A. Post World War II changes in traditional structure
The family is the most important element in Japanese society.
Traditionally Japan had large, extended families, with three or four generations
living together. Today, although grandparents sometimes live with the family, most
people live in small nuclear homes consisting of the parents and one or two children.
This change has occurred slowly since the end of World War II. Before the war,
Japan was an agricultural society, with most people lived in farming communities
where rice was the major crop. Rice growing requires many people working together
to plan, harvest and irrigate; therefore, in order to survive, families had to live
near each other and work together. A small family could not support itself if it
lived and farmed alone. Much emphasis was put on children for labor.
Since the modernization of Japan, the economic system has changed, a single
person can now support a small family by working in a factory or office. Also,
mechanization of farms and the glamour and opportunities of city life have
encouraged many young people to move to the cities.
In the past thirty years, Western especially American lifestyles and values
have strongly influenced Japanese society, particularly its youth. Many aspects of
Japanese life, including the family structure have become very Americanized.
B. Responsibilities and Consequences of change
The change to a highly technological and indstry economy along with the
change from extended families has caused several emerging problems, one being
juvenile delinquency. Japanese fathers work long hours and are
rarely at home. Children are under sever pressure to succeed at school and are
confused by increased material wealth and great changes in Japanese values. To
vent their frustrations at these social and educational systems, young people are
more often turning to delinquency, a situation which rarely, if even, existed prior to
After World War II, so called new sects arose in response to modern
problems created by urbanization and industrialization. These groups generally call
themselves either Shinto or Buddhist, depending on the holidays they favor most;
however, Japan has become surprisingly secular over the past 30 years. The
Japanese people, especially the younger generation, with so much freedom, combined
with modern problems, no longer have the will to truly devote themselves to a
religion. Materialism creates a conflict with traditional values; the youth of Japan
find it increasingly difficult to believe in religions that no longer fit modern
lifestyles. Some of these are Shintoism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Confucianism.
(The Editors of Time-Life Books 23-25; Bumiller 67)
Shinto means The Way of the Gods and revolves around the worship of
nature. Shintoists have a high respect for nature and a belief that gods dwell in
all natural objects (trees, waterfalls, rocks, ect.) There is an emphasis on co-
existence with ones natural surroundings, cleanliness, simplicity, and purity. Until
World War II, Shinto was the state religion of Japan, and the emperor was
considered to be a god. Needless to say, this belief was dramatically changed after
the atomic bombings in Japan.If the emperor was such a powerful god he would
(Geography Department of Lerner Publications Company 48 and 49; Bumiller 60)
Buddhism teaches that suffering on this earth is unavoidable. To be happy,
people must accept suffering, rid themselves of all selfish thoughts (such as
materialism) and lead good and kind lives. Only when a human being in able to live
a truly good and holy life, he or she will be able to enter heaven, or nirvana after
death. Until then, their spirits will be re-born again and again – perhaps in the body
of an animal. It is hard to keep such beliefs alive in a society that puts so much
emphasis on material wealth and a high standard of living.
(Heinrichs 94; Geography Department Lerner Publications 45)
In order to compensate for lack of devotion the Japanese people have found
that Buddhism and Shinto being complimentary can still be incorporated into their
lives, such as birth weddings and funerals. Most of Japanese people consider
themselves to be both Buddhist and Shinto. Shinto ceremonies usually revolve
around birth, weddings, and joyous occasions. Since Buddhism is connected with the
afterlife, Buddhist ceremonies are usually held at funerals.
(Geography Department Lerner Publications 45)
Although Christianity was very popular at first, the government violently
suppressed Christian worship as it was thought to be a threat to traditional
Japanese values and lifestyles. Since World War II, the Japanese constitution has
guaranteed freedom of religion. But despite many missionaries, Christianity has not
become very popular. This is because older Japanese people are
unwilling to give up old beliefs, and the newer generations rarely see a need to
believe in a religion at all. Statistics disagree on how much of the
Japanese population has become Christian since World War II, but it is said to be
somewhere between 1 to 3 percent or 1.5 million people.
Although not really a religion, Confucianism used to play a strong role in
determining the character and values of the Japanese people. Confucius, a Chinese
scholar, believed that all people have very strict duties and responsibilities to their
family, their community, and their country. According to Confucian thought, people
must learn to accept their place in society, and not try to change the age-old roles.
People are taught to respect their elders, men must support and rule their families,
women must obey men and take care of the household, and everybody should lead
modest lives, with compassion for others.
(Geography Department of Lerner Publications Company)
The Japanese school year begins in April, and there are three terms during
the year. There is a 40 day summer vacation in July and August, a 2 week winter
vacation and 2 weeks off at the year in March. Homework is always assigned during
Beginning at age six, all children must attend six years of elementary school.
