by

As you might know, the Tofugu team just came back from a month-long trip to Japan. It’d been a while since any of us had been to Japan but for me, it had been 13 years.

In that time, I had grown a lot and also forgotten what Japan was like, so when we went, there were a lot of things I saw that really surprised me.

I realize that you should always approach other cultures with an open mind, but there were four things that really shocked me about Japan:

Gender

My undergraduate thesis was about Japanese gender roles, so I have at least some background the politics of gender and sexuality in Japan.

Even given that, I was still surprised at how many protections women have from pervs at basically every turn.

gender

It was everywhere — men weren’t always allowed to go into photobooths on their own, cameras were required by law to play a sound when taking a picture, there were segregated train cars, and signs warning about perverts on trains.

Not to mention the whole scandal about the poor AKB48 woman shaving her head and being demoted for the crime of having a boyfriend. That’s another issue entirely, but The Japan Times has a good write up about the scandal.

Thankfully, I never saw anybody got groped or harassed or anything while we were in Japan. But all of the signs (literally and figuratively) were still there, and the more I saw them, the more they bothered me.

Accessibility

The US is pretty good on being accessible to people with disabilities but holy hell, Japan does a lot for the disabled.

You notice it most in the big train stations, where bumpy plastic floors stretch as far as the eye can see. These floors help blind people to better navigate on their own, with different textures indicating different areas of the station (i.e., stairs, elevators, walkways).

disability

There are other aids for blind people too — braille on signs, speakers playing sounds at regular intervals at different parts of the station (usually at escalators).

That on its own isn’t especially remarkable, but there was more outside of the train stations. Japanese sign language being taught on TV. Braille on the tops of beer cans. It all added up to a very impressive effort to help people with disabilities.

This is in defiance of how inaccessible a lot of Japan can be. Still though, it was nice to see the Japanese making an effort in public areas.

Booze

The US has a complicated relationship with alcohol. Americans love they booze, but there are plenty of restrictions on the stuff.

Aside from the historical context of Prohibition, the US really works aggressively to curb underage drinking, and there are limits on where you can sell alcohol, what kinds you can sell, and where you can consume it.

In the US, I assume I’m going to be carded whenever I buy alcohol. I usually have my card out before I’m even asked. Lots of places in the US card everybody, regardless of if they look 16 or 60, but the whole time we were in Japan I was only asked once.

chuhai

It was at a 7/11, as I was buying a can of chuhai (the best drink ever). The screen in front of the register asked me if I was old enough to drink, but the only button I could press was a giant YES.

Japan also doesn’t have open container laws like the US does, meaning that it’s ok to drink alcohol on the street. Given, there are cultural attitudes towards walking around and drinking that stops most people from strolling around and getting trashed, but there’s not really many legal repercussions.

I don’t really know if Japan’s attitudes towards alcohol is better or worse than America’s. It was definitely way more convenient for me to buy and drink booze in Japan, but I don’t know if that’s always a good thing.

Mascots

I’ve known for a while that mascots were in a lot of places, but man, they were everywhere.

No matter how small the town or how insignificant the landmark, it seemed like the Japanese had a way to anthropomorphize and monetize the living shit out of it.

kumamon

I understand why these places try to use cute mascots to make some money and attract tourists, but the extent to which I saw it was just mind-boggling. It also strikes me as such a uniquely Japanese phenomenon that I can’t really think of another place in the world that does this.

The downside? I saw my arch-nemesis, Kumamon, everywhere we went in Japan. It didn’t matter that I was hundreds of miles away from Kumamon’s hometown, the little bastard followed me all up and down the country. I’m on to you, bear.


If you’ve been, what’s shocked you about Japan? What stood out and really surprised you? Tell me in the comments!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004192143661 Marie Antoinette

    What’s incredible is the Japanese honesty. I dare you to find a flat out liar in Japan.

  • Tanuki

    They love blonde hair. My girlfriend was asked numerous times for photos because of her hair. I talked to one of the girls who wanted a photo and she said it’s really difficult for them [Japanese women] to obtain that hair color because the majority of them have black hair. I never thought of it before.

  • Mikan

    Actually, I had the opposite impression about accessibility when I first came to Tokyo. I remember going to the train station and thinking ”Wow, I would be in such big trouble if I ever had an injury here.” Some stations and building may be better than others, but I have been to plenty of places without elevators or with one that is really inconvenient. Sometimes they have to stop the trains or the escalator to get someone with a wheelchair on. It’s good that they are willing to go to these lengths to help people onto the train, but I feel a bit bad for the person in the wheelchair who has to go through all that hassle just to ride the train.

    Also, this is not an accessibility thing, but on the train people are not good about respecting the ”priority seats” area. I would say about 90% of the time people keep their seats when people who might need the seat get on the train.

  • Jonathan Harston

    It’s “blind *people*” not “the blind” “the blacks” “the jews” ….

  • John S.

    This may be obvious, but why can’t a man be in a photo booth by himself. Yeah I understand why it would be weird for any gender to be by themselves, but what do the guys do? Ambush girls?

