Gift-Giving in Japan

bannerFor the course Economic Anthropology last year, I wrote a paper on the relation between the Japanese gift culture and the capitalist market system. In retrospect, I believe this topic might interest my readers, so I have selected and adapted the most informative bits on gift-giving in Japan (and how much money you should spend on it) to share with you on Nippaku. Enjoy! 


Just as he was leaving the morning room he had turned around and said: “When is the wedding? I would like to give a present, but since I have no money, I am afraid I can’t.” – in Kokoro by Natsume Soseki

Similar to other gift traditions all over the world, wedding presents make up for an important part of Japanese gift culture, encompassing not only a substantial amount of money but also requiring specific knowledge and skills on how, when and to whom one should present a wedding gift. This happens usually in the form of cash and is at least 10,000 Yen (around 80 euros – I will use Euro as the currency of reference from now on). Close family members are expected to give up to tenfold that amount. The character in Natsume’s novel making the quote stated above, a poor student, is clearly not able to afford an appropriate wedding gift and can, therefore, not comply with social norms. Katherine Rupp (2003), who describes in great detail the complexity of gift-giving in Japan based on her fieldwork observations, immediately points out the economic consequences of this abundant gift culture: “people invest substantial amounts of money in gift-giving. (…) Gift-giving is very important, not only at personal and household levels but on national and macroeconomics level as well. For example, ochūgen and oseibo, summer and winter gifts, provide 60 percent of annual profits of most Tokyo department stores” (p. 1).

traditional gift

traditional gift wrapping – madameriri

The economic burden of compulsory gift-giving is felt by many Japanese people and has recently come to complement an erosion of ‘traditional’ gift giving among the younger generation(s). This makes it all the more remarkable that never before, so much money was spent on gifts: The report by the Yano Research Institute (2016) on Japan’s domestic gift market mentions increased retail sales of almost 73 billion Euro in 2015, 102% of gift sales in the previous year. The report further points out that less formal gifts are purchased, and more commodities circulate in the form of casual gifts. Thus, instead of spending money on presents that are linked with obligatory gift-giving, the Japanese now prefer buying presents for their loved ones, less restrained by social conventions.

From ancient times, Japan has known a formal gift-giving culture based on  customs and traditions with a focus on ceremonial occasions, but against the social background of a decreasing birthrate, an aging population, the nuclearization of the family, and a weakening of neighborhood and kinship ties, compulsory and formal gifts such as chugen and seibo, wedding presents, ceremonial gifts, return gifts for funeral offerings and Buddhist memorial services, are decreasing. Yet, at the same time, giving gifts as an expression of gratitude, affection, respect and love towards people one is close to such as one’s parents, children and friends, is playing a big role and has become a way to facilitate communication. Regardless of the formality of the present, the existence of ‘casual gifts’, adapted to recent times, can also be observed. It is believed that these will become a factor of market growth in the near future. (my own translation – Yano Research Institute, 2016: 2)

Save for the trending ‘casual gifts’, this so-called ‘formal gift-giving culture’ is related to a rigorous wrapping etiquette, to such a degree that the packaging divulges the occasion. Hence, the content becomes subordinate to the presentation and the act of giving in se – in such a degree that in some, often business-related cases, presents are never opened and passed onto others in a continuous chain of gift-giving. Especially within the industry, business meetings and lucrative transactions go hand in hand with a whole series of gifts and ‘donations’, balancing on the verge of what Westerners would consider as bribery. Physicians usually receive a ‘token of appreciation’ (expensive gifts or a substantial amount of cash) in advance of medical procedures and during winter or summer gift season, challenging the physician with the fact that “the space between a giver’s gratitude and a receiver’s obligation can be narrow and murky” since accepting could unintentionally lead to biased treatment of the patient in question (Takayama, 2001: 139). Again, it should not surprise that all these donations generate enormous economic profit, confirming that “not only do individual Japanese people spend a lot of time, worry, and money on gift-giving, but [that] gift-giving is also a crucial part of the overall workings of the macro-economy” (Rupp, 2003: 2). Below, an overview will be provided of Japanese gift-giving customs and their (economic) significance in today’s society.

matcha baumkuchen

This matcha baumkuchen won first prize for best Japanese gift last year.

TYPES OF GIFT-GIVING IN JAPAN

Writing my bachelor paper on Japan’s wrapping culture, I familiarized myself somewhat with the complicated etiquette surrounding gift-giving on several occasions, but putting it in practice during my one-year stay there turned out to be a different matter. As an exchange student, I quickly realized how little I had to be concerned with giving adequate presents in Belgium. Luckily in Japan, foreigners, as well as children and young adolescents, are often forgiven in that respect. The wife of a Japanese composer (an elderly couple with a traditional mind-set I acquainted and whom I used to visit regularly), offered me the following explanation, while reluctantly accepting the box of Belgian chocolates I had brought her as a thank you gift for the invitation (temiyage 手土産): “young people do not have much money, so you really shouldn’t have bought that for us. You should just receive the presents from older people until you are earning enough money to treat other people”. It appears that this gift-giving obligation for the Japanese evidently involved a lot of expenses and effort. Below, I give a non-exhaustive overview of the main gift rituals currently performed in Japan and their economic consequences.

nihon no okurimono

Catalogue of Japanese presents featuring regional products of every prefecture.

Souvenirs

Omiyage (お土産, written with the character for ‘earth’ and the character for ‘produce’, thus meaning ‘products from the land’) are souvenirs, usually local foodstuffs such as sweets and cookies that have a connection with the place visited. Every region in Japan has its own specialty (meibutsu名物). Mantell (2012) suggests that the local production of omiyage can contribute to the community’s identity and pride. Because of this link with the travel destination, homemade souvenirs are to be avoided. Upon return, omiyage are distributed among colleagues at the work place and given to family members and friends. In the research office where I had my desk while studying in Japan, foodstuffs were regularly brought in and placed on the shared table, accompanied by a note of the returned traveler offering everyone to serve themselves.

omiyage uji

Omiyage for sale in Uji.

The ‘hunt’ for souvenirs is expensive and time-consuming, certainly taking into consideration that even a one-day trip involves omiyage. As such, some people “hide travel plans from friends and neighbors so as not to have bring back presents from trips” (Rupp, 2003:1). This is especially the case when omiyage are strongly experienced as giri (義理, ‘social obligation’; Krag, 2014: 69), yet souvenirs can also express gratitude and indebtedness for ‘holding the fort’ whilst away, the strengthening of social ties, or a desire to share the travel experience (Park, 2000:86-7).

According to the Japanese government’s latest white paper on domestic tourism (2016), the Japanese population spent more than 21 billion euros on shopping alone, which surpasses the travel expenses for food and drinks (p. 251). Although it is not entirely clear how many of the purchased goods were bought as souvenirs and not for own use, Tsujimoto e.a. (2013) point out that in 2010, 72.4% of shopping expenses went to food products that were not consumed during the trip (p. 226), and 97,5% of the goods indicated as omiyage were foodstuffs, mostly sweets. It is customary to pay between 8 and 48 euros on omiyage for each person; Tsujimoto e.a. calculated an average of 47 euros in total spent on souvenirs per trip (p. 238).

Seasonal Gift-Giving

* Ochūgen and Oseibo

There are two gift-giving season in Japan, rooted in ancestral offering traditions: during summer in July (ochūgen お中元) and during winter between 13 and 20 December (oseibo お歳暮). These gifts are sent out to personal and business relations such as to superiors, clients, doctors, teachers, landlords and – in a lesser degree – family members, as an expression of gratitude for taking care of them. Again, mostly foodstuffs are given, and similar to omiyage, regional products are popular. Rupp (2003) lists, for example, watermelons, canned fruit, curry sauce, eggplants, cheese and other specialties (p. 29). Household products are frequently sent as well. Important to note is that both gift seasons coincide with the semiannual bonus many Japanese employees receive, amounting to at least two months’ salary (Lebra, 1976: 98). Hence, summer and winter gifts are heavily advertised as slightly more expensive gift sets or basket in stores all over Japan. Online and in most department stores, it is possible to have the gift delivered directly at the receiver’s doorstep, wrapping and gift card included.

ochugen

Popular ochugen gifts. The site also mentions how much money should be spent based on the type of relation between giver and receiver, somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 yen – Rakuten

According to the Yano Research Institute (2016) gift report, ‘casual’ gift-giving has also pervaded the domain of seasonal gifts. As a result, the demand for presents that convey one’s feelings towards close friends and family, has increased, along with the emphasis on the act of ‘giving’ in itself (p. 2). This in contrast to the ‘courtesy’ gifts rooted in tradition that are less frequent today, especially among the younger generation. Nevertheless, due to the increased sales of ‘casual’ gifts, expenses nationwide accrued to almost 8 billion euros for ochūgen, and 6.5 billion euros for oseibo. Compared to the previous years, this is only a ‘slight’ decrease of 30 to 40 million euros. Shopkeepers tend to respond to the demand for more personal gifts by allowing customers to assemble an original gift basket instead of offering pre-packaged gift sets.

