BBC Magazine: Three Western myths about Japan

Geisha eats a sushi roll

BBC- Magazine (by Dr. Christopher Harding):

National and racial stereotypes are often hard to dispel, but in the case of Japan, argues Dr Chris Harding of Edinburgh University, people in the West seem particularly determined to cling on to a set of long-established myths.

Landing in Japan for the first time 10 years ago, I couldn’t wait to get out of Narita Airport‘s dull beige arrivals area and into the real Japan.

Pretty soon, I felt sure, I would be lost in the intense verdant greens of paddy fields and forests, the steaming waters of natural hot springs. A sip of green tea would set me up for an afternoon of meditation in some old Buddhist temple tucked in among fragrant cedars. And then as night fell, a bullet train would zoom me into central Tokyo for a joyously baffled embrace of its Blade Runner futurism and crazy entertainments.

None of these fantasies survived a three-hour gridlocked bus ride into Tokyo, the motorway’s faceless concrete sidings occasionally dipping to allow views out across faceless concrete high-rises.

Rush-hour traffic in Tokyo

I drank sugary milk marketed as “ice coffee” with the Japanese acquaintance who’d come to meet me. We established that though his family was “technically Buddhist” he had no idea what that meant and he associated temples with school trips and dead people.

As we lapsed into silence, I considered asking Japan’s tourist board for my money back. I had been mis-sold Japan!

Later I realised they were just doing their job, generating tourist dollars with the material available to them – one extremely gullible young man, plus a century and a half of Western misrepresentations of Japan.

Here are three of the best misrepresentations – or worst, depending on your point of view.

1: Japan is inherently strange

“To find oneself suddenly in a world where everything is upon a smaller and daintier scale than with us – a world of lesser and seemingly kindlier beings, all smiling at you as if to wish you well – a world where all movement is slow and soft, and voices are hushed… this is surely the realisation, for imaginations nourished with English folklore, of the old dream of a World of Elves.”

That was the writer Lafcadio Hearn, 125 years ago. Across the century that followed, countless Westerners visited and worked in Japan. Japanese culture became readily available to us in literature and film. And yet despite all this, the keynote of the brilliant 1980s travelogue Clive James in Japan was a drily comic bewilderment at everything.

When he buys a snack on a bullet train, thinking that it might be a ham sandwich (while also noting that it looks like a pair of tights) it turns out to be a powerful-smelling dried squid – “dried and ironed” he speculates. Revolted, James stuffs the snack into the seat pocket and heads off for his next misadventure with the carriage’s on-board telephone.

Maybe I shouldn’t gripe. This was light entertainment, after all. But whereas most travel documentaries try to offer a portrait of a place, helping viewers or listeners get to know it, when it came to the Japanese the underlying message was: “It can’t be done! They’re completely inscrutable!”

Why? One reason may be that in a world where true strangeness and surprise have become rare and precious commodities, we have to find them somewhere. Financial Times journalist David Pilling quotes a friend who said Japan was the most alien place she’d been that had good plumbing.

At the same time, Japan offers us a mirror in which to look at ourselves. We say “Japan is…“, but we’re really asking a question: “Are we…?” The Japanese are dainty, kindly, soft – are we coarse and hard-hearted? Japan is hobbled by a group mentality that trumps individualism – how free are we…?

2. The Japanese are dangerous

1942: Japanese soldiers celebrate after capturing an American gun emplacement in the Bataan province of the Philippines

Atrocities committed during World War Two gave the Japanese military a powerful reputation for cruelty. But a notion has long bubbled away in the West that the Japanese as a people are inherently unpredictable and dangerous – the famous gentility masking something menacing. This goes back at least as far as the 1850s, when British travellers and diplomats saw Japanese tolerance of their presence in the country morph into sporadic attacks against Westerners and their Japanese assistants. They linked the violence to the particular outlook of the samurai class, and the association stuck.

Some of these early ideas about the samurai were in part Japanese creations – fantasies concocted for a Western readership willing to pay good money for exotic tales of violence and sex. World War Two gave the legend another twist: the chivalrous, highly ethical elements of this samurai fantasy were lost, and what remained was the unthinking loyalty, the refusal to surrender, the indifference towards death – and others’ lives.

You can hear the results of all this in Alan Whicker’s nervous postwar musings on karate.

