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April 21, 2021

Fascinating Cultural Facts About Japan for Curious Travellers

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Allow these cultural facts about Japan to introduce you to her many traditions and customs. After all, these interesting facts about japan will help you feel more comfortable about your trip. Let our guest writer get you up to speed with some great fun facts about Japan. Enjoy!

Yokote Kamakura Igloo Festival Japan - shrine inside an igloo

Igloos lit by candles as shrines in Yokote

Cultural Facts About Japan

After years locked away, for almost two centuries, Japan has opened its borders to international visitors. The country is rich in diverse cultures and traditions, with exciting cuisine and fascinating architecture. Here, let's share some cultural facts about Japan to help enjoy the place even more. 

If you book or buy through some of the links on this page, we may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Cheers!

Want to travel to Japan?

Nothing makes these cultural facts about Japan come to life more than visiting the country and experiencing it for yourself. Check out our guide to the highlights of Japan and  how to get off the beaten path in Japan.

We also have a selection of itineraries, including how to spend two days in Kyoto and five days in Tokyo.

For most European and US visitors, it should be straightforward to get a tourist visa, unlike a China visa or Russian visa where you might benefit from some help from an agency.

Check out our Japan Trip Planner for more details.

Japan - Tokyo - Night scene with red Tokyo tower

Interesting Facts About Japan

Understand the Right way to Use Chopsticks

While someone may take pity on you and hand you a fork, in many places in Japan, it's chopsticks or nothing. Japanese people use chopsticks for dishes like noodles and sushi and it's a skill that every Japanese child has mastered. And while you can read up on it, practice makes perfect.

Bear in mind some rules of etiquette when using chopsticks in Japan:

  • It is wrong and inappropriate to use a chopstick to cut your food or stick it right into your food upright, as this signifies a different custom. For instance, during funeral traditions, people will put their chopsticks upright in rice.
  • Whenever you want to break down a large piece of food, all you need to do is lift the food with your chopstick and take a bite. While this might different to at home, it is considered appropriate and seen as better than using your chopstick to break off food. 
  • After eating, it is expected that you place the chopsticks in front of you and face the tips to the left.

Find more about how to best use chopsticks in Japan here.

Black Teeth Were Considered Attractive

In one of the many quirks of fashion and beauty, for centuries, Japanese women would blacken their teeth. 

Typically, women used various substance (like ink and tooth wax) to maintain the black appearance, to appear more beautiful and protect the health of their teeth.  

It was known as Ohaguro, although you'd be hard pressed to find it now.

Interesting facts about Japan - kimonos and geisha make up - three women

There is a Right (And a Wrong) Way to Wear Your Kimono

One of our favourite cultural facts about Japan involves the fabric of the kimono. Does it seem impossible to get a dressing gown wrong? Well, pay attention. There's more to it than just wrapping one side in front of the other and tying a knot. 

Kimonos exist in various styles, for all kinds of different occasions, formal and informal. As a basic rule for both women and men, kimonos fold left over right, which is the opposite of American women's clothing. You'll find it easier to work out patterned kimonos, but always bear in mind: left over right.

Wait for a Refill

Some things don't change around the world: people like to get together for food and drink. However, an interesting cultural fact about Japan is that people consider it polite to offer to refill other glasses, not your own. 

As a result, when you have an empty glass, wait for someone else to fill it up, and be watching everyone’s glasses as well since they are surely waiting for you to refill it. If you are full and don't feel like drinking again, don't drink from your full cup.

Experience a Penis Festival

Every year, the Kanamara Matsuri festival celebrates female fertility - and the penis. The festival is held every spring  on the first Sunday in April at the Kanayama Shrine.  As you might expect, the Kanayama Shrine is a meeting point for couples who want to pray for good fortune and fertility for their marriage.

During the festival, you'll find almost everything in the shape of a phallus. Sweets, vegetables, and even decorations are usually in the form of the male sexual organs and it's nothing to do with a Hen Do.

Japanese Cultural Facts - snack boxes with strawberry and mochi

Omiyage: Come with the gift of food

The idea behind “omiyage” is similar to the idea of souvenirs in the Western world. It involves bringing back something from your trip (long, short, domestic or international) for your friends and loved ones, including colleagues from work. This explains why lots of train stations in Japan have shops that sell assorted food products.

While souvenirs may be optional extras at home, in Japan, omiyage is very much expected. Typically, the omiyage gift box comes with edible souvenirs, such as mocha and matcha.

