If you Google the words “weird Japan,” you will find links to whatever the wacky Japanese news du jour happens to be. In Western news media coverage of Japan, it’s an always reliable “go-to” staple to fill some space and find amusement (and sometimes amazement) about Japanese culture and the Japanese people.
This subset of news reporting has been around for as long as I can remember. I suppose I’ve been taken in and amused as much as anyone. Capsule hotels. “Christmas cake” women over the age of 25. Vending machines that sell everything from beverages to used panties. Robot companions. It’s a pretty long list, much of it prurient, and those examples are just a few that have come out over the years.
But much of the time, there’s a subtext of cultural superiority in those news reports. At the most innocuous level, it might leave readers with an “Aren’t those Japanese cute/silly/funny” sort of conclusion.
The other extreme, of course, was before and during WWII, when more insidious forms of similar reporting helped dehumanize the Japanese, which of course affected Japanese Americans, as being so different and unassimilable that they needed to be rounded up and incarcerated.
But that undercurrent of superiority can only go so far. In the U.S., we have great diversity compared with Japan, and with it, a great diversity of our own weirdness. Rattlesnake cults? People who don’t vaccinate their children? Extreme body piercing? Trigger-happy cops? There’s plenty of weirdness to go around.
I’m reminded of a story told by a guest speaker at my Department of Defense high school in Okinawa. He was a Japanese national, the father of a classmate, and he told a story about staying with a host family in the Midwest while attending seminary school. As I recall the story, someone asked him, “Is it true that you Japanese sleep on the floor?” When he answered yes, the questioner responded, “That’s uncivilized.”
The man asked his questioner, “Is it true you Americans wear their shoes inside their homes?” The answer was, of course, yes. “Where I come from, we consider that to be uncivilized.”
All a matter of perspective.
Meantime, I just returned from a short visit to see my parents, who live in Japan. On a personal level, I can report that they are, overall, physically well and healthy, despite their advancing years.
As for Japan itself, from my observation and first-hand experience, I can report the following: The trains were on time. The only people I saw with tattoos were Westerners, and the only overweight people I saw were wives of active-duty servicemen on Yokota Air Base. I saw no grossly obese or even just slightly fat Japanese who weren’t sumo wrestlers on TV.
Overall, the people looked healthy, clean, well-groomed and fashionable. No homeless. No Kim Kardashian. The streets were clean. I saw no graffiti. At restaurants, the food was uniformly delicious and the service impeccable – and we didn’t have to tip. The array of goods for sale — stationery supplies, cutlery, machine-made as well as hand-crafted hashi, textiles, ceramics and porcelain, various antiques — was of superior quality and in many cases, not overly expensive. (A strong dollar helped!)
All the public restrooms were clean, with automatic flushing toilets and high-tech bidets darn near ubiquitous and blowers to dry your hands. (Also, while I can’t speak for what’s in the ladies’ rooms, most men’s rooms have a ledge above the urinals to put your bags, as well as a hook to hang your stuff when your hands are otherwise occupied. Very convenient.) Despite reports that the population of Japan is on the decline, I did see young children. Also saw many elderly.
I can also report the U.S. influence co-existed within Japan, too. KFC and McDonald’s were still abundant, although McDonald’s in Japan evidently offers McDelivery, something I’m not sure exists here.
American-designed Apple iPhones dominated among people carrying keitai denwa, especially amazing since it wasn’t that long ago that Japanese domestic cellphones had features we could only envy. (It’s worth noting that the driving force behind the iPhone was Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who was a huge Japanophile and an acolyte of Sony co-founder Akio Morita. The drive to simplify the iPhone’s interface was no doubt influenced by Jobs’ regard for the Zen aesthetic.)
If I had one complaint about Japan, it’s the napkins. They’re tiny, slick and nonabsorbent. They are simply the worst napkins one could think of. Also, like the British, they might want to give more consideration to orthodontics.
But other than that, Japan simply has gotten a lot of things right. Some much for Western superiority in all things. Yes, its 1980s heyday was a generation ago, with China having passed it to become the world’s No. 2 economy.
But Japan seems to have settled into a nice, stable groove, with a standard of living most Chinese can only envy. Maybe a lot of Americans, too.
So, for all the news we get from Japan, perhaps it makes sense that the focus is on what’s “weird.” There’s nothing too newsworthy or exciting about a clean, orderly, efficient, well-ordered, well-mannered, low-crime society, is there?
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2015 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.