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When I write for Tofugu, I ask myself a lot of questions to make sure I’m writing a good post.

Is this topic interesting to me? Will this be interesting to other people? Is the post too short? Too long? Is the title right? Etc., etc..

Most of these considerations are things that all writers try to keep in mind. But because I write about Japan, there are a special set of considerations that I have to keep in mind too.

One of the most important considerations is – believe it or not – am I making Japan out to be too weird?

The Appeal Of The Weird

When given a choice between run-of-the-mill and wacky, most people opt for the latter. Who could blame them? Would you rather read about something typical and mundane, or something really out there and unusual?

And it just so happens that for whatever reason, one of Japan’s biggest exports seems to be weird. Nowadays, it seems almost impossible to escape reading about Japan’s oddities. Hell, there are even whole websites dedicated exclusively to Japan’s wacky exports.

This can be a good thing, because it catches people’s attention easily and might even get them interested in Japan. But there’s also point when the “weird Japan” angle becomes tired and maybe even harmful.

The Risks Of Pigeonholing

When the only exposure to Japanese culture you get is the weird, then it tends to dull everything else out a little bit. It seems to me that eventually, Japan just becomes this kooky place without any real, substantive value, and it becomes hard to take it very seriously at all.

Pigeon hole

Focusing exclusively on the wacky stuff is, in my opinion, kind of a disservice to everybody involved. The author has a pretty shallow topic to work with, and the audience doesn’t have a whole lot of substance to take in. It seems like a lose-lose situation.

More Than Just Weird

Japan, like any culture, is a complex beast. Sure, there weird parts about Japanese culture, no doubt about it; but there’s still so much more.

Japanese culture has many aspects to it and is virtually impossible to wholly understand. Even if you study Japanese culture for all of your life, there will always be parts of the culture you’ll never understand or even be exposed to. It wouldn’t be for lack of trying, it’s just the depth and breadth of culture is far bigger than we tend to believe.

For instance, I’ve lived in the same area for nearly all my life, but I’m still learning new things about it all the time. Just when I think I’ve got my hometown figured out, I discover new neighborhoods with their own character and culture.

Japan: Not Nearly The Weirdest Place On Earth

That’s not to say that Japan doesn’t have its share of wacky stuff coming out of it. Japan definitely has more than its fair share of the strange. Japan isn’t alone though, and I think that we sometimes forget to turn the mirror on ourselves and look at how bizarre our own cultures can be.

I mean, check out what happens where I’m from: a guy playing bagpipes on his unicycle while wearing a Santa suit.

Believe it or not, this kind of things doesn’t phase me a whole lot anymore, but some outsiders find it really entertaining. People have even fetishized my hometown’s culture to a point where there’s even a TV show about it (Portlandia).

Is Weird Bad?

This isn’t all to say that you shouldn’t talk about “weird Japan” at all. While I think that there are dangers to overdoing it, there are definite advantages to talking about all of the goofy, zany, and just plain inexplicable things that come out of Japan.

Contextualizing these weird outliers gives people a good jumping off point to dive further into Japanese culture, to explore other parts of history, language, sociology, etc..

People look at and appreciate Japan in different ways, through different lenses; and if the weird helps them bring a culture that interests them into focus, then who am I to write them off?

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    THANK YOU!!!!!!!
    Whenever reading Tofugu I would get the feeling that Japan is all weird and strange and … not really a place I’d love to visit as it’s just too weird!
    I’m glad you wrote this article!
    I think most Tofugu readers like the weirdness aspect, though.
    You can read about the “normal” things in many other blogs anyway.

    I live in Japan and although there’s always something new to learn, you kind of get tired of the many “Japan is like this and that …” blogs (not that I’m any better … *sigh*).
    But that’s exactly why I like to read Tofugu. It’s different! It’s amusing!

    And now I completely forgot what I originally wanted to say.
    Where is this anyway? Who are you? And who am I?!?
    Uhm ….. WEIRD!!!

  • http://david.thair.net shrinkwrapped

    Very good point. This is something that struck me when I started to write a post about some of the stranger collectables I found when I visited Japan. I was in two minds about it because I’m well aware that for a lot of people, all you see on TV or on the web about Japanese culture is the wacky/weird/extreme stuff, and I worry that it just looks to them like a themepark or something. Two-dimensional.

    On the other hand, every country has its stereotypes. Being English, I expect that most Japanese would expect me to wear a bowler hat to work. But of course in reality I only do that on Mondays…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=6314807 Matthew Miller

    Is there an actual greater degree of freedom in creativity in Japan, or is it just a different kind of creativity? I’d assumed for a long time that so many of Japan’s horror movies, manga series, and other types of entertainment took such “radical” forms
    (relative to what you’d find in the US) because its culture wasn’t based in prudish Christian ideologies.

