The climate of Japan is roughly comparable to that of the east coast of the United States.
Edwin Reischauer, in his book THE JAPANESE PEOPLE, illustrated the Japanese climate by superimposing the Japanese islands on a map of the east coast of North America, matching latitudes in the two places. A look at the results shows the bulk of metropolitan Japan at the level of North Carolina. The similarities in climate along the length of the two countries superimposed are marked. A difference is that Japan has less severe heat in summer and less severe cold in winter than comparable latitudes on our east coast. Autumn and winter are the driest seasons of the year with abundant sunlight during the day and refreshing cool temperatures at night.
While the Japanese ways may seem foreign to you, remember that in reality, we Americans are foreigners in this country. As Americans in Japan, we are not expected to act exactly as the Japanese, but we are expected to respect their customs and practices. It is neither necessary nor appropriate to emulate each custom and mannerism of our hosts. For example, an overemphasis on bowing by an American could be construed as a mockery, which would be far worse than no bow at all. A general rule to follow is to practice good manners and etiquette as we would in an American setting and to couple these with a touch of modesty.
Following are customs which Americans are expected to observe among the Japanese:
Saluting and Bowing: In Japan, saluting and bowing are common and highly respected practices within both military and civilian sectors. Japanese military personnel render the hand salute on all occasions when greeting another military service member or counterpart, regardless of rank. It is appropriate for U.S. military members to greet their Japanese military counterparts of all ranks with a proper military hand salute. As in the U.S. Army, saluting is usually restricted to outdoors.
Bowing within the military ranks is commonly practiced in addition to the hand salute as a means of extending courtesy and respect. As Americans, we are not expected to bow as deeply from the waist as would a Japanese, but bowing is highly recommended as a gesture of goodwill and respect. Bowing is appropriate both indoors and outdoors.
Reciprocating Social Invitations: In Japan, the feeling of obligation to return the favor of one social occasion with another is very strong. It should be understood to refuse reciprocation from the Japanese without a good reason could be misunderstood and construed by them as offensive. A social event to reciprocate after an event hosted by a Japanese should be timely and in proportion to the event for which reciprocation is intended.
Gift Giving and Receiving: Giving and receiving gifts is a traditional year-round custom in Japan. There are special seasons when gift giving is practiced more than others, but the Japanese are prone to gift giving and delight in this practice any time an occasion presents itself, from informal visits to one's homes to more formal affairs such as weddings, birthdays and welcome and sayonara parties. Gifts range in price and simplicity according to one's economic status. If a gift is accepted from a Japanese, reciprocation in kind is in order. There are circumstances under which regulations prevent USARJ members from receiving gifts from the Japanese. Since gift giving is an established and treasured Japanese tradition, acceptance or non-acceptance of a gift can be a very sensitive issue. To refuse under normal circumstances may be construed by the Japanese as offensive. It is suggested that you contact your legal assistance office or USFJ Instruction 90-103 to provide guidance in accepting or politely refusing a gift of more than nominal value.
Formal Receptions: The Japanese system of formal receptions is well organized and highly orchestrated. Timing is the single most important element due mainly to the high cost of renting banquet rooms and supporting staff. All functions involving the host nation of Japan are expected to start and stop with military precision at appointed times. Even social affairs are viewed with seriousness among the Japanese. Appropriate dress, deportment and decorum are expected. The guest of honor at any function participates in the program by giving a short, but meaningful speech and raising a toast.
Spouse/Family Member Participation in Business Events: Involvement of a spouse or family member in a business meeting or business-related social activity is not usually practiced. When spouses are present, the majority of discussion is left to the principals of the occasion.
Seniority: In Japan, age and seniority are highly respected at all levels of the society. Nowhere is this more evident than in the close-knit Japanese family where there is solidarity among members and elders are consistently shown the greatest respect. To befriend a Japanese is to be accepted by the entire family, but to offend one family member will result in rejection by all. USARJ members are strongly encouraged to respect the importance of seniority and age in the Japanese culture and to act with the same good manners and considerations their Japanese counterparts display toward senior citizens.
Letter of Congratulations: It is customary and highly recommended that Americans make courtesy calls or send letters of congratulations to their Japanese counterparts on important official, semiofficial or private occasions. The Japan Self-Defense Forces usually announce transfers, promotions and retirements of senior officers twice a year. At that time it is customary to send letters of congratulations. USARJ protocol policy and regulations will provide guidance on format, contents and timeliness of such letters. For a private occasion, a simple but sincere personal note is appropriate. Remember, whether acting officially or unofficially, USARJ personnel are American representatives in Japan. When in doubt about the appropriate action to take, it is best to contact the USARJ Public Affairs Office for advice.
