Everything you know about Japan is wrong

Photo by Andre Benz on Unsplash

Japan is one of those countries that doesn’t leave anyone indifferent, you either hate it or love it.

It has pulled its weight in the international arena. Not many countries can brag about having exported their culture to every corner of the planet as Japan has. And the funny thing is, they didn’t even try. It was the world that peeked inside Japan and became fascinated by its idiosyncrasies.

The world’s curiosity about Japanese society, culture, and technology knows no limits.

Could you name some Japanese dishes? Sushi, ramen, sashimi, teriyaki, tofu.

Can you recognize some Japanese words? Geisha, harakiri, kamikaze, samurai, typhon, tsunami, karaoke, sake, manga, anime, emoji, dojo, sensei, zen, futon, yakuza

Chances are you know and use many of these words and know some aspects surrounding these concepts.

Could you do the same with Korean, Chinese or Russian language?

My point is, most people know more about Japan than any other country in the world (apart from their own)

That’s quite remarkable for such a small country so far away from the west and more so considering Japanese is not spoken outside its borders unlike English, Spanish, or French.

How come Japan’s image is so international?

Unique culture

Very few countries have such a unique culture with so many traditions that have been preserved for centuries. This is perhaps related to the isolation period, Japan was closed to the world from 1639 to 1853, in which they develop distinctive traditions which they managed to preserve to this day.

The right balance between tradition and modernity has been achieved like nowhere else. Kimonos, Geishas, ikebana, tea ceremony, martial arts, kabuki, shiatsu, Zen, Japanese cuisine, and many others — These traditions are centuries old, take a lifetime to master and the level of perfection they achieve is remarkable.

Economic success

Very few countries have managed to survive the devastation of WWII and then go on to become the second economy in the world in what was called the Japanese miracle.

And they did it not by being cheap but by producing quality products that we all buy and use to this day — Mitsubishi, Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Sony, Fuji, Canon, etc.

The Japanese industry became an example worldwide and many countries tried to emulate their success by using philosophies like Kaizen, ISO 9000, and Just In Time.

War

Not only they lost the war but in which way. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were devastated by the atomic bomb.

Japan committed terrible crimes during the war but they cleaned their act and were quickly forgiven, at least by the west. Perhaps out of guilt or because the blame went to Germany, the thing is Japan went from hated to loved overnight.

Not only they managed to survive the war but also they underwent a profound transformation from violent, warmonger country to a pacifist, law-abiding one.

That helped them score points in the international arena by projecting an image of reconciliation and rehabilitation.

Modernity

In the ’80s and ’90s Japan was the most futuristic country in the world. Encouraged by the economic miracle, they became cocky and decided to lead the world on technology. They became very creative, took many risks, some of which hit the target and became great successes — the Walkman, Video Tape recorders, electronic calculators, CD&DVD player, and digital cameras- All these spread around the world like wildfire leading a technological revolution.

Work ethics

Japan has been showing the world the way in business, technology, and know-how but decades but not only that. What companies in the west, admire most, was the commitment and dedication of Japanese workers. They don’t just work for money, they work for pride. Toyota workers have been known to correct minor cosmetic issues on random cars on the street out of loyalty to the company.

Japan myths and realities

Myth

One thing the Japanese are infamous for is their sex life.

The amount of sex-related articles, programs, and documentaries about Japan is unusual and it has produced an undeserved bad image of the country. Most of the stories are exaggerations, out of context or very rare.

Any article about Japanese kinky businessmen will go viral. The world is thirsty for these kind of stories but most of them are fabricated.

There are many stories about pedophilia, rape, sexual harassment, perversions, and the like but the reality is that Japan is the safest country in the world, the one with less crime and that includes sexual offenses. I have spent a considerable amount of time there and never witnessed anything even remotely dodgy or unethical. People are extremely polite so I find it difficult to believe all these juicy stories from the press. Of course, it is a big country, some people are crazy and can do some damage until they are caught, but much less than in many other places.

For example, children go to school on their own from the age of 4, often using public transport. Parents wouldn’t allow that if it wasn’t safe.

In 2009 an English escort girl was kidnapped, raped, and murder by a Japanese man. That story hit front pages all over the world. There were debates on TV about it for weeks. Exactly the same thing happens every day in the west and is completely ignored by the news. Double standards.

Reality

For a country that is so famous for is unusual sex habits, Japan is also famous for the opposite reason. Not enough sex.

According to some statistics, Japanese people are not only avoiding marriage but also relationships and even sex. There is a substantial percentage of the population that had decided to forgo sex completely. They have a name for them: herbivore men.

I personally know a lot of people (men and women) in their forties that not only are single but have every intention of remaining so. I believe the main reason for this is the complications that men and women have to endure to maintain a relationship.

In Japan, marriage is a gateway to having children. Couples are expected to produce offspring soon after the wedding. Because of this, women are expected to quit their job and bring up their children. Surviving with just one salary is not easy in Japan. This puts people off.

Having a relationship will eventually lead to marriage so they avoid this as well and casual sex is frowned upon. So what happens is men resort to prostitution or porn and women give up altogether. It is a sad state of affairs.

