Blake Snow

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Cultural contradictions: 10 things I learned after visiting Japan

Courtesy Blake Snow

After writing a story for USA Today (plus slideshow), I had a hard time shaking Japan from my memory. In fact, not since South Africa has a country changed my perspective as much.

In truth, Japan is the most foreign place I’ve ever visited. I mean that in a largely positive, often disorienting, and sometimes frustrating way. Looking back, here’s what I learned most: 

  1. The nicest, most welcoming hosts I’ve ever had. Polite, respectful, and welcoming. The Japanese greet you with smiling eyes and will go out of their way to help you, even if you don’t understand them. Once my wife and I entered the wrong subway station, and a couple that didn’t speak English stopped for several minutes and helped us flag down an English speaking attendant to help us on our way.
  2. Designed more by engineers than architects. Despite their beautiful and artistic written characters and ancient shrines, right angels dominate modern Japanese architecture. It’s in no way depressing as similar right angles are in Eastern European architecture. But it did stand out.
  3. As tidy and clean as Austria or Switzerland. Although the rest of Asia has a reputation for being dirty, Japan is just the opposite. While walking in both large cities of Osaka and Kyoto and rural areas, I only encountered two instances where things were out of place. Both of them were rural sheds with their doors open, which reveled disheveled contents. I never encountered a speck of litter.
  4. As old as Europe. I hiked a trail that was 1,000 years old, nearly 10x older than America’s first designated trail in Yellowstone National Park. I entered buildings that were 600 years old, saw structures that were 1500 years old, and was wowed by all of the oriental ancientness on display, not only in the buildings, but in the living customs.
  5. Paper-maché culture. This was fascinating. Unlike America’s penchant for “Out with the old, in with the new,” Japan simply layers new ideas, technology, customs, and even religions on top of old ones. It citizens are welcome to use whichever and however they choose, including fax machines, which is how I received confirmation of my airport transfer.
  6. Hyper homogonous. 99% of residents are Japanese. This is good because it unifies the people; bad because it makes them overly beholden to customs that probably no longer “work” for them. Admittedly, the latter is partially what makes Japan such a fascinating place for foreigners.
  7. White gloves and hats are everywhere. Policemen, security guards, taxi drivers—basically every worker looks like a bellman. It’s cute.
  8. Pink is everywhere and not gender specific. In America, pink is feminine. In Japan, it’s gender neutral. I entered the country in Osaka International through a pink-walled customs area. I peed in pink urinals with pink grout against pink subway tile.
  9. There are few grown-up things and kid things. In Japan, I saw an otherwise stylish twenty-something hipster using a phone that was encased by a protective bear cover that an 10 year old girl would be embarrassed to use. I say three and four year olds walking both city and rural streets without parents (i.e. hyper free-range parenting). At a convenience store, I saw violent pornographic magazines sitting next to cutesy comics that adults happily read. Kids always eat like adults (bento boxes and raw squid very much included). In some ways it’s very yin and yang (i.e. their kamikaze spirit against their incredibly peaceful and gentle mannerisms of everyday life). But in others, it’s a cultural free-for-all with seemingly very few lines, which is as fascinating as it is confusing.
  10. Not as technologically advanced as I first thought. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. This is because Japan goes through cycles of innovations, usually in an attempt to compete rather than pursuing innovation constantly. Currently they’re playing second fiddle to South Korea in terms of electronics innovations and seemingly biding their time until they decide to collectively innovate again. Their history reflects this on again, off again, relationship with technological innovation as they attempt to balance it against the reverence they feel for old customs.

BONUS: The Japanese really, really like vending machines.

All told, I admire Japan, its culture, its people, and it’s zen-like way of life.