Cultural Patterns of East Asia

Cultural Patterns of East Asia
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  • 0:00 East Asian Culture
  • 2:45 Language and Ethnicity
  • 3:45 Religion
  • 5:05 Education
  • 5:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

After watching this video, you should be able to describe the cultural patterns of East Asia, including Japan, China, North Korea, and South Korea. A short quiz will follow.

East Asian Culture

East Asia is an area usually considered to include China, Japan, North Korea, and South Korea. These countries all have their own distinct cultures. But they do have a few things in common: their strong sense of hierarchy, their respect for authority, and conventions about how to behave in public. The countries of East Asia also share language roots (both verbal and written), and their cuisines are similar. But that's where the similarities end.

Japan is a democracy that has been rated as having a high level of personal freedom. Behavior and outward appearance are important to the Japanese, especially in matters of business. Age gives you seniority, and determines how much weight your words are given and who is served first, among other things. In general, Japanese culture is less individualistic, and the needs of the group are paramount.

Life in China depends on where you live. The country is a land of poor farmers and the cities of rich, westernized capitalists. The country is huge but densely populated, and the cities especially so. China puts emphasis on groups rather than individuals and respects age, much like Japan. In China's case, this comes from the popularity of Confucian ideas. China has recently introduced free-market reforms, but the people are still rated near the bottom in rankings of personal and political freedom, mainly due to the strict rule of their communist government.

South Korea is similarly influenced by Confucianism. They have a lot of respect for age, social position, and marriage. Related to this respect for age is the common belief that your loved ones stay with you when they die. Ceremonies to honor the ancestors are common. South Korea, especially in cities like Seoul, is being influenced a lot by the West: fashion, food, television; you name it. But this western influence is also present in politics. South Korea rates highly in measures of the freedom of its citizens.

North Korea couldn't be more different to South Korea in its political system. North Korea is a communist dictatorship, more so even than China. The borders of North Korea are closed, and citizens get few freedoms or control over their lives. People often suffer from malnutrition and poor living conditions, and international aid is often needed. The East Asian respect for authority makes regimes like these more likely, but that doesn't mean that the people don't rebel in their own, little ways. Rules are often broken without punishment, and fashion and trade do exist... just behind closed doors.

Language & Ethnicity

The main ethnic groups of East Asia are Han (Chinese), Yamoto (Japanese), and Korean. Ninety-two percent of China's population is Han Chinese, named after the Han Dynasty. Numbers are similar for the Yamoto in Japan. South Korea is a little more diverse, but not by much. Other ethnic groups include Kazakhs, Manchurians, Mongols, Tibetans, and Uyghurs.

The most common language in East Asia is Mandarin; 1.3 billion people speak this language worldwide and many of those are in East Asia itself. But this is more a product of China being so large and populous in general. On the Korean peninsula, people speak mostly Korean and in Japan, people speak mostly Japanese.

The Chinese written language is the root of Korean and Japanese written styles as well. Their early language spread to Korea and then later to Japan, being gradually changed by those cultures along the way.


There are many different religious beliefs in East Asia. There are theists, polytheists, atheists, pantheists, and agnostics. Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Shinto are common. More western religions like Christianity and Islam are not so common outside of South Korea.

The data on Chinese religion is rather weak, since the government is officially atheist. But our best figures suggest between 30-80% are Taoist or follow other folk religions, between 10% and 16% are Buddhists, and Christianity and Islam make up tiny percentages. Getting statistics for Japan is also hard, because 'Shinto' is the most dominant group, and many don't consider it to be a religion at all. Shinto and non-religious collectively make up around 56%, but splitting those two groups up isn't possible. A further 35% are Buddhist.

Unlike the others, South Korea has a significant number of Christians. Approximately 47% have no formal religion, 29% are Christian, and 23% are Buddhist. In North Korea, we think that most people are not religious, with perhaps one third being a mix of shamanism, Chondoism, and Buddhism. But the government discourages religion, so we might be wrong. Much religion is probably hidden from view.

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