What’s Japan Like?

This is partly the tale of three Japanese women.

Erika Lives in Hokkaido

In the winter, she walks to the station past mountains of snow piled higher than her head, but she can usually get a seat on the train, and her apartment’s nice and warm, so she’s happy. Plus, she likes wearing high leather boots and flowing scarves. Erika’s into accessories. She works as a lab technician in a hospital. On sunny summer days, she walks a little extra to the next station, just to enjoy the trees and flowers, and because she likes how she looks strolling past the plate glass windows in a skirt. She has a small band of friends, and on weekends they sometimes meet by the river to drink Sapporo beer, listen to American hip hop, and barbecue. “I love steak,” she says.

Yoko Lives in Tokyo

Her apartment is so small that she has to crab in sideways to get past the refrigerator. She lives in a room the size of a closet that contains a futon, a tiny table with 6-inch legs, a rice cooker, TV, books, a small dresser, and a mirror. Yoko wishes she had enough room for a chair. In the wintertime, the apartment is freezing cold, and in the summer, baking hot. To get to work, she rides her bike 13 minutes to the station, occasionally holding an umbrella in the rain or snow. Then she waits on the platform 7 minutes and strands in a packed train with her body pressed against dozens of other commuters for 24 minutes into Shinjuku Station, where she transfers to another train after waiting 4 minutes. That train’s packed as well, but she only has to stand for 14 minutes, so she can endure it. Once she arrives, she walks 11 minutes to her job as an accounting clerk. She arrives at 8:42 every day.

Aiko Lives in Okinawa

She and her boyfriend share a quiet two-bedroom apartment filled with surfboards, wetsuits, dive equipment, and a cat. Before going to her job at the restaurant, Aiko frequently walks along the beach, and occasionally goes snorkeling. She drives fifteen minutes to work, singing along with English songs on the radio. Aiko wears shorts and beach sandals everywhere she goes. On her days off, she goes surfing, snorkeling, or body boarding with her girlfriends, and afterward they get lunch at a cozy patio cafe surrounded by hibiscus flowers. She raises a small garden outside of her apartment, and enjoys cooking with the tomatoes and goya that she grows.

Japanese Faces

Erika has a high nose and rounded eyes. “I guess my family has some Russian blood,” she says. Her hair is short and jet black, and her skin an almost translucent white. When she visited Tokyo, someone once asked  if she was “half,” which in Japanese is the polite way to refer to anyone who looks different from you. Erika once won a free trip to Greece in a lottery. She’s also traveled to Italy, Spain, and France, and spent a year abroad in the U.S., living in Georgia.

Yoko is a little plump, and her long brown hair is starting to fall out. She works 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, and sometimes overnight to meet a deadline. Her skin is pink and she smiles a lot. She also cries a lot. She has large breasts, which she hates because men often bump against them on the train. On Sundays, Yoko pays 4500 yen for 50 minutes of English class. She once spent 3 months backpacking around Australia, working on farms, and dreams of returning.

Aiko has brown skin, short brown hair, and brown eyes. When she goes to “the mainland,” waiters sometimes ask “Japanese menu OK?” She just laughs. Like most people from her part of Japan, Aiko’s family background is, as she describes it, “a stir-fry.” With her friends, she speaks Japanese, and with her mother, the Okinawan dialect. She has seven sisters and two brothers, “almost enough for a baseball team.” They get together twice a year to dance and sing traditional songs, and drink Orion beer. Three of Aiko’s sisters are married to American military men.

Lies we Tell Ourselves, and Others

Now, I often hear that “Japanese people are like this.”  And I guess you could complete that sentence many ways—pouty, terrible at conversation, motivated by fear—or just gloss it over and say “Oh, they’re so friendly and polite.” But the truth is, they’re none of those things. Everyone who’s ever written about Japan has lied to you, including me. Because there’s a truth nobody’s telling:

There’s no such thing as “Japan,” and there are no “Japanese people.”

But whoa, let’s back up a second, because here’s what I learned about Japan from the internet:

Japan is an island nation, a homogeneous society with a strong sense of ethnic and national identity.

And Japanese folks say it a lot too. “We’re an island nation.” Funny, I’ve never heard anyone from England, Australia, or New Zealand describe their country as such. Ah, probably just an oversight.

Now, I get it, Japan was once closed off from the rest of the world. But that was over a hundred and fifty years ago. Americans were fighting a civil war, with freaking muskets. France had just finished their revolution, and were busy writing all those dramatic songs for Les Miserables.

