Leisure in Japan

Leisure in Japan is unique. Despite sharing the same innate desire for play and recreational activities with people across other cultures, leisure in Japan is unmistakably distinct from other cultures. (It is important to state here that play and leisure are being used interchangeably in this paper but leisure represents a more purposeful sense of play that is more useful in the context of the paper). However, to say that Japanese leisure activities are distinct from leisure activities in other cultures does not mean that Japanese do not partake in similar leisure activities as people from other cultures. Japanese actually enjoy watching a baseball game just like any American fan would, a Japanese takes pleasure in recreational drinking as a Russian does in his daily pint of vodka, and he or she will also engage in karaoke singing just like any Taiwanese would; leisure in Japan is not dissimilar from leisure activities in other cultures per se.

Unique leisure

Instead, what uniquely differentiates Japanese leisure from leisure of others in the world are the cultural constructs and societal behaviors that manifest within Japanese leisure activities itself. Firstly, in the Japanese concept of leisure, work attitudes have been transferred to leisure activities. This has reached the extent that leisure has actually become an extension of work instead of being free-time set aside for spontaneous fun and enjoyment, a definition typical in the Western concept of leisure. Secondly, as ingrained in the societal development of Japanese culture, where the idea of ‘groupism’ is fundamental and extremely important to the functioning of Japanese society; leisure activities are a reflection of this, involving mainly group activities. And unlike leisure activities from other cultures, there exists a tendency to regulate and conform to group behavior and social propriety in Japanese’s ‘leisure behavior’.

s a result, this leads to strong differences in leisure behavior according to the types of leisure activities people engaged in. Clearly it seems, as opposed to the Western concept of leisure, where the main purpose is to attain personal gratification and self-indulgence, and adherence to social rules in leisure behavior becomes secondary, Japanese leisure becomes exceptionally unusual in offering “a model of learning, practicing” (Henry 170) and serious hard work in the regulation of leisure behavior to social rules. Finally, Japanese leisure is also unique in that foreign forms of leisure have been localized or ‘Japanized’ into the country’s leisure landscape. Examples include the ‘Japanization” of American baseball, soccer and pinball into Japanese baseball, the J-league and pachinko.

Background of Leisure

To begin with, Japanese leisure during the Heian era reflected a typical Western attitude, as mentioned above, towards leisure, through the partaking of “flower viewing parties, the listening to birds singing, writing of love letters…” (Hendry 85). However, with the increase of samurai power and the institution of the ie family system, priorities such as hard work and endurance” started to emerge as important values in the Japanese culture. This impetus was followed by the frequent urban destructions that continually plagued Japan till the 1970s, such as the Great Kanto earthquake and fires, the atomic bomb in World War II and launching of the Korean War, all effectively fortifying Japan’s industriousness and perseverance; intensifying their aspiration towards a better life that could only be achieved through sheer hard work.

s such, when the industrial revolution arrived, it brought about a significant increase in the number of working hours for the average Japanese, where the annual working time has increased from approximately 2000 ~ 2300 hours during the pre-industrial period to 3500 ~ 4000 hours during industrializationi, earning Japanese the reputation as a breed of “working-bees” or “ant” society with very little free time and freedom in the pursuit of leisure activities. The diligence and leisure-forgoing quality of the Japanese cannot be better summarized than a quote by Linhart, ‘the Japanese at play is hardly a commonplace image or stereotype of this Far Eastern nation’ii. As such, this explains why during this period, Westerners complained that Japanese are not dedicating sufficient attention and energy in the consumption of leisure as they became too embroiled in work, unlike their counterparts in Europe and United States who were indulging in leisure consumption.

