Fantasy Japan

2004, now that was a great year. It was the Golden Age of Japan.

I was on my seventh trip here, crisscrossing the nation by high-speed shinkansen in search of small, traditional restaurants, ancient temples, and women with long black hair and short skirts. By then, I figured I knew the country pretty well, spoke a few words of the language, and was seriously contemplating just sleeping on the beach and never returning. I was in love with Japan. It lived up to all of my expectations.

Nothing was better than eating dinner in an authentic Japanese restaurant. I had a favorite one, where I’d slide open the door, hear a welcoming irasshaimase followed by a consistent double-take at the fact I was white. Then I’d slip off my shoes, sit on a tatami floor and eat the most amazing sushi with a small bottle of sake, surrounded by wood, bamboo, and rice-paper partitions. The waitress always helped me read the menu.

“I’d like this, please,” I said. “The sushi combo.

“Um,” she replied, “you’re pointing at grilled chicken skewers.

“Yes, exactly,” I said. “That’s what I’d like, chicken skewers. And some sushi.

“Sushi’s on the next page.

“Oh. Of course it is.

“So the sushi combo then?

“That’d be great.

“Still want the grilled chicken?

“No, not really.

“Be right back.”

Understanding Japan

Okay, let’s do a little exercise. By which I mean “think about stuff.” I don’t even know why it’s called exercise since it does exactly nothing to help you lose weight. Whatever, it’s easier than push-ups, so here we go:

1. Complete the following sentences in as many ways as you can. But don’t take all day. We’ve got stuff to do, you know.

Japan is . . .
Japanese people are . . .
Japanese culture values . . .

Give it a shot. You need the exercise. Then when you’re done, it’s my turn. So let’s see . . .

Japan is safe. Japan’s clean. It’s high-tech. Peaceful. Hey, that’s a pretty good start.

Japanese people? Hmmm. Shy. Polite. Short. Humble. Hard-working.

Japanese culture values . . . harmony? Nature? The elderly? Interconnectivity.

Whatever you came up with, it’s all good. Don’t get bogged down with the details, cause this’ll all make sense in a minute. Maybe. Now, here’s the next part, and if you’ve got half a brain, it should be a no-brainer:

2. Think of as many images of Japan as you can. You can take a little longer, since we saved time in the first exercise.

Again, my turn. See, isn’t it fun when we work on stuff together? Just say yes. Here goes:

Sushi, kimonos, koi fish, temples, manga, anime, karate, tofu, green tea, geishas, rice, chopsticks, kabuki, overcrowded trains, red umbrellas, cherry blossoms, hot springs, bamboo, zen, businessmen in suits, schoolgirls in uniforms, kamikaze, atom bombs, sake, sumo wrestling, sitting on the floor, taking off shoes, bowing, origami, white cranes, tiny apartments, miso soup, Mount Fuji, Starbucks.

Okay, Starbucks was a wildcard, but Japanese people do love their coffee, that’s for sure. Anyway, that’s just off the top of my head. I could do this all day, and I bet you could too, because it doesn’t matter where in the world you live—-accurate or not, everyone’s got images of Japan.

Okay, last part of the exercise:

3. Think of as many images of Slovenia as you can.

I can actually do this, thanks to Japanese TV. Because I was having a beer and flipping channels, just getting in my workout, when this show about Slovenia came on. Turns out it’s a beautiful country, with great architecture, friendly people, and delicious food. Slovenians eat a lot of bread; I think that was my conclusion. Who knew? Slovenia: we like bread. I believe that’s on their flag.

And then I started wondering. Why didn’t I know anything about Slovenia before? Or about Sri Lanka, or Bolivia, or Madagascar? And then I remembered: Oh, riiiight, because I’m American. But somehow even I know about Japan. Everyone knows about Japan, land of the rising sun. It even comes with a sound track, the plucking of koto strings, sound of running water, and that lone bamboo flute playing in the background. Which is strange, because I hear signal bells clanging at train crossings and the deafening hum of cicadas, but zero flutes. Eh, probably just my neighborhood.

Fast-forward Ten Years

I happened to pass by that authentic restaurant again recently. Turns out it’s on the first floor of a massive, gray apartment building. Somehow before, I never stepped back and noticed it from the outside. It made me wonder how the people living above deal with all that chicken smoke. I bet their laundry smells delicious. In fact, the entire first floor of the building was taken up with similar places.

Workmen were putting in a new restaurant next door. I looked in, and it was just a blank concrete space: a long, empty box. But already they were installing a wooden counter, and soon they’d add some tatami flooring, a fish tank, pictures of pine trees, and hang red paper lanterns at night to transform the gray concrete hole into a perfect replica of a traditional Japanese restaurant. And I thought, that’s interesting, seeing people stamping out this image of Japan.

And suddenly I felt like when I’m in Las Vegas, and have to remind myself that I’m not actually in Venice. That isn’t a real canal. Those stone walls are made of plastic, and the sky’s just painted on the ceiling. But this actually was Japan, and those workmen were Japanese people, yet they were busy fabricating this empty space into something that would appear more “Japanese.” The way you’d expect Japan to look. So that was weird.

