There is probably no other country that sparks curiosity like Japan.
Japan is simultaneously approachable, yet alien, and at times seemingly unknowable. I recently heard Tim Ferriss (@tferriss) interviewing Malcolm Gladwell (@gladwell) on a podcast, and Tim described walking around Japan for the first time like “being in a fever dream.” Malcolm described it as simply wonderful. When you go to Japan for the first time, you’ll discover what they both mean. Japan is wonderful and interesting on so many levels.
25 years ago I traveled to Japan for the first time. Since then, I’ve been exploring Japan’s language, cultures and customs. Some of my colleagues called me a Japanologist. I think I'm more of a flâneur: A curious, always-learning, always-discovering explorer. But people like labels, so I coined Japaneur. And I decided to start this site. If you're Japan-curious, or if you're preparing for any kind of visit to Japan, this site and the forthcoming podcast are for you.
Japaneur is the quintessential insiders guide to Japan, with an outsiders perspective.
I decided to start Japaneur for four reasons:
First, I’m doing it for myself.
I love Japan. I love it enough to have completed a degree in Japanese language and literature.
When my first son was born a few years ago, I suddenly discovered how little I knew about Japan, even after 20 years of experiences and exposure to the country. My wife, who is Japanese, and I decided to raise our son both bilingual and bicultural. All of the suddent I no longer needed to just understand Japanese, I needed to be able to communicate in ways college could never have prepared me for.
So Japaneur is a journal of sorts. The more I discover about Japan, the more questions I ask myself. It’s incredibly useful to use cultural and linguistic discovery as a mirror for self reflection - or maybe better yet, introspection. Now I have a place to collect and share my thoughts.
My son has surprised me several times with his questions, observations and actions. He literally thinks and dreams in two languages. This isn’t unique - my grandfather spoke eight languages during his childhood in Europe - but only now we’re discovering that bilingual children think and feel differently in both languages. To me, it’s critical that I can keep up with him, because I’m his dad. And that means being able to relate to two cultures that make up his one culture that’s comprised of both.
Consider Japaneur my learning journal.
Second, I want to share what I've learned, and learn from you.
Learning about Japan can at times be frustrating, because most of information available in English is either bipolar or unnecessarily exclusive. I had to spend years getting a degree in Japanese to be able to access more - books, websites, and even situations and conversations not available in English. Across most of Japan, the emphasis on learning and communicating more in English isn’t really working (more on this later).
I’ve met a ton of people, from college students, to parents to really want to know Japan better. Consider Japaneur my attempt to make Japan more accessible to a global audience of people like me.
I also hope to meet and learn from more fellow Japaneurs. Each one of us must have so many experiences that, collectively, can help each of us better connect the dots as we learn more about Japan.
Third, Japan matters to the United States and the world.
Japan is the home of core cultural and business concepts that have already radically changed the world, and could make it even better. That iPhone in your pocket is only possible because Steve Jobs vision was made a reality through manufacturing and distribution techniques that originated in Japan. From Tesla to Porsche to Hyundai, nearly all the processes that made their quality possible originated in Japan.
And what about the cultural concepts of beauty, politeness and honesty that permeate Japanese society? The Japanese concept of space and waste could, if adopted by the west, radically shift our progress in conservation and preservation of our environment.
While certainly not absolute, honesty is a core value in Japan. In Japan, a credit card chargeback hits the bank, not the business. A business will not be a customer of that bank for long with a pattern of chargebacks. But this is the same country where credit cards are not needed to make a reservation. To make a reservation is to make a promise. I remember a monk running down 15 flights of stairs to return ¥200 (about two dollars) to a visitor that received incorrect change at a temple for a purchase. How much better would our lives be if everyone’s actions were so oriented toward social harmony and cooperation? Just imagine if Americans could take their extreme individualism and balance it with thoughtfulness expressed for the sake of others.
Read the Japan Times for just a few days and you’ll realize that Japan is in trouble. Its economy continues to erode despite all the plans and promises by its current Prime Minister. The last world-changing technology revolution didn’t originate in Japan, it started in Silicon Valley. Japan’s population is in rapid decline, with a negative birth rate. More and more of Japan’s population is elderly, with less and less young workers contributing to the tax system designed to care for the aged. And Japan doesn’t treat its own women equally, nor foreigners, both of which are key demographics for adding to the workforce in other countries. Japan’s in a pickle.
And we are too. Clyde Prestowitz explains why in the last chapter of his 2015 book Japan Restored. He summarizes why Japan failing is potentially disastrous to world peace and our global economy:
It is greatly in the interest of the United States to have a robust, democratic, militarily strong Japan that has made its peace with World War II, that conducts its own peace-oriented foreign policy, and that is willing to contract mutual security arrangements both with some of its key immediate neighbors and with the United States, as well as others such as Australia and India. Such a Japan would greatly lessen the geopolitical burden of the United States while also strengthening democratic forces globally and contributing to worldwide economic growth. The rest of the world, and especially the United States, has a huge stake in having this kind of Japan restored.
Most of us alive have experienced a world where the United States, a country in which its safe to challenge the establishment, is the greatest world power. Japan is arguably the only country in Asia to have demonstrated massive, successful economic growth under a democratic government. Mr. Prestowitz explains that Japan is uniquely capable of furthering peace and prosperity in the world, be building stronger relationships with its neighbors and other major countries committed to freedom and democracy. Of course, the alternative is terrifying.
I want my children to grow up in a world of peace and opportunity, and not in a world of war like the one my grandparents experienced during WWII.
Finally, let's not forget the fun
So far, I've been pretty serious. I didn't and won't forget the fun and strange.
In what other country can you find an 18 meter tall (54') 50-ton robot statue at a park? Where Kentucky Fried Chicken is a Christmas tradition? Or a ghost (hoji-hoji) that compels nose-picking? An island full of cats? High-tech toilets with fuzzy logic processors?
What better place to capture and share all the cool and interesting things Japaneurs discover around almost any corner in Japan?
There’s so much to cover, discuss and write about. So as the greatest American travel writer Harry Franck would say, the only think to do is apply the seat of my pants to the seat of my chair and start writing.
If you’re interested in Japan, stay tuned by joining my email list here, following @japaneur on twitter, and subscribing to the podcast once it goes up. Please let me know your feedback, thoughts, ideas and questions.
I’m certain we’ll learn from each other, and learn together. And the awareness we create could just help make the world a better place.