A Geek in Japan
A summary of Hector Garcia's book. I can't verify the accuracy of the information itself, these are simply notes, paraphrased or verbatim, from the book published in 2008.
The Japanese state formed in 800 AD, the first capital being Nara. The emperor — a symbolic head of state with no decision-making power — soon moved his court to Kyoto. Regional clans struggled for power over the city-state until eventually the Minamoto clan became shogun, the supreme military ruler of all Japan. In 1600 the Tokugawa clan overthrew the Minamoto clan and moved the capital to Edo, present-day Tokyo. The Tokugawa ruled 1603-1868, aka the Edo Period.
Edo Period 1600 to 1867, was the period of isolation and fertile for the creation of indigenous Japanese traditions, such as kabuki, geisha and ukiyo-e.
The yakuza (Japanese mafia) formed during the Edo Period, when many samurai were expelled by their feudal lord who no longer needed them.
The Japanese constitution, created under American supervision after WWII, has a version written in Romaji, because the Americans didn’t trust Japanese symbols, and wanted a version that they could at least read, even if they couldn’t understand it.
The Japanese writing system includes three character systems: kanji (Chinese ideograms), hiragana (Japanese phonetic alphabet), and katakana (like hiragana, but used for foreign or loan words).
A great book to start learning kanji is Kanji de Manga by Glenn Kardi and Chihiro Hattori.
Their writing system makes Japanese people think differently to English speakers, working more on the basis of images.
Shintoism is a Japanese polytheistic religion that has thoroughly permeated the society. It concentrates on seeking happiness in this life. It is not dogmatic and there is no leader or founder. It is a collection of methods and rituals, a philosophy or a way of life.
In Shintoism, nature is sacred, and we when we are with nature, we draw closer to the gods. Things that belong to you are believed to carry part of your spirit – hence why gift giving is so important, why secondhand items are not popular, and why stealing is almost non-existent.
Shinto shrines are generally austere, while Buddhist temples are much more ornate, colourful and full of decorations. Temizuya are purification fountains found in both, where you must purify yourself before entering by pouring water over both hands and rinsing your mouth.
Pagodas in Japanese Buddhist temples usually have three or five stories, each representing an element: earth, water, fire, air and void. (Void is very important in Buddhism.)
The suffix ど (do) means ‘way’, and is adapted to many traditional disciplines:
- Bushido = way of the warrior
- Chado = way of tea (tea ceremony)
- Shodo = way of writing (japanese calligraphy)
- Kado = way of flowers (flower arrangement; also ikebana)
- Judo = way of flexibility
- Aikido = way of energy
Mastery of any “do” discipline requires a three-stage apprenticeship:
- Establishing the kata i.e the elements of practice; patterns, models, forms.
- Repeating the kata for many years.
- Perfecting and searching for beauty in the kata, joining them and reaching intuition – a no-mind, no-spirit state.
The tea ceremony is incredibly precise: angle of which objects are placed, the position and movement of hands, quantity of tea. These details vary depending on the season, type of ceremony and tea.
Authentic geishas are considered artists, performing dances and playing the shamisen. It requires a five year apprenticeship. They usually perform in private for men to entertain, chat, drink, and free them from the daily travails of life. Prostitute (or onsen) geisha now exist but are not in the spirit of traditional geisha. Geisha and maiko (apprentices) live in okiya houses and leave to work in a ryotei or ochaya. The Gion district in Kyoto is the heart of geisha, with nine working okiya, including the infamous Ichiriki Ochaya.
The Japanese Mindset
In general, Japanese people are not so open-minded, but are polite and methodical – they always follow the set path — the kata they have learned in school or training. This trickles down to all parts of society. For example, a salesclerk in Tokyo will use the exact same words and order of actions to serve you as any other salesclerk, anywhere else in the country will.
The samurai code – bushido – is rooted in Zen Buddhism (calm patience), and Confucianism (loyalty, justice, honour, and respect for superiors). Bushido principles permeate the Japanese mindset even today.
Martial arts practice is about the pursuit of perfection, spiritual peace, honing of mind and technique, and the relationship between teacher and disciple. The goal is self-improvement, fulfillment and personal growth. Japanese work-life is heavily influenced by these principles.