3. Japanese women are submissive

Japan has been seen as the land that feminism forgot. Both Japanese and Western commentators have tended to see the geisha girl as the ideal of Japanese womanhood – attractive and subtle, subservient to men, but clever enough to be good company. Then there was the influential American anthropologist of the 1940s, Ruth Benedict, who heard that Japanese girls were given just enough education so they could put their husbands’ books back the right way up once they’d finished dusting them. By the 1960s, for Western men unsure what to make of the rise of women’s liberation movements, all of this appeared deeply attractive.

Japanese women even received the ultimate British seal of approval in 1967, as Mie Hama became Bond-girl “Kissy Suzuki” in You Only Live Twice. Given the low-down on domestic arrangements in Japan by his male host – women are inferior to men, they’re happy with that, and they live to serve – Bond gives his blessing: “I think I’ll retire here…”

And if you think that nothing of this sort could possibly go on in the early 21st Century, then you haven’t been paying attention to Japanese pop culture, and the success of Japanese pop behemoth AKB-48.

Japanese all girl band AKB-48 arrive at the 22nd Golden Melody Awards in Taipei on June 18, 2011

Yes, 48 young girls (in the original line-up, though the group has since expanded), forbidden from having boyfriends and content instead to smile and dance around in bikinis or mock military uniforms or really whatever a paying public of – critics would argue – socially inadequate young and middle-aged men want to see.

All in all, this particular myth about Japan is simply worth too much to too many people – Western men mourning the passing of the patriarchy, Western feminists looking for sisters to save in Asia, corporate Japan chasing the under-deodorised male dollar (or Yen) – for it to be revised any time soon. It’s the perfect example of how diverse interests come together over time to create misrepresentations with a surprisingly long shelf life.

FoodBeast: The Only Sushi Cheat Sheet You’ll Ever Need

Sushi_-info

FoodBeast (by Peter Pham):

Unless you’re an expert for aficionado, sushi can be scary. With so many options to choose from, it can be overwhelming trying to decide what kind of sushi to try first.

Take Lessons created a sushi cheat sheet that details all the popular rolls, ingredients and etiquettes. Customers can now have an idea of what’s appropriate or inappropriate when dining at an authentic sushi restaurant. They even threw popular sushi-centric vocabulary for those interested in immersing themselves.

Check out the graphic below:

Sushi-Complete-Guide

Top 10 puzzling things that Japanese people do

sato photographing pizza

RocketNews 24:

Wow you can use chopsticks?” “Your Japanese is really good!” “Geez, you’ve put on weight recently.” “It’s only 8:00 p.m., why are you going home?”

Anyone who’s been to Japan before has probably been bombarded by something similar to the above. Every country is going to have different cultural norms, but we decided to blow cultural sensitivity out of the water and just go ahead and list the top 10 things Japanese people do that puzzle us (but for some reason don’t stop us from thinking they’re still awesome to be around).

To create this list, we went through an extremely rigorous scientific process. Basically, we asked the non-Japanese staff at RocketNews24 to give us their opinions, and then we wrote them down and listed them. At some point numbers got put next to them. And now here they are:

#10. Japanese people are always taking pictures of food. Even airline food. Although I’ve started to do it myself too ever since I moved to Japan. (American male)

▼ To be fair, Japanese food does look like this.

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#9. They bring souvenir presents to everyone whenever they go to or come from anywhere. Americans sometimes give presents too, but the Japanese are on a different level. (American male)

▼ This isn’t a souvenir store, it’s my personal collection of souvenirs given to me by Japanese people.

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#8. In Singapore it’s pretty much summer all year round, so people go out shopping or whatever in T-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops. But in Japan when I do that, I get strange looks. Here, even in the heat of summer, you’ll see housewives decked in layers of clothes and makeup out just doing their grocery shopping. (Singapore female)

▼ Ah yes, the usual group of ladies turning Sunday shopping into an outright fashion show.

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#7. Scrunchies are seen as kind of childish back home, or a relic from the eighties, but in Japan women wear them all the time, even at work or when they want to dress up.(British female)

▼ Well, I think she looks fancy in it.

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#6. They always take their trash back home, since there’s very few trash cans and they’d never litter. That’s a good puzzling thing though. (Singapore female)

▼ This picture is banned in Japan for having caused too many shock-induced deaths.

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#5. When Japanese women carry bags, they sometimes do it with their palms out and facing up. If you saw someone do that in England, you’d think they were trying to act like a princess or something. (British female)

▼ Don’t forget your three P’s: Palm up, phone out, put a mask on.

