Cultural Guide to Japan

Jin Kong is a guest research fellow with The Greater Cincinnati World Affairs Council (GCWAC) for the next six months. This fellowship is sponsored by The Mission Continues. Through this fellowship, Kong is researching to gain a better understanding of the populist sentiment towards immigrants in the Cincinnati region. This is one blog of many on his research of immigration and Cincinnati. To learn more about Jin Kong click here

Japanese Culture and History

Japan is a chain of almost 7,000 islands stretching from Siberia in the north to Taiwan in the south. Of these islands, Hokkaido to the north and is the home of the Ainu people. The largest Japanese island is Honshu, the main island. It is slightly larger than Great Britain and is the home of Mt. Fuji—an active volcano at 12,388 ft. The Shikoku island to the south is the ancestral home of Shingon Buddhist Kōbō Daishi (774–835), and the 88 Sacred Temples of Shikoku. Kyushu is the southernmost region bordered by the East China Sea to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east, and stretches along the Ryukyu archipelago out for some 700 miles to the southwest.

The Paleolithic people from the Asian mainland was said to have settled on the islands some 35,000 years ago. About 10,000 years ago, the Jomon hunter-gatherers emerged and are said to be ancestral to the Ainu people. Korean settlers came around 400 BCE and brought with them metal-working, rice, and weaving to Japan.

Japanese recorded history began with the Kofun period (250 CE) and is characterized by burial mounds, ruling warlords, and adoption of many Chinese customs and innovations. Early records of Buddhist monks from China can trace to this period of the Japanese history, but official introduction of Buddhism is date to the Asuka Period in 522 CE by Korean emissary monks.

The first Japanese central government came in the 8th century. Buddhism and Chinese calligraphy flourished with the aristocratic class; Shintoism—a collection of native beliefs and mythology devoted to the worship a multitude of gods (kami), was more popular with the commoners during this period. This period also saw the rise of a uniquely Japanese culture with imperial court artisans, poets, and the emergence of the samurai warrior class.

Shoguns demanded blind loyalty from their samurai and became more powerful over time. They eventually took power in 1185, and ruled Japan in the name of an emperor until 1868. A constitutional monarchy was established thereafter, headed by the Meiji Emperor; and marked the end of the shoguns. Meiji Emperor’s son was chronically ill and this gave opportunity for the country to further democratize.

Japan controlled Korea and northern China during World War I. Emperor Hirohito oversaw Japan’s expansion during World War II. He surrendered at the end of the war and subsequently reigned as Japan became modern industrialized nation. Today, Japan is a parliamentary constitutional monarchy with 47 prefectures. It has a civil law system based on the German model and heavily influenced by the Americans.

Japanese People and the Arts

The Japanese people values cooperation, have a strong work ethic, and are polite, calm, and reserved. The Japanese economy is prized for its interlockings and efficiency. In 2016, it was the fourth-largest economy in the world but it has faced repeated recession and slow growth in recent decades. The Japanese mindset centers around their natural environments, from jagged mountains to cascading waterfalls. Their fascination with nature is evident in their spiritual interest in Shinto, the Way of the Gods—a belief that every mountain, stream, tree, or impressive rock has a spirit. These spirits (known as kami) are watchers over human affairs. Confucianism gained popularity in Japan in the 7th century and persisted for centuries (it was the stated ideology during the Tokugawa period in the 17th century).

The Japanese writing system was imported from China. The earliest Japanese texts were written in Classical Chinese; however, the Japanese written language evolved gradually and branched during the 9th Century. Almost all modern written Japanese has a mixture of kanji (Chinese) and kana (Japanese native). Kana is itself two distinct syllabaries: the Hiragana—often seen in poetry, diaries, and novels, became a cursive abbreviation for the kanji (Chinese), used mostly by women as they were excluded from the study of Chinese characters; and the Katakana—used by Buddhist monks as laced mnemonic devices to help bridge the inflections between spoken Chinese and Japanese.

Japanese art styles range from ink painting and calligraphy on silk and paper, to woodblock prints, origami, and more recently manga. The Japanese aesthetics incorporates elements of foreign culture such as China that complemented their preferences. In the 9th century, Japan began to develop indigenous forms of expression and painting is the preferred medium. Japanese ceramics is also well known around the world; and the Japanese prefer to build their homes with natural materials and tends to blend the interior and exterior space to reflect harmony and family character.


“Chanoyu,” translated literally as “hot water for tea,” refers to the art of preparing and serving tea. Chanoyu is meant to indoctrinate gathering of friends evoking self-awareness, generosity towards others, and a reverence for nature. The tradition was introduced from China in the 12th century by Japanese Buddhists. Its principles include harmony between guests, hosts, nature, and setting; respect and sincerity toward another; spiritually cleanse; and inner peace allowing one to truly share.

Each tea gathering is a once in a lifetime event. Therefore, the sharing of a bowl of tea should be conducted with humble nature and the utmost sincerity.

Immigration to the United States

Since 1639, Japan had maintained a strict isolation policy and emigration out of Japan was strictly controlled. In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy forced a trade relationship between Japan and the U.S. With this opening up, Japan underwent great transformations. But rapid urbanization and industrialization brought agricultural decline. As the US economy boomed, the lure was difficulty to resist. By the 1880s, Japanese emigration policy relaxed and Japanese immigration into the United States soon followed. The Japanese government even selected emigrants from time to time favoring ambition and good connections.

Between 1886 and 1911, more than 400,000 Japanese immigrated to the United States mostly landed in Hawaii and the West Coast. The Japanese were among the last immigrant groups to come to Ohio. In 1940, only eighteen Japanese were documented as having resided in this state. During World War II, Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps. Some of the internees were eventually allowed to leave and many found employment in Midwestern cities. Some of these migrant Japanese workers returned to the West Coast after the war. The Japanese Americans who remained in Ohio were mostly recent immigrants from Japan; some came here as spouses of American servicemen.

In recent years, many Japanese migrants have settled in Marysville, Ohio, due to the Honda manufacturing plant. According to one census, there are about 800 Japanese in the Cincinnati region. However, the popularity of Japanese food has been growing steadily in Cincinnati including the popular KaZe in OTR.

The blog is in part of the Mission Continues blog series, written by Jin Kong and therefore all words and thoughts are his own and not a reflection of GCWAC.

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