Pictures of Japan

I really admire photographers in Japan, because you’ve got to angle the camera just right to capture an ancient temple without including the colorful giant plastic children’s play castle in front. When snapping a shot of a quiet tea house or a zen garden, you’ve gotta be careful not to back up too far, otherwise all the power lines, cell phone towers, and office buildings come crowding into your picture of tranquility. Or I guess you could just Photoshop them out. Photography’s an art, for real.

What’s Japan Like?

99 percent of everything you’ve ever read about Japan is wrong. To call it a pack of of lies would be a bit cliché, so I won’t. Plus that’s French, not Japanese. But still, every morning, I wake up and ask myself, “What is Japan?” Of course, that comes after I ask, “Jeez, Seeroi, why’d you drink so much shochu last night?” And every day, the answer is less and less clear. I guess I just like booze, that’s all. And girls with fake eyelashes and padded bras, apparently. But Japan’s complex too.

Japanese Public Relations

Understanding Japan requires de-programming yourself from all of the beliefs you were taught about it, and trying to see it without that false front. Because it’s easy to find a little shrine in the forest and say, Wow, Ken Seeroi was wrong. Japan really is mystical. Then you walk ten feet and there’s a pile of discarded refrigerators and bicycle parts. See, if you can’t trust Ken Seeroi, who can you trust? But me too, because although I’ve lived here for years, on three of the five islands, I still occasionally view the nation through the lens of preconceptions, rather than for what it is. It’s hard to forget the propaganda, all those images of how the country and people are supposed to be.

So then which is it? Is Japan a nation that values harmony with nature, or a country that’s mindlessly pouring concrete over every hillside to stop the incessant landslides? Is it a high-tech neon marvel, or a place that has yet to invent home insulation? A nation where people humbly bow and respect others, or where an old man passes out in Ikebukuro station and commuters step nimbly over his lifeless body in a rush to make their trains? Hey, it wasn’t our fault he dropped right in front of the ticket gate.

The answer is probably a little of both. Japan’s certainly not some mysterious land imbued with ancient rituals. Nor is it a futuristic society with singing toilets. That’s just hype. I like Japan, I really do. Any place I can get a hot dog and a beer at four a.m. is all right in my book. But I had to recover from all I’d been told about “Japaaaan,” the mysterious Orient, in order to start understanding the real place I was living in. Turns out, it’s exceptionally unremarkable. Maybe the most amazing thing is, for such a small country, how much PR it generates. I mean, China’s ten times the size and all I know about that place is they invented beef with broccoli and special wonton soup.

You gotta wonder where the Japan hype came from. Personally, I blame Bruce Lee. He convinced the world that Asia was cool and mystical and got an entire generation of kids to sign up for karate classes. Like a guy who weighs a hundred pounds could somehow beat Chuck Norris. Please. But if you can’t trust Bruce Lee, well. Whatever, back to Japan. Foreign people seem inclined to inflate and glorify cultural differences. You sleep on a futon? How exotic, spending the night on the floor. Eat fish without cooking it? Well, that’s certainly progress, not using fire. And Japanese people are happy to bolster this image. Even they believe it. Japan’s special and everywhere else isn’t? Well, if you say so. So together we all weave this fantasy image of canned Japaaaan, like The Olive Garden serving Itaaaalian food.

Stars in the Land of the Rising Sun

The first time I saw a sumo wrestler talking on an iPhone, it seemed wildly incongruous. Like how can the dude have a cell phone when he won’t even put on some decent spandex shorts? I mean, cover up your huge ass already. Nobody wants to see that. But yeah, even sumo wrestlers get phone calls, and it was an iPhone 4, so perhaps the ancient traditions still prevail.

And then I was near a temple recently, just after it closed, crossing through the dusky parking lot to get to the convenience store. And a monk in brown robes hurried by me. I imagined he was going to sit cross-legged before an altar and chant all night until he reached enlightenment and dawn broke. Maybe there’d be a flute playing, finally. But instead, he just hopped into a Toyota, lit a cigarette, and drove off. And for some reason this reminded me of that guy in Texas who wears a cowboy hat and boots even though he can’t tell a skinny cow from a fat goat. When the stars come out, he doesn’t sit by a campfire eating beef jerky and singing to his herd. Maybe James Taylor does, but everybody else goes home, microwaves a pizza and watches TV like a normal human being. And I’m pretty sure monks do to. Welcome to Japan.

87 Replies to “Fantasy Japan”

    1. Yeah, that’s pretty much the third question I ask myself every day. I’m just not sure I’m prepared to invest another decade in yet one more new country and language. Probably best just to make Japan work from here on out, somehow or other.

        1. Two on a good day. Plus maybe enough Spanish to order tacos and enough French to be able to pronounce Bordeaux. I could’ve learned two or three “normal” languages in the time it took me to get halfway decent at Japanese.

  1. Before your post, my answers were thus:

    Japan is . . . beautiful.
    Japanese people are . . . interesting.
    Japanese culture values . . . tradition.

    Now, I’m left with:

    Japan is . . . deceptive.
    Japanese people are . . . liars.
    Japanese culture values . . . dishonesty.

    Just kidding.

    As for images:

    Bamboo, Mt. Fuji, suicide forest, Akihabara, ninja, samurai, sushi, love hotels, kimonos, koi, temples, castles, shrines, public baths, washlet, squid, tako, rice, chopsticks, over-crowded trains, pedestrians, sakura, onsen, school uniforms, kotatsu, rice wine, sliding doors, sitting on the floor, taking off shoes, bowing, origami, tiny apartments.

