How Much of a Japan Expert Are You? Take the tsunagu Japan Quiz to Find Out!

Japan continues to be a source of fascination for people all over the world. Whether you’re an expat who’s been here for years or a fan still planning your first trip to the country, there are plenty of those out there who consider themselves experts on Japanese culture. Well, here’s your chance to prove it with the tsunagu Japan quiz, consisting of 21 questions ranging in difficulty. Take the quiz now and test your knowledge of Japan!

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Japanese Culture

EASY

1. What is the name of this popular Japanese castle?

Japan is well known for its many beautiful castles, but do you know the name of the most famous one of them all?

A) Osaka Castle
B) Matsumoto Castle
C) Himeji Castle
D) Kumamoto Castle

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ANSWER: Himeji Castle.

Located in Hyogo Prefecture, Himeji Castle is also known as the "White Heron Castle" because of its white color and its architecture being reminiscent of a bird taking flight. As such, it frequently features on postcards, guidebook covers, and other media. The castle you see today was completed around 1609, although parts of its fortifications are even older than that.

Besides being one of Japan’s three premier castles (alongside Matsumoto Castle and Kumamoto Castle), Himeji Castle is also a World Heritage Site and a symbol of resilience, having survived WW2 bombings and the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995.

2. When was this picture taken?

Tokyo offers many beautiful sights all year round, but what month would you have to visit Japan’s capital to witness this one particular scene?

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ANSWER: Late March or early April

The event shown in the photo is a hanami party, i.e. flower viewing of cherry blossoms (though sometimes also plum trees). The tradition started as an appreciation of the fleeting beauty of nature as the cherry trees only bloom for two weeks at most before shedding their petals and carpeting Japan in a beautiful layer of pink. Today, hanami is a good excuse to get together with your friends and coworkers and enjoy good food and drinks under one of the symbols of Japan.

When exactly the trees start blooming depends entirely on the climate. In colder regions like Hokkaido, hanami season falls around late April/early May, while in subtropical Okinawa it can be as early as January/February. In Tokyo, hanami usually starts in late March/early April, which is one of the best times to visit the city.

3. What city was Japan’s capital directly before Tokyo?

Tokyo officially became the capital of Japan in 1868 during the Meiji Restoration, although it spent the previous 260 years as the informal seat of power under the name "Edo." But which city was the seat of Japan’s government before Edo/Tokyo?

A) Nara
B) Yamato
C) Osaka
D) Kyoto

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ANSWER: Kyoto

If you include legends and myths, Japan has had close to 100 capitals throughout its history. That’s because, for the longest time, a Japanese “capital” was simply wherever the Imperial Palace was located in, and since many Emperors resided in their own private estates, the capital tended to change with each new ruler.

This came to a halt in 794 when Emperor Kanmu moved the imperial court to Kyoto (then known as Heian-kyo: “the capital of peace and tranquility”), which remained the country’s capital for the next 1,100 years. A big clue to this history is in Kyoto’s name, which quite literally means “capital city.” Tokyo, on the other hand, means “eastern capital.”

4. Where can you find these buttons?

There is no shortage of buttons in a country as technologically advanced as Japan. But where can you find these specific ones and what do they do?

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ANSWER: The toilet

Between 70-80% of Japanese households have a smart toilet with a built-in electronic bidet, which is controlled via a panel either attached to the toilet seat or installed on the wall. The picture above shows the latter. Japanese smart toilets can do a lot of things, from cleaning to drying and even playing flushing sounds/music for the shyer toilet users out there. Since 2017, there has been a push to standardize the symbols used on smart toilets to help foreigners navigate it, but older models still use their own designs.

5. What is the busiest train station in the world?

You can already guess that since we’re asking it here, the world’s busiest train station must be in Japan. But Japan’s railway system is massive. It carries billions of passengers a year and includes nearly 3,000 km of railway tracks and over 8,500 stations. Any one of them could be the busiest train station in the world. But which one?

