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Japan complex set of factors affect the culture of any country. One of the most important aspects that determine the way of life of a people is the geography of the area in which they reside. In case of Japan, a single geographic feature of the country alone -- it being an island -- determines much of the country's insular character giving rise to a unique language, culture and religion. In this paper, besides analyzing Japan's language, religion and politics, I shall identify some important socio-geographical features of the country such as the importance of religion and language in defining the Japanese culture; the connection between political systems and languages and religions, and how the religions and cultures of Japan relate to and differ from those in the United States.

Geographic Peculiarities

Japan is about the size of California, consisting of 4 major islands and hundreds of smaller ones that were formed as a result of volcanic activity beneath the sea. It has a population of about 125 million -- most of it packed into about 20% of the country's plains near the coasts as about 75-80% of the country consists of mountains. This makes Japan one of the most densely populated countries in the world. In the "urban corridor" between Tokyo and Kobe, 45% of the country's population lives on just 17% of its land area. The country is endowed with few mineral and natural resources and has a limited area available for agriculture due to its vast mountainous territory. Japan has a long and irregular coastline and has a rainy, humid climate with cold harsh winters in the north and hot, humid summers in the south. Japan contains about 10% of the world's active volcanoes and Earthquakes are a regular feature in the country. These socio-geographic features determine much of the country's culture and its people's way of life. (Cybriwsky et al., 2003)

Japanese Language & how it defines Japanese Culture

Japanese is the official language of Japan and it is spoken by virtually all of the country's inhabitants, as well as by Japanese living in Hawaii, the Americas, and elsewhere. Chinese and Korean people who lived under Japanese occupation before the end of the World War II also speak it as a second language. For most of its history, the Japanese language has developed in isolation. Due to this reason, it is a distinctive language and its vocabulary, sound system and grammar bear little relation to other languages of the world. (Brodie, 1957) In its more recent history the Japanese language has been influenced by the Chinese language and by some Western languages, particularly English.

In many ways, the Japanese language defines the Japanese culture. For example, Japanese speech is highly sensitive to social relationships and reflects the elaborate social etiquettes observed by the Japanese in everyday lives. Several degrees of politeness and familiarity exist in the spoken language to distinguish between superiors, equals, and inferiors based on factors such as age, sex, and social status.

The evolving changes in the language also reflect the political and social changes in the country. Before the 5th century AD, when Japan was mostly isolated from the rest of the world, Japanese was solely a spoken language. In the following few centuries, with increased interaction between Japan and China, the Chinese writing system was adopted and the language assimilated many Chinese words. (Cybriwsky et al., 2003)

During the period of the Meiji restoration, and particularly after the U.S. occupation of the country following its defeat in the Second World War, the language has picked up several words from the Western languages such as Portuguese, Dutch, German, and particularly English. But just as the Japanese have managed to retain their traditional culture despite their 'westernization,' their language too bears little similarity to the Western languages.

There are a number of regional dialects spoken in different parts of the country. However, as the country has become more and more urbanized, the dialect of the educated people spoken in Tokyo has taken the form of "Standard Japanese" and is now understood all over Japan. The dominance of standard Japanese has driven Ainu, Japan's only other indigenous language, into near-extinction and reflects the increasing urbanization of the Japanese society.


Modern Japan, in the period since the Second World War, has primarily become a secular society in which religion is no a dominant factor in most people's daily lives. Despite this trend, certain religious traditions and practices are still vitally important for the Japanese and help define the society.

Most Japanese people profess to follow one or both of the two dominant Japanese religions -- Shinto and Buddhism. Shinto is Japan's native religion and traces its roots to prehistory. Unlike most major world religions, Shinto has no organized body of teachings, no recognized historical founder, and no moral code and is a mixture of religious beliefs and practices. It focuses on worship of nature, ancestors, sacred spirits or gods that personify aspects of the natural world. The Shinto religion gave a divine status to the Japanese Emperors and considered them descendents of the sun goddess. (Cybriwsky et al., 2003)

From 1868 to 1945, under the Japanese imperial government, Shinto was Japan's state religion. After Japan's defeat in World War II, the occupation government deliberately strived to eliminate official patronage of the religion since Shintoism had been used to promote militarism and aggression by the Japanese government in the lead up to and during the War. Another reason to discourage Shintoism was that the occupation government wanted to downgrade the divine status of the Emperor.

Buddhism -- the other major religion of Japan originated in India, where its founder Gautama Buddha was born. It arrived in Japan in the 6th century by way of China and Korea. In the centuries that followed, numerous Buddhist sects took root in Japan, the most prominent among them being Zen Buddhism. Zen Buddhism was introduced from China in the 12th century and quickly became popular among the dominant warrior class under the rule of Japan's first shogunate (military government). Zen Buddhism fuses the Mahayana form of Buddhism that originated in India and the Chinese philosophy of Daoism. Zen Buddhism has had a significant effect on Japanese culture mainly through the artistic activities in Zen monasteries that serve as part-training school. The students in such schools, in addition to religious meditation training, get a thorough training in arts and crafts, particularly painting, calligraphy, gardening, architecture, and ceremonial tea drinking. A specialty of Japanese Zen monasteries is the training in the arts of fencing, archery, and jujutsu. Under Zen influence the Japanese brought the art of ceremonial tea drinking to a high degree of refinement. From the late 15th century to the late 16th century, the tea ceremony became a model of social harmony and spiritual fulfillment in a time of internal conflict and violence in Japan. The tea ceremony has survived the wave of 'westernization' in Japan that has resulted in the eclipse of many traditional Japanese arts. Even now, the largest tea school in Japan is said to have two million students. (Varley, 2003)

Political Systems and their Connection with Religions & Languages

Religions have always had a pervasive influence on politics throughout history. In recent times, the Christian Church greatly influenced the politics of Europe throughout the Middle Ages. Islam still wields a deep influence on the politics of most Islamic countries. Israel, the Jewish state, was created solely on the basis of religion. Similarly, the Shinto, Buddhist and Confucian philosophies have influenced the political system in Japan although the politics in Japan has undergone a drastic change after its defeat in the Second World War. Despite a culture in which loss of face was socially unacceptable -- even leading to the most drastic action of suicide -- once the Japanese accepted defeat after the suffering relentless "fire bombing" of its cities and the devastating atomic bomb attacks at the end of the War, they readily agreed to re-orient their politics drastically. Japanese religion and culture, however, that have traditionally influenced the country's politics, continue to do so. Previously, the Shinto belief of the Emperor's divinity fitted in with the long-existing tradition of Japanese monarchy. After the relegation of monarchy to a largely ceremonial role after World War II, the Confucian notion of loyalty to one's family is used by the government by portraying the state as a "family."

Religions and Cultures of Japan and the United States

Despite the fact that Japan has undergone two distinct phases of Westernization in its recent history -- during the Meiji Restoration starting in 1867 and after the U.S. occupation of the country -- it has retained its unique culture and religious traditions and bears little similarity to the U.S. culture. In fact, the religions and cultures of Japan and the United States are, in some respects, as different as chalk and cheese. While the Japanese culture is largely modeled on the beliefs of the Shinto and Buddhist religion and the…[continue]

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