This strong emphasis on hard work and diligence intensified dramatically when Japan begun to recover from the ashes of Second World War, determined to bolster its economic growth to that of industrialized country status. As such, instead of allowing the Japanese individual the freedom to decide their leisure time, companies held the power of deciding when and how their employees would use their leisure time. This is most effectively demonstrated through the creation of leisure and sports related clubs and facilities, where ‘work place recreation’ (shokuba rekurieshon) is integrated into social education, which is overseen by the Ministry of Education. In fact, in 1965, major companies trained specialists specifically in the area of company leisure where ‘reku riida’ (recreational leader), ‘reja suchuwado’ (recreational steward) and ‘reku monita’ (recreational monitor) were hired to convince their fellow co-workers the advantages that could be derived from the company implemented leisure program. An aim of this program is to cultivate the spirit of teamwork through company excursions and sports events, events which would eventually increase employees’ productivity through encouraging cooperation and teamwork., and in turn enhancing Japanese companies’ economic competitiveness domestically and globally. As such, against this backdrop of Japan’s socio economic transformation, one can understand why there exists a tendency to transfer work attitudes to leisure activities to the extent that leisure becomes a purposeful extension of work in the Japanese society.

This tendency to transfer work attitudes to leisure activities to the extent that leisure becomes a purposeful extension of work in the Japanese society is demonstrated in after work drinking by Japanese white-collared workers.


The Japanese lead a hectic lifestyle. Incorporating leisure into their lives is a sound choice to unwind. Being such, drinking has become a popular choice among the Japanese. Japanese often seek refuge in drinking which is easily accessible. In this way, drinking has played a pertinent role in shaping the nation’s culture.

Traditions and availability

Alcohol consumption is often adopted in many social occasions. Drinking serves as a tool to eradicate social barriers and restrictions among the Japanese. This is especially so for the working class. Japanese will get to know their co-workers better through drinking and mingling. Gossips are exchanged and woes are poured. Any dislike towards any colleague or superior is laid on the table and is expected to be brushed away after the drinking session. Rowdiness is tolerated. This spells the retreat of tatemae and arrival of honne. The act of tearing away the layers of hypocrisy and getting in touch with the true feelings or emotions is a rarity for the Japanese. Ultimately, this is will tighten the social bond establish a stronger group identity.

The consumption of alcohol is inherently tied to certain existing habits in Japanese society. People who drink together express their conviviality by pouring drinks for those around themiii. Attempts made to refuse drinks are almost futile in this setting. The offer of drink is an expression of friendship and serves as an ice-breaker, it is not only difficult to refuse but also difficult to control one’s consumption.iv The refusal of drinks may even seem rude to the host as it indirectly implies the refusal to enter his or her social circle. One may even be portrayed as “weird” and gradually be ostracized by others. Submitting to the majority and drinking up is the best way to elude the fate of being ostracized.

RELATED POST:  Mental illness, medicine, and psychotherapy in Japan

Certain pragmatic aspects of drinking

Drinking has certain important applications in the daily life of Japan. It is popularly known that Japanese company employees spend a lot of time drinking after workv. These employees are usually men and subsequently, this minimizes the time husbands spend at home. However, this appears to be socially acceptable in Japan.. The aim of drinking is to relax with one’s colleagues, but the ‘relaxed’ behavior is expected to bring out underlying tensions and offer a venue for communication unacceptable in the officevi. Effectively, drinking is perceived as an extension to work and not a separate activity. This has also partly resulted in the ‘kitchen drinker phenomenon’vii. Put simply, the term refers to any women who drink at home and in the absence of the rest of the family. The lack of attention to the housewives is possible reason for such phenomenon.

Good relationship between companies is important to ensure business opportunities in the long run. The cultivation of such an ideal relationship needs to be ‘irrigated’ by regular drinking or meal sessions together. In these events, a gambling game of mahjong is sometimes incorporated. The game actually allows the representative of the company to casually lose to their client and eventually losing a substantial amount of money. Hopefully, a deal would be clinched. In other words, this is a ‘semi-sophisticated bribery’. On the other hand, the business dealings in Singapore mostly take place in cafes. The need to have a comfortable environment where clients can relax as the business negotiations progress is deemed as equally important in both countries. However, Japan and Singapore differ in terms of the notion of ‘comfortable and relaxing’.

