What the West Learned About Japanese Culture from Anime
Anime fans may know by heart the names of their favorite characters or even theme songs, but how much do they know about Japanese culture? There are many mistakes visitors from the West or any country can make when travelling to Japan. Perhaps it is not too surprising that many anime fans can adapt very quickly to the various nuances of Japanese culture, although the extent of this knowledge differs from person to person. Some may argue that these differences can make anime difficult to access, although on the other hand it can behave as an educational tool.
This article aims to highlight times when anime has presented cultural etiquette, and go into more detail about aspects which may not be as obvious by just watching the animated television shows. Throughout the article I use the word Westerners to imply countries in individualist cultures such as the US, Europe and Australia.
The Ever Present Value of Respect
“[Japanese] have a reputation for being polite […], although I wouldn’t go that far. They have plenty of ways of being rude, but at least they do it freaking quietly. Even the minor put-downs seem almost innocent just because they’re delivered so delicately.” -- Ken Seeroi, Japanese Rule of 7.
Japan, along with most parts of Asia and some parts of Africa, are what is called a collectivist culture. Doing well in Japan is for the sake of everyone, not just personal gain. As such, like other Asian cultures, there is a big focus on mentsu, or saving face (Kopp, 2010). Even if you disagree with somebody, if they are in a position of power, you are to agree with them no matter what. A Western equivalent of this idea is “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything” (JC, 2013). Breaking these rules can cause a lot of offense and discomfort at the expense of the other person (Kopp, 2010). Honesty is still valued but it is considered appropriate to do in private (JC, 2013).
Surprisingly, this aspect of Japanese culture is not so obvious in anime except in situations where a school or work place is involved. Perhaps this is why “delinquents” are common in anime. Main characters like Naruto, Ichigo (Bleach), Haruhi (The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya), Seiji (Midori Days) or Hachiman (My Teen Romantic Comedy) are labelled as undesirable and rebellious by the school system. These characters may be liked in anime, but they are rare in Japanese schools. It could be that a character that fits the status quo isn’t interesting to watch or that their popularity is a representation of wishful thinking on the part of the Japanese viewers.
A middle school teacher on a Live-journal forum mentions, “I think it’s fair to say that ‘delinquency’ in Japan can be what would be considered almost normal behavior by western standards”. Long or bleached hair, causing fights, wearing make-up (even lip gloss for girls in some cases), casual speech, wearing a uniform slightly incorrect, slamming doors or skipping classes (futoko) are commonly labelled as delinquent behaviors in Japanese schools.
This could explain why the character Asuka Langley Soryu is popular among the fans of Neon Genesis Evangelion. She is from Germany, an individualistic culture, thus she does not hesitate to speak her mind. Another form of delinquency in Japan are Yanki or bike gangs, akin to teen thugs. They are identified by tattoos, drug use and numerous piercings, but apparently this trend has been phasing out since the 80’s. This could explain why the yanki characters of Kyoko Honda and Arisa Uotani were present in the popular 2001 anime Fruits Basket, but have been rarely seen since.
Thankfully most anime characters are half decent individuals so these sorts of interactions do not happen very often. Many of the cruel characters in anime display their dislike for others by developing a superiority complex, withdrawing from social interaction or speaking to others in a condescending tone, like Ginoza (Psycho Pass), Shana (Shakugan no Shana) or Levi (Attack on Titan). Some characters like Lelouch (Code Geass), Light (Death Note) or Lain (Serial Experiments Lain) resolve this moral dilemma by leading a double life.
Outside of a school setting the subtle snark of the Japanese is present in some anime. In episode five of Eden of the East twenty year old Saki is invited to dinner by some job interviewers as a way to say sorry for not getting the job. While eating, one of the girls ‘accidentally’ knocks the bowl of ramen over Saki’s clothes. Saki is incredibly upset about this and expresses to Takizawa afterward that the interviewers should have found a ‘nicer’ subtle way to express their dislike for her, rather than ruining her outfit.
