“I’ve had that kind of experience myself: I’m looking at a map and I see someplace that makes me think, ‘I absolutely have to go to this place, no matter what’. And most of the time, for some reason, the place is far away and hard to get to. I feel this overwhelming desire to know what kind of scenery the place has, or what people are doing there. It’s like measles - you can’t show other people exactly where the passion comes from. It’s curiosity in the purest sense. An inexplicable inspiration.”
― Haruki Murakami, 1Q84
“If there’s something I can’t do but want to, I won’t relax until I’m able to do it.”
― Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
I had the privilege of spending some time in Japan. From the first moment I arrived, I became more and more curious about this country. The more I’ve learnt about the Japanese culture and worldview, the more I long back.
“Now all you can do is wait. It must be hard for you, but there is a right time for everything. Like the ebb and flow of tides. No one can do anything to change them. When it is time to wait, you must wait.”
― Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Japan definitely has become a unique place for me. First of all, I realized that I am not alone with some of my “strange habits” and that made me think.
“Why do I act like this, agreeing when I really disagree, letting people force me to do things I don't want to do?”
― Haruki Murakami, The Strange Library
“There are lots of things we never understand, no matter how many years we put on, no matter how much experience we accumulate.”
― Haruki Murakami, The Elephant Vanishes
I started to collect some valuable thoughts\lessons to be learned from Japanese culture and things that I miss since I left.
“You have to make an effort to always look at the good side, always think about the good things. Then you've got nothing to be afraid of. If something bad comes up, you do more thinking at that point.”
― Haruki Murakami, The Elephant Vanishes
There’s always more than meets the eye and there’s a whole new world behind the first glance facade. Japanese are not extrovert, but that does not mean that these people are not interesting, the only thing is they are a bit more difficult to approach.
Accept and promote tolerance of different personalities. Give respect by showing interest in someone. Sharing your knowledge always appreciated, in the end you will get something in return. Giving others the chance to express their opinions without someone immediately challenging them allows others to open up, and us to listen.
Japanese also value silence, pauses in conversations are not awkward and meant to be appreciated.
It is unusual to directly criticize someone in social situations. If it is necessary to deliver negative feedback it goes in roundabout ways, but it should never cause anyone to “lose face” in Asia.
Their words are almost always genuine. Commitment is important and means honor. Last minute notices or no-shows are not tolerated. When they say they will be there, they will really be there. They respect each other’s time, so everything and everybody is on time.
“Ichi-go ichi-e” means each moment is always once-in-a-lifetime. That describes a cultural concept of treasuring meetings with people, because many of them in life are not repeated. Today’s social tea time never come back again. You cannot have the same time with this person again. Grab the opportunity right away and talk to every people with the best intentions and take away the best memories you can.
Respect and good manners are totally ingrained in their culture. Bowing down is the sign of showing respect, greeting someone, saying thank you or asking for an apology. I think if you pick it up, difficult to give up.
They are actively showing respect and politeness in every interaction with everyone. Always making it to the point of saying “thank you”, even for the simplest things.
Consideration towards other people. Talking loudly is avoided. It’s considered rude to talk on the phone on a train or in a cafe. Text messages are used as opposed to voice, but if it is necessary, it’s common to go outside to talk. Japanese people will always wait in line, even if they are in a hurry. They respect rules, whether where they are.
These things really makes a difference in how appreciated you feel. It is very energizing to experience a culture where people are so conscious of how their actions and words could affect their environment.
Whatever they do, they do their best with dignity and excellence. It doesn’t matter what it is, it matters that commit to it. Everyone is expected to make everything through until the end. Effort and pushing oneself has a great respect.
Complaining is wildly unpopular. Some things are out of your control and can’t be helped, don't worry about them, the best is to focus efforts on things that can be changed.
2. Food and Tea
Be positive, calm and eat well. Japanese women have the highest life expectancy, while men are in the top ten. They love to eat and they take great pride in the quality and purity of their food. Good, local and seasonal food, no matter what. Japan is extremely tuned into the country's four seasons with dishes changing with the weather and availability of fresh ingredients. Finishing everything on your plate is a sign of respect for the food but also shows appreciation for the person who prepared it. Only order as much as you can actually eat. Last but not least, they eat small portions and they always make time for tea what is also a factor providing a particular advantage when it comes to longevity.
