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Urban Legends About Japan

(Created January 15, 2007; lasted edited February 28, 2019)

These are not urban legends believed by the Japanese, but rather urban legends and serious misunderstandings of Japan by non-Japanese. Some of them are quite entrenched in the belief systems of some non-Japanese.

A frightening amount of misinformation about Japan has been spread around and (more frightening) believed for decades. A disturbing aspect of these legends is that some of the originators are viewed as Japan experts by their willing victims.

Spreading these legends requires willing believers, and there is certainly no shortage of credulous believers. Often the most credulous are those who come to Japan prepared to worship a culture far "superior" to their home country's culture. When they encounter the reality of Japan, some tend to take refuge in more-comfortable versions of Japan.

People who are accomplished in martial arts in Japan register their hands with the police.

RIDICULOUS What might true is that, if a martial arts "artist" gets into a fight and injures someone, a court of law might take into consideration the possibility that he/she could have used less force than someone without skills in martial arts, but "registering of hands" is something that was clearly made up outside of Japan by people who just don't know Japan.

Almost all Japanese are middle class, and there is no visible poverty.

WRONG Anyone who has walked through a major city in Japan should realize that there are homeless people in Japan. They tend to live along river banks, but also come into town to jar the notion of a country filled with well-dressed middle-class citizens. Another point on the graph is that one block away from my home there is a Ferrari repair shop, but there is also a Honda dealership right next door. Diversity of income abounds. (Added July 8, 2012; last edited February 28, 2019)

If you are a passenger in a taxi accident, you are liable for damages because you hired the tax.

WRONG This notion might have died out, but I remember hearing of this belief among foreigners living in Japan decades ago. With more than 42 years of residence this time in Japan as of this writing, I have never heard of an incident in which a passenger in a taxi was held liable for an accident because of hiring the taxi. Causing an accident by trying to strangle the driver while he is driving might be a different matter. (Added November 30, 2011; last edited February 28, 2019)

Japanese people understand the meaning of kanji characters without remembering the pronunciations of the characters (i.e., directly from the form of the character).

WRONG This belief, promoted by many Western kanjiphiles and Japanophiles, and particularly by the ones who feel that kanji are somehow superior to other writing systems, is clearly incorrect. Kanji characters are logograms that represent words when taken alone, and it is pretty difficult for a Japanese to avoid thinking of a word that is written with a particular kanji when encountering the character. Alas, although kanji might seem exotic, there is almost never a magic pipeline from the character to the meaning without going through a specific word in the Japanese language.

Japan is full of devout Buddhists.

GREATLY EXAGGERATED With the exception of people working their way up the Amway-like totem pole of the Soka Gakkai Buddhist lay organization, you will have a difficult time finding many Japanese who have any burning interest in Buddhism on a day-to-day basis. To be sure, temples are everywhere, and a large portion of the population goes to the temple when they should go (usually when someone dies), but Buddhism does not play a daily role in the "spiritual life" of the average Japanese person, who tends not to have a recognizable "spiritual life." Apologies to foreigners who came to Japan expecting to find the people chanting sutras; don't believe all you hear or read about Japan before you see it for yourself.

Buddhists do not drink.

RIDICULOUS Some poor non-Japanese will believe anything they read in an English book about Japan. While in my 42-plus years in Japan I have met many people in Japan who do not drink, I have yet to meet one who says it is because of religious belief. Usually it is because drinking causes other, more basic problems, including redness in the face, silly behavior (actually quite acceptable), and nausea.

You cannot form a company in Japan as a foreigner unless you have a Japanese employee

EXTREMELY UNIFORMED MISUNDERSTANDING There is no such restriction. People who are under this misimpression are probably confusing things people have told them about obtaining a residence status to live in Japan. Sometimes people are told that they will need to hire one or more Japanese employees to be able to stay in Japan with a company they formed as their income source. This also is nonsense, but some foreigners will believe nonsense. (Added March 21, 2007; last edited February 28, 2019)

Japanese people are extremely polite.

PARTIALLY CORRECT, BUT WITH IMPORTANT QUALIFICATIONS The Japanese are usually very considerate and polite to people to whom they should be considerate and polite. The Japanese are good at showing the correct level of politeness in the confines and according to the requirements of their social system, which definitely does not mean they treat everybody all the time with the same level of politeness. Naturally, if you are foreigner in Japan, until you have demonstrated that you are more of a permanent fixture and have more commitment to Japan than the average tourist, you will be accorded the requisite level of politeness. After you settle in, the politeness you receive will come to be governed more by the relationship you have or are assumed to have with people in particular situations.

Japanese people are intrinsically incapable of originality.

COMPLETELY FALSE My take on this is that there is no truth to this, although the Japanese seem to be a bit behind the curve in putting much effort into things like basic research. They elect to spend their energies in less-risky applications of basic research done elsewhere, and compete very well in fields in which they chose to compete.