These days, the only reason there’s not a McDonald’s on every corner in Japan is because Kentucky Fried Chicken got there first. You can hop a plane and be in Korea, Russia, or Taiwan in under an hour. That’s less time than it takes to go from Dallas to Houston, Texas. Guess that makes Dallas an island nation. Wait, that’s Galveston. Whatever. My point is that Japan’s not some special Shangri-La cut off from the rest of the world. Even Japanese people don’t think of themselves as one nation. Tokyo dwellers consider Osaka a hick town. Hell, they discriminate against people from Saitama, and it’s half an hour away. People from Kyoto think themselves better than the rest of the universe, nobody understands what anybody from Tohoku or Saga says, everybody knows Okinawa’s not really Japan, and we all tend to forget that Shikoku even exists. Japan consists of almost seven thousand islands. How’s that one nation?

If little green dudes showed up from Pluto, they’d look at England and Ireland and say Eh, probably the same country. U.S. and Puerto Rico? Mmm, sure. The entire continent of Africa? Yeah, that’s one nation, definitely. Chicago and Hawaii? Uh, no relation. Sapporo and Kumamoto? Yeah, no there too.

What are Japanese People Like?

So when I say “Japanese People,” it’s really just a shorthand. It’s a simplified way of grouping together a really diverse group of folks. Okay, it’s a lie, whatever. It’s like saying “white people.”

Now, I grew up in the U.S. I’m “white,” from mixed European stock. And like me, Irish-Americans are white. And Italian-Americans, and Jewish-Americans. But no Italian dude’s ever looked at a Jewish guy and thought, Yep, he’s one of us. We know we’re all different. Somehow we just accept each other as white. French guy? Speaks French? Eh, he’s white. Spanish guy, speaking Spanish? Oh, you’re white. Mexican guy speaking English? Whoa, hold on a minute, ese. Lemme see your green card.

Japan’s the same way, only instead of white, everybody’s Asian. They know they’re not all the same. They don’t even look remotely similar, unless you’re so dense you couldn’t tell a Filipino-Japanese from a Korean-Japanese. But that’d be like calling both Greeks and Scots white, which would be crazy.

What’s Japan Like?

So what’s it like? Well, what’s Europe like? Is it Munich or Lisbon? Japan has mountainous alps and desert sand dunes, cities filled with millions of people, and fields overflowing with lavender. To tell one story without the others is to lie by omission. And Japanese people, what are they like? Well, there’s one more component, and that’s the observer.

Because the Japan you see depends on where you live and work, how old you are, what race you are, how much Japanese you speak, where you come from, and how rosy your coke-bottle glasses are. If you’re a 20 year-old Swiss girl, I’m pretty sure you’ll have a great time. I mean, I’ll personally guarantee you have a great time. But if you’re a 60 year-old Mongolian dude, well, uh sorry, no champagne and Calbee’s chips on my sofa for you.

So when people describe “Japan” and “Japanese people,” they’re really just giving you a condensed, simplified version, something easy for you to understand. Because the truth is that Japan’s all sorts of different things, with people so diverse that you could never capture them in a single phrase. All right, fine. Japanese people are all friendly and polite, humble yet possessed with a samurai-like work ethic. Plus, short, skinny, and impeccable dressers. See, now everybody’s happy.

70 Replies to “What’s Japan Like?”

  1. Thanks again for the good read Ken.The Japanese like to show the outside world that ‘they are different’ from the world but forget that they themselves are different from each other, too.

    ‘You can hop a plane and be in Korea, Russia, or Taiwan in under an hour’.It takes a bit longer than an hour Ken,lol!

    1. I know, right? It seems like it would take longer, but it doesn’t. Here’s what CheapOair has to say on the subject:

      Fukuoka to Busan, Korea: 55 mins
      Ishigaki to Taipei, Taiwan: 55 mins
      Sapporo to Yuzhno Sakhalinsk, Russia: 1 hour, 5 mins. (Okay, a skosh over)

      Dallas-Fort Worth to Houston Intercontinental: 1 hour, 10 mins

      For my next job, I’m gonna be a travel agent. Now there’s a career with a future.

        1. I teach English, which was my childhood dream, and what I went to school for. Apparently, I didn’t have much of a childhood.

  2. Ken, this was no CM, it was far far better than that. This piece is real literature and true wisdom all wrapped up together. I’m just speechless… thanks for this memorable read!!!

    1. Thanks, Bud. I sure appreciate that. I’ve been thinking about this for about a year, then finally got up at dawn this morning and wrote the whole thing out in about five hours. I figure I’ll edit it some later. Right now I really gotta take a nap.

      1. P.S. I really feel bad for Yoko and her cramped lifestyle. It must take a lot of perseverance to live like that. Your piece tugged at my heart strings for that woman and I hope things get better for her.

