on earth. Just as importantly, Japanese people have more in common with the rest of humanity than they have differences.
Why then the pervasive images of the Japanese as inscrutable or even bizarre? These stereotypes are largely rooted in language: few Japanese are able to speak English as well as, say, your average Singaporean, Hong Kong Chinese or well-educated Indian, not to mention most Europeans. This difficulty with English is largely rooted in the country’s appalling English-education system, and is compounded by a natural shyness, a perfectionist streak and the nature of the Japanese language itself, which contains fewer sounds than most other major languages (making pronunciation of other languages difficult). Thus, what appears to the casual observer to be a maddening inscrutability is more likely just an inability to communicate effectively. Outsiders who become fluent in Japanese discover a people whose thoughts and feelings are surprisingly – almost boringly – similar to those of folks in other developed nations.
It is thought that modern Japanese result from the mixing of early Jōmon people, who walked over to Japan via land bridges formed during an ice age, and later Yayoi people, who arrived from the Korean Peninsula in boats.
All of this has produced a people who highly value group identity and social harmony – in a tightly packed city or small farming village, there simply isn’t room for colourful individualism. One of the ways harmony is preserved is by forming consensus, and concealing personal opinions and true feelings. Thus, the free-flowing exchange of ideas, debates and even heated arguments that one expects in the West are far less common in Japan. This reticence about sharing innermost thoughts perhaps contributes to the Western image of the Japanese as mysterious.
Of course, there is a lot more to the typical Japanese character than just a tendency to prize social harmony. Any visitor to the country will soon discover a people who are remarkably conscientious, meticulous, industrious, honest and technically skilled. A touching shyness and sometimes almost painful self-consciousness are also undoubted features of many Japanese. These characteristics result in a society that is a joy for the traveller to experience.
And let us say that any visit to Japan is a good opportunity to explode the myths about Japan and the Japanese. While you may imagine a nation of suit-clad conformists or inscrutable automatons, a few rounds in a local izakaya (pub-eatery) will quickly put all of these notions to rest.JAPANESE ETIQUETTE
Many visitors to Japan worry about committing a dreadful breach of etiquette. Perhaps this is natural. After all, Japan is a relatively formal society with a complex system of manners and mores. And let’s not even get into the language, which makes the tu/vous questions of French look like child’s play. But here is something we cannot emphasise strongly enough: relax . No one expects you to know all the rules of polite Japanese behaviour and no one is watching you like a hawk, waiting for you to do something wrong. So, the first rule is this: just do what would be polite in your own country, and you won’t go too far wrong. That said, there are a few things to keep in mind if you want to gain bonus points with the locals. » Use two hands when giving your name card or receiving one. Ditto for presents or important documents.Lifestyle
The way most Japanese live today differs greatly from the way they lived before WWII. As the birth rate has dropped and labour demands have drawn more workers to cities, the population has become increasingly urban. At the same time, Japan continues to soak up influences from abroad and the traditional lifestyle of the country is quickly disappearing in the face of a dizzying onslaught of Western pop/material culture. These days, the average young Tokyoite has a lot more in common with her peers in Melbourne or London than she does with her grandmother back in her furusato (hometown).In the City
The overwhelming majority of Japanese live in the bustling urban environments of major cities. These urbanites live famously hectic lives dominated by often gruelling work schedules and punctuated by lengthy commutes from city centres to more affordable outlying neighbourhoods and suburbs. Until fairly recently, the nexus of all this activity was the Japanese corporation, which provided lifetime employment to the legions of blue-suited white-collar workers, almost all of them men, who lived, worked, drank, ate and slept in the service of the companies for which they toiled. These days, as the Japanese economy makes the transition from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, the old certainties are vanishing. On the way out are Japan’s famous ‘cradle to grave’ employment and age-based promotion system. Now, the recent college graduate is just as likely to become a furitaa (part-time worker) as he is to become a salaryman. Needless to say, all this has wide-ranging consequences for Japanese society. Most Japanese identify themselves as both Shintō and Buddhist, but many young Japanese get married in Christian ceremonies performed by foreign ‘priests’ (many of whom are not real Christian priests). Most families once comprised a father who was a salaryman, a mother who was a housewife, kids who studied dutifully in order to earn a place at one of Japan’s elite universities, and an elderly in-law who had moved in. Although the days of this traditional model may not be completely over, it has been changing fast in recent years. As in Western countries, tomobataraki (both spouses working) is now increasingly common. The kids in the family probably still study like mad: if they are in not yet in high school, they will be working towards gaining admission to a select high school by attending an after-school cram school, known as a juku; if they are already in high school, they will be attending a juku in hopes of passing university admission exams. As for the mother- or father-in-law, who in the past would have expected to be taken care of by the eldest son in the family, they may have found that beliefs about filial loyalty have changed substantially since the 1980s, particularly in urban centres. Now, more and more Japanese families are sending elderly parents and in-laws to live out their ‘golden years’ in rōjin hōmu (literally ‘old-folks homes’).In the Country