As a consequence, the birth rate is the lowest in the world. In 100 years’ time, there will be no Japanese people left. I guess China will take over and build a samurai theme park over there. Such a shame.

Myth

Japanese women are highly educated, very intelligent, they know their rights, and are not afraid about putting their foot down. I’ve worked with then and can be very assertive if the situation so requires.

This myth probably comes from observing the way they behave with customers. They are extremely polite (and so are men) because in Japan the customer is king. Polite yes, submissive no.

I remember an incident at Haneda airport when I joined the wrong queue and a lady came to me and told me off in no uncertain terms. They can be scary when they want. You don’t want to mess with them.

At home, is where the wife asserts herself. In Japan, the wife is the boss. She keeps and administers the money, she makes all the important decisions and the husband just tries to get away unscathed. Nowhere else I’ve seen such a display of power from the female side.

Myth

There is a big prostitution industry in Japan. but Geishas are not part of it.

Geishas are highly trained artists that are expert in traditional culture, poetry, and music. It takes a lifetime to become fully certified and it is a life full of discipline and sacrifices. That’s why their number is dwindling. Currently, there are only about 600 left countrywide when in the old times there were 80.000.

Geishas have been portrait by the media as a glamorous form of high-class prostitutes. This is just another chauvinistic male fantasy from horny journalists. Their job is to entertain customers with conversation, music, and haiku (Japanese poetry). Sometimes, that relationship could lead to sex, I’m sure, but so could the relationship between a female dentist and her customer and we don’t call them prostitutes for doing so. Whenever men and women mix, there is the potential for mutual attraction that can lead to something else.

Myth

Japanese people work long hours, but most of the time they don’t do anything, they are very inefficient.

Japanese work culture is about following procedures, there is no room for initiative or improvisation. This makes work very slow and bureaucratic. When they finally achieve a target, the end product is perfect although the process was inefficient.

Following Japanese etiquette, nobody leaves the office until the boss does. That’s the main reason for the long hours. Also after work, the team is expected to meet for socializing over dinner, drinks, and karaoke. This makes the work session extremely long.

Japanese people have a big problem making decisions, their culture is about delegating upwards to avoid responsibility. This slows down many processes and often no decision is ever reached. The officials are still deciding what to do with the Fukushima reactor 10 years later. Meanwhile they keep pouring water over it. Maybe what they need is more meetings.

I’m sure this is one of the reasons for Japan’s decline. They know China and Korea are taking over and yet they can’t respond. They know nuclear energy is too dangerous and they know the electric car is coming and yet, they don’t act on it. They are committing economic harakiri ( although Seppuku is the preferred word)

Myth

Japan was futuristic in the ’80s, now it is more backward than most developed countries. They find it difficult to adapt to changes, to make decisions, and to pivot. An example: most people still used the flip phone, partly because the government slowed down the introduction of smartphones. Back in the late ’90s, they were number one in phone technology, now you won’t find any Japanese company in the top ten. Again they lack initiative and flexibility.

Reality

More adult nappies are sold in Japan than baby ones. There is no future for Japan.

Reality

Japanese people are heavy drinkers, most of the time is after work, socializing, which is compulsory. Other times is just voluntary. Beer and whiskey are the preferred libations. One night I went out with a bunch of colleagues and after a heavy session they all congratulated me for the amount I was able to ingest. In Spain they call me drunk, in Japan, I was a hero.

Despite the amount of alcohol they regularly drink they are not good drinkers. They usually fall asleep on the table after a few. Apparently, they lack the enzyme to break down alcohol in the liver and that’s why they get drunk quickly. But they keep trying, eventually they’ll get there.

Myth

There is a stereotype that Tokyo has no signs in English and therefore you’ll get lost forever in a maze of Japanese Kanji. Not true.

All the signs you need are in English, if it’s not in English you can ignore it safely. If you need directions, ask and they’ll take you there even if they don’t speak English. Most people have a good level of English but they are shy to communicate and make mistakes. You won’t get lost in Tokyo. Don’t worry.

Reality

It’s almost impossible to find bad food in Japan, regardless of taste. Even cheap places are of very high quality. Only for this reason is worth a visit. Tokyo has more 3 Michelin starts restaurants than Paris, London or New York combined.

Reality

About 2000 people die every year from stress-related illnesses.

Reality

Reality

You could drop your wallet in a busy street in Tokyo and somebody will return it to you untouched.

Unfortunately true

Reality

I’ve seen people asleep while standing up on the train only to wake up in the right station.

True

You don’t know what busy means until you’ve been in the 7:35 train to Shibuya station. I couldn’t even read my book, not enough room.

Conclusion

For some reason Japan has managed to get a lot of attention from the west. The world is fascinated by it. This creates many myths, good and bad, true and false.

People in Japan are not that different from any other country. They try to have a good life and to endure the difficulties of life, just like everyone else.

If you haven’t been to Japan yet, you don’t know what you are missing, grab your passport and run to the closest airport fast. Go there before the Chinese take over, it won’t be the same.

You’ll never regret it

Student of life. Trying to make sense of it all, be happy and help others achieve their dreams. Join me at: albertotheauthor@gmail.com

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