Jun 112007

I mentioned in the post “Natsukashii” that during my previous stay in Japan I’d been keeping a list of things I found interesting but never got a chance to blog about. Well, although that list got lost when my system crashed in November of ’05, I’ve slowly but surely built up yet another list during this second visit. And now it’s time to purge! So without further ado, here are a few interesting facts about Japan:

• You don’t have to set a timer before starting a microwave if you don’t want to. They auto-detect when the food is hot and turn themselves off accordingly.

• Japan has an absolute zero-tolerance policy towards drunk driving: at any time and any age, the legal blood-alcohol limit is exactly zero percent. As a result, despite the rampant alcoholism, their rate of drunk driving accidents is so low (along with their murder and crime rate in general) that I’ve actually seen pieces on the news about a single drunk driving accident that happened in Tokyo, halfway across the country. Could you imagine if New York news channels started reporting on every drunk driving accident in LA?

• To help deter people from drunk driving, Japan has implemented an incredibly simple, incredibly genius program that I’m ashamed to say I never thought of…and am flabbergasted as to why we don’t have something similar in the US. For a cost almost identical to that of a regular taxi, you can call a “drunk taxi” – a taxi with two drivers, one who drives you home and another who drives your car home for you. Genius!

• In Japan, the “cool guy” image is completely opposite from that in the US. A feminine, thin-as-a-board, long-haired guy with an obscenely fake tan, often using hairspray and/or makeup, and for some reason often choosing to wear sunglasses at night. Sometimes these “cool guys” can be seen standing near their riced-out minivans parked along Kawaramachi St, blasting girly J-Pop tunes for all of the passing pedestrians to enjoy. Other times they can be seen standing on street corners waiting for cute girls to come by – at which point they literally chase after them, spitting pickup line after pickup line until they accept the rejection and return to their post to prepare for yet another attack. Does such a methodology actually work? I guess it must…but seriously, YOU LOOK LIKE A GIRL, MAN!

• Schools in Japan generally do not have janitors; the schoolchildren themselves are responsible for maintaining the grounds. It was a bit trippy the first time I saw a gaggle of third-graders in uniforms scrubbing library windows and raking leaves in a campus baseball field.

• Similarly, most companies rely on their new hires to vacuum offices, clean bathrooms, and so forth. This includes the company at which I’m currently employed. It would be fair to say that I was less than enthralled when I learned that one of my job duties as a Computer Engineer would include scrubbing toilets. But that’s Japan, I guess.

• Although many things cost substantially more here than in the US, if you know your way around, the overall cost of living isn’t really as extreme as most people think. Seeing a movie in the theater costs $20, but if you go on certain discount days it becomes $10. Purchasing and operating a car is prohibitively expensive in the cities, but you can get virtually anywhere you want on trains – eliminating the need for gas, insurance, and maintenance. Rent is lower than in LA, and when you take into account that a simple meal in a US restaurant requires an extra 25% or so for tax and tip (so stupid), you can actually eat out here for quite a bit less. I can sit down and have a big sushi meal for $14 out-the-door, or a big bowl of noodles for $4. You just have to know where to go.

…That being said, I still can’t figure out why everywhere feels like it’s appropriate to charge $100 per month for a gym membership 😛

• Japanese television consists primarily of news, goofy game shows, cooking shows, and “Learn English” shows. And yes, their game shows are just as ridiculous as most Americans think. As are their

• Contrary to popular belief, the Japanese aren’t really that much shorter than Americans anymore. According to a few people I’ve spoken with, 20 years ago they were. But rapid and continuous Westernization has caused the average height to change significantly, and 6″+ is not nearly as rare as it once was.

• Contrary to popular belief, Japan is not an efficient country. It’s true that trains are always on time, you can have anything delivered anywhere in the country almost instantly, and utility servicemen almost always show up right when they’re scheduled to (none of this “wait at home from 9 to 5” business like in the US). But in general they bog themselves down so heavily with this cultural obligation to go through “proper form” and “obey all the rules” that doing things we consider simple in the US becomes ludicrously and unnecessarily complicated. Changing your address at the bank, signing up for internet access, or getting a driver’s license requires paperwork stacked nearly neck-high. Every business and organization I’ve come across so far has proven to be nothing less than a complete bureaucracy. I’m convinced that this is why Japanese employees work such long hours for such little pay: they need all those extra man-hours to deal with the paperwork and meetings that they somehow feel are necessary to conduct their business.

• The number of foreigners really seems to have exploded even since I was here as a student. 15 years ago there were no Western toilets in Kyoto, 5 years ago there were no 24-hour ATMs, and 1 year ago there was no high-quality gym. I have no doubt that China is currently the world’s fastest changing country, but Japan ain’t exactly settled down itself yet either.

