Japan Traditions

As a country starting with letter J according to Countryaah, Japan still retains today, despite its very strong Westernization, not a few traditional practices. Indeed, it could be said that Japanese life is experiencing an equally acute state of survival of the most ancient cultural and liturgical practices alongside acute Westernization. Feudal or popular, such practices are very numerous and widespread. We will therefore limit ourselves to pointing out the most important, including divination, which survives in all strata of the population. Almost all important decisions, especially regarding social life, are taken after consulting the eki-sha (fortune tellers) or after having questioned the tesō (sort of palmistry), the ninsō (a sort of physiognomy) and above all real astrology, by means of a kind of magnetic compass or a chart of the skies, in which the twelve animals indicating the months are represented. Another widespread divination practice is that of the oracle, o-mikuji. The answer is obtained by choosing a wooden stick bearing a number that corresponds to certain symbolic images. This oracle was mainly used for the choice of land, the location and orientation of the house to be built. Many Japanese private celebrations, which are still preserved, come, in fact, from the ancient religious and superstitious practices concerning the oriented construction of houses: the Mune-age, a festival that was practiced at the time of the laying of the roof ridge and which consisted of a meeting around the fire for the duration of the night, survives as the inauguration party of a new residence. The surface of the house was traditionally calculated starting from the tatami (mat of about 185 cm by 95 cm) and overall did not exceed the measure of six, eight or ten tatamis.This practice, combined with some others, still serves as a symbolic support to the cha-no-yu, the tea ceremony, which takes place in the main room of the house.

The tea ceremony, rich in symbolism, the custom of which dates back to the century. XV and whose rules were established a century later by Rikyū, tea master of General Toyotomi Hideyoshi, is practiced regularly by the Japanese and has great ritual and social importance: after the ablutions, one enters the tea room through a narrow door, kneeling or hunched over. The room is bare except for a niche in which a kakemono is exhibited (painting or calligraphy); on the ground are the traditional objects that are used for the ceremony. The tea is placed in the bottom of the cup, boiling water is poured and everything is stirred with a kind of whisk or bamboo spatula; when the foam appears, the cup is offered to the guest of honor who, after drinking, passes it to the others successively (the last one has to empty the cup). After which the guest passes the utensils from hand to hand to be admired. It can be said that the main symbolic practices of the Japanese are linked to housing, as a place from which life is “oriented”. The other well known practice also in the West, ikebana (living flowers), that is the art of arranging flowers and branches, is closely connected to the symbolisms of the house and its garden. Taught by various schools, especially by the Ikenobo school of the Rokkakudo temple in Kyōto, ikebana consists mainly in arranging a set of flowers, branches, etc. in an ideal triangle. which must be composed of three slender beams of unequal height: the highest symbolizes the sky, the middle man, the lowest the earth. Another school, the Moribana school, teaches the art of three-dimensional composition (to the top and bottom of the Ikenobo school it adds volume, that is, orientation according to the directions of the surrounding space). If these two practices, the tea ceremony and the ikebana, have both an aesthetic and religious character, the same could be said of the symbolism of meals, especially when they have an official character. In fact, Japan is the country par excellence of “good manners”. Everything is rigorously codified and this folkloric-liturgical ensemble of everyday life survives or rather lives by imposing a label on men who, despite being completely westernized, do not renounce their ancient symbolic codes. For example, women, who continue to have a lower status than men, find in Onna Daïgaku (The great knowledge of women) the rules of their state; written by Kaibara Ekken in the sec. XVII, this text can be summarized in 8 points: the 3 great obediences (to parents in youth, to husbands in marriage, to children in old age) and the 5 moral diseases (disobedience, hatred, slander, envy, stupidity). Men, on the other hand, find their rules of life in Bushidō (The way of the warrior), drawn up a century later of the female code.

The practices of folklore survive especially during the anniversaries of marriage and birth. In both cases, the whole ceremonial is rigorously orchestrated; in marriage, the transfer of the bride’s objects to the couple’s future home is of particular importance. In the case of the birth of a child, an important ceremony takes place in the fifth month of pregnancy, when the husband offers his wife the yuwata-obi (maternity belt); this is a survival of the ancient practice of naming the unborn child. The actual party for the birth takes place instead one hundred and twenty days after the birth and is named Tabezome (feast of nourishment). In this case it is a question of a survival linked to the return of the mother to the family community, which took place with a ceremony during which the mother fed her child in public. Today, like yesterday, games (and especially the practice of drawing outdoors) have great importance in education; it should also be noted that two important festivals are dedicated to children, the Jizōbon which coincides with the feast of the dead: Jizō is the patron god of living and dead children and the “cemeteries of unborn children” are dedicated to him, where women who have lost a child remember him and invoke his protection in the afterlife. In addition to games, sports, considered as traditional disciplines and partly derived from Zen teaching, have a strictly national character. Above all, the sumō (ordinary wrestling), practiced by almost obese wrestlers, should be indicated: a circle is drawn on a square ring surmounted by a canopy; the game consists in expelling the opponent from the circle (the sumō is governed by 48 rules, 12 movements and 3 techniques). There are therefore martial arts (for both men and women): kendō (the way of the saber), kyūjutsu (archery), jūdō and its variants: aikido and karate, today well known everywhere. In the twentieth century, however, a fervent passion for football, baseball and other typically Western sports was added to traditional disciplines. Finally, a note should be reserved for the kitchen, much wider and more articulated than in the West. If by now sushi, sashimi and tempura are internationally known and appreciated, the variations in which meat, fish and vegetables are prepared and accompanied by sauces and batters is almost endless. Very popular are restaurants specializing in a single type of cuisine, although there are also shokudo, where to find many types. It is also common practice to cook foods served raw, on a grill, in a pan, etc. by yourself at your table. Characteristic is also the typical traditional Japanese lunch to be consumed outside the home, the bento, characterized by rice, vegetables, meat and fish enclosed in special compartmented containers in which the arrangement of the food follows the same rules of the search for beauty and form. typical of Japanese culture. In drinks, the traditional tea has been replaced by beer, which, like many other spirits, is loved by most Japanese. Also among the spirits, sake is also remembered, obtained from the fermentation of rice and rice yeast, served in its light, sweet or dry variants, and the umeshu, plum liqueur.

Japan Traditions