American Women and Japanese Society: American women are highly respected in Japanese society for their intelligence, education, sense of independence and positions of leadership in public life. Japanese women are also highly respected in their society, but for different aspects of the same basic qualities. A misconception held by many Americans is that Japan is a "man's" country and that Japanese women are weak and submissive. Japanese women, though certainly not weak, enjoy appearing meek since this is considered a major part of their refinement and charm in contrast to American women who are taught to be more assertive and open in expressing opinions. Cultural exchanges and understanding between American and Japanese women are strongly encouraged.
Punctuality: The Japanese are punctual. If a Japanese person makes an appointment, no matter how casual or informal it may seem at the time, it is considered a commitment. Accordingly, all USARJ personnel are urged to be punctual in keeping both personal and official appointments with Japanese friends and associates. The impression we make on our Japanese hosts by being punctual can make a difference in the continued respect the Japanese have for Americans.
Role of Consensus: Japanese culture dictates that the individual will try whenever possible to avoid embarrassing another. In communicating with others this has the very practical result that a Japanese is more likely, when questioned, to give a subtle and indirect response rather than the usual American direct answer to a specific question. These attitudes and behavior patterns are important aspects of the Japanese culture and need to be remembered in both business and social interactions.
Social Etiquette: In general, Japanese people tend to work hard and to play hard. They are very attentive hosts at gatherings. Japanese social affairs often require the presentation of short speeches or toasts or active participation in entertainment such as singing for the rest of the group. No one expects professional singing ability, just genuine goodwill. Americans are encouraged to mingle freely and to make acquaintance with Japanese friends. Modesty should be the rule in social interactions. Over indulgence or boisterous behavior tends to leave poor impressions with our Japanese hosts. A common topic of conversation when Japanese get together with American friends is the use of chopsticks by foreign guests. Amateur use of hashi, even with obvious difficulty, is acceptable. Usually the Japanese are impressed at the effort to try and will compliment the foreigner on skillful use of chopsticks.
Three basic rules to remember in using chopsticks are:
- Never pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks because this is a ceremonial gesture used during cremation services.
- Never stand chopsticks straight up in rice bowl because this gesture is used when making food offerings to the dead.
- Never spear food with chopsticks because this is considered impolite.
English Language and the Japanese: English is taught in all levels of Japanese schools beginning with junior high. Japanese teaching methods concentrate more on reading and writing than on conversational English. As a consequence, most Japanese are eager for opportunities to practice conversational skills in English. One caution for Americans is to remember that English is a second language for the Japanese and we should not assume their comprehension and response levels will be the same as Americans who are speaking English. In general, we can enhance their comprehension by speaking slowly and distinctly and avoiding excessive slang, baby talk or pidgin English, which they will not have the background to understand. Americans are encouraged while in Japan to learn something of the Japanese language and to demonstrate interest in people here by trying to communicate with them in their own language.
Tatami Floors and the Wearing of Shoes: Although many modern-day Japanese homes are constructed with western style hardwood floors, many others continue to use traditional tatami mats or woven rice straw flooring. Unlike Americans, Japanese do not wear street shoes in the house. Wearing shoes when entering a Japanese home is considered offensive. One reason for removing shoes is sanitation. Another is wear on tatami mats. An additional reason is a religious custom that only the deceased wear shoes for wakes and funerals. If a host invites you to do so, it is permissible to enter a home wearing shoes. In the absence of a statement from the host, you should always remove shoes at the door. In most cases, the host will offer slippers to wear in place of shoes.
The direct ancestors of the present day Japanese people were members of a group known as the Yamato clan which fought about 3000 years ago for supremacy over the Izumo clan. Legend says the dispute was settled through the intercession of the gods and that the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, sent her grandson to be the ruler of the reconciled Yamato and Izumo. Several generations later the first emperor of Japan claimed lineage back to the grandson of Amaterasu, strengthening the belief in divine origin of the imperial family.