    I’m sure that at least half of these images do actually exist, so I’ll be happy enough when I get there.
    Regarding Slovenia, I’m half-certain it used to be Yugoslavia, and I’m acquainted with people who came from Yugoslavia before the name change and they refuse to accept the new name. I mostly picture pale-haired people, flowers and fields, and lots of booze. Then again, I am seeing it through their eyes.

    “But this actually was Japan, and those workmen were Japanese people, yet they were busy fabricating this empty space into something that would appear more “Japanese.” The way you’d expect Japan to look.” –This is true of everywhere. Here in Texas, new restaurants and bars go up all the time to cater to what people think Texas venues should look like, complete with horseshoes on the walls, giant Texas stars near the bathrooms, license plates hanging everywhere, and beef jerky for sale near the register. I hate beef jerky. When I lived in Colorado, this was also true. Everywhere a place went up new, but looked like an old log cabin or hippie commune.

    “And for some reason this reminded me of that guy in Texas who wears a cowboy hat and boots even though he can’t tell a skinny cow from a fat goat.” – And these guys are so easy to mock, it’s like a cruelty to bother anymore. Like teasing a 2 year old. Even though, for the record, I’ve never worn cowboy boots (wear sandals year-round), own one pair of Wranglers via Goodwill (rest of my pants are capris), my hat is made of black straw and been worn twice (the first time as a joke, the second at Halloween), and country music sounds like a cat dying a slow but somewhat casual death. My point… Japan isn’t the only place that suffers from ignorant stereotyping.

    As long as there’s half-naked, buff samurai with a thing for unusual women on every other corner, I’ll be fine. That’s true, right? Please, for the love of all that is holy and dipped in chocolate, tell me it’s true.

    1. Japanese men? Oh, absolutely world-famous for their charm, humor, and rugged masculinity. French men want to be them. Japan’s a virtual paradise for single foreign women. No doubt you’ll be thrilled with the rich selection of potential partners.

      Sandals year-round? I’m guessing Austin. But maybe Corpus Christie.

      Yeah, Texas. The Lone Star state. They’ve got hype pretty well dialed-in. Cowboy boots, belt buckles, ten-gallon hats, longhorn cattle, 72-ounce steaks, the Alamo, gunslingers, the open range. Yee ha.

      So maybe if that seems deceptive, well, then when you come to Japan, best hold on to your hat.

      1. I’ll take 47 seconds to be serious and admit I have zero expectations when it comes to opportunities to speak to Japanese men. Well… that’s not true. I do have expectations. 1) They will pretend to not hear me and move quickly away. 2) They will only approach me to practice their English, unless they are afraid of scary American women. 3) They will secretly be yakuza who will kidnap me and sell me into wife slavery, promptly deporting me to the Philippines to marry some smelly, fat guy with a nasal drip issue. So yeah… basically, I have no delusions of meeting Prince Charming or even Prince One-Night-in-Love-Hotel. I’m just looking forward to the scenery, be it faux, nouveau, or really damned old.

        Then again, I might get groped on the subway, so there’s that to look forward to.

        North of Austin, actually. I grew up in Colorado, so Texas winters are for sissies. Sandals and capris all the way. Socks are over-rated.

        1. Oh, you’ll see some amazing things here, for sure. There’s real, faux, old and new. Know how people make fun of Asian tourists for wearing cameras and taking pictures of everything? That’ll be you.

          And thanks for mentioning the yakuza. There’s another great image. I always think of them as on par with the union workers in the U.S. No disrespect to union workers either. It’s only that, for some reason, when we put the same organization in Japan, somehow it seems far more glorified and mysterious. Oooo, the yakuuuuza. Actually, I’d put your odds of getting kidnapped by one of the Teamsters Union and sold into slavery as higher.

          1. Was really disappointed both times I went to Japaaan when I didn’t see any yakuza walking around with samurai swords like in Kill Bill.

          2. ” Know how people make fun of Asian tourists for wearing cameras and taking pictures of everything? That’ll be you.”
            Oh yes. Just came back from 2 weeks in Japan with about 800 pictures. My boyfriend has close to 2000! But then, he’s half Japanese…

  2. “Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place…In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.” – Flannery O’Connor

  3. Thanks for another great article, Ken. I really like your witty writing style, and you totally made me laugh when you said “their laundry must smell delicious”!

    1. Thanks so much. That actually happens to me sometimes. Like, I’ll be on the train thinking, Man, I’m really hungry for some grilled sausages, or ramen, or chicken. And then I’ll realize that my jacket is emitting this mouth-watering odor. I’m pretty sure all the women sitting nearby also find it irresistible.

  4. Looking at an ancient temple with a children’s plastic play castle in front of it while being deafened by the sound of cicadas is very close to my favorite image of Japan. But the thought of a Japanese person microwaving a pizza instead of at least eating a conbini bento, now that makes me want to cry.

  5. I enjoyed this. Thanks for writing it.

    That gap between “Japan” and Japan can be a truly horrifying thing. Consider that Western people typically only start to get over their false impressions of the first and start getting to the know second after they have made some pretty heavy investments in terms of time and/or language study. If you just come for a year or so of English teaching, or a bit of travel, you can leave pretty much none the wiser. The bitter gaijin can be easily discounted as ignorant, entitled, not “getting it” or not working hard enough.

