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  • Writer's pictureStone Bridge Press

The BEST guidebook on the traditions, culture, and history of Japan

Updated: Jun 3

Japan from Anime to Zen by David Watts Barton cover art
Japan from Anime to Zen by David Watts Barton cover art

Japan From Anime to Zen: Quick Takes on Culture, Art, History, Food . . . and More by David Watts Barton is an accessible compendium of the most important aspects of Japanese arts, culture and history, for quick reference or a longer, in-depth read, for actual and armchair travelers alike.

This friendly guide offers concise but detailed demystifications of more than 85 aspects of ancient and modern Japan. 

It can be read in sequence, or just dipped into, depending on the moment’s need. Explanations go much deeper than a typical travel guide and cover 1,500 years of history and culture, everything from geisha to gangsters, haiku to karaoke, the sun goddess to the shogunate . . . and anime to Zen.

Japan From Anime to Zen: Quick Takes on Culture, Art, History, Food . . . and More by David Watts Barton is available in both print and digital everywhere now. Order your copy here.

Read a sample of Japan from Anime to Zen below.



Everyone understands that Japan is an important country. But it is useful to remember why. For despite its modest size, Japan consistently punches above its weight.

Among countries measured by land mass, Japan is ranked 61st; with 377,930 square kilometers it is barely bigger than Germany or Vietnam and a bit smaller than California. Despite its modest size, the country is roundly impressive. Japan’s population ranks eleventh in the world (but is projected to drop below 125 million in 2021 after exceeding 128 million in the first two decades of this century). And in terms of economic output, Japan is positively dazzling: Though it has recently been overtaken in second place by China—which has a population more than ten times as large—Japan’s is the third-largest economy in the world.

But beyond its population and economy, Japan consistently ranks near the top of the charts in measures of quality of life: literacy, education, safety, access to medical care, health. That Japan is a successful nation is well known.

But there is a level beyond all of these on which Japan excels, the level of culture. Japan’s cultural products are admired around the world, and not just sushi, anime, and karaoke. Rather, Japan is admired for the fullness and uniqueness of its culture: To say something is Japanese is to understand and admire it for its holistic, organic coherence, even if the speaker isn’t well versed in the meanings of Kabuki, the ritual of the tea ceremony, or the nuances of ikebana design.

Despite having its share of societal problems—Japan is by no means perfect, and life for the Japanese can be more stressful and less secure than is imagined from the outside—Japanese society is still remarkably cohesive. Its blend of ancient and modern is united by a distinct Japanese sensibility that is clear even to outsiders.

Most people have little difficulty picturing the superficial expressions of that sensibility: graceful, carefully dressed women and men; efficient, well-functioning cities; studious, respectful children; high-quality food, elegantly served; naturalistic, balanced works of art and architecture; and a seamless integration of technology into daily life. None of these impressions are wrong; they are external expressions of a culture that insists on all these things being true.

But these impressions are, of course, incomplete. Despite its many accomplishments, Japan is also a country where women are still effectively second-class citizens, where men sexually objectify girls with the tacit approval of society, and where the suicide rate is at or near the top of the list among the most affluent countries in the world. Social isolation is a growing problem, especially for older people, but also for the young, who literally hide out from modern life in enormous numbers. The cultural drive for conformity, for social responsibility, for ever-greater education in a stagnant economy—as well as other pressures inherent in Japan’s cultural and economic greatness—can carry a heavy price. The deeper one dives under the surface of modern Japan, the more obvious these costs become.

Most of these darker aspects are hidden, and visitors won’t find their attention drawn to them. Likewise, this book won’t dive too deeply into the contemporary sociology of Japan, which is a book or two of its own. Japan is a big, modern country with a long, complex history. In Japan from Anime to Zen, we will deal with the basics.

What we aim to show is that Japanese culture is very much of a piece, that everything is connected to everything else in ways that only slowly reveal themselves: Concepts of symmetry and simplicity, the deep love of nature (and the manipulation of it), the power of space (and the unspoken), the admiration of the imperfect and the aging, and the striving for perfection—these are among the subtleties that animate and unify Japanese culture into something distinctive.

