by Alex King
I like to spend my vacations in frighteningly strange formerly imperial island nations. Much like the United Kingdom, Japan has dismal summer weather, nostalgia for empire, and a comparative advantage in ridiculous television programming. Being surrounded by millions of Japanese, with their radically different culture and customs, could make any American feel out of place, or any Penn student feel right at home. I’ve spent the summer in Tokyo, enjoying the dueling samurai and ninja, dodging moon lasers, and basking in the Oriental Decadence. So, here are my observations, should you end up a stranger in this strange land yourself someday.
All the Stereotypes are
True Adorable and Submissive
The first thing you need to know about Japan is that all the stereotypes are true. There are droves of adorable Japanese schoolchildren dressed in sailor moon outfits. There are vending machines everywhere that sell food, alcohol, cigarettes and used panties. There are gargantuan death robots that battle for supremacy in the skies above Tokyo, leaving thousands dead in their wake. The fashions here are as extreme and bizarre as you hear. During my first week I saw a twentyish Japanese guy with bleached blond hair, matching pink shirt and sandals, and unbelievably glitter encrusted fingernails and toenails. In America, you’d think this was a gay hipster. In Japan, it was actually arch-conservative Prime Minister “Honest” Abe Shinzo.
I’m So Sorry!
It is true that the Japanese people are unfailingly polite. If you butcher their language, they just smile and nod, because they’re happy you’re trying. When a subway rolls into a station the Japanese form a line and board in an orderly fashion, as opposed to the resulting melee that would ensue in New York or Philly. This politeness has its drawbacks however, as politeness is governed by complex social rules unintelligible to an outsider. In the US, you can be polite by holding a door open for a woman. In Japan, who holds the door for who involves a complex calculus that depends on your age, gender, rank, height, blood type, sexual orientation, net worth, and number of friends on Facebook… and failure means death.
The Whole Bowing Thing
This is part of the politeness, but warrants its own mention. The Japanese do bow to each other in greeting, farewell, thanks, and supplication. Though there is another complex calculus regarding how deep to bow, it’s a very ordinary and everyday occurrence. However, this barbarous act offends my Anglo-Saxon values, and when I’m expected to bow to someone I bellow, “Alexander King bows to no man!” This gets pretty awkward around the workplace, as many of my coworkers are women.
Smoking is legal Everywhere
The Japanese are prolific tobacco smokers. The laws regarding smoking are basically the opposite of America; in the US smoking is illegal in most all indoor places and only legal outdoors. In Japan you can smoke in any restaurant, bar or train, but smoking on the street is either illegal, or if it is legal, you’re only allowed to smoke while standing, not walking (seriously). People sometimes talk of the French Paradox, namely, that the French do nothing but eat, drink and smoke, but somehow remain relatively healthy. This is similar to the Japanese paradox. The Japanese do nothing but smoke, but they still get cancer and die a lot. That’s not the paradox. The paradox is that they have not genetically-engineered healthy tobacco, built cancer-killing nanobots, or invented pleasure modules that obviate the need for tobacco at all.
Yes! Delectable Food That Nourish Bodies
Alright, yeah, there’s a lot of sushi places. But there’s more to Japanese cuisine than sushi! Why there’s… raw vegetables, noodles… ramen… uh, pocky? Basically, Japanese food is fish and rice. The backbone of Western cuisine is meat and bread. There’s a reason bread is called the staff of life. Rice is not the staff of life. Fish is not as good as meat. God, I’d kill for some real food, I’m dying here… although I’m comforted by notion of eating all the Freshness Burgers I could desire.
Speaking of Freshness Burgers, it’s worth mentioning the mangling of English. I know this is unfair- I mean, no where in the US does the government or any business attempt to offer signs in Japanese. The signs are written in better English than I could write in Japanese. I know, it’s unfair, but they’re just so funny. At the Freshness Burger near me, the sign proclaims, “Welcome to Freshness Buger!” because you know what, what’s an extra R between friends right? Or in my hotel’s brochure, it informs me both “guns and ewords are prohibited.” What makes this all the more surreal is that ewords is a typo for swords, because, uh, you know, that’s something you’ve gotta actively tell people not to carry around. Fucking samurai man.
That’s about it. Nice place really.