Ancient Japanese Customs

Ancient Japanese Customs




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Ancient Japanese Customs


Probably nothing characterizes the Japanese culture better than the custom of bowing. Bowing most likely first developed during religious ceremonies and was at that time used as a sign of respect in the presence of one's deity. During the 1700's it is said that Japanese peasants bobbed their heads to almost everyone that passed. The custom at this time was the higher the position of the passing person, the deeper the bow. However, when a samurai passed all the rules changed. Out of fear for their lives, commoners were forced to drop to their knees and bow until their forehead touched the ground. They were forbidden to make eye contact with the samurai. If the samurai felt disrespected he could cut with impunity. However, most chose not to because they were required to fill out paperwork and sometimes criminal investigations resulted. Even when a samurai stepped into a small shop, the merchant was expected to bow deeply. When samurai traveled on the road everyone was expected to bow, and those who were on horseback were expected to dismount and drop to their knees. Women were expected to bow to everyone including family members and their husbands. They were taught an elegant way of bowing. Young girls were taught to bow in a flirtatious manner with a fan covering their faces, and geisha girls learned as many as 20 different bows.

The ancient Japanese enjoyed pet birds in their homes. The daiymo(lords) enjoyed hawking or falconry, while the general population enjoyed singing birds. Koi(carp) fish were probably the most popular pets in ancient times. They like to be petted and fed by hand. The Japanese also raised them to eat. Monkeys were also popular pets, and were often found at temples. By the end of the 17th century small dogs from China and Korea were all the rage in the large Japanese cities. Soon afterward it became customary for wealthy matrons to walk their dogs on leashes along a canal bank dressed in their newest kimono.

Another custom that developed in ancient Japan was tattooing. Ancient Japanese commoners covered their bodies with tattoos or irezumi. These were not crude tattoos, but instead very intricate and extremely well done. When a young man entered into a new profession he customarily got a tattoo that proclaimed his new career. Prior to becoming popular with the common people tattoos were used to brand criminals. The crime they had been found guilty of was branded across their foreheads. After a while tattooing was so popular that artists joined guilds or unions. It was not uncommon for a person to have two or three tattoos being worked on at a time in a multitude of colors The colors were created by using vegetable dyes.

Another traditional custom of ancient Japan was the use of shaman. Many types of fortune telling were also very popular. Most of the shaman diviners were single women and almost every village had at least one. The normal routine was for the shaman to fall into a trance and then channel the voices of the kami or one's ancestors. Most fortunes gave ominous warnings that something horrible was about to happen, but if they gave the shaman a little money they could stop it from happening. Gambling also has deep routes in the Japanese culture. Most of the gambling that took place in the cities took place in what were called Licensed Quarters. At these facilities were tea shops, sake shops, and brothels; and many types of games were offered. Cards and dice were probably the most popular forms of gambling.