Why Japanese People Lie

A reader named Furansujin recently described his stay with a Japanese host family:

“They showed complete hysteria when I told them I loved curry or could eat takoyaki . . . the only reason i can think of for so many grins, laughs, and exclamations is acting. Like people were overly polite because they felt they needed to be.

“We also tried calligraphy. Everyone was doing a terrible job, me especially. But someway somehow our Japanese teachers inspected our work saying “Joozu, Joozu”—-you’re good at this. But they would also talk with each other in Kansai dialect. One of our students had a good understanding of it and told us that in fact they were saying that we sucked badly. So much for politeness.”

You know, they say you shouldn’t generalize. So I won’t. But if I was going to generalize, I’d say that pretty much 100 percent of all Japanese people are lying to you. They’re putting on a massive act. And there’s a reason for this.

Beautiful Japanese Women

Somehow this reminds me of a beautiful Japanese woman named Moe I dated for a few months. She had like forty pairs of sunglasses. Every time we went out, her light-brown hair was coiffed into radiant curls that set off her crystal blue eyes, and she wore the most amazingly high heels that showed off her ample curves. I honestly loved walking with her just because she looked so damn good. I’m kind of shallow like that.

The thing I could never figure out was what happened to her the next morning. After the make-up and hair spray wore off, the color contacts came out and the fake eyelashes fell off, she was a completely different person. The tight waist and big boobs were gone. After the removal of control-top pantyhose and a padded bra, it was like waking up next to a small boy. That’s a bit unsettling, lemme tell you. Like, you ever get a Christmas present wrapped in glittery foil and a big, red ribbon, and then after you open it, you’re like, Ah man, the wrapping was the best part? So it was like that.

Two Things All Japanese People Know

I don’t know, maybe that’s unrelated. Never mind. Anyway, Japanese people are imparted at birth with two pieces of knowledge. The first is fanatical customer service. At school and at home, they’re drilled for years in how to walk, how to stand, how to greet people, how to bow. Year in and year out, they march in formation around school yards, in the sun, rain, and snow, responding on command in loud voices to their senseis. Visitors often remark on the polite customer service of the Japanese, and you better believe it didn’t just happen by accident. It took years of military-style training, preparing a nation of children to be the world’s best waiters, cooks, and convenience store clerks.

The second piece of knowledge all Japanese persons are imparted with is, We’re different. Those other people—-foreigners—-they’re not like us. Koreans? Okay, they used to be Japanese, but now they’re not. Taiwanese? Sure, Taiwan was part of Japan, but now that doesn’t count. Okinawa? Okay, that wasn’t even Japan, but now somehow it is. Anyway, we Japanese, we know who we are. Even if we’re born and raised in France or Peru, we still know. And we’re not like you, foreigners.

But back to customer service in Japan, because here the concept of “customer” is quite broad. Your boss is your customer. A new acquaintance may be your customer, particularly if he’s an older male. Sometimes even family members are customers. Anybody you have to serve is in that category. Now, when the roles are reversed and you’re the customer, you’re free to be as big a dick as you want. You can order people around, speak rudely to them, or ignore them completely. In some ways, you’re supposed to. The idea of being friends and equals is, well, a bit foreign. You’re the king and queen all rolled into one, and you can act like a big shot. Because that’s your role. Until it isn’t and you’re back to being a servant. Japanese people switch between these roles naturally and automatically, and take some delight in doing so. I mean, that’s what I’d say if I were generalizing, which I’d never do.

Being a Foreign Guest in Japan

So back to you being a foreign guest in Japan . . .

You know, when I was a kid, I had a persistent fantasy about Abraham Lincoln. Yeah, some kids dream of girlfriends or boyfriends; me, I had Lincoln. Eh well, what’re you gonna do. And it went like this: Abe Lincoln would somehow travel through time and when he got to the present, I’d be there to show him around. I’d introduce him to escalators and cars and telephones and he’d be amazed. I’d instruct him in how to ride planes and use the TV. Me, an 11 year-old boy, showing the President of the United States how to do everything. He’d be completely helpless without me. I’d be more than a hero. To him, I’d be a god.

It’s good to be an 11 year-old god. But hey, who gets to actually live that? And . . . cut to you in Japan. Because here you are—-maybe you’re a computer genius or a millionaire CEO—-but once you get to Japan you’re utterly helpless. You can’t even open the door, because you keep pushing when it clearly says “Pull.” You have to ask for help flushing the toilet. You’re worse than a child. Then enter your hosts and protectors. They take you around, show you the city, teach you how to use the telephone and television. You’re the ultimate customer. They can use their years of customer service experience, and you can’t even act like a big shot, because you’re helpless. You’re their ultimate fantasy. You’re Abe Lincoln.

This is what you lose by being in Japan too long, and especially if you speak Japanese. People are thrilled to death when they see your “foreign” face—-here, let me show you this place! Oh, you’ve already been there? Oh. Here, let me introduce you to this food! Oh, you ate it for lunch? Oh. Suddenly, you’re no fun. Nobody wants to entertain Bill Nobody from down the block. They want Abraham Lincoln, clueless hero from a foreign land.

So when I say that Japanese folks are lying, I don’t mean like they’re gonna try boosting your Lexus. I mean putting on a false front—-the Japanese call it tatemae—-the way a restaurant is all starched tablecloths, wine glasses, and oversized silverware in front, while meanwhile the cooks are out back in the alley sucking down beers and flicking cigarettes. They’re just great at treating you like a customer, and doubly thrilled if they can categorize you as “foreign.”

Why are YOU in Japan?

