Why is Japan's culture so often perceived as weird?
That is a question I was just asked on quora. I thought the choice of the word weird was interesting, so I wanted to dive in a little deeper.
Compared to the rest of the world, Japan’s culture is fascinating.
So much about it stands out from the rest of the world. I wouldn’t use the word weird. If you do, just look a little deeper, and you’ll find another word. I guarantee it. Let me explain.
I think a little background and context on me helps frame my perspective as a Japanese insider who lives day by day with an outsider perspective:
I’m from California, an entrepreneur and technologist. I grew up in a household that spoke 12 languages (none of them Japanese) and I was raised mostly by my grandparents, Transylvanian jews that left Europe after the holocaust. Talk about weird.
In answering this question, there’s no point in talking about Japan’s history. I think the history of Japan is interesting and really helps one begin to understand the culture more, but what’s more interesting is the current state of the country.
Japan is a happy marriage of wa 和 (Japanese style) and yo 洋 (Western style)
From one of my current blog posts, I wrote: Japan is a completely modernized, 21st century consumer society wrapped around several hundred years of history, tradition and social structure that make it one of the most interesting places on the planet. When most outsiders might think of Japan, it's just as easy to picture more traditional cultural symbols like Sumo, Samurai, Mt. Fuji, temples and Geisha as it is modern icons like bullet trains, businessmen armed with briefcases, robots and anime. And that's only on the pop culture surface:
Japan is a wonderful blend of wa(Japanese) and yo (western) cultures, cuisines, technologies, languages and lifestyles.
Right after I write this, I can go to an Aikido dojo or a completely bilingual Crossfit box. For lunch I can enjoy any cuisine from any culture you can imagine, from my local organic choices I find from the local farmer's market to Indian curry to Italianto sushi or even a quick bite of kushiyaki at a standing-only bar in one of the local cities. I can go from snowboarding on top of Mt. Rokko straight to my favorite ryokan (link to Takitoritei Maruyama in Kobe) to take in the air and hot springs in a rotenburo. Sake or single-malt scotch? Green tea or a venti soy latte? Sumo or baseball? Futon or bed? Jeans and t-shirt or yukata or kimono?
Go a little deeper, and weird becomes amazing
One of my favorite examples of this is a 20 meter tall (that’s 59 feet for my American friends) steel statue of Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s 1956 manga (cartoon) robot “Tetsujin 28-go” in Kobe’s Wakamatsu park in Shin-Nagata. Hang out there and you’ll hear foreigners talking about out, some saying “man, this is so weird” but those comments are 1%. The 99% are saying “man, this is so cool”.
The popular comic has been adapted around the world. In the story, the Tetsujin 28 robot was created built to be a militarized superweapon, but when its creator died the robot becomes a companion and friend to the maker’s young son, and they together start battling crime and other robots created to destroy. Tetsujin 28 is a symbol of hope. The city of Kobe, my home town, decided to create this massive statue and dedicate it on the 15th anniversary of the great 1995 Hanshin quake, 7.3 magnitude that destroyed much of Kobe and killed over 6400 people in Kobe and neighboring cities in Hyogo prefecture. The robot statue also commemorates the strength and resilience of the people who survived and rebuilt.
There’s a practical reason for the robot statue as well. It attracts people to visit. And it’s really awesome. I first saw it about year after the dedication. The picture attached is me standing underneath it. It’s pretty awe-inspiring. And it was so fun to listen to the kids at the park right there art the feet of the robot. They’re proud of their neighborhood and they look up to what the statue represents: A symbolic guardian, a friend, and a peacekeeper.
Japan is a country and culture of passion and craftsmanship
It’s easy to mistake passion for weird. Elon Musk is often called weird, but he’s just dead set on changing the world. Richard Branson was called weird countless times. Steve Jobs was called weird until he hit a tipping point of cool for changing the world. Japan was Mr. Dyson’s first market, working for Japanese companies before taking off on his own. It’s interesting when you discover that these world-changing guys dig Japan and find the country and its people inspiring.
What I find amazing about Japan on a day to day basis is the intense passion and craftsmanship I find in almost everything, from the eye clinic that I went to a few days ago to my favorite Japanese ryokan and hot spring in Arima, to the draft beer I ordered for my brother and I at the Tokyo Westin, which was promptly delivered and poured at the door of my hotel room. Seriously. Call that weird if you like, but I think it’s massively cool.
There are countless times in Japan when I’ve thought “why didn’t I think of that?” Maybe more people should come to Japan for creative and entrepreneurial inspiration. I think Kobe is a great place to start. It’s arguably the most progressive city in all of Japan, and filled with creative, passionate professionals and their families.
Japan is a safe and fun mystery box for foreigners
Every single person I know or have met thinks of Japan as this sort of mystery box, a strange, fascinating and interesting place that’s simultaneously safe, approachable and welcoming. There is a lot of mystery with other countries as well, and romance too, but where else in the world can you go where the reputation for safety and fun that precedes it?
I moved to Japan from California with my wife and two boys so we could live in Japan and breathe in the culture and language. I’m Japaneur on Japaneur (@japaneur) | Twitter and on Japaneur (@japaneur) • Instagram photos and videos and I write all about Japan culture, travel and life on my Blog.
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