How Cinema Reflects On Japanese Culture Cultural Studies Essay

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Cinema in Japan is said to be one century old industry that has been part of civilization and evolution of Japanese Culture. Initially, it was purely Japanese productions and exhibitions in the numerous theaters all over Japan. All elements of national culture were evident in all films that linked old and new generations. Cinema was instrumental in shaping new Japan, especially when western culture was introduced still through cinema. People moved away from indigenous way life and adopted new culture. It is known that all Japanese embrace cinema and must spend part of their time watching cinema. With introduction of western influence in Japan Cinema, all elements of their culture were challenged and influenced. Starting from religion, language, social structure, art and literature and all customs and traditions changed. Main religions Shinto and Buddhism adopted new practices and dropped others, foreign languages emerged and gap between social classes began to diminish. This paper looks into how culture was influenced and studies history of Shochiku Multiplex Theaters which has been part of this industry.

How Cinema Reflects or Challenges Japanese Culture

Japanese culture has been influenced by Asian, European and North American cultures. Japan cinema has evolved over time by absorbing many ideas from other countries and continents mainly western culture. Cinema has influenced culture of Japanese culture such that their lifestyle is a rich blend of Asian culture as well as western influenced modern culture. Cinema has influenced Japanese way of life in various perspectives. Just as Reilley (2009) points out, there is the aspect of law and crime influence on Japanese customs and norms, sexuality, society and religion. Different elements of Japanese culture have been influenced mostly through the improvement in their way of life through absorption of other cultures as evident in foreign cinema. Language, customs and traditions, religion, sports, cuisine and social structure are the main elements of Japanese culture that have been influenced by cinema.

How Cinema Reflects on Japanese Culture

Influence on religion

Government and privately sponsored research on Japanese culture have revealed very interesting facts about their affiliation to religion. In a nut shell, majority of Japanese (about 70%) responded by indicating that they had no affiliations to religion. Out of these 30% who are religious, majority practice Shintoism and Buddhism while minority belong to Christianity (about 1%) and other minor religions. When cinema in Japan grew, it began introducing western way of life through foreign cinema. Indigenous religions were challenged and new practices introduced (Kisala, 1999).


This was the oldest indigenous religion in ancient Japan. Usually defined as the way of the gods, Shinto prayers and offerings are always aimed to entreat gods for good health, children, good harvest and security of people. Therefore, ceremonies like marriage and harvest are purely Shintoism. Currently, Shintoism has very many foreign practices some from Buddhism, Christianity, and some other neighboring religions like Korean (Kisala, 1999).


Buddhism traces its origin from China and it is described as a much richer religion as compared to Shinto. It addressed many issues that were neglected by Shinto like life after death and morals. Therefore, Shintoism and Buddhism existed side by side due to the fact that they both addressed different issues (Kisala, 1999).


There is still a debate on whether Confucianism was a religion or not since there were no deities and afterlife beliefs or teachings. It originated from China and practices were mostly ritualistic than worship. Its founder, Confucius taught that heaven and afterlife were beyond human knowledge and therefore people should focus on doing right while alive. As depicted in Cinema, Confucianism has greatly changed acknowledging heaven and afterlife (Kisala, 1999).


Out of 30% of Japanese who believe in religion, only 1% of them embraced Christianity. It was introduced in Japan by St. Francis Xavier in 1549 and since then, it has slowly been getting its way into hearts of many Japanese. It was abolished by military governments but was later on reintroduced and legalized in 1870s. Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches were established. New or foreign religions could not have easily got their way into Japan if it wasn't for cinema (Kisala, 1999).

Influence on Language

Originally ancient Japanese spoke two main indigenous languages: Japonic languages that comprised of Japanese, Ryukyuan and Ainu languages. There was also Japanese sign language which has not changed much to the present. Cinema from outside Japan was done in other languages and therefore there was need for people to learn them so that they could communicate to outside world and understand film. Films were done in various foreign languages like Chinese, Korean, Latin, and English (Beardsley, 1955).

