The Layered Past of Japanese Culture

For most of its history, the island nation of Japan existed in nearly complete isolation, even from its nearest neighbors. Although the first European trade ships arrived in the mid-16th century, the country’s rulers soon imposed a series of ever-tighter restrictions that effectively kept the country in isolation until 1844. This resulted in an unusually distinct culture, one with different art forms and different traditions from any other.

Because it developed with few outside influences, contemporary Japanese culture is more likely to reflect layers from its own distant past than from geographically closer cultures, or cultures it is has much in common with today. For example, even in the midst of this busy, densely populated, and largely urban country, the ancient reverence for nature remains strong. Natures presence is everywhere in art, in large public gardens and the miniaturized bonsai trees, in pursuit of traditional pastimes such as sumi-e, the ink wash painting whose in stylized motifs on everything from tea cups to playing card.

A surprising number of holidays are dedicated to the appreciation of nature. Both the spring and fall equinoxes are public holidays, as is Greenery Day. February though April is blossom viewing season, when families go on excursions and picnic in public parks to enjoy the blossoming plum, peach, and cherry trees. With the fall harvest comes the Moon Viewing Festival, which dates back thousands of years.

A more recent layer of Japanese culture, very much in evidence today, is an intense appreciation of art and the artistic way of doing things. The long period of isolation saw the rise of unique forms of poetry, dance, and other arts. Three forms of theater reached particularly high levels of achievement noh, whose rice-white mask with raised, caterpillar-like eyebrows is now familiar throughout the world bunraku, in which large puppets whose finely articulated faces, hands, and feet are manipulated by three-man teams of master puppeteers and kabuki, a story told through stylized dance and song. Kabuki was not the offspring of court life but of real life. It flourished in red light districts and all manner of society mingled together in the audience. With it came, ukiyo-e, the art of woodblock prints, which often depicted actors, geisha, and other commoners as favorite subjects.

The emphasis on aesthetic achievement and appreciation also found its way into ordinary life. Calligraphy, preparing tea, presenting food, and arranging flowers all became acts of artistic expression as well as day-to-day living. These arts still flourish, and it is not at all unusual for contemporary Japanese to pursue mastery of calligraphy or join a society whose sole function is to participate in a festival hundreds of years old.

To Westerners, the idea of taking lessons to prepare tea within a framework of choreographed gestures, or learning to arrange flowers in harmony with the placement of heaven and earth, may seem baffling. To contemporary Japanese, it is no mystery at all. These flashes of the past are part of the present culture. People still attend kabuki, heckling actors as enthusiastically as their ancestors did, and ukiyo-es bold actors are still visible in the fluid lines and exaggerated characters of today’s manga.

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Author: Uzumaki Naruto

Expert tips before traveling Japan, including reviews of Japanese food and restaurants to help you make your trip as enjoyable and rewarding as possible.

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