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Many Japanese traditions stem from their deep roots in religions.  Two main religions dominate the Japanese culture: Buddhism and Shintoism.



Buddhism was brought to Japan from China in the early 6th century and was established as a national religion by Prince Shotoku.  The Japanese were attracted to Buddhism because it carried with it the ideas of a unified nation and equality among people.  It began to help Japan work towards an altruistic society and presented a unified state rather than individual uji or clans.  Health and protection were concrete benefits of Buddhism that were greatly appealing to the Japanese.


Buddhist practices and beliefs in Japan stemmed from practices in China and were very similar to those in China.  Buddhist teachings came from the Sutras and from the Vinaya—rules for monastic life.  The “Buddhacharita” or “Acts of the Buddha” is a mix of historical information and religious instruction that helped structure the religion’s beliefs. 

·        Four Noble Truths (Content of the first sermon of the Buddha)

1.      Life is full of sorrow because it is inevitably associated with sickness, old age, and death.

2.      Sorrow is due to craving—happy moments are always fleeting and you can never rely on them.

3.      Sorrow can only be stopped by ceasing craving.

4.      Ceasing craving can only be done by the eight-fold path that leads out of suffering.

·        The Five Precepts (The simplest form of Buddhist morality that was intended for the leifolk, not monks and nuns.)

1.      No killing

2.      No stealing

3.      No lying

4.      No sexual misconduct

5.      No use of intoxicants



Japanese culture, while on the cutting edge, is also a very primitive culture that we learn about through archeological sources, written sources, Chinese, and contemporary practices.  What is known about Shinto beliefs has been learned through today’s practices.  


Shintoism believes in kami or spirits that are anything out of the ordinary or awe-inspiring.  There are four types of kami in Japanese society:

1.      Nature Kami (sun goddess and the star goddess) are the most common.

2.      Kami that protect the uji

3.      Hero kami (great marshal men, scholars, and poets

4.      Kami of locales (areas that kami presided over)


According to Shinto beliefs, when bad things happen they are due to unhappy kami and so they use rituals to appease the kami.  These rituals have four components:

1.      Purification- before one can approach the sacred a cleansing process must be completed

2.      Offerings- gifts for the kami such as cloth, water, food, and dance are expected at a ritual ceremony

3.      Prayer- the recital of magic, certain words and sounds that are repeated again and again

4.      Sacred Meal- a communal meal is eaten after the ritual is performed to promote health and healing  

*The above information on religion was gathered through a series of lectures by Professor Paul Watt at DePauw University.

Japanese Tea Ceremony


The Japanese Tea Ceremony is a cultural tradition that originated in China.  The tea was considered medicine that promoted physical and spiritual health and was consumed for enjoyment purposes primarily.  The spiritual aspect involves harmony between the persons participating in the ceremony, respect for those involved in the ceremony, and purity.  These three aspects bring tranquility to those who participate in the tradition.

The Ceremony:

 Before the ceremony begins the host cleans the serving bowls, boils water, prepares a sweet treat for the guests, and then mixes the tea.

·        The tea is a bitter green tea called Matcha and when mixed with water it creates a warm bitter taste.  The combination of the bitter and sweet compliment each other and are a sign of harmony.

·        Proper Behavior

a.      When you recieve your chawan--cup of tea--you should bow.

b.      Take the tea with your right hand and place it in the palm of your left hand

c.      Turn the chawan clockwise three times before you take a drink

d.      When the tea is gone, make a loud slurp to show the host that the tea was truly enjoyed

e.      Wipe the part of the chawan your lips touched with your right hand

f.       Turn the chawan counterclockwise and return it to the host

The above tea ceremony information was gathered from www.city.kanazawa.ishikawa.jp/bunka/trad/way/tea/teaE.htm and also researchpapers.hypermart.net/art/Japanese%20Tea%20Ceremony.html

Japanese Theater

Noh Drama 


Noh drama is rigidly traditional Japanese drama which in it's present form dates back to the early 14th century.  Noh plays are short dramas combining music, dance, and lyrics, with a highly stylized ritualistic presentation.

