Identification and Location. The Japanese people, the majority of whom live in the archipelago known as Japan, which lies off the eastern coast of the Asian continent, speak the Japanese language. Japan, the most technologically advanced society in the world today, officially was transformed from a feudalistic country to a nation-state in 1871. It remains a homogeneous society in that less than 1 percent of the population is classified as non-Japanese and immigration to Japan is regulated carefully. A considerable amount of emigration has taken place since the end of the last century, largely to the United States, Canada, and South America. The indigenous religious system is Shinto; Buddhism was brought to Japan from China via Korea in the sixth century. The majority of Japanese people today classify themselves as both Shinto and Buddhist, and just over 1 percent as Christian. A large proportion of the population is, however, effectively secular in orientation. The Japanese identify themselves in terms of what is taken to be a shared biological heritage, birth in Japan, and a common language and culture. Although Japan is a postindustrial society and has, particularly since World War II, been thoroughly exposed to North American and European cultures and values, the sense of a shared past and unique cultural heritage remains central in creating a modern Japanese identity.Japan consists of four main islands—from north to south, Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu—in addition to a number of island chains and a thousand smaller islands. It occupies less than 0.3 percent of the world's land area and is about one twenty-fifth the size of the United States. Japan lies in the temperate zone, at the northeastern end of the monsoon region, and has four distinct seasons. Rainfall is abundant. Japan is subject to numerous earthquakes and, in late summer, to typhoons. Rugged mountain chains, several of them containing active volcanoes, account for more than 72 percent of the total land area, and numerous swift, shallow rivers flow from the mountains to the sea. Relatively little land is available for agriculture, just over 14 percent today; dwellings and roads occupy another 7 percent, leaving most of the countryside covered by dense, cultivated forests.
Demography. The population of Japan is just over 123 million people, with a density of 326 persons per square kilometer in the habitable areas, making it one of the most densely populated countries in the world. About 76 percent of the Japanese people live in cities; well over half of urban dwellers reside in one of four metropolitan areas made up of the sixteen prefectures around Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Kitakyushu. The Tokyo megalopolis is comprised of about 30 million people and contains the administrative unit known as the Central Tokyo Metropolitan Area—approximately 11 million people, a population on the decline because of a small but steady exodus of families who favor suburban residence.
Life expectancy at birth is 75.91 years for men and 81.77 years for women, the longest in the world for both sexes. In 1935 the average life expectancy was 47 for men and 50 for women, and thus it has increased by about 30 years in just over half a century, an extremely rapid rate of change. The proportion of those aged 65 and over is increasing rapidly. At present the elderly comprise about 15 percent of the population, but this figure is expected to rise to more than 23 percent early in the next century. At the same time the birthrate is falling; it is estimated at present to be 1.37 live births per 1,000 population per year, insufficient to replace the current population.
In 1721 the feudal government instituted regular, nationwide census taking with surveys repeated every six years. It is estimated from these records that Japan's population remained stable at about 30 million from the early eighteenth century until the latter part of the nineteenth century. From 1872 to 1975 it grew threefold, and Japan now ranks seventh in the world in terms of population.
Linguistic Affiliation. Japanese is a polysyllabic, highly inflected language. It is usually assigned to the Altaic Group of languages, which includes Korean, Mongolian, and Turkish languages and is not related to Chinese. The indigenous peoples of Japan were most probably the Ainu, a very small number of whose descendants now live in the northernmost island of Hokkaido. It is widely accepted that the Ainu and Japanese languages are unrelated and that the Japanese of today are primarily descended from peoples who migrated long ago from the Asian mainland and displaced the Ainu, driving them northward.
It is estimated that Proto-Korean and Proto-Japanese separated from each other about 6,700 years ago, sometime after the first distinctive society, known as the Jomon, was established in Japan. However, pottery dating back about 12,000 years, the oldest known in the world, indicates that a well-developed social organization (possibly that of the Ainu) was present before the arrival of peoples from the Asian mainland. Although Japanese is predominantly an Altaic language, it has some similarities to Austronesian, a linguistic group associated with Micronesia, Melanesia, and Southeast Asia; it is usually assumed that continuous cultural contact and possibly repeated migrations from these areas to Japan over many centuries account for these similarities.
From about 300 B.C. the Jomon culture was gradually transformed and largely replaced by the vital Yayoi culture, whose archaeological remains give clear evidence of sustained contact with China. With the establishment of the Yayoi culture the foundations for the present-day Japanese language were clearly established.
