Oddities and curiosities of Japan (for Westerners) pt. 2

· 6 min read >

Continuation of the previous article on the oddities and curiosities of Japan

”Strange” Japan

“The Japanese do not sleep, they do not take naps: they do inemuri. This widespread practise consists of falling asleep in public: in the middle of a conference, for example, or at school or on public transport. No one seems to pay much attention to this: Japan is one of the countries that sleeps the least in the world due to the pressing pace of work and sleeping in public is almost a sign of honour, proof that one is exhausted from having worked so hard and one deserves an award”

Ilaria Betti


In Japan, they have a very special way of writing shop hours, especially bars and clubs that stay open late. Instead of writing that they close at 1 am or 2 am, they write 25 or 26 respectively. It makes us smile because it seems that for them there are days with more than 24 hours (and considering how many things they do in a day, it could really be plausible!). A clear example is that of the cover of this article.



We all know Yakuza as a Japanese mafia: from movies, manga, anime or tattoos. Few, however, know what it really does. It is considered the richest mafia in the world. Well, talking to the Japanese it turned out that ALL shops in the main trading areas (at stations and outskirts, shopping malls, markets, etc.) pay Yakuza for protection. By them, it is called: mikajimeryo, or to pay for protection. Only the most isolated shops, far from the large influx of people, are ignored by the local mafia. These are things that all Japanese people know, especially males, but who nonetheless accept without major problems. Since it has existed for many years it is part of the “tradition”. Nobody complains and everyone agrees.

Not many years ago they made the payment in exchange for protection illegal, so the member of the Yakuza and the owner of the place go to a cafe where the money is exchanged. In Japan, you pay almost anywhere in cash, so it’s easy to have no track for this. Those who oppose to the payment for protection face typical situations as: Yakuza intimidates the customers to enter the “rebel” shop, ruining its economy; next step is physical violence against the owner; in the rarest cases, the store is burned down. At least in Italy mafia acts mainly in concentrated areas and there is a strong tendency to rebel today, yet Italian Mafia has become more famous while the Japanese one, silent, has its hands all over the country. Yakuza also runs the main prostitution business, the most famous being Soap Lands. The most famous names of Japanese mafia families are Yamaguchi Gumi (Kobe), Inagawakai (Tokyo, Roppongi) and Sumiyoshi Kai (Akasaka, Tokyo).

Soap Land and prostitutions

Although prostitution in Japan is illegal, it is easy to use it in various forms. The most famous is that of the Soap Land (or Sopu Lando, as they say). Until 35 years ago they were called Turkish baths: despite the name, they were places where they could take advantage of prostitution. For this reason, the Turkish government has pushed the Japanese government to change its name, to avoid this ignominious association. Here is the name of Soap Land. In fact, in these centres, one goes to be washed, literally. Then having sex is considered an extra thing that has nothing to do with paying for a bath. Practically young girls (maximum 25-year-olds) are ready to wash any type of male, of any age, under the payment of a large sum of money (the Soap Land are quite expensive).

Now, these prostitution centres are obviously managed by Yakuza and are also used by those who work for the Japanese government. So everyone knows what happens inside them, but they pretend not to see. There is the tradition, among other things, that when an important client comes to a working visit, he is housed in a luxury hotel and escorted to one of these Soap Land. Whether it’s a Japanese or a foreign customer, it makes little difference. Among other things in China, where they too have this tradition of offering prostitutes to important clients but where the government is trying to block this custom, when they know they are dealing with Japanese clients, they automatically take them to prostitutes, without even ask him if they want them or not. Which does not happen with European customers, for example.

Italian names

Japan has always had the charm of Il Bel Paese. One of the things they really like is the Italian language, also because for them, it is easy to pronounce (Japanese and Italian are read as they are written). As Japanese, however, they love being creative and reinterpreting Italian sounds in a completely personalized key. It is therefore very easy to find restaurants, bars, cafes and shops in general with Italian or Italian-like names. Or words that seem Italian, they sound Italian, but in reality, they mean nothing. Moreover, they never put the article, because in Japanese it doesn’t exist. Or they use existing words and phrases but in a way that an Italian would never use, especially to name a business. Here are some nice examples.

