Japan is strange, but not for the reasons you might think.

For many, when thinking about what kind of country Japan is, the first thing that usually comes to mind is that it’s not normal or that it may even be one of the craziest places on earth. After all, with all of its fetish shops, wacky cosplayers, and bizarre festivals, how could it be anything but weird? Surprisingly, however, it really isn’t — at least not in the way you might be thinking. Yeah, it has a bunch of really strange things, but what country doesn’t? Take for example the United States, like Japan it has its fair share of odd TV shows and commercials over the years, be it well-known shows like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim or lesser-known and slightly creepy things like this ad for Little Baby’s Ice Cream in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania . When it comes to traditions we’re not much better either. Take for example the President’s yearly pardon of a turkey on Thanksgiving day or the fact that every year, we leave it to a rodent (a groundhog, to be exact) to tell us how much longer winter is going to last.
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It’s not just the US, either. Whether you’re from Denmark or India, we see these things all the time on social media, meme sites, and even on our way to work or school. For some reason, though, we tend to dismiss these things as an occasional oddity, rather than focusing on them and ignoring the normalcy that is far more common. This isn’t to say that there isn’t anything overtly strange that exists here, in Japan, however. There are numerous — maybe even countless — cultural norms and customs which are completely foreign to westerners, and for those who aren’t used to them, they can be more than just confusing, but frustrating as well. Take for example the idea of tatemae; put simply, it is just the idea that one should put on a public face and avoid expressing beliefs or doing things which others may disagree with, in order to maintain harmonious, positive environment. The problem is, however, that for many Japanese people, it can be difficult to balance tatemae and the expression of one’s honne (true feelings). As a result, even when eating at a restaurant, some people may even reiterate, time-and-time again, just how delicious the food is — even if it is only average at best. In actuality, although it isn’t necessarily tatemae, more than a few Japanese people that I have met during my time here overly praise and complement everyone and everything, regardless of whether or not it is actually needed.
As a foreigner, especially one with a higher level of proficiency in Japanese, this will likely become apparent, relatively quickly. You will likely find that even being able to read simple kanji or able to say something like “konnichi wa (good afternoon),” you’ll be met with things like gasps, clapping, and a bunch of people mentioning how amazing you are and how skillful you are with Japanese — although, it’s quite difficult to believe that they are genuinely impressed and makes it difficult to tell when they truly are. Herein lies one of the biggest oddities of Japanese society: the popular misconception that foreigners simply cannot speak Japanese and that Japan is so unique that foreigners (especially westerners) cannot do or understand things in the same way they do. In fact, it isn’t rare to be asked, “Can you eat raw fish?” or have someone exclaim, “Wow! You can eat with chopsticks?!” while dining with them (as a non-Asian foreigner, that is). These questions and statements are so bizarre that it’s difficult to imagine hearing foreigners gasping and shouting out, “No way! You can use a fork?!” or asking, “Can you eat cheeseburgers?” to their Japanese friends.
Nonetheless, this rather odd way of thinking will likely change as more foreigners come to Japan and become proficient with Japanese. As for its other peculiarities, there are literally hundreds of ways in which Japan is strange. Please, feel free to share your stories and let us know how what your experiences are and what you think is strange or not about Japan!
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On Nomunication

Ryugakusei usually come to Japan, well, to study, hence why they are ryugakusei. But in reality, it is difficult to differentiate between education and nomunication. Nomunication is a Japanese cultural quirk that is designed to bring out the inner, real voice or opinion of the drunk Japanese. In a country of tatemae—outward appearances—drinking allows the Japanese to express what they really feel, to show their real, honne, inner character. But I wonder if this is a factor behind Japan’s unique drinking culture, something totally different than that in other countries.

Waseda student practicing a juvenile delinquent cheerleading face

Waseda student practicing a juvenile delinquent cheerleading face

Closely (but sometimes, not so closely) mirroring the structure in a Japanese company, younger students are required to show greater respect to the older ones: the kouhai/senpai system. Some university clubs are, of course, more (or less) strict than others; but generally, members must furiously practice their respective club activity, usually whilst keeping their honne to themselves. After that, it is time for drinking, and so much so, that it isn’t rare to see them passed out on the street near the nearest university train station. Waseda’s notorious tennis club is famous for this kind of hilarious, yet unhealthy behaviour—work hard and play hard I suppose.

Definitely a former Waseda Tennis Club member

Definitely a former Waseda Tennis Club member

This system carries over into the professional lives of the Japanese. The Japanese salaryman, business samurai some say, work overtime every day, and are often required to drink with their bosses to the point of becoming stupidly drunk. But of course, not before working overtime… every day. Like Waseda’s tennis club shenanigans in Takadanobaba Station’s rotary, Japanese salarymen are often found passed out in various business districts. Of course, maintaining a tatemae state is considered crucial for business settings——certainly more than in a university club. And perhaps that is why Japanese salarymen drink conspicuously, more even, than Waseda’s tennis club: to bring out their honne through nomunication—honestly discussing work problems or worries about the state of the company with the boss, is easier when drunk (or so the theory goes).

Salarymen must follow their boss like samurai followed their master

Salarymen must follow their boss like samurai followed their master

Careful observation reveals a long process that begins from a relatively early age: entering a Japanese university, joining a university club, respecting the hierarchy of the university club, getting piss drunk with your university club, graduating, getting a real job, respecting the real job’s working hierarchy, getting piss drunk with your bosses, and so on. In other words, Japanese nomunication.

The result: from salaryman to freeman

The result: from salaryman to freeman