The Mysteries of Japan

I’d like to say Japan makes complete sense. I’ve lived here a long time, and come to understand most of the mysteries of Japan. Like, I get why we don’t have screen doors and a stereo is a crime against humanity. Or why we have to sit on the floor, slurp our noodles, avoid talking on the bus, and why the prettier a woman is, the more pissed-off she looks. That’s all reasonable. But then I’d like to say a lot of things, like Japan’s so efficient that the whole country doesn’t run on stacks of paper, unbridled nepotism, and rubber stamps. Sorry, just came from the real estate office. How is it renting a freaking room involves over forty pages of forms and someone who appears Japanese? Explain that, Japan.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, right. So, not much in Japan is really remarkable any more. That’s known as being jaded. Still, no amount of jadedness seems to solve the mysteries of Japan, such as:

1. How is This a Broom?

Japanese broom - Japanese Rule of 7

Now, if you’ve studied history, you’re aware that Europe perfected straw technology sometime in the Middle Ages. My understanding is peasants were crouched in hovels with only mead, witches, and the Black Death, so they naturally spent a lot of time fashioning hay into scarecrows and cowboy hats and stuff. Then fast-forward through the millennia to modern-day Japan, where this is what passes for a broom. Uhh, no. That’s just a bunch of sticks tied together. The first time I saw a farmer sweeping with one, I assumed he lived in such dire poverty he’d been reduced to using a handful of tiny trees. It blew my mind when I discovered these twig sculptures for sale in stores. Why would anybody buy one? The sticks aren’t even the same length, for Chrissakes. Even a pair of scissors would update your broom to the Dark Ages.

2. Why No One Drives a Convertible

Japan’s greatest contribution to the world may well be its pint-sized kei cars. They’re silent, smog-free, and roomy enough to fit four adults and granny in the jump seat. And for pedestrians, kei cars are heaven. You can run, bike, or walk along a roadway full of them and it’s still a fresh, spring day. Until a truck roars by and it’s an effing spring day in hell, because trucks in Japan are like old-timey locomotives bellowing pitch-black smoke. If you ever see a convertible in this country, there’s a ninety-nine percent chance it’s full of Chinese tourists. Japanese folks know they’d simply wind up covered in soot.

Now granted, I slept through four years of Science in high school and two in college, so maybe it’s no mystery I can’t understand how one vehicle is a model of perfection while the other’s powered by coal and yak dung. Is clean diesel even a thing, or did I just make that up? Either way, I kind of think Japan isn’t trying very hard on this one.

3. The Magical Rising Sun

Of all the things in Japan I’m not okay with, this might be what I’m most not okay with. Probably there’s an easier way to say that. Whatever, let me paint you a picture. It’s a brilliant summer day and I’m like, Baby, let’s go to the beach. Or hiking. Or just chill at Starbucks under a green parasol.

And whatever girl I’m with is like, Okay, but first let me hang out the futon. And quit calling me “baby.” I’m like, Roger that. But why you putting the bed, sheets, and pillows on the balcony wall? You do realize that’s outside, and the whole point of us taking off our shoes and trying to keep the place clean is because we live inside. You just negated the whole concept. The balcony’s covered in dust, mold, and the wall’s wrecked with birdshit, but she’s all like, No, no, the sunlight will kill the bacteria. Yeah baby, I dunno—is there any actual science behind that? Or is this just an unholy marriage of superstition to rock-paper-scissors? Dust destroys balcony, Futon covers wall, Sun beats birdshit. Not a game we’re gonna win, from the looks of that wall.

4. The Phantom Gate

If you have a house in Japan, you need a gate in front. No one’s questioning such fundamental wisdom—a gate delineates Your Stuff from Everybody Else’s, so that’s cool. But—and I’m not an architect, just saying—doesn’t a gate also need like a wall, hedge, or fence on both sides? You can’t just prop a wicker screen on your sidewalk and call it a gate. Or, apparently, you can, since half the gates in this nation can just be stepped around. Good thing they’re locked.

Japanese Gate - Ken Seeroi

I’ve lived in a number of apartment buildings with elaborate entrance security—automatic doors, cameras, number pads, card keys. And half the time you could just stroll around the side and you’re in. Trust me, if Ken Seeroi can scale your four foot-high wall, any sufficiently motivated Japanese meth addict could easily hurdle it. Japanese folks know to keep their balcony and apartment doors locked, and you’d be wise to do the same. Home break-ins are an all-too-common occurrence.