Written Japanese is complex because it makes use of Chinese characters (kanji), of which approximately 2,000 must be used just to read a newspaper. The reading of Chinese characters in Japanese texts is particularly formidable because most have more than one reading, usually depending on whether they appear singly or in combinations. In addition, two separate forms of phonetic syllabic script, both derived originally from Chinese characters, are used together with the Chinese characters. One, katakana, is used largely to express words of foreign origin; the other, hiragana, is reserved principally for inflectional endings and suffixes, which are extensively employed in Japanese but which do not exist in Chinese. In addition many technical words, acronyms, and so on are expressed today in roman letters.
Both syllabic scripts were developed by the eighth century, tury, but at first they were not integrated with the Chinese script. At that time hiragana was used for personal correspondence and classical Japanese poetry: it was known as “women's hand.” Early Japanese literature was set down entirely in what was thought of as this “pure” Japanese style, while Chinese characters were used for official and religious documents.
History and Culture
The most comprehensive record of early Japan that remains was written by the Chinese some time before A.D. 300. It portrays the Japanese as law-abiding people, fond of drink, concerned with divination and ritual purity, familiar with agriculture (including wet-rice cultivation), expert at fishing and weaving, and living in a society where social differences were expressed through the use of tattooing or other bodily markings. Among the early rulers of Japan some were women, the most famous of whom is Himiko of Yamatai. Current mythology reconstructs the first Japanese state as created around a “divine” emperor, a direct descendant of the sun goddess Amatarasu, in about 660 B.C., in what is now known as the Kinki region. Historical records dating to about the fifth century A.D. can be accepted as reasonably reliable. Early historical society was tribal in organization, divided into a large number of family groupings established as agricultural, craft, and ritual-specialist communities, some of which were exceedingly wealthy. In the early seventh century Chinese-style centralized bureaucratic rule was adopted; later, with the Taika reform in the mid-seventh century, many more Chinese institutions were embraced, followed by the building of the Chinese-style capital city of Nara in the eighth century. Although all authority theoretically was concentrated in the hands of the emperor, throughout Japanese history until the late nineteenth century, in contrast to China, emperors were usually dominated by a succession of court families and military rulers.
After the transfer in A.D. 794 of the capital to Heian-kyo, later to become Kyoto, a period of artistic development took place until the early twelfth century. During this period contacts with China were disrupted, allowing Japan to develop its own distinctive cultural forms. The world's first novel, The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, was written at this time together with other major literary works; Buddhism not only was consolidated as a religion but also became a political force to reckon with. A succession of civil dictators, all members of the Fujiwara family, manipulated successive emperors in order to control the country. Under them taxation of peasants became oppressive, but at the same time the state entered into opulent decline, leading to an eventual loss of power over the outlying regions. Competing dominant families, notably the Minamoto and the Taira, who had been thrust temporarily into the background by the Fujiwara, returned to Kyoto to impose military control there. The Taira ruled for thirty years but eventually succumbed to Minamoto Yoritomo, who ousted them and took firm control of Japan. Yoritomo went on to establish a military government in Kamakura in eastern Honshu and persuaded the emperor to grant him the hereditary title of shogun; thus began an era of military rule that lasted for seven centuries. It was at Kamakura that the samurai code of discipline and chivalry was conceived and developed, while the imperial household remained in Kyoto, producing a succession of puppet emperors.
The groundwork for feudalism, built on the ruins of the centralized Chinese-style bureaucratic state, was laid down during the Kamakura shogunate. On the whole, the lot of the Japanese peasants was better than that of European serfs in that they often retained some rights over land and largely were protected from crippling taxes. During the fourteenth century there was a short-lived restoration of imperial rule, followed by a new military government established by the Ashikaga family in Kyoto, which lasted for two centuries. This was a time of prosperity and the full flowering of Bushido (the way of the warrior), including the aesthetic and religious expression of this discipline. The Portuguese Jesuit Francis Xavier first arrived in Kyushu during the sixteenth century, followed by other Christian missionaries and then traders. Toward the end of the century a plague of civil wars broke out in Japan, which continued until order finally was restored by the military leader Hideyoshi Toyotomi in 1590. The pacification and unification of the country was completed by the first of the Tokugawa shoguns, Ieyasu, who then moved the seat of the shogunate to Edo, now Tokyo. As part of the process of consolidation, the shogunate virtually isolated Japan from the outside world, a situation that lasted for more than 265 years. Ieyasu and his son persecuted foreign missionaries and Japanese who had converted to Christianity. All contact with foreigners was restricted to the island of Deshima off the coast of Nagasaki.
