10 Myths About Japanese Culture


The land of the rising sun is fascinating to many of us in the West. The land that gave the world samurai and sushi holds a lot of mystique, but some of it is just straight up myth, even in the modern world.

10. Anime is Not The Biggest Form of Entertainment

Anime is a $20 billion industry and there’s no denying its popularity. The West is only now coming to embrace anime culture and fans of the medium are now comfortable expressing their interest in it. For many years it suffered the same fate as comic books or sci-fi, considered to be the realm of nerds and social outcasts. 

As Western audiences open up more to anime, the idea that it must be just as popular if not more popular in Japan seems to make sense. If anime originates in Japan, surely it’s beloved there. But that’s not entirely true.

Anime is definitely popular in Japan, but manga is more popular. Manga is generally considered the more adult or refined version, the books on which a good deal of anime is based. 

For many in Japan, an adult fan of anime is considered an otaku. The word has made its way to the West and many anime fans will openly call themselves an otaku, but it’s used the way someone would also call themselves a nerd. They originally used the word as an insult and to many it still is. 

The word otaku means “your house” and denotes that you are a shut in. It’s the equivalent of when someone on social media accused a person of living in their mom’s basement. So even though the anime industry is big business, there’s still a social stigma attached to it and open fandom is frowned on, at least in some circles. 

9. Japan has Very Little Crime

One of the big things you’ll often hear about Japan is just how safe it is. Crime rates in Japan are very low. In fact, crime in 2020 had dropped for the 17th year in a row in Japan, which sounds amazing. But there are some unfortunate facts that are often overlooked when it comes to understanding crime in Japan.

Violent crime, like murder, is definitely low in Japan. But there are some stats that are alarming. In particular, are the stats about sexual assault. It’s par for the course that women on subways are going to be groped by strangers. By the government’s own estimation, nearly 95% of incidents involving sexual violence are not reported to police. That number is shockingly high and cuts straight to the heart of a serious and ignored problem that pervades the culture. 

Sexual assault, and rape in particular, are considered embarrassing topics in Japan. Worse, officials make victims feel like they are responsible. In some cases, they force victims who report crimes to re-enact the crimes with life-sized dummies in front of investigators. 

Even the definition of rape has been problematic in Japan. Until 2017, the legal definition of rape in Japan only included a man penetrating a woman’s vagina. Anything else didn’t meet the definition. Even after the definition changed, it needed to be accompanied by violence or intimidation. So anyone who was drugged or didn’t fight back wasn’t legally raped either. And because of that, crime statistics in Japan are not always as cut and dry as they seem. 

In addition, Japanese justice relies heavily on confession. They can hold suspects for nearly a month, and questioning borders on torture. False confessions are par for the course, and real statistics are hard to determine. 

8. Whale Meat is Not Popular

In North America the idea of anyone hunting whales offends most people. That’s where the whole Save the Whales campaign came from in the 1970s. Countries like Russia, Norway and Japan had traditionally hunted whales and an effort was made to end the hunt and prevent any more whale deaths.

Despite the public outcry, whaling in Japan continues to this day. Ironically, the US was partially responsible for the commercial hunting of whales. After World War II, half of all protein consumed in Japan was whale as American official urged the country to hunt them as it rebuilt. But that was int he 1940s and ‘50s. 

In modern day Japan, the average citizen will eat about 40 grams of whale meat per year. That’s slightly less than the amount of beef in a Big Mac. So while the whaling industry does exist, it’s not one that’s meeting the culinary demands of the people. In fact, it seems mostly to exist out of spite. Because Japanese culture has historically been linked to whaling, they continue to do it because they resent outside influence trying to make rules against it. 

7. Sushi Isn’t Eaten All the Time

Is any food more synonymous with Japan than sushi? It’s the one thing everyone knows they eat in Japan and it’s absolutely massive in the Western world. Sushi is worth over $22 billion in the US alone.That’s a lot of rice. So the industry must be even bigger in Japan, right?

