Harajuku - the birthplace of all lies about Japan

The devastating tsunami and earthquake happened exactly a year ago today, so I do expect a lot of Japan-talk everywhere within the next week or so.

When I meet and do the usual traveller talk with younger travellers (read: people under 25), and Japanophiles of any age who have never set foot in the country, the most interesting thing about me seems to be the fact that I've spent time in Japan. The media is doing very well in painting a picture of a fabulous Japan that is full of anime, cosplay, naughty girls and sushi.

While all of this exists in Japan, and while I love the country and its culture, food, language and people dearly, I keep getting tired of telling people the same thing over and over.

Here are the top ten myths – busted. 

1. It's not the paradise of anime/manga  

Sorry to let you down, Mr Anime Otaku. While anime and manga are more visible in Japan on TV and cinemas, in bookshops and at newsagents, the stories you read of how everybody reads manga in the subway on their way to work are lies. In a crowded subway, maybe two people will read one, and chances are, both of them are kids. They are just the cartoons of Japan and have a similar role in society. The fact that manga-characters are often used on signs and such has a whole different, more sociologically complex background. Adults (read: anybody who has finished high school) who are into anime/manga are awkward geeks here, too.
2. It's not a wonderland for unique fashion
  1. big hair, big shoes opposite H&M - the most alternative kids of Osaka
    Au contraire, Ms Gothic Lolita, Japan is the country of peer pressure. On the streets and trains, you will notice most people wearing neutral colours – white, cream colours, grey and black. The first thing I noticed when I fell out of Heathrow into the London tube after my first Japan stint was how colourful the people were dressed. Now, London is particularly colourful, but even my tiny hometown in Germany is more adventurous than people in Japan – and that's the cities. Wear a red jumper in the countryside and people will talk about you for years.

    Visual Kei happened almost 30 years ago, the same applies for most fashion styles that Japanophiles love to copy these days (this post has nice descriptions), and even then, only high school kids hang out like this, in one or two meeting points in Tokyo, on the weekend, and change their clothes in the subway toilet on their way home, because their parents would be terrified. Also: don't show any hint of boob in Japan. Ever.

    3. Not all Japanese food is healthy.
good old Japanese kebab
And it's not all sushi, either. Mr Donut is more popular in Japan than in the US, and most “modern” Japanese food – while Japanese – is either deep fried or full of sodium and/or sugar. There are dozens of fast food chains that are unique to Japan (or Asia, as they've expanded). Traditional Japanese food is very healthy and delicious, but it's the kind of food only grandmothers or over archieving stay-at-home mums cook. Most people eat things like burgers with demi glace sauce, fatty fried noodles, spaghetti aglio olio and deep fried prawns and pork cutlets on a daily base. With an egg on top and nutrition-free white rice. Starbucks and the likes are very popular, too – and with vending machines every 2 metres, even I, a fierce hater of pop, couldn't resist drinking way too many of my calories.
fried tofu, salty broth, luminous drink

4. Japanese people are all kind and friendly.

Well, in general, they are, as most Asians. It's called saving face, and Japanese people will do anything to help you. Or pretend to help you when they don't know how (as in, telling you any directions even though they have no clue where you are going, instead of having to admit they don't know). On top of that, it's a country where empty flattery is considered polite. Don't dream that they really think that you look like a film star, or that your Japanese is great.

Read up a bit on Japan's history of the first half of the twentieth century to find out how Japanese people can be un-nice, or just talk to any Korean.

5. It's not expensive.

Let's finish on a positive note! Well, Japan is the most expensive country in Asia (though China seems to be catching up rapidly), but prices seem to be at about the same level as countries in Eastern Europe – which is lots cheaper than anywhere in Western Europe, the US or Australia. This doesn't apply to Tokyo and Kyoto, which are insanely expensive, and the two places that most tourists limit themselves to – obviously that would give you the impression that it's an expensive country.

To be continued... myths number 6 – 10 are following tomorrow!

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