    I knew I had pretty much succeeded in making the transfer from “Japan” to Japan when I started feeling jealous of people who were only here or six months and spoke no Japanese at all. When I see groups of foreign kids at Tokyo station my overwhelming impression is how well-adjusted and happy they look. It’s a weird feeling envying a bunch of high school kids.

    Here’s a thought: Having high level Japanese can be compared to maxing out some kind of super character on an MMORPG. Sure, where millions of people gave up half-way, you did it. You made it. You’re the man. Only, the people who failed probably did something more productive.

    Landed a “nice job” recently so I guess I shouldn’t be so bitter. Of course, it’s nice because I’ve lowered my expectations a dozen times these last few years (the pay is about the equivalent of Australian minimum wage). Let me know when you are back in Tokyo Ken and we can drink to celebrate. 😉

    1. People who’ve just recently arrived have an almost beatific air about them. It’s refreshing to be around folks like that, and I can certainly understand why Japanese people like talking with foreigners. I do to. Retsu speak Engrish!

      Congrats on the nice job. That’s a big piece of the puzzle here.

  6. Sigh…I’m starting to dislike like you Ken. You’re destroying my love of Japan, usually created by playing Street Fighter and the idea of Samurai tradition of swords, partially shaved heads while wearing Hakama. Meditating and sitting on a green field next to a river..

    I can actually do all that in NYC too but the idea of doing it in Japan sounds better.

    1. You can totally do that here.

      In a weird way, this really isn’t about Japan. It’s about hype, and how volumes of information on people and places creates a self-perpetuating myth. In the case of Japan, much of that information is skewed or incomplete, and causes people to view it in a way that’s not really accurate.

      Japan’s a fine place. But the question you should be asking is why you’d picture meditating by a river in Japan, rather than, say, in Egypt or Peru or anywhere else. Where did that image come from? Because I believe you could go a really, really long time here without ever seeing anyone sitting by a river mediating. But playing baseball, yeah, you could see that.

      1. You’re right about the hype and I think that’s why I really liked this entry. I don’t recall any guidebooks trying to set people right regarding the exported perceptions of Japan and what’s really here. I’ve been discovering that Japan is pretty much empty (something like 60% of the country is forested) and when you take a 30 minute train ride, you can be in the middle of emptiness and it’s not always so romantic (I think you have a hiking post alluding to this).

        It’ll be interesting to see the images Japan will portray (or have portrayed) for the next summer Olympics. You could help greatly on this! It’s a fascinating place and different but not always so different.

        1. Yeah, am I the only one that thinks Japan could utilize its land a little more efficiently? Cause there seems to be a lot of wide-open spaces. I mean, does everyone have to live in Tokyo? Okay, I’ll quit asking stupid questions now.

  7. Another thing: Is Japan a high-tech neon marvel, or a country that can’t figure out what “free wifi” means?

    In preparation for my next trip I just checked out the new free wifi for tourists that is supposed to be such a big deal, and I have to say, they still don’t get it. I would be happy to trade meditating by a river, geishas, and kabuki, for actual free wifi without registration and passwords and elaborate logins and time limits. Now that would be mystical.

    1. I know a lot of Japanese folks who’ve never owned a PC, while I can’t think of a single person in the U.S. for whom I could say the same. Most people here are accessing the net through their cell phones, for which they have data plans. So yeah, free wi-fi is probably targeted more at foreign tourists, which isn’t speeding its adoption.

    2. Shocking thing is that way back in the day when you didn’t want to be carrying a laptop around due to the weight (say 8-10 years ago) they had the USB private wifi adapters all over.

  8. The hype and all that involves China as well…and many other places I’m sure. For example, back in Cali, they’d say “oh look at the thin and healthy Asian people who eat veggies, tofu, and rice all day…”…

    Uh no, lot of Chinese people here have a high body fat percentage. There’s a term used here called “buddha bellies”. Its when fat Chinese guy guys pull their (tank top, t-shirts..) over their big ol stomaches when the weather is hot and humid. ..and they just walk around like that.

    In a lot of cities, I’d see girls who are DEFINITELY a few pounds over…

      1. Good call. The Japanese diet, and why people are thought of as being thin, is something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while. Expect to see that before long.

        1. Please do write about their diets,and do reveal the secret for their survival. As much as I LOVE meat and rice, I’ve been here for a month and I think I pooed once. Help.

  9. Oh, I loooooved that post! You know what is annoying me the most? When people who has never been to Japan, or travelled here for a week or so are so enamored with this country. I don’t know whether its right or wrong to get annoyed by it…. But its like you know the truth, you know that you surely know the truth and everybody tries to convince you with the opposite: “Whaaaat? Japanese people are not super shy and polite? Whaaaat? Japanese women are hooked by white man very easily? Whaaaaat? Japanese people don’t eat sushi every day? Whaaaaat? You want to leave such a wonderful country?” And so on, so on. I constantly browse Instagram pages and sometimes some of the people I follow would come to Japan and it starts all over again. 1000 pictures, 1000 comments like OMG, Japan is a the greatest place on Earth, and some smart one try to buy as much Japanese stuff from Don Qixote as possible and then would try to sell it all on their pages: Come on, girls, these magic collagen bottles! Shampoos, face creams and masks! But lets be honest, there is so much out there that is not magic and is made for Japanese use only…

    1. I totally feel that. And yet, I know that, in many ways, that was me. I’d been primed by years of kung-fu reruns and tales from tourists to think that Asia was this otherworldly place. People told me all about Japan, and when I came here, that’s exactly what I saw.