Japanese feudalism reached a final, centralized stage under the Tokugawas, and neo-Confucianism, with its hierarchical ordering of society, was made a central part of the ideology. Strict class divisions were enforced between samurai, peasants, merchants, and artisans. Respect and obedience were the code of the day. During this period literacy and numeracy became widespread, and the foundations for a modern society were well established. A self-conscious cultivation of indigenous Japanese traditions, including Shinto, took hold among certain samurai, who would become politically active in the eventual restoration of the emperor. At the same time Japan came increasingly under pressure to open its shores to the outside world, and the resulting internal turbulence led to the collapse of the shogunate. This was followed by the Meiji Restoration of 1868, in which the emperor once again gained full sovereignty and set up the imperial capital in the city that was known from then on as Tokyo.
During the Meiji era a modern nation-state was firmly consolidated, a constitution was promulgated, a central government was established, the Tokugawa class system was abolished, a national system of education was put in place, a modern legal code was adopted, and a formidable military and industrial machine was assembled. The entire country threw itself into the process of modernization, for which purpose European—and, to a much lesser extent, American—models were initially emulated. Japan's victories in both the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 and its annexation of Korea in 1910 established Japan as a world power. Its place in the modern world order was further consolidated at the end of World War I, which Japan had entered on Britain's side under the provision of the Anglo-Japan Alliance of 1902. During the 1920s the worldwide recession affected the Japanese economy, most particularly because of its great dependence on foreign trade. By 1925 most small industries had been crushed by the monopolies of the giant corporations headed by extremely wealthy and powerful families. Faltering confidence in the government was reinforced by the exposure of a number of scandals. The military, which was suspicious of both the giant corporations and politicians, seized the moment and thus helped propel Japan toward World War II, although undoubtedly the freezing of Japanese assets by the United States and the embargo placed by the Americans on oil shipments to Japan triggered an already inflammatory situation.
The Japanese finally surrendered after two atomic bombs had been dropped, one on Hiroshima and another on Nagasaki. During the American occupation, which lasted from 1945 to 1951, Shinto was abolished as a state religion; elections, in which women could vote for the first time, were held; new political parties were established; and a new constitution was formulated. Under Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida the country made formidable strides towards democratic self-government. Japan soon entered a phase of rapid economic growth, which has since been transformed into a low-growth economy geared to “internationalization.” Today the Japanese are trying to integrate economic success with what they describe as a “humanistic” and more “spiritually” oriented life-style.
The history of housing in Japan reflects two primary influences: the indigenous influence of climate, land formation, and natural events (typhoons and earthquakes); and the external influence of foreign architectural design. Traditional Japanese architecture is made of wood with deep projecting roofs as protection against the monsoon rains. By the sixteenth century the typical Japanese house with a joined-skeleton frame of post-and-beam construction and elaborate joinery was common. The floor is raised above the ground, its posts resting on foundation stone, which allows the entire structure to bounce during an earthquake. This type of house is still dominant in rural settings and remains also in urban areas, usually squeezed among concrete buildings today.
In cities, most people live in apartments or housing corporations; land prices and taxes are exorbitant, making the buying of homes nearly impossible in the city centers. The suburbs have encroached ever deeper into the countryside, where house prices are a little cheaper, and many people commute for as many as four hours to and from work each day. The required coordination between government and the private sector makes city planning extremely difficult in Japan. Nevertheless, recent years have seen the emergence of policies systematically designed to develop larger-scale housing and industrial projects in regional areas rather than a simple restructuring of the megalopolis.
Commercial. The postwar economy of Japan is based on a competitive-market, private-enterprise system. Less than 8 percent of the population remains fully occupied with agricultural production, although many families retain farming as a secondary occupation. The most usual pattern is that the wife works the farm while the husband is employed full-time in business or industry. Rice remains the principal crop, although its production is strictly controlled and there are financial incentives for diversification. Over the past forty years there has been a steady reallocation of labor from agriculture and a large number of relatively inefficient small-scale industrial and service occupations to highly productive, technologically sophisticated enterprises. The majority of the population is occupied today in manufacturing, business, financing, service, and the communication industries. Japan consistently has kept its unemployment rate at 2.5 percent or lower—by far the lowest in the industrialized nations. Most businesses are privately owned, and demand for goods and services determines what will be produced and at what prices. The role of government in the economy is indirect, largely through close cooperation with business, wide dissemination of information to shape incentives, and provision of research and development funds.