This book began as a series of blog posts for a website called, and many of these essays first appeared there. This book expands upon those posts with additional research, new material, and new essays, all aimed at presenting a unified whole. The text is organized into five subject areas: Food and Drink; Modern Arts, Entertainment, and Sports; Traditional Arts and Culture; History and Archetypes; and The Foundations of Japanese Culture. Each section contains more than a dozen short chapters addressing different topics.

Japan from Anime to Zen can be dipped into at any point, particularly as you encounter a topic during a visit; there is no need to start at the beginning and finish at the end. But contrary to what the title suggests, Japan from Anime to Zen is not a dictionary or an encyclopedia; nor is it in any way comprehensive. The subject of Japan is huge, and this book doesn’t aim to cover everything—that is impossible. But it does offer some insights into aspects of Japanese food, sports, history, arts, architecture, social norms, and religion that the visitor is likely to encounter or perhaps overlook. The idea is to help you be a bit more informed than you might otherwise be.

This book aims to be an informative companion to travel guidebooks with a where/what/when/how—and how much?—focus. It offers a look at the myriad elements of Japanese culture that you will encounter. For instance: What is that stone pillar you see in Japanese gardens, looking a little like a totem pole of rough shapes piled one atop the other (chapter 84)? Who were the samurai or the ninja, before they were historical or fantasy characters (chapter 60)? How do sumo wrestlers get so big, and why are they so admired (chapter 29)? How are Pure Land Buddhism and Zen Buddhism different (chapter 80)?

There are practical answers too: How does one behave in an onsen, at the dinner table, or in a temple or a shrine … and what’s the difference between the last two (chapter 81)? What Japanese movies should I see before I go (chapter 22)? What’s the deal with the gorgeous wrapping of seemingly everything (chapter 43)?

Getting to know Japanese culture is a lifelong endeavor, and no one expects a short-time visitor to become anything approaching an expert. For all its extravagant politeness, which many read as friendliness, perhaps even openness, Japan is that oldest of Western clichés about Asia: It is mysterious. To a substantial degree that is by design. Most Japanese, and certainly the state itself, feel strongly that Japan is for the Japanese. The culture is designed on many concepts you will read about here, including the distinction between in-groups (uchi) and out-groups (soto)—and you are very much soto. It is a culture in which there are specific names for the face you show the world (tatemae) and your true face (honne). It is a country—less touristed than others—that is designed to be seen and appreciated, but not necessarily understood.

And yet, with this book’s concise glimpses into aspects of this complex, intimidating, and profoundly beautiful country, you may find that you understand it just a little bit better—certainly quite a bit better than if you’d just walked and gawked around Tokyo, Kyoto, or Osaka. You may also see things in Japan that you might not have noticed had you not read about them here. After all, part of Japan being “mysterious” is that much of its culture is unseen and unspoken. Honne and tatemae (chapter 76)—mentioned just above—are good concepts to know about when parsing confusing social interactions, but so is the whole notion of a “high-context” versus “low-context” society (chapter 75), a foreign concept to most Westerners, who live in decidedly low-context societies.

The risk here is that, when you find out about the myriad subtleties of Japanese culture, you will be horrified to know how many social land mines have been laid for you—and how many you have already stepped on, with only the Japanese around you hearing the explosion. Of course, they would never actually say anything about the social carnage you have just created; the Japanese are far too polite for that. On the other hand, being clued-in, even just slightly, might help you sidestep some of those landmines, and gain just a bit of respect from the Japanese around you. Not that you would ever know that they noticed your effort; they’re far too polite for that, too.


Many Japanese words have found their way into English usage or are already familiar to non-Japanese readers. Such words in this book are presented in roman type, that is, they are not italicized, although some exceptions have been made for consistency. Names of Japanese people are given in Western style, family name last, except in the case of historical figures or others whose names are more familiar when presented family name first.


A Land Apart: Japan’s Spectacular, Diverse Geography

Geography isn’t just destiny, as the old saying points out; it can also be culture, cuisine, and worldview.

Witness Japan.

