There were approximately 70 million Javanese in the early 1990s, the majority of whom lived in East Java and Central Java and the rest of whom lived on Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and other islands. Altogether, some 100 million people lived on Java.

Indonesia, Java, Jakarta. View from MONAS, a lift runs to te top of the monument. Jakarta skyline, looking south. (Photo Bjorn Grotting)
Indonesia, Java, Jakarta. View from MONAS, a lift runs to te top of the monument. Jakarta skyline, looking south. (Photo Bjorn Grotting)

Although many Javanese expressed pride at the grand achievements of the illustrious courts of Surakarta and Yogyakarta and admired the traditional arts, most Javanese tended to identify not with that elite tradition, or even with a lineage or a clan, but with their own villages (see Early History and The Coming of Islam).

These villages, or kampung, were typically situated on the edge of rice fields, surrounding a mosque, or strung out along a road.

Most Javanese villages in the early 1990s were differentiated into smaller units known as either rukun kampung (village mutual assistance association) or rukun tetangga (neighborhood association). Rukun is an important Javanese word describing both “state of being and a mode of action…. a state in which all parties are at least overtly at social peace with one another,” according to anthropologist Robert Jay “a process of sharing through collective action.” Anthropologist Patrick Guinness, in 1989, wrote that the neighborhood was the “largest social grouping whose members participate in household rituals, gather for rituals, organize working bees, whose youth band together for sports teams and organizations, who conduct arisan (rotating credit associations) and who hold certain property such as funeral equipment.” In rural areas, these groups also sometimes collaborated on harvesting their rice. The rukun associations were rooted in the ideal associations of the family. Many of these local communities had organized security arrangements, called ronda malam (night watch), in ways that reflected the special concerns of their community. Neighbors watched closely for any suspicious activity and participated vigorously in the apprehension of thieves, even exacting immediate justice on their own. The heads of these organizations were considered elected or appointed officials of the government.

Java, East Java, Bromo Tengger. In the hillside along the road up to Bromo there is a few villages. Cabbage can be grown in the relative cold climate. (Bjorn Grotting)
Java, East Java, Bromo Tengger. In the hillside along the road up to Bromo there is a few villages. Cabbage can be grown in the relative cold climate. (Bjorn Grotting)

The differences in social class in the early 1990s were less elaborate and pronounced in Javanese rural villages than in urban areas, in part because rural people shared the basic patterns of making a living by growing rice. In villages where land was more evenly divided, some form of mutual labor exchange was common; in villages where there were large numbers of landless peasants, however, there also were clear patron-like relationships with landowners, who themselves rarely owned more than two hectares. In urban centers and the sultans’ courts, the distinctions among a refined, traditional elite, an intermediate-level bourgeoisie sharing patterns of consumption, and a more collectivist peasantry were more apparent.

In both the village and the urban neighborhood, leaders were usually male. Although some leaders were political appointees– appointed by the military or other powerful groups–these leaders were theoretically elected by popular consensus. This consensus system proceeded–ideally–through a discussion of different points of view, after which a senior-level participant made a final decision.

Within the Javanese family, kinship ties are traditionally reckoned through both the mother and father equally. Upon marriage, the nuclear family of mother, father, and children is more or less independent. Formal obligations between kin groups are not much greater than in the West, but the high divorce rate (over 50 percent in some areas) in the early 1990s made the shifting of responsibility for children–particularly among the mother’s kin– quite likely. There are no clans, or lineages, or other kin-based social groupings that on some other islands form the basis of corporate entities like a family business. Sons tend to treat their fathers with great formality and deference. Although the mother is the focus of the family in many respects–she handles the finances- -she is often depicted as suffering the most when the family experiences any loss. She is usually the one who disciplines the children, while the father is mostly occupied outside the home.

From the Javanese standpoint, childhood is viewed as a series of shocks. Although the youngest children are much indulged, major transitions can be sharp and radical. The process of weaning, for instance, is a rapid one in which the mother simply leaves the child with a relative and then returns to it a few days later. Overall, however, a baby’s general contentment, its resistance to disease and misfortune, are viewed as dependent on being protected from any form of emotional upset. Babies are constantly held, and nursed on demand; babies must not be disappointed. Once they are weaned, they are released into the care of an older sibling who indulges and protects the child.

