9 Japanese Traditions

The Land of the Rising Sun is a country with historic and contempory traditions abound. While there may be plenty of Japanese traditions which come to mind, there are also many customs, pastimes and habits which are still brand new to many of us in the Western world. Whether you’re testing your knowledge of Japanese culture, or curious to learn more, we’ve got 9 Japanese traditions for you to check out!

  1. Do People Tip in Japan?
  2. Onsen Etiquette
  3. Shugi Bukuro
  4. Is Eating on the go in Japan Allowed?
  5. What to wear to Japanese Summer Festivals
  6. Zabuton Throwing
  7. New Years Bean-Throwing
  8. Dondo Yaki
  9. The Japanese Art of Gift-Giving

1. No Tipping in Japan

Japan No Tipping
Courtesy of Lea Latumahina via Flickr

In Japan, there is no tipping! Depending on the country you hail from, this could be tricky to fathom. If you add a tip to your bill, it will be returned to you like change you’re due back. However well-meaning your guesture, in Japan tipping is considered insulting. They believe that a price is a price so why would they want more than asked of? In layman’s terms, just don’t do it!

2. Onsen Etiquette

onsen etiquette japanese tradition
via Wikipedia Commons

Onsen (hot spring public baths) are something of an institution in Japan. An abundance of active volcanoes makes the country a prime spot for hot springs of all types. The majority of Japanese onsen are nude-only and you will not be allowed to enter the baths in swimwear. A little privacy can be found in the modesty towels provided by the onsen. Modesty towels allow you to cover yourself between the changing room and the hot springs. However, you are not allowed to put the towels in the water for risk of contamination, hence the reason that many people bathe with towels atop their head. Learn more about Japanese Onsen etiquette.

3. Shugi Bukuro

shugi bukuro traditional japanese gift
An ornate item from our collection of Shugi Bukuro

Shugi Bukuro are a common way of sharing gifts such as money, gift vouchers, tickets and even wedding invitiations in Japan. Although they can be given to anyone for any special occasion, Shugi Bukuro are traditionally given to newly-weds.

Unmarried guests (friends and company colleagues) are expected to give between ¥20,000 and ¥30,000, while married couples commonly give ¥50,000. Members of the bridal and groom parties often give between ¥30,000-¥50,000, whilst family members are likely to give anything between ¥50,000 and ¥100,000!

Amounts beginning with an even number are typically avoided, as this would suggest the couple may soon split and can easily divide their monetary gifts evenly.

What’s more, the number 4 in Japanese (shi) isn’t dissimilar to their word for death, and the number 9 (ku) sounds like the word for suffering. Therefore, it is offensive to gift someone a Shugi Bukuro containing an amount of money beginning with 4 or 9!

4. Eating on the go in Japan…

is a huuuge no-no! It is very disrespectful to walk and eat in Japan, and often simply in public spaces. Here, the idea of ‘ikkai ichi dōsa‘ or ‘one thing at a time’ is very important. If you buy something at the supermarket, it is best to take it home to eat. If you buy food from a stall in the street, there is often seating provided to eat at. Eating on the sacred grounds of temples and shrines is extremely disrespectful! It is only acceptable during a festival when food stalls are set up – even then, there may be seating to use! I also wouldn’t recommend eating in a station, and definitely not on the train! Luckily, many convenience stores (konbini) provide a seating area where you can enjoy your melon-pan or kare-man! If you’re looking for a snazzy new way to do lunch-on-the-go, why not check out this traditional Japanese bentō box?

konbini eat-in space seating
Courtesy of Get Hiroshima

5. Summer Matsuri Clothes

The Japanese have cultural festivals abound, and they don’t stop when the temperature ramps up! Luckily Japanese summer clothing exists, including Yukata and Jinbei! It is tradition to dress in Yukata to attend cultural festivals such as Gion Matsuri in Kyoto! 