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#4. Japanese women cover their mouths when they laugh. Uh, why? (British female)

View image on Twitter

#3. They’re extremely conscious of differences in age and the junior/senior hierarchy that goes along with it. They don’t mind just straight asking you your age, which doesn’t happen often in my home country. (Singapore female)

▼ “Woah wait you’re how old?!” Which leads us to #2…

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#2. Japanese people are pretty frank when it comes to talking about people’s appearances, both good and bad. They have no problem calling someone chubby even when they’ve lost weight, only calling one of two sisters beautiful, and so on. (American female)

▼ “These are my three daughters: Ugly, Not-So-Ugly, and The-Cute-One.”
“…well this got real awkward real fast.”

View image on Twitter

And #1 is…

#1. They don’t accept any praise. Ever. No matter what. (Singapore female)

▼ “Oh no, I’m not smart at all. I’m really stupid. And I’m not cute either. At home my name is ‘Ugly.’”

View image on Twitter

American expat shares habits she lost after moving to Japan

shinjuku

RocketNews 24:

When moving overseas, especially when moving between countries with as cultures as different as the United States and Japan have, adjusting to your new life abroad can take a bit of time. But once you’ve settled in to your life in your new home, the customs you had to be so mindful of in the beginning become second nature, to the point you may even find yourself having a bit of reverse culture shock when you go back to your home country.

Amie, an American who lived for some time in Japan, shared some of the “American habits” she lost, or conversely, some of the “Japanese habits” she picked up from her time living abroad, as shared by blogger of all things Japan-and-foreigner related, Madame Riri.

Any time living or traveling abroad can change one’s outlook on life and the world around them. These are just some personal habits that Amie noticed had changed from her time in Japan.

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1. She stopped wearing shoes indoors

If this isn’t a custom you’re familiar with, it is one you will quickly learn when coming to Japan. For many American families, it is normal to wear your outdoor footwear into the house, but at the same time, every family is different. I have been to plenty of homes in the US where everyone takes their shoes off just inside the entrance, but Amie states that after living in Japan for a while she just can’t bear to keep her shoes on while inside her home.

2. She stopped worrying about being naked in front of others

This one I can personally agree with. Bathing together is not a custom that carries on past childhood in the US. Even changing in the P.E. locker room in high school can be a bit uncomfortable for some. For years I turned down opportunities to go to Japanese hot springs because the thought of stripping down to my birthday suit and sitting around in the bath with close friends, classmates, teachers, and all the other naked people was too awkward to even want to think about. But then one day I finally gave in, took the literal plunge, and realized there’s really nothing weird or awkward to it at all. Now I’m wishing I had all those missed hot-spring opportunities back!

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3. She stopped being “late”

Amie relates a story of how she got lost and ended up being only five minutes early to work, to which she was scolded by her superiors for being “late” since she was not at least 15 minutes early. It is true that the Japanese have a reputation for punctuality, and it is generally expected of you to show up to work early in order to be considered “on time”. For personal affairs, however, such as meeting up with friends, you may not always see the same punctuality. (Or at least that’s the case in my personal experience, but I could also just have very flaky friends!)

4. She stopped sitting in chairs at the table

Traditionally, Japanese use tables low to the floor and sit on zabuton cushions. There are zaisu as well, which are essentially legless chairs used for sitting at low tables or those heavenly kotatsu you hear residents of Japan going on about each winter. However, regular tall tables and chairs are just as common in Japanese homes too, so it’s not like you’ll never sit in a chair again when you go to Japan.

5. She stopped talking to strangers

The author talks about her experience of being a friendly, approachable person in a town where people would walk across to the other side of the street when she would come by. Again, I think everything is relevant, and everyone’s experiences will be different. True, I don’t feel I’m approached as much by friendly strangers wanting to chat to the extent I was when I lived in the States, but to say it doesn’t happen in Japan would be a big lie.

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6. She stopped driving a car

Japan has excellent public transportation, that is for sure, and with limited land available, the cities on this island nation tend to be built more compacted than cities in the US, which makes getting to places on foot or by bike much more feasible. Owning a car in the city can actually be more of a nuisance than anything, what with the narrow roads, traffic congestion, and the limited and expensive parking. However, if you move out to the inaka (countryside) you’ll probably be wanting that car, unless you don’t mind walking for miles through the mountains and rice paddies to get anywhere. And by the same token, depending on where you live in the US, you can get along pretty well without a car too.

Everyone’s experiences are different, depending on how they were raised, their personalities, and what sort of environment they moved in to. So we ask you, American expats in Japan, can you relate to anything on this list? Are there any other customs you picked up or lost since coming here? We’d love to hear from expats in Japan from other countries as well!

