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Ethnographic Summary Of Japan Essay, Research Paper

The thousand of years of happy reign be thine:

-Japanese National Anthem

It has been more than 1300 years since they started to call their country Nihon or Nippon, contemporary Japanese way to say Japan (Kodansha 1996: 54-55). After the long history that consists of the periods of seclusion and assimilation, Japan has grown into one of the most developed countries in the world. Many people all over the world nowadays know the country, and use their products in many occasions. However, because of their unique national character and their rapid growth, it is also true that so many stereotypes about Japan and the Japanese exist. In this article of Japanese ethnographic summary, not all, but general present condition of Japan is described in seven separate categories: location, geographic resources, exchange system, subsistence practices, political structures, religion, and kinship structure and other social organizations. This may be a good opportunity for you to know a little bit about recent Japan, rather than Sushi, Samurai and Toyota.


Japan is an island country surrounded by the sea on all sides. It is located across from very east part of Asian continent with the Sea of Japan between, and very west-end part of Pacific Ocean.

Japanese law established the standard location of Japan on the world map to be 139.44 degree east longitude and 35.39 degree north latitude (Kokudo 1999: Electric Document). To be exact, the country lays between 153.59 and 122.55 degree east longitude and between 20.25 and 45.33 degree north latitude (The management and Coordination Agency 2000: Electric Document). To name a few, New York, San Francisco, Seoul, and Paris are situated on the same latitude as Japan.

Geographic Resources

Japan is an island country, but is not a single island: It consists of about 6,800 islands including some inhabited islands (Kodansha 1996: 35).

Besides an island country, Japan can also be described as a mountainous country. Codansha International (1996: 34-41) states 67 percent of Japanese entire land surface is covered by mountains and only 13 percent is plains. From these mountains, so many rivers run all over the nation, curving valleys and gorges, and providing various graphical changes of the land. There are many lakes, too.

Under such conditions, the principal agricultural resources in Japan are grains like rice and wheat, vegetables like potato, Japanese white radish?@(daikon), cabbage, onion, cucumber, tomato, and carrot, and fruits like Japanese orange(mikan), apple, watermelon, and Japanese peer(nashi) (Noma 1993: 17). In addition, so many kinds of animals like mammals, reptiles, fishes, birds and insects can be found in Japan (Noma 1993: 38-39).

Exchange System (Imports and exports)

Although there are such geographic resources mentioned above, because Japan is a very small country with a huge population, a large part of its land that once had been farmland became land for housing. As a result, Japanese people must depend on imported food and other resources like fuel from other countries. Japanese import and export conditions are shown in Table 1 and 2: the research done by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (Kodansha 1996: 116-119). The percentage shows the ratio of imports/exports to the amount of production.

Table 1: Degree of Dependence on Imports

Iron Ore 100%

Nickel 100%

Copper Ore 99.7%

Crude Oil 99.6%

Flour 90.1%

Salt 84.5%

LPG 76.8%

Lumber 75.4%

(MITI White Paper 1993)

Table 2: Degree of Dependence on Exports

Watches & Clocks 85.7%

Vessels 82.9%

Cameras 81.6%

VCRs 72.9%

Machine Tools 50.1%

Automobiles 46.0%

Synthetic Fiber 46.0%

**** ***

(MITI White Paper 1994)

Subsistence Practices

1) Technology

Because Japan is one of the advanced nations like the United States, their technology is quite same as this country?fs. However, because of their tendency to have methodical personalities, their technological devices are often admired to be more elaborate and more exact.

2) Clothing

Although they have their own cultural clothes such as kimono, ?ha one-piece, front-open, wide-sleeved dress which reaches the ankles?h(Hasegawa et al. 1986: 403), in their daily lives they wear western clothes. They wear their traditional clothes like Kimono in the special occasions: New Year?fs day, Coming-of-Age Day, wedding ceremonies, and graduation ceremonies. They also have some casual-traditional clothes like Yukata, made of cotton, which some of them wear as pajamas (Kodansha 1996: 224-227). Yukata is also famous to be worn at summer festival in Japan.

3) Food

Japanese people like to eat various kinds of food from all over the world, from Western food to Asian food to Japanese food. So, there are a bunch of restaurants in each town so that they can always have choices of what to eat for the day. Rice is considered to be typical and traditional diet of Japanese. However, the amount of rice consumption has slightly decreased for these few decades (See Table 3)(Kodansha 1996: 228-229).

Table 3.Table of Food Supply Demand

1960 1980 1993

Rice 314.9 grams 216.3 grams 189.7 grams

(The Ministry of Agriculture 1993)

It is important to understand that this dietary change does not imply that they have come to dislike eating rice, but nowadays they have more options to eat, like breads and noodles. For a further reference, in 2000, I have conducted a small survey about recent Japanese people?fs preference on eating rice or eating bread. Through electronic mail, I asked 35 Japanese residences whether they like to eat either rice or bread at breakfast and dinner, and also to ask this question to people around them. Out of 35, 18 replied with 74 answers from people all over Japan of a wide age range. The result is that in the morning 25 people preferred having bread while 46 people preferred rice (of the 74, three do not eat breakfast). The result for dinner was that 73 people preferred eating rice rather than bread, but only one person, who said he did not like rice. For the possible reason, some say that bread would not make their stomach feel full and would not provide them with enough energy. It?fs simply because, unlike Western culture, some Japanese eat bread not as a part of the meal but as the meal itself. According to my research, therefore, it seems that Japanese still have strong attachment to eating rice.