* Doll Festival and Children’s Day

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Full set of Japanese dolls, displayed for the Doll Festival.

Among the ‘five seasonal festivals’ (五節句 gosekku), Doll Festival (雛祭りhina matsuri), or Girls’ Festival, and Children’s Day (子供の日kodomo no hi), or Boys’ Festival, bear the most economic consequences. During the former, traditional dolls are displayed on a staircase-like structure every year. As is the custom, these dolls are purchased by the maternal grandparents (if not already in family possession) at the birth of their first female grandchild. Due to the high cost of these dolls (prices for a full set start at 680 euros and go up to more than 10,000 euros), it is not uncommon anymore that other family members chip in as well. The family of the mother is also responsible for presents such as carp banners and warrior dolls for their grandson on Boys’ festival. Yet recently, it has become normal that other relatives and friends give presents as well.

Business Gifts

Business gifts are more frequent in Japan than in Europe (Mba, 2012). Apart from seasonal gifts, omiyage and New Year cards, it is customary to exchange gifts at the end of a (first) business meeting or on formal occasions. The value of the gift mirrors the company’s hierarchy: high-ranking employees receive the most expensive items (Alston & Takei, 2005: 55). Business gifts are elaborately wrapped items that are never opened in presence of the donor. Underlying these gifts is a complex etiquette, defining how the gift should be presented, what items are to be avoided and how the gift should be received in an appropriate manner. For those who want to play it safe, department stores and high-end chains promote a series of commodities in varying price ranges as ‘ideal’ business gifts.

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Business gifts on the website of Shinise Mall

Religious Offerings

Shintō ceremonies (e.g. purification of a house) involve offerings to ancestral spirits, and cash money given to the officiating priest. These offerings include sake and food such as rice, fish and vegetables (Rupp, 2003: 13). When visiting a Buddhist grave, incense and flowers are often placed on the stone. In traditional households where ancestors are daily commemorated by means of a small altar or shrine in the house, ‘unusual’ specialty food are offered first to the ancestors. The food is placed on the shrine and “when the ancestors have finished (Smith, 1974: 136)”, it is removed and eaten by the family. On Japanese New Year’s Day (oshōgatsu お正月), it is common to offer traditional food such as sake and soup with rice cakes first to the ancestors.

offering to ancestors

Offering of fruit to ancestors during obonNandaikinjo

During the religious observances of ohigan (お彼岸, equinoctial Buddhist services lasting one week in Spring and Fall) and obon (お盆 festival to honor the ancestors’ spirits, held in July or August), the Japanese return to their hometowns and visit family graves. They bring along food for ancestral offering (often luxury fruits such as melons, but also wine and sweets, depending on the culinary preference of the deceased) which is afterwards consumed during the family meal. By doing so, they are permeated by the power of the spirits (Rupp, 2003: 127). Since ancestral offerings and the dinner celebrations connected to these often involve ‘unusual’ or luxury foodstuffs, prices are evenly extravagant. People pay easily up to 100 euros for a gift melon. Incense and flowers are sold as expensive obon sets, yet there is always a choice between a wide range of prices.

‘Modern’ Forms of Gift-Giving

* Christmas Presents

Despite the fact that less than 1% of the Japanese population considers itself a Christian, Christmas is a well-celebrated occasion, albeit a non-religious version adapted to Japanese culture and society and especially among younger couples. Contrary to Belgian habits, Christmas Eve in Japan is reserved for lovers, while New Year’s Eve is spent in company of family members. In families with young children, toys are sometimes given, but never to adults (Rupp, 2003: 144). Christmas decoration, on the other hand, is widespread.

‘Imported’ celebrations such as Christmas and Valentine’s Day (cf. infra), revolve around excessive advertisements, high consumption and a (rather Western) portrayal of romanticism. It is common for a couple to go on a date to a high-end restaurant, exchange luxury goods such as jewelry, scarves and handbags for women, and watches, wallets and pens for men, and spend the night at an expensive hotel. The standard Christmas meal at home is fried chicken and a strawberry cream cake, which has to be pre-ordered months in advance due to its popularity. Note that, in contrast to traditional celebrations, food consumed on Christmas is almost never homemade and thus store-bought.

xmas

You would think this is an ad for Valentine’s presents but it’s not: these are gifts deemed appropriate for Christmas – Rakuten

The popularization of Christmas from the 1930s on, was a commercial opportunity for stores to extend sales after the oseibo boom. Papp (2016: 67-68), referencing a report by Ishii, mentions that in post-war Japan, Christmas was seen as a symbol of modernity, and hence as a shortcut to ‘happiness’, generated by industrialism and consumerism. Another point worth mentioning is that, in most cases, men pay for the whole evening and always give a present to their wives or girlfriends, while women are not ‘obligated’ to give something in return (cf. infra). This indicates a break with more traditional gift-giving customs.

* Valentine’s Day and White Day Gifts

Also introduced in post-war Japan, February 14th is a celebration that mirrors the Western tradition, but has its own Japanese interpretation. Different is that Valentine gifts are exclusively chocolate, are presented only by women, and are not solely given in a romantic way. On the contrary, only a small part of the chocolates is given to loved ones. Valentine’s Day was launched by a chocolate manufacturer and became a nationwide celebrated holiday by the 1970s (Rupp, 2003: 146). It was promoted as the only day women could express their love, and the fact that in other Valentine-celebrating countries men also gave presents, somehow got lost in translation. As a result, Valentine’s Day today is more about boosting men’s confidence than about romance. Minowa e.a. (2011: 52) speak of the “gender asymmetric nature” of the Valentine Day’s gift-giving ritual.

 

Although a recent and foreign gift-giving tradition, Valentine’s chocolate quickly incorporated ‘traditional’ elements such as a connection with giri, or social obligation (Davis & Ikeno, 2011): women in the workplace and at school felt obliged to give their co-workers and superiors Valentine’s chocolate in order to avoid accusations of favoritism (Buckley, 2009) and to preserve harmonious relationships. This type of chocolate, often store-bought and less expensive, is giri choko. When the gift is meant to convey a feeling of affection, it is called honmei choko (本命チョコ ‘favorite chocolate’). These chocolates are far more expensive than giri choko and in some cases homemade (DIY-kits are also sold at stores). Recently, women have started to hand out tomo choko (友チョコ‘friend chocolate’) to their female friends. This year’s Valentine’s Day generated 1.1 billion euros of revenue (3% more than last year), with most chocolate companies earning half of their annual sales in February (Japan Times, 2017). A Japanese woman spends around 80 euros on Valentine chocolate every year.

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Ad for White Day candy gifts – Amazon

White Day on March 14th is the male response to Valentine’s Day and originated in the 70s as a commercial stunt by the National Confectionery Industry Association to boost sales in the month following February. Originally it was launched as Marshmallow Day, but marshmallows turned out to be an unsuccessful product and the name was changed. On this day, Valentine gifts are reciprocated in the form of white presents: white chocolate, candy, handkerchiefs, flower, cookies, jewelry and underwear (acceptable even for work relations). Rupp (2003: 149) points out that many men do not make a return gift, and in the case of giri choko, it is the wife of the Valentine’s recipient that concerns herself with providing the office women with White Day presents. These gifts are usually at least twice as high in value than the original gift, yet sales are not as high as for Valentine’s Day. As will be explained later, not returning a gift or returning twice the amount would be inappropriate in other gift-giving settings, but ‘hybridized’ holidays allow for divergence of standard norms.

* Mother’s Day and Father’s Day Presents

From the 1970s on, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day as ‘imported’ holidays have been celebrated in a similar fashion as in the West. Department stores anticipate this gift-giving by putting specific items on display. In 1966, Respect for the Aged Day was introduced on 15 September, today celebrated in the third week of September. The elderly receive gifts from their relatives such as flowers, clothing and food. It has been a custom for the government to present centenarians with silver sake cups on this day, although last year it was decided to send out cheaper cups, since silver ones for the more than 65,000 centenarians proved to be too costly to manage (Japan Times, 2016).

mothers day

Results of a survey on Mother’s Day gifts in Japan, asking what they received and what presents made them most happy. Flowers are number one in both cases. – Ringbell

It is indicative that for ‘imported’ gift-giving traditions, the word purezento (プレゼント, the Japanese pronunciation of the English word ‘present’) is used rather than Japanese words for ‘gifts’ such as okurimono (贈り物). Purezento bears a more individual and western connotation and is less formal. Today in Japanese society, many people prefer to give more personalized items to close friends (the so-called ‘casualization’ of gift-giving) instead of gifts that are rooted in social obligation. For example, only sending Christmas gifts and not oseibo (Rupp, 2003: 145).