Happy Kentucky Fried New Year! And this year’s KFC New Year Lucky Bag contains…?

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RocketNews 24:

Every New Year’s, people across Japan flock to stores for special bargains, and in particular, the “Lucky Bags” known as fukubukuro. From electronics and chocolate shops to up-scale department stores, Japanese shops and businesses of all kinds come up with original Lucky Bags at the beginning of each year to tempt those of us out for some new year’s shopping. Now, these bags are supposed to offer good value, containing products worth more than the price you pay for the bag. Well, the bags may be a good value, but the catch is that you can’t choose what you get in your bag, and each year there ends up being much online discussion on whether the Lucky Bags from different shops are a particularly good or bad deal.

Not to miss out on the action, the team at the Japanese RocketNews24 site has also joined the Lucky Bag rush, and as we’ve already started reporting, we’ve taken a look at the contents of quite a few of the bags being sold this year. And one of them happens to be a bag from none other than … Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan. Let’s see what “finger-lickin’ good” items were included in their Lucky Bag for 2015!

The Lucky Bag we purchased from KFC this year was priced at 2,000 yen (US$16.64). So, what did we get for a little under $20?

▼Here’s the bag on sale at the KFC shop we went to. There were only five bags left when we got there! KFC 1

▼And this is what the bag contained: four tickets for two chicken pieces, a discount coupon pass and a bottle of their honey maple syrup.KFC 5

▼The four tickets alone are worth 1,920 yen ($16), and they came in a pretty bag illustrated with motifs associated with New Year’s in Japan.KFC 3

▼And this honey maple syrup should be a welcome item for fans of KFC’s popular biscuits. Now you won’t have to go to a KFC shop to have their delightfully sweet syrup. It’s sure to go well with the pancakes or toast you have at home!KFC 4

▼And the bag the goods came in was actually quite nice. It’s a good size, and the KFC logo is unobtrusive enough that it looks simple and stylish overall. KFC 6

▼It may look like a regular bag from the outside, but it’s actually thermally insulated, so it will come in handy for carrying food for picnics or outdoor barbecues.KFC 2

So, what did we think of KFC’s 2015 Lucky Bag? You get most of your purchase price’s worth from the tickets alone, and the coupon pass can be used as many times as you like for a limited time, so we guess it’s not a bad deal, but to be honest, we also didn’t feel like it was a great deal either, at least not something that would make us jump up and down with joy.

That said, you would probably be getting at least your money’s worth of products, and if you like their syrup or if you like the look of the bag, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be more than happy with this year’s KFC Lucky Bag.

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What does “Konnichiwa” really mean? Understanding Japanese greetings

RocketNews 24:

 

 

konichiwa

Well, good afternoon/evening/morning/day everyone! Today we’re going to talk about Japanese greetings and what they really mean.

Just as in English, “Konnichiwa” or “Good day” is a greeting that is technically an idiom with a complex and near-forgotten past. Just as English language greetings tend to stem from bastardizations of foreign loan words and/or full sentences that have been gradually shortened over the years, “konnichiwa” is actually a shortened version of a full and meaningful greeting, because, if anything, human beings are a lazy sort with a bad habit of cutting corners whenever possible.

 

Konnichiwa,” back in the day, was actually the beginning of a sentence that went, “konnichi wa gokiken ikaga desu ka?,” or “How are you feeling today?” (今日はご機嫌いかがですか?)

Building on that, it’s easy to see that the traditional Japanese greeting in the evening, “Konbanwa is basically the same thing, but with “this evening” substituted for “today” (今晩はご機嫌いかがですか?).

When it comes to mornings, we deviate slightly with “ohayou“ or ohayou gozaimasudepending on how much you respect the recipient of the greeting (when it comes to my editor, he gets nothing but a curt, “ossu.”), which is spelled in Japanese, “お早う,” or, literally, “It’s early!” Again, humans being the lazy things we are, we can’t be bothered doing anything more than exclaiming about the ungodly hour every morning, so this is understandable.

There’s even more word origin fun to be had with Japanese greetings/idioms:

Arigatou” or “Thank you” is spelled something like this in Japanese: 有難う, which, taken literally, means, “It’s hard that this exists.” In other words, you’re expressing gratitude for someone doing something difficult or going out of their way for you.

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Gochisousama,” the traditional phrase uttered after a fulfilling meal, and spelled “ご馳走様,” in Japanese literally means, “You ran around!” It sounds weird to an English speaker, of course, but it’s meant to recall a hard-working chef hustling to and fro to prepare a meal.