5. Japanese Overtime Culture

Okay, let me explain how civilized nations manage workloads. Your boss sets a deadline for Friday at five, and you strive to meet it, in between Starbucks breaks and chatting with Abigail from Purchasing by the coffee machine. Hey, if there’s two of you, that qualifies as a standing meeting.

Then at about three p.m. Friday, your boss drops by your desk. “How we coming with the Wilson project?” he asks. He uses “we” because there’s no “you” in “team.”

And you’re like, “Aah, not lookin’ good.”

“Really?” he says. “The deadline’s at five.”

“Not gunnna make it…” you grumble.

“Okay…let’s push it back a week. Now wrap this shit up so we don’t miss Happy Hour at Chili’s.”

That’s how the engine of progress moves smoothly forward, on rails well-greased with nachos and beer. You do realize nobody has to die when you miss a deadline, right? Not if you’re Japanese you don’t. Because on Thursday night, the whole Shinjuku branch’s gonna work till midnight dying to meet some random date. And again on Friday, and then overnight without sleeping the whole weekend, if necessary. Because if the Meiji Ad Agency doesn’t have a new font installed on its website bright and early Monday, they’ll have to make do with Helvetica and the world will end. Then your entire office has to jump in front of a train on the Odakyu Line. Now that’s team spirit, Japan style. Gotta love working in this country.

6. Half-Cooked Gyoza

Okay, call this minor, but if you spent half your life eating fried things like some people who shall remain nameless do, let’s just say it would assume an outsized importance. Which is to ask, how come gyoza are only grilled on one side? Isn’t the whole point of frying to make them more delicious, or did I miss something? Bacon, pancakes, toast—what’s better cooked on only one side? But you’re like, No, look, if we took a piece of fried chicken and only cooked the bottom half golden brown, see how that’s better? You don’t? Well, obviously gaijin can’t appreciate subtle Japanese taste. Yeah, I guess. But suffice to say that when you come to Seeroi Sensei’s penthouse in the sky, you’re gonna be eating some delicious double-fried stuff.

7. Everything About Numbers

Okay, not only did Ken fail Science but also every Math class he ever took. Hey, that’s why I so good at English. So maybe somebody much smarter than me can explain why the Japanese counting system increments every 4th digit, but the commas are in the 3rd position, so we end up with make-believe figures like “one hundred ten thousands.” I’m all Stevie Wonder in this country. Just pay me in stacks of whatever your lowest denomination is.

And while we’re at it, how is it the years reset with each new emperor? My driver’s license expires in Heisei 32. Well, there’ll never be a Heisei 32, because the previous emperor dude suddenly retired and reset the calendar back to 1. Thus my driver’s license expires, when? I’ve no idea. I don’t suppose we could just use, I dunno, a sequential numbering system? Oh, we do? But we also use this other system, because uh, that’s the only way we know we’re Japanese? Right, got it. What, too cynical? Sorry, my Showa Era sarcasm.

8. Half the Song

So Ken’s blissfully tooling down the road in his tiny kei car, singing along to Bohemian Rhapsody on the radio. And just as he approaches the song’s apex, which he can totally do—“Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me, for me, for meeee….”

…the Japanese DJ comes on to say, “Okay, well that was Kuween withu Bohemian Rhapusodi…”

And now Ken’s in the middle of a turn, trying not to crash going, “Was? Still is, you dipshit! You just killed the best part!”

That’s no exception. I don’t know if it’s every song on every station or just the low-budget AM channels my Daihatsu still picks up after the antenna blew away in a typhoon, but halfway through some DJ always kills the song and starts jabbering. My only guess is something to do with licensing—like if you only play half then it’s free? That, or the average Japanese person has an attention span of a minute, which also wouldn’t surprise me.

I even bought a Japanese CD and the entire thing was nothing but half songs. How horrible of a producer do you have to be for that to be your album? How about making a CD with whole songs but just half as many? Too sensible? Whatever. Before any road trip, you’re gonna want to download a ton of iTunes, because the radio in this supposedly high-tech country leaves a lot to be desired.

