Cultural baptism: Japan

To really get to know a country or a place, you need to interact with the people there. In the end, there is no real substitute for human interaction. But there are a lot of things you can do to make those meetings go smoother, like learning a language, develop a common frame of reference and study the history. Besides enhancing your stay there, it’s also a lot of fun. As Gustave Flaubert said; “Pleasure is found first in anticipation, later in memory.”

We prepared our trip to Japan incredibly well. I don’t think we’ve prepared anything this well since our high school exams. We did spend this extra effort since it’s was that more alien then the average other western country we normally visit. We read half of the internet, saw all kind of YouTube videos, the latest movies, read some books about Japan and learned to read, write and talk some Japanese. To help you on your way to get a bit more background knowledge of Japanese culture we selected the best sources we used.

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Movies

Japanese cinema deserves much more attention than this small list of movies, so use this as a simple starting point.

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka 1988)

A heart-breaking movie about two brothers during the last months of the second world war. The movie is not as much about war as it is about isolating yourself from society, a theme which is more common in Japanese culture than in Western culture.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Kaguyahime no monogatari 2013)

Drawn in a simple style, this movie retells the tale of princess Kaguya or The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, one of the oldest Japanese folk tales dating back to the 10th Century.

Nobody knows (Dare mo shiranai 2004)

Another dark story about isolation from society. It tells the tale of the abandonment of 4 children by their mother who are then left to take care of themselves.

Departures (Okuribito 2008)

This movie about death and the funeral rituals gives a great insight into the taboos on this subject in Japanese society. It provides an interesting window into a part of the culture which normally stays closed to the casual visitor. The movie won an Academy award for best foreign language film in 2009.

Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary 2015)

A lighter movie then the previous ones, this movie focuses on family relations and life in the seaside town of Kamakura.

Shin Godzilla (Shin Gojira 2016)

This 2016 release of the Godzilla franchise focuses less on the monster and more on the bureaucracy that comes with so much destruction. It still offers some of the spectacle of Japanese monster movies and at the same time gives interesting insights into the societal hierarchies in Japanese society.

Books

General travel guides: Lonely Planet, Rough Guide and Fodor’s.

General travel guides are always a good starting point to get an overview of the highlights, a quick history and other general background information.

Haruki Murakami – Kafka on the Shore (Umibe no Kafuka 2002)

It’s hard to choose one out of the many great books Murakami has written. This was the first one we read and the one that got us interested in his oeuvre.

Murasaki Shikibu – The tale of Genji (Genji monogatari 11th Century)

This 1000-year-old book is one of the oldest novels in the world. Written by a noblewoman at the Imperial court, it is a book that tells a story about love and at the same time paints an interesting picture of early 11th Century court life in Japan.

Music

AKB48

AKB48 is one of the highest earning music groups in Japan. Its female members must follow strict social rules, like refrain from dating. They have their own theatre where they perform almost daily, the 48 group members form different teams, who rotate for the different shows. Membership of the group also changes continuously and older members are promoted to other groups. AKB48 has sister groups throughout South-East Asia.

SMAP

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gD0_rwopqY

SMAP was Japan’s most famous boyband. Where many of the new and female groups constantly change the membership, the members of this group stayed the same for 20 years. The group also had their own weekly variety tv-show which often was the most watched show in a year.

Hatsune Miku

Hatsune Miku is not a real singer but a vocaloid, a singing computer program. Combined with holograms and a band of real persons she is still able to give live shows. She also stars in commercials for example on with Scarlet Johansson and virtually guides tourist in Japan.

BABYMETAL

To show that Japanese music is not all sweet and flowerly we end with Babymetal.

Youtube channels

Simon and Martina

Simon and Martina are a Canadese couple who live in Tokyo and share their experiences in Japan. The channel is mainly focused on food but also shows the cultural differences that exist. We really got to like this couple and still follow them on YouTube.

That Japanese Man Yuta

Yuta interviews Japanese people on the street to give his audience some insight into the Japanese mindset to a broad range of topics. Also provide Japanese learning courses.

Apps

Memrise

Memrise is a great app to help you learn any language you want. It offers some great free courses to learn Katakana, Hiragana, Kanji and Japanese words and sentences.

Android
Apple

Kanji Study

Kanji study is an app solely dedicated to learning the three different Japanese alphabets. IT works with flash cards and you have the ability to practise drawing the different symbols yourself.
Android
Apple

If you’re ready to explore Japan, take a look at our 5 day itinerary for Tokyo and its surrounding area.

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