Despite the steady reallocation of labor, not all production is concentrated in giant companies. Small units of production remain very prevalent; for example, more than half the workers in manufacturing are in enterprises with fewer than 100 workers. Japan is an exceedingly wealthy country, with the second-largest gross national product (GNP) in the world. There is a reasonably good distribution of income across the population; abject poverty is virtually nonexistent.
Industrial. Throughout Japanese history the production of ceramics, cloth, silk, paper, furniture, metal implements, and so on has been carried out by individuals in extended households, by professional artisans, and in cottage industries. Techniques were usually passed on from one generation of specialist families to another, sometimes over hundreds of years. A few such families remain in existence, although it has become increasingly difficult to find successors. Distinguished craftspeople are sometimes recognized by the government as “national treasures.” Today the bulk of industrial arts is mass-produced, and workers are trained in an apprenticeship system or in technical schools, but handmade crafts continue to be highly valued and play a major role not only in the art world and the tourist industry but also in daily life.
Trade. Most trade in Japan is organized and conducted by the nine very large, highly diversified commercial houses known as sogo shosha, which structure and facilitate the flow of goods, services, and money among client firms. These trading houses operate both within Japan and internationally. The total sales of these nine firms account for about 25 percent of Japan's GNP, and the imports and exports handled by them amount to about half of foreign trade. These companies originated in the Meiji period, and today maintain a system of domestic offices linked by the latest communication techniques to a worldwide network of overseas offices. Japan's trade is characterized by the export of finished products and the import of raw materials, of which oil is perhaps the most strategic. At present the nation has an enormous trade surplus with most of its international trading partners.
Division of Labor. Since 1945 Japan has adopted a comprehensive legal framework dealing with labor conditions including labor relations, labor protection, and social security. Labor conditions are managed largely by the Ministry of Labor. The Labor Standards Law of 1947 contains a “bill of rights” for individual workers and guarantees minimum wages, maximum hours of work, and so on. Many white-collar workers are nevertheless required to put in long hours of overtime work. About one-third of Japanese workers are unionized; almost all Japanese unions are organized at the level of the enterprise, and they include in their membership blue- and white-collar workers and, often, low-level managerial personnel. Branch unions often form an enterprisewide federation, which in turn may participate in a national industrywide federation. Most union activity takes place, however, at the level of the enterprise.
The school system is designed to be egalitarian and, in theory, entrance into the work force is based on educational merit. In practice, graduation from certain schools provides a greater guarantee of entry into the top universities, graduation from which facilitates entry into the professions and high-ranking civil service jobs. Employment based on personal connections is still prevalent in Japan. A provision for equal wages for equal work regardless of gender was adopted in 1947, but discrimination against women in the workplace continues to the present time. In April 1986 the Equal Employment Opportunity Law, designed to eliminate gender inequalities, was passed, followed in 1988 by the Labor Standards Law. These laws remove many of the restrictions placed on working women—in particular, the number and timing of the hours they can work each day. In practice, considerable social pressure remains for a woman to give up work during her first pregnancy. When they return to work, women are very often hired as part-time employees, although their working hours are long, and many of them work a six-day week. Employers are not required to pay benefits to such employees, who can be hired and fired easily during economic cycles of expansion and contraction.
Land Tenure. At the end of World War II, nearly 50 percent of the population still lived in rural surroundings. At that time 36 percent of the farm families owned 90 percent or more of their land; another 20 percent owned between 50 and 90 percent; 17 percent owned 10 to 50 percent; and 27 percent owned less than 10 percent. Tenants paid rent in kind. Landholdings were, and remain, small (1 hectare on average). Land reform was carried out during the Allied occupation, including the transfer to the government of all land owned by absentee landlords. Today 90 percent of the farmland is owned and worked by individual families. Of urban land area, over 77 percent is residential, nearly 11 percent industrial, and just over 12 percent commercial. Urban residences are small and prohibitively expensive, on average more than three times the cost of housing in the United States. Many families live in apartments for years until they can afford a down payment on a house. Approximately 65 percent of the families in Japan own their home, but in the metropolitan areas this number falls below 30 percent.
