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.
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.