The nuances of Japanese interaction make the social skills of reading body language and facial expressions come in great use. Another custom to show respect in Japan is the use of bowing. Bowing is done in many different circumstances: as a greeting, thank you or apology, so one may bow multiple times throughout a conversation with somebody. The duration, speed and depth of a bow can indicate the amount of respect you are communicating to the other person. The type of bow one gives to another person depends on the circumstances and context of the interaction (Wright, 2015). This custom is used so frequently that it is immediately obvious to anyone who has watched anime. In fact, how and when to bow became so ingrained that I had no problem adjusting to this when I went to Japan in 2013. In fact, I got so used to it I had trouble not bowing at people when I arrived back home.
Another way that respect is showed in Japan is through the use of suffixes and name usage. It is only in recent years where anime dubbed versions have started to include the suffixes for character names such as ‘san’, ‘chan’ or ‘kun’, although it is very common for these to be omitted as it is a uniquely Japanese custom. There are plenty of anime adaptions where the suffix ‘san’, which indicates a superior (keiko, 2015), is replaced with “Miss” and “Mister” as that is the equivalent in English. ‘Sama’ is often translated to ‘lady’ or ‘sir’.
Another common topic for conversation in anime is the use of first names. In Japan everyone you meet is treated with respect, so initially one would address friends and work colleagues by their last name. It is only under special circumstances when a certain level of intimacy has been reached when permission is asked to use first names (De Mente, 2015). This is present in many anime, but explicitly in CLANNAD. Fuko remarks that Nagisa and Tomoya are so close they ought to be addressing each other by first names. As such, there is a cute moment where the two struggle to overcome their anxiety around the topic.
On the brief subject of schools it is easily apparent about the needs to perform entrance exams and also how the Japanese education system works, although many of the strict rules that can apply to expensive schools don’t often appear in anime.
Table Manners & Food
“The food [in Japan] is amazing. I can get sushi at the 7-11 that puts to shame a fifty dollar dinner in the U.S; none of those California rolls and week-old sashimi that people rave about in the States. Then there’s the restaurant I stop at after work, where everyone says “Welcome home, Seeroi-san.” It’s like my house, if my mom had been both Japanese and hated vacuuming.” -- Ken Seeroi, Japanese Rule of 7.
The first lot of table manners one may notice is the phrase ‘itadakimasu’ before eating. This is often translated to ‘thank you for this food’ in English dubbed versions, which reasonably reflects the meaning (Kurihara, 2015), although in some early anime dubs the phrase was butchered. The worst cover up itadakimasu in a US adaption was in Digimon Adventure where it was changed to ‘It’s good to be home!’ Next, Japan uses chopsticks. This is common knowledge, although there are a number of rules on how to use them (Rodgers, 2015).
For example, one only uses the chopsticks to bring the food from the bowl into one’s mouth. Any unnecessary waving around, stabbing food or passing pieces between people is considered rude or simply inappropriate (Rodgers, 2015). You don’t have to look far to see this in anime, although the finer details of the etiquette are likely to be lost unless you are paying close attention. Another rule is that you can’t pour your own drink, but you are expected to pour everyone else’s. In anime, one has no doubt come across the exclamation of ‘kampai’ similar to the custom of saying ‘cheers’ in the West where glasses are clinked together. In Japan it is often done all at once as part of a circle (Wright, 2015). Eating ramen noisily is considered okay since it shows one enjoys it and it is considered fine to raise your bowl of food closer to your mouth so it doesn’t go everywhere (Wright, 2015).
Then of course there’s the food that has inspired many to take the plunge into Japanese cuisine or take a stroll into their local Japanese restaurant. Beyond easy to find sushi or instant noodles, anime displays the wide variety of Japanese cuisine. It is a mystery as to why the majority of lead characters in anime are able to cook to exceptional standards. Mai Tokiha (Mai HiME) can apparently make amazing ramen, and the well-drawn artwork is very convincing. Goku and Naruto are big fans of instant noodles. However, the translation hasn’t always been faithful.