9. Loudspeakers

“THE GATEBALL TOURNAMENT STARTS IN 15 MINUTES!! I REPEAT…THE GATEBALL TOURNAMENT…”

It’s 6:45 in the morning, and this emergency broadcast is reverberating off the walls and windows of my neighborhood. Gateball? There’s still time to register? Thank God, if I dive into my slippers and sprint down in my silk pajamas I can just make it. And here I thought I was going to have to sleep till noon. Thank you, helpful Civic Center lady for making sure I don’t get more than four hours of sleep.

For a non-Christian country, Japan’s sure got a weirdly Puritanical streak. All across the nation, there are massive loudspeakers mounted on towers, ready to sound the alarm in case of a tsunami or missile attack. But unfortunately those don’t happen very often, so the enterprising old farmers who rise at 4 a.m. feel it’s incumbent upon them to utilize the high-volume electronics for waking up locals at regular intervals. No good comes from letting the indolent sleep in. Sound the alarm.

10. The Fan of Death

Japanese Fan - Ken Seeroi

Easily my favorite. So an engineer at the Hitachi fan factory brings his newly-developed exhaust fan into the conference room. And he’s like, We’ll install these in homes and businesses throughout Japan. And everyone’s like, Great, love it. Oh, just one small thing. Those blades whirling at four-thousand revolutions per second—they’re like a Cuisinart for people’s hands. So everybody stares at the fan for a really long time. If only there were something we could put in front of the spinning blades, they lament, like a barrier or screen or something, to prevent people from getting their limbs chopped off. And they sit silently pondering the fan for about an hour until finally the manager says, I’ve got it—let’s add a tiny sticker to the corner, warning people not to insert their fingers. And everyone’s like, Brilliant, that’s why you’re the boss. Problem solved.

More Mysteries of Japan

Actually, now that I got started, it seems there are still a few remaining mysteries of Japan. Like why we don’t unwrap the plastic from our umbrella handles, issue flavors of beer and potato chips for each change of the four seasons (not that I’m complaining), or have to shop for groceries, cook, and do laundry every freaking day. No wonder nobody here has time for a decent hobby. Actually, there’s plenty of mysteries of Japan left to comprehend. Like how come escalators end at a flight of stairs, why Japanese university’s a joke, or why the police are powerless to stop gangs of high school kids roaring through the neighborhoods on scooters without mufflers after midnight. Hey, I need my sleep—all this pondering takes a lot of energy. And it’s only four hours from now till the gateball tournament.

53 Replies to “The Mysteries of Japan”

  1. Sarcasm gold. Thanks! BTW, I lived in a “mansion” with automatic security doors, keypad, etc. and once you walked in, the stairs up to my apartment were outside again…… Huh?

    1. Sounds right on par with most places I’ve lived. If you can’t break into a Japanese apartment building, you’re just not trying hard enough.

  2. Add open, 2 foot deep street gutters to the perilous fan situation. Also, coverless florecent lightbulbs in basically all buildings? I that to have one less thing to fall during an earthquake? The mysteries abound.

    1. I landed a tire in one of those gutters once, but managed to gun the engine and pop it out before it sunk all the way down. Not Japan’s finest design contribution, I’d say.

        1. AE86? Had to look that up. Man, that is not an attractive car. Ken Seeroi would not be caught dead in such a vehicle. But yeah, I get the Initial D reference, sort of.

  3. Sunlight does kill germs. And those brooms are great for raking dead leaves. I have one and use it. Love it.

  4. My favorite ever….. Went to the gym on my motorbike…no motorbike parking apparently….no fucking way am I putting my super expensive Ducati in with the cheapo bicycles…put it in a car space….little guy runs up….no motorbike…for cars…..
    Ok, where is the motorbike parking?
    There isn’t any.
    So, where can gym members park their motorbikes?
    No answer..
    Can I park it here?
    No
    Why?
    It is for cars.
    Why?
    4 people in car ( he honestly said that )
    Then a dude in car pulls up….on his own, in his car ..gets out and walks off, obviously going to the gym
    I said…. One person, not four. So, can I park here as there is only 1 person here too, on this bike?
    No
    Why?
    This is for cars…

    So, I just parked my bike and went to the gym with the little camp commandant shouting at me as I walked away…

    1. Now that sounds like Japan. Excellent at following rules. Independent thinking and problem solving…eh, not so much.

  5. Gotta say as someone that was raised in a third world country those brooms are the best. No amount of high-tech plastic is gonna match those sticks.

    1. A surprising amount of support coming in for twig brooms. I’m mostly just impressed with how popular an activity sweeping appears to be. I had no idea.

