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The Practical Guide to Japanese Folklore

By Jess, published on 28/09/2019 Blog > Languages > Japanese > The Quick Guide to Japanese Culture

In Asia, there are plenty of different countries, each with their own diverse culture. Japan is one of the eastern countries that many people are interested in because of its cuisine, art, countryside, and cultural heritage. An estimated 20 million tourists will visit the country in 2020.

Japanese culture is broad and varied and blends the traditional with the modern. Japan is home to traditional cuisine and folklore as well as modern technology. However, tourists enjoy the traditional far more than the modern.

In this article, Superprof is looking at most popular Japanese traditions, sports in the country, sumo, Geishas, and traditional Japanese weapons. So get your yukata ready, we’re off to discover Japan.

Typical Martial Arts in Japan

Martial arts are popular all over the world. While boxing is probably the most popular combat sport in the UK, Japan has a long history with martial arts. Here are some of the most popular martial arts in Japan.

What are the most common martial arts in Japan? Japan has a long history of martial arts. (Source: gregorycosta)

Combat Sports and Martial Arts

Martial arts are a type of sport and self-defence generally using punches, kicks, and grabs. The most popular martial arts from Japan are judo and karate, with most cities in the UK having clubs for both

There are also other martial arts jujutsu, the precursor to judo, and aikido, a sport based on using your adversary’s strength against them. These are violent sports but they’re about becoming more peaceful:

“Martial arts were used on the battlefield and for training the Samurai. Today, these martial arts still train samurais but represent piece. Martial arts are designed to nurture peace.” – Hiroo Mochizuki

There are also martial arts such as Shorinji Kempo and Nippon Kempo. These two combat sports were inspired by other martial arts but they also teach spirituality.

Mastering Weapons in Japan

There are also martial arts that make use of weapons. Here are a few of the more popular martial arts with weapons:

  • Kendo: using a sword.
  • Jukendo: using a bayonet.
  • Naginata: using a naginata (a pole weapon)
  • Iaido: using a sword with a focus on quickly drawing a sword and responding to sudden attacks.
  • Kyudo: using a Japanese bow.

These are all the result of Japanese military training rituals for samurais, warriors, or armed monks.

Geishas: Mysterious Japanese Artists

Popularised in the film “Memoirs of a Geisha” and promoted by the Japanese government as a symbol of Japanese culture, Geishas continue to fascinate westerners and the Japanese. Here are a few things you should know about them.

What do geishas do? Geishas are artists and entertainers. (Source: patrik671)

A Refined Artist and Courtesan

“She paints her face to hide her face. Her eyes are deep water. It is not for Geisha to want. It is not for geisha to feel. Geisha is an artist of the floating world. She dances, she sings. She entertains you, whatever you want. The rest is shadows, the rest is secret.” – Memoirs of a Geisha

Geishas certainly are mysterious with the white makeup, hair in buns, and ornate kimonos. Geishas are artists whose job is to entertain their clients.

Contrary to popular western belief, Geishas are not prostitutes. In Japanese culture, this is very clear. Geishas are not supposed to provide these types of services. Their main role is to play an instrument like the shamisen, perform traditional Japanese dances, to accompany their clients and to serve them.

Geishas Throughout History

Geishas originated in the 13th century when artists were invited to Kyoto to entertain the emperor though these were generally men. During the 17th century, women started performing these roles as geisha.

You could find them in tea rooms and some would sell their bodies to wealthy customers. In fact, a Geisha’s virginity could be sold for a fortune through prostitution. However, it should be made clear that a geisha isn’t a prostitute.

The golden age of geishas was during the 19th and 20th century and there were thousands of them around Japan, particularly in Kyoto in the Gion neighbourhood. They were very fashionable and popular, making the business very lucrative.

The Second World War resulted in the closure of the Okiya for a year. While the Geishas could return to work after this time, few did. The practice was further hurt by the fact that the Japanese government made it illegal for girls to leave education before the age of 16.