Cash Gift-Giving

* Wedding Gifts

wedding envelope

Decorated envelope for a cash wedding gift – Rakuten

As was touched upon in the introduction of this blog post, wedding gifts mainly consist out of money. The decorated envelopes (shūgi-bukuro 祝儀袋) with cash – new bills – are handed over at the reception desk, specifying whether it is for the groom or for the bride, or are delivered at home in case the giving party is not invited to the wedding or cannot attend. The amount of money should mirror the relationship with the recipients, as well as the wealth status of the donor. College friends and neighbors, for example, give around 160 euros, family members usually give more. Special envelopes with tied cords in auspicious colors are purchased for the occasion. Since a considerable amount of gift money as compensation for costs can be expected, “this custom (…) has led to more and more extravagant receptions, all to the delight of the companies that sell wedding packages and the luxury hotels where such receptions are often held” (Mak, 1998: 30). Indeed, the Japanese wedding industry, including the many return gifts that are sent to all guests (cf. infra) is worth 20.1 billion euros today (Yano Research Institute, 2017).

* Funeral Gifts

koden

envelope for ‘incense money’ – Amazon

‘Incense money’ (香典kōden), ranging between 24 euros and 800 euros per person,  is given at funerals or wakes in special envelopes (Suzuki, 2000: 84). In contrast to the crisp new bills presented at a wedding, incense money should be old. Again, the amount of money is dictated by relationship and status. For more traditional wedding gifts as well as funeral gifts, the gender of the recipient or deceased plays a role: less money is given in the case of a woman. Mourners additionally send white flowers with their name attached. The incense money covers only around half of the funeral costs, since return gifts are made to every donor. Annually, roughly 2.7 billion Euro is spent on ceremonial gifts at funeral services (Karan & Gilbreath, 2005: 176).

Symbolic gifts

Small traditional gifts often have a symbolic meaning. It is customary, for instance, to present new neighbors with long, thin noodles since these symbolize longevity. Boxes with noodles especially for such occasions are sold at department stores and are differently wrapped and priced than noodles purchased for own consumption. Noodles in their plastic supermarket wrapping would also be inappropriate for ochūgen, for example. As a betrothal gift, a set of store-bought items that symbolize good luck, longevity and good health, often accompany an envelope with around 8000 euros from the groom’s family – or around three times his monthly salary (Rupp, 2003: 86-88).

otoshidama

Lucky kid just received her New Year’s money – K-pedia

New Year cards (年賀状nengajō) in auspicious colors depicting the Zodiac sign of the new year are sent out to relatives, friends and teachers but also to co-workers and business connections. New Year’s presents from parents to children (otoshidama お年玉), on the other hand, is a sum of money and must be given in a special envelope. It may appear that gift-giving in Japan always calls for an occasion, but susowake (すそ分け‘dividing the edge’) is one type of gift purchased simply because the other might like or need it, and has no symbolic meaning attached. Hence, there is no social obligation to return (Rupp, 2003: 29).

Return gifts

The returning of gifts is an essential but fairly more complex part of the Japanese gift-giving tradition. Since gift-giving is an act of giri, and since giri requires reciprocation, a gift naturally calls for a return gift. The moral obligation to give, to receive, and to return gifts is as much a part of traditional Japan as it is of the archaic societies with which Marcel Mauss (1954) concerned himself in his famous essay on the gift. (Lebra & Lebra, 1986: 162)

return gifts

Some popular return gifts – Kinogift

Technically, every gift should be returned with a counter-gift of half its value. Returns in cash are inappropriate, even if the original gift was money (Rupp, 2003: 192). How much a gift costs, can be estimated from the wrapping that has the name of the shop on it where it was purchased. Some high-end department stores are famous for carrying expensive gift items, and often where a gift comes from tells more about its value than the actual contents. Traditionally, gift-giving is the task of the wife and she, herself purchasing gifts frequently, has gained the knowledge to estimate its value and reciprocate in a fitting manner. To make things easier, department stores stick code tags on gifts that tell you its worth. It might be surprising that today as well, Japanese women are the ones responsible for the year-around exchange of gifts,  but seeing as how Japanese gender norms are still solidly entrenched in contemporary society – distinctly more so than in the West – gift-giving continue to be a woman’s job. Rupp, too, describes some situations in which wives, never husbands, were blamed for an ill-chosen gift.

kurumadai

Cute “car money” envelopes – Creema

At weddings and funerals, attendees and those who sent money in advance receive a bag full of return gifts. For weddings these include auspicious food, long-lasting objects, souvenirs of the happy event and sometimes an envelope with money that covers the transportation cost for people who come from far away. Additionally, newly weds spent a lot of time and money during their honeymoon gathering more return gifts. For funerals, traditionally salt, sake, sugar, objects made of thread and other items for purification are bagged. Although estimated to be half of the value of the cash gift, some people end up receiving more than they have given. In some regions, return gifts for incense money are only reciprocated after a certain period of time, and are calculated to match half of the value of the presented cash.

Nevertheless, there are exceptions: return gifts for birth presents are only half to one-third the value of the initial gift. Matchmakers (the couple through which the wedding was arranged) are lavished with more return gifts and money than any other person. White Day, serving as a reciprocity opportunity, prescribes that men, if they do give something, return gifts of at least twofold the Valentine gift’s cost. Rupp (2003: 150) points out that this reaffirms men as the superior party in their relationship with women. In fact, all ‘imported’ holidays have to be seen outside the framework of traditional gift-giving and return gifts. Christmas gifts, for example, are not reciprocated.


This was a short overview of the most common types of gift-giving in Japan. I think we can conclude that the Japanese give a lot of presents on many occasions and that a lot of money is spent in the process. Yet, it strengthens relationships and is a crucial part of Japan’s social landscape.

References here

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UNESCO World Heritage in Japan

unesco_blue_logoAfter a few research-based posts, I felt like presenting a more visual topic this time. And what better eye candy is there besides some of Japan’s most beautiful and culturally inspired places? Hence my topic: The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage. In this post, I will show you which places in Japan have been granted a world heritage status since the Japanese acceptance of the convention in 1992. Because I visited some of these places myself, I hope to share a few of my own pictures here as well (all pictures are mine, unless mentioned otherwise). Currently, the list includes 16 cultural and 4 natural sites in Japan.

To be included on the World Heritage List, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria. – site UNESCO

Such criteria include, for example, being a representation of human creativity, an interchange of human values, a cultural tradition or a development in design, art or technology. Or, the site in question must be an outstanding example of technology, landscape or architecture that plays a significant role in human history and culture. Natural world heritage, on the other hand, should represent outstanding natural phenomena, significant biological and geological processes or the major stages in the history of our earth.

CULTURAL WORLD HERITAGE IN JAPAN

Buddhist Monuments in the Horyū-ji Area (1993)

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Wikimedia Commons

I can’t believe I couldn’t find a decent picture of the Horyū-ji temple 法隆寺 from when I visited Nara. The main hall, entrance gate and pagoda date back to the early seventh century and are among the world’s oldest wooden buildings.

Himeji-jō (1993)

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Himeji-jō 姫路城 is an excellent example of early Japanese castle architecture. It looks very sophisticated with its white walls and elegant rooftops. This fourteenth-century castle was remodeled and expanded in 1581 by the famous “unifier” Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Ōtsu Cities) (1994)

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The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (kinkaku-ji 金閣寺) is one of the most popular attraction in Kyoto. This gaudy piece of architecture was originally the villa of a rich statesman but was purchased by shogun Yoshimitsu and converted into a Zen Buddhist temple. In a novel of the same name by Mishima Yukio, an acolyte burns down the temple. This story was based on true events.

kiyomizudera

Other famous historic monuments in Kyoto include the Kiyomizu-dera “clear water” temple 清水寺 founded in 778. You cannot see it on the picture above, but the temple is located on a hill and therefore supported by tall pillars on one side. Not a single nail was used in the construction of the temple.

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This famous stone garden is part of the Zen Buddhist Ryōan-ji temple (“Temple of the Dragon at Peace” 龍安寺). The placement of the stones is intended so that one is unable to see everything from one place.