Yukata are similar to kimono in design and silhouette. The slim-fitting garment gives the wearer a filiform silhouette associated with elegance. However, Yukata are made from cotton for a lightweight style perfect for humid Japanese summers. The popular Japanese summer clothing is considered perhaps a little more casual than its kimono cousin. Because of their bright and colourful patterns, a Yukata makes the perfect outfit for Summer Matsuri. Click here to learn more about Yukata and Jinbei!

6. Zabuton Throwing

Zabuton throwing japanese tradition

Sumo Wrestling is widely popular among the Japanese. In many Sumo stadiums there will be a tatami area for people to sit. Tatami is an area of soft woven straw mats, common in traditional buildings and homes for seating and even sleeping on. That said, at Sumo matches no one will be sleeping! On the Tatami area, revellers will be given Zabuton pillows to sit on. However, a common Japanese tradition sees frustrated spectators throwing their Zabuton into the ring!

7. Setsubun

Setsubun mamemaki japanese tradition
Oni masks and soy beans via Trip Savvy

Another Japanese tradition is observing Setsubun. Setsubun is a Japanese holiday which takes place the day before Spring in Japan (the next one will be the 2nd of Feburary 2021). On this holiday, the Japanese believe that the spirit world is closest to our world. One activity during the holiday is called mamemaki, this is where the children are given the opportunity to scare the demons out of their house. During mamemaki, a parent will put on an oni mask to represent the demons and they scare their children. The children then fend of the demons by throwing soy beans (mame)! This is still a popular Japanese tradition in the household, but many people attend a shrine or temple where mamemaki takes place as part of their spring festival.

8. Dondo Yaki

year of the mouse kokeshi doll
In the Japanese Zodiac, 2020 is the Year of the Mouse

In Japan, it’s considered unlucky to keep lucky items for more than a year. Instead of putting items in the bin, the lucky objects are traditionally burned and this is known as Dondo Yaki. Things that should be burned include omamori and items with that year’s zodiac sign. This year’s zodiac sign is the mouse. Dondo Yaki takes place in January, so if you’re still hanging onto last year’s lucky charm, it may be time for a bonfire and to purchase a new one!

9. Gift-giving

gift-giving etiquette japan
Gift-giving etiquette is just as important as the gift!

Gift-giving is a major type of Japanese traditions – it’s not reserved for birthdays and other celebrations. Omiyage and temiyage are two prevalent types of gift-giving. Omiyage is the giving of souvenirs. I’m sure you’re thinking ‘but that’s just as common in the UK?’. Japanese tourists regularly buy souvenirs for friends, family and colleagues so there are souvenir shops are everywhere in Japan. Unlike many souvenir stalls in the UK, they’re not (just) filled with tat, but thoughtful and eloquent gifts, often specific to the local area’s specialities and culture.

Temiyage are ‘thank-you’ gifts you take when you are visiting someone, such as a host family. While it’s not compulsory to bring such gifts, it’s always well appreciated, and it’s simply part of the culture! However, make sure you spend no more or less than ¥1000 and ¥5000 – it would be insulting to give a particularly cheap item, or to boast your wealth with something flashy! Keep it simple – the souvenir shops make it very easy!

5 quick tips on giving and accepting gifts in Japan:

  • When either giving or receiving a gift, you must give/take the item with both hands – it’s a sign of respect!
  • Modesty is a major part of Japanese culture and etiquette: you should humbly refuse the gift up to 3 times before accepting
  • It is rude to open a gift in front of a large group of people
  • It is also rude to give a gift to only one person in a large group
  • Exchanging gifts in a meeting should be left until the end. Otherwise, you appear to be rushing the meeting!

If you’re searching for a unique gift, we’ve got you covered! Here at The Japanese Shop, we have an extensive range of authentic Japanese gifts, from intricate kimono to cute kokeshi dolls, classic Japanese tableware to calligraphy sets and much more. Discover your next perfect gift with free gift-wrapping here at The Japanese Shop!

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