Tea is an important part of Japanese food culture. The most commonly drunk beverage, so you are never far from a reasonably good one.
3. Customer service
is polite and diligent. It seems like a purpose into itself. Service culture is unique and includes dozens of charming traditions. Japan has no tradition of tipping, it’s kind a duty to be provide a high standard of customer service.
Punctuality. Extremely good network of public transport, especially a train paradise. The best way to travel through the country.
Cars are a hobby, something you only drive on weekends.
Bicycle is an essential form of everyday transport used by millions of people of all age groups and social standings.
Consequently, there is very low crime rate in Japan as they respect very much the property of others. There is no “finders keepers” rule and the police is literally bored.
Passionate about it and it is kinda cultural issue what makes this country a pleasant place to be. The cities are spotless. You can’t see any garbage, but you can’t see many public trash cans on the streets either. People are taking responsibility for their own mess. The etiquette is to bring all your rubbish home with you. You may, of course, use any public bins you come across or ask a shop owner if you want to use of their bin.
The practice starts as early as childhood. Japanese schools are helping children to become conscientious citizens. They are teaching the students cleaning their entire school after themselves. The idea is the following: if they are personally required to take care of their surroundings, they will waste less and treat their environment with more respect.
Each area has its own waste management system. Citizens must separate their trash correctly, otherwise it can be rejected for collection.
Kamikatsu aims to be the world’s first “zero-waste town” by 2020, where people have to separate waste into 34 categories.
“Mottainai” meaning roughly “what a waste!”. Not wasting things is reflected on a daily basis in many ways. Respect food, resources, opportunities and even time. Use them with a sense of gratitude. Taking care of possessions is part of their culture. It is natural to create practical solutions to avoid waste and overconsumption. Earth’s resources are limited and they are always searching for new and creative ways to respect, reduce, recycle and reuse.
7. Art and Design principles
aesthetic norms on what is considered tasteful or beautiful. Japanese aesthetics: a variety of traditional and modern ideals sometimes influenced by other cultures. Many of them teach people to appreciate things in a different way. The most essential of them what are seen an integral part of daily life.
Wabi-sabi (侘寂) - random imperfection - the form of beauty that overcomes the dichotomy of positive and negative. The natural and inevitable cycle of growth and decay. Japanese philosophy understands the basic reality as constant change. Nothing is permanent or complete or perfect. Things are born, live and die. Accepting things as they are and knowing there will be imperfections over time. Unavoidable circle of life forms a strong cornerstone in the Japanese aesthetic philosophy and seen in everything. They don’t carry the illusion of timelessness. Things are more attractive because they don’t last, everything is temporary - both happy times and sad times (Mono no aware (物の哀れ)
This is a call to vital activity in the present moment and to gratitude for another moment's being granted to us. They aware of that imperfection makes life interesting and that less can be more. Only perfect when it is imperfect and that’s life.
Japan is a country where simplicity and complexity blend, where complexity needs simplicity. People need a way to escape complicated cultural traditions and social life in pursuit of a simple and beautiful aesthetic.
Japanese design seems to be saturated with natural elements, simplicity and elegance derived from Taoism and Zen Buddhism.
Kanso (簡素) means simplicity, elimination of non-essential elements. Things are expressed in a plain, natural manner with the achievement of maximum effect.
Shibui / Shibumi (渋味) - direct and simple way. Something cool, elegant but beautifully minimalist. Refrain from adding what is not absolutely necessary in the first place. Simple, subtle and unobtrusive - things are more beautiful when they speak for themselves.
Yugen (幽玄) Subtlety. Showing more by showing less, just enough to pique curiosity and leave something to the imagination. Mysterious.
Ensō (円相) is represented by a form of minimalism common in Japanese design and aesthetics. The empty circle symbolizes absolute enlightenment.
Miyabi (雅) - elegance refinement and courtliness. It is also about the elimination of anything vulgar or unsightly.
Shizen (自然) - naturalness with purpose and intention.
Geidō (藝道) This concept is embodied in the discipline, ethics and systematised approach to apprenticeship embodied in many Japanese traditional arts. Just think about the Japanese obsession with quality and high standards to see this in practice.
Iki (粋) is about simplicity and temporality, it also encapsulates qualities like originality, uniqueness and spontaneity. These tend to be more audacious and less self conscious while still remaining measured and controlled.
