Japan is a beautiful country, one of temples and shrines, Shintoism and Buddhism, samurai warriors and kamikaze pilots, Pikachu and Godzilla, Hiroshima and Fukushima. Not only is its history colourful, it also stretches back tens of thousands of years.
Japan was long untouched by the West and was stuck in their traditions until as late as the 1860s when Western weapons were first introduced. It was at this time when the Japanese samurai realized they either had to change their traditions or become obsolete, so the shogun hung-up their swords and handed the power of the country over to the government. A mere 60 years later, Japan would become a world power and invade China and bomb Pearl Harbour, conquering much of the Far East in an attempt to form the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere". After surrendering to the United States at the end of World War II, Japan changed what they represented again, and became a symbol of global peace. Although surrounded by the chaos of the Korean and Vietnam War, and today being close to the economic boomings of China and the nonsensical ramblings of a nuclear North Korea, Japan has kept the peace around the world. However, this may again change, especially after the beheadings of Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto by the Islamic State January, 2015. Prime Minister Shinzō Abe believes Japan should be able to declare war on countries as it seems fit, and is thought that he will use these senseless killings as reasoning to make Japan into a more offensive country.
I traveled to this beautiful island country last summer, and I saw things there I have never seen in the Western world. The list would be massive as Japan is such a unique country, but here at seven awesome things about Japan.
1. They Love To Bow
The Japanese custom of bowing is known around the world, but to a Westerner it can seem very strange. Upon landing at the Tokyo airport, I glanced outside the window of the plane and saw the Flight Line Marshaller bowing to the airplane, welcoming us to the country. This gesture really stuck as the pilot wouldn't have been able to see the gesture, and nobody inside the plane would probably have seen it either. He did this as a symbol of kindness to all of us, even if we didn't know he did it and had no way to respond back to him.
Only a day later I saw somebody bow again while in Osaka. I was approaching a back-alley when a car rolled up to make a turn. It stopped for me to cross, but as I was still several strides away (and not totally sure where I was going...), I gestured for the driver to go ahead. The woman stopped the vehicle, bowed to me, and then drove off. I was a little embarrassed to even be thanked for such a simple gesture. In Canada, such a thing would rarely even get a nod of thanks, let alone a thirty degree bow.
Think about how many times you say "thank you" in a day, like when you pay for gas or coffee, have somebody hold the door open for you, when somebody stops the elevator for you, when you get a compliment at work, when you buy a bagel for lunch, when you come home to supper, and the many moments in between. Now imagine bowing at every single moment. You would bow probably over a hundred times a day. "Thanks" is such a chirpy phrase, one that is quickly muttered. But bowing is a full bodied movement of appreciation, one that tells the person you are forever thankful for whatever they did, may it be landing an airplane or giving them right-of-way at an intersection.
2. They Have Shoe Etiquette
If you read my post about Koyasan, then you know the Japanese have very strict shoe etiquette.
For example, when entering a building, you cannot step on any wood with your shoes on. But you cannot step on any stone with your shoes off. This, at least for me, led to an awkward dance of taking off one shoe, stepping on the top of my shoe, taking off the other shoe and placing them both on a shoe-rack without touching the stone. Once inside, you must wear slippers around the house, but only inside the hallways. You must be in socks or bare feet when inside any room, except the bathroom. In the bathroom you have designated "toilet slippers" you must wear. A similar awkward dance has to be done when taking off your hallway shoes and when putting on the toilet slippers.
This shoe custom goes back centuries. Because of Japan's wet climate, and due to their very neat and clean culture, houses are normally built two feet off the ground for water to flow beneath them. When somebody enters the house after being outside, they take their dirty shoes off before entering the house to prevent tracking in mud or dirt. Often there is an umbrella rack near the entrance for the same reason: to not drip water on the floor.
The two foot high entrance is also to symbolize that it is somebody's private space. And yes, when you enter it they will bow at you.
3. They Don't Tip
In North America you often tip the waiter or waitress a percentage of the final meal price. This percentage is somewhere between five to twenty percent. More upper class restaurants will automatically tack on this extra fee. In Europe, there's also a tip to use the washroom, which is around twenty euro cents. Although for different reasons, both are to thank the person for their services (serving food and cleaning the bathroom; things none of us want to do). In Japan, you don't tip for any reason. You don't tip bellboys, you don't tip waitresses, you don't tip taxi drivers and you don't tip bathroom janitors (they don't have them anyway; but if you see one, don't tip them!).
Tipping is seen as an insult. Workers are paid by an employer to do their job, and you pay for their services. Paying them again seems redundant, and may appear as if you put yourself higher up financially than them and that they need extra money. It is, in a sense, like tossing a coin into a jar of a homeless person.
Sometimes, however, they will accept tips from Westeners. This isn't because they want to, but because they either don't want to insult the person back by denying their money, or because they don't speak English and it's easier to smile and bow than explain why they don't want it.
4. There's No Homeless People
Have you ever experienced the awkwardness of being approached by a panhandler, with a sappy story of being robbed and needing a place to stay for the night, or of needing money to make a phone-call? Or have you ever just seen somebody laying, completely defeated at the foot of a church, with a small bowl in front of them praying for some passersby to give them some change? These people, as sad as their stories and appearances may be, are often a problem and a nuisance.