Kin Groups and Descent. The most usual living arrangement in Japan today is the nuclear family—more than 60 percent of the households are of this type, and the number has increased steadily throughout this century. Another 16 percent are single-person households. Just over 20 percent of households are extended, most of which are in rural areas. This type of household, known traditionally as the ie, is thought today to have been typical of living arrangements in Japan until well into this century, although in reality there was always considerable regional and class variation in connection with household composition. The ie usually was comprised of a three-generation household of grandparents, parents, and children; it was not extended laterally under one roof. In many regions of Japan in prewar years more than one household could comprise the ie, and households existed in a hierarchical grouping known as the dozoku, composed of one senior household and “stem” or branch households situated nearby. The traditional ie, a corporate economic unit, was patrilineal and patrilocal, and the head of the household was held responsible for the well-being and activities of all family members. The household, rather than individual family members, was taken as the basic unit of society, a situation that still applies for many purposes today.
Kinship Terminology. The kinship system is bilateral, and includes relatives connected to both husband and wife. Cognates and affines are addressed by the same terms. In this system horizontal ties are usually stressed over vertical ties, and hence the kinship system is ideally complementary to the hierarchical lineage system. Honorifics are built into the terms used to address or refer to grandparents, parents, and older siblings within the family. Terms for brothers and sisters are differentiated according to age. When referring to one's own family members beyond the confines of the family, however, the honorifics are dropped and the terms are changed.
Marriage and Family
Marriage. Marriage in Japan until the Meiji period had been characterized as an institution that benefited the community; during the Meiji period it was transformed into one that perpetuated and enriched the extended household (ie); and, in postwar years, it has again been transformed—this time into an arrangement between individuals or two nuclear families. Today marriage in Japan can be either an “arranged” union or a “love” match. In theory an arranged marriage is the result of formal negotiations involving a mediator who is not a family member, culminating in a meeting between the respective families, including the prospective bride and groom. This is usually followed, if all goes well, by further meetings of the young couple and ends in an elaborate and expensive civic wedding ceremony. In the case of a love marriage, which is the preference of the majority today, individuals freely establish a relationship and then approach their respective families. In response to surveys about marriage customs, most Japanese state that they underwent some combination of an arranged and love marriage, in which the young couple was given a good deal of freedom but an official mediator may have been involved nevertheless. These two arrangements are understood today not as moral oppositions but simply as different strategies for obtaining a partner. Less than 3 percent of Japanese remain unmarried; however, the age of marriage is increasing for both men and women: early or mid-thirties for men and late twenties for women are not unusual today. The divorce rate is one-quarter that of the United States.
Domestic Unit. The nuclear family is the usual domestic unit, but elderly and infirm parents often live with their children or else in close proximity to them. Many Japanese men spend extended periods of time away from home on business, either elsewhere in Japan or abroad; hence the domestic unit often is reduced today to a single-parent family for months or even years at a time, during which period the father returns rather infrequently.
Inheritance. Freedom to dispose of one's assets at will has been a central legal principle in Japan since the implementation of the Civil Code at the end of World War II. Inheritance without a will (statutory inheritance) is overwhelmingly the case today. In addition to financial assets, when necessary, someone is named to inherit the family genealogy, the equipment used in funerals, and the family grave. The order of inheritance is first to the children and the spouse; if there are no children, then the lineal ascendants and spouse; if there are no lineal ascendants, then the siblings and the spouse; if there are no siblings, then the spouse; if there is no spouse, procedures to prove the nonexistence of an heir are initiated, in which case the property may go to a common-law wife, an adopted child, or other suitable party. An individual may disinherit heirs by means of a request to the family court.
Socialization. The mother is recognized as the primary agent of socialization during early childhood. The correct training of a child in appropriate discipline, language use, and manners is known as shitsuke. It is generally assumed that infants are naturally compliant, and gentle and calm behavior is positively reinforced. Small children are rarely left on their own; they also are not usually punished but instead are taught good behavior when they are in a cooperative mood. Most children today go to preschool from about the age of 3, where, in addition to learning basic skills in drawing, reading, writing, and mathematics, emphasis is on cooperative play and learning how to function effectively in groups. More than 94 percent of children complete nine years of compulsory education and continue on to high school; 38 percent of boys and 37 percent of girls receive advanced education beyond high school.