Because compounding things is the fact that Japanese folks are bombarded with images of “foreigners” as incompetents. Weekly television shows seek out “foreign-looking” people and film them unsuccessfully unwrapping onigiri and failing to use vending machines. They call them “YOU.” In one episode, they enter a sushi restaurant and pan through the customers, slapping a big digital “YOU” over every white person’s face. I’d love to see this show in the U.S., only done with people who looked “un-American.”

So of course you get treated like a customer, and not, well, a normal person. Japanese folks are taught every day that “YOU” are different. You can’t even eat like a human being. God knows how you’ll manage in the bathtub. Don’t bother reading our language; we’ll just relabel the entire nation in English. The more we can keep defining “YOU” as unlike “us,” the more it reinforces our belief that we’re unique.

To see what Japanese folks are really like, don’t look at how they treat “foreigners.” Look at how they treat each other, and consider their relationships. Sometimes they’re super polite, and sometimes super not. In Japan, sometimes we pour glasses of beer for each other, and buy our coworkers drinks. Other times we bump into strangers, step in front of them, take the last item on the shelf, and never say a word. And everybody ignores the homeless. Because nobody’s nice to everybody all the time, and in that we’re all the same.

72 Replies to “Why Japanese People Lie”

  1. Hilarious! that is a disturbing picture you described about Moe, is like everything is a farce. Good thing that in NY they keep it real; they will just tell you to ” Go F yourself” just because they bump into you and you said something. Have you manage to get a long term friendship with someone? perhaps Tanuki?

    1. Ah, making friends in Japan. Now there’s a post in itself. Guess I ought to write about that next.

      Thanks for the inspiration.

  2. Absolutely true. Nice insight. Meanwhile, I just moved from Tokyo back to US, home of numerous flaws which at least people dont mind acknowledging. Its hilarious how all the people at japanese restaurants here in LA dont bat an eye when I speak in Japanese here. And of course no one is using forks. Anyways, just extract as much from Japan as possible while you’re there and you’ll be fine. Don’t read anymore debito, it just makes one depressed.
    I just started teaching a Japanese class to my coworkers. Even first class included a couple kanji based on your considered comments thank you. Probably most will quit but even so I cant wait to see expressions on next trip to Japan – what, a non-Japanese teaching Japanese? makes no sense! lol

    1. I’ve known some white people who taught Japanese, and it never seemed to strange to me. But then my school in the U.S. had a black History teacher and a female P.E. instructor. Amazing, people who are talented and yet unlike me. It’s practically a miracle. Or at least it would be in Japan.

      As far as reading Debito…actually, I try to avoid reading anything on the net about Japan. It’s worse than listening to folks argue over religion and politics.

      Good call on including kanji in your lessons. Showing how one kanji unlocks a dozen words is powerful stuff for students.

  3. Ken, a few short while ago, Abe (not Lincoln, but the PM of Japan) pushed through legislation that reinterpreted the Japanese constitution, created after WWII ended. Now Japan can send troops outside the country to fight in wars. It was reported that a hundred thousand protesters demonstrated in Tokyo and that China and Korea had similar demonstrations fearing a return of a warlike Nippon nation. Do you think that it is possible for militarism to once again become popular in Japan?

    If Japanese are already indoctrinated into a society that promotes militarist training (schools are nothing more than boot camps with yelling and mindless discipline) and disdain for all things non-Japanese; would it follow that it would be easy to create another Fanatical Imperial Japanese militarist structure similar to that in place in the 1920s – 1940s.

    Riveting piece, BTW. Loads of angst in this one too. I’m going to be reading this one several times, as it really is deep and it has many “tells” (poker term) about the Japanese people and their culture. I remember the first time I saw some Japanese men mistreating other Japanese and one of them did a face plant and looked like they were apologizing. That left a real bad taste in my mouth for Japanese men and I have become very disgusted with the Japanese system of honorifics in the many years since. I remember a Sean Connery and Wesly snipes movie about Japanese businessmen and their attempts to dominate American business in the 1990s (called Rising Sun). It had many examples of Japanese culture that demonstrated honorics and their interactions in the Japanese corporate world, yet all I could see was the correlation that Japanese corporations had to the Imperial Japanese Army and its attitudes towards foreigners, hmmmmm!!!

    1. When I look at Americans and think about mobilizing an army in that country, holy crap, you’d be hard-pressed to find enough people with the fitness and discipline to field a decent baseball team. But Japan, if they went to war, they’d have a battle-ready army in 15 minutes. The comparison of Japanese schools to boot camps is entirely accurate. Just give ’em guns and they’d march off to war.

      So could Japan once again become a military nation? It’d need a catalyst, but yeah, I’m sure it’s possible. Hope we don’t have to find out.

      1. Yep Id have to agree, and you hit a topic that many outsiders are ignorant of. I have no doubt Japan could and would mobilize an army if they were pressed too. there are many Japanese who say, “no war” or they like peace, but they march off to work and let companies regiment their every move, all the while claiming they love freedom and hate war. There is the occasional “hippie” but they cant survive without the support of the “army”, kind of like the stragglers and vendors that followed armies throughout history. They rely on the salaryman or his wife to buy their services or goods.

        They also blame all the war mongering on the U.S., but never admit to their own militaristic past, and who it was that saved them from themselves, the U.S. If the U.S. left them on their own, I dont think they would be able to police themselves or maintain a democracy; sorry to be real, but its just what Ive observed, and its scary.

        Japan already is a military nation, they just applied the regimented rank and order and military aggression paradigm to their economic model abroad.

  4. Yep, and it never changes. Just last week we were having horrible bentos for lunch at work and a young guy raised his eyebrows at me. “Oh, you can eat that?” I just smirked at him thinking, “I’ve been living here longer than you’ve been alive, schmuck.”

