1. “Japanese trains are always on time.”

The statistics you see on extremely punctual trains are usually in reference to the high-speed bullet train — the Shinkansen. It’s almost always on time. But bullet trains only make up a small fraction of trains in Japan. Tickets are expensive and they’re often very long distance, so incentives to be on time are greater. The rest of the train system in Japan, particularly in Tokyo, has a serious congestion problem. In fact, Japanese trains are late all the time…The government finally started tracking these numbers and found that trains in Tokyo on the Chuo-Sobu Line were late an average of 19.1 days a month in 2017 — so most days. Half of these trains were late under ten minutes and the other half 10 minutes – 30 minutes or more. Delays were often due to suicides (they have to clean up the body…)

2. “Japan has a low crime rate”

Japan has practically zero gun homicides and very low homicide rates in general. Sure there’s the deranged lunatic serial killer that lures young girls via Twitter, but it’s pretty rare. But ask any Japanese women if she’s been molested on a train. I dare you. I am willing to bet you that more than half of them will say yes. And the ones that haven’t will tell you about their friends who were. The #Metoo movement has been slow to pick up in Japan and tosatsu along with the train-perverts (chikan) remain big issues. Many of these sexual crimes go unreported. In other words, Japan is safe — but it’s a lot safer for men than it is for women. 

3. “Japanese people are depressed”

Yes, the suicide rate is high — but it doesn’t mean that the average Japanese person isn’t happy. It just means that on the extremes, for various reasons, we see more suicides. In a 2016 study researchers found a small statistical significance between a certain gene polymorphism common to Japanese people that correlated high stress work environments and the fear of losing jobs with greater risk of depression. A small correlation. But feeling trapped, a crappy boss and a host of societal pressures are enough to send anyone into at least a mild state of depression. It’s not unique to Japanese people. It’s just that maybe there are more crappy jobs in Japan.

4. “Japanese food is great”

I do love me some unagi, maki negitoro, corn pizza, melon pan and hello kitty tonkatsu. Also the restaurant Ryo in Odawara is amazing (I recommend dinner over lunch). But a look at the top Michelin star restaurants in Japan for 2018 reveals that they are…mostly not serving Japanese food. More than half of them are French and Italian and Chinese cuisine. In other words, some of the best food in Japan is not Japanese! It ain’t all about the fish eggs and pork ramen my friends. One of the best burgers I’ve had was in Ebisu @ Gotham Grill. 

5. “Japan is clean”

People are taught to recycle from a young age. In fact, you have to recycle your trash…it’s mandatory or else your landlord will disown you. Public trashcans were removed from cities after the sarin attacks in Tokyo in the 90’s as a safety precaution, and people have learned to take their trash home with them. Sure, the streets are clean, but is all of this recycling doing any good? Of course it is, but that doesn’t mean there still isn’t an incredible amount of waste. 

Environmental awareness is pretty low. Japanese people waste 6.2 million TONS of perfectly edible food each year — and that’s a conservative estimate. That’s enough food to feed everyone in Haiti and Honduras for an entire year. Japan’s standards for freshness are some of the highest in the world, so produce is often thrown away after one day on the shelves. Prime Minister Abe also declined to sign an agreement to reduce plastic waste in oceans. They’re the only G7 country, apart from the US, that refused to do so (surprise, surprise). Things aren’t getting any better.

6. “Japanese hospitality is great.”

You can’t get into 50% of the hot springs (onsen) in Japan if you have a tattoo. You can’t get into many others if you’re a foreigner…

You can’t modify a food or drink order at a restaurants. The menu is set…ALWAYS… It’s impossible. Muri. They won’t let you warm up a cold salad if it’s supposed to be served cold. “Food safety hazard.” Check in times, check out times and meal times follow a rigid schedules at ryokan. I’m not saying there isn’t merit to this approach. But in the West customer service would be defined as “flexibility to have what the customer wants.” In Japan it’s “we decide what customer service means and push that idea onto customers with zero room for flexibility.”

