Life in Tokyo, Japan with my wife and our three teenagers...


Frequently Asked Questions (about Japan).
Click on a question to see the answer:
  1. What is Japan's official flag?
  2. What are some Japanese "proverbs"?
  3. What are Japan's geographical borders?
  4. What year is it on the Japanese calendar now?
  5. What are Japan's holidays?
  6. Why is Japan called "The Land Of The Rising Sun"?
  7. What are some uniquely Japanese manners?
  8. What are some uniquely Japanese superstitions?

  1. What is Japan's official flag?

    Japan's official flag is the 日の丸 ("Hi-no-maru").

    The red sphere in the center represents the sun. The name of the country in Japanese is 日本 (Nippon) which means origin of the sun (Which is why Japan is often refered to as "The Land Of The Rising Sun" ).
    Interestingly, this was only the de facto nation flag until it was recognized as the official National Flag in law in 1999.

    Some people mistake Japan's naval ensign as the national flag.
    Japan's naval ensign

    A naval ensign isn't the same as country's national flag. Most countries' navies fly both their country's national flag and a somewhat similiar flag called the Naval Ensign on their ships.
    Japan is no exception. The flag above is Japan's Naval Ensign and it's similar to Japan's national flag...but the red sun has sun rays.

    (This, by the way, is the Naval Ensign of the United States Navy:
    US Naval Ensign ).

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  3. What are some Japanese "proverbs"?

    • から落ちる -- "Even a monkey can fall from a tree." (Nobody's perfect.)
    • -- "A frog's baby is a frog." (An apple never falls far from the tree. / Like father, like son.)
    • 七転八起 -- "Fall seven times...get up eight." (Never give up.)
    • 十人十色 -- "Ten people...ten styles." (To each his own.)

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  5. What are Japan's geographical borders?

    Japan is an archipelago (chain of islands) of over 3000 islands!
    Most of them are very small, but the four main islands are: 北海道 (Hokkaidou), 本州 (Honshu (the main island)), 四国 (Shikoku), and 九州 (Kyuushuu).

    From there, there are eight 地方「ちほう」 (regions). These are: 北海道 (Hokkaidou), 東北 (Touhoku), 関東 (Kantou), 中部 (Chuubu), 関西 (Kansai), 中国 (Chuugoku), 四国 (Shikoku), and 九州 (Kyuushuu).

    In these eight regions, there are a total of 47 都道府県「とどうふけん」 (Prefectures). One (Tokyo) is a "To", another one (Hokkaido) is a "Dou", two (Osaka and Kyoto) are "Fu", and the other 43 are "Ken". The U.S. equivalant of a "Prefecture" might be a "State".

    Each prefecture has Wards (which might be similar to "Counties" in the U.S.). Tokyo has 23 区 (Ku) ("Metropolitan Wards"), 26 市 (Shi) (Suburban Wards), 5 町 (Machi) (Towns), and 8 村 (Mura) (Villages).

    And each Ward is divided into cities and towns.

    (There are further divisons such as 丁目 (Choume), 番地 (Banchi), and 号 (Gou), but that'd be a whole other FAQ entry).

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  6. What year is it on the Japanese calendar now?

    so, in the Japanese calendar it's the year:  

    The year 2008 was 平成20年 (Heisei 20) on the Japanese calendar. January 1, 2009 started 平成21年 (Heisei 21).

    Heisei 21 means the current Emperor was throned 21 years ago. When the Emperor dies, a new era will be announced and it will be "Year 1" of that era. Then on the following January 1, "Year 2" will begin.

    For example, the current Emperor's father was the Emperor of the Showa era (He's called the "Showa Emperor" in Japan...but in the West, he's usually called "Emperor Hirohito" (Have you heard of him? He was Japan's Emperor during WWII).
    January 1, 1989 was the first day of the year 昭和64年 (Showa 64). But the Emperor died on January 7, Showa 64 was only one week long. January 8, 1989 began the current "Heisei Era".

    I came to Japan on 平成2年10月17日 (October 17, 1990 (Heisei 2)).

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  7. What are Japan's holidays?

    Public holidays are listed below in blue:

    ----- JANUARY -----

    • お正月 (New Year's)
      1月1日〜3日 (Jan 1-3)
      This is the most important holiday in Japan. Just like Christmas in Western countries, families get together for a tradional meal, children are given gifts of money by relatives, and post offices are busy delivering the holidays post cards (called 年賀状 ("Nengajyou")).People visit shrines and temples for New Years blessings.Also, this is one of two times a year that the public are allowed into the Emperor's Palace grounds to be greeted by the Emperor (the other time is his birthday.)

