10 Japanese Cultural Concepts
For those familiar with Japan, the omotenashi tradition of hospitality is at the heart of its culture. Japan launched its 2020 Olympic campaign by promising ‘omotenashi’ – but what is it? Well one thing that immediately strikes any visitor is how clean everything is, with an army of cleaners for every bullet train, every station and every neighbourhood. A lot of these people are volunteers, encapsulating the sense of omotenashi as behind-the-scenes hospitality without expectation of praise or reward. And for the foreign visitor, it is a blessed relief that nobody ever expects a tip. In fact, if you leave change at the end of a meal, the waiting staff invariably come running down the street to hand it back to you! We highly recommend staying at a Japanese ryokan, where you will experience omotenashi when your futon mattress is laid out while you are at dinner, and pairs of slippers are placed in perfect alignment in readiness for your return.
The older ryokans with their creaking old beams, worn utensils and sun-faded tatami mats, are also the visitor’s best opportunity to appreciate wabisabi. Ampersand’s Japan specialists have wrestled with this ancient concept and concluded they would need a degree in Japanese history and aesthetics to really understand it, but the idea of things being perfect in their imperfection gives a rough idea. A closely related concept is mono no aware, the deep feeling that comes from contemplating the beauty and impermanence of the material world.
‘Shouganai’, the Japanese sigh – that’s the way it is, let it be, it can’t be helped. We appreciate these concepts within the art form of kintsugi – mending broken pottery using gold or silver-dusted lacquer. The pottery is somehow more beautiful than before, though eventually it breaks again and passes back into the cycle of nature. Which bring us on to the closely related concept of setsuyaku, a word which covers ideas of thriftiness and making do, and in the modern age can be seen in Japan’s excellent recycling record.
Kintsugi - Photo Tom Slemmons
This all stands in stark contrast to the never-ending profusion of kawaii (cute) consumer goods from Hello Kitty to the obsession with hatsubaichu (new products) in Japan.
Suite PreCure movie still
The reality, however, is that most Japanese people are having to tighten their belts, so before dinner they never forget to say itadakimasu to show appreciation for the food they are eating. It is considered rude not to finish everything on your plate in Japan, though exceptions are made for foreign visitors who are faced with a mountain of rice. When it comes to hosting at home, there is a complex social interaction that often runs along the lines of ‘please stay for dinner’ to which the required response is ‘that is very kind of you but I must be getting home’ so as not to impose even if you are starving hungry. This is just one example of tatamae (one’s outward manner) seemingly in conflict with honne (one’s inward feeling), but one could hear the same polite conversation in English homes.
On the surface Japan can appear, at first glance, to be an anthill society and guilty of the worst excesses of capitalism, but under the surface is a profound appreciation of nature and the simple life based on animist Shintoism and meditative Buddhism.
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