Even if you’ve never visited Japan, you’ve probably got a pretty good idea of what you think it will be like. Modern stereotypes as seen in the media, in films and in books help shape this idea of what Japan is like. But how correct is the idea that you hold in your head? After moving to Japan, many of the things I thought I knew about Japan turned out to be incorrect. So which of this commonly-held beliefs are fact, and which are myths?
Most people seem to think that Japan is an amazing, futuristic centre featuring the most cutting edge technology. This may have been the case in the not-so-distant past, but these days Japan is looking a bit dated on the technological frontier. Walk through the modern areas of Tokyo and you’ll find yourself thinking… this is all a bit 90’s. No doubt Japan was once the forerunner for new technological inventions, but after enjoying that top spot they have since fallen behind, with technology here looking dated and unimpressive. One of the problems is that the Japanese look after their things so well that they just don’t need replacing.
If you love eating seafood, Japan probably sounds like heaven to your stomach. However, the idea that Japanese people exist on nothing but fish and rice is far from the truth. Japanese food consists of so much more than sushi and sashimi, and while it’s fair to say that many, if not most, Japanese people eat rice at least once a day, sushi and sashimi are not daily staples and can even be seen as a bit of a treat (especially if you’re going to a top-notch sushi joint). Japanese food which is frequently eaten includes mild curry, donburi (a bowl of rice with toppings of meat, fish, vegetables and eggs), bento boxes (lunch boxes consisting of rice along with fish, meat and vegetables), onigiri (rice balls) and fried foods such as kara-age (fried chicken) and tonkatsu (deep-fried breaded pork cutlet).
Japan is known for being convenient, and what could be more convenient than having access to canned and bottled drinks at all hours of the day, no matter where you are? Vending machines are quite literally everywhere in Japan – sometimes there will be several standing in a row all together on the same street. With more than 5.5 million vending machines, you can’t walk down the street for 100 meters without seeing at least one.
Tokyo is expensive, that’s a fact that everyone knows. But can you name a capital city that isn’t expensive compared to other cities in that country? As soon as you get outside of Tokyo, prices drop. Having spent years living in the UK, I would certainly say that the cost of living is comparable to Japan. Particularly in smaller cities, the cost of living is very reasonable indeed, and even for people with lower wages it is possible to have savings while still living well.
You will be overwhelmed by how nice and friendly everyone seems. People in shops will be super polite and helpful, people will go out of your way when you are in trouble – it seems like the stereotype of the Super-Polite Japanese is bang on.
However, this over-the-top politeness usually applies to strangers only. While a cashier in a shop is likely to be very pleasant and friendly, you may find your colleagues and friends to be much more distant. Of course, this all depends on the kind of people you know, but in general, Japanese people tend to be very family-oriented, and most Japanese people don’t go out of their way to make new friends, particularly with foreigners. As a gaijin in Japan, expect to have little contact with your neighbours and very few offers of social occasions with your workmates.
Tatami is one of those words that many Westerners have heard of but maybe can’t quite define – it is the name for the soft, padded flooring that is used in Japan in lieu of carpets. But tatami usage isn’t as widespread as you might think. While traditional houses may have once been decked out almost entirely in this type of floor covering, these days people have more options of what to decorate their homes with, and so tatami is not so popular as it once was. Many Japanese homes will have tatami mats in their bedrooms and living areas, but the kitchen and dining areas will often have plain wooden flooring. While carpets are not the norm, they are gaining popularity, particularly in small apartments such as student accommodation, and there are many luxury carpets and floor coverings available in supermarkets and furniture stores.
Okay, maybe not hundreds of times every day… but I have certainly heard of shop employees whose job it is to bow to customers as they exit from the escalator, and over an 8-hour shift they must certainly clock in at least a couple of hundred bows. Japanese people are so naturally inclined to bow that they even do it on the phone. As if the number of daily bows wasn’t enough to consider, there is also the issue of what kind of bow you should be doing. There is the casual bow of about 5 degrees, which is more like a nod of the head, then there is the ‘Greeting Bow’ known as Eshaku which will take you down to a 15-degree bend. After that there is the bow of respect known as Keirei (a bow of 30 degrees) which is reserved for people ‘higher’ than you (such as your boss) and then after that is the Super-Respectful bow called Saikeirei which is a bow of 45 degrees – a bow that symbolizes sincere apologies. Beyond that, there is Dogeza(土下座) which is done on your knees with your forehead actually touching the floor… but that sort of bow is rarely seen on the streets of Japan.
Japan is an exciting place with many things that are weird and wonderful to the average Gaijin. Many a Japanophile has been much disappointed on arriving in Japan to discover the crazy myths they’d heard about are simply not true. Are there other myths that have been busted during your time in Japan?