Oddities and curiosities of Japan (for Westerners) pt. 1

· 5 min read >

Peculiarities of Japan are in the mouth of everyone, like the super technological bathroom, the bullet trains, the extreme kindness, the sexual perversions (there are shops that sell second-hand underpants of high school or collegiate girls…), a strong tendency to racism, manga, anime (and their hardcore fans, called otaku), technological progress, sucking noodles in a noisy way, the absence of baskets in the streets, the cost of fruit, the possibility of finding the most absurd objects and many more. But few know very well other oddities that the Land of the Rising Sun hides. It is, of course, oddities for a Westerner, especially European like me. So, after my article on Tokyo and the one on its inhabitants, here is one about strangeness and curiosities.

Of the “particularities” listed above, I will avoid writing because they are known practically by EVERYONE. Instead, I propose you a list of things that have struck me personally and that perhaps cannot be shared by someone. But then you know, life is like that and what seems normal to me may seem strange to you and vice versa. But let’s not waste time and throw ourselves into this world full of “oddities”.

Unknown Japan

“As for Japan’s climate, its rainfall, ranging up to 160 inches per year, makes it the wettest temperate country in the world. Furthermore, in contrast to the winter rains prevailing over much of Europe, Japan’s rains are concentrated in the summer growing season. That combination of high rainfall and summer rains gives Japan the highest plant productivity of any nation in the temperate zones.”

Jared Diamond

Family

The Japanese family is still extremely traditional. First of all, the woman is the one who takes care of the house and children, regardless of whether she has a job or not (there is still a tendency to have their brides stop working). Managing the house, she also manages the income, no matter if the only gain is that of the husband. The male tends not to cook, even when he is single and lives alone: they all go out to eat or order a delivery service. When a wife is present, it is she who does everything at home, and even children often do not contribute in any way to cleaning and cooking (it is easier for them to pay a kind of rent to their parents…). There are still cases, quite widespread, unfortunately, of violent husbands with their wives and children and those accept violence as something almost “normal”.

Often the family decides the fate of children who have little say in choosing the schooling (including college) and also work. Despite the famous emotional detachment of parents towards their children (it often happens that these, even before reaching the age of majority, are left to themselves and can disappear from the house and reappear without parents complaining) there is a tendency to live with the family at least until marriage. Since fewer and fewer people get married (a problem common to modern civilizations), after a while they get out of the house but I have met many people, men and women, with a stable job still living with their parents.

Married Buddhist monks

Very few know that Japanese Buddhist monks can marry. Practice widespread for many centuries regularized not so long ago. Being the average Japanese not at all religious (but attached to traditions), it is difficult for one of them to feel the vocation and become a monk. So it happens that monks become the children or grandchildren of other monks. It is practically the family that pushes the first-born (usually) to take care of the temple in which his father or grandfather operates. Being a monk thus becomes more a job than a vocation, in fact, they have a whole series of benefits such as the day off, very mild ascetic rules, not being vegetarian or being allowed to drink alcohol. 

There are more and more cases of young monks during the training running away from the monastery taking flights to Brazil or other remote destinations. Most are stopped by the family at the airport which, at that point, understands their discomfort and grants them to choose another path, just to stay in Japan. Because, in fact, their teacher is the father or grandfather (or at least a family member) and deciding to stop being a monk means facing the family. An in-depth article on my experience in a Zen monastery can be found here.

Punctuality

Although Japanese have a reputation for extreme punctuality, and it is true with regards to transportation and everything that revolves around work, it is not always applicable to personal relationships. It often happened to me to organise a meeting with Japanese people and got messages like: I’m sorry, I’m late. Or a change of plans two or three times before the appointment (ie. place or time or both). Clearly, they are not all like this but, probably because of the stressful life that most of them lead, they tend to give “less importance” to personal relationships than to working relationships where if you arrive late you are fired. It is also difficult to make an appointment with a friend, who often gives it to you a month or two later, they are so busy!

Useless jobs

Walking down the street it is very common to see men, dressed in protective helmets, overalls and reflective vests, who tell pedestrians where they can and cannot pass because of roadworks. The fact is that they are often put where they are practically useless. Or there are like one every 5 meters when maybe only one was needed. Why all this? This is an intelligent government manoeuvre to give work to as many people as possible so that the economy moves ahead. Because if you don’t have the money, you don’t spend it, don’t buy things, and so on. Of course, these are particularly frustrating and decidedly uninspiring jobs, but better than staying at home doing nothing or worse ending up on the street.

Useless jobs in Japan
Both the one in the foreground and those in the back are in charge of the same job…
Useless jobs in Japan
Both the one in the foreground and those in the back are in charge of the same job…

Smoking inside restaurants

Japan is famous for order and cleanliness, even in the streets. In fact, it is not possible to smoke in the street except in special marked areas, under penalty of a fine. There are many Japanese who smoke and all respect these rules. Oddly, though, in restaurants, you can smoke, as in many other indoor venues like bars, pubs, etc. unless expressly prohibited by the owner (for example in Starbucks you can’t smoke). It’s been years since Europe banned smoking from locals and yet it seems that Japan doesn’t give a damn about it. In view of the 2020 Olympics, there are those who are making the problem given the large influx of “gaijin“, or non-Japanese, and there is the talk of taking action in this regard. Let’s wait.

external smoking area

Toilet paper

This is a subject that is particularly close to my heart. I have been to Japan twice, once for 5 weeks and once for 3 months. I travelled the country far and wide, from Hokkaido to Kyushu via Honshu and Shikoku. In 99% of the places I have been, whether they are private houses, public baths, restaurant bathrooms or clubs, university campuses toilets, I have always found a shitty toilet paper. Practically a very thin veil that breaks to look at it. In many cases, it doesn’t even have the dotted lines to tear it decently and when it does it often breaks wherever it wants. In short, the most uncomfortable and ill-made thing I’ve ever seen. I would never have expected it from a country so dedicated to cleanliness.

toilet paper

Washing machine

Everyone knows the Japanese WC (called Washlet) but few know that the real revolution in the field of household appliances is the washing machine. First of all, their washing machines are larger than ours, with a very large basket. Most are loaded from the top (but there are also those with the horizontal basket) and the door can ALWAYS be opened without this creating any type of damage or washing problems. The best thing for me is that they wash your clothes with a program that lasts 30-40 minutes, equivalent to our two-hour programs! Some, however, have a built-in dryer, but they also exist in our countries. Obviously, the cost is much higher than our washing machines, but I would gladly spend that money on a household appliance like that!

washing machine
washing machine
washing machine

Plastic

Despite the technological vanguard, Japan seems to be totally insensitive to the problem of plastic waste, especially of the infamous microplastics. The bags they give in stores are all “old fashioned”, which means they are not biodegradable. Moreover, to maintain the freshness of the products, they have the mania to pack everything, even fruit and vegetables, without restraint. Snacks that are bought in supermarkets or convenience stores not only have the outer packaging, but each piece is protected by another casing. Waste recycling is well done, but we all know that recyclable plastics are a low percentage. Japan is really behind this and should wake up and raise awareness among the population.

plastic
plastic
plastic

Hair whorl

We conclude the first part with this pearl: in Japan, people talk about the hair whorl with a certain frequency, especially mothers about their children. There is a way of saying, tsumuji magari, which literally means: bending or twisting one’s hair whorl. It is used to describe rebellious children. There is also the belief, in childhood, that pressing on the hair whorl is dangerous: you can become bald or you may get diarrhoea. Finally, given the very rare event in Japan, people who have two hair whorls are considered very strong.

Here the second part of the article!

I remind you that it is possible to finance my travels! Thanks!

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