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Various quirks, ironies, eccentricities, and contradictions of life in Japan (at least from the eyes

Japanese Culture

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Edited: Apr 9, 2009, 11:48pm Top

I love Japan and the Japanese. I visited Japan with my family in 2007. I want to go to Kyoto again. I love Tokyo.

I have been keeping track over the years of various quirks, ironies, eccentricities, and contradictions of life in Japan (at least they are odd from the eyes of an American). Here's my list so far:

• The obsessively fanatical interest of young Japanese girls in the “Anne of Green Gables” stories such that they take pilgrimages to Anne’s (fictional) home in Nova Scotia, Canada
• The great popularity among Japanese of going to U.S. Guam in order to shoot firearms in shooting galleries, as this is illegal in Japan
• The huge popularity among Japanese couples of getting married in small Christian churches and chapels even though they are not Christian themselves and have no intention of converting (this is actually a good moneymaker for the few Christian churches in Japan.)
• Large scale, well-organized, centralized lost and found systems in each community – Tokyo warehouse with 300,000 umbrellas turned in as lost and then never retrieved by owners. Even lost cash is turned in by those who find it.
• Of all the languages in the world, Japanese is the only one that has an entirely different set of written characters to express foreign words and names. They actually have three sets of characters, which no other language has.
• Japanese reserve leads to few public declarations of affection. Japanese couples very rarely tell each other “I love you.”
• The sense of shame and dishonor that continues to this day such that if a Japanese Airlines jet crashes, an executive of the airline firm may well decide to commit suicide in penitent remorse.
• Despite the shame and dishonor the Japanese feel when they have failed to succeed in some attempted achievement, such that they might even commit suicide, a March 23, 2004 item in the New York Times “World Briefing” section discuses the race horse Haru Urara that is the most famous race horse in Japan. 10,000 fans had recently braved rain to cheer her on in the last race of the day at Kochi Racecourse. The horse lost as she always does, extending her winless streak to 106 races (a record of 0-for-106) After her losing streak started attracting attention in summer 2003, thousands now pack the stands to watch her. A pop song praises her and a movie is in the works.
• In 2003 suicides in Japan hit a record high of 32,082. It was the second year in a row in which suicides had risen. Japan and the US have roughly the same number of suicides, but the US has more than twice the population of Japan.
• Statistics from 2003 show that the number of Japanese who have reached age 100 had doubled in the previous five years. Japan is the world’s longest-living nation. As of 9/30/03 there were 20,561 Japanese age 100 or over – up from about 10,000 in 1998, setting a record for the 33rd straight year. Japan’s life expectancy is the longest in the world for both sexes, 85.2 for women and 78.3 for men in 2002.
• Sleep disorders are a rising concern in Japan. A Health Ministry survey showed in 2000 that 31% of Japanese say they do not get enough sleep because of work, school or commuting. An additional 29% said stress was the top cause of their lack of sufficient sleep.
• For Chinese and Japanese Americans, the fear of the number four can be a real killer. On the fourth of each month, cardiac deaths for Chinese and Japanese Americans spike 7 percent compared to other days, according to a massive study by a team of scientists at the University of California-La Jolla. Why? Because in the Japanese and Chinese languages, four sounds just like the word for death, shi, and it's been avoided for untold ages as an "unlucky number," says David Phillips, the lead author of the study, which analyzed millions of death records for Japanese, Chinese and white Americans. It's considered so unlucky in China and Japan that many hospitals don't list a fourth floor, the Chinese air force avoids assigning the number four to its planes, and the "Simpsons" cartoon show was initially a flop in both countries - because Homer and Bart and the other characters only have four fingers.
• Their relentless dedication to taking photo snapshots of everything they see when traveling – given that many of them live in small apartments I’ve always wondered whether they are lined floor-to-ceiling with shelves of photo albums. This has likely changed in the digital age.
• The practice of letting their infants and toddlers literally run wild with no discipline applied whatsoever, but then later on when the kids are older subjecting those same kids to intensive tutoring and competitive peer pressure to excel in school and conform to social traditions.
• Fanatically obsessive interest in Rock music
• Love of Scotch whiskey and production of fine quality single malt whiskies by Japanese breweries and distilleries.
• Fascination of young couples with blonde-haired Western toddlers/young children
• While other the navies of countries like Britain in particular name warships with warlike names such as the Indomitable, the Warspite, the Inflexible, the Revenge, the Resolution, etc., the Japanese warship names in World War II were more poetic/lyrical, named after rivers, mountains, plants, flowers, etc. Seems odd given the purpose of these battleships, cruisers and destroyers. I'm not aware of any other navy that names its ships in this way.
• Although generally being a small-framed and shorter people than those of other nationalities, the Japanese have some of the world’s largest athletes in their sumo wrestlers who average 6’2” in height and on average weigh a massive 412 pounds.
• The making of fine cars and cameras and consumer electronics right alongside of the making of cheesy, lousy movies of the like of Godzilla and Mothra
• The same culture that produces the soft beautiful quiet calming music of string and flute also produces the exciting loudness of the taiko drummers.
• Japanese businessmen being shoved onto crowded subways by professional subway pushers
• Those same businessmen during their subway rides then reading semi-pornographic comic books featuring drawings of teenage girls on various adventures
• Those same businessmen on overseas trips showing a definite interest in frequenting the local brothels
• Phenomenon of Japanese businessmen (“salarymen”) so stressed out they literally “die in their tracks” while rushing down the sidewalk to or from work
• Japanese women loving to read comic book stories about young gay men
• Japanese horror films of the repellent, vile, dark and weird kind, for example, a film depicting a man biting through his arm while masturbating inside a burlap sack, or a film depicting a naked man suspended from hooks so that his skin stretches while someone pours boiling oil all over him and sticks needles through his cheeks (See article in New Yorker, 6/28/04, p. 37).
• Kind of a weird, difficult to describe attitude towards Jewish people – a mingling of admiration and suspicion. See the “Fugu Plan” of late 1930s.
• Baseball – strong interest – and interestingly actually pre-dated World War II and the American occupation
• Moral/historical “blind spot” regarding Japanese atrocities committed during the 1930s-1940s, esp. in comparison with the guilt felt by modern Germans.
• In spring of 2004 three civilian Japanese aid workers in Iraq were kidnapped by Islamic militants and threatened with being burned alive unless Japan withdrew its troops from Iraq. After an appeal by Islamic clerics, the three were released unharmed a week later. The Japanese government proceed to bill each hostage $7,000 each to cover their plane tickets home and other expenses, the hostages were criticized for behaving recklessly in going to a country that Japan repeatedly warned civilians to avoid, and they received a chilly welcome in Japan. In the US not only would they not have been billed, but they probably would have been lionized on the Today show and Good Morning America and been hailed in their home towns as heroes for surviving a harrowing ordeal, perhaps being included in their local Memorial Day parades.
• The Japanese government officially recognizes some 22 crime syndicates (as of 2008) which operate more or less openly and employ 85,000 members.
• Hikikomori: reclusive individuals(usually young people) who have chosen to withdraw from social life, often seeking extreme degrees of isolation and confinement due to various personal and social factors in their lives. They number in the thousands.