    1. That’s funny. So if you lived in Japan for 20 years, and a 21 year-old Asian person was born in Japan, but lived abroad for 20 years, who’d be more Japanese?

      Just kidding. Everybody knows what the answer is.

      1. OMG, just yesterday I met a Japanese guy. I was in the local Sam’s club when I spotted a really Japanese looking dude. This was the first Japanese person I had ever seen locally, so I wanted to talk to them; so like a real Japanofile I start spouting some Japanese I learned from Anime and that person looked really perplexed… hmmmm, so I started asking about some recent J-dramas and still the strange look. They replied, “So sorry, I’m from Brazil and speak Portuguese and English only and I don’t watch Japanese TV shows”. After turning several shades of red, I realized I just met that Japanese person who is more Japanese than the Asian guy that lived in Japan for 20 years. Just wanted to let you know he’s living in Alabama now!!

        1. That falls somewhere between hilarious and mortifying. Somehow “Japanese” manages to convey race rather than nationality, so apparently being Brazilian doesn’t count. Of course, I’m similarly amused when people say that I look “American.” Must be all that Native American blood running through my veins.

          1. Ken, that is a profound realization… what if “Japanese” IS a separate race, hmmmmmm! That would explain a lot about their cultural uniqueness and inability to communicate with other races. Maybe that’s what also gives them that sense of being superior to all other Asians, hmmmmm! Suddenly, I realized that I was guilty of treatment similar/yet opposite to what Japanese do to Gaijins. In my head, I knew what I was doing was likely very rude, but couldn’t stop myself… it was like I had an inverse-Gaijin reaction! Or maybe it was a pseudo hypocritical compound infarction of the brain… that’s all I can say about that (quote from Forrest Gump).

            1. “I knew what I was doing was likely very rude, but couldn’t stop myself…”

              I love that. Bud, you should have been a Japanese salaryman.

        2. That guy who seemed to be Japanese is probably from Sao Paulo. Brazil has the largest Japanese community outside of Japan…**

  5. Ura (back) Omotte (front) are both different. Japanese say nice things in front of you, but thinks the other way around. They’re very good at this. And yes, it also took them years of training! Haha. I am currently in Japan as a trainee & can now speak their language fairly well. I am used to an open-door policy type of system at my previous job. Meaning, if I feel the need to talk about something, I’d immediately bring it to the table. But this wasn’t welcomed well here. I’d talk to my leader about things that concern me at work only to be given a superficial smile and a lil “gomen” (sorry). It’s just up to that. If I were in the US, the leader will come-up w/ a resolution. Here? ‘eh, tomorrow is another day. Haha, well-played Japan!

    1. Agreed. Resolving problems isn’t exactly a strength of the Japanese. Pretending they don’t exist, on the other hand . . . problems? I can’t see any problems. Nope, no problems here . . .

  6. Yeesh, I guess you weren’t kidding when you said the good things and bad things about Japan are the same things, seeroi-san. Being an isolated/insolated country for so long has transformed the Japanese into a unique and interesting culture, but it sounds like they really do need to get out more. Friends of mine travel /work/teach in southeast Asia and China and while they do get attention for being foreign, it isn’t the same overwhelmingly (even offensively) patronizing way they say it is in Japan. My brother-in-law visited Tokyo twice for work and felt the passive aggression to be not-so passive. While this post was very well written and insightful it also really bummed me out. I’d love to hear that this was improving, if it is.

    1. And I’d love to tell you that it is. Unfortunately, uh, well. Tourists are flooding into Japan at historically unprecedented levels, spurred on by the weak yen. Ironically, most are Chinese and Korean. Seeing them on the street, you might think they were Japanese. Still, the news never fails to run pictures of white faces when they report about the influx of visitors. I guess Chinese people aren’t photogenically foreign enough.

      The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are also playing a huge role. They’re working like mad to slap English over everything, retool the city into a tourist haven, and incessantly repeating the buzzword omotenashi—be welcoming and hospitable (of foreigners). Bottom line is, Japan needs those tourist dollars.

      All this adds up to a widening divide between “us” Japanese and “them” foreigners.

      In many ways, it’s not the fault of the Japanese people, but rather Western visitors, who play up the role of country bumpkin in the big city. Y’all take off yer shoes and eat with sticks? Well, golly lemme remove these flip-flops and try that.

      Now, is this cause for bummed-outedness? I don’t know. Japan is changing rapidly, and I guess we’ll see what it becomes. All those foreign workers bolting together the Olympic stadium and nursing the elderly, they’re not tourists, and they speak little English. Seeing them on the street, you might think they’re Japanese too. And maybe in part, they are the future of Japan. Guess we’ll see.

      1. I think my brother in laws experiences would’ve been greatly improved if someone had told him before hand about the difference between Japanese people behind the counter, and Japanese people behind the wheel and on the sidewalks, plus the general naivete about people with different skin. Being a Dominican gentleman he’s of mixed race, but he took the occasional open look of disgust and revulsion at his presence rather personally. Understandable, but had he been prepped for guys throwing shoulders on the sidewalk or the occasional car swerving at pedestrians just to show they can, he might not have been so taken aback by it. He was very surprised by the switch you talked about, because the Japanese tourists he’d encountered abroad had always been so famously polite and deferential.

        1. Though I have to say I haven’t heard any stories along those lines from visits to cities other than Tokyo. City really is a baptism by fire, in many respects, and probably not the best place to get your first impression of the country, have to think many visitors to new York probably come away with similar feelings.

  7. There are some very negative comments above while I don’t think are called for.

    Last year I travelled to the US last year with four Japanese colleagues to visit a company we are partnered with. We were introduced as the group from Tokyo and most of the time I spoke Japanese with my colleagues. Not once did anyone ask why some white guy was from Japan and speaking Japanese. Americans just accept that sort of thing as normal.