In Pokemon the names for onigiri and sushi were changed to “donuts” and “eclairs”, but dubbing practices are much better. Many Kyoto Animation characters have a favorite sweet: Nagisa (CLANNAD) likes red-bean buns and dango, Ayu (Kanon) likes taiyaki, and Shana (Shakugan no Shana) has a fondness for melon pan. Other displays of food are more generalized. K-On! characters eat cake nearly every episode. These are very easy to come by in Japan as there are stalls that sell slices of cake for around $2. Anyone who has seen Fruits Basket will know that the main character Tohru has a special fondness for onigiri as she is considered the odd one out when playing a children’s game.
Food is so important in Japan that some anime focus entirely on this topic. Food Wars is a recent series that has proven a popular combination of Master Chef-like drama, obscure anime-like eccentricity and fan service. Yakitate! Japan (2004) may be over a decade old now but it has remained popular in the genre. It focused on baking bread. The unique design and breads in Japan are displayed in anime where the character’s parents own bakeries, notably CLANNAD or Digimon Tamers.
These aspects of anime probably mean very little to the locals, but for Westerners they are an easy way to learn more about the cuisine. If the inclusion of food items are supposed to act as product placement they definitely work. One obvious example of using anime to market food is the UCC brand of canned coffee seen in Neon Genesis Evangelion. In order to gain the most in depth knowledge of table manners and Japanese foods, cooking anime are a safe choice.
“Naked. That’s the only part of my local guide Moriwaki Michiko’s onsen explanation that I could catch. I would have to be sans clothes…with strangers. What if people stared? What if I brought the wrong towel or got naked at the wrong time? […] Upon sliding my shoji door shut I again I felt angry at myself. I was a fearless traveler. I skydived, bungee jumped and rock climbed. Why was I so afraid of taking a bath?” -- Jessie Festa, Jessie on a Journey Blog.
Onsen, hot springs/sento and neighborhood bathhouses are an aspect of Japanese culture that is apparent in nearly every anime, but especially the romantic comedy ones. It is very common to find a filler hot springs episode among a television series. The only other competitor for this is the beach episode, and some anime even have both. It is so prominent in anime that there are many discussion forum debates on what the best hot spring episode is. Although Love Hina introduced many budding fans to the idea of bath houses as the entire series takes place in one, there are many more high quality anime that focus on them.
Full Metal Panic Fumoffu has one of the stronger uses of a hot springs episode. It combines comedy, action and plenty of awkward situations in one. If you want some fluidly animated censored nudity, explosions and guns Fumoffu is a fantastic option. Futakoi Alternative, while it is not licensed, also has a similar style hot spring episode with action, romance and even Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in C Minor. Also by Kyoto Animation, Hyouka had a more serious approach to the idea which worked incredibly well. Not only was it interesting because it deviated from the usual slapstick approach, but it included a touching discussion of family, and the main character discovers some of his attraction for the female lead, Chitanda Eru -- which he subsequently represses. Maison Ikkoku‘s only inclusion of a hot spring actually marks the end of a story arc, in which the situation is balances humor, awkwardness and drama. All in all, it was still a memorable execution of the idea, rather than the usual throwaway excuse for fan service.
Aside from which hot spring episode is the superior one, does anime teach viewers about how to use bath houses? There is a very specific way to use an onsen and every one will have slightly different rules so it can be helpful to look for a sign. Generally, one uses soap and a small shower to wash before going into the bath, where one can soak to their heart’s content (Spacey, 2014).
In the West there are some families that ask that you wear slippers inside to keep the house clean, and it is a decent idea. This is always present in Japan, anime but the rule is especially strict in bath houses. The only time this does not occur is on tatami mats (Wright, 2015). They would be damaged if you wore any kind of footwear on them. Many, if not all of rules for using an onsen and entering houses are shown in anime but they are not explicitly stated so it can help to pay attention.
Festivals & Events
“…So we got to the festival and there was music and children laughing and all these Japanese guys carrying around giant wooden shrines and yelling, but all I could think about was food. Everywhere I looked there were food stalls. […] Amazing scents were wafting from every direction.” -- Ken Seeroi, Japanese Rule of 7.