A) Shinjuku Station
B) Tokyo Station
C) Osaka Station
D) Shibuya Station

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ANSWER: Shinjuku Station

Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station is the busiest train station in the world, with around 3.5 million people passing through it every day, a recognized Guinness World Record. (In comparison, New York’s Grand Central Station “only” handles 750,000 passengers a day.) Shinjuku is more than equipped to handle it, though. The station is absolutely massive and it’s almost a rite of passage for people who haven’t lived for Japan that long to get lost within its labyrinthine passageways. But since it’s the gateway to some of best parts of Tokyo like Kabukicho or Omoide Yokocho, it pays off to familiarize yourself with this place.

6. Arakura Sengen Shrine offers amazing views of which famous landmark?

The Chureito Pagoda at Arakura Sengen Shrine overlooks a famous symbol of Japan. Which one?

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ANSWER: Mt. Fuji

The combination of the Chureito Pagoda (a peace memorial dating back to 1963), Mt. Fuji, and the autumn foliage or cherry trees in bloom surrounding it has by now become one of the most iconic images of Japan. You can experience it yourself and take some of the best pictures of your life by visiting Arakurayama Sengen Park.

7. What is this restaurant called in Japan?

…KFC, right? It says so right there on the sign.

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ANSWER: “Kentucky”

The famous Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) restaurant chain arrived in Japan around 50 years ago, first appearing at the Osaka World Expo in 1970 and currently boasting over 1,100 outlets around the country. While it is registered and operates as “KFC” in Japan, that’s not how Japanese people refer to it. In fact, if you were to mention “KFC” to them, many wouldn’t know what you’re talking about! That’s because the restaurant is popularly known in Japan as just “Kentucky," showing just how ingrained into Japanese society the restaurant chain has become.

Christmas in Japan is a beautiful affair that’s synonymous with two things: colorful illuminations and fried chicken. During this time, Japanese families treat themselves to boxes and buckets of chicken from many different stores, with the Colonel’s chain being the most popular one. That’s why some locations start taking Christmas reservations for their chicken as early as late November! That’s how popular “Kentucky” is in Japan.

8. Why do Japanese supermarkets have baskets in two different colors?

Large, Western-style shopping carts in Japanese supermarkets are rare. The majority actually use smaller carts meant not for groceries, but for carrying baskets. But while shopping in Japan, you may notice that some people’s baskets are a different color than yours. Why is that?

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ANSWER: It’s an anti-theft system!

At Japanese supermarkets, baskets of one color are used before checkout. Then, during checkout, the staff at the register move all your purchased items to a basket of a different color, to signal that they have all been paid for. Japan is a very safe country, but thefts still happen here, and the two-color basket system is a quick and efficient way to prevent that. How ingenious!

MEDIUM

1. Which of these pictures is NOT sushi?

Sushi is arguably the most famous Japanese dish, and as you may know, it comes in all shapes and styles like nigiri, gunkan, and norimaki. But which of these pictures does NOT actually show sushi?

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ANSWER: D

The fourth picture is actually sashimi, i.e. raw fish eaten with wasabi and soy sauce, though technically any kind of thinly-cut raw meat can be sashimi. (Even horse!) The point, however, is that you can instantly tell the dish is not sushi because it does not come with rice. Although many of us instantly think of “fish” when we think of sushi, you can still have sushi without fish. But you can never, EVER have sushi without rice.

“Sushi rice” is any rice prepared with vinegar and potentially other spices. With sushi rice, you can use any topping imaginable, and the resulting dish will still be sushi. Hamburgers? Sushi. Fried beef? Sushi. Shrimp tempura? As long as it’s resting on sushi rice, it’s still sushi. In the past, the vinegar helped keep the rice and the toppings fresh for longer as sushi was originally a type of fast food sold in an era before refrigerators. A lot of things have changed since then, so if you want to know how to properly enjoy a visit to a sushi restaurant, check out our Ultimate Sushi Guide!

