Let’s look at some ideas about Japanese people which I had personally or which I heard from other Europeans. Many of them are actually not true, while a few have been confirmed by our trip.
Note that this is based on 15 days of traveling across Japan and is by no means a representative and comprehensive picture of Japanese people, their culture and habits. It is only a result of observing how some of them live, how they interact amongst each other and how they react to us as gaijin (foreigners) during our stay in Japan.
1. Japanese food is healthy
I was very surprised to see how hard it is to buy good quality fresh fruit and vegetable in Japan, especially fruit. They are also quite expensive. And forget about organic food, we only found one small restaurant serving organic food in Saga-Arashiyama, and it was closed most of the time we were there so we couldn’t even try it out.
Most of the typical Japanese diet today is actually pretty unhealthy, with lots of white rice (instead of whole grain), meat and/or fish, and almost only cooked or marinated vegetables. Traditional Japanese cuisine may have been healthy in the past, but not anymore. Add to that all the sodas, sweet drinks and salty snacks Japanese people have all day long and you get an idea of what their diet really looks like. Still, we’ve hardly seen obese people in Japan, but my husband who studies traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine knows that the cancer figures, especially stomach and intestine, are among the highest in the world here in Japan. The main cause seems to be the food, too salty in any case.
2. Japanese people use super toilets
True and false.
Elaborate toilets with heated seats and little water sprinklers are available in most restaurants and hotels, but not necessarily in people’s homes. We stayed in 4 flats with Airbnb and only one of them featured these super toilets, and our friends in Tokyo told us they only use the heated seat at their home.
So while these super toilets are certainly a hallmark of Japanese culture, they are not to be found everywhere and come at a cost. But if you find one during your trip in Japan, do try them. You’re in for quite an experience :-).
3. Japanese architecture is beautiful and innovative
Modern Japanese cities are very ugly from an architectural and urbanist point of view. There are many reasons for that: US bombings during WWII which partly or entirely destroyed Japanese cities, the economic boom of the second half of the 20th century which led to quick construction without urbanist consideration, and probably other reasons which I’m not familiar with.
One of the most striking examples of what I mean by lack of urbanist thinking is electric poles. They look just like in developing countries, a total chaos of intertwined wires which you’d never encounter in Europe or the U.S, and which to us actually look dangerous. The other one is the materials used. Japanese buildings often look cheap and it’s a pity because the old traditional wooden houses look really nice and could easily be adapted to modern needs – in addition, wood is a more sustainable construction material.
There are of course some neighborhoods in Tokyo, Osaka and other big cities with extremely modern and innovative architectural features, but these are rather exceptional and we didn’t encounter one single building that would deserve an architectural prize. Only traditional architecture look nice in fact, and in only one city we’ve found a new building with an old fashioned look, so it’s possible to do it nicely.
4. Japanese people are extremely polite
Nothing to add to that other than the fact that Japanese people constantly say « Sorry » using dozens of different expressions, and « Thank you » using mostly « Arrigato gozaimasu » (Thank you very much) throughout the day.
Just one example: there is a person at a counter of a train station checking that you correctly enter your ticket into the machine, even though the machine won’t let you pass if your ticket is wrong.
Every time you do so they say « Arrigato gozaimasu », so during peak hours they must say it at least every 2 seconds. Let’s say there are 4 hours of peak time during the day, and that’s already 7,200 « Arrigato gozaimasu » just during peak hours!
Still, it’s pretty nice to meet such polite people, even if for us it’s a bit overkill. The main reason for this is that it becomes a sort of automatic thank you-sorry thing and not a heart-felt thank you, but that’s just how it works here, so don’t take it personally, so to speak 🙂
5. Japanese people don’t speak English
True and false.
Every where we needed help – in the public transport system, at a museum, in a restaurant, we managed to find someone who could help us in English. They might not have studied at Oxford or Cambridge, but their English level is sufficient to help us find our way, make an order or pay our tickets.
Also we were positively surprised to discover that all information in the train, bus, airport, etc. is available in English, Chinese and Korean in addition to Japanese. That’s much better than what we can offer in Europe!
It is true however that if you pick a person randomly in the streets, even in Tokyo, they don’t speak English. It’s a mystery to me how they do business at an international scale with such a level of English. We’ve talke to a Japanese friend of ours who told us it’s the only foreign language they learn at school (and only quite recently), and they only do grammar, no conversation, which provides some explanation.
6. Japanese trains are always on time
True and false.
Japanese trains and their transportation means in general are extremely reliable, well connected and convenient. It is the most efficient transportation system I have ever witnessed. We experienced only 3 delays during our trip, two train delays of around 10 minutes each, and one plane delay of 50 minutes due to bad weather conditions.