Matsuri, or festivals, happen all over Japan at multiple times throughout the year. They are usually organized around the shrines and temples in the area. Attendees wear costumes and carry mini shrines around. The term is also used loosely to refer to local events (Kawasaki, 2015), which may involve dancing or art. These are fairly easy to see in almost any anime. Similar to the hot spring episode, Hyouka deviates from the norm and used the New Year’s episode to further develop the bond between the two main characters. As such, levels of sexual tension are at amusingly high levels. The school festival series of episodes are also presented in an unconventional way. Fruits Basket‘s dramady New Years episode is particularly significant for adding detail to the main character. The real obvious cultural differences come when looking at Western and Japanese holidays.
Valentine’s day has more variation on Christmas between Japan and the West. On Valentine’s Day the woman are expected to provide chocolates or other gifts to men, co-workers and friends. These are divided into different types depending on your relationship to the other person. Giri-choco means ‘obligatory chocolate’ and the name implies its role (Sharp, 2013). These are the standard, reasonably priced chocolates that you can afford to give to many people. It might be the ones you buy last minute in the confectionery supermarket aisle. Honmei-choco is the fancier chocolate you save up for to give to a more special someone, whether that is a crush, lover or close friend. Sometimes the girl may want to make her chocolate from scratch (Sharp, 2013). Some of the more memorable Valentine’s day episodes are from Fruits Basket, Toradora and (again) Hyouka.
While Easter has become adopted by Japan, it is still not known by most Japanese. Instead of relying on chocolate eggs, Japanese sometimes replace these with their own local sweets like mochi. A similar trend is seen with Christmas. In Japan the most common religions are Shintoism or Buddhism, with only 1% identifying as Christian (Hammond, 2006), so the celebration of Christmas has been adopted to focus on the spirit of giving. The decorations, cards and giving/receiving of presents are as far as the similarities go (Martin, 2011). For those in the West who are not religious this version of Christmas will not seem out of sorts. In Japan Christmas is an opportunity to dress up nicely and enjoy a romantic night out (Martin, 2011).
A more unusual difference is the commercial ploy from KFC in Japan. Because of their advertising eating fried chicken is a common practice at Christmas in Japan, with many families having to order in advanced (Hammond, 2006). Popular Christmas episodes for anime usually involve a plot or aspect of character development, like Maison Ikkoku, Toradora and The Disapearance of Haruhi Suzumiya film, although I have yet to see any KFC.
Halloween in Japan is a different, but still very exciting, beast to the West. The concept of ‘trick or treating’ has not ever, and probably will never be a trend because of Japan’s strong cultural focus on respect for others (Von Lanken, 2015). However, that doesn’t stop anyone from dressing up. In fact, judging by the Shibuya Haloween Street party of this year, Halloween could be seen as synonymous with ‘giant pop culture convention’ as far as cosplaying goes. While the differences in holidays vary to the Western counterpart, an even more alien variation are the social concerns in Japan.
Crime in Japan
“A couple of minutes ago I was having a bunch of nice drinks with this chick, and now it’s like: what the hell’s going on? […] The skinny guy on the tile floor isn’t moving and this massive dude is just kicking the shit out of him. And I know immediately the big guy isn’t just an ordinary person. He’s a yakuza. […] There was blood everywhere. It wasn’t anything like a fight; it was like something from a war movie. I was like, Holy crap, this is an actual murder. The man in the purple shirt lay there lifeless with his eyes rolled back in his head, not even breathing, while all his dark blood poured out onto the white tile.” -- Ken Seeroi, Japanese Rule of 7.
The crime rate is low in Japan and it is considered a very safe country (Wright, 2015), so much so that a decent proportion of crime in Japan comes from foreigners (Takafuji, 2015). Bicycles being stolen, home break ins or sex crimes are far more common. United Nations report stated that Japan’s homicide rate is one of the lowest in the world (Engel, 2014).
One possible reason for this is the gun laws which mean that everyone who wants a weapon needs a very in depth and vigorous background check (Engel, 2014). Kopel (1988) believes that the gun laws only partially contribute to the low crime rate, as the majority of crimes in Japan are from organized groups called Boryokudan or yakuza (Adelstein, 2015). Yakuza are immediately recognized by tattoos, so to the Japanese this is an immediate red flag (Goodmacher, 2013). The only time a tattooed person won’t be suspected as a criminal if it’s obvious you’re a tourist and not Japanese (Festa, 2014).