2. What sound does a Japanese dog make?

All cultures have different onomatopoeia for animal sounds, especially dogs. In the West, they tend to go “woof woof” or “bow wow.” In Korean, it’s “meong meong,” in Polish “hau hau,” in Afrikaans it’s “blaf blaf.” Thanks to internet memes and the like, many people know that Japanese cats go “nya/nyan,” but what sound do their dogs make?

A) Mau mau
B) Boo boo
C) Wan wan
D) Kon kon

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ANSWER: “Wan wan”

The way a Japanese dog barks is “wan wan,” which is pronounced like the English word “one.” Onomatopoeia in general are a fascinating part of the Japanese language. For example, if you have ever wondered what the “sound of silence” was, then Japan has the answer, as the country actually does have an onomatopoeia for a state of quietness: “shiin.” And if you've ever wondered what the fox actually says, in Japan, the sound a fox makes is “kon kon.” Check out our article on Japanese animal cries for more.

3. What’s a “potato” in Japanese?

This may sound like a trick question, but it’s not. Japan has plenty of words borrowed from English that it uses in, let’s say, very creative ways. For example, in Japanese, “idol” means a pop star, a “bike” is a motorcycle but never a bicycle, and “fight” is an expression of encouragement akin to “Do your best!” So, what does “potato” mean in Japanese?

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ANSWER: French fries

In Japanese, “potato” is actually short for “potato fry” or “fried potato,” and is widely recognized as THE word for “French fries.” The Japanese word for the root vegetable is “jagaimo,” which is interesting in itself, as it means “tuber from Jakarta,” the place where Japan apparently acquired their first spuds. Now, technically, some Japanese people do occasionally use the term “potato” for the vegetable potato, but if you look up ポテト (poteto) on Google, you will get nothing but mouthwatering pictures of fries.

4. What part of Japan was this photo taken in?

At first glance, this picture is very nondescript. It seems like it could have been taken in any Japanese city. But those familiar with a quirk of Japanese culture should be able to quickly guess the answer.

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ANSWER: Kansai

The picture must’ve been taken in a city in the Kansai region because the people are standing on the RIGHT side of the escalator. It’s one of the big differences between western and eastern Japan. In eastern cities like Tokyo or Yokohama, people stand on the left while leaving the right lane open for people in a hurry. In western cities like Osaka, it’s the exact opposite. Incidentally, in Nagoya, walking on escalators is heavily discouraged, so people tend to stand on both sides of the moving stairs.

5. Which floor number will you almost never see in Japanese hotels?

The answer we’re looking for is actually a very small number. Japan does have extremely tall hotels, like the Yokohama Royal Park Hotel, located above the 52nd floor of the Landmark Tower, the second tallest building in Japan. So you definitely wouldn’t find a Japanese hotel with, say, a 100th floor. But which number between 1 and 10 will also almost never appear on a Japanese hotel elevator keypad?

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ANSWER: 4

One of the ways to say the number four in Japanese is “shi,” which is also the word for “death.” (Of course, the two are written with different kanji.) That’s why a lot of places from hotels to parking lots tend to avoid it, numbering their floors or parking spaces like 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, etc. It’s the exact same reason why many Western hotels don’t have a 13th floor or use the number 13 for their rooms. They don’t want to risk making some guests uncomfortable.

Japanese has more of this type of numerical superstitions, and not all of them are bad. For example, October 5 is considered a very good day to get married because the date 10/5 can be read in Japanese as “to-go,” which sounds like the word for “unity.” Aw!

6. What is the national flower of Japan?

Hint: it’s not the cherry blossom flower, even though it is considered one of the symbols of Japan. Technically, Japan doesn’t have a legally defined national flower, but it does have a flower that it has used to represent the country, its culture, and its traditions for centuries now. What is it?

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ANSWER: The chrysanthemum ("kiku" in Japanese)

Although not any chrysanthemum. It has to be the 16-petal flower that is also seen in the Imperial Seal of Japan, which itself is known as the "Chrysanthemum Seal." Even the throne of the Japanese Emperor is known as the "Chrysanthemum Throne," which just goes to show you just how big the flower is in Japanese culture. The chrysanthemum became the imperial flower around the 12th century when Emperor Go-Toba (1180 – 1239) chose it as his personal symbol.