        1. Ah Bud, I can’t tell you how sad it is to actually witness how she lives. She comes home late at night, rides her bike past the Korean prostitutes in front of the station, then stops at the store for vegetables. She’s careful to pick only the most inexpensive. Then she continues home in the dark, cooks a pot of stew or curry, takes a shower, and goes to bed. In a few hours, she gets up and does it all again. There’s no end for her. I don’t know how she keeps going, other than she has to.

          1. Ken,

            I’ve been thinking a lot about Yoko over the last several months and was wondering how she was doing? I also found this article that talks about this new “Karoshi” effect that is hitting young females really bad in Japan now:

            https://ca.news.yahoo.com/death-overwork-rise-among-japans-vulnerable-workers-011205871–business.html

            If this is being filtered down to Reuters here in the US, then there might be hope that Japanese authorities are now being forced to act since it directly relates to the downturn in population growth. I hope things will look better for Yoko in the future, but also hope that the Japanese people and culture act to stop these kinds of abuses of employees by unscrupulous companies!

            Once again thanks for bringing Yoko’s situation to light, so that more people can be aware of this terrible tragedy developing in Japan.

  3. What’s really hilarious is that even their media isn’t exactly one single monolithic expression. Even ignoring subcultures, If you put 100 actors/talent/idols/whatever in the same spot they’ll all be different.

    Even in ridiculous groups like AKwhatever, there’s a variety there.

    But you wouldn’t know that reading most of the blogs about Japan or Japanese.

    (I’m not naming names, but there are a few that I’d like to take to task for this and a few other things.)

    Looks like I’m shaping up to be a regular commentator now.

    よろしくお願いします。

    1. Yeah, “take to task” is probably a bit soft. Hit upside the head with a bat might be more to the point, but I get what you’re saying. I can barely stand to read anything about Japan any more. It’s basically all fiction.

      And I’m glad to have you as a regular commentator. Keep up the good work.

      1. Hi Ken,

        Keep up the fantastic work.

        Haha yeah, the stuff that other people write about Japan is definetely all bullsh@t. I remember reading a lot about Japan back home, but when I came to Japan my first thoughts were, where the eff am I? My favourite one was about the panty vending machines. What about you Ken?

        1. Hi Joe,

          I would not go as far as calling “stuff that other people write” b******. It’s just one reality bloggers witnessed. And just like “Okinawa Japan” is very different from “Tokyo Japan”, we could get very different accounts of what “Japan” is.

          Yet I agree with you that we get a distorted reality of what japan is given the number of foreigners who live in a Tokyo type area. Most never met any Erika or Aiko. Luckily for the quality of this blog Ken has a far broader view.

          1. I think it’s important to note how magazines and profitable blogs (not this one) operate.

            Basically, you’ve got to produce content often and regularly. The more you put out there, the more readers you’ll attract and retain. News outlets operate the same way. This leads to a lot of recycling of content between sites, and reduces editorial scrutiny. Basically, anything you can get out there by Thursday’s deadline is going in, regardless of how true it is or how well the writer knows Japan.

        2. Oh man, I wish you hadn’t asked that. Such delicious bait. All right, I’ll bite.

          Just off the top of my head, and in no real order, here are some common lies about Japan:

          1. Japan’s high-tech. Once they invent home insulation and the InSinkErator, I’ll believe it
          2. Japanese people act out of some sense of “honor,” which is somehow connected to the samurai. Sure, and Spanish people are hard workers because they’re descended from conquistadors
          3. Japanese people are polite. Or more polite that you foreigners, anyway
          4. Japanese people are shy, and aren’t just being little bitches who don’t feel like putting forth the effort
          5. Japanese people respect the elderly. Tell that to the old guys sleeping in the park
          6. Japanese people value group harmony over the individual. Cue “the nail that sticks up gets pounded down.” Yeah, try wearing pink pants in the U.S. and see how far that gets you
          7. Japan’s an easy place to get laid if you’re a foreign guy. Let me guess: you didn’t go to a large state university in the U.S.
          8. Japan’s expensive. No, you just can’t read
          9. Japan’s safe. And that’s why they have trucks with loudspeakers driving through my neighborhood warning people about crime
          10. The yakuza are members of fearsome gangs and not just a bunch of high school dropouts

          I’d say definitely, the longer you’re here, the less it resembles anything like what’s written, in books or on the internet.

          1. Loved your article, and this list above is spot-on. I’ve been to Japan a few times and, as much as I enjoy visiting and adore my friends there, the mystique created by those rose-colored, cultural generalizations gets shattered with every trip over the Pacific.

            1. Yeah, I think it’s just easier to make generalizations about people. It allows us to put them in a nice, tidy box and, most importantly, distinguish them from us.

