Society And Culture Of Japan Research Paper

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A sociocultural overview of Japan appears straightforward. Yet, shifting political boundaries of the nation state called Japan, its multi-ethnic composition of the population, and global movements of the ‘Japanese,’ together with recent epistemological and theoretical questions in various fields have reminded us that such an undertaking is a highly complex enterprise (Ivy 1995). The anthropology of Japan, practiced by an increasing number of scholars all over the world, is an enormously active field now that anthropologists no longer specialize only in nonliterate ‘primitives.’ It is a testing ground for new approaches to anthropology, including various attempts to historicize anthropology (Kelly 1985, Ohnuki-Tierney 1987, 1993). Presented below is a brief summary of the ‘anthropology of Japan,’ identifying important contributors but focusing primarily on scholarship based in Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom for reasons of space (see also Hendry 1992, Eisenstadt 1996).

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1. Anthropology Of Japan: In The Beginning

Anthropology in Japan may be represented by two major approaches, both called minzokugaku, each having a different character for zoku, one referring to folklore or folk traditions, and the other, ‘people.’ ‘Folklore’ is equivalent to ‘ethnography,’ rather than ‘folklore’ as practiced in the United States. The basic approach was founded by Yanagita Kunio (1875– 1962), who emphasized the fieldwork aspect of the discipline. Its emphasis on rural and other marginalized populations was later extended to urban populations under Miyata Noboru (1936–2000). Orikuchi Shinobu (1887–1953), another pillar of this school, made extensive use of classic literature as ethnographic texts, thus introducing history to ethnography.

The other major approach is sociocultural anthropology, which began with the influence of the Viennese school, then turned to British social anthropology, and most recently to American cultural anthropology. Most Japanese scholars in this tradition specialize in non-Japanese cultures.

American anthropology in Japan is largely a product of World War II, when the American government commissioned scholars to decipher its enemy, with a most celebrated, and often criticized, case being The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946) by Ruth Benedict. Early works focused on ‘village Japan,’ where they sought a more ‘traditional’ Japan than modernized city life.

2. Making The Majority And Marginalizing The Internal ‘Others’

Wet-rice agriculture, introduced from the Asian continent to Japan around 400 BC, gradually supplanted the previous hunting–gathering subsistence economy and provided the economic and symbolic foundation for the Yamato state and the imperial system, which lost its political power after the twelfth century, until it was nominally ‘restored’ through the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

The rice-based agrarian political economy and cosmology provided a lasting impact on the social structure and cosmological tradition, which became the Japanese cosmology sui generis for all the Japanese, including non-agrarian peoples. This development contributed to the representation of Japan as ‘Agrarian Japan,’ writing off many social groups from Japan’s history and society. We now see a burgeoning interest in ‘minorities’ and counter-discourses within Japanese society, especially among foreign scholars. Since the cultural, linguistic, and biological identities of the Japanese, Koreans, Ainu, and Gilyaks remain uncertain, and anthropology no longer recognizes ‘race’ as such, the question of Ainu identities remains controversial. The Ainu engaged in a hunting– gathering economy without a writing system, with, however, a highly developed oral tradition (OhnukiTierney 1981). Subscribing to the scheme of social evolution, the Japanese as well as Westerners were eager to identify the Ainu as ‘primitive hunter-gatherers’ or, even ‘archaic Caucasoids.’ Their way of life and physical characteristics were exoticized. As they were colonized (Takakura 1960), they were forced to abandon their way of life and became a minority, the Other within the Japanese nation state. Previously occupying the Kuriles, southern Sakhalin, Hokkaido, and northeastern Honshu, the Ainu are now confined mostly to Hokkaido. Their population dropped from a peak of 80,000 in the eighteenth century to anywhere between 25,000 and 50,000 at the end of the twentieth century. Since the 1960s, various Ainu political groups have made great strides in asserting their indigenous rights.

