The Dangers Of Talking About Weird Japan The perpetual stereotype that frames us as "normal"

    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.

    Pigeons in cubbies
    Source: McKay

    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?