It never ceases to amaze me how many misconceptions there are about Japan and the Japanese people. There is barely a day that goes by that I don’t get some weird question, read a gross generalization, or have something bonkers pop up on my Facebook feed. With how obsessed the world seems with Japan, the huge increase in foreign tourism, and the amount of information available on the internet, I wonder how some of these persist. Not knowing something doesn’t make anyone stupid, but continuing to spread false information or refusing to reevaluate your beliefs in the face of contrary information is never a good way to live your life.
I’ve lived in Japan for roughly 6 years, first arriving in 2008. I’ve been here as a student, an English teacher, a corporate worker, a single woman, a married woman, and now a mom. I’ve learned a lot through my time here and in addition to real life experience I also studied International Affairs with a focus on Japan and Asia in University. I still keep up with Japanese politics and economics simply out of interest. I don’t pretend to be above making mistakes or think that I’m an expert, but I do want to share some of the misconceptions I’ve seen most often and try to address them.
- Japan is a Conservative country – This definitely depends on your definition of conservative. Compared to the US Japan has a number of more liberal policies including universal health care, a collapsing (but technically still existent) pension system, much easier to access social security, cheaper higher education, and as many people are quick to point out, some of the strictest gun control laws in the world. However, Japan also has policies in place that are much stricter too. Recreational drug use, even with drugs that have been legalized in many countries like marijuana, is severely punished. It has ended many careers, even for celebrities, and foreigners who have drug charges or other criminal records can be denied entry. Watching television is also reminiscent of the 1960’s at times. All programing on major channels until around 11 or 12 at night is basically safe to watch with the whole family, no nudity, little if any violence, etc. It’s also a country that has a difficult past it enjoys glossing over, much to the chagrin of many of its neighbors. Issues such as comfort women, yasukuni shrine, or whaling are hugely controversial with the world at large, but in Japan these issues receive very little attention in part due to a lack of press freedom, but also a lack of interest by the population in general. Political apathy is simply a growing part of life here as younger people have become disillusioned with the situation they live in and the older population that does vote will continue to decline.
- Japanese people are always polite – Bless your heart if you think this one’s true. The Japanese, just like Southerners in the United States, just have a different way of insulting you. Rarely will you hear a direct no from someone, just a comment on how difficult that might be. There may be rules in place to encourage good behavior, but those don’t stop people from ignoring the pregnant woman right in front of them as they sit in the priority seats on the train. There are more subtle ways to do this as well such as by selecting which honorific to use or even in the way they apologize. It’s only now that I’m 30 that I occasionally get a “sumimasen” instead of a “gomen”, it usually doesn’t bother me unless it’s from a kid, I know they do it on purpose! There are also instances where I have felt truly insulted such when people have made comments about me, usually regarding my appearance, right in front of me. A couple months ago I was in line at a conbini and two men standing behind me started saying they thought I was pretty, they then went on to say it was a shame because neither of them spoke Russian and I was definitely Russian. Follow a few comments on my bra size and I just turn around and glare at them. I think their discomfort was enough, but the fact that they had no problem talking about me because I obviously couldn’t understand Japanese was beyond rude. As an English speaker I usually assume people can understand at least some of what I say and am careful about making comments like that. Japanese aren’t as used to foreigners speaking Japanese, and while usually things I overhear aren’t too mean, there are dicks in just about every society.
- Japanese women are subservient – This one I love. It’s a huge part in why some men have “Asian fever” and overplayed on anime often so it is somehow believed this is truely how women are here. I think most men who have been in an actual relationship with a Japanese women will know this one is bull shit, but even if you just have friends or relatives who are Japanese women, you will learn how false this is. Japanese society is often thought of as having different levels and depending on what level you are with a person you will act differently. So if you start talking to a woman at a cafe or on the street she may be very polite and act shy or agree with a lot of what you say. Get to know her better, things get real. My mother-in-law definitely wears the pants in her marriage. My sister-in-law has no problem yelling at her husband when he acts stupid. My husband is lucky I don’t pull a George Jetson on him like many Japanese wives do when handling money. He doesn’t get an allowance from me, I trust him to spend frugally the same as he does for me. I get to interact with a lot of Japanese women in my daily life from my fellow mothers at PTA events, teachers at my daughter’s school, neighbors, and of course my own family. Japanese women are strong as a whole. They get shit done. I do wish that in general they would be more outspoken about issues like pay discrepancy and sexual harassment, but I do feel like slowly Japanese women are making gains in both politics and the private sector. They are certainly not shy wallowing geisha waiting to serve you tea.
- Japan is expensive – This one is a double edged sword. Yes it can be expensive, but it is also insanely cheap in certain ways. I always get a headache at the supermarket when looking at the prices of meat or fish. The fish prices I get, over fishing, limited supplies, yadayada. But the beef? They just keep on trying to push higher tariffs and push consumers to purchase Japanese beef, which while delicious, is in no way enough to meet local demand. Japan doesn’t consume that much beef, but this is definitely due at least in part to cost. I can’t justify buying 200g of pure ground beef for $10 when I could get double the amount of pork for half the price. Similarly if you are here as a tourist, you will probably be limited to restaurants with English menus (or ones with a lot of photos). This cuts out a lot of lower priced restaurants that have menus only in Japanese, but often with lower prices too. Going shopping? If you are here in January or July you might be here in time for the great sales that Japan tends to have at these times of year (a custom I assume they borrowed from Europe) but your hotel will probably cost more because of the demand too. Living here is much cheaper than other large cities however. Rents are incredibly low due to a large surplus of buildings. Mortgage rates are crazy low as well. Currently our mortgage is sitting pretty at less than 1% for the first 10 years, than it will jump up to less than 2%. Our apartment is small sure, but it’s no different from many other large Asian cities in China, Singapore, India, etc. The fact that we could afford to buy a 3 bedroom apartment in a major city for less than $400,000 is something that people in San Francisco, Sydney, or London can only dream of right now. But a lot of this is partially due to my husband being a salaryman of course, which leads me to…
- Japan is a very equal nation – No. No it is not. Japan is a country of people trying to convince themselves that they are all middle class while just like in most developed countries income inequality is continuing to rise. My husband is incredibly lucky (but also hardworking) and has a full-time job with a good company. In Japan, it is very unlikely that he will be fired unless he does something very bad, in which case he would probably be single again too (that’s how bad it usually needs to be). Many people here are now do not have that option, women in particular are hired on contract or as part-time workers. They receive fewer benefits, little to no job security, and obviously less money. While Japanese CEOs still receive much less money than their American or European counterparts, there is growing wealth inequality. I believe the main difference between how this is viewed in the west and Japan is that despite these circumstances, most Japanese still try to project the image of belonging to the middle class, even if they are struggling to do so. People want to like others, they don’t want to be complaining about making ends meet or living paycheck to paycheck. Some think this is a positive, with low crime rates and a seemingly content population, but others, including myself, believe this will only increase the inequality until things become dire. I think Japan will have to become more vocal about their concerns and issues in order to deal with some of the problems that exist here.
I’ll probably be dealing with more of these kind of misconceptions as well as different social issues further on. If any of these interest you I encourage you to read some of the articles I cited, they are really interesting and eye opening. Obviously some of these have been drawn from my own experiences, but I still feel like Japan is often given this “other” quality in the media, both abroad and within Japan itself. Japan has a lot in common with most countries, along with its own unique culture, but that is nothing different from most countries. If you are interested in visiting or living in Japan, I encourage you to come, but remember, it’s not an anime episode.