The so-called hisabetsu-burakumin is another byproduct of the development of ‘Agrarian Japan’ (Ohnuki-Tierney 1987). Until the late medieval period, they constituted loosely defined social groups in nonagrarian occupations dealing with culturally defined ‘impurity,’ including animal and human deaths, and the visual and performing arts. In 1582 they were codified as ‘outcastes,’ becoming increasingly marginalized in later periods. Despite legal emancipation in 1870, social discrimination has continued into the twenty-first century. The 1987 government census figures are: 4,603 districts with a total population of 1,166,733, while the Buraku Liberation League suggests at least 6,000 districts with a population of 3,000,000. The Okinawans also constitute a minority whose ‘distinctiveness,’ if there is any, is based primarily on regional differences. Okinawa’s past isolation from the main islands and its location as the gateway of influence from outside created some cultural differences, and their dialect was once regarded as non-Japanese.

There are various ‘foreign’ residents, of which 85 percent (700,000) are Koreans. Others include Chinese, Westerners, and more recent immigrants from Southeast Asia and the Middle East. In other words, Japan, although stereotyped as demographically homogeneous, has been a multi-ethnic nation throughout its history.

Although scholarly work on women had previously been available, studies undertaken at the end of the twentieth century have included feminist and other new perspectives, foregrounding their voices, their life experiences, and women as social agents who actively carve out or change courses of their lives (Hara Chieko, Iwao Sumiko, Karen Kelsky, Takie Lebra, Ueno Chizuko). The issue of gender preferences, institutionalized or culturally sanctioned as well as individual, has also received considerable attention (Robertson 1998).

3. ‘Culture’—Non-localized

Another burgeoning genre of scholarly work derives from an emphasis on how ‘culture,’ or a particular people such as the Japanese, is not localized. Our awareness of the nonisomorphic nature of culture, locality, and people and an unprecedented flow of population across borders of nation states has led to a number of studies of ‘transnationalism’ and transnationals in the past and in the contemporary context of globalization (Mannari and Befu 1983). These have included studies of overseas Japanese communities, young Japanese who have returned to Japan after being raised overseas due to their parental occupation (Goodman 1990), Japanese businessmen overseas (E. Ben-Ari), and emigrants who have returned to Japan (Takeyuki Tsuda), as well as transnational economic activities (T. Bestor; H. Miyazaki). Studies of Japanese colonization have become another powerful lens to understand Japanese culture and society, along with Japanese cultural and political nationalisms (K. Yoshino).

4. ‘Culture History’ At The Confluence Of The Local And The Global

If the political economy and cosmology of rice agriculture were born as a result of the interaction between the global flow and the local development, so were subsequent major historical watersheds of Japanese history. Japan’s ‘modern’ era was ushered in because of the threats of Western colonialism all over Asia. In 1868 Meiji oligarchs used the ‘return of the imperial system,’ which had been virtually nonexistent since the end of the twelfth century, as a means of overthrowing the shogunal government, which had proved incapable of coping with Western threats. The Constitution of Imperial Japan, drafted by German (Prussian) and Austrian scholars, transformed the emperor from an apolitical deity in the Japanese pantheon to a sovereign, Almighty God, and Commander of the military. With Japan’s defeat in World War II, another constitution was written by the American occupying forces, creating a ‘symbolic’ emperor and introducing equal rights for women, coeducation in public schools, and land reform which drastically leveled social inequality.

Changes in the educational system too are the result of the local global interactions. With a high literacy rate, less than 4 percent leave school at the age of fifteen, while almost all the rest complete senior high school education. Some 500 four-year universities and 580 two-year colleges in the 1990s contrast with the prewar system, which consisted of the National Higher Schools and the Imperial Universities, whose graduates, all male, dominated the key posts in the government, business, and intellectual fields. Today, in addition to the University of Tokyo, University of Kyoto, other major national universities, and the top private universities, such as Keio and Waseda, there are alternative routes to success, offered by the International Christian University or Jochi University, run by Jesuits, Chuo University for law, and others. Holders of doctorates from US and UK universities receive increasing recognition. Despite democratization of the educational system in some sense, the recent affluence has produced more economically based inequality, with wealthy parents sending their offspring to costly ‘cram schools’ to increase their chances of passing the entrance examination to prestigious universities (J. Hendry; T. Rohlen).