Itadakimasu,” the phrase one is supposed to say just before tucking into a meal, on the other hand, is spelled “頂きます,” or literally, “I take!” While it sounds a little blunt and self-serving in English, it’s not hard to understand that this honorific phrase is used to express gratitude to the chef or host.

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Otsukaresama” is a greeting you’ll hear a lot around Japanese offices, schools and any other place where people work hard. The Japanese, “お疲れ様,” literally meaning, “You look tired!” The 様 part, which appears in a lot of these greetings/idioms, is hard to explain in English, but it stems from the Japanese の様 (“no yo,” or, “as if”), which denotes an observation on the part of the speaker.

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Omedetou,” (“Congratulations!”) is a more complicated animal, and even after some research and asking Japanese friends, we still aren’t entirely sure of this word’s origins. But, it appears that it stems from the verb, “mederu” (愛でる), “to treat importantly,” combined with “itashi” (甚し), “very.” In other words, you are acknowledging to someone that their accomplishment is “very important” to you. Note that the current kanji characters used for this, “お目出度い,” are actually what is referred to as “ateji” or kanji characters assigned to fit the sound of the word, rather than the other way around, and have nothing to do with the word’s meaning/origin.

 

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10 things Japan gets awesomely right

RocketNews 24: 

10 things japan gets awesome right

Although Japan is not without its faults, it is nevertheless an incredibly efficient and easy-to-live-in country, and we’ve discovered that there are numerous things that the Japanese get not just right, but awesomely right.

Join us after the jump for our top 10 things we love about Japan.

Ten things Japan gets awesomely right

1. Vending machines

vending machines

We’re probably going to disappoint a few readers here by saying that for all the urban myths that exist, panty vending machines cannot, in fact, be found on every other street corner in Japan. But if you’re looking for something to quench your thirst – whether hot or cold –  you rarely have to go more than a few hundred metres in any direction in the city.

Canned (black, white, extra milk, iced, low sugar, no sugar, extra sugar, fat-reducing) coffee, tea, green tea, barley tea, sports drinks, hot chocolate, soda, beer, fruit juice, raspberry jelly, even bread and stew; if it can be packed into a can you can find it in a Japanese vending machine somewhere, and it’ll usually cost you no more than 120 yen (US$1.20) for a big can of the stuff. Many vending machines in Japan even give customers additional incentives to use them, with LCD panels displaying a row of numbers after each purchase–get three sevens in a row and you win a free drink of your choice! And newer machines are completely touch-screen operated, with their contents displayed as animated images–perfect for the iPhone generation.

2. Food

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Was there ever any doubt that Japanese cuisine would make the list? Admittedly, there are the odd few “WTF?” dishes like raw horse meat and fugu, a fish that may or may not kill you if not properly prepared, but the vast majority of Japanese food is simply superb, and we’re not just talking about boxed lunches crafted to look like Pokémon characters.

There’s so much to choose from, and we couldn’t bring ourselves to commit to a final list, so here are just a few of our all-time favourites:

– Donburi
Basically big bowls of fluffy white rice topped with anything from strips of marinated beef and pork to kimchi and raw tuna. Donburi is true soulfood – hearty, filling and extremely moreish. The donburi that most people come into contact with is that of fast food-style restaurants like Yoshinoya or Sukiya, and they’re certainly decent for the price you pay, but there are plenty of outlets that charge a little more but pour their heart and soul into this simple yet supremely tasty dish, so be sure to track one down if you visit Japan.

– Gyoza
Japanese gyoza may be considered a little unrefined by Chinese standards since they are most often fried, but we simply adore them. Massively moreish and available in dozens of varieties, these little dumplings are simply to die for and we’d happily munch on them every single day if it weren’t for the large amounts of garlic and nira chives contained within them that would make us entirely repellent to everyone around us.

– Miso soup
Yes, it’s simple and you can buy this stuff as an instant, “just add hot water” mix, but a good bowl of homemade miso soup has almost magical properties. It also makes a great hangover cure (trust us, give it a go the next time you’re feeling a little fragile after one too many glasses of Babycham!).