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I thought Byōdō-in 平等院 in Uji was truly a magical place. Again, this building was originally a villa and later transformed into a Buddhist temple. The central Phoenix Hall is surrounded by a pond and appears to be floating due to its reflection in the water. This hall and the phoenix statue on top of it are depicted on the 10 yen coin and the 10,000 yen bill.

Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama (1995)

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Wikimedia Commons

I have never been to Toyama or Gifu but I would love to visit these traditional villages. Characteristic are the big houses with slanted roofs, an architectural style known as “prayer-hands construction” (gasshō-zukuri 合掌造り).

Itsukushima Shinto Shrine (1996)

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Itsukushima 厳島, often called Miyajima (“shrine island” 宮島), is located not far away from the bay of Hiroshima. The key shrine on the island, Itsukushima Shrine, is particularly famous because its gate and main building are built in the sea. Looking at the picture above, you can see how far the water reaches at high tide, which gives the illusion of a floating gate.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) (1996)

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Also in Hiroshima you can find the Atomic Bomb Dome (genbaku dōmu 原爆ドーム) as part of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. This ruin was originally the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall and is the only building near the hypocenter that survived the atomic bombing  of August 6, 1945.

Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara (1998) 

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Oh deer, we’re in Nara! This cutie was so kind to pose for us in front of the Tōdai-ji’s ( “Great Eastern Temple” 東大寺) Great Southern Gate (Nandaimon 南大門), reconstructed at the end of the 12th century since the original structure from the 8th century had been destroyed by a typhoon. On the gate is written “Daikegonji”  (大華厳寺), an alternative name for the Tōdai-ji temple.

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The main “Big Buddha” hall (Daibutsuden 大仏殿) of the Tōdai-ji is an impressive construction of wood and houses an enormous bronze statue of a sitting Buddha (picture below). The 16 m high statue was completed in 751 and literally contained almost all of the bronze available in Japan at that time.

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Shrines and Temples of Nikkō (1999)

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Wikimedia Commons

Another destination on my Japan bucket list is Nikkō (日光) in Tochigi prefecture. Futarasan-jinja 二荒山神社, Rinnō-ji 輪王寺 and Nikkō Tōshō-gū 日光東照宮 were designated as UNESCO world heritage at the end of last century. On the picture you see the main hall of Nikkō Tōshō-gū, a Shintō shrine dedicated to Japan’s first shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryūkyū (2000)

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Wikimedia Commons

The Ryūkyū kingdom (15th – 19h century) ruled over the islands south of the main island of Japan. The remains of many gusuku (“castle” in Ryukyuan) on Okinawa such as Shuri castle 首里城 in the picture above have been listed as world heritage. Fun fact: the gate of this castle is depicted on 2,000 yen bills. Read more about its history in my blog post Money Matters.

Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range (2004)

koyasan

I photographed this belfry on mount Kōya ( Kōyasan 高野山), the center of Shingon Buddhism. It belongs to the Garan (“temple” 伽藍), the main temple complex founded by Kūkai. Other sacred sites and pilgrimages include places in Yoshino, Omine and Kumano.

Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and its Cultural Landscape (2007)

450px-iwami_ginzan_silver_mine_ryugenji_mabu_mine_shaft_001

Wikimedia Commons

Since I did not know about this place, I was curious about the story behind this silver mine in Ōda: apparently, during the 17th century, its output accounted for one-third of all the silver in the world! The mine was active for almost four centuries until its closure in 1923. The heritage site also includes three castles that protected the mine, ports for export, transportation routes and various other sites that bear an important connection to its history.

Hiraizumi – Temples, Gardens and Archaeological Sites Representing the Buddhist Pure Land (2011)

hakusan_shrine_nogakuden

Wikimedia Commons

The city of Hiraizumi 平泉 plays an important role in Japanese history as the home of the ruling Fujiwara clan during the Heian period. It developed quickly into a city of sophistication and splendor for 100 years, rivaling Kyoto as the place to be. As soon as the Fujiwara were overthrown, Hiraizumi became forgotten, but many buildings remain well-preserved even today. It is said that Hakusan Shrine 白山神社 (picture) was the structure first built in Hiraizumi in 717.

Fujisan, sacred place and source of artistic inspiration (2013)

mountfujijapan

Wikimedia Commons

This iconic view is so well-known that I should not need to expand further. Sakura, Fuji-san 富士山and shinkansen: Japanese scenery in a nutshell. I am, however, very much surprised that it took so long before Fuji Mountain was recognized as world heritage.

Tomioka Silk Mill and Related Sites (2014)

tomioka-silk-mill_east-cocoon-warehouse

Wikimedia Commons

This mill in Gunma prefecture is Japan’s oldest modern silk factory and still in its original state today. The government established the mill in 1872 as a model factory to industrialize modern machine silk reeling imported from France.

Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining (2015)

glover garden nagasaki.jpg

A collection of more than 20 sites illustrate Japan’s rapid development as a modern and industrialized country in the Meiji period. An example is Thomas Glover’s house on a hill in Nagasaki, looking out over the city. Thomas Glover, a Scottish merchant, played a crucial role in the modernization of Japan by introducing Western technology.

The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement (2016)

national_museum_of_western_art

Wikimedia Commons

Besides many buildings in other places of the world, Le Corbusier designed the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo. This museum is the only work of Le Corbusier situated in the Far East.

NATURAL WORLD HERITAGE IN JAPAN 

Shirakami-Sanchi (1993)

800px-shiragami-_the_world_heritage

Wikimedia Commons

The Shirakami mountains (Shirakami sanchi 白神山地) is an immense unspoilt forest situated in Akita and Aomori prefectures. The forest is highly protected and visitors without permission cannot enter the heritage site.

Yakushima (1993)

ooko_falls_in_yaku_island

Wikimedia Commons

Yakushima 屋久島 is an island located in the south of Kyūshū and is particularly famous for its ancient cedar forest. Some of the trees are more than thousand years old. Because of its subtropical climate and boundless rainfall, Yakushima also has plenty of waterfalls, such as Ōko no Taki you see in the picture above.

 

Shiretoko (2005)

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Wikimedia Commons

Of course, the Northern island of Hokkaidō has some natural heritage material as well. In the Shiretoko National Park (Shiretoko kokuritsu kōen 知床国立公園) you can find wildlife such as bears, foxes and deer. During wintertime, drifting sea ice can be seen from there.

Ogasawara Islands (2011)

ogasawara_islands_tokyo_japan

Wikimedia Commons

The last world heritage site on our list is a chain of remote vulcanic islands known as the Ogasawara Islands 小笠原諸島, also called Bonin Islands. People live only on the two main islands, “father island” (Chichijima 父島) and “mother island” (Hahajima 母島). Next to beautiful beaches such as the Kominato beach and Kopepe beach, the Ogasawara Islands offer a warm climate, unexploited forests and a unique vegetation.

Have you visited one of these places? Let me know!

 

Some observations

It is in the small things we see it, they say. During my stay in Japan (unfortunately, I already returned to Belgium), I noticed some things that you would never spot somewhere else, things that are so typically Japanese, but so unremarkable that they are barely mentioned. Probably, these observations are closely linked to me being a Belgian, so it is possible that I am only observing from a European/Western perspective (and probably with a focus on the city of Kobe, the place where I lived). Nevertheless, I thought that these kind of small things are worth mentioning nevertheless, and maybe I am able to add some couleur locale to your image of Japan.


Obaachan (grannies) with colored hair 

ameblo.jp

ameblo.jp

When you imagine Japan, you think perhaps of the crazy hairstyles and fashion that can be seen around Harajuku in Tokyo. In Kobe, however, the ones with the most funky hair colors are almost always elderly women, doing their shopping at the local grocery stores or chatting with their neighbors at street corners. These women have short, permed hair, as most grannies around the world, I suppose, but dyed in unusual colors like purple, blue, green or pink. At first, I thought it was a hair dyeing gone wrong, but I encountered far too many grannies with a flashy hairdo to rule it out as an exception.  When I searched on the Internet, I found some possible explanations:

 

  • When Japanese people get gray hair (actually called “white hair” 白髪 in Japanese), it has a slightly yellow shade which makes the face looks older. So, they apply some colored rinse such as in the opposite color purple, to cover up the yellow shade and make their hair look white. In most cases, however, the hair still has a purple shade, certainly when it is dyed regularly. (Hitomebo)
  • On the other hand, there are some obaachan who fancy a very strong shade of purple, blue or green. Just because it is trendy to do so. (also, purple is traditionally a “noble” color) Apparently, bold hair colors for elderly women became a big hit during the ’80s and has never been out of fashion since. (Quora)
  • People believe that a bright color reflects a bright personality. (Oshiete)
  • Simply because they can. They are no longer expected to play the role of the Japanese working woman or housewife with a traditional appearance, they are retired, the kids are all grown up, in short, they have the freedom to do as they like. A bold hair color symbolizes their social status as an elderly free woman. (Quora)

Singing

On the streets in Kobe, I often heard people singing to themselves while walking or riding a bike. Not just humming, as many of us probably do, but really singing aloud, not afraid that anyone else could hear them. In a country where karaoke is almost a national sport, it should not be surprising that the Japanese, young and old, participate in many singing events. At school, I heard a-capella clubs practice daily on campus, whenever they were free. It struck me that being asked to sing, regardless of your skills, does not cause any shame in Japan. Maybe they humbly state that they are very bad at it but at least the Japanese are always willing to sing. I don’t think many people in Belgium would be very enthusiastic to perform a song in front of their co-workers, the whole family or their neighbors. I like singing a lot, but was still embarrassed and nervous every time it was my turn, certainly in front of people I didn’t know that well.

