Customs and Culture
Geography and Economic Areas
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 a quarter (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), which is why most foreign businesses usually choose Tokyo as the point of departure for their Japan activities. That being said, the neighboring cities of Chiba, Yokohama or Saitama are also very close to the economic center of Japan, and can offer interesting subsidies and incentives.
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 private schools to improve their chances of passing the very demanding university entrance tests. Numerous students also go to cram schools (“juku”) to prepare for the examination.
The universities offer a four year bachelor course followed by a two year master’s or doctor’s degree. The most renowned public universities are the University of Tokyo and the University of Kyoto, whereas the best private ones are Keio University and Waseda University. Their graduates have good career chances in public service and big companies.
Japan is a secular society where personal religious beliefs are strictly guaranteed and respected. Although religion as such does not play a big role in the daily lives of most Japanese people, a certain number of customs and superstitions have been inherited from the country’s two main religions: Shintoism and Buddhism.
Shintoism (practiced at shrines) is a Japanese indigenous belief in the deities and spirits present in nature, and represents a view of the world in the here and now. Buddhism (practiced at temples), the Mahayana branch of which was imported to Japan in the 6th Century AC, rather answers the questions concerning the afterlife. The vast majority of Japanese people usually practice rites from both religions according to circumstances (e.g. weddings, funerals, celebrations), but few actually identify or consider themselves as actives followers.
Other religions are also present in Japan, but remain marginal. Christians make up about 2 percent of the population, whereas Islam is practiced only by a small number of individuals.
Language and Writing
On the one hand, spoken Japanese is fairly easy to learn for motivated Westerners. There are no unfamiliar sounds, no plural, article and gender. The grammar and closely related to Korean, and many words are derived from Chinese. Japanese language also reflects one’s position in a social hierarchy.
On the other hand, writing and reading Japanese fluently is more difficult to achieve. The mastering of about 2,000 Japanese characters (“kanji”) and two alphabets (“hiragana” for grammar and particles; “katakana” for loanwords) is usually needed to reach Japanese business proficiency.
Holidays and Traditions
New Year (“O-Shо̄gatsu”) in Japan can be compared to Christmas celebrations 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 past year and to express their wishes for the new one.
In early April, cherry and plum blossom viewing (“O-Hanami”) is also very popular, and marks the beginning of the new business year. Coworkers and friends often gather under the trees in full bloom to share food and drinks.
Around mid-August, many return to their hometown to celebrate the O-Bon Festival, an annual Buddhist holiday which commemorates and remembers deceased ancestors.