All these languages were slowly assimilated into Japanese way of life and became mandatory in secondary schools and other tertiary institutions of higher learning. To date, English is most widely spoken foreign language in Japan as it has now become mandatory in most institutions of higher learning. It's worth noting that foreign languages were first introduced in Japan by film industry (Beardsley, 1955).

Influence on Japan's Social Structure

As exhibited in most of Japanese Cinema or film industry, contemporary Japan, also referred to as feudal Japan had four-tier social structure. There was Emperor at the top and merchants at the bottom. This was exhaustively analyzed by Bassani (2004) in his research work.


This was the king over every individual in Japan. He was very powerful, usually compared to gods, and wielded most power. Things changed from 1945 when Japan suffered humiliating defeat under mighty United States in 2nd world war, Emperor Hirohito renounced imperial powers and divine status. The powers now remained ceremonial and were transferred to Chrysanthemum throne that is still recognized in Japan constitution today. Current Emperor, Akihito who is son of former Emperor Hirohito is regarded as a symbol of state and unity of people. Duties include receiving foreign dignitaries, convening Diet, appointment of prime minister as selected by Diet and awarding decorations to Japanese citizens who excel various forums (Bassani, 2004).


Shogun was a military commander in ancient Japan. He was a general who wielded real power over the country because Emperor was ceremonial. They however lost their power during the Meiji Restoration period in 1868 after having wielded it since 1185.


These were generally large scale landowners in contemporary Japan. They owned large tracks of land that earned them title of lords but still remained under Shogun. They however lost their land in Meiji Restoration of 1868 to the Meiji rulers, leaving most of them as peasants. They eventually lost their powers as well to Meiji rulers.

Samurai Class

Samurai was a class of highly skilled warriors that served as security but constituted of 10% of population. As exhibited in contemporary Japanese film, Samurai wielded much power such that whenever they passed the lower classes were expected to bow as a sign of respect. They were answerable to and worked for daimyo and lived segregated in daimyo castles.

Farmers or Peasants

Farmers came below the Samurai in social ladder. They produced food that all classes depended upon. Farmers were honored more than artisans and merchants, but could not enjoy their efforts due heavy taxation by the feudal regime. Surprisingly, there were times when they were prohibited from feeding on rice they produced.


Artisans were involved in production of goods used by rest of classes. These goods included clothes like Kimono, cooking utensils, wood products and were considered less inferior to farmers. They lived in their own section in major cities segregated away from the samurai and rest of the classes.


At the very bottom of feudal Japanese society were the merchants, made of travelling traders and shop keepers. They were considered as parasites since they were known to profit from hard labor of artisans and farmers. They lived segregated from rest of class in separate sections of the city. Mixing up of members of different class was discouraged.

There was a minority group of Japanese who were considered to exist outside this Four-Tier social structure. Below the merchants were people condemned by religion that referred to them eta, they included butchers, executioners and tanners who were considered unclean. As a result of civilization depicted in Japan film industry, this social structure has changed over time and segregation has generally been reduced (Bassani, 2004).

Influence on elements of Japanese traditional culture

Cinema has had a huge impact on traditional performing art that characterizes Japan today. For instance, kabuki was a classical theater art that evolved during early 17th Century. It's characterized by unique rhythmic words, extravagant costumes, makeup (Komadori) and use of mechanical devices for special audience attraction. Noh are oldest forms of Japan Music Theater. There is accompaniment of singing (Utai), musical (hayashi) and dance (mai). Kyogen was a type of classical comic theater and staged between Noh performances.

Bunraku is among cultures but involve Puppet Theater performed with accompaniment of narrative singing and music played by a three-stringed instrument. It became popular towards end of 16th C. Ikebana is an art of flower arrangement that emerged from Buddhism flower offerings and evolved over seven centuries. When western influence became part of Japanese culture music also changed. American music, classical Japan music is now acceptable and widely used in song.

