Mystical and exotic Japan. A culture that’s admittedly a world away from what Western, and even many Asian nations, are used to.
Six things that will surprise you about Japan. Let’s go.
1. Japanese people often follow strange naming conventions
Elon Musk’s kid may be named X AE A-12, but Japanese people…Okay, Elon wins this one. It’s hard to top that.
Japanese people do, however, tend to follow peculiar naming conventions when they have kids. You only notice this if you meet siblings, or get into a conversation with a Japanese person about their family.
So, what do I mean? Well, if you meet someone named Ryunosuke, you might find his brother is named Konosuke. Or siblings named Ryota and Ryuta.
If you meet someone named Nahoko, her sister might be named Rihoko. Or a pair called Ayaka and Sayaka.
If you’re not familiar with Japanese names or words, this may not mean much to you. The Western equivalent would be meeting someone named Brendan, with a sister named Brenda, and a brother named Brandon. Yeah, this extends to more than one sibling. Or someone called Ashley, with 2 brothers called Ashton and Ashden.
This isn’t a custom that’s really able to be judged. It’s just a strange convention worth knowing!
2. Nightlife is core to Japanese business
Japanese nightlife goes far beyond the variety found in other countries.
Japan’s nightlife runs on an eclectic blend of snack bars, hostess bars, and clubs. The red-light district expands into soaplands, massage parlors, and a wide-range of paid-for-services. In Kabukicho, the red-light district of Tokyo, many people are surprised to see a literal “menu” outside establishments where you can not only choose your service but your “provider” too.
This may or may not surprise you, but the most interested of clientele aren’t tourists. This isn’t like Amsterdam. Heck, even if tourists wanted to go, so many places are “Japanese only” that you’d be out of luck most places you went.
The main market for these places are Japanese businessmen, who do their version of “wine and dine” for guests from other parts of the country. Going to a hostess bar to enjoy an all-you-can-drink (nomihoudai) service while chatting to pretty women is a fan favorite. This is all billed to the company account, of course. Hey, business is business.
Japan takes the concept of “work hard, play hard” to the extremes. And there’s no better way to play hard with your colleagues than a night out at the hostess bar. It puts you into some vulnerable positions, and it’s a way that they can really bond with each other in a casual environment.
3. Japanese people are non-religious but incredibly superstitious
Everyone talks about how Japan is one of the least religious countries in the world. It is – with over 35% of the population being deemed ‘convinced atheists’, and a large portion simply not affiliating with a religion.
Yes, there’s Shintoism. Shintoism is a Japan-specific form of Buddhism, which views all things in the world as having a living, ‘soulful’ element to it. That includes not only things like trees, but rocks and rivers too.
Shintoism itself only really carries itself over into Japanese traditions and customs, without taking into consideration much of the dogma or esoteric belief behind it. For example, most Japanese people visit a shrine on the first day of the year – just because “that’s what you do”. After a family member dies, you’re not allowed to visit shrines or temples for a couple of months. If you asked a Japanese person why they do that, most people have no specific religious reason. They just know that “that’s what you do”.
So religion is out of the equation for the most part. One would think that superstition is eliminated from their worldview too. Surprisingly, not at all. Japanese people are some of the most superstitious people I’ve come across, and it’s pretty funny because there’s not much reason behind it other than “it’s better to err on the side of caution”.
For example, Japanese people tend to outright refuse to live in or rent an apartment that someone had died in – specifically from unnatural causes, such as suicide, murder, fire, or anything sinister. Properties with these types of histories behind them are called jikko bukken. The history of previous occupants is really important when moving to a new place. Real estate companies even rent these places out for really low prices since they’re so undesirable.
Another example would be something like charms. Take the Japanese toilet god – yes, that’s a real thing. I once found a keychain of the toilet god (toire no kamisama), and was told that it’s meant to be placed behind your toilet. Supposedly, it helps with all things toilet-related, including your digestive system. I had no use for it, so I gave it to a friend, who immediately placed it behind her toilet.
A while later she ended up moving out of the house, and didn’t know what to do with the toilet god keychain. I told her to throw it away, and in response, she asked me to do it instead. “I don’t believe in gods or those kinds of things, but I’d prefer if you did it. I just don’t want any bad luck to come to me for throwing out a god”. Within a minute of me throwing it in the trash, she fished it out and said, “Better safe than sorry. I’ll just give it to my mother”. I couldn’t help but laugh!
Among others, you absolutely should not sleep with your head facing north. Again, it’s not a hard and fast rule, but you know…Let’s do it, just in case.
4. With few exceptions, the eldest at the table pays
If you ever find yourself fortunate enough to eat out with a Japanese person who is your senior – it doesn’t matter how much older – they’ll tend to take the check. It’s just their duty, and they’ll happily do it for you.
I was once at the convenience store with a Japanese friend, and I had absolutely loaded up my cart with junk food. I was going all-in, and I had my food choices – both in quantity and quality – based on the assumption that I was going to pay for it. I’d never plan to binge on ice cream on someone else’s buck.
Once at the counter, she knocked me out of the way and said she’s paying for me. I initially pushed back, but she was having none of it. I curiously asked why she wants to pay for my mountain of junk food. “Because I’m older than you”, she responded. How much older, you wonder? 8 months. It is what it is.
5. The Japanese are quiet on the trains, but they’re loud eaters
If there’s one Japanese “fact” that I hate hearing, and one that’s thrown about way too often, is that slurping your noodles means you’re enjoying your food. A non-verbal, Japanese way to say “compliments to the chef!”.
That is total crap. It’s a result of the West trying to create the image of the mystical East. The real reason Japanese people slurp their food and eat loudly is…No one has ever told them otherwise. It’s not offensive in Japanese society to slurp. They’ve never had their mother or father snapping at them at the dinner table to stop doing it.
One part of the slurping is because it helps you eat your hot noodles without burning your lips or tongue. No one has time to, you know, blow on their noodles, or wait for the broth to cool down. That’s an unintended benefit, though. You’ll see Japanese people slurping up a plate of lukewarm pasta, too, so it has nothing inherently to do with the heat of the food.
It’s neither a mystery nor a disgrace. It’s just the way they eat. I once quizzed a Japanese friend about this, and question after question was met with surprise that we even noticed Japanese people do this, because “I don’t think about it. It’s just how I eat”. So there you have it, mystery solved. It’s just how they eat. No secret code behind it.
6. You need a license to do practically anything in Japan
One of the other funny things you hear about abroad is how amazing it is that you need a license to be a sushi chef. Or that pufferfish is so dangerous that you can only serve it if you are a licensed professional. Mystical, magical, and exotic Japan.
The secret is that to do practically anything in Japan, a certification of some sort is required. Seriously. That’s what life in a bureaucratic nation is like. It’s part of what makes the nation run like clockwork, albeit a slow clock at times!