Four Things That Shocked Me About Japan The Good kind of shocking, not the bad kind

    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.

    posters warning about molestation

    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).

    train station sign with brail

    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.

    refrigerator full of Japanese beer cans
    Source: Steve and Jocie

    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.

    bear mascot on multiple products

    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.