Influence on Customs and Traditions

Fashion and Clothes

Most famous form of Japanese clothing is known as kimono. Made entirely from silk and considered quite expensive, Kimono is not everyday clothing but preserved for weddings, funerals and other traditional and modern ceremonies. It requires belt (obi), proper hairstyle, traditional shoes and socks, underwear and small handbag in women. Because of multiple layers, kimono is relatively heavy and padding is often required to hide natural shape of the body. Its outer layer coloring and pattern is significant and determines who should wear it. This clothing has been revolutionized by film industry to include modern clothing traits. Then there is Yukata, clothing made of cotton and is relatively cheap. It is mainly worn during summer because it is lighter and brighter than Kimono (Beardsley, 1955).

Tea ceremony

Dating back to a thousand years, tea ceremony also known as sado is a custom influenced by Zen Buddhism and involves ceremonial preparation and drinking of tea. Initially used to take place in temples for religious purposes but currently embedded in Japanese culture and traditions. Ceremony consists of many rituals that must be learned, prepared and served by host to guests (Beardsley, 1955).


Geisha professional entertainers trained to entertain guests during various occasions and ceremonies. Japanese gardens even up to the present time are still decorated like they did in ancient Japan.

Cultural heritage

Japanese indigenous musical instruments included thirteen-string horizontal harp called koto, a vertical bamboo flute called shakuhachi and three-stringed banjo like instrument called shamisen. Shakuhachi might be played solo or in accompaniment with koto. With presence of western influence through Japanese Cinema, modern instruments like piano, violin and guitar are now common and popular instruments of Japanese culture. This has led to acculturation of western lifestyle in popular music and dance as evident in current film content (Beardsley, 1955).


Food forms an important part of everyday life and thus culture. Japanese cinema rotates around three main cuisines rice, vegetables and fish. It has many other regional variations depending on ingredients and preparation. Movies show main cuisines as sushi, raw fish also known as sashimi, miso soup, dashimaki - rolled egg omelet, fried and coated pork strips in bread crumbs also called tonkatsu. Generally, cinema in Japan cannot be complete without presence of food. Mainly rice is the staple food of Japan and the way it's gathered has shaped Japanese culture and religion (Beardsley, 1955).


Cinema is a universal teacher, educating people in different learning. Film directors produce work that rotates around or goes against social evils for instance labor exploitation, divorce, rape, casteism and many others. Therefore Cinema is educative, fields like history, geography, botany etc. Japanese Anime movies have influenced the lives of school going generation by their educative nature.


Cinema is a great industry employing many great men and women of Japan. Film directors, actors, cinema halls and cinema equipment manufacturers both derive their income from this great industry.

Japanese Art and Recreation (Sports)

Japanese art is divided into performance arts, installation arts, conceptual and wearable art. For instance, Noh meant talent or skill. Noh performers are just story tellers using their visual appearance and movements to bring relevance of their work to the audience. It's among the oldest form of Japanese drama that was only presented to new generation through cinema and film industry. Present day Japanese Noh has five types: kami (god) play involving sacred story of Shinto shrine, Shura mono (fighting play), katsura mono (wig play), gendai mono (present-day play) and kyojo mono (madwoman play). Kyogen, also known as traditional comedy of Japan was usually performed without the masks with great emphasis on humor (Abdolmaleki and Daneshfar, 2011).

Japanese theatrical art rich in showmanship, also known as kabuki was also liked and practiced by many. It involves specially designed costumes, eye make-ups and exaggerated actions of the actors. Bunraku, commonly known as traditional puppet theatre of Japan involved several puppets as actors with story narrated by one person who speaks voice of all puppets. Themes are about tragic love, legendary heroes or tales based on important historical happenings. It is showcased in National Bunraku Theatre in city of Osaka and National Theatre in Tokyo (Abdolmaleki and Daneshfar, 2011).



This is traditional Japanese music. Japanese film can never be complete without presence of their traditional music which is regarded as their cultural heritage. The various types of music are:


Usually regarded as the oldest type of Japanese traditional music played in court, it traces its origin from China and Korea

Biwagaku music

This traditional music played with a four stringed quitter like instrument referred to as Biwa.


Consists of chorus and played using Hayashi flute, Tsuzumi drum and other instruments during Noh.


These are known as folk songs in most English culture.