As the child gets older, he becomes more and more capable of withstanding the shocks and stresses of life, in part because he or she has become more aware of the rules defining interaction. The rules of etiquette help a child learn self-control. For example, children must learn to address their fathers respectfully, using refined speech. Failure to comply properly with the rules will result in a sharp reprimand. Learning the proper degree of shame for Javanese, according to anthropologist Ward Keeler, is a matter of becoming aware of one’s vulnerability in interaction. Children learn that dealing with others in a face-to-face encounter always poses a threat to one’s sense of self.

Java, Jakarta. Kemang Raya. An night-open restaurant in the busy Kemang district in south Jakarta. (Photo Bjorn Grotting)
Java, Jakarta. Kemang Raya. An night-open restaurant in the busy Kemang district in south Jakarta. (Photo Bjorn Grotting)

Many of the rules of etiquette center on the proper use of language, which is more problematic in Javanese than in most other languages. When addressing someone, Javanese speakers must choose from several different levels of politeness. These “speech levels” comprise words that have the same meaning, but are stylistically different. For instance, among the Javanese variations of the word “now,” saiki is the least refined, while saniki is a little fancier, and samenika is the most elegant. Javanese has many such triads–so many that people cannot speak for long in Javanese without having to make a choice, at which point they must decide whether the situation is formal or informal and what the relations among the participants are.

In general, a person uses the highest level to speak to high- status people in formal situations and the lowest levels to speak to people of lower rank or with whom one is most intimate. Although children learn to speak the lowest level first, they gradually are socialized to speak to some of their more distant kin and respected strangers in higher-level forms of Javanese. This formality is particularly common in cities where there are marked distinctions in status. Sometimes, children who go away to college or who live overseas refuse to write letters home to their elders in Javanese because of their fear of making a glaring error. Often they use Bahasa Indonesia because they are no longer sure of the social situation at home. Although Bahasa Indonesia is a neutral medium, it is regarded as a foreign idiom among Javanese.

Although one might expect that women would use the highest levels more than men, this is only true within the domestic environment–and primarily as a way of humbling themselves among their relatives. Men use more polite features in public than do women. Moreover, in the public sphere, the use of Javanese politeness levels is not so much associated with humility as it is with efforts to raise oneself above another. Men are more likely to see the use of these politeness levels as a strategy for negotiating status.

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Indonesia, Java, Jakarta. Sunda Kelapa, the old harbor. Old man in blue hat. (Photo Bjorn Grotting)

There is diversity within Javanese religious practices. Although most Javanese are Muslims, the wide variations in Islamic beliefs and practices are associated with complex factors such as regional history and social class. In Jawa Tengah Province, for instance, the ultrarefined Javanese aristocracy has a strong aesthetic, even mystical element, to its spirituality. Religiosity is expressed through plays employing wayang kulit (flat leather shadow puppets), gamelan (Javanese orchestra) performances, dances, and other arts of the courtly tradition. Santri–many of them merchant-farmers in East Java–hold more tightly to the moralistic tone of Islam and express the fundamental universalism of its teachings. They may make a pilgrimage (hajj; haj in Indonesian) to Mecca, teach their children the Quran, and work for the social, spiritual, and even political advancement of the ummah.

Most Javanese peasants, however, particularly those in Central Java, resist the universalism of Islam and its political connotations. They favor a more moderate blend of Islamic practice with an indigenous Javanism, expressed in household feasts, pilgrimages to local temples and shrines, and belief in local spirits. For many Javanese peasants, the spiritual world is richly populated with deities who inhabit people, things, and places, and who are ever ready to cause misfortune. Believers seek to protect themselves against these harmful spirits by making offerings, enlisting the aid of a dukun (healer), or through spiritual acts of self-control and right thinking.

Data as of November 1992

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Bjørn Grøtting

Photographer based in Norway. See a collection of my best photos in the portfolio. Licensing of images is done through Photoshelter or alamy.
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