Right or wrong? 10 clichés about Japan

My trip to Japan during spring 2018 has been the biggest cultural shock of my life so far. Before I got there, I had a lot of very common clichés in mind about Japan, the country of manga, sumo wrestlers and samurais. But nothing prepared me to a lifestyle so different to what I was used to back home in Europe. I’m certainly not pretending to be an expert about Japan after such a short time there, but I decided to compare what I saw to some preconceived ideas my friends and I had about this country. Right or wrong? Here are 10 clichés about Japan seen from my traveller’s point of view.

japan-trip

Read also the second part of this article “First time in Japan: 9 things that surprised me

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1/ Japanese people are polite and respectful: right

Everyone who went to Japan will confirm: Japanese people are extremely polite and helpful. Here’s a little anecdote to help you understand how much. The friend I was travelling with and I were looking at a map in a Tokyo underground station, struggling to find which line we had to take to get where we wanted to. A very old man (probably 80 years old or even more) came and tried to help us, but he barely spoke English. He told us to stay where we were, left, came back a few minutes later with an employee from the public transport company and stayed with us until the very end to make sure that the instructions were clear. And that’s just one story among many others… Be prepared to see a lot of people bending over as a sign of respect!

Unfortunately, this extreme politeness also has a dark side: for a lot of Japanese people, not being able to answer your questions or fit your desires seems to be terribly embarrassing. We faced many awkward silences and weird situations in which European people would have reacted completely differently.

2/ Japanese people speak very good English: wrong

The old man I mentioned before isn’t an exception: only a few Japanese people do speak English. Even in touristic places or high standard hotels and restaurants, it’s really difficult to have a conversation with someone. In these cases, the universal language (aka “using your hands”) will be the best option to communicate. It doesn’t cause too much trouble though: thanks again to the politeness previously described, if the other person doesn’t understand what you’re trying to say, you can be sure that they will try their best to help you anyway. The only moment where it might get a bit difficult is when it’s about food. As soon as you leave the most touristic areas, you won’t find any menu translated in English…

Shinjuku, Tokyo

3/ Japanese trains are the best in the world: right

Even if you’re only staying for a few days in Japan for a stopover for example, and if you’re not planning to leave Tokyo, I would strongly encourage you to get on board of the Shinkansen, the fastest train in the world. Just a quick urban trip to the next station will leave you with a crazy impression of speed, and that’s without mentioning the comfort and the perfect punctuality of this beautiful train.

japan-shinkansen

The easiest and cheapest way to travel by train around Japan is to buy a Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass); you can purchase it for one, two or three weeks and it gives you free access to almost all the Shinkansen lines of the country, but also regular trains, a subway line in Tokyo (the JR Line) and the ferry to Miyajima. Don’t believe the guides or websites telling you that you can only buy it online before coming to Japan, it is now possible to get one directly at a train station after your arrival.

4/ Japanese people eat a lot of sushi: not as much as you would think

For my friends and I, going to a Japanese restaurant usually means: let’s have sushi. But the Japanese cuisine is way more diverse than only raw fish (lucky for me as I’m not a big sushi-enthusiast), and even in Tokyo, it might be hard sometimes to find a sushi restaurant! Among many other things, Japanese cuisine includes a lot of sea food, vegetables (although vegetarian dishes are uncommon), skewers, delicious meat like the famous Kobe beef and my personal favourite: the Okonomiyaki. I could have eaten dozens of this kind of savoury pancake, filled with your choice of stuffing (cabbage, noodle, egg, pork, cheese, octopus, etc… with a special sauce on top). Yummy!

5/ The Earth is always shaking: right

One morning, my friend and I were sleeping in a bunk bed when we suddenly felt it moving. We both thought that the other one was turning over but the shaking kept going on and we realised that it was an earthquake. Luckily not a big one but if you’re visiting Japan, the chances are high that you’ll feel one at some point. According to this 2011 article, up to 2000 earthquakes strong enough to be felt by humans hit the country every year!