A thin line separates drunkenness and sobriety. One can be perceived as drunk at this very moment and regain sobriety within minutes. This hints the possibility of faking drunk so as to be socially accepted. Playing by the rules of the game is the safest route for the ‘participants’.

Gender and drinking

Assuming there are mainly two roles involved in the drinking arena of big cities; Men would be the spenders and women predominantly the ‘servers’ that borders with the erotic notions. In a way, women are present to encourage the men’s ego, to lend a listening ear or even provide sexual services. In these cases, the women would pay frequent compliments to the men. The compliments normally revolve around the men’s looks or caliber. These compliments are highly dispensable in nature and usually differ vastly from the reality. The ‘servers’ are ideal confidantes in the ‘spenders’ perspective. Men are seen as the head of the family and they find it unfit to confide in their kindred. They do not wish to be portrayed as ‘weaklings’; hence they seek alternative ‘soul mates’ in these women.

Frequent contact between a ‘spender’ and a ‘server’ may sometimes lead to an affair. However, the realm of the gedo (outlawed world) has its own order, its own morality, and its own way of doing thingsviii. Effectively, there are several rules to adhere that are absent in the Singapore context. Firstly, the mistress does not have the right to become the wife of the ‘spender’ even after the demise of his wife. Next, the child born by the geisha is regarded as illegitimate and is deprived of social recognition by the father. Casual abandoning of a mistress is greatly abhorred. Additionally, the person who is guilty of that will not be allowed to step into the community of Gion (the Kyoto geisha district) again. Apart from that, the ‘affairs’ in Gion is said to be able to co-exist with the other parts of the life of the ‘spender’. Most importantly, the harmonious situation of his family is peacefully maintained. In other words, one can only play freely by abiding by the rules of the game. This has invariably taken its roots in the minds of the men.

Working women do join the drinking sessions on a regular basis. Admittedly, a less fervent attitude is adopted by the women. Basically, a series of drinking sessions take place after work. The various sessions or venues actually provide the drinking participants the opportunities to leave. Most women will make full use of such opportunities.


Drinking is an indispensable leisure activity in Japan. They see drinking sessions as ‘temporary getaways’ from the stressful workload and society. The idea of presenting the tatemae side constantly is certainly a tiresome task though it is part of their culture. One may think that the Japanese can relax thoroughly during drinking and get in touch with their honne. I seek to differ from that opinion as the Japanese still have a strict set of social rules to abide by even during drinking.

Karaoke in Japan

Karaoke first appeared in the entertainment districts of Kansai in the 1970s. Karaoke was established from Japan’s antecedence of communal singing, and has since distinguished itself as a unique leisure activity for the Japanese. Karaoke plays many roles in the lives of the Japanese and one of these roles is to satisfy the widespread love of singing.ix Another role that karaoke plays is that it can help fulfill one’s desire and fantasy to impersonate their favorite singers. Karaoke also helps to relieve stress, serves as a forum in which individuals can act strategically for their own political ends and as a medium for communication or as a social lubricator among people who find conversation and the discussion of issues difficultx. Karaoke has been imbedded with the same principles as the Japanese sports and traditional arts and this makes it important for the Japanese to learn how to behave when singing karaoke. Karaoke is important in the Japanese society as it is a form of nakama gatherings of the Japanese workers and a place to relax for the Japanese housewives.

