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What I thought I knew before I came to Japan

I had a lot of preconceived ideas about Japan before living here, some of which turned out to be accurate, but many of which were completely wide of the mark, and in complete contrast to the actual reality of the situation.

By 5 min read

In this, the 10th year since I first decided to move to Japan, I’ve been in something of a reflective mood. Recently, as I ponder my next step here in this great country, I often find myself thinking back to simpler time, before I first moved here back in 2006.

I had a lot of preconceived ideas about Japan before living here, some of which turned out to be accurate, but many of which were completely wide of the mark, and in complete contrast to the actual reality of the situation.

So, today I will look at some of those early misconceptions, and how they shaped my early days in Japan. Perhaps some of you planning to come here may have some of the same ideas.

Not all Japanese food is healthy

Japan has an incredible variety of foods to choose from, both local and imported. Especially if you live in one of the larger cities like Tokyo or Osaka, you will almost certainly find that the range of foods will match or perhaps even eclipse that which was available in your hometown.

However, with such a variety of foods comes a number of potential pitfalls. I recall saying to my parents before moving to Tokyo that being in Japan and eating Japanese food every day, I would probably lose weight quite quickly. Imagine my horror when, after only 6 months, I had gained 10 kilos!

Sushi and miso soup may be healthy, but Yakiniku, Ramen and Katsudon are definitely not!As is the same in your home countries, moderation is key!

Not everyone in Japan is crazy about anime

It’s fair to say that, in learning about Japan before coming here, I did my best to immerse myself in as much of the local culture and arts as I could. However, one thing I just couldn’t develop a taste for no matter how much I tried was anime. The idea of cartoons aimed at adults just doesn’t really do it for me as a concept. Perhaps I’m showing my own narrow-mindedness in this area but I just don’t see the appeal.

I remember being taken along to a cinema in Edinburgh back in late 2005 to see a screening of “Ghost in the Shell” my friend had pitched the movie to me as being a mix of Blade Runner and The Matrix, which as a sci-fi buff appealed to me. What followed was possibly the most confusing and torturous 90 minutes of my cinema-going life as I just couldn’t make sense of it.

10 years and multiple viewings later, I still haven’t got a clue what was going on for large parts of the movie. Perhaps I should have followed my friend’s example and downed a few vodkas before viewing!
So, I was a bit worried before coming to Japan of being caught out as a non-fan of anime as I believed it to be an integral part of the media culture here.

I was of course, mistaken. Anime has its fans here, but they are minority, albeit a sizeable one. And even those of my friends who do enjoy anime don’t judge me negatively for not being a fan. Some of those fervent fanboys back in Europe and the US could do well to follow this attitude.

Takeshi’s Castle is no more!

Of all the revelations revealed to me in my first few months in Japan this was perhaps the single most crushing disappointment. Back in the early 2000s, Takeshi’s Castle was compulsive viewing for me. The crazy Japanese game show seemed like a combination of UK classic gameshows “It’s a knockout!” and “The Crystal Maze” with some genuinely bizarre additional elements that would make you think “Only in Japan!”
It was a secret ambition of mine to become the first foreigner to appear on this show, and to go all the way and win it!

Imagine my disappointment when, shortly after arriving in Tokyo, I learned that the show had already been off the air for more than 10 years, and that several foreigners had already appeared on it during its initial run. The more serious, physically draining “Sasuke”, known as “Ninja Warrior” in the UK and US, remains a twice-yearly fixture on the Japanese TV calendar. Unfortunately, even if I do somehow make it to my target weight of 80 kilos, it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever reach the levels of strength, fitness and endurance needed to compete seriously on Sasuke. Still, I can but dream.

Japanese people aren’t half as serious as we are led to believe

Amongst western media portrayals of regular Japanese people there remains one prevailing stereotype. That of the diligent, respectful, serious and ultra-conservative businessman, whose entire existence seems to revolve around writing reports and endless bowing to superiors and customers.

Naturally, in an attempt to acclimatize I found myself probably being a bit too serious, and bowing a bit too much in those first few months. All that came to halt however when one of my Japanese coworkers, a bilingual who had recently returned from the US gave me some timely advice in a typically direct, American way: “Liam, you’re a nice guy” he said, “and a good worker, but if you’re planning to stay in Japan a long time, you really need to take that rod out of your a$$!”

I’ve censored this for the purpose of maintaining a family friendly blog, but you get the picture. So, I eased up a bit, stopped trying to be what I perceived to be overtly “Japanese” and instead just started enjoying myself.

Ten years on, my colleague has proven himself to be completely right.

Ordinary Japanese are nothing like this stereotype. Yes they are usually a bit more focussed at work, and certainly their work/life balance is typically slanted more in favour of the work side of things, but they still know how to unwind and have fun. In fact, often when they cut loose they prove themselves to be even more outrageous than many of my Scottish friends!

The past ten years have certainly been a learning experience for me and I doubt that will change anytime soon. In a country as diverse and fascinating as Japan, we are never too old to learn something new.

  • Stian Haugland says:

    I believe in being myself. I try not to think too much of how to behave around people. The only thing I think I’m going to be mindful of is the formal/informal use of words. Other than that I naturally thank people, bow when I feel it appropriate etc…

    I’m probably going to be stuck up in names aswell. Do I introduce myself by first or surname first? I feel fairly familiar with Japanese names, but there’ll probably be a few occasions where I will be left wondering “Which of your names is your first name?” ^^.

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