              The trouble is, of course, the better you know something, the more it defies succinct definition. I’ve met Japanese folks who were humble, and others who were arrogant. Some who were hard-working, and others who were lazy. Of course, everyone puts their best foot forward when they first meet you, like a Skype interview where you wear a suit and tie on top, and your underpants below.

  4. Great article Ken,

    As your State-side neighbour to the north, we Canadians get whitewashed as all the same, too. We don’t all love hockey, maple syrup, or poutine.

    Well, I suppose I love all those things…and so do my friends…and family — okay maybe I should’ve thought of different stereotypes to dismiss….

    1. Oh, you Canucks. You’re so cute with your toques, lumberjack shirts, and Brawny paper towels. I love your diverse country. Well, I mean Niagara Falls. Send me a maple leaf.

  5. Champagne and Calbees chips. Swedish girls have all the fun, but at least 60 year old Mongolians have their american BBQ chain. Great post as always, Seeroi-san. A very serious one to get off your chest. Is it Japanese Festivus, time for the airing of grievances? I’ll share one, I’d happily trade places with Aiko or Erika, feel bad for Yoko, though. Hope she bumps into my friend Kasey next time she’s in Australia, she wouldn’t let her go back, probably adopt her or something 🙂

  6. Seeroi~Sama

    I loved the Snickers Bar of literature, it definitely satisfied. (Snickers slogan, just in-case you have been out of the homeland for a bit! XD) I plan on moving to Japan once I graduate with my Physics Degree, Tokyo sounds like a nice place to visit but after reading all of your articles and comments on certain places… *drum roll* Okinawa sounds like the bomb! (No WWII jokes here) What place would you recommend for someone who was born in Michigan (I can handle the temperature) and has lived in Florida for the past so many years? Once again, your writing seems to always be kick-ass-er than the last! I loved your turtle saving from a while back, little stories like that are the most fun to read because the imagery really comes through in your writing to have a reader (like us) experience your awesome or not so awesome day. Keep on keeping on. \>~</

    ~Noah (^~^)v

    1. Well, I wouldn’t recommend Okinawa. It’s very spread out, you have to drive everywhere, and there’s a massive U.S. military presence. It’s really not like the rest of Japan at all. Tokyo, you’re right, is a hard place to live and a lot of folks come out looking like burnt toast.

      That still leaves a lot of the country though. There are tons of wonderful cities where you could live very comfortably.

        1. Hokkaido is a great choice. The people are generally more open and straightforward than folks from somewhere like Tokyo. In the summer, the weather is wonderful. In the winter, inside homes and stores you’ll also be much warmer than on the mainland, where it’s absolutely freezing due to the fact that most of Japan has yet to figure out home insulation. Outside, wow, there sure is lots of snow, but I’ve never had any problem dealing with it.

          In general, I’d recommend sticking to larger cities and avoiding the countryside, throughout Japan, where you can end up really isolated with little to do. A medium-sized city like Sapporo will do you right.

  7. Great article, I really appreciate the perspective. However… I do think there has to be some way in which we can usefully speak in generalities. Just because we recognize that there are individual variations within a population doesn’t render us unable to to generalize our statements at times. Part of the privilege of living in Japan is being able to get past those generalities and experience the uniqueness of individuals, but there are still some things that are generally true of Japanese people as a whole.

    This reminds me of a documentary I watched the other day on Netflix called “In Search of General Tso” which is about the Chinese American dish “General Tso’s Chicken”. In it they at one point state regarding “authentic Chinese cuisine” that it doesn’t really exist because of all the variation in dishes one sees in China, Taiwan and of course the US. And yet…I can still tell from almost the minute I walk into a Chinese restaurant in Japan whether it’s a Japanese Chinese restaurant or if it’s actually trying to be authentic Chinese. There’s just something about the combination of atmosphere, furniture and of course, the food, that comes together to form that distinct and yet intangible quality. Are there variations within that? Of course…but I still know it when I come across it.

    Another example might be language…just because there are variations within English doesn’t mean it is meaningless to speak of English as a language at all.

    An overemphasis on this perspective can lead to an inability to speak of anything in generalities at all, which is, to a certain extent, the entire purpose of language!

    I’m sure you have a more balanced perspective though and you were just making a point in one direction with this article.

    I love your thought provoking and hilarious pieces, keep it up!

    1. I agree with you. Without speaking in generalities, we wouldn’t be able to say much at all. But it’s equally important for readers to understand the scope of the variation we’re talking about, and in the case of Japan, that’s often lost. A lot of folks have never been to Japan, or have only visited for a short time, and may not understand how vastly different the regions and peoples of the nation are.

      Worse, there’s endless amounts of ink spilled over how “homogeneous” the society is. There’s a strong push towards nationalism in Japan, sprinkled with a bit of racism, that encourages people to think of the country as more unified than it actually is. This message is often being passed along unfiltered by the foreign writers who buy into it.