Late twentieth-century debates over the enforcement of the national anthem and the national flag, textbook revisions, and curriculum changes form an ongoing debate about Japan’s military past. After World War II, the American occupation forces enforced the well-known ‘blacking out’ of passages about Japan’s aggression from school textbooks. Half a century later, the Japanese face the problem of how to reintroduce the Pacific war experiences, including atrocities committed by the Japanese military, such as the Nanking Massacre, ‘comfort women,’ and chemical experiments. Many Japanese are enormously sensitive to any signs of nationalism, and even patriotism, yet also remain sensitive to the ‘foreign pressure.’ A major factor in potential curriculum changes in pre-university education and also in teacher training is the call for ‘globalization’ or ‘internationalization.’ Another factor is pressure to locate the Japanese more solidly among other Asians, rather than upholding Westerners as their mirror, as has been the case in the past. Culture as a product of local–global interactions is well articulated in Japanese religions. Nominally, the Japanese religions consist of native Shintoism and two religions of foreign origin—Buddhism and Confucianism. In addition, the mountain ascetic practice (shugendo) continues to be practiced, while numerous ‘new religions’ came into being often during periods of unrest. At the end of the twentieth century several new religions enjoy large memberships, including Soka Gakkai, which also forms a successful political party.

Mahayana Buddhism came from India via China in the late sixth century and was first embraced by the elite but later became influential among common people. With the rise of political and military nationalism in the early Meiji period, it was targeted as a ‘foreign’ religion, and many Buddhist temples and works of art were destroyed. In contrast, Shintoism was ‘elevated’ to be the exclusive national religion. These changes at the institutional levels, however, had little to do with the common folk who subscribed to Shintoism and Buddhism, both of which had become a part of their daily lives. Most rites of passage celebrating life are Shinto rites, while most mortuary rituals are Buddhist. In Japanese folk religiosity, humans and superhumans constitute a continuum— exceptional humans are assigned power over humans who nonetheless manipulate and cajole the superhumans to their advantage. Japanese religions are decisively ‘this-worldly,’ rather than focusing on salvation after life. The major ‘functions’ of deities and buddhas are to provide business prosperity, traffic safety, recovery from illness, good health, success in one’s undertaking, including high school and university entrance examinations, and other worldly gains (J. Kitagawa).

Christianity was introduced to Japan when Jesuit missionaries arrived in 1549. The converts were persecuted during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the rulers saw Christianity as potentially subversive of their authority, and again later during the nationalistic period. However, many Meiji Christian leaders were highly respected by a broad spectrum of people as intellectuals and pillars of moral conscience under the increasingly totalitarian government.

Numerous practices that fall under the rubric of ‘magic’ and ‘superstitions’ are found in profusion in urban centers and are practiced by a large number of Japanese, including the young and the educated, who carry amulets in their cars, and hang them on children’s rucksacks and hospital beds. Children and high school students hang votive plaques on which they write a prayer, for example, for success in examinations and dating. Young and old alike practice divination of all kinds when choosing a marriage partner, a date for a wedding, a date for opening of a store, etc.

Although worldly concerns occupy a central place in Japanese religiosity, at its core is a belief in the soul, especially that of the deceased. Various practices associated with souls of the deceased constitute the most important rituals at the end of the twentieth century. These include funerals and later rituals connected with them, as well as the daily offering of water, tea, freshly cooked rice, and favorite foods of the deceased on their ancestral alcove. Municipalities own large cemeteries where the family tombs of the residents are located. During the Bon festival, when the ancestors are supposed to return to this world, and at other prescribed times, families in cars form caravans heading toward these cemeteries. This practice continues in intensity despite the almost complete absence of a vision of the afterworld (Smith 1974).

With a population of about 123 million, Japan’s demographic pattern is characterized by a large proportion of people over 65 (about 20 percent at the end of the twentieth century), the world’s lowest infant mortality rate, and a very low birth rate. The house- hold, ie, consisting of an extended family with its emphasis on generational continuation and the primo- geniture system, has been considered the basic social unit, although it was codified only in the Meiji period and outlawed in 1947. This image is misleading, since the ‘continuation’ of ie does not mean a continuation through blood line—a high incidence of adoption characterizes Japanese kinship, and the system was most important only for families with substantial wealth and/or important occupation. For most, the nuclear family has been far more important. Since the mid-nineteenth century, industrialization accelerated the migration of nuclear families to urban centers where well over three quarters of the population is concentrated today, leaving the rural areas primarily in the hands of the elderly.