Kintsugi (金 継ぎ) Japanese values the marks on objects left by ageing. They believe that everything has its story and we should work hard to preserve it instead of removing it. In Japanese mending, when something is broken (usually ceramic wares), you repair it but do not repair it to its original. Aging can be beautiful.
Fukinsei (不均整) Asymmetry or irregularity. Symbolizing the imperfection that is part of existence.
Seijaku (静寂) Stillness, tranquility. Doing something isn’t always better than doing nothing.
Kawaii (かわいい) this is probably the most well understood aesthetic element of Japanese art, culture and design. Meaning lovable, cute or adorable. It is found almost everywhere in modern Japan and an integral part of Japanese society.
characterized by originality and refined uniqueness. Some are statements of individuality while others are symbols of tradition. The most well known form of Japanese traditional fashion is the kimono, "something to wear". Until years ago, all textiles were manufactured on the island, and were handed down through generations. Worn and remade, not a scrap went to waste. That it is odd for most people to think about “eco fashion”, because their conscious fashion has always been eco, and the change has gone unnoticed. After all, change is par for the course in Japan.
When they are not in uniform, clothing became more self-expressive. Passionate about details, mixing and matching colors, patterns and materials. Japanese fashion has also a reputation for being radical, boundary-pushing, and extreme.
Japanese architecture is one of the most amazing manifestations of Japanese civilization. Always seeking instructions from nature. Buildings were mostly made of wood, occasionally without using a single nail. Architecture evolved along unique lines that reflected religious and aesthetic ideas as well as practical concerns such as weather and earthquakes.
Personal space is a highly valued luxury. The Japanese have an incredible ability to establish their own personal space in the most crowded of conditions. Enjoy a little quiet time in their own little bubble of privacy. This is an essential survival skill in the dense urban jungles of Japanese cities.
As they work hard, they rarely at home, except to sleep. Their traditional homes tend to be small and situated close to each other. No matter the size or location, it ensure privacy, natural lights and contact with the outdoors. Japanese residential design contains many practical things which are unfamiliar for western eyes:
- tatami floors cool in summer, hot in winter
- futon mattress where they sleep on. Futon is good for body and mind as they say “soft bed makes your body soft”. Folded and stored in closets during the day.
- no need of chairs as they sit directly on the floor. Proper sitting: Seiza.
- low table for breakfast and dinner, and then it is moved aside to make way for futons that are rolled out for sleeping
- toilets are addictive. Clean, heated with tons of function.
design avoids artificial ornamentation, highlight the basic natural elements with simple, clean lines to create a tranquil retreat. Gardens are accompanied by Japanese aesthetic and philosophical ideas, express the breakability of existence as well as time's unstoppable advance. A minimalist natural setting designed to inspire reflection and meditation. The most fascinating are the Zen gardens: carefully composed “dry landscape” which are a sacred realm for Zen monks to perform their daily practice.
Zen is not a religion, but a branch of Buddhism, a mode of thinking or a school of thought. The main activity of being a "Zen" is to study oneself and regain one's "original nature". Our "Buddha nature" which we tend to forget as we age and as we become attached to things and experiences we have encountered. This rediscovering means to see things with a totally open mind which is ready to accept and to doubt. A mind that isn't crippled by ego, desires, prejudice or selfish obsession. Otherwise, our life will always be affected by our preconceived ideas and never-stopping mind. We don't fully see anything as it is but receive everything just as an echo of ourselves.
Rock gardens were intended to serve as a place for meditation for Zen monks. They contemplate upon nature and search for the utmost freedom of the mind. So the purpose behind isn't to create something aesthetically appealing, but to train their own thought, an implicit form of moving meditation.
12. Temples and Shrines
Despite being the frontrunners of technology, traditions and religion still influence the daily life of the Japanese. Businessmen pay their respects at the shrines while students buy good-luck charms and fortunes foretelling the future.
Shinto and Buddhism are Japan's two major religions. Shinto is the indigenous faith with the most followers. An optimistic faith where humans are considered fundamentally good. There is no absolute right and wrong, and nobody is perfect. It is deeply rooted in the Japanese people and traditions, although religion does not play a big role in everyday life.
Visiting Japanese temples and shrines are always a good idea to. If they don’t impress you, they’ll likely relax you.
“Maybe in a few years I'll be able to explain things better, but after a few years it probably won't matter anymore, will it?”
- Haruki Murakami, The Elephant Vanishes