    • 成人の日 (Adult's Day)
      1月の第二月曜日 (2nd Monday of Jan)
      "Adult's Day" is a rough translation of "Seijin-no-hi". This is the day to celebrate young people who have reached adulthood (20 years old). They usually wear kimono and attend a special ceremony.

      ----- FEBRUARY -----

    • 節分 (Setsubun)
      2月3日 (Feb 3)
      Not a public holiday. Kinda hard to explain, but on this day children throw beans at their father (who is wearing a demon mask) to ward of bad luck from the home. People also visit temples that have a famous sumo wrestler or celebrity throwing beans at the crowd. You're meant to eat the number of beans that correspond to your age.

    • 建国記念日 (National Founding Day)
      2月11日 (Feb 11)
      The first Emperor of Japan, Jimmu, was crowned on February 11, 660 BC...according to tradition.

    • バレンタイン・デー (Valentine's Day)
      2月14日 (Feb 14)
      In Japan, Valentine's Day is not a public holiday, and it's done differently than in the West. Here, women give homemade chocolate to men. Her boyfriend or husband (and sons) gets her best gift...and other men, including her boss and co-workers get giri choco ("Obligation chocolate").

      Valentine's day has a corresponding holiday called "White Day".

      ----- MARCH -----

    • ひな祭 (Princess Festival)
      3月3日 (Mar 3)
      In English, this holiday is called Princess Festival (literal translation), Doll Festival, and sometimes by it's old name of Girls' Day. Any of those names are fine, but the actual name of this holiday is Hina Matsuri. Families with daughters set up elaborate doll sets of Japanese royalty and eat a special meal.

    • ホワイト・デー (White Day)
      3月14日 (Mar 14)
      This day is similiar to Valentine's Day in the West in that men who received chocolate on Valentine's Day give a gift to all the women who gave them a gift.The best gift is to their girlfriend or wife (and daughters).It is said that the holiday began when a marshmallow maker started marketing to men that they should pay back the women who gave them chocolate and other gifts with marshmallows. And that's supposedly where the name White Day came from.

      Soon thereafter, confectionary companies began to realize that they could capitalize on such a tradition as well, and began marketing white chocolate. Now, Japanese men give both white and non-white chocolate, as well as other gifts, such as jewelry or objects of sentimental value, to women from whom they received chocolate on Valentine's Day.

    • 春分の日 (Spring Equinox)
      3月20日 (Mar 20)
      Many people visit their family gravesite and pay respects.

      ----- APRIL -----

    • 昭和の日 (Showa Day)
      4月29日 (Apr 29)
      The birthday of former (Showa) Emperor who died in 1989. Until 2006, April 29 was known as "Greenery Day" (now celebrated on May 4).
      This is the unofficial first day of "Golden Week", which is a week in Spring that most people have off. Many people travel overseas during Golden Week. (Golden Week is officially from May 3 - May 5...but some companies start the holidays on April 29).

      ----- MAY -----

    • 健保記念日 (Constitution Day)
      5月3日 (May 3)
      The anniversary of the day that the post WWII Constitution was adopted.

    • 緑の日 (Greenery Day)
      5月4日 (May 4)
      Until 2006, this holiday was 国民記念日, and "Greenery Day" was celebrated on April 29, the former (Showa) Emperor's birthday, due to the his love for plants and nature."Greenery Day" is now celebrated on May 4 and is part of "Golden Week".

      April 29 is now called "Showa Day".

    • 子供の日 (Children's Day)
      5月5日 (May 5)
      Used to be called Boys' Day. Families with sons set up samurai figurine sets and fly 鯉のぼり (Carp Streamers) outside their homes. The last day of Golden Week.

      ----- JULY -----

    • 七夕 (Star Festival)
      7月7日 (July 7)
      From a Chinese story about two stars in the sky representing a prince and princess who are in love but forbidden from seeing each other...but there's one day in July every year when they have a chance to meet (supposedly the stars are close only this day).
      Japanese people write down a wish (for good health, to pass a test, etc) on a piece of paper and tie it to a bamboo tree.

    • 海の日 (Sea Day)
      7月の第三月曜日 (3rd Mon of July)
      This holiday was started a few years ago because there were no public holidays between May and August, and the government felt that workers needed a day off.It was decided to call it "Sea Day" because Japan is an island country and the oceans provide us with alot.

