Important Things About Japan
10 Things About the Japanese Civilization
– Shinto and sacred mountains
By: Ghaiooth Ghaiooth*
1. Japan is an archipelago made of 4 large islands: Honshū (the “mainland”), Shikoku, Kyūshū and Hokkaidō, and by numerous small islands and islets. The center of the country is crosses by the Japanese Alps, volcanic mountains that make 80 % of the surface of the country and which reach the highest point in Fujiyama (“Sacred Mountain”), 3,776 m (12,600 ft) in altitude, crowned by eternal snows.
There are 196 Japanese volcanoes, of which 30 are still active. Japanese clime is temperate, with long, wet summers. Winter is quite cold in Hokkaido, due to the cold current Kuroshio (but the same current explains the abundance in fish of the Japanese waters), but milder in the rest of Japan. Japanese people are known to protect the beauty of the forests and mountains through sacred places, where nothing could be changed.
2. Japan has a surface similar to that of Italy and 0.3 % of the world’s population (125 million inhabitants). The shores make 3,800 km (2,400 mi). 67 % of the Japan’s surface is made of forests, coniferous (spruce, fir, Japanese cedar) in Hokkaido, deciduous (Japanese beech, Japanese oak, Manchurian ash, camphor tree (used for building Shinto temples), magnolias, tile, hazel, Japanese acacia) in the rest of the islands. Farmland makes 6 million hectares.
3. Traditional Japanese houses are small, with one level, and completely made of wood, straw and paper. They adapt perfectly to the landscape and all have minute gardens, being conceived to resist to the devastating Japanese earthquakes, which would easily destroy taller and solider dwellings. The floor of the house is covered with rice straw mats. Slipping screens made of wood and paper divide the rooms having little furniture, as objects, including mattresses and sheets which are kept in closets and cupboards dissimulated in the walls, and there are no chairs, as the mats offer a comfortable and warm seat. Instead, the rooms are decorated with blossomed branches, bonsai, painting and engravings.
4. During the 6th century, Buddhism entered Japan coming from China. Beautiful Buddhist monuments, temples (pagodas), monasteries and giant Buddha statues were raised. The giant Buddha statue from Nara Park dates from the 7th century and it is amongst the largest in the world. Not all the Japanese are Buddhist, but all follow the traditional Shinto religion, previous to the Buddhism, a type of animist religion based on the veneration of nature and the cult of the forebears. The most important Shinto deity is Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun. Other deities represent the fire, water, wind and other phenomena. On the other hand, plants, animals, stones, flowers, domestic objects, all have their spirits, which are objects of adoration. There are divinities protecting the home, the children, the women and others bringing richness, happiness or health. Fujiyama is considered a symbol of purity, venerated as a divinity by the Japanese. The volcano erupted last time in 1707, and numerous torii, gates heading the Japanese towards the sacred places, are raised in its surroundings.
Certain trees, rocks, islets, waterfalls and others represent special cult objects, with specific festivities and celebrations. One of the most important annual festivities is dedicated to the water: during this procession, large floats carrying sea animals made of bamboo and paper and swollen like balloons, painted in vivid colors and adorned with small headlights, are placed on rafts and dragged to the sea, to shallow waters.
5. Japanese people represent a mix of racial types. The Mongol type is a dominant one, and could have entered the island during an old invasion of people related to the Siberian Tungus tribes. These people are taller, have prolonged, lean faces, pronounced almond eyes and dark yellow skin. A southern originated population, coming from Taiwan or southeastern Asia, is represented by shorter individuals, with wide and rounded faces, small pug nose, robust bodies and more yellow skin. This mix produced the modern Japanese people. The first type is considered sober, quit people; the second type is regarded as cheerful, expansive and talky.
6. In the medieval Japan, women had an important role in arts and lyrics; they maintained a great independence, were respected and admired. Under the Chinese influence, things changed: the woman was submitted to the authority of her father (who could, at his will, sell her or marry her over her will) and then of the husband (which considered her a little more than a slave). Still, women received an exquisite education, all in order to make the husband’s life more pleasant. The Japanese girl learned to brush her hair, move gently, learn to care of the garden, to make exquisite branches of flowers, paint and sing. In Japan, children are the kings of the family; they are nearly never scolded.
7. The medieval Japanese society was hierarchically organized and on top of the social hierarchy the emperor was found, whose origin was divine (“the Son of the Sky”). On the social ladder the nobles followed, then the middle class, traders, craftsmen and farmers. The samurais, noble warriors, made a caste even more important than the nobles; they were ruled by feudal lords, called daimios, who governed despotically the empire’s provinces. The samurais followed a military code of honor, which imposed a strict asceticism and major sacrifices for defending their privileges and traditions, going to the ritual suicide, harakiri (seppuku) in case of defeat, dishonor or ruin. Japan was, in fact, ruled by these daimios, while the emperors were just puppets with formal power at the will of these lords. In 1853-1854, Japan was forced to end its isolation. In 1868, the Meiji (Lighted Rule) Epoch, under the emperor Mutsuhito (1868-1912) meant the passing of Japan from the medieval age to the contemporaneous era. The modern constitution of Japan eliminated the privileges of the nobles and samurais. The Satsuma revolt of the Samurais (1877) was easily defeated by the regular army, made of recruits and using western fire weapons. Japan turned into the first non-European power that defeated a European country during the colonial era: Russia, in 1904-1905.
8. The traditional Japanese theater has two classes of dramas: No and Kabuki, based on pantomime, which is realized by actors with masked faces and dressed in gritty attires. No has a tragic character; Kabuki admits comedy.
9. The most popular Japanese sports in the western world are judo and karate, martial arts based on precision, ability, and a perfect knowledge of the human anatomy and its weak points. Sumo is a type of wrestling between fighters with enormous weights. Sumo is a ritual fight, and the combatants make prayers to the gods before fighting. They have special hairdo and adornments and specific grunts and yells are aimed to disconcert the opponent. The aim of sumo is that the fighter must throw his adversary out of the circle in whose center they wrestle.
10. Japan is the first country in the world in fish production (11 million tones, 16 % of the fish production of the world) and fish consumption, 95 kg (210 pounds) per capita annually.
* English Literature Graduate from Teshreen University in Syria.