Traditional and Societal Norms Government Influence on Society
Japanese History and Culture Late Yamato Period–Present
Department of History, College of Arts and Sciences, University of South Alabama, Mobile, AL
Japan is a diverse and complex nation. Throughout history it’s role a
major or minor country in the world sphere has shifted and change
to fit the demands of time. The cultural norms and history of Japan
can be hard to grasp for people of the western world and thus
require and open mind and dedication to understanding. Through
intense study and exploration, the following observations were made
and facts researched about Japan’s history and culture over the
course of one month’s stay in the country. The following includes
information, historical facts, and personal observations made on
Japanese history, culture, and geography. The information
presented provides historical context starting in the Late Yamato
period through to modern day Japan as well as personal statements
by the researcher, Megan McDowell.
Methods of Research
Factual information and popular opinions found in Japanese culture
were found through the listening of lectures on Japanese history for
one-two hours a day throughout the researcher’s month long stay in
Japan and personal readings of historical monographs, personal
essays, poetry anthologies, and journalistic writings. Careful note
was taken on the topics covered in listed texts and lectures.
One of the greatest factors contributing to cultural change, as well as
conflict, throughout Japan’s history has been the matter of accepting or
resisting westernization (Miller). This is can be seen in the change of
dress and architecture, adoption of western religions such as
Christianity and Judaism as opposed to eastern religions such as
Buddhism and Shintoism, and the shift in government towards a more
democratic system. Japan has often borrowed ideas and policies from
other nations in order to bolster their own country on the world stage.
This tradition started with China– seen in the pictorial writing system,
the creation of an imperial royal class, and large popularity of
Shintoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism pre-westernization (Miller).
Once China began to decline in power and western countries began to
gain strength, Japan turned to Europe and America for inspiration in
how to run a country.
While many people have accepted this course leading away from
Japan’s origin’s as a natural turn in time, there have been just as many
people who have tried resisting western ideals. Whether through
popularized notions such as “Western science, Eastern ethics” (an idea
that insisted that Japan must only take from western technological
advancements, but not their “barbaric” ways of living), or by total
condemnation of westernization, as done by writer Jun’ichiro Tanizaki
in his essay “In Praise of Shadows” (Miller). A modern example would
be the presently existing Imperial Restoration groups.
Some of the information listed was found through the personal
observations of the researcher during their month long immersion in
the Japanese culture and exploring the landscape of the rural and
urban parts of the country.
Geography and Environment
Japan is an island nation with 4 chief islands: Hokkaido (the northern
island), Honshu (the central island), Kyushu (the southern island), and
Shikoku (the south east island). The nation is also in possession 6,000
smaller islands– though only 430 of these islands are inhabited (Miller).
Government Influence on
Japan was ruled under strict, militaristic government up until the
post-World War II era (Miller). Starting with the formation of the
Imperial government and first Japanese army in the late Yamato
period, moving to the era of martial law with the Shogun and the
samurai class of the Tokagawa Period, and ending with Japan’s
fascist imperialistic goals and actions during the two world wars,
Japan has an extensive history of military pride and dependency
(Miller, Hillsborough). This militaristic mind set invaded most every
part of Japanese culture, including social classes. For much of
Japanese history, the highest social rank you could have (Under
the Emperor, of course) was one of military status– the Shogun or a
samurai (Miller). With this militaristic government came the popular
samurai code of bushido, which influenced an honor and humility
bound society that persists to today’s modern culture (Miller,
With the US occupation of Japan from 1945 to 1951 Japan was
forced to abandon their military run government and enter an era of
pacification for the first time (Miller). While many aspects of earlier
Japan’s extreme honor system and fascist, ultra nationalistic
government have vanished from modern Japanese culture, some
characteristics of the past still persist to present day. Examples
being the patriarchal society, strict social expectations (such as not
serving oneself or allowing someone to serve themselves) and
remaining ethno-centric, xenophobic prejudices.
Traditional and Societal Norms
Though modern Japan is relatively progressive in its technological
and scientific advancements, the country as a whole tends to hold on
to traditional practices and beliefs of the past. Much of the country’s
cultural traits come from ancient traditions rooted in religious and
superstitious beliefs. The impact of these belief systems can be
clearly seen in Japanese nature conservation. Because of the
Shinto belief that kami– gods– are found in peculiar natural forms it
has become extremely important that nature be protected throughout
the nation (Miller). Traditional beliefs have also influenced the
Japanese people to hold many superstitions– keeping charms and
idols for luck and good fortune in their cars, homes, schools, and
seeing omens in things as mundane as chopsticks sticking upright in
a bowl of rice.
I would like to thank the University of South Alabama Office of International
Education, and CISAbroad for coordinating the travel necessary for this
project. I would also like to thank the USA Honors Program, MohanBrandon Fund, the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, and
individual donors for funding this project. Lastly, I would like to thank Dr.
Harrison Miller for all of his guidance on this projects and the resources
provided by him and his family.
The terrain of Japan is mountainous and hilly with lots of vibrantly
colored, leafy, floral vegetation. Japan also contains numerous
volcanoes, rocky coasts, and black sand beaches. The nation is one
that frequents natural disasters including earthquakes, hurricanes, and
The climate of the country varies from island to island and region to
region. On average temperatures are is relatively mild during the
summer, spring and fall seasons, though the winter months can be
extreme. Frequent storms and winds are not uncommon– especially
during the islands’ rainy seasons.
Lastly, the researcher noted that the country is called the “Land of the
Rising Sun” for a reason; sunglasses are highly recommended.
Hillsborough, Romulus. Shinsengumi: The Shōgun's Last Samurai Corps. North
Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Pub., 2005. Print.
Miller, Harrison. Japanese History and Culture Notes. June, 2015.
Tanizaki, Jun'ichirō. In Praise of Shadows. New Haven, CT: Leete's Island, 1977.