The population of Japan is homogenous.

FALSE This is a myth promulgated by the Japanese themselves, and used in a variety ways to excuse behavior patterns that might strike non-Japanese as being strange or unacceptable. The myth of homogeneity falls apart when you look around at Japan, however, which has over two million foreigners, a vestigial outcaste class (still a social "problem" which is extremely difficult to discuss in the media), and a fair number of other demographic classes (e.g., children who grew up with only a single parent) that are not treated very well in the Japanese social system. Heterogeneous as it is, however, some Japanese feel uncomfortable talking about these elements of their society. The vestigial outcaste class is hardly ever talked about and is virtually a taboo topic in the mass media. Strangely, because some misguided people think that talking about the problem will hinder solutions to the problem, mention of the outcaste class could get you in trouble with both enlightened Japanese and members of that group.

Vegetarianism and veganism is common in Japan.

FALSE Compared to the US, where vegetarians and vegans abound, Japan has virtually no vegetarians and trying to find a vegan is an even more difficult task, unless you wander accidentally into a Buddhist temple. Pity the poor foreigner vegetarian or vegan who tries to live the "good life" in Japan. While Japan's consumption of meat is much less than that of Western countries, almost all Japanese eat meat, the local McDonald's is full of Japanese people, and almost all Japanese meals involve eating things which once wiggled, on four, two, eight, or no legs, swam, or flew. Even having a perfectly good native word for vegetarianism (saishokushugi), the Japanese most often refer to this dietary preference as bejitarian, strongly hinting that vegetarianism is seen by the Japanese as being a non-Japanese phenomenon, which is precisely what it is. There is a similar phonetic representation for veganism, which is even at odds with Japanese food culture.

Japanese restaurants have sushi.

TRUE IN THE US AND CERTAINLY TRUE FOR SUSHI RESTAURANTS IN JAPAN Although most Japanese restaurants in the US probably need to offer sushi to survive, sushi in Japan is almost entirely limited to sushiya, which offer nothing but sushi. It certainly is very difficult for the average Japanese to imagine a restaurant that has smelly fried things and sushi, a common sight (and smell) in the US. Since the overwhelming majority of even Japanese restaurants in Japan are not sushi shops, the overwhelming majority of restaurants in Japan do not have sushi. Without this piece of perhaps-surprising information, a non-Japanese-capable foreigner in Japan might have to randomly sample numerous eateries before encountering one offerring sushi (i.e., a sushiya).

Japanese eat sushi all the time.

SOMEWHAT OVERSTATED In Japan, sushi is considered rather classy and expensive, and good sushi can be very expensive. A small number of Japanese don't eat sushi, a slightly larger group rarely eat it, and a significant number don't like it. Even the great majority of Japanese who do eat sushi don't eat it as often as one would guess judging by the proliferation of sushi shops in the US. Similar to Buddhism, sushi is clearly not as much a thing in Japan as it is in the US.

Japanese commonly eat unrefined rice (genmai) with the outer covering remaining

FALSE Ordering genmai in anything but the most specialized of Japanese restaurants (catering to health enthusiasts, foreigners, or Japanese who are "playing foreigner" by eating trendy unrefined rice) will get you very strange looks. That said, the average supermarket these days does usually offer genmai. However, it took Japan centuries to get to the point at which its general population could eat refined white rice. The trendiness of genmai in Western countries has done very little to convince Japanese to go back to their "origins." White rice is standard.

Japanese bars commonly have girls you can take out and have sex with.

FALSE What is true—and probably quite surprising to the people who believe the "girl-to-go" myth—is that any urban area worthy of the name has a large number of establishments where sex (of the Bill Clintonian variety) is available on premise, sometimes in clear view of other customers (if they care to look). Although almost no such places offer girl-to-go services, I suspect that a diligent seeker of the baser pleasures will surely be able to find one with such services.

Foreigners should figure out how to write their name in kanji characters, as that will allow them easier entry into, and acceptance by, Japanese society.

VERY MISGUIDED Being a translator, I sometimes (too often) get requests from (usually) non-Japanese-capable aficionados of martial arts, flower arranging, the tea ceremony, and the like who are anxious to learn how to "translate" their names into kanji characters. While these characters are arguably interesting, the less-interesting reality is that all foreigners do by writing their names in kanji is to invite confusion or laughter. Almost no long-time Westerner residing in Japan does this. It is almost exclusively the newcomer—and usually the newcomer who does not yet know the Japanese language—who wishes to go native with exotic (to them) kanji representations of their names. Some have asked me about obtaining an inkan (seal) with kanji characters, and my advice is the same; unless you are from a culture that uses kanji, render your name phonetically, using katakana.