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In Japan, singing is a form of bonding: everyone cheers you on, sings along and claps when you finishes. Next to that, it is a way to relieve stress. Of course, karaoke is often combined with drinking alcohol, which really livens up the party. I also read in some articles that the “singing culture” of Japan is often contrasted to the “dancing culture” in America. It is said that in the west, people prefer going to clubs and bars where they can dance. (Hapa Eikaiwa)

“Centiliter” vs. “milliliter”

812401At one point, I realized that on cans and bottles the contents are not written in centiliter (cL) as is usual in Europe, but only in milliliter (mL). Also, a pack of milk for example, contains “1000mL” rather than “1 L”. When I asked whether “cL” was used in Japan, they told me that it is usually not the case, as they shorten the word for cm to senchi センチ, which only refers to centiMETER. Deciliter and decimeter are barely used as well. I am not sure why, but it appears to be a choice they made when the metric system was adopted. Before that, Japan had been using the traditional shaku-kan system.

Fun fact: There are even characters for measurements in the metric system! 竕 – deciliter; 竰 – centiliter; 竓 – milliliter (Wikipedia)

Japanese fashion and colors

Not only do Japanese people have a different fashion sense, the color palette of their clothes is also different. During my stay, I made the following observations:

  • Japanese people like pale or more toned-down colors, like white, light yellow, pink and blue, black, grey and brown. Too eccentric or too bright colors are avoided. This is a big contrast with the traditional Japanese dress (着物kimono), which often comes in bold color and patterns, especially for young women.
  • Stripes and checked patterns are always in fashion. They are everywhere.

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  • Japanese boys and men often wear light pink shirts in summer. I was surprised, because you do not see that usually in Belgium (it is either a very fashionable and bold statement, or associated with homosexuality here). But in Japan, pink is just another color that has no particular gender connection (bright pink, on the other hand, is seen as a very girly color and is not worn very often by men). The choice for light pink shirts in summer can perhaps be compared with white clothing worn in Europe during the summer, as the color white evokes a feeling of lightness and freshness. In Japan, however, white shirts are the standard uniform for business men, and are therefore associated with formality and work. To create the same lightness as white but keep their dress informal, Japanese men opt for light pink. Or at least, that is my theory.
  • Pastel colors are a big hit among women, especially for pyjama’s and clothes worn at home (very soft, by the way, but a tad too Helly Kitty-ish for me).

IMG_20150517_143912

Ditches

Once during a grammar class in Belgium when we were translating sentences from English to Japanese, I came accross the sentence “The mathematician who was wearing rainboots was staring at the stars above and fell into a ditch” or something like that. At that time, it seemed highly unlikely to me that you could fall into a ditch just like that, because the Belgian gutters and ditches I knew were very shallow, and the sewage pits were always covered with a lid. Once arrived in Japan, I realized how easy that actually is. In Japan, ditches are deep holes (around half a meter or more) at one or both sides of the road. I believe that most of the time these ditches are covered with a grid or a stone, as is indeed always the case in front of houses, but where I lived in Kobe, the danger of falling into one at dark was very real. Frightening as well was when cats suddenly jumped out of a ditch in front of your feet. In short, the mathematician has my sympathies. I took extra care and managed not to suffer the same fate, but at times when I was reading while walking or looking at my phone, I came very close to the danger of stepping into nothing, falling into rain water, or crushing a hiding cat. I did not take any ditch picture, but maybe this photo can give you an idea.

Dogs_in_the_ditch_Soryo

ja.wikipedia.org

Anthropomorphism in Japanese Culture

japan anthropomorphism nippakuAnthropomorphism, or “the attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to a god, animal, or object” (Oxford Dictionary), is a cultural phenomenon that can be observed throughout history all around the world. The Old Egyptians depicted their gods as animals, Aesop set the trend of moralizing animal fables and several Native North American tribes’ share the tradition of totemism. Japan as well, has a rich history of anthropomorphism, gijinka (擬人化)  or gijinhō (擬人法) in Japanese.

uribo

Cute flyer from my university

It is remarkable, however, to what extent anthropomorphic objects and animals are integrated into Japanese society. Due to their enormous popularity, everyday life in Japan cannot be imagined without  these “mascots” and other forms of anthropomorphism. Take for example the cute mascots every company and institution creates to sell products or promote services. Because a mascot should represent the best qualities of the product its company has to offer, it has to be unique, eye-catching and above all, kawaii (cute 可愛い). For example, the mascot of Sato Pharmaceutical is an elephant, because in Japanese culture this animal symbolizes a long life. Another example is the mascot of my university here in Japan, Kobe University. The main campus is situated on Mount Rokko, where you can often spot wild boars (I met one once! And fled.) and the University is therefore represented by a wild boar piglet (uribō 瓜坊).

Minister Hatoyama as Saiban'inko.

Minister Kunio Hatoyama as Saiban’inko.

Without doubt, these kind of mascots would be considered childish and highly unprofessional in the West. In Japan, on the contrary, not having a mascot would be like a huge missed sales or advertising opportunity. Mascots are a way of familiarizing the public with a certain product, company or service. Because of their cuteness, human characteristics and approachability, people will feel an emotional connection with these mascots. Not only animals, but also lifeless objects and even concepts are strategically transformed into huggable human-like creatures and given cute names, referring to what they stand for. The local public transport in Japan is often represented by an anthropomorphic vehicle, for example. Even prefectures have their own mascot, resembling a specific historic or cultural aspect of the prefecture in question. Also, institutions who should be taken very serious, like the police or the government, rely on mascots to appeal to Japanese people of every age. For example, the introduction of the new jury system to the public in Japan, is smoothed by the appearance of Saiban’inko the parakeet (saiban’in 裁判員 means lay judge; inko インコis Japanese for parakeet). Japanese Minister of Justice once made an appearance on TV wearing a Saiban’inko costume to promote the new system of trial by jury.

This kind of customed mascot character is called a yuru-kyara ゆるキャラ. Because of their huge popularity in Japan, there is a countless number of yuru-kyara, all with their own way of walking, talking and dancing. There is even a specialized school where you can master the mascot art: the Choko group mascot school in Tokyo provides specific training for aspiring mascots. In short, it is not at all unlikely in Japan to run into mascots at matsuri (festivals 祭り), tourist attractions, on shopping streets and in extreme cases, at events like the one in the following video (World Character Summit):

From Animism to Anime

Anthropomorphism is a crucial concept in Shintoism 神道, Japan’s ethnic religion. Shintoists believe that everything – the universe itself included – has a soul or spirit. Based on this belief, called animism, the Japanese regard animals and nature as the messengers of the gods. The Kojiki 古事記 (“Records of Ancient Matters”, 712) contains a few stories in which animals speak, think and act like humans. Next to that, the transformation of foxes and raccoon dogs into human beings is a returning topic in Japanese folklore. Not only animals and elements in nature, but also artificial objects can obtain a soul. These animated objects are named tsukumogami 付喪神, after the work tsukumogami emaki 付喪 神絵巻 from the Muromachi period (1333-1573). This work contains drawings of old household items that gain a soul after 99 years and change into ghosts.

Hyakki-Yagyo-Emaki_Tsukumogami_1

Tsukimogami in Hyakki Yakko Emaki 百鬼夜行絵巻

With the introduction of Buddhism in Japan, animals were also associated with reincarnation. Despite the fact that this kind of reincarnation was considered a punishment, animals were able to attain nirvana which was still in line with the animistic Shinto theories. The Buddhist work Nihon Ryōiki from the Heian Period (794-1185), for example, mentions various animals with anthropomorphic characteristics. During the Japanese Middle Ages (1185-1603), animal stories became more popular than ever, and with the development of Noh theater 能 and Kyōgen 狂言 (Noh comedy) in particular, animals who behaved like people were put on stage regularly. Sometimes even plants played a lead role. Just like animals, plants were attributed certain qualities or characteristics. The iris, for example, represents a young women while an old woman is impersonated by the willow.

