Skip to Main Content

International Coffeehouses: Japan

This guide will provide links to resources related to the countries featured in the International Coffeehouses.

Panoramic photo of Matsuyama Castle

Wei-Te Wong. (Photographer). (2017). Matsuyama Castle [digital image]. Retrieved from flickr website: . Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic (CC-BY SA 2.0).


Country flag. White background with a red circle in the center



Map of the island nation Japan, including mainland Asia to the west and the locations of major cities



Japanese Art & Architecture

Photo of a Woodblock print

Woodblock Print: The Great Wave off Kanagawa

Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, 1760-1849). The Great Wave off Kanagawa, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. 1830/1831. Portland Art Museum, The Mary Andrews Ladd Collection. Web. 6 Apr 2018.

photo of a woodblock print

Woodblock Prints: One Hundred Aspects of the Moon

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Japan, 1839-1892. One Hundred Aspects of the Moon. 1885-1892. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California, USA, Herbert R. Cole Collection, M.84.31.29, Web. 6 Apr 2018.

photo of a woodblock print

Woodblock Prints: Picture Book of Selected Insects

Kitagawa Utamaro, Japan, 1753-1806. Picture Book of Selected Insects. 1788. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California, USA, Gift of Caroline and Jarred Morse, M.80.219.11, Web. 6 Apr 2018.

Photo of a Japanese decorative dish

Japanese Dish from the Edo Period

Japan. Dish. Edo period. The Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, Bequest of Dorothy Millett  Lindeke, 84.83, Web. 6 Apr 2018.

photo of the Iwasaki Museum

Iwasaki Museum

Maki, Fumihiko, 1928-. Ibusuki, Japan: Iwasaki Museum partial view. 1979. Web. 6 Apr 2018.

Photo of a Pagoda


Japan: Ref.: Pagoda. [n.d.]. Web. 6 Apr 2018.

Photo of Garden at International House of Japan

Garden at International House of Japan

Maekawa, Kunio (Japanese, 1905-1986), Sakakura, Junzo (Japanese, 1901-1969), Yoshimura, Junzo (Japanese, 1908-1997). International House of Japan, Exterior: View of Garden. 1955, Image: May, 2010. Web. 6 Apr 2018.

Artstor Logo


More than one million digital images in the arts, architecture, humanities, and sciences. Please note: you must register for a free account in order to download images.


Traditionally, the Japanese drink tea and eat rice paired with paired with fish, tofu, pickled vegetables and meats for almost every meal. Soups are made with miso (a soybean paste) with various eggs and meats. Something that is interesting is the differences in eating habits between younger and older generations. Younger generations eat fewer traditional foods and prefer more fruits and breads over rice. This switch to more fats and proteins in their diet than their grandparents, raised the average height of younger Japanese people by about 3-4 inches and decreased the rice consumption between 1960s and 1990 by about half. 

Learn Japanese!

Mango Language Logo


Facts in Brief

Japan is an island country off the coast of mainland Asia, just a few hundred miles away from Russia, China and Korea. The four major islands - Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu - form a curve that extends about 1,200 miles. About 125 million people live on these islands making it one of the most densely populated countries. Much of the country is covered in mountains and hills, so about 90 percent of the population lives on the coastal plains which account for about 20 percent of the land area.

Most Japanese people are likely descendants of ancient people who migrated from mainland Asia to the island. There are many cultural similarities because of this migration between Japan and other east Asian countries, but Japanese language and culture developed individually. One ethnic minority in Japan is the Ainu people on the island of Hokkaido. They are ethnically and culturally different from Japanese people and may be descendants of people indigineous to the island. (3)


Shinto and Buddhist philosophies influence much of the aesthetics of traditional Japanese art and music. Many forms of Japanese music prioritize timbre, delicate use of microtones, and refinement of free rhythm. Because of this many genres feature one instrument or a group of instruments that follow the same melodic line, in contrast to many western genres which focus on harmony.

In modern times, many Western genres have gained popularity in Japan and there are many Japanese musicians who have achieved global acclaim in Western classical music, Jazz, Rock and other genres.