      1. We had two twig brooms: One for outside, one for inside.
        The inside one was far more polished (same size of twigs, same length). I liked both of our brooms.

        Back in Germany we have a “normal” broom which also does it’s job, but feels kinda dirty as hairs (wifey) and other stuff tend to stick to it.

        1. Ken, those brooms are a miracle of Japanese engineering. They’re supposed to look like dead trees. The fringy twigs give gentle brushing strokes, and additional pressure bends the bristles so the rest of the twings come into play. Think of it as infinite variable transmission.

          1. With all the support for twig brooms rolling in, I believe I’ll have to declare this myth busted. From now on, whenever I need to sweep something, I’m going to go outside and snap the limb off a dead tree. It’s the only ecologically sound thing to do.

    2. Heh yeah great for outdoors like your patio…not so good for the indoors unless you like adding grooves to your floor…

  6. I read ‘The Fan of Death’ and thought you were about to talk about that ‘fan death’ myth that everyone seems to think only Koreans believe in, even though a lot of Japanese people also believe it. I suppose nonsense travels both ways across the ocean – cf. the whole blood-type-determines-personality thing, invented out of whole cloth less than 50 years ago. It is to astrology as Scientology is to the ancient religions.

    1. There are a lot of countries where people are struggling. It’s sad to see. We should all donate to these impoverished nations so they can provide proper fried foods for their children.

  7. Have you solved the ‘office-hour’ ATM operating hours mystery? I for the love of life has never figured out why they’re not operational 24 hours.

    1. There’s a little Japanese man inside every ATM. At night, he needs his rest, tired as he is from counting out all those bills by hand.

      That is literally the only possible explanation I can imagine.

      1. In the old ’90s my bank used to turn their fax machine off out of office hours. Just when I was trying to fax them my mortgage application. Had to hang around at work until 9pm or something silly to get through to them.

      2. Going back to this, I just had a moment of clarity. Is it for safety reasons? like preventing people from being mugged? It would really be in line with the other Japanese ;safety first’ principles

        1. Given that most after-hours ATMs are inside convenience stores, I don’t think that’s it.

          Around about midnight, you’re either tucked into a club, karaoke bar, late-night izakaya until dawn, or you’re heading home. The trains quit running, the ATM’s shut down and there’s a definite vibe of “go home, or at least “get off the street.”

          Japan’s a pretty conservative place, and I think the general consensus is we want to keep it that way. Shutting down services is a pretty effective way to do that.

    2. I always thought they were listening to Chris Rock… “Why are ATMs 24 hours?! Have you ever taken out $300 at 4 AM for something positive?!”

  8. Because the person giving the money inside the atm needs to rest.

    This is high-tech japan. you should know by now.

    😀

  9. Seeroi sensei. You sound a bit jaded. I can only assume you lost your hanko and can’t complete the forty page rental agreement. Sleeping on a park bench again?

    1. Sleeping outdoors is both a luxury and a cure for jadedness. Really makes me wonder why I bother owning an apartment at all. And lately I’ve found the play slide to be infinitely more comfortable than the bench.

      But yeah, hanko isn’t the problem. The problem is I’ve got 3 of the effing things and am forced to carry them at all times. I’m like, you do know the West invented something thousands of years ago that makes your little wooden sticks obsolete. It’s called the signature. Ah jeez, and now I sound jaded again. Back to the park.

      1. Signature? For some reason I have to sign my name all the time and I don’t even recognize it most of the time, especially when I’m doing it on a touch screen. I should just scribbling loops like my sister does.

    2. So I had the gaijin signature, got a hanko, and then went back to just having a gaijin signature when I realized it was a pain in the @ss. Whenever I was asked to use my hanko, I waved my hand and said 持ってません, they gave me a “You do you, bro” look…and we moved on with our lives.

  10. Wait, I just realized I haven’t ever devoted thought to some of this stuff, beyond thinking “this is how it’s done in Japan”. Why don’t we have screen doors? And why do we have to sit on the floor?

    1. There are reasons behind all those things, which are worth thinking about.

      Unfortunate incidents like this, in today’s news, are one reason people aren’t crazy about leaving their front doors open:

      3 Men pretending to be delivery personnel forced their way into the home of a 76 year-old man, bound his hands and feet with tape, sprayed him with something, made him open his safe, and stole the yen-equivalent of $335,000.

      https://www3.nhk.or.jp/news/html/20200721/k10012525401000.html?utm_int=detail_contents_news-related_003

      As for sitting on the floor, pretty much nobody’s happy about it, but if you’ve only got one room, it’s kind of hard to fit a bed, dresser, and dining room table in the same space.