  8. One of your most important articles here, Ken. Bravo. A must read for anyone interested in Japan as whole.

    Generalizing is always useful to begin to understand or to write short posts. Not using it means writing long papers which may end up in a sociology thesis a few thousand pages long to get a fair picture of “Japan”(reminds me of the perfect job in Japan : a french sociologist spending several month a year in Japan yet working for a french lab).

    Provided context is well set, the problem rests in the reader’s mind, whether he understands or not the context. And this blog does a very good job at giving context.

  9. My take on the “homogeneous Japanese” idea is that it derives from the nationalist rhetoric that was sold to people a hundred and fifty years ago as part of national unification after opening up to the West. Those days are long gone, but the ideas were repeated so many times that they’ve never really died out.

    A hidden aspect of this is is a belief in uniqueness which may surprise an outside observer. For example, Japan is not just “AN island country”, it’s “THE island country”, somehow unique and different from all those other island countries. And it is this “unique islandness” that has shaped the unique Japanese character and society over thousands of years (at least, according to the myth).

    Similarly, a visitor to Japan may (okay, will) be surprised at some stage to be innocently asked “And how many seasons do you have in your country?” “…. umm, four?” you may reply. But for many Japanese, mythologically speaking, Japan is not simply one of many similar countries with four seasons, it is THE country with the four most distinct and unique seasons, quite unlike anywhere else (which goes to shape the unique Japanese character, etc etc).

    Nevertheless, if you are coming to Japan don’t get too worked up about all this. After all, folks everywhere have been sold myths of group identity and uniqueness as a way of getting them to function cohesively. I suspect that the Japanese pre-Meiji were a pretty fractious lot, and you don’t have to look too hard to find elements of that today.

    As for anyone coming to live in Japan, there are 47 prefectures with at least one decent-sized city in each of them to choose from. For me, I live out in the provinces – I don’t think I would last a week in a big city like Tokyo. My apartment is 50 square metres, insulated (yes, insulation has reached some parts of Japan), and not expensive to rent. I haven’t spent time in northern Japan, but southern Kyushu and Okinawa can get really hot in summer, so you need insulation and aircon for comfort there.

    Two questions the potential long-term visitor to Japan must mull over are: (1) Are you prepared to spend several hours a day for years of your life learning to read, write and speak a language that is only spoken to any extent in just one country? (2) What will be the exact nature of your existence in Japan? If your Japanese is not excellent, you are mostly limited to working as an English teacher (or otherwise as a high-level academic, scientist, business executive, etc, if you are very lucky).

    1. Well said. You covered a lot of points and all of them were right on. And I’m impressed you have anything resembling home insulation. It’s funny that you mention that Japanese see view Japan as “THE” country, as though it were the center of the universe. Because everyone knows that’s the U.S. Just ask any American.

      1. I think the insulation thing is one of those leapfrog affairs, like where Japan went overnight from pit toilets to spaceship control panel designs that require months of study to master.

        My theory is that the Japanese finally got the upper hand on insulation when someone ordered a building containing 36 karaoke rooms, each one perfectly sound-insulated from the rest. What works for sound also works for heat, so hey presto! This works well for apartment blocks, however I can’t speak for free-standing homes.

  10. Hey Ken! You probably get this a lot, but just wanted to say thanks for writing these articles! They’re always really interesting, funny and super well written! They’re also becoming a lot more insightful and relevant as I plan on moving over to teach English sometime early next year!

    I guess I probably won’t have too much choice on where I get placed for a job but I figure at this stage anywhere other than Tokyo would be good starting point to get out and see more of Japan. In saying that, Hokkaido is definitely sounding pretty baller again!

    1. And thank you for writing in. Well, we’ll see how many of my “insights” match your own after you’ve been here for a while. You’ll probably be like, That’s not what Japan’s like at all!

      And yeah, Hokkaido is a pretty good spot, if you don’t mind a bit of snow.

  11. Loving this article!
    I should refer to this one whenever I write “Japanese people” in my posts from now on. ;P

    You forgot to write that Aiko’s apartment has some frequent visitors all year round such as tiny geckos, roaches and poisonous snakes. ;P …. Nah, but I love Okinawa, just wouldn’t want to live there. ^^

    I think Japan is no exception to any other nation. Each region has their unique trades, unique food, unique dialects. It’s normal that you’re making fun of people from other regions. It’s exactly the same in most European countries.
    But people tend to forget this and it’s REALLY easy to see Japan as a homogenous group of people living on an isolated island.

    So once again, thanks for this great article, Ken! ^__^

    1. Since moving in to our apartment in Tokyo this year, we’ve had at least 3 (ie, that we’ve seen) yamamori lizards in various rooms. Maybe they migrate north from Okinawa to avoid the summer heat?

