Myths in Modern Japan
Let’s have a look at some of those peculiar myths about Modern Japan. I’m not talking about the common beliefs some foreigners have about Japan, like it’s very expensive and it’s very crowded – these are for those who think Japan extends no further than Tokyo, for which they are certainly true, but not so much when you venture further. I mean the myths that modern Japanese themselves cling to, despite a complete lack of evidence, or even a heap of evidence to the contrary.
Let’s start with the easy ones…
Four seasons As a foreigner in Japan there is a number of insane conversations that you get used to having on a regular basis. I’ve lived here 2 years and still people express amazement that I can use chopsticks, ask if I can eat Japanese food (because Westerners only eat potatoes usually) and fall over backwards if more than two words of Japanese come out of my mouth. My favourite though is the assertion that only Japan has four seasons. This is made in all seriousness and often. Reply that your country does too, and watch those eyebrows shoot up. But this is doubly weird, as Japan doesn’t have 4 seasons. It has 5. Aside from those that nearly all the rest of us have, there’s also tsuyu, the rainy season. Which is always fun to point out.
Green is Blue As an example, let’s talk about traffic lights. The ‘Go’ light is most definitely green, but you’ll hear people insisting it’s blue. Some say this is because the original Japanese traffic lights were blue, and thus they are still referred to as such. Some say that the Japanese see green not as a colour in itself but as a shade of blue. This latter might be close to the truth. The fact is that the Japanese adjective ao, which almost always means blue, can, in some cases, mean green too. There is a word for green (midori) but this is apparently a recent addition. Insistence on using blue to describe traffic lights can therefore be considered as cultural and linguistic bloody-mindedness.
Us & them There are two nationalities in the world. Japanese and foreign. If you’re the former, you are part of a unique race, physically, mentally and culturally distinct from the rest of the world. If you’re the latter, you enjoy none of the privileges of membership. Poor you.
There is a genre of literature referred to as nihonjinron (‘discourse on the Japanese’) which claims to examine the very essence of Japan and being Japanese and paints a picture of a unique nation, particularly distinct from the West and also from the rest of Asia. Often the Japanese refer to ‘Asia’ as some far-away entity rather than something all around them. (A bit like the British and Europe, I suppose.) The nihonjinron presents the Japanese as a pure, undiluted race, with no connection to any other on earth. It has given rise to claims like the Japanese cannot digest foreign beef because their stomachs are different, or that they have such difficulty with English because their brains are different – claims which are transparently dressed-up attempts at building a wall between Japan and the rest of the world.
The idea of race is understood differently in Japan from most other places, so the belief in Japanese uniqueness, touted even by senior politicians and often reinforced, enjoys an acceptance that would be impossible elsewhere, and dismissed as rampant nationalism or racism. But even racism appears to be understood differently in modern Japanese culture. Westerners are surprised to hear that “there is no racism in Japan”, until it is understood that racism, to most Japanese, is for example racially motivated violence, but not Japanese supremacy theory or everyday discrimination which doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. Racism, then, as it’s understood in the West, is unrecognised by Japanese law.
Hard work vs. busy-ness The Japanese economic boom of the late 20th century gave birth to the myth of the super-hardworking Japanese. And while times are changing, hard work is still valued highly and nobody wants to be seen as a free-loader. But this has translated not into harder work (nowadays, in terms of GDP, Japan languishes at number 11 in the world league) but a more cultivated appearance of busy-ness. A common occurence in offices all over Japan is for workers to stay in the office late into the evening, even if there is no work to do, because the boss stays late and one can’t be seen to be leaving before the boss. Nobody says anything of course if you do, but a reputation is soon built and promotions hard to come by. For many people it has become instinct to answer the question “How are you?” with “Very busy”, though when pressed on what’s happening, the next answer is often “Nothing.” Sometimes the definition of hard work appears to get somewhat skewed. I once asked someone who claimed to have been ‘very busy’ what that actually entailed and I received the answer “Oh, I went to the cinema this morning, then met a friend for lunch, visited my father this afternoon and had dinner with him. Very busy.”
Despite all this very hard work everyone’s doing somewhere, none of the shops are open before 10 in the morning. One way to kick start the Japanese economy out of its current, seemingly unshakeable slump, you might think, would be to let people go and spend their money before mid-morning. “But there are convenience stores” is the usual counter to this complaint, but you can’t do your regular shopping in a small kombini, with it’s limited and expensive stock, so rather than being convenient, they’re just rather less inconvenient.
You can’t count in French This one’s truly bizarre. But it’s widely believed and was repeated in a speech by the governer of Toyko and famous waste of intellectual space, Shintaro Ishihara, explaining his theory about why French could never be a true international language. When I heard him say it, I dismissed it as the further ramblings of an idiot, but to my amazement I later found that otherwise sane people believe this. I can’t say that everyone does, but everyone I asked about it does.
The only difficult number in French is 80 (quatre vingts – “four twenties”). So not that difficult at all then. Beyond that, it’s as simple as any other language. Except Japanese, which is so insanely difficult to express and understand large numbers in, that even the Japanese have problems. The source of the problem is man, or 10,000. When numbers are written, they are divided by a comma every 3 digits, right? But large numbers in Japanese are expressed in units of man so in your head the number is divided every 4 zeroes. (So for example 165,000 is not 165 anything but “16 ten thousands, 5 thousand”, while 4 million is “400 ten thousands”) This is compounded by oku which is a unit of 100 million (or ten thousand ten thousands, if you will…)
With a currency like the yen, these numbers are unavoidable and every day leave foreigners and Japanese alike utilising their fingers to work out how many zeroes that is.
The irony of this myth is largely lost on the Japanese.
Watching TV is relaxing, and a good use of leisure time Shall we get into this one? I really can’t emphasise enough just how vacuous most Japanese TV is. (The other night, there was a show where various non-entity personalities were attempting to drop a cork onto a table so that it stood up on end. That’s it. That’s all there was to it. When I next looked round to the TV about half an hour later, they were still doing it and still getting excited. When they began to discuss tactics and ‘the rules’, I had to be dissuaded from sticking my boot through the screen). It’s not informative, it’s not educational, and worst of all it’s not for the most part even entertaining. It’s just distraction, nothing more. This doesn’t stop some people from claiming TV-watching as a hobby. Unfathomably, I’m forbidden by law from killing these people.
If you end up going to hell, you’ll be met at the gates by a Japanese TV camera crew.
What is most surprising to me is not that these beliefs exist at all, but that when they come up in conversation, they are usually met not by wry smiles or chuckles, but by very earnest nodding and straight faces. This would seem to suggest that they’re not going to disappear any time soon.