Only one in four Japanese live in the small farming and fishing villages that dot the mountains and cling to the rugged coasts. Mass postwar emigration from these rural enclaves has doubtless changed the weave of Japanese social fabric and the texture of its landscape, as the young continue their steady flight to the city, leaving untended rice fields to slide down the hills from neglect. Today only 15% of farming households continue to make ends meet solely through agriculture, with most rural workers holding down two or three jobs. Though this lifestyle manages to make the incomes of some country dwellers higher than those of their urban counterparts, it also speaks clearly of the crisis that many rural communities are facing in their struggle to maintain the traditional way of life. The salvation of traditional village life may well rely on the success of the ‘I-turn’ (moving from urban areas to rural villages) and ‘U-turn’ (moving from country to city, and back again) movements. Although not wildly successful, these movements have managed to attract young people who work at home, company workers who are willing to put in a number of hours on the train commuting to the nearest city, and retirees looking to spend their golden years among the thatched roofs and rice fields that symbolise a not-so-distant past.Population
Japan has a population of approximately 127 million people (the ninth largest in the world) and, with 75% of it concentrated in urban centres, population density is extremely high. Areas such as the Tokyo–Kawasaki–Yokohama conurbation are so densely populated that they have almost ceased to be separate cities, running into each other and forming a vast coalescence that, if considered as a whole, would constitute the world’s largest city. One notable feature of Japan’s population is its relative ethnic and cultural homogeneity. This is particularly striking for visitors from the USA, Australia and other multicultural nations. The main reason for this ethnic homogeneity lies in Japan’s strict immigration laws, which have ensured that only a small number of foreigners settle in the country. The largest non-Japanese group in the country is made up of 650,000 zai-nichi kankoku-jin (resident Koreans). For most outsiders, Koreans are an invisible minority. Indeed, even the Japanese themselves have no way of knowing that someone is of Korean descent if they adopt a Japanese name. Nevertheless, Japanese-born Koreans, who in some cases speak no language other than Japanese, were only recently released from the obligation to carry ID cards with their fingerprints at all times, and some still face discrimination in the workplace and other aspects of their daily lives. Aside from Koreans, most foreigners in Japan are temporary workers from China, Southeast Asia, South America and Western countries. Indigenous groups such as the Ainu have been reduced to very small numbers, due to intermarriage with non-Ainu and government attempts to hasten assimilation of Ainu into general Japanese society. At present, Ainu are concentrated mostly in Hokkaidō, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands. The most notable feature of Japan’s population is the fact that it is shrinking. Japan’s astonishingly low birth rate of 1.3 births per woman is among the lowest in the developed world and Japan is rapidly becoming a nation of elderly citizens. The population began declining in 2007, and is predicted to reach 100 million in 2050 and 67 million in 2100. Needless to say, such demographic change will have a major influence on the economy in coming decades.Women in Japan
Traditional Japanese society restricted the woman’s role to the home, where as housekeeper she wielded considerable power, overseeing all financial matters, monitoring the children’s education and, in some ways, acting as the head of the household. Even in the early Meiji period, however, the ideal was rarely matched by reality: labour shortfalls often resulted in women taking on factory work, and even before that women often worked side by side with men in the fields.
As might be expected, the contemporary situation is complex. There are, of course, those who stick to established roles. They tend to opt for shorter college courses, often at women’s colleges, and see education as an asset in the marriage market. Once married, they leave the role of breadwinner to the husband.
Most Japanese babies are born with a Mongolian spot (mōkohan) on their lower backs. This harmless birthmark is composed of melanin-containing cells and usually fades by the age of five. It’s common in several Asian races and in Native Americans, raising interesting questions about the origins of the Japanese.
Increasingly, however, Japanese women are choosing to forgo or delay marriage in favour of pursuing their own career ambitions. Of course, changing aspirations do not necessarily translate into changing realities, and Japanese women are still significantly underrepresented in upper management and political positions, and there is a disproportionately high number of females employed as OLsoutsiders, Koreans are an invisible minority. Indeed, even the Japanese themselves have no way of knowing that someone is of Korean descent if they adopt a Japanese name. Nevertheless, Japanese-born Koreans, who in some cases speak no language other than Japanese, were only recently released from the obligation to carry ID cards with their fingerprints at all times, and some still face discrimination in the workplace and other aspects of their daily lives. Aside from Koreans, most foreigners in Japan are temporary workers from China, Southeast Asia, South America and Western countries. Indigenous groups such as the Ainu have been reduced to very small numbers, due to intermarriage with non-Ainu and government attempts to hasten assimilation of Ainu into general Japanese society. At present, Ainu are concentrated mostly in Hokkaidō, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands. The most notable feature of Japan’s population is the fact that it is shrinking. Japan’s astonishingly low birth rate of 1.3 births per woman is among the lowest in the developed world and Japan is rapidly becoming a nation of elderly citizens. The population began declining in 2007, and is predicted to reach 100 million in 2050 and 67 million in 2100. Needless to say, such demographic change will have a major influence on the economy in coming decades.