The first capital of the country was Nara in southern Honshu. It was the capital from 710 to 794 when a new capital was built in Heian (known today as Kyoto). The new capital was the seat of the imperial family for the next 1000 years. The Heian period, as those 1000 years are known today, was a period of great artistic development. Life in the capital during those days was marked by great elegance and even greater expense. While the nobility prospered in the capital, people in the outlying areas were being impoverished by the heavy taxes demanded to support the emperor. In spite of the taxes they were required to pay, the farmers and peasants of that day received little or no protection from the imperial government. As time went on, they gravitated toward certain clan leaders who would provide protection for them. From this emerged the "Samurai" or warrior social class. Except for taxing authority, the power of the imperial government was weak, so in time the samurai seized control of the government and forced the emperor to name their leader "Shogun" or generalissimo. The emperor was allowed to continue as the symbol of unity of the people, but the power to govern was taken from him and given to the Shogun. m e first shogun established his base of operations at Kamakura near present-day Tokyo. At first the court of the shogun bore some resemblance to the life lead by the peasants for whom he provided leadership, but gradually the austerity of the shogun court was replaced by some of the trappings associated with the imperial court and over time the splendor of the shogun's court came to rival that of the emperor 's. During the next four centuries there were a number of military challenges to the power of the shoguns. One such challenge came in 1281 from the Mongols, whose invasion was foiled by a great typhoon, called by the Japanese the "kamikaze" or "divine wind." The defeat of the Mongols with the help of the typhoon strengthened the Japanese in the belief that theirs was a divinely unique land.
Tokugawa Ieyasu became shogun in 1600 and his heirs ruled Japan for the next 15 generations.
During the reign of the Tokugawa shoguns, all foreigners were expelled from the land and Japan was closed to trade with the rest of the world for 250 years. In 1853, through the efforts of Commodore Matthew Perry, a treaty was signed opening Japanese ports to foreign trade.
In 1868, a group of samurai leaders forced the shogun to resign and to return the power of government to the emperor, a progressive young man who adopted the title Meiji (meaning "enlightened rule.). Within a single generation during the Meiji reign, Japan was transformed from a closed feudal society to one of the world's leading powers. A new constitution was written in 1889, bringing Japanese government into the modern era. During Tokugawa times, the seat of government was Edo, home district of the original Tokugawa shogun, but the emperor continued to reside in Kyoto. In 1869, after the overthrow of the shoguns, the capital was officially moved, along with the imperial residence, from Kyoto to Edo and the name of the city was changed from Edo to Tokyo.
The population of Japan is about 128 million, making it the 10th most populated country in the world today. The area of the country is roughly equal to the size of the state of Montana, but about 80% of the land area is too mountainous to be developed. The result is that living space is extremely compacted in the 20% of land where the 128 million people live. The population density in Japan is about 340 per square kilometer making it the ninth most densely populated country in the world. That the country can support its population is due in part to the climate, a long growing season coupled with very ample rainfall, and a more intensive form of agriculture than is practiced elsewhere.
The majority of Japanese follow two ancient religions, Shinto and Buddhism, which flourish side by side. It is not strange to the Japanese to practice different aspects of both at the same time. Many Japanese have small Buddhist altars in their homes sitting alongside miniature Shinto shrines. Some Japanese think of Shinto in terms of folkways and Buddhism as religion. Shinto, meaning "way of the gods", is native to Japan and dates back to prehistoric times. Amaterasu, the sun goddess, is chief "Kami" of the Shintoists. There is no real English translation for kami. Some define it as a god, others a divine force. Neither is an absolute definition. Kami is something to be respected which provides for all growth and development. Kami is all around in nature. There is no sharp line drawn between man and nature and anything in the environment considered awesome may become a kami. Kami are never visible as such, but the spirits of the kami are thought to reside at various times in different objects or animals. An object which is thought to hold the spirit of a kami is called a "Go-shintai". Common examples of Go-shintai are polished stones, swords, mirrors, serpents, wolves, tigers, hares, white wild boars, white deer, crows and foxes. Each follower of Shinto worships as he or she pleases. They have no central doctrine or creed except a profound reverence for nature. Shinto does not include the concept of an afterlife which is inherent in many other religions.
Buddhism was introduced into Japan in the 6th century AD and rapidly gained converts. In general, Buddhists follow concepts of self meditation, simple living and physical discipline which they believe will insure rebirth at a higher level after death. Japanese Buddhists find no conflict in embracing Shinto principles along with Buddhism. The two religions often share common shrines or objects of worship.
Christianity was introduced in 1549, but has not enjoyed widespread practice among the Japanese, though some Christian principles have been taken and used by Japanese who do not consider themselves to be Christians. About 1% of Japanese today consider themselves to be Christians.
In general, the ethics practiced by any one Japanese person tend to be a combination of Shinto, Buddhism and Christian principles.