Looking at how the system works, it is clear that is it very resource intensive. At every station, there is a person checking that the train or metro is ready to depart; at every airport counter, there is a person to check you in and another person to put the stickers on your luggage; in Hiroshima trams, we even noticed that there was a lady or man just greeting passengers, but not doing anything else (at least that we were able to witness).
When you observe the drivers, as we did, you also notice that they have a routine they scrupulously respect: at every train or bus stop, they check their planning and repeat out loud the time at which they need to arrive at the next station. They also always stop at each station, even if no one pressed the button, and open the door only to close it immediately afterwards. Odd, but it works.
7. Japanese people are disciplined and organised
True and false.
Japanese culture is a collectivist culture, one where the common good is more important than individual happiness. Add to that the fact that it’s a very hierarchical, military-like social structure, and that Japan was and still is very crowded, and you start to understand why Japanese people have to be disciplined to make life easier for everyone.
The most striking example that tourists notice are the nice clean lines to wait for your train, your coffee or any other commodity. But this hides another reality which is that Japanese people are also changing. We have seen many people cross small streets when the lights were red and there were no cars; others not queuing properly. So while overall Japanese people demonstrate an acute sense of discipline, they are not robots either. It’s reassuring!
8. Japanese people are very good at martial arts
There is a misconception that because many martial arts originated in Japan, such as karate, judo and aikido, Japanese people also practice these regularly and have a good international level. In reality, Japanese people still practice martial arts in school, mostly kendo and judo as a sport, but they hardly practice martial arts once they become adults. Japanese athletes don’t fare well in international competitions, be it in karate or judo, and the number of practitioners is much higher in countries such as France, Italy and the United States than in Japan.
We only came across one martial arts club during our two-week stay in Japan and saw one poster advertising martial arts at a police academy. Apart from that, nothing. And we don’t count sumo, which is extremely popular, but practiced by an elite.
9. Japanese people use a lot of high tech
Japan is known for its high tech industry and for its robots. First I would like to point out that the reputation of Japan as a high tech hub is more related to the late 90s and early 2000s than its current situation, with the exception of robotics where it strives. Korea has surpassed Japan on the electronics and telephone market (Samsung) and the US show far more innovation in Silicon Valley than in Japan globally.
Also, we have noticed that Japanese people aren’t that tech-savvy. Sure, they all carry around smartphones and tablets, but not more than us in Western European capitals. Actually, I have seen no one wear a smart watch, while they are much more popular in the US or in Europe, and I haven’t seen innovative individual transportation means such as electric scooters, solowheels or the like used either.
To conclude, I think Japanese people use high tech but not innovative high tech in their daily lives. Innovation is certainly not the forte of Japanese culture in any field we have been able to observe, with the exception of trains.
10. Japanese people are obsessed with hygiene
I have never seen people more obsessed with hygiene than in Japan. They don’t touch food directly (even the one they buy for themselves), so all the food is packaged, also individual items such as fruit or bread when you purchase it. They have different slippers for different parts of the house, including slippers only for the toilet. They always give you wet wipes to wash your hands every time you’re going to eat something, even if it’s just a snack to take away.
We all know Japanese people are use to wearing a face mask outside (and sometimes inside) their home, but since the avian flu epidemics that broke out in China in the late 2000s, many more started wearing face masks. These have become so popular that they now serve multiple purposes: you wear them when you are sick not to spread germs, when you didn’t have time to shave or put make-up on, to protect you from pollution or when you have pimples. But originally, face masks were used to protect from germs.
I would say that on the streets every fourth inhabitant in Tokyo wears a mask, much less in other towns, and almost no one in the countryside. The time Japanese women (and probable men too) spend washing their bodies in onsen is insane. They wash them twice or even three times: before they enter the hot bath, and after, and then maybe again, for whatever reason.
All this certainly has a positive impact on the spread of contagious diseases. According to the WHO, since the 1950s the causes of death in Japan shifted significantly from communicable diseases to non-communicable diseases. The figures are not however significantly different from other developed countries, so it’s difficult to judge whether this improvement is linked to their obsession with hygiene or not.
It does however also come with a price: a price for the environment, because of all this additional packaging, a price on water resources, because of all this washing and use of chloride (even their drinking water smells like water from a pool), and a price on Japanese people’s ability to experience life in a relaxed and spontaneous way. They are always in control of everything to avoid a hygiene – or social – faux-pas.
Have you experienced Japan and Japanese people in a similar or different way? What strikes you most in Japan?