The criminal justice system is stricter than in the West. Being bailed out of jail will be denied if the suspect is still considered useful to an investigation, which heightens the confession rate to 95% (Kopel, 1988). Gangs are represented a lot in anime. The first one that comes to mind is Seiji Sawamura in Midori Days, although Heaven’s Memo Pad, K, La Storia della Arcana Famiglia, Great Teacher Onizuka and Black Lagoon are well known too.
Social Issues in Japan: Marriage, Sex and the Hikikomori
“I recently ran into a couple at a sakura flower-viewing party. They’d met through a matchmaker, and told me they were planning to get married. ‘I just got tired of being alone,’ said the guy. ‘I made up my mind to get married,’ said the girl. ‘So you decided to get married […] and then you met each other?’ They both nodded. ‘I think we do it the other way around in the U.S.’ -- Ken Seeroi, Japanese Rule of 7.
Arranged marriages used to be incredibly common in Japan, usually organized by the parents or with the help of a matchmaker or ‘nakodo’. After World War 2 many Japanese rebelled against their parents and wanted their marriages to be based on love. As a result nowadays many parents strongly recommend a partner, allowing the man or woman to make the final decision (May, 2015). It’s a ‘choose or we choose for you’ mentality. However the miai appears to fluctuate in popularity depending on the circumstances of the country, as these types of marriages became more popular after the 2011 tsunami (Millward, 2012).
Since many anime take place in high schools marriage rarely becomes a subject topic, although it does from time to time. Maison Ikkoku presents this very strongly, almost to a Pride and Prejudice extent. In the 80’s a small portion of marriages were arranged, which makes sense in the context of the series. Many of the conflicts between Godai and Kyoko are a result of cultural and parental pressures which makes it an extremely interesting series from that aspect alone. Despite its highs, marriage popularity may be on the descent again judging from the number of Japanese people choosing to not be in relationships.
“Ah, sex in Japan, always a hot topic in online forums. If you’re a man, and you post: I’m having lots of sex in Japan! then someone will surely reply: The women you’re seeing are all hoes. Or, if you’re a woman and you post the same thing, then: You yourself are a ho. Okay, so the internet’s never been famous for politeness.” -- Ken Seeroi, Japanese Rule of 7.
According to the Japan Times, 40-50% of marriages in Japan are sexless, and it isn’t just married couples that are avoiding it. Relationship counselors like Ai Aoyama are trying to tackle this lost interest in sex among Japanese men and women. It is often called sekkusu shinai shokogun, which means ‘celibacy syndrome’ (Haworth, 2013). It is difficult to gain an understanding of this situation from anime. Generally there are characters on either side of the spectrum, your typical perverted character (Brock from Pokemon, Ataru from Urusei Yatsura or Hideki from Chobits) and the apparently asexual (Oreki from Hyouka) or one that finds sexual situations highly embarrassing (Shinji in Neon Genesis Evangelion or Renton in Eureka Seven).
The Japanese Rule of Seven mentions that sex is so difficult to come across in real life that Japanese resort to prostitution, among other quick fixes. This explains the abundance of ecchi anime, even though Japanese come across as sexually repressed. Sex scenes themselves rarely appear in anime that isn’t hentai -- the only ones I can think of are in Neon Genesis Evangelion and Gundam Seed. It all appears to be symptoms of a larger problem, one that Japan is trying very hard to fix as soon as possible.
Aoyama’s patients often express dislike of the Japanese model of marriage and feel distressed for breaking from the norm (Haworth, 2013). The number of singles has risen dramatically not just in Japan, but other Asian countries (Seoul & Taipei, 2011). Aoyama believes this can partially be blamed on the typical marriage roles in Japan. The workplace hours can be so demanding that women often stay home to raise children while the father works.
In Usagi Drop very early on in the series Daikitchi works so late that the child care center has to wait with Rin outside in almost pitch black. It is a small window into the sorts of problems that come about with long work hours, twenty hours a day in extreme circumstances.