– Okonomiyaki
Often described as a savoury pancake or “Japanese pizza”, this is essentially batter made from shredded cabbage, flour, eggs, grated nagaimo (yam), and water or a little fish stock. Ingredients – literally “whatever you want”, which is where the name okonomi (as you like)yaki (grilled) comes from – are mixed into the batter which is then poured onto a hotplate, shaped into a flat, circular shape and cooked through. Topped with anything from mayonnaise, sweet barbecue-style okonomiyaki sauce, dried seaweed, and shaved bonito, okonomiyaki is a fantastically tasty and filling dish that’s meant for sharing and playful experimentation.

– Ramen
Believed to have originally been a Chinese dish, ramen – noodles in soup with toppings – now exists in hundreds if not thousands of varieties across Japan’s 47 prefectures. The soup is usually soy, salt, miso, or tonkotsu (lit. “pork bone”) based and ramen fans each swear by particular varieties, although Fukuoka’s Hakata ramen, a pork-bone broth with relatively straight, firm noodles, is perhaps the variety best-known outside Japan.

– Sashimi
Strips of raw fish, usually served with wasabi and soy sauce. Not to be confused with sushi (see below).

– Shabushabu
Another dish that’s often enjoyed socially, shabushabu is basically vegetables and wafer-thin strips of raw meat cooked (by the diner) in a very light stock. The meat is so thin and the stock so hot that it cooks in mere seconds, and tastes absolutely wonderful, especially dipped in some goma sesame sauce.

– Sushi
Perhaps Japan’s most famous dish, sushi is vinegared rice either topped with or wrapped around “neta” ingredients like fish and vegetables. Even cheap conveyor-belt sushi is good, but sushi made by chefs who have trained for decades and use only the finest ingredients is nothing short of divine.

– Takoyaki
Tiny little balls of tasty batter with a piece of octopus in the middle, cooked in a special hotplate and served with a rich sauce, mayonnaise and flakes of “aonori” dried seaweed. These things can be mercilessly hot when eaten straight off the teppan, but we always stuff them straight into our shout holes regardless. Oh, that devastating, delicious takoyaki tongue burn!

We could go on forever here, but we fear this article would quickly be abandoned in favour of heading out for an early dinner!

3. Removing your shoes when going indoors

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We appreciate that it sounds like something a Japanophile might say in a cringeworthy attempt to prove how integrated into the culture they have become, but after years of living in Japan and taking our shoes off when going indoors, we now find the idea of walking around one’s home wearing the footwear that you traipsed around outside in kind of gross, and every time we watch a Western movie or sitcom and see a character sitting with their shoe-clad feet up on a sofa, chair or bed, the same thought pops into our heads: “Are you sure you didn’t step in any dog poop while you were outside?”

As most of you will already know, in the majority of Japanese homes – and also in schools and some clinics – people remove their outdoor shoes before entering the building proper. This practice is not unique to Japan, of course, and the “true” reason for doing this differs depending on who you ask, but most agree that the Japanese desire to draw a clear line between the clean uchi (inside) and dirty soto (outside) is the main driving force behind this.

The idea that the inside of the home should not be unnecessarily dirtied is also reflected in the layout of a typical Japanese bathroom. Just as how one showers before entering the bath in Japan (after all, why sit in water containing the day’s grime?) and the tub kept spotlessly clean, the toilet is usually found in a room completely separate to that containing the bath and shower. Why? Because the toilet is pretty much the “dirtiest” place in the house, while the bath is where one purifies one’s body. In the Japanese mindset, the two simply do not belong together, and we can’t help feeling they’re on to something with that idea.

Of course, walking around the house in slippers, stockings or going barefoot has the added bonus of keeping noise levels down – which is important when your walls are paper-thin and/or you live in close proximity to others – but when you think about where your shoes have been as you walked about town, stepping in puddles and maybe even gum, spit, dog pee (or worse), and dirt in general, it makes sense that you should leave all that outside by stepping out of your shoes at the genkan entryway. This practice can be a little annoying at times, especially when you lace up your shoes, step outside and then realise you’ve left your phone in the living room (which means repeating the process all over again or doing that weird “walking on your knees” circus act we briefly see the character Satsuki do in the Studio Ghibli movie My Neighbor Totoro), but after being exposed to Japanese customs we’ve come to think that wearing shoes inside the house makes about as much sense as taking all of your carpets and furniture outdoors and expecting it to stay clean.

Besides, isn’t it far nicer to kick your shoes off and chill out in just your socks? Well perhaps not just your socks, but whatever floats your boat…

4. Taxis

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Image: Taxifarefinder

Anyone who has ridden in an inner-city taxi in Japan will know that they’re far from cheap. So you might well be wondering how on earth these things made it into our top 10 list. Three words: automatically opening doors.

