Myths

There are some prominent myths surrounding Japan, most very wrong. I’m not sure why but it always irks me when I see these things spread around the internet. So, indulge me as I take a minute to call them out.

First, and I’ve touched on this before, the myth that Japanese people speak English. This seems to be a myth spread by 3 groups of people: 1) Foreigners who live in Japan (Tokyo), and never leave the city to find out what Japan really is; 2) foreigners who visit Japan (Tokyo) for a week decide they have figured this out; 3) people whose entire knowledge of Japan comes from hearsay (about Tokyo).

I’ve only been to Tokyo a handful of times and spent less than significant time in the city. However, I can say that from what I’ve seen in the touristy areas of the city the shopkeepers and such have some basic English ability. Think of it this way: you work at the airport in Miami, Florida. How long do you think you’d make it before learning at least rudimentary Spanish? With so many English-speakers making their way to Japan (Tokyo) for getaways it only makes sense shopkeepers and the like would know some fundamental English.

Tour guides and other people of course will speak English, however roughly. It’s their job, after all. One should also be careful not to confuse “can greet people in English” with “speak English”. For that matter, it’s prudent to remember understanding a language is always much easier than speaking one. Even you, dear reader, could probably “understand” Mongolian if the person you were talking with used enough gestures and other non-verbal communication.

As far as the myth, Japanese people on the whole have very low to no English ability. I again would use Spanish in America. You can go to many cities near the border of Mexico or in Florida where many people speak varying degrees of Spanish. You will also find Spanish speakers around big cities of America, most prominently L.A. and to some extent N.Y. However, saying that Americans know Spanish is absurd. The majority know how to count to ten and say a few key phrases.

Can we please kill the myth that Japanese people know English? It’s something people have come to believe about the entire country because it’s only somewhat true about Tokyo, and as I’ve said before people seem to think Tokyo is Japan.

Myth #2: Japan is a mysterious place.

This is a common one. It’s probably most common with foreigners who are long-term residents here when discussing their initial and continuing interest in Japan or by Japanophiles itching to get a taste of “mysterious Japan”. My initial inspiration for this post was a rather decent blog on Japan things where the blog writer, who has lived in Japan for a long time, mentions his reasons as being in love with this mysterious country that is Japan.

Japan is not mysterious.

Japan is a country, like any other. Its people have quirks, habits, customs, and shared traits like any other country on earth. The language is notoriously vague, and this manifests itself in the character of the people themselves. However, it’s not mysterious other than just being very difficult for a non-Japanese native to penetrate the unspoken.

There are no mysterious fogs rolling around the low lands and making hidden temples eerily spiritual, as seen in your favorite movie about Japan (ok, there might be occasionally but 1) it’s rare and 2) no one I’ve ever met has seen this). There are some rather bizarre things going on with fashion and style. Mostly in Tokyo. What’s not reported is how most natives themselves consider this stuff bizarre and outlandish. Yes, 50 year old women walk around with Hello Kitty shoes and their cell phones sparkled up like a pre-teen, but this owes much more to the chauvinistic character of the society and the useless feeling many women experience than to any deep mystery about Japanese aesthetic appeal.

Temples aren’t mysterious; they are standard religious fare. The people aren’t mysterious; they are standard people with Japanese traits. The Japanese countryside isn’t mysterious; it’s just a bunch of mountains and trees separated by long stretches of rice fields.

There, now I feel better.

So, if you come to Japan or decide to live here just remember: learn Japanese, you’ll need it; and, after having spent time roaming around the country, if you find it’s a bit more earthly than you imagined it would be that’s because it is just like your home country, with different rules.

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