      1. There certainly is no shortage of creepy crawly stuff in Japan. Don’t get me started on the roaches. I think the reason they tear down the apartment buildings and replace them with new ones every few years is because it’s easier than pest control.

        1. Hi Ken.

          Aa yeah, a recently had one of those giant flying cockroaches in my apartment. Really hate those bast@rds! I assume with all those beer cans in your apartment you get a lot right?

          1. No, and no. I have a terrifying fear of all living things in my apartment which are not me. That includes most guests as well, actually.

            To be honest, I’m pretty clean, out of necessity. Not that it takes a lot of time to tidy up an apartment smaller than an American car. All beer cans get rinsed out immediately and tied up in a plastic bag on the veranda. I’ve had three terrifyingly large cockroaches come to visit over the years, and I’ve managed to catch all three and send them sailing over the balcony. They seem pretty slow, thankfully. Good luck with your home invasion.

  12. I laughed at the Facebook comments from various Japanese women who came in to tell their story (I am Yuki and…) and didn’t really get the point of the post.

    1. You know, I don’t see that on my FB page. Wonder why not. I swear I barely know how to navigate that site. If you have a link, I’d like to check it out.

  13. Hi Ken,

    Having now read most of this blog (and lost most of my productivity these last few days), I just wanted to thank you for the nice time. I thoroughly appreciated your writing and your perspective, especially about what seems “acceptable” when it is seen as a part of a definitely-not-like-ours culture (if that makes sense). I have to say that your pieces about Japanese dating gave me persistent waves of anxiety, probably because they remind me too much of my (admittedly short) dating experience in Japan and, well, let’s say Japan taught me what I was looking for in a companion. Culture can be like this sometimes.

    As a side note, before I start telling you my whole life, the prominsing-looking sidebar website The Japan Rants doesn’t seem to exist anymore.

    1. It does seem to have disappeared. Ah, another one gone…

      Sounds like you’ve had some interesting experiences. I’d like to hear more, actually. And yeah, I think there’s a lot more that could be written about the realities of dating someone from this culture.

  14. and they all spend 12 years in a centrally directed and highly controlled education system.

    My experience of touring Honshu is the culture is completely different all over the place. In Nagano, the shishimai dance has three hand claps and they turn clockwise, while in Niigata they only clap once and turn anti-clockwise. Further west in Hiroshima they don’t do the turns at all.

    Don’t get me started on the huge variation in ramen throughout Japan.

  15. Ken, amazing piece as always. I can marry you just by reading your pieces)))
    Now, back in business. As a holder of diploma in Japanese studies and studying everything about Japan including the language, history, Japanese mentality etc etc for 5 years straight everyday… you are so right about ” the longer you’re here, the less it resembles anything like what’s written, in books or on the internet”. If somebody told me about real Japan before I actually entered the university… maybe I would never make my choice towards this country.
    What surprised me a bit about this piece of yours… it’s kind of going against the whole “Japanese rule of 7” concept. You tend to generalize and write about Japanese in a way: they are this way, and if you are here… they will be doing certain things, and overall Japanese folks are A, B, C, D. I hope you understand what I’m talking about… but this piece is kind of telling that “wait a bit. Japanese people are all different”… at least thats how I read it. And, although you are right on that they look differently, have various preferences and different lifestyles… they are quite robotic in thinking, responding, talking and acting… At least I think this way.

    1. No, you’re right. That’s the challenge of making simple observations without footnoting everything. We have to generalize just to make sense of the world. So we can note that Americans in their 20’s all have tattoos. And on a macro level, that works. It just doesn’t work on an individual level, because I actually know one girl who doesn’t have a tattoo. Okay, a visible tattoo. Well, I’m sure there’s somebody.

      The inaccuracy magnifies, however, when we start to draw inferences from the observations. All Americans have tattoos, therefore Americans must place group conformity above individuality. And Americans are robotic in their thinking.

      Now, is that wrong? Certainly not entirely. There’s a kernel of truth to it. But neither is it entirely accurate. What it is, really, is a convenient, short, observation that sums up a more complex reality.

      Okay, too deep, whatever. I guess here’s what I mean: I know I’m being glib when I say that “Japanese people are…” Because it’ll never be entirely true*.

      *Just read every sentence as finishing with the disclaimer: Some restrictions may apply. See reverse of package for details.