7. “Japanese students study hard”

Japanese college entrance exams are notoriously difficult. There are “jukus” (cram schools) that prep high school students on university entrance exams. But once you get into college, it’s a breeze. No — it’s a joke. It’s well known among Japanese people that university is your time to have fun. It’s easy to skip most of your classes and graduate.

Lots of companies actually recruit university students their first or second years of university! They pick students at “top universities” knowing very well that they’re going to graduate anyways (since college is for fun), so they race to hand out offer letters, regardless of the students academic results for most of their university years (this is exacerbated by the current labor shortage). 

8. “Japanese people are tech savvy”

It depends on what you mean by tech savvy. This is Tsutaya.

It’s the Japanese equivalent of Blockbuster where you can rent and buy DVDs and CD’s. Surprisingly, it’s still extremely popular in Japan, and there are over one THOUSAND locations around the country. Netflix and streaming services penetration is low. 

In Japan, cash is king. Thousands of restaurants and shops across the country don’t accept credit cards, so you better bring your yen. And here’s one more: Go to any large electronics store like Bic Camera and you’ll find glistening TVs and VR sets…alongside brand new models of Fax Machines and Calculators! In fact, most companies in Japan still use fax machines. The industry is prime for disruption…

Granted, this is all changing (the number of Tsutaya’s are slowly decreasing etc), but Japan is a far cry from the technological utopia that many people imagine.

9. “Japan is dangerous”

Earthquakes, tsunamis, radiation, Godzilla…Japan has had 3 big earthquakes in the past 100 years. There also frequent small earthquakes. I was in a movie the other day and felt a small tremor. Nobody looked surprised and we went back to watching the movie. We’re all so used to it. But anyone that decides not to come to Japan because of earthquakes or natural disasters should rethink the basis of these fears.

That said, infrastructure, earthquake-proof buildings and evacuation procedures have improved drastically over the past two decades. Remember, Japan is a developed country. During the triple disaster earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown in 3/11, roughly 18,000 people died and 2,00 are still missing. It was tragic, but considering the magnitude and aftermath of events, the death tolls were lower than what they would have been if it had occurred in a developing country like Indonesia or Sri Lanka…or Haiti where 200,000 people died in a similar size quake. Keep in mind that Fukushima was one of the largest earthquakes in the past 100 years, in the entire world. One person died from radiation.

In the same year, 30,000 people died from firearm deaths in the US (compared to 1,000 total homicides in Japan…) And 37,000 people died from car accidents in the US…compared to 4,000 in Japan. Even accounting for population differences, these statistics in Japan are low (or the US are just high). My point is that you can compare any number you want and chose what to fear. Japan has its natural disasters. But big ones are rare, the entire country is a lot safer in almost every other way, and people are prepared for natural disasters.

10. “Japan is expensive”

Compared to other mega cities, Japanese real estate prices are lower than London, Paris, New York, LA and San Fran. From a tourists perspective, Japan has an image of being far and exotic, which probably adds to this image. Another reason is, well, because it can be more expensive, if you don’t speak Japanese. A Mckinsey report found that most Western tourists didn’t see Japan as “affordable,” and also uncovered an interesting finding: The average price of Japanese hotels on global booking sites Booking.com or Expedia were 37 percent higher than those available on a Japanese booking site Jalan. So, there’s some arbitrage going on there and prices can be higher. One solution: get a Japanese tour guide or friend to help you book (make a Japanese friend!) Hopefully, as awareness increases and more options open up for foreigners, perceptions of Japan will change. 

Another one. The flights to Japan are cheap as the government is trying to attract tourists and subsidize many flights, especially through Nagoya — $760 round trip from San Francisco. Obviously if you go through a travel agency things might be a bit pricey. But when you actually get here, make a Japanese friend or two, things can pretty affordable, both as a tourist and as a resident!

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. On my mind is Misha, from our Quora involvement, who is a newer friend whom I admire for his articulate and refreshing views, especially these balanced looks at Japan and certain USA comparisons. Boffo! sQs SOFLA Oct 19 2018

  2. I’ve been to Japan a few times and had some of the same realizations you mentioned but you definitely added more new things to them. Thank you!

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