Karaoke Classes

As mentioned earlier, karaoke has the same principles of Japanese sports and traditional arts. The ‘karaoke way’ or ‘karaoke-do’, is one where performer is expected to invest time and effort into improving and polishing his or her act, so that he or she can perfect a chosen piece and perform it whenever necessary. The Japanese also emphasize on kata, where form, technique and imitation are emphasized over content and creativityxi, and the role of training and practice in its mastery has permeated the world of Japanese karaokexii. Towards all these ends, karaoke has much guidance material on television, courses, and manuals that come with Karaoke cassette tapes are available in Japan. If the individual needs more attention or coaching, there are the karaoke classrooms which are small-scale classes that are operated by neighbourhood and community organizations. Such classrooms are very popular among housewives and provide as a social forum for meeting a common pursuitxiii. These classes give advice on vocal techniques, stage posture and performance style. Another form of karaoke education is the articles published in many weekly and monthly magazines which are catered to the different age groups. Like karaoke classes, these articles advise readers on the same issues as well as the correct karaoke deportment and etiquette. Karaoke can also be taught through television shows. Karaoke is reflected in television programmes through the amateur singing contests shown on the television. Such amateur performances are assessed by a panel of professional singers who give comments and advice on how to improve on their performance and singingxiv. Such television programmes help an amateur singer and the television viewers to improve their singing skills through professional help.

RELATED POST:  Japanese society and social institutions

Thus, these karaoke institutions help the Japanese excel in their consumption of karaoke. This training helps in establishing a civilized space and polite human relationships within the realm of karaoke. xvThe Japanese must know and learn how to sing well and how to socialize in the karaoke space. All these rules are to regulate courtesy in public and the “don’ts” in Japanese karaoke help to maintain social hierarchies. Such preservation of discipline distinguishes the karaoke space from a place of unrestrained playxvi.

The Importance of Karaoke in Japan

Since karaoke appeared in Japan, it has been an important leisure activity to many Japanese. In the Japanese society, a vague line exists between work and leisure. Distinctions are made between two main groups in the company: namely nakama relationships which comprise non-kin- related members and may form one’s basic peer groups throughout lifexvii, and tsukiai relationships that refer to non-kin relationships that are sustained due to social necessity or obligatory feelingsxviii. Many employees tend to engage in these nakama gatherings with their fellow colleagues after work to have bonding sessions which involves mainly drinking sessions and singing karaoke, allowing more interaction between each other. Karaoke has thus become a form of nakama gatherings for Japanese office workers. One of the attributes for such karaoke gatherings includes voluntary participation during these singing sessions where the qualities of the performance is ignored and the practice of kata more important. Furthermore, singing karaoke is being complemented with drinking sessions where the employees are able to pour their hearts out and let loose from the mundane, monotonous and hectic schedules. All these karaoke gatherings have evolved within the male-dominated urban nightlife as well, where they can take a break away from the stressful office environment and let loose during these ‘bonding sessions’. Lastly, karaoke is believed to be a time where one is unable to put up a façade or conceal their true self since song is fixed, unlike speech which is capricious.

To many Japanese housewives, karaoke is also important because it is a form of relaxation and an escape from the household responsibilities they have. In Kyoto, for example, there are many karaoke coffee shops which see mainly middle-aged and older female customers. Although some men do frequent these coffee shops, these shops are open only during daytime when men have to work. These coffee shops are a special space where these women are personally identifiedxix. Such coffee shops are important to such women as they can enjoy entertainment, make friends and socialise. These shops are also platforms for them to hone their talents and hard work put behind in practicing singing everyday.

Hence, karaoke is vital to the Japanese society as it not only contribute towards stress relief and self-expression, but also as a form of escape for the singers, who are temporarily transported into a fantasy world that allows them to transcend the realities of their life and become a star. Moreover, karaoke helps to widen their social circle and provides a chance to display their talents and results of their everyday singing practice.

From what we read in the articles about karaoke, we find some similarities of singing karaoke in Singapore and Japan. One similarity is that people go with their friends, family and colleagues. In both countries, the people also can sing as loud as they want or as bad as they want. However, many obvious differences exists as well as our group found out. In Singapore, there is no formal training of how to sing karaoke, while in Japan there are many karaoke classes and ways to learn singing. Secondly, in Singapore, not everyone is compelled to sing unlike in Japan where refusing to sing is considered to be rude. Thirdly, in Singapore, there is also no hierarchy similar to the Japanese model within the group singing karaoke.