4) Bedrooms

Traditional Japanese bedrooms have futons that are spread over tatami-matted floor (?gtatami are six by three feet straw mats widely used as flooring in Japan?h {Hasegawa et al. 1996: 968}). Right after they wake up in the morning, futons are put into the closet, and at night they spread out again on the tatami floor. According to Kodansha (1996: 240-241), a survey conducted by a bed manufacturer in 1994 showed results that roughly one out of four people sleeps on a bed. I have also conducted a survey on either bed-sleep or futon-sleep, in 2000, asking the same people I used in the research about rice and bread. The result is that out of 116 people, 74 sleep on beds and 42 on futons. Therefore, it seems that beds are coming into wider use in Japanese culture. ?@?@?@

5) Toilet

There is a traditional toilet style in Japan. Compared with Western style toilet which can be described as sitting style toilet, the Japanese style can be described as a squatting style. It is shaped like a big slipper and they squat over it for excretion. However, because of its convenience and smaller required space, sitting style toilets have replaced most of the squatting style since it was introduced to Japan around 1870 (Kodansha 1996: 240).

Political Structures

Japanese parliament system is called the ?eDiet?f, and there are two houses in it: the House of Representative and the House of Councilor (Kodansha 1996: 102-103, Noma 1993: 1213-1216). According to the data from Nikkei Research (2000: Electric Document), the diet?fs four most supported parties in 1999-2000 are (in order of most to least support) The Liberal Democratic Party, then The Democratic Party of Japan, The Japanese Communist Party, and The Social Democratic Party.

Religion in Modern Japan

According to Kodansha International (1996: 180-191), numerically, most religions that are believed or followed by the Japanese people are Shintoism, Buddhism, and Christianity, respectively. However, many people considered to be Shintoists or Buddhists say that they have no religion, but they belong to it because of their family. Therefore, their faith is often not the reason behind their belonging to a certain religion. In Japan, it is not unusual that people without religious belief use religious places for special occasions such as marriages and funerals, and many religious events are practiced as a social events, without faith. Many people cerebrate Christmas and, after few days, go to shrines to worship at New Year?fs Day, and Santa Claus comes to houses that deify shrines.

Kinship Structure and Their Value on Other Social Organizations

Japanese kinship structure is quite similar to what is understood as kinship structure in the United States. Japanese kinship system is based on bilateral pattern, and a small difference is that both father?fs and mother?fs sides are called by and referred to the same terms without ?gin law?h (Noma 1993: 787). Another striking difference from American categories is that Japanese differentiate the terms for siblings by separating older and younger: ani for older brother, otouto for younger brother, ane for older sister, and imouto for younger sister (Noma 1993: 787).

It is said that Japanese people?fs perception about the unit of social organization basically lies in ie, which originally means a house but, in this way, is used for any groups that bind people together, like families, schools, works, and religions (Kodansha 1996: 146-147, Noma 1993: 787-788). It indicates the Japanese tendency, unlike western culture?fs, to put value on groups rather than on individuals. Because of this, there are two opposite ways to express ?gself?h which Japanese people often differentiate in use: honne and tatemae. Honne is translated as ?greal intention?h, and tatemae as ?genunciated principle?h (Hasegawa 1986: 975,1527). Japanese are sometimes criticized for not expressing their real intention and for having these two standards; however, for them who give their priority to groups, this differentiation is often necessary to maintain order and is often considered not only for their survival in the group, but as thoughtfulness for others.

In my research mentioned earlier in the section of subsistence practices, I also asked people about their perception of honne and tatemae. As the result, out of 40 answers, about two-thirds said ?eI use tatemae but think honne is important?f, then half of the rest said ?eI use both and think it is a right thing to do?f. Whether positively or negatively, most of them think tatemae is important to maintain good relationships with people in their society, especially at workshops where often typical Japanese vertical society is represented. Yet many of the responses were that they did not want to use tatemae if they did not have to.


Everything stated in this summary of Japan is a concise overall view of present Japanese condition and their tendencies. When you read this report, it is very important to understand that things like culture, in general, alter as time goes by and have several aspects depending on the context: besides, there is always exceptions. While keeping it in mind, if you try to understand contemporary Japan and its culture, I predict that the information in this report will help you to take a good step to do it.

Hasegawa, kiyoshi. Momozawa, Tsutomu. Horiuchi, Katsuaki. and

Yamamura, Saburo.

1986 Comprehensive Japanese-English Dictionary. Tokyo.


Kodansha International

1996 Talking about Japan. Tokyo. Kodansha International Ltd. and Translation Services, Inc.

Kokudo Chizu Co. LTD.

1999 Welcome to Mapping World. Electronic Document. http:// www.kokudochizu.co.jp/mapq/geo_coord.htm

Nikkei Research

2000 Report and Data Box. electric Document. http://www. nikkei-r.co.jp/nikkeipoll/seitou.htm

Noma, Sawako

1993 Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Tokyo. Kodansha.

The Management and Coordination Agency

2000 PSI 2000: Statistic Bureau and Statistic Center. Electric

Document. http://www.stat.go.jp/data/psi/3.htm

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