Content - Customs and Culture

Customs and Culture

Japan is a little bigger than Germany and consists of four main islands (Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku) and another 6,852 smaller islands.

Most of the country is mountainous, hilly and forested wit 36 active volcanoes. Japan lies on the faultlines of the world’s most active seismic area.

Most of the population lives on one quarter of the land area in cities. Out of about 127 million inhabitants, approximately 35 million live in the greater metropolitan area of Tokyo which includes Japan’s second largest city Yokohama, the city of Kawasaki and the prefectures of Saitama and Chiba. The biggest other cities are Osaka (2,6 million), Nagoya (2,2 million) and Sapporo (1,9 million).

The Kanto region alone produces 40 percent of Japanese economic strength, a figure comparable to the GDP of Italy. So there are many good reasons why most foreign businesses choose Tokyo as the point of departure for their Japan activities. But if you go to Chiba, Yokohama or Saitama, you can expect even subsidies and are still close to the economic center of Japan.


Like in all countries with a Confucian tradition, education is highly valued in Japan. Compulsory schooling lasts for nine years (elementary school six years plus middle school three years). Hence, the whole population is literate. 

The education system is very competitive. From middle school many children attend a private school to improve their chances of passing the very demanding university entrance tests. Many students go to cram schools called Juku to prepare for the tests. 

The universities offer a four year bachelor course followed by a two year master’s or doctor’s degree. The best public universities are the University of Tokyo and the University of Kyoto, the best private ones Keio and Waseda University. Their graduates have good career chances in public service and big companies. 


Japan is a very secular society where personal religious beliefs are highly respected. Shintoism (practiced at shrines) is a kind of nature religion and represents a view of the world in the here and now. Buddhism (practiced at temples) rather answers the questions concerning the Afterlife. Christians only make up about 2 percent of the population. Islam is practiced only by a small number of individuals.

Language and Writing

For a Westerner, oral Japanese is fairly easy to learn. There are no unfamiliar sounds, no plural, article and gender. The grammar is closely related to Korean. Many words are derived from Chinese. The language also reflects your own social position. The problem for foreigners is writing and reading because it requires the knowledge of about 2,000 kanji and the two alphabets hiragana (used for Japanese words) and katakana (for foreign words). 


New Year (o-shogatsu) can be compared to Christmas in Europe. It is traditionally spent with one’s family. People also visit a temple on New Year’s Day to give thanks for the old year and to express their wishes for the new. 

Hanami is the spring custom of viewing cherry and plum blossoms while they are in full bloom. For Japanese, the cherry blossom is the ideal of beauty and transience.

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