    While I agree with everything you wrote I’m happy that I largely avoid this sort of thing. I hang out with indie bands both as a fan and musician and these people treat me totally different to “normal” Japanese. I’m never greeted with the standard questions, where are yo from?, how long have you been here?, wow you can speak Japanese, can you read kanji? I’m just someone into music just like them. Most of my friends don’t even know where I’m from. These people are dirt poor work shitty menial jobs to pay the rent and have few prospects in life, but they are far more open minded and accepting than the educated people I deal with in the corporate world.

    Here’s a nice story to brighten your day:
    Recently I arrived at a live (music) house and was greeted with “aaa, gaijin da”. My friend, ripped into him. Paraphrasing: “Everyone knows he’s a gaijin, you don’t have to say it. Imagine what it’s like for him, the first thing he hears is ‘gaijin da’ He’s not a gaijin, he’s my friend!”. I was so proud of her. I’ve never discussed this sort of thing with her but this 22 year old little blonde punk girl who dropped out of school, can’t speak English at all, can barely read Japanese, has never travelled overseas and works in girls bars – gets it.

  8. I’d love to see this show in the U.S., only done with people who looked “un-American.”

    We do. Its called Hollywood/TV. From “2 broke girls” to “Wrestling (wwe,wwf..)”, to Glee…..

    Its just the 21st century phenom of how “locals” deal with “foreigners”…whether in Japan or the US.

  9. That’s it, customer service! All along I believed that it was some kind of hidden historical caste system that was remaining in the culture even though cast system disappeared for quite some times in Japan.

    When I arrived in Japan, I was like: “I’m not gonna do what my fellow countrymen do; I’m gonna try to fit in the Japanese and use Japanese language at work”. As unexpected this ended up quite bad… Until that night where I was drinking with two friends and complaining about the fact that I have no clue on why it was not going well at work.

    Both have been living in Japan for a decade and have a quite good Japanese proficiency. Their reaction while I was complaining was something like that: “What???? Are you out of your mind speaking Japanese at work or writing email in Japanese? You need to stop that. Where do you think you are? A Japanese restaurant in the US? Here this is Japan so speak English at work! Even if they speak to you or write to you in Japanese, you have to answer in English.”
    Me, with rabbit eyes lighted up at night by some car headlight: “Why…?”
    Them: “1, you were not hired for your Japanese language level but for your skills. 2, you understand what they say in Japanese but they do not fully understand what you say in English, so this put you above them.” (There was a third reason about being able to make fun of them but let’s forget it.)
    Me: “Guys, that’s not nice to them. I don’t want to behave like an a-hole”
    Them: “Just try it and then come back complaining if it doesn’t work. Working in Japan is about treating people like an a-hole would do.”

    Annnnnnnnnnnd…..
    Yeah, it worked… pretty well actually.

    Not sure if it’s the customer treatment with the associated tatemae behavior or the remnants of an ancient caste system but I feel like the relationship Japanese people have with others can be resumed to the question “is this person above me or below me?” and then they will act accordingly (even if not sincere).

    Of course I am generalizing and not all Japanese people are behaving like that but I think that they are the exception and not the rule.

    1. If we don’t understand something about the British, we still find a way to make sense of their behavior without resorting to theories connected to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

      But somehow when it comes to the Japanese, we freely invent reasons for their behavior based upon vague notions of zen, purity, samurai, and misremembered reruns of Kung Fu. It’s not that complicated or mysterious.

      You’re spot on about work. Speaking Japanese there (and in many other situations) gives up your advantage and can engender resentment. Don’t go there. Also the notion that “Working in Japan is about treating people like an a-hole would do,” does ring true. And maybe not just at work either.

    2. The irony, right? But your strength is your non-Japanese experience which you can’t find in the market. It sort of saps all the will to study and learn the language (or that’s my excuse). Of course, knowing the language gives you all kinds of insights because you can understand the office gossip. Just as I have learned that all Japanese know some English!

  10. Remember, the Japanese word for “different” and “wrong” are essentially the same 違います. It also explains why the deru kugis keep getting smashed it. When they highlight the differences of gaijin, they are indeed reflecting on their perceived uniqueness. Good observation.

  11. I love your description of the customer concept. That’s spot on. Great article as always.

    And you do confirm thoughts I had on military style schooling. I feel that school plays a huge part in the way individuals fade to mold into Japanese society.

    I have lived with 3 Japanese children raised in japan with one more traditional family and one less so, and the only one who was sort of “in control/disciplined” was the one who was going to school. The other three were roaring engines doing all kind of inappropriate stuff.

    Stuff which is pretty normal for any young child to do, don’t get me wrong, but things that would have generated a response by at least some parents in the west, especially in my home country. So I though maybe these Japanese parents felt they did not need to coerce, the school would do it anyway.

    When I saw the school’s yearly party, it opened my eyes on the role of schools. Maybe a thousands kids marching in ranks, at the same pace, hundreds at a time waving flags or diverse objects, moving in a way that would remind anyone of North Korean pictures, not so much of anime or J-pop.

    All this, all day long, in the blistering heat of August/September with the sun reflecting on the dust turf of the school yard. A frying pan for me. Gambate Neeee.

    To top it all they did some human pyramid with a small boy and a small girl each climbing their own genre appropriate pyramid. 4 meter high, like three times their height maybe. Parents did not blink. The kid could have killed himself, or at least injured himself. Parents, in my home country at least, would have forbid the school to do this.