      Now when I read websites about Japan, sometimes written by people who don’t even live here, I see the cycle continuing. Then I walk outside and think, Really?

      I think if you’d never been told a single thing about Japan, you’d couldn’t possibly describe it the way most people do.

      If a space alien landed on earth, I don’t think they’d be any more blown away by Japan than any other place. Except maybe to note that the trains are insanely crowded and everybody works 18 hours a day, but that’s about it.

      1. I got to say that there is a peculiar atmosphere here, and I feel it most keenly when I get off the plane in Narita or Haneda from another country (not just America, but the other eight countries I went to the past year). Suddenly you have a group of people/crowd that is much quieter and more calm. God, even the pre-boarding area at Doha, those quiet Japanese people. Don’t read anything too noble or meditative or anything into it, fine, but that collective composure is striking and I didn’t see anything like it in all the other places. (Ireland, Italy, Switzerland, Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal, China, Russia, Hong Kong) There are probably countries out there like that, but most countries are louder. Happier, too, maybe, deeper, even, but man does that change in the atmosphere strike me every time.

        1. I agree with that. It’s definitely somber. I often hear it interpreted as polite, shy, humble, respectful, zen, whatever. But a friend of mine attributes it to something else. We were talking about this on the phone and he said, “Nah, they’ve been abused their whole lives and they’ve learned to keep their mouths shut, that’s all.” I must say, having working in the Japanese school system, that explanation makes the most sense.

          1. Ah, that is a really interesting – and probably accurate – explanation. Japanese people laugh when they hear people think their behavior means they are zenning out.

            Speaking of learning to shut up, haha, my Japanese friend in college, an exchange student, once said to me, “I know why American kids are so annoying. Their mothers keep doting on them and complimenting them. When I was a child, I always thought about how annoying I was. When my mother introduced me to others, she always apologized by how stupid or annoying I was. Here in America, I see mothers in the supermarket say, ‘Sweetie, stop pulling stuff off the shelves. Darling, stop.'” It was bizarre to her how parents bragged about their children and that they even doted on them, ever.

            PS: Always a fun game – as Japanese people if they have heard of The Last Samurai or Memoirs of a Geisha. “We find it very strange.” Favorite reaction: “TOMU CRUIZU IS _NOT!_ A SAMURAI!”

            1. Yeah, you don’t get a country that operates with military efficiency by going soft on the five year-olds. Though I agree, the way people treat children in the U.S. is more than a little amazing.

          2. Fear of potential shame is definitely a big part of the mix. It never really ends. My senpai at grad school used to get angry, even violent sometimes, if a kohai pissed him off. Same with my partner now at a large company. It’s a roll of the dice, because if your boss/senior turns out to be a jerk there is not much you can do about it.

            1. No doubt. You know, you hear a lot about the quiet reserve of Japanese people, but once you get behind the scenes, it’s unfortunately common to see the lashing out, both with words and physical violence. I’ve never witnessed anything like it in the U.S., probably because somebody’d AK your ass if you tried that there. The tourism board doesn’t really cover that aspect of Japan much, strangely enough.

          3. Honest question, Ken: Did you grow up in a really rough neighborhood where shootings were the norm?

            Aside from those open carry nutjobs, criminals, and other crazy people, no one’s going to threaten other people with a gun, and no one’s worried about getting shot if they piss someone off. If anything, the reason we rarely lash out like that (if ever) is because we’re given options and ways to help manage and get rid of all that stress.

            I get that more often than not, those gun jokes are just that – jokes, but sometimes it seems like you really believe that Americans are total gun freaks.

            1. I hear you, but living in a country where practically nobody own guns, after coming from a nation where a hundred million people own them—that’s hard to wrap your head around, you know?

              I’m not making a case for or against guns either. They’re simply a fact of life in the U.S. I lived in several cities, in four states around the nation, and sure, I knew people who’d been shot, and a few more who’d been shot at. Doesn’t everybody? The places I lived were quite unexceptional, I think.

              But that aside, what I’m really talking about is that, in Japan, it’s normal for a superior (parent, teacher, boss) to chew someone out in public, to yell and scream and possibly hit those below them. It’s expected, the way a drill sergeant is expected to be hard on his troops. This will go on for half an hour or more until the person in question is in tears, and then he or she’ll be given some version of latrine duty. There aren’t many Western people who’d take that. There’s no Japanese version of “Take This job and Shove it.” And you don’t hear of people going postal too often.

              So I’m saying Westerners would respond to the situation quite differently. As you mentioned, they’d probably work through the problem to find an amicable solution. But in my case, when it’s happened to me here, it’s just good I wasn’t strapped, cause I woulda popped a cap in those fools.

  10. Slovenia: skiing, Lake Bled, monastery on a mountain cliff, Julian Alps, Ljublijana, difficult to spell words, gem of a capital city, Anze Kopitar, Austro-Hungarian Empire, break-away republic, Slavic, scary mountain roads, great Olympic jerseys, gargoyles on bridges.