Today, there are still geishas, but in far fewer numbers than in their heyday. There’s been an increase in popularity in recent years, though. There are still a few who don their kimono in a teahouse or geisha house and perform traditional Japanese dance, kabuki theatre, calligraphy, or the traditional tea ceremony.

Talk about talented!

Sumo, the Ancient Sport from the Land of the Rising Sun

Of all the sports done in Japan, the most unique and special is probably sumo. It may seem strange and difficult to understand, but it’s an important part of Japanese history. Here’s what you need to know about Sumo, Japan’s national sport.

What is sumo wrestling? Sumo wrestling is a combat sport, ritual, art, and sacred ceremony all at the same time. (Source: 12019)

The Rikishi and the Rules of Sumo

A sumo wrestler is also known as a rikishi or sumotori. These combatants practice a sacred art in the dohyo, a ring 4m in diameter. Each rikishi holds a rank from novice to yokozuna (grand champion) as well as a shikona (ring name).

Before a match, the rikishis complete a purification ritual on their body and mind and the dohyo itself is also purified. They then get into position for combat. To win, they need to throw their adversary to the ground or remove them from the ring.

There are 6 main sumo tournaments per year with 3 of them occurring in the capital city, Tokyo. It’s very popular in Japan and is more than just a sport, it’s a way to communicate with the gods.

Sumo Through the Ages

As the legend goes, sumo arose from a battle between two gods for control of the Japanese islands. Much later, a mortal by the name of Sukune, who is considered the father of sumo, fought a man to the death.

Sumo was introduced into the emperor’s court in the 8th century but it was just a shinto ritual. It became a veritable martial art in the 9th century and became popular across the whole of Japan.

In the 17th century, sumo become a professional sport and entertainment for the rich. Promoters emerged and started offering budding rikishis a career. During the Edo period, sumo turned towards the general public. The ranking system later appeared.

Today, it’s very popular in Japan!

Japanese History: Traditional Japanese Weapons

Japan is a country that developed for many years without any outside interference. It was able to forge its own culture and military discipline, too. This is why there are several traditional weapons that are unique to Japan.

What are the most common Japanese weapons? The Katana is one of Japan’s most symbolic weapons. (Source: skefalacca)

Japanese Bladed Weapons

Japan is known for its swords: they commonly appear in Japanese cultural works and the most famous one is undoubtedly the katana. These curved samurai swords were used before the arrival of gunpowder weapons in the 16th century.

Among the most famous Japanese blades, we could mention:

  • The Katana (a sword over 60cm)
  • The Tachi (an older sword, used by samurai horsemen)
  • The Wakizashi (a shorter sword between 30cm and 60cm)
  • The Tanto (a Japanese dagger under 30cm)
  • The Tessen (a metal fan with blades)
  • The Naginata (a wooden lance with a curved blade at the end)
  • The Yari (a lance between 2.5 and 4m in length)
  • The Kunai (ninja dagger)
  • The Sai (a three-pointed dagger)

We could also mention weapons like the Kama and Kue, types of hooks. These were agricultural tools that were used to defend Okinawa.

Ranged Japanese Weapons and Blunt Weapons

There are plenty of Japanese ranged weapons. The Yumi, a traditional Japanese bow, is one of the most important. There are a whole bunch of ranged weapons in Japan including shurikens (metal stars) and senbon (metal needles).

There are also blunt weapons used to strike foes such as nunchakus. However, there are also a whole range of batons that could be as long as 1.8m. You might also be familiar with the tonfa, or tunkunwa, which evolved into the batons commonly used by law enforcement in the west.

Now you should know a bit about Japanese culture. If you want to learn more, check out our other articles on Japan. You could also improve your Japanese with a private Japanese tutor. Don’t forget that many of the Japanese tutors on Superprof offer the first hour of tuition for free!

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