When Asami wiped out on her bike outside Ueno station, she lay on the sidewalk with a broken wrist “and everybody just stepped around me. Not one person tried to help.”
She recounted this accident as we sat out at Starbucks, between sips of a Frappuccino with her left hand, the right being bound in a light blue cast.
“Japanese people are terrible,” she concluded.
“Maybe they’re just shy,” I suggested. Folks here love that excuse for avoiding anything difficult or unpleasant.
And yet, I knew what she meant. Japanese people are terrible. Some of the rudest bastards you’ll ever meet. Except for the nice ones, of course, Asami included. At least part of the time.
Dog Theft in Japan
I’d been at the same table the day before as well. If they served beer, I’d live at Starbucks. They’ve got really comfy chairs. A Japanese lady of about forty pulled up beside me with a little brown corgi on a bright orange leash, which she proceeded to padlock to her table, then went in to order.
I looked at the leash, the lock, and the dog. He looked at me, shrugged, and said “women.” Or maybe I said that. Anyway, we stared at each other and nodded.
When she returned with a clear cupful of what appeared to be whipped cream and strawberry jam, I remarked, “Don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody lock their dog to a table before.”
“Can’t be too careful,” she replied, eying me carefully, “lots of strange people in this country.”
Now, I would’ve taken exception to that remark, if I weren’t so strange. She had a good point too; I’ve seen and heard of my share of crime in Japan—shoplifting, car theft, bags and wallets stolen, rapes, arson. Plus that corgi would’ve made a great addition to my stable of pooches.
But then, plenty of folks go on about how safe Japan is. So which is the real Japan?
There is No Japan
Look, Japan’s a fiction. Trying to define “the real Japan” assumes there’s a single place with that name. That doesn’t exist, outside of the internet. Pretty much everything you could say about the nation, you could say the exact opposite and it would be equally true: Japanese people are considerate of others. They also blithely zigzag in front of you while walking through the station, pretend you’re not in line at the festival as they butt in, and calmly let the elevator door close in your face as you rush to make it, despite knowing you both live on the tenth floor and are, in fact, neighbors. Remember wishing you could be invisible? Not as great as you thought, eh.
Sure, Japanese people are quiet and respectful, except when shouting drunkenly outside your window at one a.m. They’re neat and tidy, because they piled everything into the closet before you arrived. It’s like a haunted house in there. And they don’t eat while walking, except for hot dogs, onigiri, ice cream, Egg McMuffins, and anything fried from Family Mart.
Which isn’t to say people here are good or bad—just that they come with both packaged together, like the poisonous liver inside a delicious fugu fish. It’ll only kill you every once in a while. Enjoy your meal.
Tales of Real Japan
Visitors describe the nation like a fairy-tale cotton candy land—“Japan is well known for its politeness and good manners,” with a noble citizenry practicing “extreme Japanese cleanliness,” while showing “respect for older adults.”
All of which is true, except for folks coughing and sneezing without covering their mouths, random morons dumping garbage in the mountains or releasing nuclear waste into the sea, and the epidemic of abandoned elderly dying alone.
So when people talk about “the real Japan,” well, which Japan’s that? Usually it’s no more than a neatly packaged Internet Japan that fails to account for the breadth of variation found in the real world. The Japan you experience may not line up with bloggers, vloggers, and anime fans commenting from their mother’s basement, because there are different Japans for different folks, depending upon . . .
1. What Race One Appears to Be
Just to lead with the incredibly obvious, you’ll receive entirely different treatment depending on how white, yellow, brown, red, or black you are. Writers talking about what a great or horrible place Japan is rarely mention that people who don’t resemble them can expect to encounter a different nation. What race gets the best treatment? That’s easy; just ask anyone—whatever race they’re not.
2. How Old You Are
I love writers in their twenties. They’re like, Awesome! I’m having the best time in Japan! Of course you are—everything’s fun at twenty-three. Walking through Shibuya half-drunk and bleary-eyed with a massive backpack searching for your hostel, passing out in the bottom bunk and sleeping till dark, then clubbing until the sun comes up. That’s a whole different Japan from some forty year-old couple staying in a hotel with actual doors and taking pictures of the contents in their mini bar. Wow, Toblerone chocolate. What an amazing country.
3. Your Gender and Sexual Orientation
I had a gay friend who didn’t last six months here. “I like big, hairy men,” he said. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure that’s why he hung out with me. Whatever. Suffice to say a straight, eighteen year-old blonde gal will experience a vastly different Japan than my dark-haired, thirty-six year-old butt buddy.
It’s also no secret that Japan lags the rest of the world in gender equality. The way women are treated is shocking, until you see how badly men have it. Either way, gender roles are often suspended for foreigners, something foreign writers routinely fail to notice in their accounts of Japan.
4. Where in Japan You Happen to Be
Hokkaido’s a stone’s throw from Russia, Kyushu’s a short ferry ride from Korea, and Okinawa’s closer to Taiwan than to mainland Japan. Japan’s comprised of forty-six loosely affiliated prefectures, each with its own distinct dialect, foods, customs, and genetics. Once you venture past the ubiquitous Mos Burger and Doutor Coffee shops ringing every train station, Japan’s peculiarly diverse.