• Famous American actors who never appear in commercials in the US can often be seen in the same silly Japanese noodle and coffee ads that US sketch-comedy has been making fun of for decades. At this very moment Tommy Lee Jones is part of a major Boss Coffee ad campaign, Brad Pitt stars in some major cellphone commercial, and Cameron Diaz is plastered all over the city advertising for Softbank.

• The exchanging of business cards, or “meishi,” is an important part of businessman culture in Japan. You’ll often see groups of businessmen gathered in a circle bowing profusely and thanking each other as they hand business cards back and forth amongst them. Quite amusing to watch their comb-overs flop up and down in the afternoon breeze..

• Japan is not as high-tech as many Westerners believe. Tokyo is full of bright lights, they ride bullet trains around the country, and they design lots of high-tech devices for export, but when it comes to day-to-day life, the percentage of people who are computer illiterate is staggering. And aside from some fancy cell-phones and talking toilets, most things are really rather low-tech: no central heating in homes, almost everyone hang-dries their laundry, and I’ve yet to see a single residence with a dishwasher or garbage disposal.

• Although the Japanese are 99% Buddhist and Shinto, they are somehow so enamored with Western culture that they go nuts with many elements of Christianity. They often hire foreigners – not priests, just anyone who looks white – to marry them in buildings made up to look like fake churches. And for Christmas, they decorate the hell out of the city with lights, wreaths, and trees. Not to mention dressing up Colonel Saunders statues outside of KFC like Santa Clause. Probably because they think he is Santa Clause.

• Talking, heated, pleasantly scented toilets are commonplace.

• I haven’t seen a single piece of litter for weeks, and I can only remember seeing graffiti once.

• The Japanese diet is not extremely healthy, no matter what you may hear. Traditionally it was: pickled vegetables, fish, rice, and noodles. But with their maniacal obsession with Westernization, the Japanese diet has changed almost completely within the last generation. Young people now spend their time hanging out at McDonald’s, Starbucks, and KFC; traditional izakaya serves French Fries and Fried Chicken; even Japanese fast food chains serve fried pork cutlets or fatty Australian beef bowls. I’ve never seen nonfat milk in a supermarket, and no one I’ve talked to has even heard of lowfat beef. Pork-broth ramen (from China) and deep-fried tempura aren’t exactly coronary helpers either.

The problem is, even the Japanese themselves still seem to think their diet is healthy – because their lifespans are so long, and because they’re so much thinner than Americans on average (this is true without a doubt). But most young people don’t realize that beef and milk weren’t even available in most parts of the country when their parents were growing up. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when this generation, the first generation raised on American foods, starts aging…?

• Drinking is a huge part of Japanese businessman culture, and getting drunk is almost always an acceptable excuse to let loose. An ordinarily straight-edge businessman who gets drunk and cusses out his boss will almost always be forgiven at the office on Monday; he didn’t know what he was saying, he was drunk. It’s not rare at all to see a middle-aged salaryman passed out on a streetcorner or subway, still dressed in his suit and tie from earlier that day. Stressed much?

• Because of the extremely dense population in big cities, the Japanese perspective on “inaka,” or “middle-of-nowhere” is drastically different from that in the US. Four or five miles from the center of town is sufficient to label a place as “the middle-of-nowhere.” Interestingly enough, four or five miles from the center of town actually is often sufficient to convert the scenery from wall-to-wall buildings to wide-opened rice fields. So I guess there’s merit to this one.

Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo is the world’s busiest intersection.

That’s all I got for now!

  8 Responses to “Interesting Facts”

  1. Wow! Thanks for the wisdom. More to come, right?

  2. that was some really interesting facts … gotta spent sometime reading your blog from day zero 🙂 cheers!

  3. Dan: Always 😉

    Slurp: Thanks! Er…maybe not day zero…my posts were sh*t way back then, haha 😛

  4. Ahh, Shibuya…lord justin, you make me want to go back so very badly
    🙁 good thing i’m not popping out any kids, right? :p totally rad post my friend…i truly enjoy reading your blog:D

  5. hehehe … no worries. I’ll read whatever that says Japan Korea.

    Is it possible for foreigner to buy (and then sell afterwards) say, used van or car, to drive around Japan. Do you have a approx. price of such? thanks much! I got some crazy idea brewing ;P

  6. I’ve never owned a car in Japan so I’m probably not the best person to ask, but as far as I know buying them used is dirt-cheap. Selling them, however, might be a problem – as most Japanese don’t like anything that’s more than about 3 minutes old.

    If I were you (and again, take my advice with a grain of salt because I get around on a little shopping bike) I might consider a scooter or motorcycle. You can get those for CRAZY cheap, they sell them everywhere, and they use almost no gas.

  7. Good post. You’re becoming a true erudite of Japanese culture!

  8. Now, now Nick…let’s not go flashing that crazy vocabulary of yours all over the place 😛

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