Abortion, legalized in 1948 although practiced with high frequency even earlier, and infanticide were formerly the primary means for birth control. At the end of the twentieth century the condom (80 percent of contraceptive users) and the rhythm method are used, with the oral contraceptive legalized only in 1999. In spite of the lowest infant mortality rate in the world, the Japanese population growth is alarmingly low. The physical and psychological involvement of fathers in child rearing has increased in recent years, so that they spend more time with their families, especially on weekends.

While studies of workplaces by anthropologists are by no means neglected (Kondo 1990, C. Turner), popular culture now receives much attention (Moeran 1989; A. Allison; J. Callas; I. Condry; M. Creighton; K. Kelsky; P. Noguchi). ‘Globalization’ is most visible in ‘youth culture,’ a product especially of American influence. Whether or not they are in the mainstream of society, today’s youth flourish in their youth culture, listening to the latest pop music, following the latest youth fashion, and eating out with their friends at popular restaurants. Many color their hair, sometimes blond. They have adopted body piercing after the fashion of American youth, in contrast to the centuries-old Japanese refusal to imitate Chinese ear piercing, which was seen as a form of impurity. Before the last decades of the twentieth century, even married couples did not show their affection in public. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, public places are crowded with young dating couples who openly display their feelings.

Young and old, twenty-first century Japanese spend a great deal of money and time on leisure activities, including ‘traditional’ nature viewing—viewing of cherry blossoms, chrysanthemum, and colored leaves. Television and games constitute the major sources of leisure activity. Sports have become primarily spectator sports watched on TV, with baseball and sumo the most popular. Both professional and high school baseball are enormously popular (W. Kelly). Sumo, the oldest professional sport in Japan, received a great deal of attention when it broke with tradition by giving the highest ranking of yokozuna to foreign-born wrestlers. There are now sumo organizations throughout the world (R. K. Tierney). One of the most popular participant sports is golf. Domestic and foreign tourism has become a major leisure activity for Japanese of all ages (N. Graburn). The young sometimes combine tourism with their passion for consumerism, going to France, Italy, and the United States to purchase ‘brand name’ merchandise. A ‘unique’ leisure activity is the reading of comic books, with some comic books having a weekly circulation of over 4 million—the only arena of recreation competing against the electronic media.

The healthcare system, too, has developed as a result of Japan’s interaction with various others. After the introduction of Chinese medicine, Dutch medicine was introduced during the early eighteenth century, followed by the German system. Today most Japanese go to a biomedical doctor for major acute diseases and surgery, while using Chinese medicine for day-to-day health maintenance and chronic illnesses, in addition to going to temples and shrines to pray for speedy recovery (J. Breslau; M. Lock; E. Ohnuki-Tierney). In 1959–60, all Japanese became legally eligible for pension coverage and health insurance, provided either by one’s employer or the government. During the affluent mid-1970s, a national system of free medical care for the aged was introduced, and there was a massive increase in the pension benefits. When the ‘bubble’ burst, the national scheme of free care for the elderly was discontinued in 1983, and various other contractions were enforced. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, state of the art biomedical technology is available in Japan, although brain death was legally recognized only in 1999, and the Japanese have shown considerable resistance toward organ transplantations in general.

Japan enjoys one of the lowest crime rates in the industrialized world. However, organized crime is a serious problem without any realistic solution in sight. The targets of organized crime are usually highly specific, without threatening the general public. However, periodically, Japan is shaken by outbursts of crime such as the Aum Shinrikyo cult, which in 1995 spread poisonous gasses in a Tokyo underground station, causing 5,000 deaths and injuries.

5. Conclusion

The critiques of ‘totalizing’ and ‘essentializing’ representations of culture society people have led the anthropology of Japan in several productive directions, foregrounding diversity and multiple voices, whereas the awareness of the nonlocalized nature of culture society people has stimulated anthropologists to come to terms with various new ways of looking at what indeed is the ‘anthropology of Japan.’ These new perspectives place Japanese culture and society in the global historical flow and geopolitics, rather than treating them as a hermetically sealed entity.


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