You often hear Japan described as “an island nation,” suggesting it’s small and homogeneous, as well as an excuse for being closed in its thinking. Funny, but you rarely hear that about the U.K., Cuba, or New Zealand, which are even smaller island nations.
Japan’s got mountain ranges, beaches, deserts, one of the world’s most populous cities, and vast swaths of abandoned countryside. Which of those Japans various YouTubers live in certainly skews their video impressions of “Japan.” I also tend to think spending a few days touring random prefectures doesn’t count for much. Being a visitor, like being young, is generally pretty great.
5. How Long You’ve Been in Japan
The first few years I lived here, my Japan was fun, funny, and interesting. It was also fairly safe and relatively comfortable. Then I caught my boss stealing two hundred dollars from me, someone tried to boost my scooter, I wound up face to face with a yakuza murdering a guy in the middle of Ikebukuro station, and my neighbor committed suicide. Apparently given enough time in a sufficiently large city, lots of stuff can happen. Who knew?
On the other hand, you could live out in the rice fields for years and see nothing more than a few home break-ins, annoying scooter gangs, and some sloppy graffiti. You can be here for decades, think you know “the real Japan,” then move prefectures and—boom!—it’s a whole new country.
6. When You Were Last Here
Most of the books, articles, and videos about Japan are excruciatingly out of date. Anything more than fifteen minutes old is history. Just from the top of this article to here, things have already changed. I’m like, Shit, now I gotta rewrite that.
When I first stepped off the plane, there was no Google Maps, Google Translate, or Skype. I stumbled around clutching pages torn from a Tokyo road atlas, and spent days pumping coins into payphones and trying to cash traveler’s checks. The iPhone literally changed everything. Thanks for fucking up the country, Steve Jobs.
Now, with the coronavirus, holy balls, it’s a different world all over again. You almost never see a face without a mask and you’re swimming in a sea of alcohol sanitizer. The place was always uptight, but now, wrapped in plastic, it feels like working in a cleanroom. What’s the point of Japan without bars, restaurants, onsen, or karaoke? Might as well live in Iceland. Whatever nation emerges from this is gonna make a lot of books obsolete. Present company excepted.
7. How Much Japanese You Can Manage
If you’re black or white, the Japanese folks you meet will almost miraculously speak some English. And once you start speaking Japanese, things really take off. Then nobody wants to talk to you at all. What a weird place.
But even more than speaking, reading Japanese transforms the nation completely. There are warnings and prohibitions posted everywhere, and the news is a constant parade of crimes and scandals. Illiterate Japan’s a much nicer country, in other words. Too often, people “reporting” on Japan seem to lack a fundamental grasp of what’s all around them.
8. Who Your Partner Is
A person with a Japanese spouse and a child enrolled in public school lives in a whole different Japan from some single dude hanging out in bars. Or so I’m told.
From what I’ve seen, having those appendages will either draw you in closer to the nation—as you enjoy the excitement of participating in PTA meetings and community grass trimming events—or push you further away, as you depend upon your partner to read all your indecipherable mail and accompany you to city hall and the doctor’s office.
Even having a Japanese wife or husband is no guarantee of deeper insight into Japan; in fact, it may be quite the opposite. Japanese people dating foreigners seem often to be searching for something other than boring old Japan. So they travel abroad, learn English and foreign customs, only to wind up back here with your ass.
9. How Much of a Shithole Nation You’re From
During the monsoon season, a friend from England proudly announced “I’ve no problem with the weather here, year round.” The very next day, a gal I know from Southern California said, “I wouldn’t have moved to Japan if I’d known how much it rained.” I was like, What the eff? You both live in the same city—is the weather good or bad?
To me, Japan seems a supremely average place. The climate’s not great, but manageable. The standard of living is squarely middle class. It’s kinda safe. It’s sometimes quiet. It’s passively racist. It’s generally convenient. At times, it’s somewhat fun. You could do worse.
It’s probably easier to gush about Japan if you come from a nation with rampant poverty, violence, homelessness, virulent racism, or an unusual amount of precipitation. In other words, how much you love Japan depends in part upon how much you hate where you left. It’s all relative, and anything’s better than New Jersey.
10. How You Roll the Dice
The truth is, it’s completely possible to live in Japan without ever living in Japan.
I’ve met heaps of folks living in what they considered to be Japan—on military bases, attending international universities, or working for foreign companies. Not to mention a number who just hung out with foreign friends, watched overseas TV, and relied upon their spouses for all things Japanese. Hey, that’s all good. There’s no prize for being Japanese-ier than thou. You can wash your clothes in hot water and have nice things, like a chair.
But those Japans are pretty different from the guy folding dumplings on an assembly line eight hours a day or the withered old lady polishing urinals with a scrubee. Authenticity and glamour seldom go hand in hand. Lots of people are happy to avoid getting too deep into Japan, including more than a few Japanese folks.
Like blind men feeling an elephant, there are a multitude of ways to experience the same thing. My suggestion would be to avoid the tail, but that’s just me. So what’s real? Who the hell knows. Japan’s got seven thousand islands, stretching north, south, east, and west, encompassing old and new, and changing constantly. I’ve lived here for years and can barely wrap my head around it. The only thing I can say for sure is—if Real Japan met Internet Japan walking down the street, they’d barely even recognize each other.