Gagaku or “elegant music” was developed centuries ago during Japan’s classical age at the imperial court and accompanied dances and ceremonies. The genre was revitalized during the Meiji restoration and became standardized for performances at the reestablished court. In the post-WWII era, the genre was not particularly popular among the Japanese, but was an inspiration to many Western composers including Olivier Messain, Henry Cowell, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. (7)

The koto is a Japanese instrument related to the Chinese zheng, the Korean kayagŭm, and the Vietnamese dan tranh. It has thirteen strings which are stretched over a soundboard, and the tuning can change with movable bridges under each string. The player sits facing the koto and uses ivory plectra on their right hand fingers to pluck the strings. The left hand can add ornaments or inflections in pitch by adding pressure to the strings. (7)

A 13-string koto(9)

The shakuhachi’s origins in Japan likely begin with imported Chinese flutes called chiba (modern day Xiao), that were imported to be in gagaku ensembles in the 8th century. After the original shakuhachi fell out of fashion with gagaku in the 10th century, two descendants developed separately. The hitoyogiri was shorter and straighter, and was used to accompany songs and by traveling Buddhist priests. The fuke-shakuhachi was developed by the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhism, a group of ex-samurai who used the cover of religious duties to travel the country freely. With their faces concealed by basket-like tengai hats, the komusō (‘priests of nothingness’) may have used their thicker flutes as weapons. Eventually, the fuke-style shakuhachi would evolve into the modern version, probably because they have more options than the hitoyogiri for altering pitch. (7)

Komusō (priests of nothingness) playing shakuhachi, walking in a line with tengai basket hats

The taiko is a Japanese drum. Although it’s origins can be found in Japanese folk tales, the drum has been used for musical performance, kabuki theatre, and for motivation and communication in battle such as during the Warring States period.

Image: A Taiko group drumming
Image courtesy of ARTStor:

The Shamisen is a plucked three-stringed instrument of Japan. It can be played solo, as a part of an ensemble or as accompaniment in kabuki or bunraku theatre. It has also gained popularity in genres outside of traditional Japanese music.

Image: A Japanese Shamisen

Image courtesy of ARTStor:

Streaming Audio via Alexander Street Press

Image: Yamato Ensemble Album Art

Listen to the koto, shamisen, and shakuhachi in this recording.

Album Cover for Gagaku: The Imperial Court Music of Japan

Album cover of Honkyoku: Zen Music for Shakuhachi

Album cover for Japanese Taiko

The Sounds of Kabuki Album Art

Music for Theater

Nō theater dates back to the 14th and 15th centuries. In the Edo period, traditionally a Shinto ritual piece called the Okina would start a programme, then nō plays would follow in the order (god plays, warrior plays, plays featuring young beautiful women, miscellaneous plays, notably featuring contemporary characters, including mad-women, and plays featuring supernatural beings, animals or other typical ending plays) with a comic play kyōgen in between every nō. As you can imagine, this would take many hours to complete a whole cycle. It’s more common now to have two or three nō with kyōgen in between as a program. Small drums called tsuzumi, fue or nōkan flute, and a small taiko drum accompany the actors on stage. (7)

Bunraku refers to several forms of traditional Japanese puppet theater. The name bunraku likely comes from Masai Kahei, who used the stage name “Bunrakken”. He brought puppet traditions from Awaji Island to Osaka in the late 1700’s. The musical genre that accompanies bunraku is called jōruri. Narration of the “Tale of Princess Jōoruri in 12 episodes” started to become accompanied, usually by the lute-like biwa. Later, the shamisen replaced the biwa, and the music was combined with puppet plays. As accompanied puppet plays moved from Kyoto and Edo to Osaka, Takemoto Gidayū revitalized it with original compositions set to historical texts and contemporary plays. This music is sometimes called Gidayū, and was popular amongst amateurs to perform outside the theater. A tayū (singer/narrator) speaks all the lines and sings all the music and is accompanied by a shamisen player. (7)

Kabuki combined Nō forms with Buddhist festival dance. It is traditionally performed only by men, and features exaggerated acting, spectacular costumes and lavish scenery. The drama of the extravagant acting made Kabuki very popular and influences taste in the arts and society. The plays are commonly based on family dramas called sewamono or history called jidaimono. Similar to Opera in the West, the themes and tone of these plays can also vary from more comedic to melodramatic. (7)

Japanese Gardens

Traditional wooden bridge over a stream in a Japanese style garden











The Japanese style has spread all over the world. This traditional wooden bridge is from a Japanese garden in Wrocław, Poland. (4)

