To celebrate the upcoming publication of my book, Shakotan Blue, I wanted to share an interesting tidbit of what I learned during my time in Japan. Even for a Japan Studies major like myself, there were many misconceptions about Japan that persisted in my thinking until I actually came to live in the country. So let’s recap the five biggest notions about Japan that I have learned just aren’t true.
1. Japan Is Not So High-Tech
After rising to economic dominance with companies like Sony, Panasonic, and Toshiba, Japan has certainly become synonymous with cutting-edge technology. One of my college history professors even said, “If you want to see the future, go to East Asia.” The idea being that technology was advancing so rapidly in Japan, China, and South Korea that visiting those countries was like traveling forward in time. Well, I’m been to the future, and you know what? Outside of Akihabara in Tokyo, Japan isn’t all that futuristic.
Don’t get me wrong: Japan has the most technologically advanced toilet seats in the world, for sure. The rail systems are top-notch. And modern Japanese home appliances are always compact and energy efficient. But that doesn’t mean Japan feels like technological dreamland. A well-engineered rice cooker is nice, but it’s not exactly on par with the robots I had been promised.
In some areas of life, Japan almost seems resistant to adopting conveniences that we take for granted in the US. Bill paying in Japan for instance, is not particularly advanced. You can pay your electric bill or purchase concert tickets at your local convenience store. You know why? Because Japan is primarily a cash-only society and you can’t always use your debit card make those transactions online. While it appears convenient to pay for these things at the 7-Eleven, it’s really not when you consider that Internet makes the entire system irrelevant. Existing communication technology is largely not utilized.
And even though Japan is largely cash-only, ATMs are only open for specific hours of the day. Why?! Who could have possibly thought that was a good idea? Technologically advanced or not, Japan is transactionally challenged.
But that’s not all. Every household I visited in Japan had a fax machine. All businesses still insist on maintaining paper records for absolutely everything. Flip-phones with outdated features have dominated Japan’s cellular market since the days of antiquity, and Apple’s iPhone has only begun to make a dent in recent years.
The thing is, it’s not technology that defines modern Japan, but tradition.
As Japan’s population ages, the country appears more and more resistant to new consumer technology. Like a cranky grandfather who can’t be bothered to learn how to use his email, there might be a large swath of the population who prefers the old and familiar to the new and innovative.
2. Japan Is Not So Weird
Not by a long shot
In the west, Japan has the reputation of being outlandish, kooky place; loud, colorful, and frenetic, like a teenybopper’s fever dream. Through wildly creative animation and video games, the island nation has solidified its place in the global zeitgeist as a Nerd Mecca. But beyond the bubblegum pop, the dissemination of crazy prank videos from Japanese TV and truly bizarre urban myths have added a mildly disturbing underside to the country’s kooky image.
This may come as a surprise, but Japan is not nearly as incomprehensible as you’ve been led to believe. In fact, overall Japan is a rather conservative place. Remember that thing I said about tradition in the last section?
Out of context, the aberrant gets misconstrued as the norm. Videos of weird pranks and gross-out humor posted online as examples of bizarre Japanese traditions are almost always gags from comedy programs. It’s like if someone in Japan used Saturday Night Live skits as an example of how bizarre American political values are. It’s not representative of the country; it’s literally a joke. If you see an outrageous video from Japan and it strikes you as truly deviant, you can be fairly certain that the vast majority of Japanese people will have the exact same reaction.
It doesn’t make for good headlines, but the fact of the matter is that life in Japan is fairly ordinary. There certainly are differences between Japan and the US—especially the esoteric cultural nuances you would have never known of, had you not read my book—but if you come to Japan expecting the perplexing and ridiculous highlights you’ve seen online, you might be disappointed by how normal everything is.
3. Silly Otaku, Anime is for Kids!
Speaking of Japan as a Nerd Mecca, I have some bad news for anyone whose interest in Japanese culture is based entirely on an appreciation of anime. Sorry dudes, but even in Japan, cartoons are primary made for kids. Animated cinema carries about the same level of mainstream respectability in Japan as it does in the US.
Manga reading is far more prevalent in Japan, as comic books are produced in just about every genre you can think of. But that doesn’t mean the entire country is really into comic book superheroes. It means that there is an infinite amount of manga in genres that you would find completely boring. If a popular manga can be made into a live-action movie or TV series, the producers will likely go that route. Generally it’s only when the audience is considered to be teens or younger that the concept gets animated.
