There’s an article going around the web right now called Dazed and Confucius: Nine Common Myths About China. Aside from the clever (if grammatically poor) title, it’s worth reading because it sheds some light on long-held Western beliefs regarding the Middle Kingdom, some of which I admit to believing myself.
I posted a link to it on Facebook and a friend commented that he’d like to see one on Japan. Seeing as these kinds of articles get written when countries’ economies are in their ascendency (and Japan’s is decidedly not) this probably won’t happen in any official capacity anytime soon. But I could always take a crack at it.
So here are my nine myths about Japan, presented in no specific order and with little to no research on my part other than having lived here and read a lot of books about the country. Some of these I’ve covered before in my blogs but hey, people have short attention spans.
1. Japan is the most technologically advanced country in the world
This is probably the most prevalent myth I hear from people in the West who haven’t actually lived in Japan. I first came to Japan in 2004 with these same expectations and was surprised to find everyone carrying a Mini Disc player instead of an iPod or some other MP3 player, which was already a few years old by that point. Fast-forward 10 years and a lot of my school stills use Mini Disc players. Hell, they still use cassette players, not to mention CD-ROMs and floppy drives in their computers running Windows XP. Japan is a country that loathes change. I’m surprised we’re not still using fax machines to communicate. Oh wait, we are. (I covered this myth in more depth here.)
2. Japanese women are passive
There is the idea of the passive Oriental woman, the one who massages your shoulders after a long day of work, brings you a beer and flatters your ego as you regale her with tales of the day at the office. Japanese men have this fantasy too, and fantasy is what it is, for to get it they go to a hostess bar and pay for it. Japanese women simultaneously run the house and take care of the kids as well as work (sure, there are lots of housewives in this country but many also have part-time jobs) while the men go out drinking. Women also run the household budget, with Japanese men famously turning over their paycheck to their wives, who in turn grant them an allowance. I know a lot of Japanese women and none of them are meek or timid. Like women all over the world, they are strong and they are awesome.
3. Japan is an aesthetically motivated culture
Once upon a time, Japanese things were beautiful. They were made exquisitely with a craftsmanship that required a lifetime of study. The Japan of today, though, is frustratingly tacky. Houses are concrete blocks, people walk around in tracksuits emblazoned with gold English lettering, and they upholster their car dashboards in pink shag. It’s shocking just how busy and loud things can get in the country that invented ikebana and the haiku.
4. Japanese people are all skinny
It’s true that Japanese people are fairly slim when compared with some other nations but to say that they are all skinny is just wrong. The visitor to Tokyo might be forgiven in thinking this, just as the visitor to Hollywood might say the same thing about America. These places are not representative of the countries at large. They are exceptions. Japan is full of humans who are all different sizes and shapes.
5. Japan is a small country
The Japanese themselves like this one. Japan is the 62nd largest country in the world by landmass. That doesn’t seem so big but it’s actually larger than almost 4/5ths of the countries of the world. When looking at population, that number moves up to 10th. Suddenly it doesn’t seem so small. Would a small country be the 3rd largest user of oil and electricity? The 5th largest consumer of natural gas and expeller of carbon dioxide? Would it have the 5th largest military budget in the world, ahead of France, India, Germany, and Israel, despite not having an actual military? Would a small country consume 1 in 10 of the fish in the world?
6. Japan is crazy
It bothers me when people say this because usually what they’re using as justification for this statement is some commercial or TV clip that has been completely removed from context, both thematic and cultural. What seems random and unexpected to the Western viewer makes perfect sense from a Japanese cultural point of view. Or else it’s satire and isn’t immediately recognizable as such, like the “I have a bad case of diarrhea” exercise video clip, which is often presented as a real thing and not a clip from a late-night comedy show. Can you imagine people in Japan watching a clip from The Onion site and mistaking it for a normal news broadcast? Another example is the crazy Japanese game show, which shows people being forced to do bizarre and humiliating things. These are not normal people but celebrities who are being paid to make fools of themselves.
7. Japanese people are always buttoned down and don’t know how to have fun
Anyone who seriously believes this has obviously never been to Japan. The cliché of working hard and playing harder is pretty apt in Japan. I remember seeing businessmen vomiting in the streets of Shinjuku at 7pm. It takes dedication to get that drunk that fast. I think this myth is pervasive because the Japanese have a bigger divider between formal and informal than Western countries do. They know when it’s time to be serious and they know when it’s time to let loose. I love going on field trips with my schools because it’s a chance to see the kids outside the classroom, when the formalities break down and they act just as goofy and silly as kids anywhere else in the world.
8. Japanese people love anime
Like most of you, I watched cartoons on Saturday mornings when I was young, and in the afternoon after school. I stopped sometime in high school because I outgrew them; I came to see cartoons as for kids. Anime is exactly the same thing. Sure, some adults are really into anime but I’ll bet you they don’t watch what elementary school kid watch; they watch what they liked when they were young. OK, yes, there are otaku types who like modern anime but they are the exception, not the rule. Your average Japanese adult doesn’t spend a lot of time watching cartoons.
9. The Japanese are wealthy
For nearby Asian countries and maybe even some Western countries, there’s the myth that all Japanese are wealthy. A strong yen doesn’t hurt when visiting overseas but many Japanese are not swimming in cash. These older myths, like people preferring the more expensive option or automatically buying the latest consumer gadget every year, are holdovers from the Bubble Era. Two decades of economic recession have really made an impact on the way Japanese spend money. People are much more likely to hold off on large purchases in the hope that prices will go down, if they can afford to buy at all. Many people have lost their pensions or are working two or three part-time jobs for less than living wages. The English phrase “working poor” has sadly entered the language. One of the major reasons young people have disposable income to travel at all is because they live at home until they get married—if they ever do. This is why Japan also has the English phrase “parasite single,” a person who sponges off their parents even though they might be making a decent wage.