    The two children stood there in what to me was like a challenge to the world : “We are Japanese we can do this kind of thing. Would you dare?” And that split second I knew how WW2 Imperial Japan had been possible.

  12. Hello Ken.

    I really like your work.

    Yeah, I totally agree with this article, I was recently living with a few Japanese people in a sharehouse ( about 6 people ) , Everything was okay for about 2 months, we were drinking and talking like a lot!( in Japanese ) Then one morning, I got an email from my landlord saying that all the tenants have a problem with me. When I asked them what the problem was, I found out that the other tenants had entered my private room without my permission if I may add, complain that its a mess ( yeah so there were a few empty beer cans around who cares right? ), and also mention to my landlord all sorts of problems that they had with me, that they never mentioned to me. I mean f@ck tatemae, one day we are all drinking, laughing sharing secrets and the other day you find out that all of that was just tatemae. I ignored that bullsh@t and moved out immediately without telling em a thing. I like Japan and all but d@mn, f@ck tatemae straight to hell.

    1. Sound’s about right. These days I don’t even bother. Five years in and I can count the number of Japanese friends I have on one hand without using all my fingers. It’s just too much of a hassle not knowing where you stand. I used to think it was a language/cultural barrier that I could get over. Then I learned the language and came to better understand the culture. It didn’t help much. 😉 But I have been able to meet lots of cool people from other countries, which has been nice.

      1. Hi Danchan.

        Nah, I was living in Suginami. It was the type of sharehouse, where they tend to keep it 50% Japanese 50% Foreigners. Before I left there weren’t any foreigners though ( wonder why ).

        Anyway, yeah I also though that learning the language and culture would help, but no such luck. While it helps with everyday life stuff ( like ordering pizz.. I mean takoyaki, or chatting on Line ), getting asked the same questions, by like 90% of the Japanese you encounter gets maddening at some point.

        I still managed to make a few good Japanese friends though, the others are all foreigners from different countries.

  13. Amusing post Ken. Agree for the most part except for the assertion, widely shared, that service in Japan is great. I think it’s relatively poor and think most people (I guess I mean you) are conflating politeness with service. Service means you get what you want even when it’s difficult or out of the ordinary. Politeness is just being kind and respectful. Japanese have the politeness thing down pat, but the getting what you want thing? Eh, not so much. For a test, go to a very high end Ryoukan and ask for something from the kitchen at, say, 1:00am. Ninety percent chance you get a string of 申し訳ございません。。。。blah blah blah, the kitchen is closed, blah blah blah. You ain’t getting what you want, but man will they ever be polite! Now pay for an equivalent priced room at the Park Hyatt in New York and try that. You will get whatever the hell you ask for since their job is to give you what you want (ie service). Oh, you want a PBJ on marble rye with a bottle of champagne? Coming right up. Japanese staffs’ job is to very politely and kindly explain why what is clearly possible will not be forthcoming. Not service.

    1. A lot of this hinges on the definition of “politeness.” For me, politeness is a character trait, something from within. And I don’t really see it much in Japan. What I see are people who simply do their jobs correctly. But if they have no connection to the other person, then they often act shockingly badly, and I think that’s a better indication of how polite someone really is.

      I don’t mean to say that Japanese people are less polite than folks from other nations, but they’re certainly not more. Visitors simply mistake job performance for politeness.

      1. I still think that many Japanese have a Samurai complex. They are so fearful of getting whacked by the Teacher/Boss/Militarist/CEO/Leader that they strive mightily to put on a façade of perfectionism. The face planting and extreme nature of their honorifics system and stratifying their associations in elaborate pecking order schemes are all examples of the leftovers from the Samurai culture that existed for thousands of years. I think this false “politeness” is indicative of their survival instinct that is ingrained in the entire people. Soooo, they aren’t providing service to you, but to their condition and are not really so polite after all, because they can never know where the next whack will come from (just watch the end of 47 Ronin). In Japan having someone ready to chop your head off is actually a good thing because the pain from cutting your guts out IS actually something that your leader might make you experience… IF your not perfect.

  14. When Japanese people lie, they are called being polite. When Americans lie, well, get ready coz we are fake sons of bitches, superficial capitalistic pigs who only care about themselves. Not fair! Though I have to say, Americans definitely don’t ignore the homeless as much as the Japanese.

  15. Great post Ken. Heard a great Japanese saying tonight : the nail that sticks up a little will get hammered down, but one that is really sticking out no-one will dare try to hammer down.

    If you’ll never fit in no matter what you do, you might as well stick out so much the bastards can’t nail you down!!

    1. You know, I do think you’re on to something. I think that’s one reason some long-term expats succeed here. They’re just willing to take more chances than the surrounding population. It’s not always bad being the nail that sticks up.

  16. Great read. This line was most powerful for me,

    “The more we can keep defining “YOU” as unlike “us,” the more it reinforces our belief that we’re unique.”

    When you’re new in Japan that belief of being “unique” and a real “ikemen” is like heroin.

    1. You mean the drug that keeps people coming back until they’ve lost all their money, friends, and wrecked their lives? Okay, yeah, I could probably agree with that analogy. I’ve still got a vein in my foot that’s good, so gimme one more hit.

  17. I can get just as frustrated as the next person with aspects of living in Japan but trying to highlight that Japanese lie is a little too easy, isn’t it?
    Amazon’s got a phone line you can call and provide anonymous feedback on your co-workers. Many companies have stack ranking systems that promote co-worker sabotage. People go have drinks and slag off on their “friends” that they were just palling around with. It’s unfortunately a fairly widespread practice to say one thing to a person and then flip on them later.

    The longer I’m in Japan, the more I see similarities with the rest of the world. It’s just the Japanese aren’t as aware of the world around them.