Interestingly, the flower does not feature on the 100-yen coin, the obverse of which shows cherry blossoms. But you can find it on the 50-yen coin!

7. What’s a “viking” in Japan?

This is another case of creative usages of foreign words in Japan. Although historical textbooks and the like do call ancient Scandinavian warriors “vikings,” the majority of Japanese people think of something completely different when they hear that name. Do you know what it is?

A) A type of meal
B) A car
C) A kind of hat
D) A brand of tea

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ANSWER: A type of meal

In Japan, “viking” is actually the name for a buffet! Or, if you want to get technical, a smorgasbord: the Danish take on hot and cold dishes served on a table for everyone to enjoy. When you think of it that way, the name “viking” makes a lot more sense, as Denmark is part of Scandinavia, which is where vikings hail from. There’s more to the name’s origin, though.

Buffet-style meals arrived in Japan in the 1950s after the manager of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo at the time brought the idea back from Denmark. It was originally named a “viking smorgasbord” after the 1958 movie "The Vikings" starring Kirk Douglas. But the “smorgasbord” part proved a bit too cumbersome for Japanese speakers and with time, the name became simply “viking.” So, don’t be afraid to go berserk at an all-you-can-eat buffet in Japan! With a name like “viking,” it’d be only fitting.

DIFFICULT

1. What is wrong with this picture?

Proper utensil etiquette is a big part of Japanese culture. There are a lot of dos and don’ts dictating how you should behave at the dinner table, and the above picture shows one massive don’t. What’s wrong with it exactly?

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ANSWER: Chopsticks stuck in rice is how you offer food to the dead

There are a lot of rules you have to follow when using chopsticks in Japan. Some mistakes are graver, like passing something from one set of chopsticks to another. Even if it’s something as insignificant as a small portion of rice, the only thing Japanese people pass chopstick to chopstick are the bones of their deceased family members during funeral rites, which is why you’ll never see it done at the table. It’s a similar story with sticking chopsticks into rice.

It’s only done during Buddhist rituals for the dead, specifically when offering them food. This most likely comes from chopsticks in rice being similar to incense sticks, which are also lit for the deceased and stuck vertically into ash or sand. So if you ever need a place to rest your chopsticks, just use a chopstick stand.

2. What’s a randsel?

Every elementary school student in Japan has a randsel, but what is it?

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ANSWER: A backpack

Pronounced “randoseru” in Japan, a randsel is a type of firm backpack used by Japanese children all throughout elementary school. Most Japanese schools like to emphasize regularity, which is why you'll see most students wearing school uniforms and using the same kind of randsel backpack, usually in the same color. The word itself comes from the Dutch "randsel" or the German "ranzen," both meaning "backpack.”

Japan actually uses a lot of words of Germanic origin, the most famous one being “baito,” short for “arubaito,” meaning “part-time job,” which comes from the German “arbeit” (”work”). Then there’s the Japanese “bombe” (gas cylinder) from the German “bombe” or “karute” (medical records) from the German “karte” (chart). So at least it’s not just English that Japan likes to play around with!

3. What Japanese city was this style of okonomiyaki pancakes named after?

Okonomiyaki are savory Japanese pancakes, the most basic version of which consists of batter and cabbage. But you can put anything you want into the dish. In fact, the “okonomi” part of its name literally means “as you please.” There really are no rules to okonomiyaki. However, there is a style named after one Japanese city where all of the ingredients must be fried separately and then placed on top of the crepe-thin fried batter with yakisoba noodles. What is this style called?

A) Osaka-style
B) Hakata-style
C) Aomori-style
D) Hiroshima-style

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ANSWER: Hiroshima-style

In Osaka, okonomiyaki are made by first mixing all of the ingredients together and frying them. But in Hiroshima, they are layered to create one incredibly hearty dish. You do not order “stacks” of these pancakes. One is basically an entire meal in itself, which is why Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki are occasionally known as the “Japanese pizza.”