Just look at the Pokémon cartoon series. See how childish and silly it is? The audience they’re aiming for is very young, and that’s the audience the majority anime series aim for. And sure, there are some exceptions, but they are few. In general, a “mature” anime audience means teenagers.
Japan is not exactly a nerd utopia. The country does not embrace nerd culture any more than the US does. On the contrary, Japan is almost certainly a less hospitable place for niche subcultures. While some anime enthusiasts in the US call themselves “otaku” as badge of honor, the word remains an insult reserved for outcasts in Japan. You really don’t want to be labeled as an otaku.
4. Japan’s Citizens Are More Individualistic Than You Think
More so than most other nations, Japan is viewed from the outside—and often from within—as a very homogeneous country. Japanese society certainly encourages blending in with the crowd, values modesty over audacity, and emphasizes loyalty to the group above one’s personal desires. The image of the Japanese people as a united front is pervasive.
The unfortunate result of this constructed image is that many people outside Japan tend to assume that the outward conformity is representative of an internal conformity shared by all Japanese people. Those who generalize tend to assume that Japanese people are less individualistic than people in the west. And that’s simply not true.
The Japanese friends I’ve made throughout my journey not only hold a great diversity of opinions, political attitudes, and tastes, but they are at least as individualistic as their western counterparts—maybe more so! It’s just not as immediately apparent because they generally aren’t very vocal about it.
Plenty people in Japan won’t be too quick to share their honest opinions with you. Again, modesty is highly valued. But just because someone doesn’t share their opinions easily doesn’t mean they don’t have one.
The people who felt comfortable discussing politics with me revealed an incredible diversity of opinion. While I expected most folks to lean conservative, the views they shared fell all over on the political spectrum, and many surprised me with their nuanced stances across multiple divisive issues. Far from subscribing to one preconceived agenda, all my Japanese friends proved to be more individualistic that I would have assumed.
5. Learning to Speak Japanese Isn’t Really That Hard
(It’s reading and writing that’s impossible)
Japanese is a cool language, the one that I had always wanted to learn. But learning it outside of Japan can be very challenging. It’s so completely different than English and not widely spoken in the US, meaning that my opportunities to practice were few and far between. And that’s what you need to learn a language like Japanese, practice. Tons and tons of practice.
I studied Japanese in college and, despite my great enthusiasm, I came out of school unable to hold a real conversation. I memorized loads of vocabulary, grammatical structures, and at least a couple hundred kanji, but my brain was never able to access this information quickly enough for me to utilize it. All my study proved futile, useless.
When you switch from speaking English to Japanese, your brain has to “change gears”, so to speak. The part of the brain that handles language is like a muscle; you have to exercise it to keep it fit. You have to use it or lose it. When we study in school, the part of the brain that commits all the vocabulary and grammar to memory doesn’t necessarily connect that information to actionable language part. Study all you want, but without putting things into practice—as in actually speaking the language—you won’t build the language skills you need.
So how does one really learn Japanese?
You have to engage in actual conversations. You have to listen and you have to speak. Talk with as many different people as possible, different ages, different jobs, ideally people from different regions. You have to force your brain to shift into Japanese-mode and build an understanding of the language that can be rapidly accessed without even thinking about it. That’s the only way to practice.
The catch is, to learn as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you need to go to Japan. You need to immerse yourself in the culture, to surround yourself with Japanese words, spoken and written. You need to make English the language that must be sought, and Japanese the default speech of day-to-day life. You need to go to Japan.
Whatever your current skill level, however much you know: start there. Fake it ‘til you make it. Seriously. Practice speaking is the only way to learn to speak. Go to Japan and speak the language everyday.
And please note, while I said that learning to speak Japanese isn’t really that hard, I didn’t say that learning to read and write Japanese is so easy. Thanks to the seemingly infinite number of kanji used in Japanese text, reading and writing competency is a far, far more daunting goal than speaking.
Learning new kanji is just plain difficult. Still, the more conversational experience you acquire, the more vocabulary you will learn. The larger your vocabulary, the easier it will be to learn new kanji, and vice versa. So even if you want to master reading and writing, you still need to go to Japan.