      A day to appreciate the oceans and ocean life.

      ----- AUGUST -----

    • お盆 (O-bon)
      8月13〜15日 (Aug 13-15)
      Although Obon is not officially a public holiday, most people get a few days off. People return to their hometown (if they no longer live there) and visit their family graves. In the evenings, there are festivals (similar to some other countries have) to honor the deceased with special dances (called "Bon-odori").

      ----- SEPTEMBER -----

    • 敬老の日 (Respect For The Aged Day)
      9月の第三月曜日 (3rd Mon of Sept)
      The day to honor the elderly. Many kindergartens invite grandparents to eat lunch with their grandchildren and watch a special show. Usually people buy their grandparents (or parents) a gift.

    • 秋分の日 (Autumn Equinox)
      9月23日 (Sept 23)
      Graves are visited again.

      ----- OCTOBER -----

    • 体育の日 (Sports Day)
      10月の第二月曜日 (2nd Mon of Oct)
      To commemorate the day in October 1964 that the Tokyo Olympics commenced. Schools (from pre-school to high school) and some companies have 運動会 (Sports Day Event) every year around this time.

      ----- NOVEMBER -----

    • 文化の日 (Culture Day)
      11月3日 (Nov 3)
      On this day, the Emperor himself awards people who have contributed to Japan's culture over the past year in some way.

    • 七五三 (7-5-3 Festival)
      11月15日 (Nov 15)
      On or around November 15, girls aged 3 and 7 and boys aged 5 are dressed up (girls in kimono, boys in kimono or suit) and go to a shrine with their families for blessings for a long healthy life.
      Afterwards, they are given special candies and are often brought by their parents to a photo studio to have their portrait taken.

    • 勤労感謝の日 (Labor Gratitude Day)
      11月23日 (Nov 23)
      Like "Labor Day" in the U.S., this day is to show appreciation for the workers of the country. (Usually translated into English as "Labor Thanksgiving Day" but I think "Labor Gratitude Day" is better).

      ----- DECEMBER -----

    • 天皇誕生日 (The Emperor's Birthday)
      12月23日 (Dec 23)
      The birthday of the current Emperor of Japan.
      This is one of two times a year that the public are allowed into the Emperor's Palace grounds to be greeted by the Emperor (the other time is New Years.)

    • クリスマス (Christmas)
      12月25日 (Dec 25)
      Christmas is not a national holiday, but it is celebrated to nearly the same extent as in Western countries. But here's it's done Japanese style...Christmas Eve is a romantic night for couples to go out for dinner and look at "Christmas illumination" on the streets and shops.
      Japanese people don't decorate their homes with trees or decorations, so Santa leaves presents near Japanese children's pillows. Christmas dinner is chicken (often from Kentucky Fried Chicken) and "Christmas cake".

    • 大晦日 (New Year's Eve)
      12月31日 (Dec 31)
      On New Years Eve in Japan, most people eat 年越そば (New Year's noodles) and visit a temple for the ringing of the temple bell 108 times (a Buddhist tradition).

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  9. Why is Japan called "The Land Of The Rising Sun"?

    Because Japan's "real" name is "Nippon" (日本), which translates to "Origin Of The Sun" and that's where the name "Land Of The Rising Sun" came from.

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  11. What are some uniquely Japanese manners?

    • Shoes are removed in homes, schools and some restaurants.
    • You shouldn't eat while you walk.
    • Public displays of affections aren't shown.
    • Chopsticks cannot be stuck into a bowl of rice.
    • Food cannot be passed from one pair of chopsticks to another.
    • Business cards are given and received with both hands and a bow, and left on the table during a meeting. Then placed carefully in a business card holder.
    • When using an escalator, if you intend to stand and ride it, you stand to the left side to make room for people who want walk up (or down) it (those people use the right side).
    • Pouring alcohol in another's glass (rather than everyone pouring their own) is a friendly drinking custom.

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  13. What are some uniquely Japanese superstitions?

    • It's bad luck to cut your nails at night.
    • Like 13 in Western cultures, 4 and 9 are unlucky numbers in Japan (because 4 can be pronounced like the word for "death" and 9 can be pronounced like the word for "pain"). Hospitals don't have a fourth floor.
    • Don't sleep with your head to the North.
    • It's bad luck to whistle at night.

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