But not in Japan!
Not to say there are no homeless people out of all 127 million people on the island, but I didn't see a single one, and it bothered me so much that I had to ask my tour guide why. She told me this is because, unlike in the West, disowning relatives who cannot take care of themselves is very frowned upon. The most sacred thing to the Japanese is their families and respecting their families, which is why saying "you dishonored my family" is often a reason for epic sword fights in Japanese movies. If for some reason somebody does not have a home to return to, a temple take them in and have them work to pay their rent.
In the unfortunate event someone is without a home and cannot get into a temple, the only other available option seems to be suicide. However, to the Japanese, suicide isn't seen as an "easy way out" like it is viewed in Western society, but is often seen as a apologetic means to their actions, or as a way to redeem themselves and clean the family name. Seemingly, a Japanese person would rather take their own life than to be a burden to society and seen as an insult to their family.
5. They Made Anime
You knew it was going to be on the list, don't lie. Anime was born in Japan, and is one of Japan's most known inventions. Anime is a form of art either hand-drawn or computer animated. It is a type of art, and is used in many well known television shows and games, such as Pokemon, Digimon, Sailor Moon, Inuyasha, Gundam Wing, Dragon Ball, Fullmetal Alchemist, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Naruto and countless more. These became very popular children's network television shows in the West, especially during the 1990s and early 2000s.
Anime is characterized by giving the characters a wide variety of emotions and facial expressions, which typical cartoons often lack. Anime artwork is often very jagged, with the characters having spikey hair of a solid color, often very bright and/or unnatural (yellow, red, pink, blue) or very dark (black, purple). The storyline is also much deeper than typical cartoons, and often involve character development and dealing with real-life problems, some of which they don't always succeed in.
Anime is different than cartoons in this aspect. Superman, for example, is not anime; he's a cartoon character. Born on Krypton, he was sent to Earth in hopes of survival. Once an adult, he became the guardian of Metropolis and uses his super-human strength to defeat the enemy, regardless of the odds. His love interest is Lois Lane, but for her safety he must keep his identity a secret. Superman is a fairly static character, as is Mickey Mouse. Mickey loves Minnie, and the two of them go on adventures together. Never does Mickey really experience personal growth (except for in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", where Mickey discovers the difficulties in magic and swears never to do it again... ), and for the past 80 years he hasn't really changed. Anime characters often change and grow as real people. Anime is a form of animating the personal psyche, and psychoanalyzing it to a point where the viewer must question their own morality as well.
It is because of this that anime has experienced such success with Western society and has become such a major part of Japanese culture. So much that the Japanese even paint their airplanes with anime characters!
6. There Are Vending Machines Everywhere!
Japan is a hot country, and when people get hot they sweat. And when people sweat, they get thirsty. People in Japan understand this, and thus several massive beverage companies sprouted up to sell products. Setting up shops around the country can be expensive, as can hiring staff to work them throughout the day. But vending machines are much cheaper to set up, are way more portable and can be located everywhere, from bustling city streets, to inside temples, to mountain tops, to beach fronts.
While vending machines sell drinks, such as water, pop, juice or coffee, they also sell cigarettes, magazines, chips, food, chocolate, sandwiches and other forms of food (some of which probably don't belong in vending machines). Some vending machines are also told to sell more adult material, like condoms, pornography and women's underwear (sometimes used). Others still are told to sell illegal drugs, such as marijuana or opium.
Although I didn't see any, in the countryside there are even fruit and vegetable "vending machines", without the machine. They are kiosks (more or less) set on the side of the road that sell goods with a "honors program" where the person who is buying the food will just leave the money behind. Japan has a very low crime-rate, and even in today's untrusting world, this is still a very common practice.
To foreigners, the number of vending machines may seem surprising, but to the Japanese, the lack of vending machines in other countries is equally as odd. In Japan, they put the machines where people can see them and decorate them with flashing lights and anime characters. In North America, we hide the machines behind stairwells and near bathrooms, places where the public needs to actually go looking for them. Only recently have companies in the West began using Japanese tactics by placing vending machines in more easily seen locations, such as outside large, commercial buildings.
7. They Have Impeccable Fashion
As a young male who has seen fashion meccas such as New York and Paris (and whose fashion sense doesn't go beyond jeans and a simple t-shirt), I only really noticed fashion while I was in Japan.
From retro 1950s Roy Rogers clothing, multi-layered colourful clothing, orthodox kimonos, Lolita fashion (Victoria Era inspired clothing), plain 1960s dresses, meme-based fashion and ultra-modern suits, the Japanese wear a global variety of clothing. This vibrant manifestation of fashion has led to Tokyo's famous Harajuku district to become an epicenter throughout the world, perhaps even surpassing Paris. Harajuku has caught the attention of many Western stars including Gwen Stefani and her Harajuku inspired clothing and perfume lines, as well as Avril Lavigne, whose "Hello Kitty" music video was also shot in this colorful area of Tokyo.
And, as always, a big thank you to my sweetheart Jessica Nuttall for proof reading a countless number of my articles. I couldn't do any of this without you. I love you.
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