The Scrolls of Frolicking Animals and Humans (鳥獣人物戯画 Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga) are four scrolls in monochrome drawing style depicting various scenes of daily life. The scrolls date back to the 12th of 13th century. This work is nowadays known as the first manga, but was already popular back then. The scrolls are an excellent example of anthropomorphism in Medieval Japan. There are animals preparing for a matsuri, horseback riding, holding a Buddhist funeral, making jokes, bathing in the river, playing a game and so on. The animals depicted include animals well-known to the Japanese public as well as exotic animals and even mythological creatures. Although the caricatures are a slightly ironic representation of typical human activities, they are not meant to moralize the reader.

Chouju

Scrolls of Frolicking Animals and Humans (鳥獣人物戯画), first scroll. A stealing monkey is being chased by rabbits and frogs with sticks.

During the Edo Period (1603-1868) and after that, stories and pictures like ukiyōe 浮世絵(woodblock prints) featuring anthropomorphism became increasingly popular. Cats, mice and insects were the animals most often depicted as human beings. From the moment Japan opened up his borders in the nineteenth century, the introduction of foreign anthropomorphic figures soon followed. In the ’50s and ’60s American comics and Disney’s animation movies heavily influenced the Japanese manga scene. Animals and objects were given large eyes and a head that was proportionally too big for their small body, features contributing to their cuteness.

ISIS-chan

ISIS-chan

Today, this trend is called “moe anthropomorphism”. Moe 萌え refers to one’s strong affection towards a certain character (kyara キャラ). One of the more advanced forms of moe anthropomorphism is kemonomimi 獣耳(“beast ears”): the depiction of a cute, human-shaped character with animal ears and a tail. Apart from the many official moe characters, these kind of characters are usually created by amateurs and fans and circulate freely on the internet. The result is always cute and innocent, but the animated concept itself often is not. There exists, for example, a moe character to depict terrorist organisation ISIS.

Anthropomorphism explained 

Why is anthropomorphism so prevalent in Japanese culture? The reason remains unclear but scholars have already formulated some plausible explanations. 1) Anthropomorphism in Japan is heavily influenced by animistic Shintoism. The Japanese ancestors shaped objects and animals like human beings in order to understand the world around them. In the same way that monotheistic cultures attribute incomprehensible phenomena to their god, Shintoism describes these phenomena as having a soul. 2) Another explanation is based on the Japanese psychology. Japanese people tend to internalize their own feelings because they want to express sympathy towards the other, rather than stating their own opinion. Doing so, the relationship can continue in harmony, and the personal feelings of the other are not expressed but only assumed. In the same way, the emotions animals and even inanimate objects cannot express are being assumed and interpreted in a human way. 3) Thirdly, there is a social explanation.  When communication as a basic need is not being fulfilled, the tendency to interact with a human-shaped object becomes stronger. This could probably explain the enormous popularity of characters among socially withdrawn internet users like hikikomori 引き篭もり.  4) And last but not least, anthropomorphism would appear to have a positive effect on our efficiency. We consider predictable operations as human and expect the same from anthropomorphic objects. When these objects do so, it leads to peace of mind and improves our efficiency. This is for example the reason why Japanese people prefer android robots.

Fun Facts 

References

  • 平野重雄, 関口相三, 奥坂一也, and 喜瀬晋. “モノ創りにおける 擬人化と縮み志向の文化について.” In 日本設計工学会. 山形大学, 2014.
  • 高畑、勲.十二世紀のアニメーション―国宝絵巻物に見る映画的・アニメ的なるもの―.初版.東京:徳間書店、スタジオジブリ・カンパニー、1999.
  • 榊原、悟.江戸絵画万華鏡―戯画の系譜.初版.大江戸カルチャーブックス. 京都:青幻舎、2007.
  • Imuhata, Hachiri, and Tachibana Calamansie. “KEMONO: The History of Japanese Anthropomorphic Culture.” 2013. Prezi
  • Wikipedia.org

I’m Sorry For Apologizing

The word apology is derived from the Greek word ἀπολογία (apologia), which is aApologyplato rhetorical (written) device to express self-defense. Famous are the apologias from Plato, Aristotle and Isocrates. The purpose is forgiveness and re-acceptation. Admitting one’s guilt and showing remorse is not necessarily part of an apologia; in Plato’s famous apologia, for example, Socrates denies accusations made against him. The English word “apology” is a semantic specialization of the Greek word. It inherently indicates remorse and acknowledgment of guilt. 

The Japanese word 謝罪(shazai) is composed of 謝 sha, to apologize/thank/refuse and 罪 zai, guilt/crime/fault. Because it has no connotation with apologia, it lacks the defending aspect. In this respect, the apology itself is emphasized, while the explanation or excuse is of minor importance or is even omitted.  Japanese also give a more extended and elaborate apology (Sugimoto, 1998).

Japanese people tend to apologize a lot compared to Western countries. For example, when Japanese people enter a room, they will say 失礼しますshitsureishimasu (“I’m being rude”, meaning “I’m sorry for disturbing you”) to the people present there. When they receive a cup of tea during a home visit, they will say どうもすみません dōmo sumimasen to apologize and express gratitude at the same time. And when they want to request something from someone higher in status, they will start with お忙しいところ申しわけありませんが…oisogashii tokoro mōshiwake arimasenga,…  (I’m very sorry (to bother you) when you are busy, but …). As you can see, there are many expressions to apologize, depending upon the context, the situation and the person you’re talking with.

Sony apologizes

Sony apologizes

Sometimes, Japanese people apologize a bit too much to our liking. You will probably remember the filmed apology of Minami Minegishi, member of the idol group AKB48. Minegishi shaved her head to show remorse – and, sobbing, apologizes for her thoughtless behavior and begs for forgiveness. What did she do wrong? She had a boyfriend. And the agency’s rules are clear: no dating.

In cross-cultural research, several scholars compared the American (and Western in general) way of apologizing with the Japanese zaisha. Observed differences are:

1. Apologizing for whose mistakes?

Overall, Japanese conduct manuals give far more attention to apology than do their U.S. American counterparts. (…) In U.S. American conduct manuals, people apologize only for their own mistakes, with the exception of women’s apologizing for the mishaps of their spouses, young children or pets. By contrast, in Japanese conduct manuals, the readers are told to apologize for offenses committed by a greater range of people beyond themselves. – Sugimoto, 1998

2. Excuses

[I]n Japanese, shazai ‘apology’ is divided broadly into two types, which are ii wake ‘excuse’ and shazai suru ‘apologize’– a classification that does not exist in English. – Kashima (translator), 2009
This is something that I regularly notice as a Belgian: an apology of my fellow Belgians is almost always followed by a reason why one should apologize. “I’m sorry, but …”. The apology is a justification for their behavior or mistake.
The Attribution Theory (Ross,1993; etc.) says that people misattribute the cause of outcomes to the person rather than the environment. An apology shifts the attribution back to the environment. – Benjamin Ho (2005)
nottalotta.com

nottalotta.com

3. Non-verbal behavior

The Japanese apology is accompanied by a bow (お辞儀 ojigi). Similar to the bow when greeting, asking for a favor or thanking,  the length and depth of the bow depends on – in the case of apologizing – the degree of caused damage and the formality of the situation. The most extreme one is dogeza 土下座, kneeling on the ground and touching the floor with your head. Don’t take following video too serious.

4. Sincerity

Americans see apologizing as a recognition of personal blame. When they do apologise, it is with truthfulness and sincerity. If not, the apology is not a “real” apology. The Japanese, however, perceive sincerity (素直 sunao) differently. An apology belongs to the domain of tatemae 建前, the public attitude, and is not necessarily compatible with the inner feelings or personal opinion (本音 honne, private thought).
Sincerity of apology has different connotations in the two cultures with the Americans preoccupied with the problematics of wholeheartedness and the Japanese focused on the more attainable externality of submission to order and return to harmonious relationship -Wagatsuma & Rosett (1986)

5. Legal function

Wagatsuma and Rosett (1986) also pointed out that apologizing is indispensable in court. In traditional Japan, disputes were mediated outside court, and damaged relationships were restored by non-legal means like apologies. The emphasis on apologising continues in the modern Japanese law system. Unlike in western countries, where an apology is admission of guilt, the Japanese

seem to think it is better to apologize even when the other party is at fault (…). Japanese criminal offenders are said to be more ready than Americans to admit their guilt and throw themselves on the mercy of an offended authority.

