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Common Japanese Misconceptions about Japan

By Josiah Lebowitz

Interestingly enough, Japanese people tend to have a set of misconceptions about their own country and race, though I suppose they’re hardly alone in that. But anyway, let’s take a look at some of the more common ones.

#1: Seasons

 Winter (and snow monkeys) in Japan

Japan has four distinct seasons: winter, spring, summer, and fall. Well, technically they’re: fuyu, haru, natsu, and aki. But it’s the same thing. In winter it’s cold and snows (unless you’re far to the south in the more tropical areas like Okinawa). In spring the flowers bloom (including the famous Japanese cherry blossoms). In summer it’s hot and humid (much like the East coast of the US). And in the fall the leaves change color and fall off the trees.

Now, chances are you didn’t find anything particularly remarkable about what I just said. But many Japanese people like to proudly describe their seasons and tell you how great it is to live in a country with four different ones. See, for some reason (I’ve never really figured out why), a lot of Japanese people are under the impression that Japan is the only country in the world with four distinct seasons. It’s actually a bit of a bragging point for some, which leaves them rather disappointed when you set things straight.

#2: The Japanese Language

A tablet carved with Japanese letters

Quite a lot of Japanese people have a tendency to think that the Japanese language is so complex that no foreigner could ever possibly master it. I’m not sure if the point of this is that they don’t think you can learn Japanese unless you grow up in Japan, or that they think that the average Japanese person is a little smarter than the average foreigner. But, while it’s generally acknowledged that Japanese is one of the harder languages to learn, with enough time and study foreigners can certainly become fluent and master all of its complexities. I’m not anywhere near there yet, unfortunately, but it can be done. On the positive side, this belief leads many Japanese people to be endlessly impressed by foreigners who can speak even a little bit of Japanese.

#3: Japanese Physiology
Instead of attributing things like their dietary preferences, mindset, work ethic, and the like to cultural differences (their upbringing and surroundings), a lot of Japanese people like to attribute them to bogus physiological differences. For example, saying that Japanese people have different brain chemistry or longer intestines than people from other countries.

#4: Japan is an All Japanese Country

A crowded Tokyo street

Well, I suppose this isn’t that far off, but there’s a decent amount of ethnic Chinese and Koreans living in Japan (which naturally means there’s a lot of kids of mixed descent as well), along with the odd American, Australian, European, etc. And then there’s the Ainu (Hokkaido’s equivalent of Native Americans), who were displaced by Japanese settlers, and the Okinawans (who, while closer to regular Japanese than the Ainu, were still a separate people group for quite some time). So while Japan is still an extremely homogenous society, especially compared to countries like the US, it’s not quite as much of one as they like to think.

#5: Japan Has No X
X could be the yakuza (Japanese mafia), illegal sex trade, or any other undesirable element. Actually, when it comes down to it, every Japanese person knows the yakuza still exists (and is quite prominent in some areas and industries). They also know that, despite laws banning it, prostitution (including underage prostitution) hasn’t really ended either (though it’s primarily limited to certain areas and isn’t anywhere near as blatant as in Las Vegas). However, Japanese people, and the Japanese media and government for that matter, don’t really like admitting that the country has problems like that. This is especially true in the case of the government, since that would be admitting that they aren’t really doing their job when it comes to dealing with such issues. So, instead, it’s easier to just pretend that everything is fine and that those undesirable elements and problems in society just don’t exist. While such a practice does fit with the Japanese practice of striving to keep everything peaceful and harmonious (which I’ll go into in more detail another day), it also means that a lot of things that really should be dealt with by government policy, police crackdowns, or even action on the part of ordinary citizens tend to get ignored and fall by the wayside instead.

Did you catch the theme running through these beliefs? With the exception of #5, they all stem from the fact that, despite their emphasis on group harmony and homogeny, Japanese people like to believe that their race and country is unique and special compared to the rest of the world. And it is (every race and country is unique), just not in some of the ways they think.

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