  18. “Japanese people switch between these roles naturally and automatically, and take some delight in doing so.”

    I’d say that this is insightful and it made my interaction with Japanese more sense.

  19. Ken, you once again manage to convince me that Japan is a really shitty place to be. I think I will give up/drop the whole English teaching thing in Japan and look for something else to do besides trying to live in a country that will pull this sort of distasteful behavior.

    1. Maybe not a bad idea? I was chatting with an English teacher last night who has been here 18 years. He told me he sometimes feels like using his paycheck to buy a one way ticket out, but he has his wife and children to think about. Kind of a commonly recurring theme…

    2. Japan is a really shitty place, some of the time. And it’s a really great place, some of the time.

      The two are related, exactly as in other countries. Trains run on time because of strict bosses and a rigid society. Service is consistently good for the same reasons. The key is, you want to be the customer and not the worker. But once you start working here, all that changes. If you become part of the society, then you’ve got to take the bad with the good. Sorry, that’s just how it works.

  20. Hi Danchan.

    Yeah, Japan can be d@mn rough sometimes can’t it. Btw what are you working in Japan, I am personally working as a 3d artist.

        1. Hehe. Thanks. Well shader related technical talk can still do my head in, but generally both people in a conversation are experts, so as long as I’m reasonably on target they will understand each other without me needing to know what is going on. Kind of amusing but that’s the nature of specialized language I guess.

  21. Japan, like any other country in the world, has certain qualities which are valued over others. Coming from a Western perspective harmony is much higher valued than justice for example. People of island nations particularly could be considered “diplomatic” by their peers but “two faced” by those from cultures who value frankness more. Japanese society pressures people into not expressing personality through conversation as much as in the West too, so one outlet is to use fashion to make a personal statement. Wearing fashionable and unique clothes in some countries comes across as pretentious. Some people fit in better naturally with Japan since they share similar values with the “norms” and lots of Japanese who are more direct and bristling with confidence feel set free in a place like North America with it’s emphasis on self esteem (a fairly recent development which is increasingly being scrutinised) I agree that Japanese love to take people under their wing, but is this not just trying to be nice and not realising that they are just terribly inept, and out of practice, with dealing with foreigners? Are some foreigners encouraging them? Yes and yes. As a bartender in Japan for many years I met lots of non Japanese and in all the cases where people did their best to fit in, them seemed dispirited. The happiest non-Japanese I know in Japan, has been here 15 years and doesn’t even know right from left in Japanese. Basically though, when it comes down to it, life is a struggle no matter where you are. We all are doing the best we can with what we got and trying to compensate for what we don’t when we step outside that door. Blaming cultural differences can be an easy out but not the best way to get on with things. Plus we might be falling into the trap of confirmation bias where we only see the things we want to see. Which is exactly like calling the kettle black.

    1. Your assessment of Japanese folks seems overly generous but, well, okay. Everyone’s got a different take.

      But you certainly nailed it here: “I met lots of non Japanese and in all the cases where people did their best to fit in, them seemed dispirited. The happiest non-Japanese I know in Japan, has been here 15 years and doesn’t even know right from left in Japanese.”

      People studying Japanese and hoping to integrate into the culture should sit up and take notice.

      1. Completely agree. Integrating often means alienating yourself and thus unhappiness, unless you have a personality that melds perfectly with the Japanese social norms, which I don’t! By the time you are a grown up, you can’t switch completely to someone you are not or you alienate your older self from your new self.

        During my short yet immersive stay, I tried and failed. I started to enjoy myself a lot more once I gave up trying to mix in.

        In a way I think Japan needs this kind of disturbance, I mean foreigner not trying to blend in. We as foreigners do it a disservice trying too hard to adapt. Cause the rest of the world is not going to adapt to Japan, Japan will have to adapt.

  22. I see…so feign ignorance and you’ll always be the shiny new toy. I guess that could keep things interesting for a while…especially if they’re paying.
    A brilliant and humerous read as always Kenny 😉

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  24. An elderly man collapsed in a department store in Japan. I was there when it happened. Maybe the heat got to him – it was August. He was sprawled out on the floor unconscious. Nobody went to help him. Nobody. Two female clerks were hiding behind a rack of clothes and whispering “doshiyoo?” And a young guy, an employee as well, saw it and he just stood there slack-jawed then pretended to go back to whatever he was doing. That was when I walked over to him and forced him to call an ambulance. He picked up the phone and I went over to help the geezer. Who shows up? Not the paramedics but the store janitor who roused the old man and got him out of the store and onto the sidewalk.

    Another year another August and this time I am in a movie theatre back when double features were common in Japan. The lights went down and the film started and a middle-aged woman comes down the side aisle, stopped at what looked to be a fuse box and shut off the A/C. By the time the first feature ended everyone had their handkerchiefs out muttering “atsui desu ne.” I thought someone would mention to the management how hot it was but when the lights went back down I knew that wasn’t going to happen so I got up and forced them to turn it back on.

    I could go on and on with stories like this. Stories that involve heavily a pregnant woman in obvious pain making her way to a clinic and ignored by everyone but a lone gaijin, a mother franticly looking for her lost child in a department store ignored by everyone but yours truly, a man getting beat in the head on a busy street in front of everyone, a wife being beat by her husband in a public park at night, child neglect in my apartment building … yeah, this is how Japanese treat each other. But when you force them to act the “customer service” is really good.

    1. My old prof of Japanese business when I was an undergrad used to tell us these stories of life back in Japan in the late 60s when he was an exchange student there. One day he was on the train and noticed that another man on the carriage was breathing pretty heavily. Looking closer he was bleeding heavily, from what appeared to be a stab wound to the stomach. Everybody else was studiously not paying any attention, so he had to get involved and notify the train staff to get assistance to get him off the train and onto an ambulance. When he told his host mother when he got home he was scolded heavily for getting involved.

