Japan is a nation of complex culture. Ethnically insular at 97.8% Japanese (2018), the nation nevertheless opened to trade with the West fully 100 years before many of its neighbours; holding on to many of its traditions and national religion of Shinto, it is at once highly innovative with a focus on technology – and fantasy. Its capital city, Tokyo, is ultra-modern with 36 million residents, at once sophisticated while continuing to embrace ancient customs.
Historically, Japan has behaved in an aggressively imperialistic manner, never more so than during the first half of the 20th century with an objective of empire-building. For centuries, piracy on nearby states was common – and the nation’s self-awareness as a former empire and the 2nd-largest island nation is woven throughout the culture.
Japan’s national religion of Shinto, to which 55% of the population adheres – up to 80% when forms syncretised with Buddhism and other traditions is counted – integrates a form of ancestor worship with a more general reverence for all of Japan’s ancestors – and all things Japanese. Some have called it nationalism in the form of religion.
Up to 45% of Japanese identify as Buddhist, rather than – or in synchrony with – Shinto. Temples abound, both ancient and modern, and principles of emotional detachment, ethical conduct, and humility, as well as the mindfulness and concentration found in Zen, can often be found in the culture overall.
Folk traditions — minkan denshō, or transmission by the folk – remain important even in modern Japan, a matter of bonding through shared history and custom in this deeply collectivist culture. Many such are clan-related or otherwise connected to a particular group identification.
Traditional art forms, such as the classical dance-drama of kabuki, also continue to define Japanese culture. While in cities such as Tokyo 21st century living customs prevail, throughout the country even today the traditional art forms and customs can be found – and remain an integral aspect of Japanese identity.
Modern art is also long celebrated in Japan, including international forms and exhibitions as well as domestic. Throughout the centuries, art has been very highly valued in Japanese culture, a value which continues to this day – often extending to the whimsical and fantastical.
Amid all the uniquely Japanese customs and traditions still celebrated today, the culture is very much a blend of old and new, east and west – as seen in this very modern outdoor Happy Hour atmosphere in downtown Tokyo.
The status of women remains measurably lower in Japan than in other OECD nations, at only 64.6% employment rate and 13.4% in Parliament. Legally given the right to vote in 1947 and officially recognised as having rights equal to that of men – the social reality is far different even today.
An ongoing women’s issue of Japan is that of sexual abuse and enslavement during early 20th century wartime occupations throughout Asia as well as in Japan itself. The so-called “comfort women” issue is a highly controversial one; results of an International War Crimes Tribunal on this issue, held in Japan in 2000, found strongly against the nation – yet the issue itself remains unresolved.
Japan is one of the most rapidly aging populations in the world today; a long-plunging birth rate, coupled with one of the highest longevity rates, means that more than 1/3 of the population is currently over age 60 – soon to reach 1/3 over age 65. A concern regarding workforce, the nation is strategising ways to handle this unprecedented circumstance.