Social Organization. Japan is an extremely homogeneous society in which class differences were abolished at the end of the last century. An exception was the burakumin, an outcaste group, the majority of whom are descendants of ritually “unclean” people (leatherworkers, butchers, grave diggers). Although discrimination against burakumin was made illegal after the war, many continue to be severely stigmatized, and most of them live close to the poverty line.
Japan is widely recognized as a vertically structured, group-oriented society in which the rights of individuals take second place to harmonious group functioning. Traditionally, Confucian ethics encouraged a respect for authority, whether that of the state, the employer, or the family. Age and gender differences also were marked through both language and behavioral patterns. Women traditionally were expected to pay respect first to their fathers, then to their husbands, and finally, in later life, to their sons. Although this hierarchy is no longer rigidly enforced, it is still very evident in both language and interpersonal behavior.
Social groups of all kinds in Japan frequently are described as “familylike”; a strong sense of group solidarity is fostered consciously at school and work, leading to a highly developed awareness of insiders and outsiders. Competition between groups is keen, but the vertical structuring of loyalty, which overarches and encompasses the competing entities, usually ensures that consensus can be obtained at the level of whole organizations and institutions. The finely tuned ranking order that pervades Japanese organizations today is modeled on fictive kinship relationships characteristic of superiors and their subordinates in the traditional workplace. These relationships are often likened to bonding between parents and children and are present not only in the labor force but also in the worlds of the arts and entertainment, in gangster organizations, and so on. Despite the pervasiveness of hierarchy, institutional affiliation is recognized as more important than social background in contemporary Japan. This preference combined with the existence of a highly uniform educational system leads, paradoxically, to a reasonably egalitarian social system.
Political Organization. The 1947 postwar constitution proclaimed the Diet as the highest organ of state power and the sole law-making authority of the state. The Diet is divided into two elected chambers: the lower chamber, or the House of Representatives, where a term of office lasts for four years; and the upper chamber, or the House of Councillors, whose members serve a six-year term. Of the two, the House of Representatives holds more power. Much of the business of each house is conducted in standing committees to which special committees may be added as the need arises. Executive power resides in the cabinet, at whose head is the prime minister. The cabinet is directly responsible to the Diet. The House of Representatives chooses the prime minister, who then selects the cabinet. The power of the prime minister is curbed severely by rival intraparty factions, and cabinet posts are reshuffled frequently, both of which processes influence decision making. The judiciary is, in theory, independent of the government, and the supreme court has the power to determine the constitutionality of any law, regulation, or official act. However, supreme court judges are appointed by the cabinet and in turn influence the appointment of other judges.
Throughout the postwar years the authority of the central government has been consolidated. The relatively conservative Liberal Democratic Party has been repeatedly reelected to power ever since its formation in 1955, a situation brought about in part by its close connection with wealthy interest groups, a highly effective and far-flung bureaucracy, and an electoral system imbalanced in favor of votes from rural areas. Since the 1960s a series of active citizens' movements interested in consumer and environmental issues has repeatedly challenged the ruling party, resulting in some policy changes. Japan is frequently described as a society where a preponderance of political power that takes precedence over all other social activities exists at every level of society. Furthermore, the implementation of power is designed above all to carry forward group objectives rather than individual rights or interests.
The emperor presently is described in the constitution as the “symbol of the people and the unity of the nation” but holds no formal political power. On New Year's day 1946 the then Emperor Hirohito formally announced that he was an ordinary human being, thus breaking the tradition, which had existed since prehistory, of attributing semidivine status to Japanese emperors. Nevertheless, at the enthronement of Hirohito's son in 1991, Shinto ceremonies were performed, including rituals involving divinities. The lives of the imperial family remain very secluded and carefully controlled by the Imperial Household Agency; their existence provides, among other things, a focus for nationalistic sentiment, which at times is strongly expressed.
Social Control. Law enforcement is carried out by a police system organized into prefectural forces and coordinated by a National Police Agency. Public safety commissions supervise police activities at both the national and prefectural levels. Particularly at the local level, the police force enjoys wide public support and respect, although this is tinged with a certain ambivalence because the police remain strongly associated with prewar authoritarianism. Local police are required to visit every home in their jurisdiction twice a year to gather information on residents; this activity is generally regarded positively by citizens. Police are also required to participate actively in community organizations and activities, and they maintain close links with local governments. The crime rate in Japan is exceptionally low for an urban, densely populated society, in part because segments of each community cooperate actively with the police in crime-prevention activities.