      Skipping forward to the Aum sarin gas attacks, but one of the reasons so many people died was because people on several of the trains just put up with the weird smell and wooziness without making much of a fuss or acting together to try and figure out what the hell was going on.

    2. But I thought the Japanese were a friendly, polite, and humble people? Ah, just kidding. Yeah, that sounds pretty familiar. I’ve heard the same stories hundreds of times. The wonder is how brilliantly the nation has been able to portray itself overseas, or at least in the West.

  25. Yeah, I’m of mixed Japanese heritage and that side of my family’s known for being cold and dismissive of each other and not keeping in good enough touch in the past, so since I’ve accepted that I can’t really get to know the Japanese people in my family, I could still get to know the culture to compensate.
    I remember the second time I went to Japan with my high school it was a tsunami relief program and what bothered me the most was that we were told we’d be doing volunteer work and helping along with “cultural exchange”. Most of what we did was go to seminars and lectures on “cultural differences” while being followed around by some news crew that kept interviewing us. I just noticed how image conscious they were being. They kept drilling it in our heads that we need to let everyone know how safe Japan was and that it wasn’t nearly as bad as the media had been portraying it and there was no reason not to visit the country once we returned to America. I felt more like our purpose there was to promote tourism rather than actually help people. We didn’t clean up debris, or like help make food for victims that were now homeless or something which is what I thought “volunteer charity work” had implied. We kept having to answer questions about what we were learning and and how bad we felt for Japan. I hope I don’t sound like a jerk, but the insincerity I sensed just made me feel less sorry than I initially had.
    When you’re mixed, there’s pressure to do things the Japanese way cause it’s the way you should do it, and if you don’t know the Japanese way, then your parents must have done something wrong. I remember my Japanese teacher (who was Japanese) lecturing me after class for wearing a skirt that was too short one day. When I pointed out that other girls in the class wore shorts shorter than mine, she said, “Having Japanese blood, you should know better than to present yourself that way.”
    Japanese always treat me different before they know that I’m mixed too. I was buying natto at the Japanese grocery store and the lady at the counter was so nice and friendly to my face, but talking to her friend in Japanese like “uwaaa she’s buying natto!? I can’t believe it a blah blah…” I wanted to be like, “Well yeah, my Japanese side’s from Ibaraki.” But eh, too much trouble. So, I just pretended I didn’t understand them.
    What was said about “service” in Japan is very true too lol.
    Since childhood, the last time my mother was in Japan was in the early 90s to bring her mother’s ashes and she had brought my father who she had recently married along. She told me how shocked she was to see that people weren’t as uniform as she’d remembered. That people were dying and spiking their hair, wearing different kinds of clothes, etc. The social culture she said though was very similar to how it had been in the early 70s like she remembered it. My mother and her sister were both born left handed, but only my aunt was made to use her left when she was very young since by the time my mother was born, my grandmother had learned that left-handendness wasn’t an issue in America. When my mother was eating at a ramen house, a server there very politely and gently took her chopsticks out of her left hand and placed them in her right. Anyway, my father was outraged at Mcdonalds when he couldn’t order a sausage and egg Mcmuffin…he to chose either just sausage or just egg and he called bullshit saying they could easily just put sausage on the egg between the bread and the lady at the counter just kept apologizing and apologizing helplessly.
    Idk how else to put it, but it’s like rules, protocol, regulations, etc. aren’t bent as easily or at all. Everyone is expected to the same thing the same way otherwise you get in trouble or ostracized because you were playing your instrument in the key of C while everyone else was is in D, or even if you just held a note for two counts too long. Not only did you make yourself look bad, but the main concern is that you made everyone else look bad, you inconvenienced them, you embarrassed them. It doesn’t matter how something is as much as how it appears to be. Thing is, when on our way back from this tsunami relief trip, everyone was like, “Japanese are so much better than Americans. They’re so friendly and don’t talk bad about pple.” I wonder if this kind of behavior among Japanese is harder to spot, cuz I just did not get that vibe at all even if that was the vibe people were attempting to give us there.

    1. Thanks for such an insightful comment. You covered a lot of ground, so I’ll just add a couple of thoughts.

      First off, yes, it is harder to spot bad behavior among Japanese people. Japanese folks are set to a constant simmer, unlike some counties where the population regularly rises to a boil. Looking at you, Italy.

      A lot of “friendliness” can probably be attributed to just being outsiders. It’s interesting to note that Japanese folks routinely rave about how friendly Americans are. Everybody shakes hands. They invite you into their homes. They smile and talk loudly, and nobody gives a damn about taking off their shoes. What a great country.

      Secondly, it can’t be understated what a big deal race is in Japan. Marking people as “foreigners” isn’t just a big thing; it’s damn near the only thing. News teams wander through cities looking for people who appear foreign, just to ask their opinions about “Japanese” things. In the West, you may be capable of hanging out with light-skinned black people without asking them which of their parents is white, but in Japan, that’s simply impossible. Maybe you could spend time with a person from India and not ask them how much curry they eat, but not here. Last night at dinner, I got:

      Where are you from? No, I mean, where were you born?
      Are you in the military?
      Wow, you use chopsticks well.
      Can you eat raw fish?
      Can you eat wasabi?
      Foreigners don’t like miso, do they?
      Americans drink a lot of whiskey, right?
      Wow, you like potato shochu? Don’t you think it’s smelly?

      This is one meal, and is pretty representative of my daily life. Eh, well, that’s Japan for ya.