Japan is a shimaguni, or “island country,” of 6,852 islands, a mountainous, lush-but-rugged land that stretches from a subtropical south to a largely temperate north. It lies east of the Koreas and Russia, at latitudes roughly similar to the United States. Tokyo sits at about the same latitude as Las Vegas, Nevada, and Tangier, Morocco.

Despite the abundance of islands, four of which dominate and fewer than five hundred of which are inhabited, Japan is not a large place; it ranks 61st in size among the nations of the world, the same as Germany. It is roughly comparable in square kilometers to California and Italy.

Japan is defined by several crucial geographic features: It is more than 73% mountain and, with urban encroachment, less than 12% of its land is now arable. The islands are surrounded by, and permeated by, the sea. No spot in Japan is more than 150 kilometers from its coast, which stretches nearly 30,000 kilometers; and the country gets a tremendous amount of rainfall, which causes most of those mountainous areas to be heavily forested.

There is a fourth feature, perhaps the most dramatic and famous, and certainly the deadliest: Japan is one of the world’s most unstable geologic areas, with fully 10% of the active volcanoes in the world—forty in total. A visitor can be in Japan for weeks without feeling an earthquake, but this seismically active land can experience anywhere from one thousand to fifteen hundred measurable earthquakes a year, or roughly three to four a day.

The 1923 Kanto Earthquake was the deadliest on record, killing more than one hundred thousand people in Tokyo. But more recently, earthquakes in Kobe (in 1995) and Tohoku (internationally known as the Fukushima Quake, in 2011) were disastrous events for the densely populated country. The latter brought on a second disaster: The nation’s largest-ever quake at magnitude 9.0, it occurred offshore and created an enormous tsunami that damaged or destroyed more than a million buildings, killed nearly sixteen thousand people, and caused a nuclear reactor to melt down, releasing enormous amounts of radioactive water into the all-important sea.

Japan’s seismic instability has also given the country its highest point: Mount Fuji, or as the Japanese call it, Fuji-san, a dormant volcano of 3,776 meters that is Japan’s national symbol. The mountain is yet another natural threat: Fuji-san last exploded in 1707, but given its proximity to the Tokyo metropolitan area and its tens of millions of residents, Fuji-san is a sleeping giant.

Another element in Japan’s geography is its wet, monsoonal climate, contributing rain, snow, and a constant high humidity through all seasons. Only 1% of Japan’s surface is composed of lakes, and the biggest lake, Biwa, just north of Kyoto, is one of the country’s major sources of potable water. More important, though, are the archipelago’s rivers. None are very long—the longest is the Shinano, which stretches 367 kilometers—but their steepness means there are often cascades that make them perfect for generating hydroelectric power.

The highest mountains in Japan are the three ranges that run north-south across the islands, centered on the biggest island, Honshu. They are generally called the Japanese Alps (or, in Japan, the Nihon Arupusu). Due to the volcanic nature of the land, many of these mountains feature hot springs, or onsen, which are of major appeal to both the Japanese and visitors.

Given the rugged, mountainous land, the Japanese have always turned to the sea for sustenance and inspiration; it plays an outsized role in the country’s cuisine, its art, and its long isolation from the rest of the world. The sea provides much of the country’s food—whether fish or sea vegetables, especially kelp—thanks to the confluence of the warm Oyashio Current coming up from the tropics and the colder Tsushima Current coming down from the Arctic. Where these currents meet, at around the 36th parallel, just north of Tokyo, is one of the world’s great fisheries.

Just as importantly, the sea has for centuries insulated and isolated Japan from the Asian continent—even at its closest point to the mainland, it is still 193 kilometers from Russia, its closest neighbor. By contrast, at its closest point, Britain is only 34 kilometers from Europe. Much of Japan’s character can be attributed to this one geographical fact. Living in a rugged, turbulent, but exceptionally lush land, ringed by bountiful but isolating seas, Japan’s destiny has been, and continues to be, determined largely by its remarkable geography.

And nowhere does Japan’s geography, and in particular its intimate, literally all-encompassing relationship to the sea, inform Japan more than in its cuisine. So that is where we begin.


Japan From Anime to Zen: Quick Takes on Culture, Art, History, Food . . . and More by David Watts Barton is available in both print and digital everywhere now. Order your copy here.



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