  11. No, it’s because there’s a customer service call center that has to be open to respond to problems involving the operation of the ATMs. The ATM operating hours are tied to that. Doubt me? Check for the little phone or phone number attached to the ATM next time you’re using one (during business hours, of course). After all, they wouldn’t want to inconvenience you by being unable to respond to a malfunction. Clearly, the only alternative is to deny you service entirely.

    Insane nonsense? Yes. Stereotypically Japanese? Absolutely.

    1. It’s the same with the trains. They shut down for maintenance. Clearly, it would be better to completely deny all service rather than subject late night users to delays or reduced service.

      1. While you’re technically correct about this and the ATM’s, I think there’s something a little deeper behind it.

  12. Wow, I was re-watching Kiki’s Delivery Service recently, and whilelooking at the photo of that broom, I’m reminded of Kiki and her own twig broom. I thought the movie using twig brooms was a nice touch, since I figured if witches actually existed they would probably have a lot of old traditions and such. I’m surprised Japanese people are still using brooms like that nowadays though! From the photo it looks like it might be likely to fall apart at any moment or leave small twigs all over a room…

    1. You bring up a couple of good points. Namely, twig brooms should only be used outdoors. That, and anyone using one may safely be assumed to be a witch.

  13. Japanese radio (and TV) are atrocious. For TV you can flee to public television here in Germany. It’s infinitely better than NHK.

    For Radio … well German stations don’t cut off the songs, but most radio stations are still horrible. Luckily we found a good one which we listen to for breakfast. Only annoying thing is the 2 minutes or so segment where some Christian person talks pseudo “deep” religious truisms which range from boring too sanctimonious.

    Anyway Japanese radio is something I can only stand for a few minutes while listening to all the blabber is still fresh, but after about 10 minutes I get so tired of it.

    I didn’t hate the loudspeakers while in Japan and I even look back on them with a certain fondness. I used one of them to get my children to go home from the playground (良い子の皆さん。。。).
    I don’t remember them blaring and waking us up in the morning, but we didn’t sleep that long either …

    1. While I respect your personal opinion and bizarre dietary preferences, I will continue to cook my eggs properly—once over well.

  14. Haha that was one of the “special moves” he used to win against a vastly superior car! But yep.. Ugly… Only famous because of its abilities! Couldn’t see Seeroi San behind the wheel of one of those!

  15. Here’s one Ken….now, I am not that tall, quite short compared to the Dutch but in my shower room there is a long full length mirror on one wall…. Not really for recreating Sharon stone/ Sylvester Stallone shower scenes I think, more for making sure you have washed all your bits…..a great idea …if you are 5 feet tall….. seriously…. I can see nothing above my shoulders…. It’s too long to be just for sitting down on one of those silly flimsy plastic chairs but it’s too short to use standing up! Maybe bent over at 45 degrees????

    1. I know, it’s weird—a lot of things in Japan seem designed on the premise that the average person is five-foot-three. That may have been truer after World War II, but these days I see middle school kids pushing six feet. That same mirror is in half the apartments and hotels in this nation, and its placement appears utterly random.

        1. Yeah, that’s factually accurate. The population had its growth stunted due to a lack of calories and nutrition. It’s amazing what a few Big Macs can do for a nation. Unfortunately, that growth wasn’t limited to the vertical axis.

  16. ah man….two things I love mentioned in the same column

    I LOVE all of the warning signs on everything. these are some of the things that I use in my orientation meetings before taking a group of people who’ve never left their home town half way across the world for a week (or did…before travel stopped).

    i’ll spend an hour pulling up old pictures of signs and asking what the hell they’re for and waiting for the wrong answers to pile up.

    one of my favorites is a sign in the elevator at our corporate office in Kariya warning you to make sure your dog is on the elevator with you before it moves. has a little lady in the elevator and a little dog not on the elevator with the leash trapped in the door. like…lady what are you doing bringing a dog into the office? you know that ain’t allowed.

    and the damned gates….why are they there? who are you fooling sir? I once walked past a car parked behind a full sized garage gate, with nary a garage in sight. just….3 open sides, a roof, and a big wrought iron gate.

Leave a Reply

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

*