    And it’ll always be the case that the loudest minority will represent the majority – I think the reason Americans are fascinated with Japanese “weird” is because it’s so visceral and strikes a deep, primal chord. I’d say specific examples of this might be Uzumaki, Tetsuo: The Bullet Man, or Machine Girl, just to name a few.

  • Jakub Turski

    You have a very good point – but you’d make an even better one, if you could put the video you’ve taken this post’s banner from into *any* understandable context. :D

  • Caleb Piatt

    Just had to mention how terrifying I found this article being that I literally just watched “Funky Forest” that the banner came from just yesterday. It may have been the strangest thing I’ve ever watched from ANY culture. Bar none.

  • ジョサイア

    Yeah, Japan is not as strange as people make it out to be…(Most of the time) 
    You have posted three days strait…Koichi makes you look lazier than you really are. :D

  • Stroopwafel

    I agree, there is a certain allure in weirdness. And when it comes to Japan, I feel as though a lot of people tend to over-emphasize the ‘weird japan’. (But I can’t know for sure, I’ve never been to Japan)
    This is something that I really don’t like about Jonathan Ross’s “Japanorama”. I this show, Ross makes Japan look like a country filled with cosplayers, fetishists, strange game shows and high-tech geeks. I’m almost certain this is a distorted image of Japanese society.

    However, at the other side of the spectrum is Peter Barakans “Begin Japanology”. (Koichi displayed the episode on kando earlier this week) Although I find this program very interesting and informative, I can imagine it only appeals to people genuinely interested in Japanese culture, as it promises little spectacle.

    I would like use this opportunity to pay a compliment to the Tofugu writers, as I think you guys do a fine job maintaining the balance between “weird” on one hand, and “culturally justified” on the other.

  • oohlala

    i wub u fo’ saying dis.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kaylan-Walker/1222956655 Kaylan Walker

    How do I not have Tofugu favourited.. I love this site lol <3

    Great post ^-^
    ———————————————————————————————————————-

    Wish I had something more to say… A question of some kind..

    Meh, it'll come to me at like 4AM when I'm falling asleep and I'll be too lazy to turn my computer back on then i'll fall asleep and forget about it… 

  • Hinoema

    I love Portland. I saw a guy downtown wearing a sandwich board that said:

    THE END IS NEAR
    (have sex)

  • Dharma

    Japan’s weirdness got me when I saw a video of a piano eating a woman… No matter how much I try, there are no such weird stuff in my country.

  • grotesk_faery

    I think it’s important to give context to the “weird” things Japanese do. If someone just says “Look at these crazy Japanese people!”, it just sort of makes them out to be weird little people who do weird things for the sake of being weird. However, there’s a logical (or at least semi-logical) or traditional basis to a lot of the weird practices in Japan that if people knew about them, would probably make them seem a lot less weird. I’m super tired and sick right now so I can’t really think of a specific example, but I’m sure you all can come up with some.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=607790802 Alex Napoli

    That’s from a movie called Hausu. It’s great!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=607790802 Alex Napoli

    Well, I’m kinda coming to the conclusion that most people who end up taking Japan pretty seriously start off with some stereotypical image or fantasy, whether it’s “weird” Japan, “cool” Japan, anime, JPop, hanami, Tale of Genji, etc. Eventually you’ll have to shed that image though.

  • ZXNova

    A guy in a santa suit riding a unicycle while playing bagpipes takes A LOT of skill. This guy deserves an award. It’s amazing. Anyway, what this article says is very true. Looking at a place as always weird is just as bad as only knowing the bad facts about a country. Like China for instance, many people may only know bad things about China, but never the good things. But in reality, there are many good things. Some people look at weird as good (like me) or weird as bad. (It seems like most people view it that way, to me at least). Each person is different…

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I wouldn’t say that there isn’t any kind of ideologies that shape Japanese culture, they’re just different from Western ones.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Off the top of my head, I’m not sure where it’s from exactly. I just know that it’s probably one of the most recognizable “weird Japan” pictures.

    EDIT: Actually, looking at the comment below yours, it looks like it’s from Funky Forest.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Poor timing on my part :p

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I’M A POSTING MACHINE

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    shaw thang

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Thank you, I’m glad we hit some sort of balance

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Yup, that sounds like downtown. Probably Pioneer Courthouse Square too, huh?

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Yes, I definitely agree that it’s often a good point of entry.

  • ですこ

     I’m guess you live in Soviet Russia, where woman eat piano? That’s the only explanation I have.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/S3S3TZ3QYU4B35IF5IVILUK37A Lee C

    I think most of Japan’s “Weird” factor comes from being like Australia…Isolated from everyone else in evolution (only in Japan’s case, it’s the culture evolution that was isolated for so long).   I personally enjoy reading about anything that is “unusual” because it allows me to see the world from a different angle than I normally view it. 

    Sure it’s weird, but it’s only weird because I’m used to seeing things my way… I’m sure Japanese people think Americans are weird for walking around in shoes indoors and eating so much processed food (or something like that).

