Japan is widely regarded in the West as a place where futuristic technology meets an incomprehensible culture. When the Japanese rose from the ashes of the 2nd World War and the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they rebounded by building one of the world’s great economies from the ground up. Throughout the 20th century, Japan began to export its greatest technological innovations around the world. They became an automotive and consumer electronics giant, which they remain to be to this day. The exportation of Japanese economic goods was of course accompanied by the exportation of Japanese culture. Historically a very isolated nation, the world began to get its first glimpses into the interior workings of Japanese pop culture through films such as Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and the monster movie classic Godzilla.
The world soon realized that the Japanese had very distinctive tastes and practices compared to citizens in other developed nations. It’s obvious that each culture will have its own unique variations on social etiquette, personal expression, and other unique characteristics, but it’s not so much what Japan wasn’t and more so what it was…and that was weird; an unabashed, unexpected weirdness from one of the most polite and unassuming groups of people on Earth.
Stepping into downtown Tokyo has been compared to landing in a completely alien world, one populated by bright lights and eccentric shops lining the streets. Of course, even though Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area in the world – an absolutely massive attraction on its own – Japan is much, much more than just Tokyo, and the weirdness extends far beyond the capital’s boundaries. These are 15 of the most bizarre quirks, concepts, and places in Japan.
#15 Capsule Hotel
Say you’re tired from a long day’s work, and like a good salaryman – a Japanese term for a dedicated white-collar worker – you want to make sure that you go out and get some drinks in you to relieve some stress. The problem is that you just left the office 4 hours late, and you live an hour away by train. You could maybe make the very last train if you sprint, but that’ll take away from time with sweet, sweet alcohol. Instead, you pop over to the local capsule hotel and reserve a tube to sleep in after some rounds at the bar with your coworkers. The concept of the capsule hotel originates in Japan; a small room fitted with dozens of ‘capsules’ stacked on top of each other. They look almost like extended laundry machines, and people will rent them out for the night to sleep because it’s cheap and easier than going home. Most westerners couldn’t fathom sleeping in a tube, but for some Japanese it is quite literally just another day at the office.
#14 Noodle Slurping
Culinary etiquette varies greatly from culture to culture. In the western world, making any kind of loud noises while eating your food is considered horribly uncouth. In Japan – and many other Asian countries – eating in total silence is equivalent to telling the chef that you’re not impressed. Vocalizing your pleasure with a meal is very important, and none more so than slurping the noodles in your ramen or yakisoba dish. The louder the slurp, the more delicious the meal.
#13 KFC On Christmas Eve
KFC entered Japan in the early 1970s and proved to be a smash hit among a chicken-crazy Japanese populace. The amazing phenomenon of KFC on Christmas Eve is so bizarre and characteristically Japanese that it hurts. Originally, western expats living in Japan would flock to KFC on Christmas Eve, as it was the closest to a traditional holiday meal that was available at the time. The idea quickly caught on with the regular Japanese populace, even though very few people celebrate Christmas, and now KFC meals on Christmas Eve need to be ordered well in advance of the holiday, sometimes up to 2 months, to keep up with the ridiculous demand.
#12 Ganguro (Schoolgirl Blackface)
Ganguro – or as I like to call it, schoolgirl blackface – is a ridiculous and horrifying fashion trend popular among some young Japanese women. Although it reached its peak in the 1990s, elements of ganguro style can still be found among many people living in Japan today, in much the same way the western world still has lost souls dressing in Ed Hardy and styling their hair like boy bands from 1998. Ganguro style involves wearing several layers of dark makeup with brightly dyed hair to make yourself look like a reject from clown school, or in some extreme cases, straight up blackface. There is considerable variation between particular Ganguro styles, and it can even be divided into multiple subcultures within itself, but you’ll never need to worry about that because they’re all equally repulsive.
#11 Soine-ya (Cuddle Café)
I don’t have the stats to prove it, but Japan must be the capital of the world for prostitution that doesn’t end in actual sex. There are all kinds of escorts who offer their time and companionship for money while withholding any kinds of sexual services, something that isn’t nearly as common elsewhere. The epitome of this phenomenon is the Soine-ya, or ‘Cuddle Café’, which is pretty much exactly as it sounds. Single men will pay money for an hour or two to lie in bed and chat with a pretty girl. They can pay extra to stroke the girl’s hair or to caress her softly. Yikes.
#10 Inemuri (Work Naps)
White-collar workers in Japan work harder than most other office workers on Earth, regularly putting in overnight hours and taking on large amounts of stress from a callous and uncaring upper management. As a consequence, tired workers have mastered the art of napping upright in a chair, a practice known as Inemuri that roughly translates to ‘work naps’. Taking a nap on the job is actually a sign that you’ve been working hard, and if your boss catches you dozing off at your desk they’re more likely to smile in approval than wake you up and tell you to get back to work. A desk, subway cars, busses, trains; the salaryman is the master of naps in all their shapes and forms.