4. What does it mean when a Japanese person makes this gesture?

Japanese people love to gesture while talking, from making a big X with their arms when they want to say that something is a no-go, to the specific way they count things. Although the extended little finger isn’t as popular as it once was, the majority of Japanese still know exactly what the gesture means. Do you?

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ANSWER: It means the person is talking about their love life

If you ask a Japanese work colleague why they look troubled and they raise up their pinkie, they’re basically saying that they’re having relationship trouble with a female. In short, the extended little finger is a euphemism for romance and sexual relations... with females, specifically.

There does exist a rare version of the gesture consisting of a raised thumb to indicate trouble with male partners, but it’s mostly restricted to Kansai and hasn’t really been in use for a while now. So, if you want to signal that you’re having relationship problems with a male in Japan, you’ll sadly have to use your words.

5. How many vending machines are there in Japan?

If you’ve ever spent any time in Japan, you may have felt like there is a vending machine for every person in the country. They seem to be everywhere and sell everything from cold and hot drinks to bee larva. But how many machines do you think there actually are in Japan?

A) ~100,000
B) ~500,000
C) ~1,000,000
D) ~3,000,000

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ANSWER: Around 3,000,000

According to data from December 2018, there are 2,937,800 vending machines installed throughout the country, possibly the highest concentration of vending machines in the world. A big reason for that might be the relative safety of Japan. Vending machines handle a lot of money, so they can only be placed in safe neighborhoods. And since most of Japan has very low crime rates, this allows the country to put drink and snack dispensers pretty much wherever they want.

Another reason for the popularity of vending machines in Japan is that anyone can sign a contract with a manufacturer to have one installed on their property, free of charge. The manufacturer then takes care of maintenance and restocking and shares the profits with the property owner. For many people, it’s a legitimate source of extra income.

6. What is Japan’s national bird?

Unlike Japan’s national flower, which can be found on imperial seals and coins and such, the national bird of Japan rarely makes an appearance on anything official. Here’s a hint to its identity: it can be found in poems and myths and is considered to be very brave. Is it…

A) The crane
B) The green pheasant
C) The swallow
D) The cuckoo

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ANSWER: The green pheasant

The green pheasant ("kiji" in Japanese) has only been Japan’s national bird since 1947 when the Ornithological Society of Japan designated it as such. There were many reasons for their selection. For one, the bird is endemic to Japan, and it has been mentioned in two of the oldest Japanese texts: the Kojiki and Nihonshoki, as well as in many ancient poems.

Most famously, the green pheasant is also one of the animals that joins Momotaro (“Peach Boy”) in a series of adventures summarized into one of the most loved folktales of Japan. Besides that, the female green pheasant is considered a fearless bird that will die to protect its eggs and chicks, and so any country should feel honored to be represented by such a fine fowl.

THE SCORE

Tally up all your answers, giving yourself 1 point for each one you got right, and find out how much of an expert on Japan you really are!

17 – 21 points: EXPERT

Japan is clearly your passion. Your knowledge about the country includes everything from its history to its food, and there are probably some things you know that would stump Japanese people.

8 – 16 points: PROFICIENT

Your adventure with Japan and its culture has been going on for a while, but it’s still not over. You may have a few more things to learn about the country, but there are also areas where you can argue with the best of them. Don’t stop educating yourself and one day soon, you too will be an expert!

0 – 7 points: NOVICE

You don’t know everything about Japan, but that just means there’s still so much for you to discover! You are on the precipice of a wonderful adventure. You're getting to know more about one of the most fascinating countries on the planet, and many people would give a lot to be in your shoes again. We hope you continue to enjoy learning about Japan!

Challenge Your Friends and Family!

How did you score? If you didn't get full marks, we hope that you learned a little bit more about Japan through reading each answer. If you enjoyed the quiz, why not challenge your friends and family to take it? It'd be interesting to compare the results, especially if they claim to be just as in love with Japan as you!

 

If you want to give feedback on any of our articles, you have an idea that you'd really like to see come to life, or you just have a question on Japan, hit us up on our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram!

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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