Conflict. Serious conflict in Japan is dealt with under the rubric of the legal system, which is organized so that out-of-court resolutions are by far the most usual. Compromise and conciliation by third-party mediators are widely practiced. Japan has relatively few lawyers and judges, and cases that go to court take an exceptionally long time to reach settlement.
Religion and Expressive
Religious Beliefs. There are more than 200,000 religious organizations in Japan, the majority of them either Shinto or Buddhist in orientation. Since neither of these religions is exclusive, a situation of religious pluralism has existed for more than ten centuries and today most of the population claims to be both Shintoist and Buddhist, with about 1 percent being Christian. Shinto is the indigenous animistic religion of Japan. Known as the “way of the kami (deities),” it is both a household and a local-community religion. The doctrine is largely unwritten, religious statuary is uncommon, and Shinto shrines are simple but elegant wooden structures usually situated in a sacred grove of trees, entry to which is gained through an archway known as a tori. The divine origin of the imperial family is one of the basic tenets of Shinto; after the Meiji Restoration and particularly during World War II, Shinto came to be regarded as a state religion with the emperor as its head and was intimately associated with nationalism. State Shinto was abolished under the postwar constitution, but as a community religion it does still play a very important role in many aspects of Japanese ceremonial and symbolic life, in particular with childhood ceremonies and weddings.
Buddhism was introduced to Japan from India via China and Korea in the middle of the sixth century. By the eighth century it was adopted as the state religion, but practitioners still turned to China as the source of authority. From the ninth century Buddhism spread throughout the population in Japan and gradually took on a distinctive Japanese form associated particularly with the Pure Land, Nichiren, and Zen sects. From the seventeenth century, for more than 250 years, Buddhism enjoyed political patronage under the Tokugawa shogunate, but with the restoration of the emperor and the establishment of state-supported Shinto in the second half of the nineteenth century, there was a movement to disestablish Buddhism. In the postwar years, most of the population has become essentially secular, and Buddhist priests are contacted almost exclusively for funerals and memorial services. The tourist industry is now a major source of support for the better-known temples and shrines.
Neither Confucianism nor Taoism constitutes a separate religion in Japan, but these traditions have contributed deeply to Japanese life and have influenced both Shinto and Buddhism. Confucianism, largely in the form known as Neo-Confucianism, provided the foundation for ethical relationships in both government and daily life, particularly from the seventeenth century onward. Although no longer officially sanctioned, its tenets continue to influence daily life. Religious Taoism, like Confucianism, was imported from China to Japan and actively supported from the sixth century. It has had a long-lasting influence on popular religious beliefs, particularly in connection with sacred mountains, firewalking, and purification rituals of all kinds. All of these religious traditions have contributed to a greater or lesser degree to the following features that characterize Japanese religious principles: a veneration for ancestors; a belief in religious continuity of the family, living and dead; a close tie between the nation and religion; pluralism in religious beliefs; a free exchange of ideas among religious systems; and religious practice centered on the use of prayer, mediation, amulets, and purification rites.
Religious Practitioners. Any male may train for the priesthood, but in smaller temples and shrines the position of head priest is often passed on from father to son or adopted son. Celibacy is not required, and the wives of priests often receive some formal training and participate in the running of the temple. Larger temples take in acolytes who, after years of discipline, may be assigned to subsidiary temples. Buddhist priests are often very accomplished at traditional arts, in particular calligraphy. In Shinto shrines young women, often daughters of priests and supposedly virgins, assist with many shrine activities.
Ceremonies. Religious activities at a Shinto shrine reflect the seasonal changes and are associated particularly with the planting and harvesting of rice. These celebrations are still held in many shrines, together with important purification ceremonies at the New Year and midyear to wash away both physical and spiritual pollution. The major festival days are the New Year's festival, on the first day of the first month, the girls' festival on the third day of the third month, the boys' festival on the fifth day of the fifth month, the star festival on the seventh day of the seventh month, and the chrysanthemum festival on the ninth day of the ninth month. These festivals are celebrated both in the home and at shrines. A newborn child is usually dedicated to the service of a deity at a shrine on his or her first trip out of the house, and at ages 3, 5, and 7 children are again presented at the shrine dressed in traditional clothes. Marriage is also associated with the Shinto shrine, but most people, although they often use traditional dress replete with Shinto-derived symbolism, have secular marriages. Public ceremonies at Buddhist temples are less frequent, the most important being the annual bon ceremony, in which the dead are believed to return for a short while to earth, after which they must be returned safely to the other world. Some temples occasionally hold healing ceremonies, conduct tea ceremonies, or participate in setsubun, a purification ceremony to welcome spring.