  • http://twitter.com/SactoMan81 Raymond Chuang

    They may _look_ homogeneous, but what they speak _isn’t_. Even if you’re fluent in standard Japanese, once you get out of Tokyo the locals may speak a dialect that you have trouble understanding, especially in the northern Tōhoku region or the dialects in Kyushu.

  • elisabel

    What I’ve seen at both JR Kyushu and the private rail line Nishitetsu is that one of the station employees brings out a little folding ramp to place between the train and the platform. I assume that those on regular commutes have standing arrangements at each of their stations, but if you’re touring and need assistance I’m sure the station master would help you.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    that’s like meeting the emperor aya i can’t just go and do it yknow?

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I’m trying my hardest to forget :(

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Yikes, sorry to hear that happened to you!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    That sounds awful :(

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    My mistake! I’ve edited the post.

  • DeTo-13

    Haha the train pervert sign is amazing! I could imagine him creeping up behind you and doing a french laugh after groping you “ohhhh hohohoho”.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    ♥♡♥♡♥♡♥♡

  • Sakakibara

    I really like your posts, really friendly, interactive, and has this feelable-feel. The reason why I visit tofugu

  • EskimoJo

    They are annoyed that you have recognized that they are also foreign, even if it’s obvious. The people who are not tourists are often desperate to be seen as non-outsiders (at work, in shops, at a restaurant, at an onsen, when applying for housing… and even in the street) and you singling them out to smile at them is showing them up!
    You also sometimes get this in workplaces where there are only a few women, but that might be more to do with the women seeing each other as competition and thus being unwilling to get close to one another.

    I have experienced this as a Black person when visiting/living in places in the UK with very low populations of Black people. I will even admit that when I was younger I would be on the ‘look away, non-smiling’ side. I told myself, I don’t want to be seen as Black, I want to be seen as a normal person, so a random Black stranger shouldn’t smile at me if they wouldn’t smile at a White stranger. I even managed to convince myself that I was being anti-racist! Some time later, I realised how silly that was. It is *normal* to be drawn to people like you when most of those around you *aren’t* like you. A smile back adds a bit of warmth to the day of the other person AND to me. So please do keep smiling and I will too.
    *smiles*

  • EskimoJo

    Gosh! How embarrassing! I’m glad my hair will be much longer WHEN I go to Japan next year. *note to self – pack skirts, not jeans*

  • Nakano Roy

    Why would you expect to be smiled or even looked at by another foreigner? I smile and greet people I know in my neighbourhood in Tokyo, but have been shouted at on 2 occasions by foreigners I didn’t know for not smiling at them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=500065617 Meredith Peruzzi

    For what it’s worth, sometimes there simply are no ramps or escalators. A friend of mine is in a wheelchair and spent three months here; we were surprised how many places simply didn’t have access for her. Even at places where there is an elevator, there may be 2-3 steps to get to it! (This kept us out of a cat cafe in Shinjuku, unfortunately – not Calico, I think it was over by Shinjuku Gyoen.) At the Disney Store in Shibuya, we asked where the elevator was. The cashier said “oh, let me take you there.” We said no, that’s okay, just point it out, we can do it. Then we saw where the elevator was…up a flight of EIGHT stairs! No wonder she said “take you there”…she meant it literally, we’d have to hoist our friend up! Hanayashiki’s “handicapped ramp” at the entrance has a step in front of it as well. Oh, and anytime my friend (living near Iriya) wanted to go toward Akihabara, she had to go toward Minami-Senju first…because the Iriya station only had an elevator to the outbound platform. She had to go to Minami-Senju, then go up, across, and back down to get downtown.

    So it’s really quite accessible…but sometimes it’s just not.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=500065617 Meredith Peruzzi

    I can always spot the Americans when going through security at Narita. They’re the ones taking off their shoes. ^_^

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=500065617 Meredith Peruzzi

    THIS is why I keep smiling. If people don’t want to smile back, that’s their loss.

    Also see: http://metropolis.co.jp/features/the-last-word/gaijin-vs-gaijin/

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=500065617 Meredith Peruzzi

    Just a note, as a Deaf person living in Japan. Although awareness of sign language has leapt phenomenally – deaf people used to not even sign in public, except for “whispering” down low – there are still a lot of stares when you do sign. We do it now, of course, but people still look. (Not like in India…THAT was creepy staring.) I think it might be partially curiosity, but it’s still just kind of weird, yanno?

  • Ben Nichols

    I lived in Okinawa for 2 years, so I don’t have much personal experience with the dialects around Honshu, but Okinawa is quite a bit more diverse than most of Japan. They also have several different Ryukyuan dialects/languages, so I know what you’re saying. The point is, as an American, I’m used to seeing a large variety of ethnicities. In Japan, over 98% are ethnically Japanese. It was a culture shock for me.

  • Pizzaphile

    It’s funny because “Chuhai” means (or sounds like) smelly puss in cantonese, just a little trivia.

  • ロドルフォクルス湖

    Everything is just utterly Kawaii in Japan. And I’m not sure if it’s a good thing anymore.

  • suduki kellington

    I don’t understand, if they start to grope you you can’t do anything like try to push them off or ask for help. I don’t understand. Oh and nice post