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 the country: mangas, sumo wrestling, or the mythical samurais. But nothing prepared me to such a lifestyle so completely different to what I was used to back home in Europe (read also “First time in Japan: 9 things that surprised me“)! 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 I had before this trip. Right or wrong? Here are 10 clichés about Japan seen from my traveller’s point of view!
1/ Japanese people are polite and respectful: right
Everyone who went to Japan will confirm: Japanese people are extremely polite and helpful. Let’s begin with a little anecdote to help you understand how much. Me and my ffriend Jeff who was travelling with me during this trip 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 and it was difficult to understand each other. He eventually managed to explain us to stay where we were and left. He came back a few minutes later with an employee from the public transport company who was able to help us; he even 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
Contrary to what I thought before, this old man wasn’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 this incredible politeness, if a Japanese 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…
3/ Japanese trains are the best in the world: right
Another anecdote: when we left Tokyo and took the train to Hiroshima, we had a change in Kobe, a city with more than 1,5 million of inhabitants. There were only six or seven minutes between the two trains, and the idea of having to search for the correct platform in this station that I expected to be huge, in proportion to the size of the city, was a little bit stressful. But to my great surprise there were only two platforms, one in each direction, and our second train to Hiroshima left from the same platform where the train from Tokyo had stopped! And obviously, both were exactly on time… What a contrast with France, where platforms are announced only a few minutes before departure and where delays are very common!
And I’m only talking about punctuality. Getting on board of the Shinkansen, the high-speed train, is an experience by itself: even on a short urban trip between two stations close to each other, the acceleration and the impression of speed are extraordinary. There’s no lack of comfort either: for example, seats are pivoting and are always forward-facing! Really ideal for longer journeys.
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. You can buy it online before coming to Japan, or directly at a train station after your arrival.
4/ Japanese people eat a lot of sushi: not that much!
In France, 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, Jeff and I were sleeping in a bunk bed in Tokyo when we suddenly felt it moving. We both thought that the other one was turning over but the shaking kept going on and we eventually 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 didn’t allow me to judge if people work a lot or not, but there were some signs that seemed to indicate that they really did. 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 disturbing…
7/ Technology is everywhere: wrong
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 highly 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 such as the trains that I described before for example, nothing seemed to be that different from back home. One exception though: the toilets… more details in this article!
8/ Japanese people are disciplined: right
Time for a third anecdote! While Jeff and I were sitting in a bus, just behind the driver, we 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 very likely had many years of experience and knew perfectly what he was doing. It made me feel like he was a robot and I wondered how he would react in case of an unexpected 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, you’ll feel extremely safe everywhere… Refreshing!
9/ Japanese people are healthy: they seem to be
Jeff and I started our trip in Japan with a few days in Tokyo in an Airbnb appartment before heading to Hiroshima, where we stayed in a so called “continental” hotel. In the morning we realised with a shock that there were more overweighed Westerners in the breakfast room than we saw during 4 days in Tokyo! We met a lot of old people instead during our entire trip, most of them perfectly able to walk without any help. Japan doesn’t have the longest life expectancy in the world for no reason…
On the other hand, the scenes of obvious exhaustion that I described before didn’t seem to be very healthy, and Japan is also known to have a very high suicide rate… I guess it would need many more trips to understand better this lifestyle 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. During the 2018 Football World Cup, the images of Japanese fans cleaning the area where they had been sitting before leaving the stadium caused a sensation in France. What seemed almost crazy to us Europeans was 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 were in comparison…
What clichés do you have in mind about Japan? If I haven’t mentionned them in this article, don’t hesitate to ask me in the comments or to share your own experience with me!