There exist stereotypes for every kind of people and the Japanese are no exception. As with many misconceptions, some of them are based on some truth that has been exaggerated to the extreme, but some of the misconceptions about Japan are downright outlandish.
Like many people, I thought that there was at least some truth to a few of these when I was a kid and started to learn about Japan and their culture. Thankfully, as I learned more and more I found out how these stereotypes came to be and the real stories behind the myths. So read on, my friends – and let’s learn something.
10. All Japanese People Can Speak English Real Good
Did you take a foreign language in high school? How much do you remember of it? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Sure, Japanese students take many years of English while they are in school, but from my experience they mainly focus on writing rather than speaking and the only ones who are really good at it are those who really take an interest in the language and study it outside of class.
Many Japanese students just do enough to get by in English class and by the time they graduate they’ve forgotten quite a bit of it. This, coupled with the fact that the average Japanese person has little to no use for English on a daily basis, causes the English skills of many Japanese people to be pretty elementary. So next time you visit Japan, don’t be surprised if not absolutely everyone speaks English as well as you’d like them to.
9. All Japanese People Eat Whales and Dolphins for Breakfast Lunch and Dinner
While Japanese people are much more likely than others to dine on meat from whales and dolphins, it’s probably not as common as you think. Eating whale in Japan is about as common as something eating like alligator or squirrel in the United States. It’s uncommon, but it’s still done.
The Japanese have eaten whale meat for hundreds of years now and during WWII and the early postwar years, the Japanese ate a lot more whale meat because it was an easy, plentiful source of protein. You’ll still find packaged meat in stores and the like, but it’s definitely not a super common meal in Japan.
8. Hibachi Grill Restaurants are Properly Named
Yes, the picture above is a hibachi. Not what you expected? I’m not surprised. The “hibachi” grills you see in hibachi restaurants are actually “teppanyaki” grills. Hibachi, or “fire bowls,” are traditional Japanese heating devices consisting of a round, cylindrical, or a box-shaped container, made from or lined with a heatproof material and designed to hold burning charcoal.
In North America, the term “hibachi” is mistakenly used to refer to a small cooking stove heated by charcoal (actually called shichirin in Japanese), or to an iron hot plate (teppan) used in teppanyaki restaurants. Armed with this knowledge, you can show off and correct your friends in the most pretentious way possible next time you go to one of these so called “hibachi” grill restaurants. Please.
7. Japanese People Don’t Like Letting People Into Their Personal Bubble and Are Really Weird About Personal Space and Stuff
For some reason a lot of people view Japanese people as being very anti-touchy-feely and kind of prude. While this may be somewhat true with person to person relationships and PDA like holding hands and kissing and whatnot, this is most certainly not true with daily commutes and train rides. Just take a look at the video below. It’s nuts.
Japan is crowded. People need to get places. You’re going to get bumped into, crammed, and squeezed. It happens. If all Japanese people were so weird about personal space, stuff like this wouldn’t happen. People need to get to work, school, and other places, and they’re not afraid to cram together to do it. So don’t be surprised if you end up getting crammed into a train car sardine-style the next time you’re in a busy city in Japan.
6. Japanese People Are Still Sour About WWII and Are All Racist Xenophobes
Really? Come on. In all honesty I’d say that there are more Americans that are still sour about Pearl Harbor than there are Japanese people sour about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A lot of things happened in WWII that are touchy subjects for everyone, but that’s largely in the past for most people. Most Japanese people today are very interested in Western and American culture and are very welcoming to others.
There’s also some folks who think that Japanese people refuse to accept foreigners as their own and it’s really hard to become a citizen of Japan. Well, while it may not be easy, it’s certainly possible. Just take Donald Keene for example. He’s received honors from the emperor himself! Just like with any other country, you can Go From Foreigner to Japanese Citizen with a bit of hard work and dedication. And everyone will love you for it.
5. Only Japanese People Can Excel at Traditional Japanese Sports and Things
There are a handful of people (both inside as well as outside Japan) that think only the mighty Yamato people are capable of being good at anything Japanese whether it be the language, sports, or otherwise. This, however, is grossly untrue. Take sumo for example. What’s more Japanese than sumo? Well, believe it or not there hasn’t been a Japanese Yokozuna in like ten years (they were either Hawaiian or Mongolian).
And then there’s Jero. Jero is the first ever black (well, half black) Enka singer in Japanese history. Who would have expected that? So while there may be some Japanese people that believe there is something different about them that makes it so only they can excel at these things, this is most definitely not the case.
4. Japanese People Are Super Polite, Like, All the Time
Have you ever visited Japan and felt like everyone was being ridiculously nice to you, even more than you would have expected? Have you ever had a foreign exchange student at your school before? Would you be super nice to them? Probably. Japanese people are about as polite as anyone else really. This is even more true when you hang around Japanese people who think foreigners are cool and want to be nice and hang around them all the time.
I mean, the Japanese language has a special level of politeness just to make sure people don’t give into their natural human temptations to be rude and crass to everyone. Okay, no not really. But in reality, Japanese people are just about as polite as anyone else when it comes right down to it. And if you want to return the politeness favor when you go to Japan, just make sure you don’t embarrass yourself.
3. Japanese People All Drink Only Sake and Can’t Handle their Alcohol
Of course Japanese people drink other kinds of alcohol apart from sake. Yes, they probably drink more sake than other nations, but probably in the same way French people would be more likely to drink more wine and Germans would be likely to drink more beer. But Japan loves wine and beer just as much as the next country. Don’t believe me? Beer was responsible for starting a war in Japan. They take it very seriously over there.
As for Japanese people not being able to hold their liquor, that's only partially true. About 40-45% of Asians have trouble processing alcohol and develop what has become known as the “Asian Glow.” But for those who aren’t afflicted with this unfortunate mutation, Japanese people are certainly capable of holding their own in any sort of drinking match.
2. All Japanese People Eat Sushi All Day Every Day
Yes, sushi comes from Japan. Yes, sushi is awesome and no one would be unhappy eating it each and every single day. However, Japan has a lot of other foods that are equally as awesome like tempura, gyoza, okonomiyaki, and yakisoba. Some Japanese people don’t even like sushi (the poor souls).
At most Japanese grocery stores the sushi section, albeit much better than its US equivalents, isn’t that much bigger than those you’d find at your local Kroger or Giant Eagle. But of course fish is more plentiful in Japan as it is an island nation, much in the same way that beef is so plentiful in America. And now you know.
1. All Japanese People Watch Anime and Read Manga (Even in Their Sleep!)
Okay, so kids in Japan watch anime just about as much as kids in the United States watch American stuff like SpongeBob SquarePants or Looney Tunes. As kids get older, they will be more likely to “graduate” from anime onto manga (reading is hard, after all), but it’s pretty comparable to how American folks like American comic books (or graphic novels if you prefer). And just like in America, if somebody ends up being really obsessed with comics they’ll most likely be labeled as a super nerd (or otaku).
Of course there are things that almost everyone in Japan enjoys, like Studio Ghibli, but in America we have Disney and Pixar movies that can be enjoyed by all ages as well. So next time you see a Japanese person, don’t assume that they like anime or manga as much as you do. There’s a good chance they don’t.
And there you have it. Ten of the most common misconceptions about the Japanese people debunkified. You’re welcome.
Do you have any other misconceptions you think we should have addressed above? All Japanese people being good at math, maybe? Or maybe you have some other questions about Japanese people and their cuture you'd like cleared up? Feel free to ask on Twitter!