#9 Karoshi (Death from Overwork)
The popularity and acceptance of workplace naps in Japan may be because avoiding them has proven to be hazardous to your health. Karoshi – which translates to ‘death from overwork’ – is a Japanese phenomenon where workers are dropping dead at a young age, a victim of the salaryman lifestyle. Long hours, extreme stress, little sleep, excessive drinking and poor nutrition all take their toll over a long enough time frame. The extreme demands placed upon some Japanese workers are accepted with no complaint, but they’re only human. Karoshi only includes natural death and leaves out suicides caused by the same kind of mental stress – the statistics on both combined would surely be staggering.
#8 Sexy Anime Everywhere
You can’t walk a single block in Tokyo without encountering a scantily clad cartoon character selling yoghurt, computers, or advertising a television show. Perhaps because of famously strict decency laws – such as when the government forces Japanese adult films to blur out the genitals of the actors – the familiar practice of getting real scantily clad women made out of flesh to sell your products is uncommon. Instead, advertisers have used the next best thing – sexy anime characters! If you have a strong dislike of the genre, be sure to prepare yourself before a trip to Japan. They’re not just on TV – they’re everywhere.
#7 Vending Machines of the Gods
Japan is the pound-for-pound king of the vending machine. Vending machines are everywhere in Japan, selling everything and anything you can possibly imagine. Although the thought of vending machine food may make us retch, in Japan it’s possible to find a vending machine stocked with decent, freshly cooked food, simply because they take their vending machines very seriously. Some machines sell umbrellas, others sell sex toys, some sell used underpants – everything is fair game in the Japanese vending machine market.
#6 Aokigahara (Suicide Forest)
Aokigahara isn’t a cultural phenomenon like many of the other entries on this list, but rather a physical place. It’s an ancient forest at the base of Mt. Fuji where the trees are so dense that they’ve driven out virtually all wildlife, leaving the area preternaturally silent. Aokigahara has associations with demons and evil spirits in Japanese mythology, which may have contributed to what it’s known as today – the suicide forest. Each year, hundreds of people venture into Aokigahara intending to end their life. Most never return. The government has responded by refusing to publish new statistics on suicides in Aokigahara, and by putting up signs all over the entrance to the forest reminding visitors that their families love them. After San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, Aokigahara is the site of more suicides than anywhere else in the world.
Kancho is half childhood mischief, half sexual assault, and thoroughly Japanese. It’s a common prank played by children, adolescents, and deviant adults in Japan. The person who wants to perform the Kancho will clasp their hands together, leaving their index and middle fingers outstretched as if forming an imaginary gun. They will then sneak up behind their unaware target, scream out ‘KAN-CHOOOOO!!!!’ and attempt to shove their fingers as far up their target’s anus as they can. The presence of pants and underwear mitigates the risk of serious injury, but it’s still an unpleasant experience for the target, to say the least.
#4 Cute Mascots
The world became familiar with Japan’s love affair with cute mascots thanks to the proliferation of the Hello Kitty franchise, but that obsession goes far, far deeper than just some cute cat stickers. Those adorable little animations aren’t just for children’s backpacks and toys. Signs conveying serious, important information often come bundled with a cute lil’ mascot dude to boot; giant marshmallow-like, smiling puffs of smoke warn you about the dangers of tobacco use, and balls of fire dancing around laughing inform passengers what to do in case of a fire on the subway. At the 2014 World Cup, Japan’s official mascot was the Pokémon Pikachu…enough said.
#3 Extreme Politeness
For all their eccentricities, nobody does hospitality and politeness quite like the Japanese. Cries of ‘Arigatou gozaimasu!’ (thank you very much!) ring out all day as people interact with others or squeeze past each other at the office. Lots of informal bowing is common, especially in the food service industry, and even the youngest of children on public transportation will jump up without hesitation to offer their seats to elderly passengers. They may have some outlandish pastimes and ideas about work, but the Japanese are probably more respectful of each other than any other group on earth.
#2 Lolita Complex
On the other hand, there’s also the awkward sexualization and fetishization of young adolescent girls that goes on in some Japanese subcultures – and not subcultures that feel like it’s something they need to hide. Lolicon is a genre of manga and anime that caters to readers who have a fondness for young female characters that have been extremely sexualized. There’s also the matter of Japan’s notorious love affair with schoolgirls and the schoolgirl uniform. All of this, among other things, are reasons that Japan is known for having somewhat of a Lolita complex. While it isn’t something that’s found in mainstream Japanese culture, there is a large enough audience for that kind of content that the people who engage in it don’t feel particularly alienated from society at large.
#1 No Crime
Crime in Japan is practically non-existent, as it’s quite possibly the safest country in the world. The murder rate per 100,000 people is 0.3, the lowest in the industrialized world. The only countries with less murder are Monaco and Lichtenstein, two tiny microstates inhabited by a mostly wealthy elite. On the other hand, Japan is a country of 60 million people that experiences less than 500 murders per year. That is an astounding statistic, and the numbers for other kinds of crime are equally low. It’s partly thanks to the insanely strict Japanese criminal justice system, but mostly due to a cultural predisposition to maintain peace and order. For all their bizarre quirks, the Japanese can at least say they’ve got that whole ‘no crime in our country’ thing going for them.