Bill Lise

Foreigner-created Urban Legends about Japan

by Bill Lise

(Written January 15, 2007; lasted updated on July 3, 2022)

These are legends believed not by the Japanese, but rather by foreigners. 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 frighteningly) believed for decades. A disturbing aspect of these legends is that some of the originators are viewed as Japan experts by some of their willing victims.

Spreading these legends requires willing believers, and there is certainly no shortage of credulous legend-believers foreigners. Often the most credulous are those who come to Japan prepared to worship a culture far "superior" to their home culture. When they find anomalies, some tend to take refuge in the more-comfortable legendary version of Japan.

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

RIDICULOUS  What might be true is that, if a martial arts "artist" gets into a fight and injures someone, the courts might take into consideration the possibility that they could have used less force than someone without such skills. "Hand-registering," however, 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 homeless Japanese exist. They tend to live along river banks, but sometimes come into town to mar the cityscape. Another point on the graph is that one block away from my home (until recently) in Tokyo, there were a Ferrari repair shop and a Maserati showroom, but there is a very tacky Daiei right across the street from the latter. The people taking their Ferraris in for repair and taking Maseratis out for a test drive appeared to be universally Japanese. Diversity of income abounds. (Added July 8, 2012; modified July 3, 2022)

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

Totall crazy  Perhaps this notion has died out, but it was a common belief among foreigners living in Japan decades ago. In approaching a half-century of residence in Japan, I have never heard of a single 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)

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 particularly by the ones who feel that kanji are somehow superior to other sets of writing symbols, is clearly incorrect. Kanji characters are logograms that represent words when taken alone, and it is difficult for a Japanese to avoid thinking of a word that is written with a particular kanji when encountering the character. Alas, kanji might seem exotic to Westerners, but there is no magic pipeline from the character to the meaning without going through specific words represented by the chaeracter in the Japanese language.

Japan is full of devout Buddhists.

Greatly exaggerated  With the possible exception of some of the people working their way up the Amway-like totem pole of the Soka Gakkai organization, you will have a difficult time finding many Japanese who have any burning interest in Buddhism on a day-to-day basis. 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 an everyday role in the "spiritual life" of the average Japanese, who tends not to have a recognizable "spiritual life." Apologies to foreigners who came to Japan expecting something different; 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 45-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, and noodle-chucking. I am happy (and relieved) to report that chuckers are not as visible on the streets as they were in the past.

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

Incorrect  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 by the immigration office 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 of the immigration people apparently think that foreigners will believe nonsense. They are apparently correct in some cases. (Added March 21, 2007)

Japanese people are extremely polite.

Somewhat correct, but with qualifications  The Japanese are usually very considerate and polite to people to whom they should be considerate and polite. The Japanese are skilled at using the correct level of politeness in the confines and according to the requirements of their social system, which definitely does not mean they are polite to 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 permanent than the average tourist, you will be accorded the requisite level of politeness. After you settle in and gain a degree of acceptance, the politeness you receive will 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 it, although the Japanese seem not to put much effort into things like basic research, for example. They elect to spend their energies and risk budgets in less-risky application of basic research done elsewhere, and competed very well with things like commodity type ICs. Lately, however, other Asian economies have given Japan a run for its money or totally banishing Japan from certain sector. Complicity on the part of Japanese industry in its own hollowing out has also been a factor.

The population of Japan is homogenous.

False  This is a myth promulgated by the Japanese themselves, and it finds use in a variety ways to excuse behavior patterns that strike non-Japanese as being strange or unacceptable. The myth of homogeneity falls apart, however, when you look around at Japan, which has about a million foreigners (many of whom are children and grandchildren of Koreans who were brought to Japan as labor until the end of WW2 and many newer arrivals from Asia). There is also a vestigial outcaste (still a social "problem" which is extremely difficult to discuss in the media), and a 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 this aspect of their society. The vestigial outcaste class is hardly ever talked about and is virtually a taboo topic in the mass media. Strangely, this because some misguided people think that talking about the problem will further it, and mention of the outcaste class, in fact, could get you in trouble with both mainstream Japanese and members of that group.

Vegetarianism is common in Japan.

False  Compared to the US, where yuppie vegetarians abound, Japan has virtually no vegetarians. Trying to find a vegan is an even more difficult task, unless you wander accidentally into a Buddhist temple. Pity the poor foreign 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 traveled on four, two, eight, or no legs, or had a pair of wings. Even having a perfectly good native word for vegetarianism—saishokushugi—the Japanese most often refer to this dietary preference phonetically as bejitarian, strongly hinting that vegetarianism is seen by the Japanese as being a non-Japanese phenomenon.

Japanese restaurants have sushi

True in the US and certainly true for sushi restaurants in Japan  Although a Japanese restaurant in the US probably needs to have sushi to survive, sushi in Japan is almost entirely limited to sushiya, which offer nothing but sushi. It is very difficult for the average Japanese to imagine a restaurant that has both smelly fried things and sushi, a common sight 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 wander into numerous eateries before encountering one with sushi (i.e., a sushiya). That was actually experienced by an American client of mine one time.

Japanese eat sushi all the time.

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, an only slightly larger group rarely eat it, a significant, but not that large, number don't like it, and even the great majority of Japanese, who do like and eat sushi, don't eat it as often as one would guess judging by the proliferation of sushi shops in the US.

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

False  Trying to order 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 some supermarkets these days have genmai on their shelves. However, it took Japan centuries to get to the point at which its general population could eat white rice. The trendiness of genmai in Western countries admiring "superior" Asian food 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, at least) is available on premise, sometimes in clear view of other customers. 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. Seek and you shall find.

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.

Nonsense  In my early years as a translator, I sometimes (too often) got requests from (usually) non-Japanese-capable aficionados of martial arts, flower arranging, the tea ceremony, and the like who were anxious to learn how to "translate" (sic) their names into kanji characters. While these characters are interesting, the unexciting truth is that all a foreigner does by writing their name 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 kanji representations of their names. Some have asked me about obtaining an inkan (see seal) with kanji characters, and my advice is the same: Don't do it.