In conclusion, what to do when you commit a mistake in Japan?

Measure the degree of injury inflicted by yourself or someone belonging to your “group”, choose the right expression and bow, avoid excuses, if not guilty apologize anyway, and don’t forget to apologize in front of the judge when accused of a crime.

References

– Maddux, William W., Peter H. Kim, Tetsushi Okumura, and Jeanne M. Brett. “Cultural Differences in the Function and Meaning of Apologies.” International Negotiation 16, no. 3 (January 1, 2011): 405–25.
– thefreedictionary.com
– Apology Translation in Diplomacy: Case Study of Prime Minister Abe’s Apology Regarding “Comfort Women” PDF 
– Sugimoto, Naomi. “Norms of Apology Depicted in U.S. American and Japanese Literature on Manners and Etiquette.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 22, no. 3 (August 1998): 251–76.
– Sugimoto, N. “A Japan-U.S. Comparison of Apology Styles.” Communication Research 24, no. 4 (August 1, 1997): 349–69.
– A Rational Theory of Apologies Benjamin Ho Poster PDF
-Wagatsuma, H., and Rosett, A.R.”The implications of apology: law and culture in Japan and the United States”, Law and Society Review 20 (1986): 461-498.

Wrapping Culture (1): Presenting the Present

banner wrappingculture1presenting the presentSome time ago, I announced the topic of my bachelor paper and gave a short introduction about it. You thought I had forgotten all about it? Hah! In fact, I have written several (Dutch) texts about it this far and finished my paper. So, now the deadlines are gone it’s time for an update. First: wrapping in its literal meaning.

Japanese history is filled with various types of wrapping. Archeologists dug up remainders of early wrapping methods, other types of packing are described in ancient books. Ever since the Jōmon Period (10.000 B.C. – 300 B.C.) people used the peel of melons and gourds and the skin of animals to transport water and food. They wove bamboo leafs, rice plants and wooden splints to cover things. And of course Jōmon pottery was used for storing food. The Jōmon people formed a nomadic hunter-gatherer society and because of their constant moving, wrapping materials were necessary for bringing their belongings with them.

Reconstruction of Jomon people preparing and storing fresh fish at the sea coast. source:nbz.or.jp

Reconstruction of Jomon people preparing and storing fresh fish at the sea-coast. source:nbz.or.jp

During the Yayoi Period (300 B.C. – 250 A.D.) not only various material wrappings were invented, spatial wrapping was put into practice as well. Yayoi people lived in specific houses, called tateana 竪穴 or “pit houses”. Another example of spatial wrapping is the way the dead were buried. Two big jars enclosed the body. These jars were put horizontally under the ground.

tateana and kamekan- source: wikimedia commons and www.city.chikushino.fukuoka.jp

tateana and kamekan– source: Wikimedia Commons and http://www.city.chikushino.fukuoka.jp

During the Kofun Period (3th Century – 7th Century) textile was preferred because of its light and flexible quality. Weaving techniques were imported from China, together with sericulture. The Nara Period (710-794) was short but covered a whole range of new wrapping materials, due to a strong development of culture and economics. Wrappers for silk clothes, tableware, ritual wrappings, lunch-boxes… Many objects were brought back from Tang China and definitely introduced in Japan.

One of the most well-known wrappings, furoshiki 風呂敷, can be traced back to the Heian Period (794-1185). Furoshiki is a creatively died, eco-friendly, multifunctional wrapping cloth. Originally, it was used to put away clothes and personal stuff before the owner entered a public bath (the characters means “bath spread”). Nowadays, furoshiki are a popular wrapping for lunch-boxes and presents. Depending on the object you want to wrap, there are many ways of folding furoshiki.

A folded wrapping cloth next to its own wrappings.

A folded wrapping cloth (furoshiki) next to its own wrappings.

The Heian Period, noted as the cultural and artistic peak of the Imperial Court, is known for its writing upper class. Not only for men, but for many courteous ladies as well it was only appropriate to write a fairly large amount of letters, diaries and poetry on a daily base. Most of these dealt with love affairs. In particular, letters had to be decorated with a piece of nature or a sign of consideration. Prince Genji, no stranger to amorous letters, knows exactly how to adorn his letters with a fitting symbolic decoration:

The gods will not wish me to speak of them, perhaps,

But I think of sacred cords of another autumn.

‘Is there no way to make the past the present?’

He wrote as if their relations might permit of a certain intimacy. His note was on azure Chinese paper attached most solemnly to a sacred branch from which streamed ritual cords. (Genji Monogatari online)

 Here Genji suggests a religious retreat because he has been rejected by Princess Asagao “Morning Glory”, a high priestess who  is the receiver of this letter. The sacred branch with ritual cords matches the contents of the letter, and is at the same time an homage to the high priestess.

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Decorated letters survived the ages. Some letters from my collection I received from Japanese pen friends.

During the Japanese Middle Ages (1185-1603), again, many new wrappings came into vogue. Among other things the tradition of noshi 熨斗 as a ritual wrapping for gifts was initiated. Noshi is a small piece of abalone, covered in white and red paper. Abalone itself was originally a gift, but was later used as a symbol of a gift. It symbolizes the purity of the giver. Dirtiness in shintoism is associated with death and illness. Nowadays, noshi is printed or reproduced on an envelope, the ensemble called noshigami 熨斗紙. Often money is presented this way.

Noshigami with a nosh in the right corner.

Noshigami with a noshi in the right corner.

The gold and silver knot strings (sometimes red and white), mizuhiki 水引, dates back from the Edo Period (1603-1868). The knot symbolizes the unity between giver and receiver. Another item that became used as a wrapping for gifts is fukusa 袱紗, or tea cloth. Its original function was purifying equipment used during the tea ceremony. In an isolated Japan, native traditions were strongly kept alive. Every wealthy family possessed some fukusa, richly embroidered with gold thread and depicting abundant scenes, along with the family crest. It was representative for the owner’s taste and wealth. Just like furoshiki, the wrapping was usually returned after presenting the gift, unless the receiver was much higher in ranking. Nowadays, fukusa are rarely used as a gift wrapping, except for weddings maybe.

Fukusa depicting agricultural scenes of the four seasons.

Fukusa depicting agricultural scenes of the four seasons. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nowadays, furoshiki and noshi are two traditional wrappings that are still used daily. But above all, the most popular wrapping today is without doubt the plastic bag. And Japan knows how to use it very well. You can’t leave the super market without your purchases being wrapped separately and again in a bigger bag. Good news is that Japan is a front-runner in the recycling of plastics (77% in 2011). Fruit is wrapped in plastic and again in a silicon cover.

wrapped applesAll the presents I have received up till now were covered in at least two layers of wrappings. Sweets for example. These sweets are mostly distributed as small presents (omiyage お土産) to friends. The sweets I received were wrapped in paper, in a plastic box with a cellophane cover, and provided with a wrapped fork and a little “oxy-eater” bag. A good thing is that recently the eco-friendly furoshiki is totally in again.

A type of mochi, rice cake.

References

– Wikipedia
– Hendry, Joy. Wrapping Culture: Politeness, Presentation, and Power in Japan and Other Societies. Oxford University Press, 1995.
-Fukuzawa, Kotoe, Akira Ueda, Chan-­‐il Park, Kiyoshi Miyazaki, en Takayuki Higuchi. 『飛鳥から平安時代におけ る「包み」の文化 ー「風呂敷」の語源とその前史.』 (asuka kara heianjidai ni okeru “tsutsumi” no bunka -­‐“furoshiki” no gogen to sono zenshi, Eng: Origin and Transition of “Furoshiki” Investigated from Materials in Asuka, Heian and Nara periods – Prehistory and Etymology of “Furoshiki”) Bulletin of JSSD 54, no. 4 (mei 2007).
-“Japan Streets Ahead in Global Plastic Recycling Race.” The Guardian, 29 december 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/dec/29/japan-­‐leads-­‐field-­‐plastic-­‐recycling.
-Nukada, Iwao. 包み (Tsutsumi, Eng: Wrapping). Tokio: Hōsei Daigaku Shuppansha, 1977.
-『年表でみるモノの歴史事典』. (nenpyō de miru mono no rekishijiten, Eng: historical encyclopedia of things, seen in chronological tables) Tokio: Yumani Shobō, 1995.
-Vande Walle, Willy. Een Geschiedenis Van Japan: Van Samurai Tot Soft Power. Leuven; Den Haag: Acco, 2009.
-Rupp, Katherine. Gift-­‐giving in Japan : Cash, Connections, Cosmologies. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003.
http://lucy.kent.ac.uk/csacpub/Mono19/Html/wrapped_gifts-3_b.html
-Joya, Moku. Japan and Things Japanese. Londen: Kegan Paul, 2006.
-Murasaki Shikibu. Genji Monogatari. Rutland, Vt.: C.E. Tuttle, 1974.