Hail a cab at the side of the road and after it comes to a halt, the kerbside passenger door will automatically open for you. And not just unlock and open by a couple of inches, but swing out completely so that passengers can slip in while carrying their bags, kids, girlfriend, whatever. Once you’re safely inside, the driver uses a lever to close the door after you. It’s a very small gesture, but it makes a world of difference and makes you feel like a minor celebrity, even if you are entering the taxi covered in baby vomit or have been caught in a sudden downpour.

5. Convenience stores

konbini

Coming from the UK where they are usually seen as something of a last resort for grocery shopping, my only experiences of convenience stores were midnight visits to buy toilet roll or milk, and perhaps to make ill-advised alcohol purchases after a party has gone on too long and it was decided that doing whiskey shots would in no way be a terrible idea. Everything is expensive (you’ve gotta pay for that convenience, right?), many of the patrons look remarkably unsavoury (my drunken, early-twentysomething self included), and the staff rarely seem to want to be there any more than the customers.

Not so in Japan. Convenience stores – 7-Eleven, Lawson, FamilyMart, Mini Stop, even the littler guys like Save On and Coco – are all kinds of wonderful, and they’re absolutely everywhere. Products are rarely much more expensive than in other stores, many stock snacks and ready-made meals that were prepared that very day rather than the best part of a week ago, and they offer a ton of services that are genuinely useful, including:

– Courier delivery pickup/dropoff
You can take a package to your local convenience store, have them measure it, slap a delivery label on it, and the courier service (usually Yamato, or “kuro neko”) will pick it up from the store and deliver it for you. And the rates are surprisingly reasonable. You can even arrange for luggage to be dropped off and kept safe.

– Bill payment
Want to pay your gas, electricity, internet or mobile phone bill? Take it to the konbini (the common term for convenience store), hand them the tear-off slip with your cash and they’ll process it for you in seconds. Et voilà! Your lights will be back on in no time!

– Booking tickets and paying for fun stuff
Depending on which convenience store you visit, you can use their ATM-style machines to look up and reserve things like plane, concert and theme park tickets, receiving a printout and then paying at the counter. You can even shop online at websites like Amazon and Yodobashi Camera and, provided the site you’re using offers “konbini barai” (convenience store payment), after entering your unique code at the machine simply hand over your cash to the clerk. No credit card required.

– Printing stuff out 
Even if you don’t have a USB pen to take with you, log in to the convenience store chain’s online printing service and save your document there. You’ll receive a passcode which you enter at the store’s printer, which (after you slot in a few yen) will spit out your documents. You can print anything from whole web pages to essays written in MS Word.

Oh, and let’s not forget that you can also buy food, beer, whiskey, wine, light bulbs, DVDs, video games, newspapers, magazines, cat food, hot baked goods, seasonal stews, fresh coffee, point cards for Amazon, iTunes, and Nintendo and Sony’s online stores… the list is endless.

Convenience stores in Japan: Actually convenient.

6. Recycling and waste management

refuse

Japan may well be a little on the wasteful side, throwing out startling amounts of perfectly good food every single day and sealing consumer products in way too much plastic, but we have to admire their system for garbage collection and disposal.

This of course varies from town to town, but most cities require residents to sort their household waste into distinct categories: burnables and raw waste, plastics, PET (plastic drinks) bottles, glass, aluminium cans, paper and cardboard, and so on.

But how can refuse collectors be sure that people are sorting their waste properly? Surely any joker could just stuff all of their trash into the same bag and sling it out on collection day? Well, most of the bags are either clear or thin enough to see through, with different coloured print on them denoting exactly what can be put inside them, with each kind of rubbish collected only on certain days. Trying to throw away kitchen scraps in a bag meant for cans? Tut tut. You might get lucky but often it’ll be left behind and marked with a sticker asking you to use the correct bag (and all your neighbours will secretly judge you). But it really doesn’t make sense to try to cheat the system, especially when some towns (each sell their own refuse bags in local supermarkets and, of course, convenience stores) even encourage proper recycling by making bags for the likes of cans and plastics cheaper than more general “burnable” waste bags, so it pays to be green.

Japan still has to mend its wasteful ways, but its approach to refuse management is definitely a step in the right direction and one that many countries could learn from, so we’re all for that.