Japanese gardens are studies in restraint and balance, and inspire reflection and meditation. Evergreen foliage is abundant, and maple trees and stone features add balance and texture. Oftentimes hills, streams, ponds, and gravel create a water-like flow and pagodas, pavilions and bridges offer vantage points to reflect. (Brittanica)

Trident Maple bonsai on display at the United States National Arboretum












A Trident Maple (Acer buergerianum) bonsai, Japanese Collection 52, on display at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum at the United States National Arboretum. According to the tree's display placard, it has been in training since 1895. It was donated by Prince Takamatsu. (4)

‘The art of miniature trees’ is a horticultural artform that was brought to Japan by Zen buddhist priests from China, circa 1100 AD. Cultivation of potted trees became very popular among the Japanese nobility, and techniques for pruning or training the trees developed over many centuries. Bonsai refers to the careful technique of controlling the growth of the tree as well as the miniature trees themselves.Like many other forms of Japanese art, balance, nature and attention to detail are essential when altering the tree's growth. Expertly made bonsai give an impression of having grown without human intervention. (grove art)


Woodblock print of Urashima Taro riding on the turtle's back from the Meiji era circa 1899










A hand-colored woodblock print of Urashima Taro riding on the turtle's back. Ink and color were applied by hand, and this piece was published by Matsuki Heikichi in the Meiji period, around 1899. (6)

Isekai, meaning ‘other-world’, is a genre of Japanese media where characters move between worlds. Isekai has roots in ancient Japanese literature, such as the story of Urashima Tarō, a fisherman who saves a turtle then rides on its back to an undersea palace. One of the first Japanese animated films was an adaptation of this tale by Seitaro Kitayama in 1918. Modern examples of Isekai stories include Spirited Away (2001) and the Super Mario Bros. anime film from 1986. There are many similarities between isekai stories and English “portal” fantasy. Stories like Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and The Chronicles of Narnia share many similar tropes and narrative devices with isekai.

A chapter from Paratextualizing Games highlights the various subgenres of isekai: 

“Isekai can  be  split up more  productively  into several  subcategories  based  on  how characters are transferred to another world. In tensei (reincarnation) stories, characters  have  often  reincarnated  from  miserable  households, unfortunate accidents, or overworking (known as karoshi, or death by overwork). In tenii (transference)  isekai,  characters  often  bring  goods  and  material  back  and forth,  frequently  leading  to  a  transition  of  goods,  cultural  exchanges,  and seek to establish interstate flows between the worlds. In shoukan (summoning),  characters  are  ‘summoned’  by  citizens  from  the  other  world  and  are often  tasked with a  largely  insurmountable  mission,  such  as  “defeating  the demon  king.”” (8)


(1) "Japan flag." World Book Advanced. Accessed 1 Nov. 2022.

(2) Japan [Online map]. (2022). World Book Advanced. Accessed 1 Nov. 2022.

(3) Allinson, Gary D. "Japan." World Book Advanced, Accessed 25 Oct. 2022.

(4) Simonilja. "File:Traditional wooden bridge in a Japanese Garden.jpg." Wikimedia Commons. Accessed October 28, 2022.

(5) Ross, Sage. "File:Trident Maple bonsai 52, October 10, 2008.jpg." Wikimedia Commons. Accessed October 28, 2022.,_October_10,_2008.jpg.

(6) Heikichi, Matsuki. "File:Matsuki Heikichi(1899)-Urashima-p09.jpg." Wikimedia Commons. Accessed October 28, 2022.

(7) Ferranti, Hugh de, Shigeo Kishibe, David W. Hughes, W. Adriaansz, Robin Thompson, Charles Rowe, Donald P. Berger, W. Malm, W.P. Malm, David Waterhouse, Allan Marett, Richard Emmert, Fumio Koizumi, Kazuyuki Tanimoto, Masakata Kanazawa, Linda Fujie, and Elizabeth Falconer. "Japan." Grove Music Online. 2001; Accessed 28 Oct. 2022.

(8) Tagliamonte, Giovanni, and Yaochong Yang. “Isekai: Tracing Interactive Control in Non-Interactive Media.” In Paratextualizing Games, 13:341–372. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2021.

(9) Dontworry. "File:Koto-2009-ffm-003.jpg." Wikimedia Commons. Accessed November 1, 2022.