This may come as a shock to some of you, (if your idea of shock is being completely aware of something and not surprised at all) but in my youth before I came to Japan, I had a great love for what I considered to be “all things Japanese”, which was pretty much kanji, Final Fantasy, anime, geisha and Tokyo street fashion. I was what they call a full blown Japanophile — in love with the happy and colourful fantasy land Japan represented to me, so much more exotic and inviting than my boring North American life. In my first year of university I heard about the JET program and I was ecstatic. What!? I thought. There’s a way I can actually live in this paradise?? I was determined to be on the first thing smoking to Japan as soon as I had the required degree in my hand.
But that didn’t happen. Student loans intervened and I got an office job. As I got older my idealized view of Japan focused to something more realistic, and it would be three more years before I finally decided to move to Tokyo, but for very different reasons than I first intended. With age came wisdom and I knew that if I built Japan up into some kind of impossible wonderland it could only disappoint me. So I researched, reading blogs about other people who were already out here, and came here with what I feel was a balanced view of this unique country.
However there was one perception of Japan that never left, and after over a year and a half here it’s actually strengthened: This place is quirky. I mean, there is some stuff going on here that just makes me scratch my head like…”huh?” Some of it is charming, and brings up those old feelings of Japanophileness, but some of it is just like whoa…what? OK, no…no! You know? Let me give you some examples.
Delightful — Kyary Pamyu Pamyu Videos
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is something like the Lady Gaga of Japan, if your brain can even comprehend such craziness. Take Lady Gaga, make her a Japanese teenager and double her wackiness and you have Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Her videos are cute, creative, colourful, surreal and always have some talented dancers.
Disturbing — AKB48 Videos
AKB48 is unfortunately Japan’s latest pop sensation. They are a bunch of young girls — 48 of them I would say if I had to guess, which I do — though only a few appear over and over again to represent the group. Their fan base is primarily preteens and old men. Their most popular video is centred around the ground-breaking theme of spying on a group of girls at slumber party, beginning with watching one as she undresses. The video features lingerie, allusions to porn and orgies, and them doing their own craptacular dances. My adorable little 9 year old students sing along to this video and know all the dance moves. I shudder at the thought that 9 year old girls in Japan look up to this.
Delightful: Hilarious Pranks on TV
The creativity and/or cruelty that go into Japanese pranks make for some of the most hilarious viewing in the world, and they’re the only thing on Japanese TV that I can understand like. Something about watching people scream and run in fear from one of those creepy Japanese women ghosts – you know like the one from The Ring – sets me off.
But the Japanese get crazy with it!
Watch this prank at a ski resort where guys think they’re in for a relaxing naked sit-down in a comfy chair, only to have the chair flip up and dump them through the wall, outside in the snow…naked. How cruel. How unusual. How hilarious.
Disturbing: No Foreigners Allowed
The lack of sensitivity in the above situation also has a dark (darker?) side. It causes Japan, in general, to lag behind in the political-correctness parade, and because of that there are various “no foreigner” establishments sprinkled throughout the country. I haven’t encountered this issue yet, but it’s frustrating to know there are hot springs or bars or anything else where I can’t go, simply because I’m foreign, and not many will have your back if you try to fight it. It’s eerily reminiscent of the “whites only” bathrooms or restaurants or whatever else that existed in the West not so long ago.
Delightful: Perfect Train Service
This is not just some stereotype floating around. The trains here are on time down to the minute. And everyone is so spoiled by the excellent train service that if the train is even 1 minute late we’re tapping our feet and rolling our eyes while we look at the time on our cell phones, the profuse apologies coming from the loud speakers doing nothing to appease us. You can, and I have, set your watch by the trains.
Disturbing: Decoy Porn Newspapers on the train
Every now and then as I’m riding my perfectly on-time train I see a man reading a newspaper and I think, “What an upstanding citizen, catching up on current events.” I might even be nosy and casually turn my head to the side, to see what he’s reading, (never mind that I can barely read Japanese). But sometimes I sincerely wish I had minded my own damn business.
Waaaaitaminute…this is not a regular newspaper aaarrrgh!!
Scattered throughout the unintelligible (to me anyway) Kanji are ads with women, limbs akimbo and as naked as the day they auditioned to be porn stars. Why, my dear man, would you want to read such literature on a crowded train? So you can get a hard-on and everyone can see you’re a perv? Actually, that’s probably exactly why.
So you see? Something about this place is just…special. Sometimes it’s SPECIAL! And sometimes it’s “special”, if yuhknowwhatimean. But take it or leave it, Japan will probably always be one of the most head-scratchingly quirky places on the planet.