  11. One of the more interesting conflicts for me is old Japan and new Japan. Almost nobody gives any shits about old Japan, and yet there’s constant reference to tradition and this weird popular reverence of historical figures (I lost count of the times I’ve run into Sakamoto Ryouma paraphernalia). Traditional institutions are largely non-extant, dying or just barely treading water (koryu ikebana, sado, bugei), and then there are some which only continue as bizarre apparitions of their former selves (sumo used to be less pro-wrestling and more folk wrestling).

    Otherwise, Amaterasu handed unto the Yamato three holy treasures that the Imperial house safeguards to this day, and they are bureaucracy, discrimination, and sensible clothing. Of course, if the latter was forever lost at Dan no Ura it would explain centuries of women’s fashion, however others contend this is but high-level discrimination.

    1. Beautifully put. You know, It’s hard to imagine a country that cares less about history and tradition. They can’t bulldoze the old homes fast enough to put up apartment blocks. I really think there’s some psychology at work here; this desire to put the past behind. As it stands now, nobody even wants to move into a place that’s more than ten years old. And tatami? Forget it. All the apartment owners are replacing it with flooring. Japan’s just not what it used to be, back in good old 2004.

  12. I can’t watch a movie without marveling at the fact that there are no power lines in the background. And sometimes I laugh because you can see the camera is trying hard not to rise above the level of the traditional rooftops.

  13. This reminds me of those labels that say something along the lines of, “This product has been found to cause cancer in the state of California”. I used to think I was safe as I didn’t live in California, but then it hit me: California isn’t a place, it’s a *state of mind*.

    Perhaps the Japan with traditional values, high tech gadgets, and Sakura blossoms falling at the base of Mount Fuji any time of year exists, but only our minds.

    1. The traditional Japanese values still exist. Just like drinking Coors beer transports you to the Colorado Rockies and smoking Newport Menthols makes you cool with black people. I mean, it’s all a state of mind, right?

  14. Just recently watched the Keanu Reeves “47 Ronin” movie and I was wondering how the Japanese felt about this retelling of their national heritage homage to suicide. Shortest post ever.

    1. Well, first I’m gonna need to find somebody who actually wanted to watch a movie with Keanu Reeves in it, but I’ll ask around.

      1. As I was about to retire people asked me what was I going to do next. I replied that I was either going to apply to be a drone pilot or John Wick’s apprentice. If I ever feel down I watch the Red Circle Club scene, that is until the wife walks in and puts me back to work.

  15. I like running into people that just got to Japan for the reasons in this post. Being SO over the honeymoon is tough sometimes, and new blood that is still eating the wedding cake it nice sometimes. Helps me remember why I wanted to come in the first place. What the future holds, who knows. Good luck to us both.

      1. No, you should absolutely wear anything with kanji on it when you come to Japan. Or better yet, get a kanji tattoo. It shows you’re down with the culture.

        1. Realistically, do you think it would make any difference if you were walking around with tshirts that have on them written “I speak Japanese” or maybe a little more comical as “This dirty gaijin speaks Japanese” or something like that? I was going to add “Of course in Japanese”, but who knows. In English or some hybrid form it might make it more appealing or something. Point is, if you somehow put a label on yourself, it may make it harder for them to do so. Or just very awkward or ended up doing nothing, but help them in the process of disregarding you as a human being and turning you into an exotic animal. But this time it won’t be any exotic animal, but the one everyone likes for how dumb cute it is.

          I am going a little too much off track with my own fantasies.

  16. Just wondering if anyone in Japan is worried about that super typhoon about to hit the country? Is it being mentioned in the news a lot? I hope it doesn’t do a lot of damage or cause loss of life, so everyone there please take precautions! Good Luck to all of you living in its path!

    1. Not super worried. But then I don’t live in a house made of matchsticks either. I’ve got two bowls of instant ramen, half an onigiri, and a case of shochu, so I can live for at least a month. My only fear is that the cable will go out. And then what’ll I do—read a book? Perish the thought.

    1. I know, me too. Been crazy busy lately with dumb things like work. So inconvenient, the whole having to eat thing. Anyway, thanks for caring, and I’ll write something meaningful, well, someday.

  17. Well,

    I’m praying that Ken has finally found the inspiration to spend some serious time working on his book using all of that wonderful wit and wisdom that permeates this blog!! He deserves some real world recognition for all of the sage advice and recommendations that he has so freely offered to others!! So Ken… if your writing, GOOD LUCK and stay the course. PLEASE worry about yourself first; we can afford to wait and will have faith that you are doing the right thing!!

    1. Well I finally found my laptop under a mound of empty shochu boxes and many tiny bags of peanuts. There’s something not quite right about booze that comes in a box. At any rate, I’d been looking in the socks and t-shirts pile the whole time. Which was dumb, since that’s where I always hide the full shochu boxes. Silly me.

      Anyway, thanks for the concern, everybody. I’ve recently instituted a new and time-consuming policy I like to call “Get A Life Seeroi, you lazy bastard.” Still trying to come up with an acronym for that one. “GALS, you lazy bastard” seems like it’s going in the wrong direction, somehow. Whatever. Thanks to this initiative and many cans of cold Family Mart coffee, I’ve managed to secure a new job, new apartment, and a Japanese driver’s license. Makin’ progress like a boss.