Arts. Prehistoric artifacts, such as the haniwa figures found in the tombs of the Yamato rulers of early Japan, are often thought to represent a purity and simplicity of design that has remained characteristic of Japanese art until the present day. Art of the early historical period is dominated by Buddhist statuary, which reveals a mastery of both woodwork and metalwork. During the Heian period a distinctive style of literature and art associated with the court was developed, including long, horizontally rolled narrative scrolls and a stylized form of painting that made use of brilliant color and a formalized perspective. The mid-fourteenth to the mid-sixteenth centuries are considered to have been the formative period for all the major Japanese art forms that survive to the present time, including ink painting and calligraphy, the No drama, ceramics, landscape gardening, flower arranging, the tea ceremony, and architecture that makes extensive use of natural wood and subordinates the building to its natural surroundings. The Tokugawa period was characterized by the emergence of literature and art forms associated with the newly emerging urban classes, which flourished side by side with earlier forms of religious and ruling-class artistic expression. Extensive use was made of the wood-block print by urban residents of feudal Japan as a medium for portraying daily life at that time. Since the middle of the nineteenth century Japanese art has come under the influence of both Europe and North America. Traditional art forms still flourish and change in a society that today produces some of the most sophisticated and innovative art, photography, architecture, and design in the world.
Literature and poetry (of which the haiku and the tanka are perhaps the most famous forms) have both flourished throughout Japanese history. The Kabuki theater, for popular consumption, in which the performers are all male, first appeared in the Tokugawa period, as did Bunraku, the puppet theater. The modern Japanese novel took form in the middle of the last century and is particularly well known for its introspection and exploration of the concept of self, together with a sensitivity to minute details.
Medicine. Japan has a complex, pluralistic medical system that is dominated today by a technologically sophisticated biomedicine. The earliest references to healing are recorded in the chronicles of mythological and early historical times. Shamanistic practices were present from at least A.D. 400 together with the use of medicinal-plant materials. Two theories of disease causation were dominant at this time: contact with polluting agents, such as blood and corpses; and possession by spirits. The secular, literature Chinese medical tradition was first brought to Japan in the sixth century by Buddhist priests. Grounded in the philosophical concepts of yin and yang, in which a harmonious relationship between the microcosm of the human body and the macrocosm of society and the universe is central, this system, known in Japan as kanpo, makes use of herbal material together with acupuncture, moxibustion, and massage as therapeutic techniques. It remained dominant until shortly after the restoration of the emperor in 1867, at which time European medicine was adopted as the official medical system.
The Japanese government established a national health-insurance system in 1961, becoming the first Asian country to do so. Today, Japan has a well-supplied, reasonably efficient modern health-care system. Nevertheless, healing practices conducted by religious practitioners, both Shintoists and Buddhists, remain prevalent, and there has been an extensive revival of kanpo. The practice of herbal medicine is limited today to qualified physicians, and acupuncturists and other traditional practitioners must be licensed; some of these practitioners work within the national insurance system. Many ordinary physicians make use of herbal medicines in addition to synthetic drugs.
Death and Afterlife. In Japan death is believed to take place
when the spirit is separated irrevocably from the body. Between life and
death is an interim stage of forty-nine days in which the spirit lingers
in this world until finally it is settled peacefully in the realm of the
dead. Annual memorial services must be held for the dead and it is not
until the thirty-third or fiftieth year after death that the spirit loses
its individual identity and is fused with the spirits of the ancestors.
Most Japanese do not adhere closely to this tradition today, but they still
retain some sensitivity to these ideas. Yearly Buddhist observances in
August at the bon festival for the souls of the dead continue to remind
people of the links between the living and the dead, and of the possibility
of spirits of the dead returning to earth. There is also a widely shared
Buddhist-derived belief that one can attain a form of eternity or enlightenment
while still in this world through the realization of one's full potential
on earth. This tradition is associated particularly with the martial arts,
the tea ceremony, and other forms of traditional arts and crafts, as well
as with meditation.
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from The Encyclopedia of World Cultures CD-ROM (Copyright Macmillan 1998).
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