Sushi is definitely a favorite food in Japan, but it’s not ubiquitous like it is in North America. For many in Japan, sushi has long been a special occasion food. It’s not lunch on a Tuesday, it’s something for a dinner party with friends, or a birthday. 

In the West we know sushi because it became popular here, the same as ramen. But to reduce Japanese cuisine to sushi is like reducing American cuisine to hot dogs. It may be emblematic in the eyes of the world, but it’s not what people eat every day, or even every week. Japanese cuisine is remarkably diverse

A survey conducted in Japan of Japanese people found that most people had sushi once every three months or so. Only one quarter of people surveyed ate sushi more than once a month. 

6. WiFi is Hard to Find

If you were asked to picture Tokyo in your head, you’d probably imagine Shibuya Crossing. Like Times Square in New York, it’s that one location that makes it into every big movie filmed in the city. Featuring big, neon signs and billboards, and a crisscrossing of streets where literally hundreds of people will cross into traffic, it’s quite a sight. It really brings to mind the kind of technological mecca that we picture when we think of Tokyo.

With locations like that being hallmarks of the city, it’s surprising to learn that the city is not as open technologically as you might think. If you’re looking for a place to connect to some free WiFi you may be looking for a while.

Unlike in the US where most hotels, cafes and even restaurants have free WiFi for customers, Japan is not a hotspot for hotspots. Free WiFi can be found at some hotels but in the lobby only, if at all.

Most of the reason for the lack of WiFi is that nearly every cell phone plan in Japan comes with data. If everyone has access to the internet already, they don’t need to set up WiFi hot spots. Even those who use their laptops for work bring their mobile network with them with cards to access their own network. 

Technically, Japan is very much connected to the internet, you just have to get yourself there and not expect that access will be made available. 

5. You’re Not Likely to Find Underwear Vending Machines

Yes, this is an offputting topic, but it’s one that has been tied to Japan, at least on the internet, for years now. The idea that you can go to Japan and find a vending machine that sells underwear has been one of those lowbrow jokes since photos of the machines first started circulating online. 

Japanese culture features a lot of quirks, like any culture does. In addition to the prevalence of anime and manga, Japan also produces hentai, which is the adult version of anime. Which is to say it’s pornographic. Seemingly spun out of this hentai, which often features creepy tentacles and female characters in those schoolgirl sailor suits came the used panty vending machine. It was just what it sounded like, a machine that sold used undergarments. 

There are red light districts in Japan that sell a number of adult-oriented items and people have gone to Japan to try to find these machines. There are actually some in adult-themed shops but the wording on them is confusing to those who aren’t native Japanese speakers. These machines will sell underwear, but it’s not used. They’re just made to look like they are, likely to prey on the sorts of people who would buy such things in the first place.

Word is these kinds of things were for sale some years ago, but the government has cracked down on them considerably. So were there one or two machines in Tokyo once upon a time? Probably. But don’t expect to find them these days. 

4. Japan is Remarkably Wasteful

If you’ve seen any video of the hustle and bustle of downtown Tokyo, the first thing you probably noticed was the sheer number of people. The city really is packed, almost 14 million people live there. That leads to something you may not have thought of. With that many people, Tokyo is incredibly clean. Surprisingly, this stems back to the sarin gas attacks back in 1995. They removed trash cans for fear they might hold the deadly gas in future attacks. The people adapted by carrying their garbage with them and bringing it to work or home to dispose of. The result is one clean city with no garbage cans. So that gives the illusion that Japan is not particularly wasteful. But it’s definitely an illusion. 

When it comes to food in particular, Japan wastes massive amounts. The country dumps 620,000 tons of food every year thanks in part to curious beliefs about food safety and sanitation. 

In post-war Japan there was a clear lack of regulation and sanitation regarding food, which led to sickness. Strict standards were instituted but never relaxed, even after the country was rebuilt. This led to a very strict and regimented attitude towards how food should look and be consumed. They will discard some food after sitting on display for just one day. Packaged foods that can stay on a shelf for a year in America will be gone within six months in Japan.