6/ Japanese people work a lot: it’s hard to say but…

Obviously, exploring Japan as a tourist for a couple of weeks doesn’t allow me to judge if people work a lot or not, but there are some signs that seem to indicate that they really do. The amount of people closing their eyes as soon as they got in the subway in the evening for example, or these business men deep asleep at the dinner table of a capsule hotel in Tokyo. I even saw a guy lying on the reception floor because he was too tired to stand up while other people in the queue were checking in! A bit scary…

japan-street

7/ Technology is everywhere: wrong

Kid, robot, Odaiba, Tokyo

One of the classic clichés about Japan are the robots, symbols of a very advanced technology. We all have in mind these images of pet robots or very sophisticated artificial intelligence. But if Japan was a huge cultural shock for me, I have to say that I was a bit disappointed on the aspect of technology. Apart from a very few occasions (the trains that I described before for example), nothing seemed to be that different from back home. One exception though: the toilets… read more about it in my article “First time in Japan: 9 things that surprised me“!

8/ Japanese people are disciplined: right

Here’s another anecdote: I was in a bus, just behind the driver when I saw him doing some surprising movements with his hands. I started staring at him and realised that at every bus stop he was pointing at his left rear-view mirror, his right rear-view mirror, his handbrake, etc… to make sure that he was ready to go. Every single time! The official procedure probably said that he had to check it, so that’s what he did, even if he had many years of experience and knew perfectly what he was doing. It made me feel like he was a robot and I was wondering how he would react in case of an emergency…

On a more positive note, this discipline also has some very good aspects: nobody will jostle you in the underground, you won’t have to watch over people stealing your spot in a queue… Refreshing!

9/ Japanese people are healthy: they seem to be

My friend and I started our trip in Japan with a few days in Tokyo before heading to Hiroshima, where we stayed in a so called “continental” hotel with a majority of occidental tourists. In the morning we realised with a shock that there were more overweighed people in the breakfast room than we saw during 4 days in Tokyo! We met a lot of old people instead, most of them perfectly able to walk without any help. Japan doesn’t have the longest life expectancy in the world for no reason.

Birds, Hiroshima

On the other hand, the scenes of obvious exhaustion that I described before didn’t seem to be very healthy… I guess it would need more trips to Japan to understand better this lifestyle which is so very different to mine.

10/ Japan is a very clean country: right

I’m ending this list with what impressed me the most during my trip. Have you seen during the recent 2018 Football World Cup these images of Japanese fans cleaning the area where they had been sitting before leaving the stadium? What seems almost crazy to us Europeans is completely normal for them, because that’s how they act in their everyday life. You won’t find any piece of paper, garbage or even a gum anywhere on the ground in Japan. I have to admit that I felt really ashamed when I went back home and realised how dirty the streets of our cities are in comparison…

And you, what are the first clichés that come to your mind when you think about Japan? Write them in the comments and if you ever travelled there share your experience as well!

🇯🇵Click here to go back to the Japan menu.

Read also the second part of this article “First time in Japan: 9 things that surprised me

6 thoughts on “Right or wrong? 10 clichés about Japan

  1. I completely agree with #4. I hate seafood, but I’ve never had any real difficulty finding something without fish – or at least not containing significant amounts of seafood – to consume whenever I holiday in Japan.
    Interesting bit re: #5: I don’t know if I’m just lucky (or insensitive, haha), but I’ve only felt an earthquake there once despite holidaying in Japan about 2-4 times a year. I was staying in the upper floor of a hotel in Sendai when the building starts swaying, jolting me awake even though it was the middle of the night. I actually gave serious thought to evacuating, but no general alarm was sounded, and in the end I decided to stay put. I learned from the news the next morning that it was actually a pretty strong quake, but the locals couldn’t care less: it was probably a regular occurrence for them and it helps that the local authorities are well prepared for events such as these.
    Cheerio.

    Like

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