Elementary generally starts at 8 AM and concludes at 3 PM. After school, children
spend time with their friends, playing sports, computer games, riding their bikes, and
so on. Some children, even young ones, go to juku (cram schools), or take private
lessons to brush up on their school studies and prepare for high school entrance
exams. They may also take private lessons in things that interest them such as
traditional Japanese sports, soroban (abacus), or music.
Junior high lasts for three years (7th, 8th, and 9th grades) followed by three
years of high school (10th, 11th, and 12th grades). Although attending high school is
not required, over 94% of children do attend.
(Geography Department of Lerner Publications 46 and 47)
Compared to the relative freedom of their younger years, junior and senior
high school is where the hard work starts. In most secondary schools there are 5
1/2 days of classes each week. Recently however the Japanese government has
recommended that schools give their students Saturday off. Some schools now try
that system, but many students dont know what to do with so much free time.
Most junior and senior high school students have to wear uniforms to school,
and many boys have to shave off their hair! There are very strict rules
about everything from hairstyles, length of dresses, the color of socks, and even
what kind of briefcases students may use. Girls are not allowed to perm their hair,
or to wear any make-up or jewelry.
After school, students often have school club activities until dinner time.
Dinner is usually early so that afterwards students can go to juku (cram school)
for 3 to 4 hours. They then return home for a late night snack and many hours of
Because of the school demands on their time, most Japanese students do not
have jobs and they are not expected to do any chores around the home. Their main
priority is STUDY, STUDY, and STUDY! Mothers wait on their children hand and
foot, to encourage them to do well in their studies.
(Heinrichs 98; Toyosato Junior High School)
The entrance exam system is perhaps the most emphasized aspect of the
Japanese educational system. Admission to high schools and universities (even
some junior high schools, elementary schools, and even some kindergartens!) is by
exam. School grades, creativity, or extra-curricular activities are not important.
What is important is doing well on the entrance exams. It is tremendously
competitive to get into a top rate school, and students study long hours to memorize
facts which might be asked on the exams.
This process is called Juken Jigoku or examination hell. There is a saying
that if a high school student sleeps for more then 4 hours per night, she or he will
not have studied enough to pass the entrance exams!
Failing an exam is considered a matter of personal shame and a disgrace to
the family. Japan has a high suicide rate among those who fail or fear failing an
exam. Some children refuse to go to school because of pressure from other
Despite the rigorous entrance exams, about 35% of the students go on to
college. This percentage is rising rapidly.
There is generally little time for Japanese children to have fun, but
when time is available there are many things a child can do to amuse
Judo, kendo, karate, and aikido have been practiced for centuries, but
traditionally Japanese girls were not allowed to engage in such activities. Today,
however, more and more girls, since the late 1970s, now compete in the same
traditional Japanese sports as boys. There has been a change for males as well;
things that used to be considered feminine such as gymnastics are now taken up by
young Japanese boys. Recently American sports such as baseball, skiing, and even
golf have become very popular. Baseball is easily the most played sport in Japan, it
seems as if everyone is on a team. Golf is the most expensive sport
because it requires a sizable amount of land and is not usually played by children. It
is, however, played by Japanese college students, as they believe it will help them
once they become business men or women.
(Jacobsen & Preben 19; Bumiller 189)
Other than sports, Japanese children play video games, listen to music, watch
TV, and do varius other activities.
(Jacobsen & Preben 19; Bumiller 189)
Bumiller, Elisabeth. The Secrets of Mariko, A Year in the Life of Japanese Woman and Her Family. New York: Times Books. 1995
Geography Department. Japan in Pictures. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company. 1989
Greenberg, Susan H. Found in America News Week (April 3rd 2000) 3pp. Online. America On Line. 30th March 2000
Available. http://www. newsweek.com/nw-srv/printed/int/socu/a17880-2000mar27.htm
Greenfeld, Karl Taro. Speed Tribes, Days and Nights with Japans Next Generation New York: HarperPerennial. 1994
Heinirichs, Ann. Japan, Enchantment of the World. New York; London; Hong Kong; Sydney; Danbury, Connecticut: Childrens Press. 1998
Jacobsen, Peter Otto. and Preben Seijer Kristensen. A Family in Japan. New York: The Bookwright Press. 1985
Kawamata, Kazuhide. We live in Japan. New York: The Bookwright Press. 1984
Shelly, Rex. Cultures of the World, Japan. New York: Marshall Cavendish. 1990
The Editors of Time-Life Books. Library of Nations, Japan. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books. 1985
—— Toyosato Junior High School (30th March 2000) 4pp Online. Internet. America On Line. (3rd April 2000) Available. http://www.k111.k12.il.us./King/Japan12.htm