No other aspect of Japanese culture is as widely misunderstood as the geisha. First – and let’s get this out of the way – geisha are not prostitutes. Nor is their virginity sold off to the highest bidder. Nor do they have to sleep with regular patrons. To put it simply, geisha are highly skilled entertainers who are paid to facilitate and liven up social occasions in Japan.
The origins of geisha are subject to some debate, but most historians believe that the institution of the geisha started in the Edo period (1600–1868). At this time, there were various types of prostitutes who served men in the pleasure quarters of the large cities. Some of these ladies became very accomplished in various arts and it is said that some pleasure houses even employed male performers to entertain customers. Some believe that these male entertainers were the first to be dubbed ‘geisha’, which means ‘artistic person’.
Eventually, there arose a class of young ladies who specialised exclusively in entertainment and who did not engage in sexual relations with clients. These were the first true female geisha, and over the years they became prized for the accomplishments in a wide variety of Japanese arts. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden is an entertaining fictional account of the life of a Kyoto geisha. Without a doubt, Kyoto is the capital of the geisha world. Confusingly, in Kyoto they are not called ‘geisha’; rather, they are called maiko or geiko . A maiko is a girl between the ages of 15 and 20, who is in the process of training to become a fully fledged geiko (the Kyoto word for ‘geisha’). During this five-year period, she lives in an okiya (geisha house) and studies traditional Japanese arts, including dance, singing, tea ceremony and shamisen (a three-stringed instrument). During this time, she will also start to entertain clients, usually in the company of a geiko, who acts like an older sister. Due to the extensive training she receives, a maiko or geiko is like a living museum of Japanese traditional culture. In addition to her skills, the kimono she wears and the ornaments in her hair and on her obi (kimono sash) represent the highest achievements in Japanese arts. It’s therefore hardly surprising that both Japanese and foreigners consider a meeting with a geisha to be a magical occurrence.GEISHA MANNERS
There’s no doubt that catching a glimpse of a geisha is a once-in-a-lifetime Japanese experience. Unfortunately, the sport of ‘geisha-spotting’ has really gotten out of hand in Kyoto’s Gion district (the city’s main geisha district). It’s probably best to keep the following in mind if you join the ranks of geisha-spotters in Gion: » The geisha you see in Gion are usually on the way to or from an appointment and cannot stop for photos or conversation.
» You shouldn’t touch or grab a geisha, or physically block their progress.
» No one likes being mobbed by photographers or hounded as they walk down the street.
» If you really want to get close to a geisha, private tour agencies and high-end ryokan or hotels can arrange geisha entertainment.
» Finally, if you are intent on getting a few photos of geisha, you will find plenty of ‘tourist geisha’ in the streets of Higashiyama during the daytime. These are tourists who have paid to be made up as geisha. They look pretty much like the real thing and they are usually more than happy to pose for pictures.
While young girls may have been sold into this world in times gone by, these days girls make the choice themselves, often after coming to Kyoto to see one of the city’s famous geisha dances. The proprietor of the okiya will meet the girl and her parents to determine if the girl is serious and if her parents are willing to grant her permission to enter the world of the geisha (the okiya makes a considerable investment in terms of training and kimonos, so they are loathe to take girls who may quit).
Once a maiko completes her training and becomes a geiko, she is able to move out of the okiya and live on her own. At this point she is free to have a boyfriend, but if she gets married she has to leave the world of the geisha. It’s very easy to spot the difference between a maiko and a geiko: geiko wear wigs with minimal ornamentation (usually just a wooden comb in the wig), while maiko wear their own hair in an elaborate hairstyle with many bright hair ornaments called kanzashi . Also, maiko wear elaborate long-sleeve kimonos, while geiko wear simpler kimonos with shorter sleeves.
Maiko and geiko entertain their clients in exclusive restaurants, banquet halls, ‘teahouses’ (more like exclusive traditional bars) and other venues. An evening of maiko/geiko entertainment usually starts with a kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine) meal. While their customers eat, the maiko/geiko enter the room and introduce themselves in Kyoto dialect. They proceed to pour drinks and make witty banter with the guests. Sometimes they even play drinking games, and we can tell you from experience that it’s hard to beat geisha at their own games! If it’s a large party with a jikata ( shamisen player), the girls may dance after dinner.
As you might guess, this sort of entertainment does not come cheap: a dinner with one maiko and one geiko and a jikata might cost about US$900, but it’s definitely worth it for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Let’s face it: ‘I had dinner with a geisha’ is a pretty good entry in any ‘been-there-done-that’ contest.
It’s impossible to arrange private geisha entertainment without an introduction from an established patron. However, these days geisha entertainment can be arranged through top-end hotels, ryokan and some private tour operators in Kyoto. Knowledgeable sources estimate that there are perhaps 100 maiko and just over 100 geiko in Kyoto. Geisha can also be found in other parts of the country, most notably Tokyo. However, it is thought that there are less than 1000 geisha or geiko and maiko remaining in all of Japan.