Gambling is Restricted

Many forms of gambling are off limits in Japan. However, people find a way around the rules. As a substitute for the slot machines, Pachinko offers a similar experience.

Players buy tiny metal balls to slot into the pachinko machine. And while players are not allowed to win cash, the winning balls can be exchanged for prizes and other tokens (that can later be exchanged for cash.)

Obesity is Rare

While sumo wrestlers are quite famous in Japan, obese or fat people are otherwise almost nonexistent. There are many reasons that could explain Japan's low rate of obesity.

Japan has one of the best and well-balanced diets with assorted healthy meals. What's more, the Metabo law of 2008 made it compulsory for all over 40s to measure their waistline on a yearly basis to make sure they remain within the healthy range. 

Sleeping in Public is a Marker of Hard Work

Don't be surprised to find people sleeping in public places like park benches, trains and others. This is known as inemuri which means, “sleep while being present."

While this is a common Japanese cultural practice, it is seen as a sign of hard work. It simply means someone has been working extremely hard for the company’s success and couldn’t keep their eyes open for a moment longer. It's not unusual to find people sleeping at their desk, either.

However, Inumeri is not a free pass for workers to get under their desk and take a nap. The idea is that they must appear to have dozed off in the middle of work. An inumeri is different from a planned siesta (hirune), but the posture tells the difference between sloth and the unintentional nap.

Fun facts about Japan for first time visitors
Cultural facts about Japan - what you need to know before visiting Japan

Manners Matter

Formalities are an integral part of Japanese culture. The manner of addressing others is considered a sign of respect, reflected through various speech patterns and body language traditions.

  • It is customary to shake hands in the US. In Japan, however, the gold standard involves greeting someone with a bow - and there are several forms of bowing.
  • To greet and meet new people, one will bow at 15 degrees. This is known as the eshaku, a semi-formal bow.
  • The highest form of respect is greeting someone with a bow at 45 degrees. It is called the salkerei bow.
  • Japanese people typically address each other based on age, relationship and gender. As a norm, clients, customers and older people do require a more formal approach in speech.
  • You are expected to adhere to formal titles except when there is a close relationship between you and the other person. As a result, you will use sama or san after the last name of the person. For example, for a business colleague called Richard Platt, you would use the phrase Platt-san.

A HeartWarming Lost Property Practice

There is a high probability that you will find anything you lose in Japan at the local police box or Koban, which is present in strategic places around the neighbourhood. Many people, including friends and visitors to Japan, have reported finding their things like their wallets, mobile phones and other personal items hours after losing them.

As a result, all you need to do is proceed to the nearest police box if you know where you lost something. 

Want to know another interesting cultural fact about Japan? If you report anything to the local police and it isn't claimed within six months, then the item becomes yours.

Heart shaped igloo at Yokote Kamakura Matsuri

Perhaps my favourite? The heart shaped igloo at Yokote Kamakura Matsuri

Religion Can Be Flexible

While you will find Christianity in Japan, the most common religions are Buddhism and Shinto. Yet, there's often more flexibility than in other countries. Don't be too surprised to find Christian symbols inside Shinto shrines. As one Japanese friend told me, "it's the more, the merrier as far as gods are concerned."

  • Japanese people tend to consider religion to be more of a moral code that everyone needs to live by, rather than an official doctrine.
  • They consider it as a way of life that matches their cultural and social values.
  • In Japan, religion and state are completely separated, making religion a private family affair.
  • Shintoism believes that every living thing in nature has some form of gods or kami.
  • Buddhism tends toward the soul with the afterlife.

Tea Ceremonies Are Intricate Affairs

One of the most intriguing cultural facts about Japan involves the tradition of the tea ceremony. This is a formal and stylish procedure with roots in Buddhism and meditation. 

Japanese tea ceremonies carry important meanings for citizens and guests should feel pretty honoured to be invited. Everyone at a Japanese tea ceremony has a particular role to play, and the sitting position is based on a person's ranking. Etiquette is exact and controlled and the ceremony can last for hours.

More About Cultural Facts About Japan

These are just some of the important Japanese customs and cultural facts about Japan that will help you feel more at home when you travel through Japan. Visiting a new country can be pretty overwhelming, but a knowledge of the customs and traditions will help ensure you have a good time.

Cultural facts about Japan - what you need to know before visiting Japan
Fun facts about Japan for first time visitors

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About the author

Guest Writer

Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Find out more.

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