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People and Society, Way of Life

giant carp, agricultural villages, Aged Day, Shinto shrines, Golden Week

Historically, most Japanese people lived in agricultural villages or small fishing settlements along the coast. Now, most of the population resides in metropolitan areas. Japanís agricultural population, which has been declining since the 1950s, constituted only about 5 percent of the total population in 1996. A disproportionate fraction of the population that has remained to live and work in Japanís agricultural areas is elderly because the majority of migrants to cities are young.

Everyday life for most urban Japanese involves work in an office, store, factory, or other segment of the metropolitan economy. Daily commutes by bus, train, or subway are typically long, particularly in Tokyo. The commute is also extraordinarily crowded. During rush hours, some commuter lines employ ďpushersĒ to shove riders into jam-packed train or subway cars before the doors slide closed.

Most houses and apartments are small in comparison to those in many other developed countries because of the countryís high population density and costly land. Nevertheless, many Japanese enjoy a high standard of living and comforts such as the latest fashions in clothing, new appliances and electronics, and new models of automobiles. Sundays are the busiest shopping days in Japan. During the afternoon hours, department stores and shopping malls are jammed with crowds of bargain hunters. Japanese also enjoy travel and often go abroad or to popular domestic resorts during holidays. Between 1968 and 1994 the number of Japanese traveling abroad each year increased from 344,000 to 13.5 million. Among the most popular destinations are Hawaiiand the West Coast of the United States, New York City, Australia, Hong Kong, and the major capitals of Europe.

Japanese life blends traditions from the past with new activities, many borrowed from other cultures. The Japanese diet, for example, emphasizes rice, seafood, and other items that have been staples in the society for centuries, but also includes international cuisine such as Italian and Chinese dishes, and American-style fast-food hamburgers and french fries. Likewise, Japanese sports fans give equal weight to sumo, Japanís traditional style of wrestling, as to baseball, imported from the United States in the late 19th century. Contemporary weddings in Japan often combine traditional Shinto ceremonies, such as ritual exchanges of sake (rice wine), with Western-style exchanges of wedding bands. Arranged marriages, common in Japan before World War II, have declined in favor of so-called love marriages based on a coupleís mutual attraction. Nevertheless, the tradition of family involvement in selecting a mate endures, and arranged marriages still occur.

Major holiday celebrations in Japan include Obon, a traditional midsummer honoring of ancestral spirits, and the New Year, when people eat special foods, visit Shinto shrines, and call on family and friends. When Japanís cherry trees blossom, signaling the arrival of spring, people celebrate with picnics under the trees. Each year on May 5 the Japanese celebrate Childrenís Day, when families with young boys fly giant carp (a symbol of success) made of cloth or paper from the roofs of their houses. Adultís Day, on January 15, is celebrated to honor all young people who turned 20 in the past year, and Respect for the Aged Day is observed on September 15. The emperorís birthday is also a national holiday. During Golden Week, a time in late April and early May when several holidays come together, many Japanese enjoy travel and leisure activities, such as golf, tennis, and hiking.

Japanese engage in ritual gift giving during New Yearís and at midsummer. Strong social obligations dictate who must give gifts to whom, and selecting a gift involves elaborate rules and customs about what kinds of gifts are appropriate in the precise situation. The total cost of gifts exchanged is high, causing the gift-giving tradition to become a significant financial support for Japanís manufacturing sector, the countryís retail enterprises, and its package delivery services.

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