Apr 9, 2009, 6:45pm Top

I love this list simply because a lot of it I have never known before, and I am a factoid kind of guy.

Although, I must protest! The very first Godzilla was a good film depicting the evils of nuclear weapons ;-)

Great list. Thanks for the read.

Apr 15, 2009, 8:26pm Top

Very interesting!
I think the sleep disorder thing applies to many countries, at least the U.S. as well, haha.

I've been interested in this culture for so long, watching more than 75% Japanese TV and listening to 90% Japanese music, a lot of this doesn't shake a nerve within me. I find that in itself interesting, haha!

I've actually seen a drama where in one episode, a salaryman dies in the middle of walking home due to some rare illness!

Apr 15, 2009, 9:13pm Top

What a fascinating post! Thank you!

The one thing I wondered about was the one about letting small children/toddlers run wild. During a two-week trip to Japan, I believe I heard only one small child cry in public. The little ones were remarkably well behaved.

My husband has traveled to Japan much more than I have -- about ten trips in the last 4-5 years. He says he loves it when small toddlers stare at him -- he figures he looks like a cartoon character to them!

Jun 16, 2009, 7:15pm Top

I hope you don't mind if I go post this on Facebook. It's much too good to not circulate! (Let me know if you mind and I'll remove it immediately!)

I have a few more bits to add! I live in Nagoya now, and a long time ago I lived in Sapporo and then Tokyo. (As I start to think, oh they do proliferate):

The loudspeaker cars (that must cruise every neighborhood) spewing out right wing propaganda, allowed it seems as a social and political safety valve.

The number of drivers (I haven't retained the statistics but it's an astounding number) who evade road tolls by crashing through the gate.

The truly awful high school bands that inhabit Japanese parades completely out of context with the particular theme of the celebration (not to mention the blaring of Verdi's requiem as the background music to a mock battle involving Toyotomi Hideyoshi in downtown Nagoya in front of a Mitsukoshi).

The politician on the back of a loudspeaker vehicle speaking at an empty rural crossroads in Hokkaido, no doubt prescheduled.

The populating of Japanese companies with the oddball dialects of English that have evolved over the years of Japanglish instruction, to the point where native English speakers are intimidated into a state of abject subservience to the endemic "correctness" of the branded language.

Thanks for this wonderfully revealing list.

Jun 16, 2009, 10:28pm Top

I want to post it, too :-)

Jun 17, 2009, 1:39pm Top

post away. And of course add to it as you will. And if you see anything in the list that is inaccurate or misleading, please feel free to edit or remove.

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