  16. Hello Ken,

    This is probably not the best thread to post on but I have a question.
    I recently just quit my job, got a room in a share house in Tokyo and I am planning on coming on a 90 day visa first to chill for a week or so and then get serious about finding a job. Now for the simple question…. Am I crazy for doing this and according to your experiences what do you think my odds are?
    p.s. I should add that I have been to Japan and Tokyo 4 times in the last 6 years and I am very familiar with the culture, geography etc. except my Japanese language skills are novice at best
    Thank you! feel free to be brutally honest haha

    1. Sorry for the late reply. It’s hard to balance writing and web site maintenance with all this boozing and womanizing. So busy these days. But on to your question.

      To be brutally honest, I think you’re doing a great thing. It’s not unlike what I did, and look how well things worked out for me. Wait, okay, well anyway, you’ve got a good plan.

      And when I spread out the tarot cards, I see only three challenges lying in your future. The first is money. If you’ve got a comfortable cushion of cash, things will go a lot better because, well, they always do. Money changes everything. Remind me to write a song about that.

      The second challenge is more subtle, and has to do with disillusionment. Like you, I’d been to Japan many times (seven) before I moved here, and also thought myself very familiar with the culture. Be careful of that, because there’s more to McDonald’s than just eating a lot of Happy Meals. Once you get into the kitchen, it’s a whole ‘nother story.

      It takes a super long time to understand Japan, because so much of the country is based upon putting on false fronts. You’ll need to live, work, and travel here for a few years before you start to see what’s really going on. Speaking Japanese is indispensable in this regard. Don’t worry, that’ll only take you a decade or two.

      Which brings us to the third card, which has a bunch of eggs piled in one basket. Rather than committing entirely to this country, it might make more sense to plan on spending a year or two here, a year or two in Cambodia, then some time in Korea . . . there’s a lot of cool places in the world. Maybe some even better than Japan. Just saying.

      1. Thank you kindly for your reply Ken!!!
        So I kinda forgot to check and see if you did reply but today I saw it and thought I would provide an update. I since have actually moved to Tokyo and have been here for 10 days now. Many of the things you say are true and there is a lot for me to learn. With this being said since I am here now I basically do need to find a job asap. I have no visa so I’m hoping on a miracle to find someone willing to sponsor. I have enough money for 3 months as long as I don’t blow all my money on beer and shopping :/
        Any advice on the best way to find a job?
        Thanks again!

        1. Welcome to Japan. The first 10 days are magical. Wish I could remember them.

          For job searching, the internet is your friend. Make sure you’ve got a resume with your picture in the upper right and your name, Japanese address, and Japanese phone number in the upper left. Then start sending that bad boy out.

          Pounding the pavement and networking don’t strike me as very effective in Japan. I’d invest my time looking online and creating a bulletproof resume.

          Keep me posted on the job sitch, and feel free to include your first impressions of Japan. They’d be interesting to hear.

          1. It has been quite magical I won’t lie. I made a lot of friends already, ate great food, drank lots and spent way more money than I had anticipated which is scaring me.
            I have hit the pavement to try and network and meet people but as you said it’s not been very fruitful. My next step as you advised is to hit the internet hard and eat some onigiri for a few days as to make up for all I spent so far. Will keep you posted. What are your thoughts on recruitment agencies btw? and also any advice on the best places to job search online most relevant to Tokyo?
            Thanks a million!

            1. Man, that’s great. Sounds just like my first days here. Actually, about a year, one really expensive and boozy year. You’d be wise to set up a budget and not revise it at 11:30 p.m. when everybody says “Let’s go to karaoke!” Just saying.

              Recruitment agencies? They can be a powerful ally, so definitely give them copies of your resume. But make sure you’re not paying them. Their fees should be paid by the hiring company. If they want money from you, it might sound a bit scammy.

              For websites, I’d look foremost at Gaijinpot Jobs.

              Good luck, and again, keep me posted. Now who’s living vicariously through whom?

  17. Hmmm. Erika sounds like a lot of fun. I also am not a fan of hot humid summers. I loved my staying in Tokyo, I had an internship there for 3 months through an organization called AIESEC at http://iday.biz/japanese/. Living in Hokkaido sounds like a lot of fun.

    1. I think it would be. I’ve visited often but never lived there. A buddy of mine was in Sapporo for two years and spoke highly of it. Probably helps to like snow. A lot of snow.

  18. This is, probably, the best entry I’ve seen in your blog. Thanks a lot for sharing your experience. I would love to one day be able to travel a bit.
    Sincerely from a central-american fan.

  19. Hi Ken,

    Sorry for the late reply … I guess I got a little sidetracked. All this beer yakitori and fast life had me spending and not paying attention the time passing. So it’s been a month now and still loving it. I just read your latest post about salaries and general finances and I must admit that from the native Japanese friends I’ve made so far it seems to be a common trend to live in poverty, yet, no one looks poor haha all definitely have nice clothes and haircuts. I have been spending more than I should be and my budget is in deficit lol. Some days have been a bit lonely though, it’s funny because Tokyo is such an exciting place with so much to do and what seem like endless possibilities but somehow at the end of the day I always come back with and empty wallet and a headache the next day. I have made small strides in my job hunt and am currently waiting on one employment opportunity.
    I would be curious to meet you one day if you’re around Tokyo. Anyway hope all is well and talk soon.