Affinity and blood type

While in Europe we rely on the horoscope to know the affinity (be it of a couple, friendship or work), or tarot (the most daring ones throw themselves on Chinese horoscope, numerology, enneagram, etc.), in Japan they use the blood type. Ever since the blood types were discovered by Karl Landsteiner, Japan has invested heavily in research to try to determine the personality of each type, enough to commission a study to Professor Takeji Furukawa for the recruitment of the military. We talk about the 20s-30s. Despite scientific denials, in the 70s Masahiko Nomi published a book, strongly criticized by psychologists, on blood type and personality, so much so that today there are daily horoscopes based on blood types, love and work affinities are calculated and even dietary advice. Like us, when you know an interesting person, you ask for the zodiac sign, so the Japanese ask for the blood type.

Yes or No?

A peculiar feature of the Japanese language is the use of yes and no, which is different from how we use it. I will give you an example: if a friend of yours tells you something like “Look, tomorrow she will not come” and you answer “Ah, so she will not come?” just to be sure you understand, your friend will reply with a “no “. That is “no, she will not come“. A Japanese, who speaks his/her language or another (because they tend to translate literally) will answer you instead with a “yes”. But it means she won’t come! Practically his/her “yes” is to say: “yes, tomorrow she will not come“. As if to say: “you understood correctly”.

This often creates confusion when a foreigner speaks with a Japanese in another language, such as English, especially if the interlocutor does not know English well, because he/she will tend to translate literally from Japanese. Questions like: “Is this not included in the price?” often receive an affirmative answer, but in reality, they mean no! Because the claim is about not being included in the price. In short, a big mess! It is always worth investigating thoroughly and trying to formulate the question differently to make sure you understand.


Despite the very low unemployment rate, there is no shortage of homelessness, especially in large cities like Tokyo. Unfortunately, they are quite widespread and can be found in many areas of the great metropolis. They are marginalized by the frenetic Japanese society and they are mainly lonely and abandoned, often of a certain age. On the homeless phenomenon, Satoshi Kon wrote and directed a wonderful anime that certainly deserves to be seen, from the ironic name of Tokyo Godfathers, which emphasizes the contrast between poor life without social importance with the powerful figure that is a Mafia godfather. A film that is anything but moralistic or heavy, indeed very funny but not superficial.

homeless tokyo

Patriarchate and life as a couple

Despite the opening to the West, the university cultural revolution of the 1960s, scientific and technological progress, Japan still remains very backward in terms of equal opportunities and homosexuality. The woman still has a minor role in the society and often, when she gets married, she is forced to leave work to take care of the house and children, giving up her career and working achievement. Unfortunately, episodes of domestic violence that are not reported are common, nor does the woman dare leave her husband. They are accepted and silenced as part of the culture. Women find it more difficult to find certain types of jobs and to receive a salary equal to that of a man with the same role and level.

It is no coincidence that the phenomenon called “Narita Divorce” is famous. Narita is Tokyo’s international airport. Virtually many couples divorce immediately after their honeymoon, returning to Japan (at the airport, in fact), especially when the Japanese woman realized how women are treated in Western countries. It is no coincidence that many Japanese girls prefer to frequent Western men. Furthermore, Japan is the highest divorce rate after retirement. This happens because two get married, they dedicate themselves entirely to work (if she doesn’t work, she dedicates herself to the family), they hardly ever see each other and when they finally have time to spend together, they discover that they can’t stand each other and leave.

Bicycles and parking lots

In Japan, you see a lot of bicycles, especially in Tokyo. For this reason, each bicycle has an identification plate associated with an owner. So stealing them becomes much more difficult, but getting fines easier. In fact in Japan, at least in Tokyo and in the big cities, you can park your bikes only in certain areas that are, of course, paid. Yes, even bikes have to pay for parking! Although this makes us smile (and be upset), these are the rules and the Japanese make sure they are respected (a bike of a friend of mine was taken away because he had left it too long in a parking lot).



Japan is not famous for being a gay-friendly country, although there are no episodes of explicit violence or sexism in the Rising Sun. Homosexuality is not well seen in general and they usually avoid talking about it. Exceptions are some small “rebel” groups, such as in one of the neighbourhoods of Tokyo called Golden Gai, where there are several gay bars where the staff is made up of gays or transgenders (usually from other Asian countries). In some districts of Tokyo, it is even possible to marry between people of the same sex (only among men for now), but in the rest of the country, it is absolutely forbidden. Despite this, Japan remains the Asian country that most protects and respects gays (which says a lot…)

If you missed the first part of the article, here it is!
Here instead my articles on Tokyo and its inhabitants.

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

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