      Not to fear, however, since I somehow found myself at a hostess club with six instant Japanese friends at 4 a.m. this morning, singing songs, eating hot dumplings, and rubbing some girl’s thigh. She had on this wonderful pink satiny dress. I think she was a girl, anyway. Sure was mighty tall. Eh, whatever. So the policy is far from being uniformly implemented, is what I mean, although apparently living up to its name.

      So I’ve been a bit busy, is my excuse. But we’ve got a 3-day weekend, so maybe once I outlast this hangover, I can start work on my new initiative, “Write Us Stuff Seeroi, you lazy bastard.” That’s got a little better ring to it.

      1. Ken,

        As I sit at the kitchen table drinking my Gourmet Keurig coffee with snicker-doodle cream (one of the few luxuries that I have in life), I was pondering that new initiative you mentioned and came up with:

        Kallouss Wuss – for “Ken always loves ladies over unimportant stuff so, Write us Something Seeroi”.

        I must be a genius, except that I’m also hoping for you to “Gals” Ken and don’t know how to help. Maybe if I was a millionaire, I could pay Ken to put his wisdom into a book, but that is entirely another fantasy; for if I had that kind of money, I would have already found me a Japanese girl and wouldn’t care about that Kallous Wuss…. I was trying to be funny, I think!

  18. In my life I want delicious healthy food, beautiful landscapes, good friends, satisfying work where i can connect with someone, and time to pursue my hobbies *including exercise*, learning new things and practicing my spirituality. I will be happy wherever I go thanks to my life philosophy and the introspection, meditation and gratitude prayers i partake in on a regular basis.

    I’m not so much enamored with Japan as a country as I am enamored with Japanese itself. I love it, how artists love art. I think language is art. I’m moving to Japan so I can have this beautiful art a part of my daily life. Learned kana when I was 13. Started taking classes when I was 17, I’m 21 now. I love humanity. To read a book in Japanese, and have an individual’s thoughts and feelings brought to me through the medium of that language is a fabulous experience. I love the content for it’s bare meaning no matter the language, as a Psych major who’s seriously considered becoming a therapist I adore when people bare their soul to me. Seeing that in a book is beautiful.

    I also love the swirl, the sharpness, of different characters. Looking at a kanji character as a whole and thinking about the impressions of its composition. Marveling at the pervasive subtleties and accuracy in meaning a language with ideographic characters can obtain, something English can never do. And then the sounds itself. Those sounds. Don’t ask me why Japanese is so many times more beautiful audially than French, Spanish, German, Italian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Portuguese, Russian, Korean, Vietnamese, Swedish, Farsi, these languages came to mind first. Thus far Hindi has come the closest, but even then there is a fair difference. If I weren’t going to learn Japanese and move to Japan, i’d learn Hindi and move to India, probably. I like buddhism, could find me a nice buddhist school there to attend as I teach. Learn some new ways of thinking. I don’t see a point in staying in CA, it’s great here. Amazing actually, but I am pulled to new places. I may not even stay in Japan as long as I think, if the pull is too strong. I don’t see a prob with alternating countries, as long as I still keep Japanese a strong part of my life. I do however honestly speaking anticipate that I will spend a long time there. Whatever, whichever.

    Why am I ranting about Japanese as an art? Not sure. I do love learning about its culture and appreciating its architecture but I can do that with any country, as I’m doing now in my Art History class. Japanese food is certainly amazing, glad that I’m lucky enough that my favorite food is from the country whose language I’m the most in love with and where I want to move to! Luck indeed. If Mexican food was my favorite oh what would I do.

    I just want to communicate with people and connect with them, feel their spirit, a beautiful thing in any language. If done in Japanese, all the more beautiful.
    I tend to romanticize things ^^ not everyone likes that, but it’s just the way I think.
    That is all see ya~.

    1. I think I just got a contact high from reading that. But it’s all good. I think everybody should pursue the things in their lives that call to them.

      So if you’ve got a dream, and Japan and Japanese are part of that dream, then follow that and have a great time.

  19. …well, you really have a thing to write garbage; not useless garbage because you can recycle it…however, you always have moments of good fun with your witty writing.
    I think that you and many of your readers write and like to read these posts due to belong to middle or upper classes from wealthy countries.
    I live in a poor country and only lived few months in Japan (due to the Visa not because I do not want it) so may be Im wrong; but you do not have any idea what s to live in countries full of thieves, criminals, drug addicts etc;
    Im in my mid 40s but very difficult to grow old here (if you want some liberty; basic freedom like walking down the road…that s not possible for old people due to the criminals) and here s a small country with only 3 millions; imagine some other countries with more people
    So YES, JAPAN is a PARADISE for us; sadly, like most countries a person cannot live there legal for years due to the Visa, I do not know how this person in the previous comment could obtain such Visa but normally is not possible.

    1. I’ve no doubt that there are countries worse than Japan, so point taken.

      And you know, I like Japan, really. It’s just that, if you can’t automatically think of half a dozen Japanese things that are far less than wonderful, then you don’t really know the country. It’s certainly no paradise. If there’s a place that is, from what I understand, it’s known as Australia. Maybe you should check that out.