Therefore, karaoke is an important and popular leisure activity in Japan. It not only helps people to relieve stress but is also a form of socialization. Karaoke also helps the Japanese to escape from reality and enter into their fantasy world of becoming a huge pop star. There are many rules defining behavior in the karaoke space, so much so that classes are set up to teach the ignorant about these rules. Our group feels that karaoke is a huge phenomenon in Japanese society and that it is a leisure activity and skill that many Japanese must attain and engage in.

Back to leisure

Drawing from the examples from drinking and karaoke, Japanese leisure is unique in that there is a strong tendency towards ordered group activities and also an extension of everyday work attitudes. Traits rooted in Japanese history since pre-dating the industrial period. Since pre-industrial times, leisure in Japan has meant participation in activities that focused on the goals of the communityxx. Festival times or hare were viewed as sacred and celebrated in connection with agrarian production; for example, offering prayers for a rich harvest. Sacred events pertaining to an individual such as birth, marriage and death were looked upon as community events since they added new members or removed old ones. Hare was not a time for individual enjoyment but rather a representation of the community’s welfare being put forth first before self. In addition, the period after World War II was similar, as Japanese continued with a strong sense of community and national purpose to rebuild the country. Leisure therefore had to assimilate and accommodate to these events and with work taking up a large part of the Japanese life, it is no wonder that leisure sometimes becomes extension of work and the group. As such, shaped over the years, leisure activities have slowly become a group affair in Japan. While this characteristic has been demonstrated through the analysis of after-work drinking and karaoke singing as mentioned above, in particular, “cherry blossom viewing represents leisure activities in Japan in which members of the same social group participate”xxi. For instance, “women and family members go during the daytime to view cherry blossoms along river banks with their lunches”, “pupils from kindergarten to high school go on school trips”, and “college students go with friends, or view at their own universities”.xxii In addition, cherry blossoms viewing are also a “major event for most companies, especially for medium-sized and small companies”xxiii, where a hired employee would be sent to the site to secure a good location first, so that the rest of the people in the section can go there with food and drink after work, and on these occasions, “bosses” in the company do not participate in the activity as they do not belong to the same social group and “do not want to dampen the atmosphere with their presence”xxiv.

RELATED POST:  Ideas for documentaries about Japan

A third characteristic of leisure in Japan is the way foreign forms of leisure are localized or ‘Japanized’. From the time, Commodore Perry forcefully made Japan open its doors to the world again, the influx of foreign influences has affected the development in some leisure activities in particular, baseball. Baseball was introduced into Japan from the United States around 1873xxv and is the most watched and popularly played sport in Japan today. Boasting high spectator turn-outs and massive television ratings, Yakkyu has become the new Sumo in Japan. There are two forms of leisure within baseball; one is watching it, and the other playing it. For fans of Yakkyu, the game offers them an outlet to relax with friends and have fun. In stadiums and pubs alike, groups of supporters get together to cheer their team on, very much like in the US. However in playing baseball, the Japanese are quite different from their American or western counterparts. We observe Japanese traits in the way the Japanese play baseball. Baseball is treated like a martial art, and bushido or the warrior way is the attitude that the Japanese have in training and play. Wayne Graczyk, one of Japan’s leading baseball commentators, agrees that yakkyu or baseball is distinctive from the American game; he adds that ‘the strong mores and honorifics of Japanese society are embedded in the Japanese game’.xxvi Although played with largely similar rules, baseball in Japan is just not played the same way as it is in America.

In other sports like football, the J-League was formed in 1992 to attract locals to support domestic football, as well as to develop the game in Japan. The league modeled itself after its more illustrious European and South American counterparts but yet the league has formed a unique identity as having a mix of the international game and the Japanese one. Just looking at the names of some the clubs, for example; JEF United Ichihara and Urawa Red Diamonds would give you an idea of this fusion. Elsewhere, Pachinko, the most popular leisure activity in Japan having between 40 and 50 million people or roughly a quarter of the population playing it (and as many as 30 million who are avid playersxxvii), can also be seen as blend of Western influences with Japanese tastes. Pachinko is a mix between a pinball and slot machine, descended from the “Coringth Game”, which originated in Chicago.

Pachinko appeared in Japan in the early 1920’s, and the first Pachinko hall was opened in the Osaka Prefecture. Pachinko has thrived through Japan’s period of industrialisation as a form of leisure that allows for one to engage in alone. Different from the other forms of leisure that are more group oriented, Pachinko offers the salaryman or housewife a soliditary form of activity to indulge themselves in without bothering about the social rules that guides leisure behavior. The ‘mindless’ dropping of the balls actually acts as a haven or distraction for the mind as the individual is temporarily transported away from the routine of everyday life amidst the smoky and noisy Pachinko parlor. In addition, the parlor also offers “individuality in the group”xxviii

How different is Pachinko from say, slot machines in the West? First, it is not an outright form of gambling; cigarettes and other gifts are the most one can expect to win, although in some cases, undertable or back alley transactions involving money do take place. Hence, it can be said that the attraction lies less in the fact that it can bring one a windfall but to the appeal of the game itself. Such an appeal can be seen in the peripheral industry catered for hard-core players’ drive to win at Pachinko. There are a host of specialty Pachinko magazines, and even schools teaching the latest on how to beat new machinesxxix. There seems to be a kind of perseverance and values taken from the martial arts and applied to the realm of Pachinko playing for some!


Japanese leisure behavior can be distinguished from Western forms of leisure through six main characteristics namely; the existence of work attitudes extended to the leisure realm, the strong emphasis on groupism that spawns a set of acceptable behavior within leisure groups, and the localization or “Japanization’ of foreign forms of leisure into the Japanese leisure landscape.

Leisure or play has a significant functionxxx for humans, more than just mere actions or psychological reflexes; play exists as an alternative to the everyday ritual of work, school etc. It is precisely this domain in which leisure exists in that is the reason why leisure still carries ‘remnants’ of everyday social structures in Japan. For example, the Japanese culture of ‘groupism’ or a strong sense of belonging to a group of company is brought into leisure activities like drinking where colleagues are obliged to go drinking with their superiors and colleagues even if they may not want to. Huizinga states that ‘play is present everywhere as a well-defined quality of action which is different from ordinary life’xxxi, in the Japanese context, this may not be entirely true as leisure is an extension of everyday Japanese life. Leisure is another playing field or microenvironment where larger forces of social interactions and culture manifest in.

Changing leisure attitudes

In the eighties, leisure behavior and attitudes began to change. Due to the booming economy, leisure activities could now be enjoyed by Japanese from all walks of life as opposed to previously when it was limited to a minor section of the population. Three main factors were cited namely; higher levels of income allowing people more financial capability to enjoy leisure, a higher level of education which made them more aware of how valuable leisure was and lastly, the availability of more free time which could be used for leisure. Consequently, the desire to seek for self-realization and personal fulfillment was reinforced and subsequently, these developments led to the weakening of the traditional Japanese values of group and hierarchy. This is evident from the marked increase in the number of young employees who have escaped from ‘after-five’ socializing, which was previously regarded as an integral aspect of Japanese company life. These young people started to pursue their individual interests after work and loyalty to their business company has receded in this aspect. In addition, “supported by the increasing value of the yen, Japanese business people and tourists (started to) travel all over the world, and are making approximately 5 million trips a year nowadays (117). The most common destinations are Asia, the United States, and West Europe. More than just mere relaxation and exploration of a different civilization and culture heritage, to the Japanese, holidays function as a temporary escape and release from the cramped housing, stressful and competitive pace of everyday life in Japan.

Leisure in Japan will continue to change. Whether it alters in form (new types of leisure activities) or attitudes remains largely to be seen, however I do feel that the strong values etched in the social fabric of Japan and strengthened after many events will continue to exist in her leisure activities.

Sign up for updates

About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

Keep Reading

Leave a Comment