Kabuki Drama

Kabuki drama combined elements of no drama and folk theater.  Dance was the basis of performances and the musical dance dramas that developed revolved around stories that were romantic and often erotic performed by women.  It was then decided that they were too erotic to be performed by women and men’s troupes were formed to impersonate the women and do the performances.

These small exerps on Japanese Theater were taken from Professor Steve Timm's History of Theater class at DePauw University.

For more information on Japanese Theater please visit: gojapan.about.com and select traditions/culture



The following information on Japanese Holidays was gathered from Griffin and Shurgin's The Folklore of World Holidays

  The Japanese New Year Celebration (January 1-15)

In Japan, the celebration of the New Year is the most significant and important holiday.  During this time they begin the New Year with a clean slate, spend time with family and friends and prepare for the events of the New Year.


·        In preparation for the New Year the Japanese clean their houses thoroughly, discard of any items that are not needed any more and pay all outstanding debts so that they are able to start the New Year anew.

-        Repairs to the house are made

-        Old items in need of replacement are replaced

-        When the cleaning is finished members of the household take a hot bath to finish the cleansing process     


 After the cleaning, houses are decorated with straw ropes and pine bough that is burned in a ceremonial bonfire at the end of the New Year’s celebration.


·        For the first three days of the New Year businesses are closed and the time is used to visit family and friends.

·        The first day of the New Year is a day to give thanks for the events of the past and pray for the future.

·        The arrival is announced to the country by all of the bells of the Buddhist temples.

·        The second day is a ritual commencement to the arts and crafts of ones favorite pursuit.


·        Another ritual of the New Year revolves around the dream of the second night of the year (it is not the dream of the first night because that night is too filled with spirits).  The desired dream is of a boat bringing wealth to one’s family.

·        This is also the time in Japan where cards are sent to family members and friends, sharing with them stories of the past year and wishing them the best in the New Year.


Coming of Age Day—January 15

In keeping with a time honored tradition, the Japanese have a ceremony for every young person who turns 20 over the year.  The heads of local government give ceremonial speeches to celebrate and commemorate the occasion.  The holiday was created in 1948 because at the age of 20 in Japan young people receive the right to vote, drink, and smoke but they are also considered adults and must uphold the responsibilities of an adult.


Shunbun no Hi/ Higan no Chu-Nichi (Vernal Equinox Day and Autumnal Equinox)

The celebration of the equinoxes has it’s origin in a celebration of the changing of the seasons which reflects the agricultural nature of Japanese society.  On these two days many Japanese families visit the tombs of deceased family members and pay their respects.  They weed the tombs and place fresh flowers at the grave sites.  

            Christmas Celebrations


·        Since World War II about half of the households in Japan have begun to celebrate Christmas


·        The Japanese traditionally celebrate with a Christmas cake called a decoration cake.  The cake is made by bakeries and ordered very far in advance of the Christmas holiday.

·       Santa Claus is a figure in their Christmas traditions and is called “Grandfather Santa Claus” 

·       Japanese children hang their stockings to be filled by Santa Claus by the bathtub because believe they that Santa Claus comes down the pipes. 

Decoration and Celebration:

·        In decorating their homes the Japanese generally have sparsely decorated trees that do not serve as a center of attention during the season.

·        The parties at Christmas time differ from other parties in the masculine dominated society because women are allowed to come and revel with the men.  Christmas is seen as a more democratic holiday because it is geared towards both sexes and not of religious origins.

·        While Christmas is celebrated by many Japanese families it is viewed more as a time to give and receive presents rather than a religious holiday because so few Japanese families are Christian.



Japanese folklore gives glimpses of morals, lifestyles and values in Japan.  Below are links to a few sites on Japanese folktales.

·        About.Com’s Japanese Folklore sites

·        Irashai.Com’s Japanese Folklore sites

         Japanese Old Tales


Bibliography & Other Resources

Project Team

E-mail questions or comments to mkfinney@depauw.edu
  January 26, 2001