23rd Japanese Speech Contest in Belgium

speechcontest20131031_161739Yesterday, I participated for the second time in the Japanese speech contest in Brussels. I didn’t finish in one of the first five places, but enjoyed an afternoon listening to everyone’s speeches and chatting with other participants and Japanese spectators. I will publish my speech here. I chose the topic of ‘wrapping culture’, something I have written about before on this blog.

こんにちは。ルーヴァン大学の三年生のアンソフィーと申します。今日は日本の物を包む文化についてお話したいと思います。どうぞ宜しくお願いします。私は今年、卒業論文を書くことになっていますが、 論文のテーマもこの「包む文化」について書くことに決めました。

日本の包む文化というのはどんな文化かをご存知ですか。今から、私の体験を二つお話し したいと思います。

一つ目の体験は、2年前にベルギーに留学している日本人の友人が「ゲントを案内してくれないか」と頼んできたことから始まりました。その人の二人の友達はヨーロッパを旅行中で、ベルギーにも来ました。その時一年生になったばかりの私は、知っている日本語でなんとかゲントの観光地を紹介しました。お互い時々誤解もしましたが、たくさん笑ったり、話したりすることができました。ベルギーの政治制度についても説明してみましたが、それは完全に失敗しました。あまりにも複雑ですから、オランダ語で説明しなさいと言われてもすこし困ってしまいます。

speechcontest20131117_125137(ものを見せながら)とにかく、ガイドが終わったあとで、その二人の日本人からこの素敵な風呂敷のプレゼントをもらいました。とても嬉しかったです。初めての日本のプレゼントだったんです。今は包装を外したんですが、もらった時はきれいに折られて、この紙袋に入っていました。また、それをビニール袋で包まれています。私はびっくりしました。「どうして2回も包んであるのかしら」と思いました。

これはベルギーの包み方と比べると、かなり違います。ベルギーなら、ビニール袋は絶対プレゼントと一緒にはげないものです。そして、紙袋より、包み紙のほうがよく使われています。その上、ベルギー人はプレゼントを開けたあとで、包み紙を捨てるから、パッケージについてはあまりかまいません。包みより、内容が大事です。でも、日本ではそうではありませんね。この経験を通して、内容もパッケージも大事だということが分かってきました。

二つ目の体験は去年の夏に日本のペンフレンド・クラブに応募した時のことです。 日本人のペンフレンドが四人も出来て、すごく喜びました。みんな女性です。男性は手紙を書くのがあまり好きではないようですね。応募用紙を送った2週間あとで、初めての手紙が着きました。またハッとしました。封筒だけでもアートワークだったんです。封筒も手紙もキラキラな色で、ステッカーも貼ってあります。(手紙を見せながら)信じられないほど可愛いです。

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私は、自分の手紙を恥ずかしいと思いました。白い封筒だし、白い便箋、それから、ステッカーもなかったんです。日本人にとってはすごくつまらなかったでしょう。しかし、パッと可愛い手紙を書き始めることはなかなかできませんでした。なぜなら、それはベルギー人の習慣と違うからです。ここでは、可愛くて、飾りがいっぱいの手紙は子供達によってしか書かれていないと思われています。私も、そのような手紙を送ったことがありませんでした。でも、少しずつ、その書き方に慣れてきて、今は封筒を飾って、カラフルな紙に書いて手紙を送るようにしています。

プレゼントや手紙などの場合は、日本人は本当にきれいに包むのが好きだということに気が付きました。でも、日本の包む文化は物質的だけではなくて、他の文化的なアスペクトも包むことと関係がありそうです。

日本の文化要素として、日本人が包むことを大事にしていると思います。それはベルギーの文化と少し違いますが、お互いをよく理解するために、そのような差について考えなくてはなりません。そうしたら、他の文化の心が発見できるんでしょう。だから、私は日本の包む文化について深く勉強したいと思います。以上です。ご清聴ありがとうございました。

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Japan’s Wrapping Culture

For our bachelor paper next year, we had to come up with a decent subject and research question this week. In fact, I already had been thinking a while on writing a post about ‘wrapping culture’. The subject proved to be more profound than I thought, so I decided to turn it into my field of research for next year. This post deals with the general content, while the listed items will be elaborated in further posts.

1. PRESENTING THE PRESENT

Japanese sweet1My interest in the topic has grown step by step.  My first encounter with wrapped objects happened last year. I had been asked by a Japanese friend to tour around some people in the picturesque city of Ghent (in which I somehow succeeded, mixing up broken Japanese and English) and received a furoshiki 風呂敷 as thanking present. Not only the furoshiki, a beautifully patterned piece of cloth to wrap things up, but the packaging on itself caught my intention. The present was wrapped carefully in nice paper with a ribbon and a sticker on it and put in a plastic bag with the shop logo. In Belgium, you wrap presents too (or ask the shop tenant to do it for you), but you definitely leave the bag at home. Ribbons are optionally, while stickers are hardly used. We also don’t put the object first in boxes, only a wrapping paper will do.

furoshiki-wrappingcultureTake for example Japanese food. We see a Japanese meal, each substance put in a separate bowl. Sushi in his jacket of seaweed. Biscuits double wrapped. Lunch packed in lacquered boxes (bentō 弁当). Japanese sweets, wrapped per each, inside the package another kind of wrapping. How beautifully this is done, shows the importance Japanese attach to presentation.

(…) If the means of presentation is elegant enough, the nature or even value of the medium of exchange may almost pale into insignificance. (Joy Hendry, 1993)

washiThe attention people pay to gift wrapping can be demonstrated by the famous gift-giving giri 義理, a social duty and obligation. The presentation of the present is so far as meaningful that the wrapping should indicate what’s inside. Business presents, for example, are often not even opened. People save it to pass it to the next business partner. There are standard envelopes for money gifts. Just giving a plain envelope would be considered as inappropriate.

2. SOMETHING THAT SUITS YOU

picture by kErosEnE

picture by kErosEnE

So, I had the impression that Japanese people like to wrap. Further experiences have only strengthened this impression. Not only presents, people too are wrapped in presentation. Take for example the uniform. Throughout Japanese history, rigid dress code was brought into vogue. The outer appearance of attire displays rather someone’s function than his or her personality. For every job there’s a uniform. The school girl has her sailor uniform, the businessman cannot afford to wear something else than a suit, white shirt and tie. The human wrapping by excellence is the kimono 着物. Torso and legs are tightly surrounded by cloth, with the bow (obi 帯) as a finishing touch.

picture by Pitke

picture by Pitke

But, what is the effect on the environment? How much plastic would be saved if shop keepers didn’t put everything in three bags? How much less  air conditioning would be needed would be if people worked in T-shirt during summer?

wrapped apples

3. WRAPPED (BODY) LANGUAGE

Then, I realised that ‘wrapping’ goes beyond material things. Japanese tend to wrap up their language and behaviour. Not only the perceptible use of honorific and humble speech, where plain words are embellished to express respect or modesty, but also the more hidden indirect form of communication. Japan is known for its “silent culture”, where a smile is used to hide shame or ignorance, “defending the face”. The face functions as the wrapping paper, covering up true intentions and feelings safely inside the Japanese mind.

Misunderstandings about each others culture sometimes bother negotiations between the West and the East. We like to get straight to the point and strictly separate our personal and professional ties, while Easterners prefer to create a favourable and friendly environment in which the negotiations can run smoothly. I visualise this by imagining  a present of which the wrapping layers are carefully ripped off one by one.

The Japanese have a genuine mistrust of verbal skills, thinking that these tend to show superficiality in contrast to inner, less articulate feelings that are communicated by innuendo or by non verbal means. (Reisschauer, 1977)

This indirect style communication is mainly present in cultures most influenced by Confucianism, i.e. China, Korea and Japan. Confucianism put the emphasis on social relationships in contrast with the Western individualism. We like to express ourselves clearly, we unwrap our thoughts in front of the other. Situations in which we use a lot of words, are often replaced by a slight bow and smile in Japan. I often have the impression that, for example in Japanese movies, fewer words are used.

My goal is not to judge about wrapping culture. I only want to research how various cultural differences could be traced back to the concept of wrapping. I hope I have caught your attention with this introduction, so please look forward to my following posts on this topic!