Women’s social status is relatively low compared with other developed nations. This is partially due to heavy Confucian influence – “women in home, men outside”. The kanji for the word wife is also telling: 家内 (house-inside) or 妻 (broom-woman).
One in ten marriages are pre-arranged omiai.
If the father of a family can’t afford the cost of his child’s wedding, he may commit suicide so they receive the life insurance money.
Many Japanese people wore face-masks before covid because of pollen allergies (mostly cedar), particularly in spring during blossom season.
Many Japanese people believe that blood type influences personality. Horoscope sections based on blood type are common in magazines. Expect to be asked your blood type in unexpected situations.
Japan is railway-obsessed. One line in Tokyo (Yamanote) transports equal # of people as all of NYC Subway daily. The average delay for bullet trains over past twenty years was 18 seconds 🤯
Important social concepts
Amae describes the way we act when we wish to have a dependant/submissive kind of love or attention. This is common behaviour, i.e. older women acting like girls, or a wife helping her husband to bed.
Giri is like a interpersonal karma – the balance of obligation/debt/duty between people. This debt can be financial, but is usually in terms of gifts, favours, or services. It’s important to maintain a giri balance between parties, and imbalances are often resolved via gifts.
Tatemae vs Honne. It’s important to know when to use tatemae vs honne. Honne are the true opinions of an individual. Tatemae is what one says to preserve harmony and avoid conflict. These behavioural modes are most distinct in the workplace, where all employees — even lifelong friends — interact with extreme politeness and formality. The most common way to go from tatemae to honne is alcohol. After work, co-workers will go drinking together (nomikai). Once inside the bar, you are officially drunk – it doesn’t matter what you drink. In this setting, Japanese people will openly complain about work, even pick on the boss to their face. What is said during a nomikai is never talked about the following day.
Soto vs uchi. It is very difficult to enter the inner-circle of a Japanese group. As a gaijin (foreigner) you will be treated differently, usually better, but it can take many years to overcome the barrier from soto (outsider) to uchi (insider).
Japanese people spend an average of 30 minutes per day in an ofuro, usually just before bed.
Traditional Japanese sunken hearths – irori – were used for cooking and also heating the house.
The daily life of a family is determined by the father’s level of work addition.
Economy and business
It took twenty years (with help from the US) for Japan to go from bankruptcy to the second-largest economy after WWII. 90% of Tokyo was destroyed in the war.
There are eight main business networks / super-conglomerates – keiretsu – in Japan: Sumitomo, Fuyo, Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Dai-ichi Kangyo, Sanwa, Toyota Group, IBJ.
There are more tech companies in Tokyo than in Silicon Valley, and more Fortune 500 companies than any other city globally.
Only 15% of Japan’s land is suited to farming yet they still grow more rice than needed for domestic demand, exporting it overseas.
The Invisible Hand works in reverse in Japan: they give all they can to serve society, and through this, receive personal satisfaction and objectives.
The only way to climb the corporate ladder is time at the company. There is no risk of being surpassed by some super-clever rookie. If you change companies you start at the bottom again. People rarely change jobs.
The Japanese way of business is slow but safe. Extremely bureaucratic. There must be unanimous agreement from every affected worker at every level before any change is enacted, even tiny things like whether to change font size in a document. The main objective is to preserve harmony and avoid mistakes, as companies are like a second family and people rarely change employers. It might take two months for a proposal to move through the ranks, let alone be implemented.
Workers have a great deal of respect for their companies, with a strong sense of duty and responsibility in the success of the business, no matter what level of employment.
Art and aesthetics
Iki and wabi-sabi constitute the basis of Japanese aesthetics. Iki means original, calm, refined, elegant – but not flamboyant or ostentatious. Wabi-sabi represents imperfection and incompletion, emphasising natural impermanence and flow. Together, these aesthetic principles produce a similar state of mind of melacholy and harmony with the environment.
Ukiyo-e influenced western artists in the late 19th century, including van Gogh (see The Courtesan and Flowering Plum), Monet, Gaugin and others. The asymmetry, departure from perspective, and simplicity, were unique for the time. The style as adopted by western artists is called Japonism.