      So being “half,” as they say, you might have a head start on understanding the culture, for better or worse. Probably good to focus on the positive, although easier said than done.

  26. If this article and the comments have taught me anything its not to take things at face value. Just because Japanese peoplemay portray themselves as polite and friendly doesn’t mean they are. You can’t always be nice. You can’t always be selfless. Sometimes you’re having a crappy day. Crappy week. Or a crappy life. The service/=/=politeness concept has been eye opening. I suppose it can be disheartening for people to learn that Japanese people can be just as rude/conniving/spiteful or heartless as westerners. Especially when so much effort is exercised as a whole to make it seem like they aren’t. They aren’t angels or gods so expecting them to live to such a high and arbitrary standard is unfair on them anyway.

    As a sidenote do you have any advice on how to control my temper when dealing with people that behave one way to me as a foreigner and act another way the minute I leave? Or people that blatantly talk about you assuming you can’t speak the language? I’m going to be working in Japan next year and I’m having serious doubts as to whether letting people know just how proficient I am will help (avoid trash talkers) or if it will remove my “gaijin shine” and just make my stay less enjoyable?
    Thanks!

    1. It’s important to avoid mythologizing Japan. The nation is mostly remarkable because it differs so starkly from the West. Which is to say that if you were born here, you’d go some place like the U.S. and be blown away by how insanely wonderful everything was—the people, the food, the sights. But that’s not entirely true, is it? America’s got lots of both good and bad, of course. And so does Japan. You’re just blind to it at first. It’s easy to mistake novelty for splendor.

      I’d actually say not to worry, because the “gaijin shine” is a pretty thick varnish. The ways in which Japanese people are rude is vastly different from the West, so frankly, like most foreigners, you probably won’t even know when people are treating you badly. If you speak only Japanese and hang out with a ton of Japanese folks, you’ll probably figure it out in a couple of years. Most people safely go home before that happens.

      Beyond that, perhaps it helps to understand people in terms of percentages. In your current life, out of all the people you meet, what percentage are wonderful folks that you love being around? How many do you think are utter idiots? And what percentage are just, eh, all right? I’d venture to say those ratios will persist here as well.

  27. I think Japanese lie to foreigners because its a way to keep out the foreigner. You can counter these lies with a strategy of your own making, but one that has worked successfully for me is the application of gaiatsu.

    I once applied for a job that had its head office overseas. When an outside company post a job thats inside Japan, invariably they (the foreign head office) will not know or understand very little about local Japanese culture or employment dynamics. They will post on the head office website, pictures of smiling happy people (all foreign) , promoting career progression, training etc. with few, if ever, any pictures of an office environment in Japan. Im well aware of this uncomfortable reality, so I called the branch in Japan, to see if they accept foreigners before wasting my time with nonsense. “Well, it would be difficult “they said, even though the posting was in English, on the foreign website. The customers are Japanese, the coworkers Japanese, and a gaijins presence might be seen as “jama”, or troublesome. They asked me where I found the job etc, and I told them I had applied through the main office, which was abroad. Suddenly, the conversation changed. “Well, its not up to us to decide or say no, please apply.” they replied.

    Not wanting to loose face or be seen as “Japanese only” they changed their tone. Ive come across this allot. If your ever faced with such a situation, gaiatsu is a very effective tool, but once you have successfully entered, then its more lies about how good your Japanese and English are, and how they wish they could speak English etc. You best be careful when you use English, however, as it can be seen your going behind your coworkers backs and not sharing inside information that you got from the foreign management. That puts you in a position of control, which is what they never intended when they hired you. This leads into another story, which is way too long to post here.)

  28. Well said. especially beautiful Japanese girl’s part was funny true story lol. there are way too different culture- nation and people are discriminate all others. it seems like same as Racism but they says “I am not a racist, I just discriminated it”
    You know what I mean?
    last time I visited Japan, the young pretty girl who works as a hair stylist said,

    “Oh wow are you living in US?such a scary place isn’t it?when I see Colored skin people( sorry just using this way to explain but she used other word) I feel I gonna get killed bc they are too scary to me”

    haha, innocent but those such words are hurting and making other race people piss off.
    but even thou she does not think that what she said was really bad.
    I don’t know why a lot of article says Japanese people are very friendly and kind and SHY.
    Really??? I don’t think so.

    well, don’t get me wrong I am Japanese and proud to be Japanse and I love Japan(mostly food).

  29. I think this is quite late post in this thread but just to put my thoughts in here. I have been working in Japan now for 17 years and hit upon this website via reference from someone at Japantimes. Now the reason why i was looking for this kind of topic was even though i work in a Japanese Megabank, the weird actions of Zombie workers is still beyond some of my wildest nightmares.
    Ken Seeroi Sensei has nailed it perfectly when he says the customer is anyone who is one rank above in workplace or social heirarchy. And the hundreds of years of Japanese social norms have churned out one Militaristic (read Bushido) coded rules for everyone where discipline and compliance to person above your stature should be honored even with your life (Read a stressed japanese committing suicide).
    Now why am i ranting this, because working and living in a japanese society is nothing more than living in a boarding school or Missionary school (Wouldnt compare to Military discipline though as those guys in uniform are atleast motivated to do what they do) where every child is afraid and insecure of the warden and just behaves,conforms, complies, lies, bitches, bullies which feeds on his uncertainity and insecurity about the society in which they live.

    1. Thanks for the message. I think it’s fine to comment on older posts, since most of the stuff I write isn’t really time-sensitive.

      Your likening of Japanese society to a boarding or missionary school sounds pretty spot-on, though I’ve never been to either. Never wanted to, for that matter. Which makes me wonder how I ended up there after all, living in Japan.

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