Although equality of women and men in the workforce is fairly even in the West, according to The Economist (2014) there are far less women who work in Japan. Many stay at home to rear children and rely on their husbands for income. This still happens in the West but it is more common in Japan, with 70% of women leaving work after their first child (Haworth, 2013). Perhaps a symbolic representation of this emotional lifelessness in Japan can be interpreted from this wedding between robots, the first of its kind, which took place in June this year.
On a lighter note, Japan issued its first marriage certificate to a lesbian couple earlier this year as well, showing that Japan does still believe in equal rights for those in love, even if many share very pessimistic views. It is rare to see these dynamics depicted in anime, again because of the focus on high school students. However, in Usagi Drop there is an episode where a mother is having a conflict with her husband and tells the main character that she regrets being married and felt that her childhood dream was too idealistic. The take away mesage of the episode is marriage is not all it is cracked up to be.
On my tour it was explained to me that the reason all windows in Japan can only be opened a small amount is to dis-encourage suicide and it is not unusual for trains to be delayed from someone jumping in front of them. Sadly, this happened a number of times on my trip. Another largely Japan phenomenon is the Hikikomori, sometimes known as NEETs (an acronym coined in the UK to mean Not in Employment, Education or Training). These are a portion of Japanese youth that have withdrawn from society to such an extent that they won’t leave their room or house for a period of longer than six months, sometimes years -- except for at night to the convenience store.
Japan and other researchers in the world are trying to find ways to formally diagnose and treat hikikomori, as the symptoms appear independent to social anxiety (Wang, 2015). There are support groups and a call crisis center available as free treatment options (Wang, 2015). However, it is thought that the condition may cross over with other personality disorders and could be brought on by attachment theory or a failed resolution to an identity crisis. Cultural factors, such as over-supportive parents are thought to be a factor as well (Li & Wong, 2015).
The most in depth and deliberate exploration of the Hikikomori is in the hit show Welcome to the NHK!. Every character in the series is some representation of otaku, sexually repressed, hikikomori or all three. The reasons behind this are explored to differing extents depending on how important the characters are. The series reaches the highest highs and the lowest lows, especially in its mid series arc that brings the issue of group suicide and drug use. The show is an entertaining one in its own right.
While many in the West may be able to relate to the expressions of social anxiety and depression, the show is made all the more relevant with this social context. In a similar vein Eden of the East touches upon the issue of NEETs although it is not done with as much sympathy and care as Welcome to the NHK. While Welcome to the NHK portrays its characters as one might a loving friend who wants to help, Eden of the East is a harsh parental voice which has very little encouraging to say. Regardless of the approaches used to display the message, the cultural issues in Japan are the well represented in specific anime like Maison Ikkoku, Usagi Drop and Welcome to the NHK respectively.
There are other aspects of Japanese culture which are so rarely depicted in anime it would not be worth dedicating a whole paragraph to them. One is the idea of the Jazz kissaten, a coffee shop dedicated to playing jazz, and jazz bars in a similar vein (Downey, 2014). These became popular in the 60’s because music records were so expensive that students and those working would spend time in these locations just to listen. This focus on Jazz is displayed in the anime Kids on the Slope.
Hygeine is another concern of the Japanese which is apparent to anyone who has witnessed the spotless streets of Osaka or Hiroshima (not so much Tokyo). Japanese are expected to still go to work and school when sick, so they wear face masks as to prevent the spread of germs. Since anime characters don’t usually get sick these are not shown in anime very often. The Disapearance of Haruhi Suzumiya film is one instance where it is displayed.
There are many aspects of Japanese culture that become automatically ingrained in regular anime watchers by mere repetition, like bowing, uses of names, hot springs and some table etiquette. The specifics of some of these rules are difficult to gather without doing further research, although anime gives a decent introduction to many of these cultural differences.
The more complicated social issues require deeper research to understand, but can give an extra layer of enjoyment to anime one may not have had before. Anime is an important medium for understanding and sparking interest in Japanese culture and hopefully it will continue to inspire fans for years to come.
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