    1. Ah, you sound like you well and truly live in Japan. Welcome to the club. Now all you need is a really hard job and a couple of gals to worry about for the full experience.

      Yeah, that thing about coming home to an empty place with and empty wallet after a night of fun—that’s part of it too. I was talking to a Japanese guy on Friday night who said the entire reason he got married was that he turned 40 and decided he could no longer face his dark, cold apartment.

      Actually, everything you said seems spot on. I’m going to be really interested to hear how this unfolds in the next year or two. Good luck with the job leads. Stay on that, hey.

      I’m taking a break from Tokyo right now, doing some traveling around our great nation. (Which is something you really ought to do once you get your finances sorted.) I should be back, at least for a visit, in the coming months, and would love to hang out. Cheers.

  20. I just discovered your blog and every post I’ve read so far rings so true about Japan. ROFL

    “People from Kyoto think themselves better than the rest of the universe…”
    My current girlfriend is from Kyoto and having lived there, I’ve accused her and her friends of the that exact same thing! (Of course, they unequivocally deny it. ) Kyoto women bring a whole new meaning to high maintenance. I was thinking that it’s in their DNA since Kyoto was the center of the Japanese universe for a 1000 years.

    In any case, your blog should be turned into a manual for corporations sending their employees to Japan. Start contacting the HR departments of the Fortune 1000 companies. Sell the info to them.

    This is a killer blog about Japan.

    1. You know, I know I’ve said it before, but that kind of encouragement and support really means a lot to me. Thanks, seriously.

  21. Ken,

    Long time reader, first time commentator (I think…) Just want to take a moment to thank you for this awesome blog and your amazing sense of wit and humour. I really respect how you take the time to actually respond to every person who comments, as well.

    I’m leaving for Japan for the first time to visit in less than 18 hours now. It’s been a dream since I was 16 – one that began with anime and video games and with me donning the same rose-tinted glasses your writing offers to shatter. Luckily, I’ve since discovered that I like other things about Japan. Maybe I just needed a bit of growing up to do. Your writing always reminds me of some important life lessons I’ve learned on the way as well: at the end of the day, you’ll have a better time if, as you say, you can enjoy the food you eat every evening, and the cheap beer.

    Anyways, I’ll be leaving from Montreal on my flight in a few hours. I hope to enjoy myself and, in the case that I do, I hope to return there for a longer sojourn. Along with other things I’ve read in addition to your suggestions, I’ve decided that if I do end up in Japan for anything longer than a short trip, I’d really like to settle in Sapporo. Everything about that region – nature, the laid-back nature of people, fresh food etc. – seems to fit more with my idea of enjoying life.

    Anyways, sorry I got carried away there with my excitement. Thanks, once again.

    1. Hey excellent. I’d love to hear your impressions, what with fresh eyes and all.

      And I think you won’t go wrong with Sapporo. The city, I mean, not the beer. Although the beer’s good too.

      1. Oh, I was going to save you the embarrassing over-excited first-time-visitor drivel. I imagine you get a lot of that already: the first impressions of people simultaneously orgasming over how awesome Japan is the first time around when you’ve saved the money you made elsewhere and planned your trip with the intention of being irresponsible while having fun. Hey, I’m no different.

        But if you are in Tokyo, I’ll be there over Golden week. Made sure to plan the other places I’m visiting – Tohoku, mostly – and finish the trip in Tokyo over Golden week so as to avoid the crowds.

        It would be great if I could meet you for a beer. Hey, I’m not a beautiful Swiss blonde but I’m probably your only Indo-Canadian fan and I could share stories of my first 20 years living in India, if it interests you.

        1. Actually, one of my cousins is Indo-Canadian. I doubt he’s a fan since he’s got no interest in Japan, but still it’d be cool to meet you. Unfortunately, I’ve relocated the Batcave outside of Tokyo on a semi-permanent basis, so getting together’s probably not a possibility this time.

          I might be able to guess your first impressions of Japan, since we’re all primed to see it a certain way. You walk into Disney Land and Boom! there’s Cinderella’s Castle, just like you saw it in your dreams. It’s pretty stunning, Nippon. Thought it pays to remember while you’re talking to the giant mouse with white gloves that, inside the costume, there’s an entirely different person.

          That being said, I’d nonetheless be interested in what you’re witnessing, and how it strikes you. Now’d be a good time for you to start a blog, just saying.

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