    Maybe you should try writing articles that compare our cultures and maybe present their point of view showing how WE are the weird ones…  That could be equally interesting.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    In theory, Koichiben is supposed to kind of like a reverse Tofugu – show the Japanese the weird aspects of American culture, but Koichi has been busy with other stuff lately and my Japanese good enough to take over that.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I agree, I thought about mentioning China in this post but couldn’t find a good place to fit it in.

  • kuyaChristian

    I like Tofugu posting lots of stuff about ‘weird’ Japan. Even before I even discovered Tofugu [*ehem...back when the blog wasn't updated for like months] I always thought that even though the other Japan blogs were interesting…they were too boring for my rather weird personality.
    So I like Tofugu the way it is. 

  • ジョサイア

    Don’t over heat! Ehehe…

  • http://twitter.com/psychomelody Psychomelody

    THANK YOU. I have lived in Japan for awhile now… and I think the reason why people focus on the weird stuff is Japan is, in a matter of speaking, really normal. How boring.

    From the outside and from joint observations with my fellow Japanese friends and coworkers, I believe America to be, well… just as weird, if not more.

    The Internet has a way of putting blinders on any subject. Too many people have this view of Japan that I deem negative. From the culture or even “The most expensive place to live in the world” so many cities have here.

    While a lot of kids and internets are always like “lol Japan”… we’re over here being all “lol Florida” or “lol *insert state here*”

  • linguarum

    When I went to Japan, I wanted to buy my friends in the U.S. a bunch of weird Japanese gadgets and foods, like I had seen on the Web. But I quickly discovered that those things are actually very difficult to find in Japan. After scouring all kinds of places in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, I ended up buying those souvenirs online (or at Narita). In general, it seems that ‘weirdness’ is something Japan likes to export and foreigners like to buy, but it doesn’t actually exist in real life in Japan. Which is really weird. 

  • Holly

    It’s ok Psychomelody, we here in the States laugh at Florida just as much as you do, I’m sure.

  • nagz

    weird = immediate Funky Forest screencap :))

  • Tawlar98

    Very well said.i don’t think you overdo it, but sometimes other people do. When I talk about Japan I have to make sure I represent it well because Japan’s not a bad place but based on what others hear they think it could be a bad place.

  • http://mistersanity.blogspot.com Jonadab

    > a guy playing bagpipes on his unicycle while wearing a Santa suit.

    You forgot to mention the skirt.  A guy playing bagpipes while riding his unicycle wearing a Santa suit over a knee-length skirt.  Who the heck rides a unicycle wearing a knee-length skirt?  Who the heck would EVER wear a Santa suit over a skirt?  

    Okay, so the skirt kind of goes with the bagpipes (or would if it were plaid, although it looked brown to me in the video, though admittedly the light and resolution were both not very good, and I didn’t get a very long look at it due to the fact that the cameraman was in a moving vehicle).  Still and all, I think the skirt at least doubles the weirdness of the spectacle here.

  • Icu2kenna

    I’m really glad you’ve recognized this about your website. I gotta say, I stopped reading Tofugu for a while once I got to Japan because it simply wasn’t reflecting what I saw around me. I’ve recently started again because of your news section, but I’m still baffled by most of your articles. You seem to be talking about a Japan that exists only on the internet and anime conventions — not even the baka gaijin articles have useful advice. For example, the articles you linked to on Japanese manners and chopstick use are largely outdated, overly formal, and for some reason everyone still quotes from them. I know you guys can do better than that.

  • Ultra_Kraken

    Good article.

  • http://www.japaneseruleof7.com/ Ken Seeroi

    After a while, it’s not weird here in the obvious ways.  It’s actually way weirder than that.

    All of the surface things that draw a lot of attention–the way people dress, their public behaviors, some of the products in the stores–fades away eventually.  Even temples become about as interesting as churches and kanji just look like any other letters. 

    But the wonder of those things is replaced by something more fundamentally weird, which is the interpersonal interactions between people.  Japanese people as a whole are socialized quite differently from people in the West, and they behave quite strangely from a Western perspective.  Of course, you can turn that around and say that Westerners also behave strangely.  It just depends on who’s holding the microscope. 

    So while I agree that it’s a mistake to focus on wacky stuff, I think the wackiness of the people will ensure Japan remains plenty weird for years to come.

  • Clan Hamilton

    Actually as a person of Scottish descent, it would look weird if someone was playing bagpipes and NOT wearing a kilt (manly garment allowing freedom of movement during battle). It would look like someone in America wearing tie and wingtips with jeans and a t-shirt. =P

  • http://exoticjapan.net Thomas Gantz

    Great post. I totally agree. It is good to have a mix of the weird, the old, the new, etc. so that people don’t just think Japan has no substance to it.

  • Narcis

    Kind of comparing apples and oranges ..it is weird if you look at the incest rate in Japan, or bullying, or the pedophiles, or the deviant way of life…you compared it in this article with ridding a unicycle…you’re weird too.