  20. Whew, spent too much time reading page yesterday after seeing your reference. I was depressed about Japan until I anesthetized myself (his word) again, lol.
    You are spot on with the ‘Japan Marketing Inc’ idea. After seeing how hard they push the World Heritage thing, as well as the two-hour line for popcorn, I started to grasp the system here. I think it’s a different take on the cult of celebrity – anything ‘famous’ (I laugh now every time I hear that word) is a safe route. I also chuckle when I hear that a favorite hobby is golf. But I empathize with your friend’s comment about ‘they’ve learned to keep their mouths shut’. Varying from the script was expunged forcefully from the gene pool, as far as I can read the history here.
    For people thinking about living in Japan, one advice I have is make sure you are happy with who you are, and can stay happy no matter what – because to enjoy life here (and you can definitely enjoy life here for a while) you will need to interact with many people who tell you that you are doing things the wrong way, and don’t care to have a discussion with you about it. And if you start to appear unhappy, things will go downhill quickly.
    I want to say for the record though that I have met more than plenty of decent, honest Japanese men and women of all ages, who I am proud to have as friends and coworkers. I think that just like in any country, there are bad people and things that need to be improved in Japan, as well as great things and great people. Japan’s not alone in having baka politicians who waste money on bridges to nowhere. It is mostly alone it those same politician’s ability to shape their own international image and be absolute masters of their own domain. caveat emptor – virtually everyone coming here is a cog in a big machine. But if you can make your own machine…

  21. My Japanese (language, nationality, ethnicity) teacher asked me what I had found different since I came to Japan. The food? The customs?

    “No, I said. The light bulbs. You have really small light bulbs”. She shook her head, “II never expected that”.

  22. I discovered your blog yesterday and already read a lot of articles. I must say, I find this blog incredibly interesting. I’ve been living here for only a month, but it has already been enough to deconstruct many stereotypes I had. And reading this blog really helps me understanding some behaviors I couldn’t get until then.
    I’ve been interested with Japanese culture for a while, not only manga, geishas and sushis, but also more social studies, like Japanese people behaviors and thoughts (though I’m aware it’s not uniform), and I ended up being kind of afraid to come here after all my readings. But actually BEING here, I realize they’re just regular people, maybe with lots of cultural differences, but in the end, they’re as random as I’m a random French girl. Anyway, I feel like lots of the “gaijin” friends I made here are either starstruck or really bothered by Japanese ppl behaviors and reading you makes me feel like I’m not crazy and I might actually be in a right mindset to enjoy Japan and get its inhabitants a bit more deeply. So thank you, and keep up the good work !

    1. Ah, thanks so much for reading.

      Sometimes I wonder what Japan would be like without preconceptions. You know, if no one had ever said “Japanese people are short/polite/shy/honest/sexy/not sexy/hard-working/etc.,” what conclusions would I have drawn, based solely upon my own observations? One thing I’ve come to appreciate is that Japanese folks themselves have essentially mobilized into a massive propaganda machine. They’re love to explain that, Oh, we’re all like this.

      Really? This and not that? And nobody else is this? My favorite is when someone stares me squarely in the eye and says with a clear voice, “I’m shy.”

      So how’s this for a stereotype: Japanese people have no sense of irony. I’m still trying to disprove that one.

      1. Yep, hard to believe they’re ads/websites are so bad, when they can be so good at communication otherwise !

        I feel that the young “educated” generation is a little less preoccupied by those stereotypes about Japan though. I met several japanese girls at my university who were surprisingly mature, who weren’t afraid of stating their opinions, who said proudly that they weren’t shy, that they didn’t need a rich boyfriend to buy them things, but someone who’d make them laugh, for example. But then again, exceptions are everywhere.

        Anyway this stereotypes thing is not only about Japan, many students I met couldn’t understand why I went here and was learning japanese when “I come from France and it’s the best country in the world, everyone there is beautiful, so well dressed and just plain classy”. I also heard so many times “In Japan, girls don’t smoke, we hate when they do, but we love when you do because it’s so french, and everyone in France smokes, right ?”. It’s cute stereotypes, it could be way worse, but still, many countries make foreigner fantasize. I guess you’d know coming from the US !

        I did met a guy who used irony constantly (in english), and at first I didn’t even understand, I was so sure no one in Japan could do irony that I though he was just really rude ! But then I asked and understood, and we had a great time, I hardly laughed that hard with anyone in Japan. Again, exceptions are everywhere, it’s one guy out of the 50 others that asked me “REALLY ??” when I tried some irony… To point out that i’m doing irony, I now take that really sarcastic voice, and they get it most of the times 🙂

  23. I’ve been living here for three years now and possibly it would have been better to find out about your blog before moving here.
    I still like Japan more than my home country but, nonetheless,
    the Japan you come to fall in love with as a tourist now looks to me more and more like a collective, consensual delusion the Japanese
    (and starry-eyed gaijin) choose to believe in.
    Thank you, articles like this are as helpful as whisky is, when it comes to put up with life here.

    1. Yeah, Japan as a tourist sure is different from Japan as a working resident. Still a fine place, but nothing like the marketing hype. You’re right, booze helps. Enjoy your whisky.

  24. Hi Ken

    Sunday afternoon…3 delicious minoh ipas downed , too quickly

    My answers

    Japan is . . . The pause button on the cassette recording of my life
    Japanese people are . . . everywhere you go in Japan.
    Japanese culture values . . .very little which motivates me to get up in the morning…..

    Back to the ipl…not half as good as the ipa

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *