Real Japan: Why Everything You’ve Heard is Wrong

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. Which race gets the best treatment? That’s easy; just ask anyone—whichever 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.

78 Replies to “Real Japan: Why Everything You’ve Heard is Wrong”

  1. So true ken. Japan is like England and not like England. It’s like north Korea and not like north Korea. It’s like Canada and not like Canada. The problem is the stereotypes of Japan still abundant on YouTube etc are so passe and mostly so inaccurate. I have been here 27 years this week, hooray and yet I still haven’t found ‘japan’ and neither do I want to…I do know it’s a much better place to live than a lot of places in the world……and it isn’t, at the same time!

  2. right on. I agree 100 percent. Espeically on that once you learn Japanese properly, you kind of wish you did not after the media makes sense

  3. Ahhh alcohol. The great leveller of all races. Everybody is awful when drunk and yelling at 1.00am, unless it’s you having the time of your life!

    1. True that. It’s only a nuisance when it’s not you. If you’re partying, then it’s all the sober, sleeping people who’re the problem.

  4. Like Japan’s street addressing system, the country is indecipherable. But the myth of Japan is irresistible.

  5. Just wanted to share some thougts.

    Regarding number 9, have to totally agree. I have seen the biggest stuggles in adapting to Japan from the people from Western People, including myself. Apart from food and nature, sometimes I struggle to name what parts of my life actually got upgraded by moving here. Then you talk with people from the Philippines, Russia and Americans and hear how safe, clean and stable Japan is, how health care works amazingly and is affordable. Indeed, what makes a headline issue really depeds on where you come from.

    On number 10, dealing with the folks living on military bases, or living with the support from the base really opened my eyes to this bubble of Japan. I met various retired servicemen in Okinawa, most of whom had been living there for almost 20 years. Some did not know the meaning of “matsuri”, or did not find it strange that after all these years most of them spoke zero Japanese. When they needed anything, whether it was school for the kids, mailing something to US or ingredients for their favourite dishes, all it took was a quick visit to a military base. Instead I was constantly asked “HOW can I know Japanese? Are you born here or half-Japanese?” It is interesting how the attitude was similarly to that I experienced from the locals. There is zero adaptation into the local society. Still, it was living in Japan.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Yeah, I also felt numbers 9 and 10 were particularly important (and frequently overlooked).

      By the way, your sentence here really resonated with me: “Apart from food and nature, sometimes I struggle to name what parts of my life actually got upgraded by moving here.” Yeah, me too. Only I’ve lived in lots of places with better nature than I’ve seen in Japan, so now we’re just down to food. Which is, admittedly, quite excellent.

      1. “By the way, your sentence here really resonated with me: “Apart from food and nature, sometimes I struggle to name what parts of my life actually got upgraded by moving here.” Yeah, me too. Only I’ve lived in lots of places with better nature than I’ve seen in Japan, so now we’re just down to food. Which is, admittedly, quite excellent.”

        My (Japanese) wife is constantly complaining about the food here in Germany. I myself do miss the food in Japan, but it’s not like there’s no yummy stuff here …

    1. Ah, thanks much for the encouragement. I’ve certainly got plenty of material; it’s just putting it all together that takes work, which I’m unfortunately allergic to. Maybe I just need more coffee. Like, a lot.

  6. Greetings,

    Good & Bad things abound – everywhere.
    Maybe the thing with Japan is that the good things are remarkably good thus making the bad things – by sheer contrast alone – noticeably bad?

    Disclosure: never been to Japan, but peeling the mandarin shell whole makes perfect sense to me, and a non-issue to most of my countryfolk, whom clearly prefer to dispose of their trash as quickly and conspicuously as possible (e.g., on any public space, regardless – or especially when – trash cans are available. A passable definition of ‘a shithole country’, as far as I’m concerned).

    (No point in revealing where I live: many foreigners – especially from more uptight regions of the globe – come here and suddenly seem to really enjoy themselves participating in the soiling “freedom”. To each his own. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, I reckon. The thing is, some ‘Romes’ are more easy going – and dirty – than others.)

    1. “Maybe the thing with Japan is that the good things are remarkably good thus making the bad things – by sheer contrast alone – noticeably bad?”

      Mmmm, wouldn’t be my first guess. More realistically, the thing with Japan is that things are remarkably average. Nothing wrong with mediocrity, of course, if that’s your thing.

  7. Thanks for the great article as always!

    Recently we have come to discover some unAmericanJapanese things to do such as:
    – suspending parliament
    – fine people who do not stay home
    – Jail people who do not stay home
    – mandatory ‘vaccines’ (or so called)
    – bully people into getting a jab

    and some very Japanese things to do as well:
    – allowing Nationals to fly back to Japan, but not law abiding resident card holders

    So it is a very interesting period to learn more about where we live


  8. I’ve experienced those many Japans. Couldn’t agree with this article more.

    I’ve been there as a US gov contractor and all their privileges.

    I’ve had (past tense) a Japanese wife to make things easier.

    I took some college Japanese to open things up for me and it did.

    I’ve traveled all across the country on my own. Countryside, cities. Without US gov privileges.

    Partied in Roppongi until the sun came up, soaked in Yufuin’s onsen and gone to bed at 9pm.

    39yr old white male here.

  9. “To me, Japan seems a supremely average place. The climate’s not great, but manageable.”

    As always, almost 100% agreement – but!
    The climate in Tokyo is horrible. It’s honestly one of the reasons I moved back to Germany. Brutally hot summer for 6 months a year? Starting with two weeks of permanent rain, resulting in a permanent sauna experience?

    No, thank you!

    If I were to ever move back to Japan it would have to be Hokkaido or somewhere close.

    1. When I first got the opportunity to teach in Japan (if one could call it that), I requested Tokyo, and was stoked to get it. Tokyo was great! For about a month. After several years, I actually kind of hated it. Having to wear a suit and tie, being pressed into a train to the point you couldn’t breathe, and then it being a thousand degrees—man, fuck that place. Fortunately, Japan’s bigger than Tokyo. So yeah, I know what you mean.

  10. The past tense of lie is lay.
    So the 2nd line should say “She lay on the sidewalk with a broken wrist.”

    English is difficult.

    1. I must’ve looked at that sentence a hundred times. It always seemed off, although I googled to make sure it was correct. Turns out you actually have to read the information presented. And now I’ve failed the seventh grade.

      Thanks for the help, seriously. I made the correction.

      1. May I add: somewhere in your earlier post (and in your book, I dunno?) you used the word “phased” when you wanted “fazed”.

    1. From the movie Dogma:

      Bartleby: Hello, we’d like two tickets to New Jersey, please.
      Bus Station Attendant: Jersey’s sold out, sir.
      Loki: What?
      Bus Station Attendant: There’s one at the same time tomorrow. I suggest you not underestimate the staggering drawing power of the Garden State, and show up two hours in advance.

    2. Paul Newman said NJ was the armpit of America. It could have been a lower body part, so don’t complain.

      Least educated states:
      44 Oklahoma 36.04 43 36
      45 Kentucky 36.02 46 14
      46 Alabama 32.29 45 41
      47 Arkansas 30.06 47 31
      48 Louisiana 25.72 48 42
      49 Mississippi 25.18 49 44
      50 West Virginia 23.65 50 39

  11. Hey Seeroi San.
    Great work again.
    I like;
    if Real Japan met Internet Japan walking down the street, they’d barely even recognize each other.
    When trying to shed some light on the subject whilst talking to folks I use the descriptor;
    “The great mythconception of Japan”.
    Now all you bods that enjoy Ken’s work,PayPal him $10 so he can sit and ponder and write us another article.
    Cheers Craig.

    1. Thanks, Craig. I’m not great at doing actual work, but when it comes to the old sit and ponder, I’ve got it like a superpower.

  12. Ken, please start a youtube channel to show these young bucks how it’s done.

    Tears, urinal scrubbing, jaded-ness(?), tears in ramen instead of water – I’ll take it all!

    After living the life in Moscow all throughout my 20s and then having a kid, I realized, once life forces you to settle down, it kind of becomes a similar suck fest – routine, monotony.

    Then I look at most YouTubers in general and they are young and in the, I would say party phase / freedom phase.
    I have concluded that this phase is pretty fun in most countries. Makes for good content and editorials.

    I’ll wake up when I want, bang a chick then go off all week for an adventure, vlogging myself into oblivion. Which then turns into I will get up at 7am and argue with my todler about going to kindergarten, I will then be late and be highly stressed.

    But each life has a phase.

    If the average J youtuber worked like an average Japanese person on the hardcore schedule, eventually, the life would be sucked clean out of them. Hey guys, just making a quick video about my 15 hour day and not going on vacation. yay

    Then again, there would be no content for people like me who have a weird interest in Japan.

    That being said, please make a youtube channel and remain some kind of peter pan japan expat

    1. Youtubers. There are a few I’ve followed for years, like SV Delos for example. They’re great in the beginning, hitting their stride, exotic adventures, dialing in their videography skills, bikini-clad sailing crew tagging along that change every few months. Then the captain finds his better half, they have a kid, and it becomes just another couple and a little rug rat. At which point I usually lose interest. Too much like monotonous real life at that point. Who want’s to watch someone else’s toddler throw their sippy cup overboard?

  13. That first paragraph brought back painful memories of my first year in Japan. I, too, wiped out, albeit on a slippery metallic staircase outside my university cafeteria one rainy afternoon.

    In the 3-5 seconds it took to slide to the bottom, I noticed that all conversations around me stopped, and everyone halted in their steps, giving me a wide berth. They all waited for me to pick myself up, get my umbrella that had fallen a couple of feet to my right, and walk away (thanking my lucky stars that I never get physically red in the face).
    Then I heard all life resume behind me as I left scene of the ‘accident’, with a resolve to never return. Welcome to Japan.

    The sad thing is that I now tend to hesitate to offer any kind of help to Japanese people.

    1. “The sad thing is that I now tend to hesitate to offer any kind of help to Japanese people.”

      That’s inculturation, where you gradually adopt the norms of the society in which you live. I’m the same way. I guess there’s some good and bad to it. You don’t often help strangers, but neither do you bother them.

        1. I’ve heard Western people talk about “saving face,” but never Japanese people. That Japanese folks are particularly concerned with honor or shame is one of those Charlie Chan-style myths.

    2. It’s a common thing in asia to avoid drama on the street since many people have had very, very bad experiences involving helping others. Sometimes the victim or their relatives just want someone to scream at for a moment.
      (Not me though, i have and will always pick people up should they fall before me, befuddled)
      t. native

  14. Hey Ken, have you considered contacting some of the foreign youtubers that make content on japan and japanese culture? Sounds like you could get some sweet shilling done for your book, and I can only imagine how hilarious your interview could be.

    1. That’s a good idea. Maybe for the next book, though. YouTube can be a pretty gnarly place, and I’m just not ready to wade in there. Also, seems mighty time-consuming.

  15. Number 10 particularly rings with me.
    I lived in Hong Kong for some years. Every westerner I met either lived in a student/traveller dosshouse or “On The Peak”, the posh bits high up in the hills out of the weather. I lived in a village on the edge of an industrial estate. When walking around I’d get people asking if I was lost. (Lei Yue Mun if people know it)

    When I finally got to Japan a few years ago I similarly lived in some “ordinary housing”, and on wandering around the area (Meguro) again got people asking if I was lost. 🙂

  16. I think this notion of having a different perspective depending on where/status/race/how old you are is true to every country sans the overwhelmingly positive propaganda
    Good post, keep them coming. And how is teaching going (or not) ?

    1. Teaching is a remarkably hard profession, mentally as well as physically. Of course, at times it’s also rewarding and even fun. But standing and speaking for hours is definitely a job, which is why it comes with a paycheck, I suppose. Suffice to say I’m looking forward to summer break.

      Thanks for asking.

      1. And here I thought due to the lockdown-ish restrictions you could video lesson your students from home while lying on the floor and secretly eating snacks while no one was looking.

        1. Heh, online lessons are actually harder. Although it’s true that you can dispense with showering.

          As far as corona restrictions go, the rules seem to be all over the place. I’m conducting both in-person and online classes, depending on where I work. I currently have one full-time and three part-time jobs.

      1. Old joke: First prize, one week in India, second prize, two weeks in India. You could substitute New Jersey, or Alabama. Or first prize, one week as a backpacker in Japan, second prize, two weeks as salriman in Japan.

  17. Very good article, as always. Numbers 2 and 5 really resonate with me. Now that I’m back in the U.S. after 20 years in Japan, I’m wondering if there’s a refractory period for Japan. If I stay out long enough, will the wonder and magic of the place return to me upon my arrival? Probably not, now that I’m older and about to get married. But hey, I might have to try and find out (unless I have a kid, in which case it’ll all be over).

    1. I think once you’ve used up your three wishes, no amount of pleading with the genie returns the lamp to its former state. I’m not even sure if going to a new country would work any more. Although I’d be willing to give it a go.

      1. Well I suppose you’re right. What I can say is that some of the things one starts to tune out in Japan after having lived there long enough do seem to appear magical again from afar once one has been away for some time. As I recommended before, you might want to try Vietnam. I sometimes wish I’d done so. But I still think Japan is amazing and special.

        1. Been there, done that. Seems like all of us Japanophiles are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Once you have lived in – and suffered through – Japan long enough, you HAVE to get out, but once you are away and there is enough distance between you and all of the terrible memories that forced you out in the first place, you HAVE to get back. Once you are back, the cycle repeats. Rinse and repeat. The more time transpires between a traumatic event, the less of the trauma you feel. Then it’s back into water for you, frog. With all luck, you’ll get out again before you boil.

          1. Interestingly (maybe) is that I was convinced that if I ever wanted to go back to Japan, I could just hop on a plane and go. I didn’t want to deal with potential tax ramifications of having permanent residency, so I never got it. Then when I desperately wanted to move back to Japan last year after various turmoil in the US last year, I couldn’t. I think this is a good thing. I’m forced to rebuild my life back in the U.S. unless or until travel opens back up to Japan (although my Chinese wife does have Japanese PR so she could theoretically sponsor me). Coming back home can be hard. But to your point regarding trauma, I sometimes have to remind myself that here at least I’m treated like an adult. For example, I was unable to renew my Japanese credit card due to having been late on several payments (long and boring story). But despite having been in the student loan abyss for a decade and doing the same on my US credit card, I was able to build my credit back up here and get a no limit card here. America is the land of second (and third and forth) chances. Japan can be a pretty unforgiving place. I still love it, though. If you do move back here, I recommend making a friend who’s lived in Japan before. I have a good friend from Japan who also lives here (in Chicago). We talk about life in Japan all the time. I miss it and vacillate between wanting to move back and wanting to stay here. He’s done with Japan and never wants to go back. We are two battle worn veterans..

  18. And then there are all of the immutable parts of Japan that cut across all differences. Like the fact that reason takes a serious back seat to the “way things are.” Trying to reason with a Japanese based on logic and principles of fairness is like jumping out of a plane at 30,000 feet without a parachute and expecting to land on your feet unscathed. You’re not a cat, and, at the end of the day, the Japanese don’t really care about reason, logic and fairness. If you don’t like it, you can always go home. And then there is the utterly demoralizing realization after many years of living in the country that the Japanese people closest to you are also hopelessly moored to this way of thinking. You’re right. Your first years of ignorant bliss in Japan can be thrilling. But many years later, after you have learned to speak and read the language and had the same mind-numbing exchange about where you are from, whether you can eat natto and how skilled you are with chopsticks for the bizillionth time, you realize, too late really, that you will never be an individual here – you will live and die the embodiment of the prevailing Japanese stereotypes about your race. Enjoy your Frappucino…

    1. ご愁傷様です。 🙂

      I for one didn’t hate Japan, but still chose to go back to Germany and it was definitely the right decision for my family and myself.

      Also: If you meet Japanese for the first time you do get the obligatory chopsticks and co. questions a lot of course, but, you know, even Japanese are individuals! …. and also you can be “rude” and tell them from the very moment you meet someone new to fuck off with the “ah foreigner BS”. And sometimes they will even understand 🙂
      Mastery of Japanese helps with these kinds of interactions of course.

      1. The problem is that the same tired old comments are trotted almost every time you deal with the Japanese. It’s almost as if there is some secret script the Japanese read from, the same 20 questions that are safe to discuss with foreigners. The one-dimensional aspect of those interactions is positively frustrating.

        I don’t push back every time I get the foreigner routine, but I do sometimes. I used to avoid this to opt to be more “polite” – to do things the Japanese way – but you never get credited for doing things that way anyway, and people will continue with these insipid questions ad nauseam if the practice is never challenged, so I actually think it is better to tell people that you don’t care for that line of questioning.

        Mastery of Japanese helps to some extent, but I actually find that the better your Japanese and the less you look like you “should” be able to speak Japanese, the more uncomfortable your Japanese counterpart can become. Have an Asian face? Then Japanese is not only okay, but expected. But for white guys, you shouldn’t be able to speak Japanese even if you can. I am what you might call a near-native in Japanese, and speak it and use it regularly as part of my job, and I can attest to the fact that the Japanese still have a hard time swallowing the fact that white guys have “cracked the code.” So, in many ways, you will be treated better and as less of an alien if you just give your interlocutor what they want – a FOB foreigner who can’t use chopsticks or pronounce the simplest Japanese words to save his life. (I can’t tell you the number of times I use to have to engage in “language battles” where the Japanese I was speaking to in Japanese would simply refuse to speak to me in Japanese. This would happen sometimes in emails, and it wasn’t a reflection of the quality of my spoken or written Japanese. There is just something going on in the brains of many Japanese telling them that white foreigners really shouldn’t be using their language – that they really need to communicate with them using English. I have had a boss become visibly upset when I would use Japanese in a meeting and, on multiple occasions, would speak Japanese with a Japanese for 30 minutes only to have them later ask if I spoke Japanese (in Japanese). This is all Twilight Zone-level stuff. The Japanese will constantly downplay the importance of language – describing as simply a “tool” – but clearly it is very important to most Japanese. The rabbit hole runs deep, my friend.

        1. I remember a sketch in an English Language newspaper in Japan many years ago. It showed an Ethnic Majority Japanese Person approaching a white male. The former thinks, “This is the first Gaijin I have ever met, therefore I am the first Japanese he has ever met!”. He then says to the white male, in English, “Can you use chopsticks?”.

        2. I recognize some of the situations you described for sure.
          I mean even in my current company I sometimes get emails in part English or completely in English despite the other person knowing perfectly well that I speak and write excellent Japanese. But I don’t see this as a problem, if their English isn’t completely broken. Let them have their English practice. If I had a case of completely broken English I would definitely start a “commotion”. I have a certain status in the company, so I also don’t think someone would dare to be too obstinate and the top brass speak to me in Japanese already.

          I also remember vividly a few episodes where I was standing in front of someone I didn’t know and plainly speaking Japanese and they just wouldn’t register and go on trying to communicate in broken English. One time I got really pissed when talking to a random guy (definitely Japanese) at the supermarket or somewhere and shouted at the person, something like: “Are you retarded? I am clearly speaking Japanese to you, bitch!” .. this was followed by awkward silence. I don’t remember what happened after that, but I think I left 🙂

          Japanese and English, Japanese and foreigners … always good topics 🙂

          1. So I recently went to get some new tires for my car. There were a variety of tires available, with prices under each brand.

            The Japanese mechanic showed me his recommendation, along with a price for four tires on a calculator. Our exchange went like this:

            Me: “My car’s basically a piece of junk. Are these the cheapest tires?”

            Him: “Yes.”

            Me: “The cheapest? I don’t need anything great.”

            Him: “Yes, they’re the cheapest.”

            Me: “What about these other ones? Aren’t these cheaper?”

            Him: “Yes, they are.”

            Me: “And how about these? They’re even cheaper, right?”

            Him: “Yes, that’s right.”

            This same scenario has played out dozens of times, in different variations. The reason I bring it up, and it’s connection to the language, is that I keep making the same mistake–for some reason, I expect Japanese folks to be decent, fair, and at least realatively nice. I don’t know why, but I don’t think they’re going to cheat me, lie to me, steal from me, or talk down to me. And thus I’m continually disappointed.

            I find that once I stop thinking of Japanese people as somehow nicer than people everywhere else, things make a lot more sense. Just expect people to treat you like shit, and you’ll rarely be disappointed.

            1. Ken Seeroi – Thanks for pointing that out. So many foreigners have this unshakable and unfounded faith in the honesty and sincerity of Japanese people. Sure, there are nice people here, but there are also lots of assholes. A sure sign that a foreigner doesn’t understand Japan is that he or she attributes good intentions to everything a Japanese does. The sad thing is that there are foreigners who have lived here for decades who still haven’t come out of this trance. In my estimation, a lot of them are in the deep throes of Stockholm Syndrome, wanting to be loved and accepted so much by their hostage takers that they can’t see what is going on around them clearly.

              It’s funny, when I read your accounting, I didn’t feel like the guy was trying to rip you off. He just sounded like he wasn’t listening. He seemed to be giving you the most minimal answers – half like he just didn’t want to be there talking to you. This also happens sometimes in the Japanese-foreigner language contact situation. They may speak with you, but you can tell they really aren’t listening or taking your questions seriously. I would have just thanked the guy and left. Sounds like that’s what you may have done.

          2. Hanayagi – It all depends on the context. In my case, I was writing or responding to emails in Japanese and the Japanese refused to use it with me (and only me, even when there were other Japanese copied on the email they were communicating with in Japanese). If you have a working relationship with people in your company where you write to each other in English, or you are comfortable just “letting them practice,” that is fine, but what I am talking about is linguistic discrimination (for the record, I try to avoid that loaded word nowadays, but I thought about it for a minute, and really couldn’t come up with anything more appropriate). Imagine a world in the US where we refused to use English with immigrants who emailed us in English and only responded to them in their native language. Sometimes reframing the situation in terms we can understand makes the lunacy of a situation more palpable.

            The problem I have is that language choice in Japan is a weapon constantly used to position you in Japanese society. It can be used to include but is often used to exclude – remind you that you are the other and are not one of us. Yes, I understand that some people will raise the “English as an international language” argument here and cry tough cookies, but English’s status as an international language is not an excuse for refusing to speak to foreigners in the local language. The Japanese refusal to use the local language with foreigners based on their race is even more absurd because those same Japanese expect that it is only natural and normal that you use English with them (this, too, has its roots in the “English as an international language” drivel, which is usually the go-to excuse for Japanese who want to justify their linguistic exclusion of certain foreigners.)

            1. JP, every time you try to translate a situation like that here in Japan to another context it becomes even clearer how bizarre it is, doesn’t it? In my university there are flyers for part-time jobs. One of the criteria is “foreign residents acceptable/ not acceptable”. Now imagine posting a job offer in America and stating you don’t accept foreign residents! The fact that it’s there, on paper, astonishes me. It means that they do not see anything about it that’s “off”. It’s not even done on the sly. It’s printed ink on paper.
              (Also I called one of these “yeah we’ll take foreigners, we’re cool” places with my broken Japanese and they said they had no positions anymore. But when I asked my Japanese friend to call it later on that same day, surprise, they had an opening.)

              1. Flavia – Yes, and that’s when you discover just how deep the rabbit hole goes. It’s not just the person who drafted the flyer – it’s all of the Japanese who saw the flyer and thought to themselves “nothing to see here.” This lack of empathy has been an issue I have struggled with for ages here in Japan. The apparent contradiction between the smiling faces and “Japanese omotenashi,” on the one hand, and the clear lack of worry by just about anyone about obvious exclusionary conduct. Once you take the red pill, which I imagine a lot of you have but most foreigners never really do, you can’t unlearn the discovery. It’s tough – I won’t lie. As a guy who can’t really go back home because my whole professional life is based here, it’s an issue I struggle with on a regular basis. Am glad to have guys like you, Ken and others on this board to let off some steam. Thank you.

            2. In a society so loaded with superior / inferior language and behavioral clues, being “other” protects you from being judged as rude and totally inappropriate. So, consider being grateful.

  19. I remember the “language battles”. For me it was just to prove who had the better command of the other’s language. We would then speak in the “winner’s” language which was always in Japanese for me as I refused to give up. Your comments are all spot on. Thanks.

    1. Joe – Thanks. In my experience, it was never about who was better – my Japanese counterpart would continue unabashed no matter how much better my Japanese was. The whole point of the exercise was to put me in my proper place.

      Am glad to make your acquaintance and hope we can chat more in the days to come. Thanks to your logo, just found out that you have a book on Amazon. Am looking forward to reading that. Take care.

  20. Just want to send a quick shout out to Ken Seeroi, who is moderating all of this.

    I realize it’s an imposition on your free-time to have to review and approve comments and just want to thank you for making all of this possible. Oh, and of course, really enjoy all of your posts.

    1. My pleasure.

      Discrimination is a big problem in Japan. Japanese people love to make distinctions based upon age, race, gender, language, and just about anything else one could imagine. Nobody’s concerned about discrimination against foreign-looking people, because Japanese folks are so caught up in discriminating against each other.

      The key to living comfortably in Japan is figuring out how to deal with this without losing your shit.

  21. Woah. I’ve been out for a long time here in Ken’s Japan shitposting xd

    Well, what can I say. Whenever I am back here to read is funny how I start to feel the Japan-weird-relationship all over AGAIN.

    It’s always the country I’ve been told vs the country people end up hating OR like the Japanese girl who I simped for 2 years and now she tries to send me weird signals to maybe get me back. I cutted off because she was literally mocking on me, i traveled 50 km to see her just to ended up laughing at me, and leaving me alone. She was so shameless that she literally flirted with friends of mine or with random guys publicly. Wait there’s more, she told me indirectly that I was worth nothing because I was Mexican, after she knew that I was from german ascendancy she remarked if had the Germanys visa. Last but not least. When I dedicated a song to her she just replied with a mocking face in the chat. Literally she made a mocking face and that was her reply. One of my fav songs btw. She then told me that it was a childish behaviour of her and that is not so Japanese.

    And yet… people say… Japanese people are so POLITE, MY ASS those bastards will fuck you up if they have the chance and you act as a good guy. So that’s why I know first hand that Japanese aren’t so polite, in fact all the stress, tightness, repression and systemfuckering makes them really aggressive. Japanese really knows how to fuck up with people, they know how to be evil because they’ve been so all the things I mentioned, and yet they still try to hide it.

    I mean is like if Germans portrayed as calmly good guys, like Canadians. Or maybe if Brazilian portray themselves as the most neat country on earth. Never! Then WHY TRY TO FAKE IT? Idk

    It also looks like Japan is a place of huge contrasts, it is all is black or white. Not middle. Not calm. Just contained feelings.

    But I have to say, I love the feeling of reconnecting with Japan (even after that shitty Ayaka girl who destroyed my selfsteem). I had too leave the Japan thing for a while because it was too much for me xd , but now that I am recconecting, the good part is that japan makes me deep-analyze again and they sitll have pokemon and cool stuff so we are ok again.

    So let me tell you, because I am inspired and sorry for my shitty english bro I am really trying to improve. But I think that I might empathize with you on how Japanese can be really shitty false people

    Besides my last story. I just read the Japantoday again and I realized how grim it is for little girls in Japan -actually I read this up in a quora- but is rwally true. There’s constantly guys in their 40s gropping, assaulting high school girls or a recent case of a girl with 27 years murdered by a crazy guy while she was sleeping.

    Maybe she lived alone, as many girls become independent and live alone in big cities. Idk. Is just grim and dark, that’s the sensation

    But how is it possible that in a super polite country that everyone knows as Japan they constantly have this type of things. My parents told me during this olympics “oh Japan looks like a friendly place! So beautiful people” but then I remember my past experiences and all of the true Japan and I have to think ‘well I will just stfu and let the things continue their way, because there’s no need to say anything about Japan to my parents’.

    So these kind of cases still amuse me. But when I get some reality from my country, like recently I had a bad experience were I got myself into a really bad neighborhood and believe me ,the thingz I saw, jeez, I just prefer boredom at any cost!

    When you see this type of decomposition in society I think ‘ Japan doesnt look so bad’ because violence, people on drugs, hunger or abuses that when I recall for peace. And that’s when I hope always for equilibrium.

    Not so tight, controlled oppressive like Japan but not so disruptive, violent, or imprudent as some parts of Mexico.

    But well that’s all for now. As a sociologist I like to write like this again, gbye Ken! Keep writing.

    1. Thanks for the comment, although it was a bit lengthy.

      Sounds like there’s a gap between expectation and reality. Japan’s a frequently misunderstood nation, because of the language and the fact things aren’t stated openly. It’s easy to misread folks, and to fill in the blanks with “politeness,” “shyness, “kindness,” or anything else you want to dream up.

      I find if I have incredibly low expectations that I’m rarely disappointed.

  22. Another great article. Btw, nuclear energy is not like the Simpsons.
    If your job is to demystify things, you should also study how nuclear energy works. There is no problem in throwing some water into the sea. We already believe in science, that’s why we inject things into our bodies to protect ourselves from unseen enemies.
    Greetings from Venezuela.

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