7. Punctuality

watch

Yes, we moaned in our previous article about how set in their ways the Japanese can be, and how rules here are made to be kept, not broken, but we appreciate that without this fondness for law and order things in Japan simply wouldn’t run as smoothly as they do. People here take punctuality extremely seriously, and it is considered common sense (and courtesy) to arrive a good ten minutes early for meetings, regardless of their nature. This may be a little too regimented for some, but in short this is part of why stuff here works as it should, and you can rely on pretty much any service running according to schedule.

There are times when delays are inevitable, and even Japan’s über punctual rail networkmay fall a few minutes behind, but you can be sure that if that happens their operators take it extremely seriously, and you can expect both earnest apologies and a member of staff handing out “proof of lateness” slips to passengers at the ticket gate so that they can show their boss that it was in fact the train company’s fault they were five minutes late, and not their own.

If you arranged for a package to be delivered by a certain time, it’ll be there. And if it’s not you’ll very often get a call from the delivery guy himself apologising and informing you of the fact. Pizza due to arrive by seven? Make a space on the table by 6:45. If your phone service operator promised you that an engineer will call on a certain day at a certain time, 99 percent of the time that’s when it’ll be. You have to admire that kind of dedication to timekeeping.

8. Customer service

customer service

We admit that this perhaps blurs a little with our last point, but there’s something inherently awesome about having the staff at McDonald’s treat you like royalty even when you’re too stingy to drop an extra few yen to make your hamburger a cheeseburger and choose a cup of water over a Coke. Yes, as in every country, there are a handful of twonks who let the side down, but if there’s one thing you can say about the Japanese it’s that they really know how to look after customers.

From hotels to fast food joints, customers almost always receive polite greetings and smiles. Keigo (honorific Japanese) is routinely employed and staff are quick to find something to apologise for even when it’s clear that the customer is, in fact, in the wrong. Have a problem at the bank or post office and staff will do their best to find a solution for you rather than simply apologising and trying to move on to the next customer. And at some petrol stations, or gasorin sutando as they’re known, having wiped down your windshield, run a cloth over your wipers and asked if you have any garbage you’d like thrown away while they pump the gas for you, attendants will stand at the edge of the forecourt and bow as you drive away, only lifting their heads once you’re several car-lengths away. There are times when we almost wish they’d relax a little (staff carrying your purchases to the threshold of their shop in a department store and thanking you repeatedly for your patronage can be a little disconcerting for those of us who grew up eating alphabet spaghetti and fluorescent pink pudding), but on the whole it’s fantastic to see so many people taking their work so seriously.

As outspoken US comic Louis CK once said when talking about how people should approach their work, even if you have a crappy job, you should “do the shit out of it.” Which is precisely what the vast majority of Japanese people do.

9. Toilets

toilet

In our article listing the things we weren’t especially fond of in Japan, we remarked how it is often said that bureaucracy was invented in the West but perfected in Japan. The exact same thing can be said about toilets.

Ask someone to list a few things that define Japan, and “space-age toilets” will almost definitely come up eventually. And they truly are things of tremendous technological achievement. Heated seats, not one but two spray functions whose pressure, warmth and direction can be controlled, ambient noise to mask any embarrassing bottom burps, lids that open automatically as you enter the room as if to say “Are you sure you don’t want to do a little one?” and multiple flush options make going to the bathroom in Japan an adventure in itself. There is plenty to be said for the health benefits of old-school squat toilets – and they still exist in their droves even amongst their gadget-riddled brethren – but with so many buttons and dials to tinker with, who would want to miss out? Just be sure the throne you’re using hasn’t been hacked or it might well turn against you…

10. Drinking pretty much anywhere

beer

The imbibing of alcohol in public places may be frowned upon in some countries, and completely illegal in others, but in Japan it’s considered perfectly OK to crack open a beer in the park, or on the street or bullet train (though food and drink in general are a no-no on most regular trains).

Perhaps after putting in so many hours of overtime, people here feel it is their God-given right to enjoy a cold one? Perhaps it’s simply that so few Japanese make a nuisance of themselves and get violent after drinking (if anything, a sudden onset of red-faced sleepiness is usually the worst they have to fear)? Whatever the reason, no one bats an eyelid at the sight of someone strolling down the street or sitting on a park bench with an open can of Asahi in their hand, and it’s thanks to this relaxed approach to public drinking that parks all over Japan are filled with revellers (and this includes entire families rather than just rowdy students), eating, drinking and enjoying the beautiful cherry blossom during hanami parties every spring. No brown bags or secret slurps in Japan – it’s beer cans and cheers of “kanpai” as and when you see fit, and we think that’s pretty great.

Check out this link:

10 things Japan gets awesomely right