In addition, regulations are put in place to prevent short orders. That means if a store orders 100 apples but only 80 can be shipped, the shipper owes the store the money they would have made selling those missing 20 apples. In order to compensate, producers will grow more than they need to ensure no order is short. That leads to excess that ends up thrown in the garbage. It’s a systemic problem and one people are trying to change, but the process is slow. 

3. Japanese College is a Joke

There’s a very common belief in the West that they work Japanese students like dogs. School is a grind but the end result is a lot of really smart and highly educated people ready to take on the world. And it’s true that school in Japan is pretty intense for children. They have a lot of expectations put on them and the path to college is not for the faint of heart. But then when you get to college, there’s a very noticeable shift.

College in Japan is treated something like a joke. Not just by students, but by everyone. It’s understood that once you’ve made it to college, you really don’t have much left to do. Even in a four-year college, the expectation that you’re going to slack off and barely study is pervasive. College was the destination, you don’t have to do anything once you’re there. In fact, it seems remarkably difficult to actually mess up and fail in college once you’ve been accepted. The experience is literally described as a vacation in many places. 

Japanese employers tend to only look at a student’s school, not their grades. They don’t really care how you did. Also, most colleges don’t make you take a lot of tests or write papers anyway, so the hardest part of many courses is simply showing up. 

2. Japan is Not as Tech Savvy as You Might Think

Japanese businesses have long been at the forefront of many technological innovations. Companies like Sony, Toyota, Fuji and countless others hail from Japan and have been at the forefront of tech innovations for decades now. So it’s kind of surprising to learn just how non-tech savvy the country is at the ground level. 

While North Americans are busy streaming new shows on Netflix, HBOMax, Amazon Prime, and Disney+, the residents of Japan are only now just slowly adopting streaming as a viable platform for entertainment. Video rental stores are still hugely popular. DVD rentals and sales, as well as CD sales, are still remarkably big there. Music stores are big business. In 2016 they accounted for almost $2.5 billion in physical music sales. In 2018, streaming services have only just managed to catch up to physical media in terms of overall sales. 

Even in terms of how things are paid for in Japan, the country is slow to embrace technology. Cash is still king with electronic payments like debit and credit lagging behind many other nations. E-commerce in general is not nearly as advanced in Japan as it is elsewhere. For the size of the country, and its economy, it’s remarkably far afield of the US and China. 

Part of this may stem from the fact that tradition seems to be important in Japan and for all the innovation on the business level, on a social level people stick to what they know. In fact, many people in Japan still use wooden stamps and ink official documents including legal papers, timesheets for work, and banking papers. 

1. Japan is Not That Expensive

Most Westerners have heard for years that Japan is expensive. Hotels, travel, meals. It all costs a fortune. The truth of the matter is far more complex, of course, and why shouldn’t it be? Saying it’s expensive to visit Japan is like saying it’s expensive to visit America. It could be if you stay at swanky Manhattan hotels and eat at Michelin-star restaurants. But what if you don’t?

At least one traveller from abroad who had feared Japan due to its prices finally took the plunge in 2021. Based on her travels, which ranged from Tokyo to Osaka with stops in Kyoto, Hakone and several others, she was able to travel, eat and sleep in Japan for $95 per day. That’s a very reasonable budget for travel. 

Travel in Japan is often made more expensive than it needs to be. Obviously fancier restaurants will have higher prices. Cities like Tokyo will often have more expensive tourist districts than smaller cities. But it gets worse. Sites like Booking.com have been found to charge up to 37% more for hotel rooms than Japanese booking sites charging for the exact same rooms. So some of the expense of the country is artificially inflated to prey on tourists. 

These costs extend beyond tourism. Living in Tokyo is cheaper than it is in many major Western cities. You’ll spend 40% less on a 2-bedroom apartment in Tokyo than you will in San Francisco. It’s 23% less than in London. 

Of course Japan can be expensive, but so can any place. The pervasive myth that Japan as a whole is always more expensive just doesn’t add up.

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