Japanese rock (dry) gardens – karesansui – are about simplicity and harmony, designed to relax and calm the mind. Zen emphasises the void, nothingness. So what makes a dry garden so special is the space between the rocks.
Genji Monogatari is a classic Japanese story equivalent to Homer’s Odyssey.
Food and drink
Many restaurants serve only one dish they specialise in … sushi served in a place that only serves sushi must be better than somewhere many other dishes are served.
Outside of Japan, sake means the clear rice-based alcoholic spirit. In Japan, sake means any alcoholic drink. Nihonshu is the local name for the rice-alcohol; there is also shochu. Pick your temperature of nihonshu: atsukan (50d), nurukan (40d), or hiya (cold).
Media and pop culture
All forms of media are tightly interwoven in Japan – movies, manga, anime, music, and television all blend and cross pollinate each other.
To give an idea of the popularity of manga – in 1996, the manga magazine Shonen Jump, sold 6 million copies in one week, more than all comic book sales in the United States for a whole year. Manga sales make up 30-40% of all book and magazine sales and are read everywhere from trains to manga cafes. Sales have fallen since the 1990s, with the advent of the Internet and mobile.
Hokusai invented the term manga in 1814, its original meaning somthing like “rambling and whimsical sketches”. But modern manga was born by Osamu Tezuka (inventor of Astro Boy) whose legacy includes 60 animated movies and 150,000 manga pages – an average of 10 pages per day.
An otaku is Japan's equivalent of a stan; an obsessive hobbyist or fan, for example you might be a Ghibli otaku or a manga otaku.
Robots in Japanese culture are usually portrayed in a positive light (Doraemon, Astro Boy). This is rooted in the traditional craft of karakuri (mechanised automata). There is only one remaining karakuri master left: Shobei Tamaya IX, who is from an unbroken lineage. He is based in Nagoya.
The more PG and geeky version of a hostess bar is a maid cafe, which originated and is most common in Akihabara. Also many cosplay clubs here.
Quote from the president of Ghibli studio: “Hayao Miyazaki takes care of creating movies that will make both children and adults dream. I take care of getting those movies to make money.”
A crash course in Japanese cinema: the classics are Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Godzilla, Tokyo Story, Zatoichi. Modern favourites include Departures, Norwegian Wood, Spirited Away, Howls Moving Castle, and Akira.
A dorama is a television series of any genre, be it romance, comedy, or other.
Foxes are prolific in Japanese folklore and the more tails, the more powerful it is, the highest possible being nine.
The tanuki and mambo fish are two iconic Japanese animal figures.
In the Edo Period, married women were made to dye their teeth black. Partly why women cover still their mouth when they laugh.
Having big ears is a symbol of good luck and money (Buddha-like).
If you see a Japanese man today with his little finger amputated, he is likely to have belonged to a yakuza gang.
(I'm sure some of this is outdated now.)
Visit Shinbashi, Marunouchi, Roppongi, Shinjuku to see the salarymen gather after work.
The visual kei or Japanese rock movement followers tend to hang out on the bridge over the railroad tracks at Harajuku station on weekends at noon. Around the same time at this station is the Comiket – the worlds largest manga trade fair.
Rappongi: Heartland bar is one of the most famous bars in Tokyo. Some artsy stuff and along with tokyo midtown, is a recently developed futuristic microcity. National Art Centre. Hinokicho Park.
Odaiba: Island full of futuristic buildings in Tokyo Bay.
Yokohama: Chinatown and the harbour.
If given a business card – meishi – do not fold it, do not put it in your rear pocket, and do not write on it. Take it with both hands and bow. Japanese people place great importance on the contacts they make and value these cards.
When saying no, Japanese people might use the more gentle chotto (lit. a little bit) instead of a direct no (iie). This can be confusing if you're not ready for it. They may also avoid directly saying no to you to avoid conflict, so take non-verbal cues.
The number 4 is often avoided (i.e. in elevators) because in Japanese, the number (四 - shi) is pronounced the same as the word for death (死 - shi).