Played using a three-stringed guitar like instrument called shamisen.


Music played by bamboo flute


Music played on a thirteen strings instrument called koto.

Japanese Sports


This is Japanese form of wrestling and regarded as national sport even in the present times. It originated from ancient times when it was performed to entertain the gods. Fights take place on elevated platforms called dohyo and they have simple rules. The wrestler who first touches the ground with any part of his/her body except feet soles, or who leaves the ring first in whichever way is defeated (Abdolmaleki and Daneshfar, 2011).


Grand champion crowned is called yokozuna and retires only when his results begin to weaken. Every Japanese person knows about sumo, either through film or physically witnessing it. Several sumo tournaments are held every year in various cities

Japanese Martial Arts

As pointed out by Abdolmaleki and Daneshfar (2011) in their Asian Culture and History, Japanese culture was full of martial arts as a way of defense, sports and personal fitness. There was no any single film in Japan that could miss out their elaborate skills in martial arts and this greatly challenged everyone to embrace it. For instance, Judo is type of martial art that emphases on techniques, training of one's body and soul. In Judo, they say softness exceeds hardness and techniques are more important than stamina. Karate is also loved by many, opponents strike with fists, elbows and feet in defense and attack action. There is completely no weapon used, it resembles Chinese Kung-fu and Korean taekwondo. This form of sport is present all Japanese films whether current of old. In fact it forms basis of Japan action movies liked by people of all generations.

Kendo was a fight game in which swords are used as main weapons. Fighters are well protected and swords are made of bamboo. It also puts emphasis on training of one's soul and mind. There was Kyudo which employed bows and arrows, used mainly in ancient Japan for hunting (Ratti & Westbrook, 1991).

Modern Sports in Japan

Japanese were not only sumo players, but cinema from west has introduced other sports like Baseball which is currently the only foreign sport that has highest following in Japan. Soccer is second as Japan boasts of having most successful soccer team in Asia played by both male and female. Lastly, many Japanese are now embracing golfers as result of Americanization.

Types of Japanese films and their influence on culture

Japanese lowlife and gangster films

Japanese films have absorbed western influence that showcases gang life at all cinemas countrywide. What is depicted in these films is controversial and considered lowlife and unclean by Japanese culture. There is gangster life involving guns, drugs addiction, prostitution and cold blood murder that end up eroding general fabric of Japanese society. For instance Junk Food, Fudoh: New Generation, Dead or Alive and many other films. They got much attention of younger generation who thought the films depicted what is "cool" to them. These generations have emulated this culture and contributed to crime increase in society.

Japanese Ghost and Horror Films

Japanese horror and ghost films have borrowed so much western culture. Unlike the Americans, Japanese and Asians are more scared and seem not to care whether it makes sense or not. Traditional Japanese ghosts are dressed in white kimonos with no legs, and appearing in night scenes. Japanese fear being in the dark for fear of being accosted by ghosts.

Japanese Manga Culture

Manga is Japanese form of comics involving funny facial and eye expressions. They are read from right to left. It has been acculturated all over the world and became part of everyday life not only in Japan culture but also many other world cultures.

Japanese Anime films

Anime movies are educational, usually depicting artistic Japanese expression of their traditions to the present generations. In fact, Anime has preserved link between the past, present and future generations who have a chance to see what their history looked like. Therefore Anime reflects the traditional art to the present generation, helping them to preserve history by carrying it from one generation to another.

Shochiku Multiplex Theatres Co. Ltd.

Shochiku was founded in 1895 as a leading motion picture/theater producer, distributor and exhibitor. Their first theaters were called Kabuki which was used to exhibit among the earliest films that depicted Japanese culture. Some of their productions and exhibitions are Yasujiro ozu, Hiroshi Shimizu, Keisuke Kinoshita, Kenji Mizoguchi, Akira Kurosawa, Nagisa Oshima and Takeshi Kitano. There are many other recent productions like "The Twilight Samurai" that has competed on international stage for most coveted awards as Best Foreign Language Film. Its content aims to entertain as well as promote culture both in Japan and internationally (Nakamoto, 1997).