Tokyo Damage Report

The mother of all Japanthropology posts

Spider webs! Every little place where the threads connect is called a node. And every time you touch one node, it moves the other nodes a little bit. Japanese culture is hard to talk about because it’s like a spider web. You start out trying to think about one specific node but you can’t explain it without talking about other things, which triggers still other nodes, until you’re stuck trying to explain the entire civilization, which is impossible. Making matters even worse is that most of these nodes don’t even have names. Japanese people have no shortage of “cultural code words” like gaman, amae, tatemae, and honne, but let’s be honest, those things are just the tip of the cultural-dysfunction iceberg. Most of their cultural baggage is so deeply buried and omnipresent they can’t even put a name to it. 

Anyway I was out with some gaijin pals and we were having a discussion of street harassment of women here, which, the more I thought about it, the more it spiraled into every aspect of the culture. So I decided, fuck it! Let me try to articulate every damn half-baked idea I ever came up with right here. First let me stress I can’t really comment about the whole country. I’ve never been outside of Tokyo for more than a week.   Second, I’ve always said that the title of every single fucking “explaining Japanese culture” book should be changed to “OK WE DO THAT IN OUR CULTURE TOO, BUT IN JAPAN IT’S DONE SYSTEMATICALLY AND TAKEN TO AN EXTREME.” And that disclaimer applies to this article as well.

So, anyway, the original topic:

On the one hand, it’s normal for scanty-dressed young women to walk past groups of construction workers, and not only do they not harass her, they don’t even stare. Rent-a-cops might, though. But still, I find that remarkable. 

On the other hand, everyone who’s visited here has seen the groups of black-clad douchebags that cluster outside major train stations and harass women like constantly: picking a lone woman out of a crowd and following her as close as possible without touching, whispering at her until she crosses some invisible boundary, then they stop in mid sentence, pivot on their heels and either a) nonchalantly check their keitai, or b) give a shit-eating grin to their friend who is lounging against a nearby concrete embankment.

 I think some of these guys are working for yakuza sex clubs and recruiting new workers is part of their job, but other guys that do it are just regular guys that read too many “how to get girls” websites . . . but honestly I can’t tell which guy is which type. 

So anyway, this contradiction.

 I can’t explain it. It’s like Tokyo has some kind of sexual-harassment caste system, and the Train Station Creeps are the designated harassers for the whole city. They do all the harassment, so the rest of us guys can go about our business more efficiently.


I want to stress that I’m not saying Japanese themselves are contradictory or hypocritical or wrong. I’m saying that when I use western concepts (such as safe for women –vs. – harassment paradise) (or alienated -vs.- communal) (or warm, friendly -vs.- cold and inhospitable) to measure Japan, I get contradictory results. Which seems to indicate that the WESTERN CONCEPTS THEMSELVES are somewhat arbitrary, and the western concepts themselves are full of unspoken assumptions that I MYSELF am making. Which is fascinating but makes my head hurt.

Tokyo women aren’t wimps by any stretch (for example, wearing micro mini skirts in subzero weather), so why do they tolerate being stalked and harassed like that? The answer isn’t that they’re so afraid of the creeps themselves, but they’re afraid of what the OTHER 99% of the crowd would think if they struck back. To understand this, I have to explain the dark-side-of-wa phenomenon.


This is a classic example of what I said in my opening paragraph: just because Japanese made up a word for this phenomenon (wa), just because they are proud of this “unique cultural trait”, doesn’t mean they really understand it. (not to single out Japan: in America we believe so deeply in “the free market” that we don’t realize how we have been trained to use “market reasoning” instead of “moral reasoning” in our everyday lives, which is the subject of a fascinating book called What Money Can’t Buy by Michael Sandel. )

For any culture, the biggest cultural traits are also the biggest cultural blind-spots, because they contain the deepest, un-examined assumptions about life.

Anyway, let me tell you the dark side of Wa which Japanese people obey without consciously realizing it: it means BLAME THE VICTIM. If I punch you full in the face as I leave a train, maybe one guy will try to chase me down and hold me for the cops, but the instinct of most people on the train will be to move away from you, to shun you. Because you were INVOLVED in an INCIDENT that fucked up the HARMONY. And probably you brought it on yourself!

In the same way, if a woman yells at a harasser in a public place, the people around her won’t think, “Finally!”, instead they’ll think, “That girl must be really low-class to be involved in a dispute with such a nasty-looking guy. And so loud!”

Most Japanese would never admit that this victim-blaming is an integral part of their treasured wa, but school bullies, yakuza, and harassers all know it and exploit it consciously. It’s like they found a loophole in a system !  Originally designed to keep harmony, wa winds up being utilized to promote exploitation and intimidation . . . . and the only reason it works is with the UNWITTING COOPERATION OF THE ORDINARY PEOPLE, whose disapproval of people fighting back works to help the bullies and harassers do their work.

When I first came here, what I found so shocking was: “How can he do that so blatantly in such a public place?” but the answer seems to be: he can do that PRECISELY BECAUSE he’s in a public place: he’s harnessing the power of the crowd to intimidate the women. And harmony is preserved! Yay harmony!

Another, related contradiction: it’s totally normal in Tokyo to see women walking home alone late at night. Which, a) good for Japan! And b) this is more evidence for my theory that harassment is more likely to happen in a crowded space.

But despite Tokyo women being safer at night than Western women, Japan is constantly getting in trouble for sex-trafficking and child pornography. Again this contradiction!   Although maybe it can be explained like this: alleyway rapists/muggers are “disorganized crime,” while sex-trafficking is “organized crime,” and the Yakuza have historically helped the police crack down on “disorganized crime” – a quid pro quo which helps the yakuza keep a monopoly on the underworld.


Anyway, if you pull on this dark-side-of-wa node of the spider-web, you can’t help but notice that it’s connected to Japanese attitudes towards work and public space. These harassers are WORKING. It’s their JOB, so it’s ok.

Put it this way: in Tokyo, it’s normal for businesses to hassle pedestrians of both sexes. And I don’t mean hassle like a spice merchant calling out in a bazaar (“Get your spices! Two for one! Best spices in Cairo!”) . One, that sort of call is an invitation to haggle i.e. a two-way street, and two, people come to bazaars specifically to be called to.

But in Japan you can get yelled at wherever. The assumption is that if you’re not in some designated zone (home/school/job) that you’re fair game for being yelled at, loud-speakered-at, and having tons of flags, placards, sandwich boards placed in your way. Just as long as it’s done to get you to buy. If anyone dares disturb you by busking, street performance, or unauthorized political shit, that is just awful and soon you will be protected by the cops from being accidentally entertained, informed, or broken out of your bubble.  


The clear but unspoken message is: public places don’t belong to you, they belong to government and business. And if you don’t like being yelled at, better hurry along faster!

There's something very distinct but hard-to-put-into-words about the  Japanese attitude toward public space – they view it as something to be tuned out and rushed through, rather than as something to be occupied or enjoyed or hung out in. When you’re at home or work/school, you can relax your mental bubble, because the group bubble takes over. But when you go out in public you have to – like Sue Storm the Invisible Woman – constantly concentrate to maintain your force field, and it takes a certain psychic toll. Not enough to make you pass out (like when Sue had to make a force field around the whole island of Manhattan after it got kidnapped by Galactus), but enough to make you hurry a bit faster and hunch your shoulders a bit more than people in other cultures.

And of course, the famous hikikomori are simply people who for whatever reason are unable to make any bubble at all.

Put another way, remember that scene in Boyz N Tha Hood where O-Dog is followed around the corner store every step by the Korean lady saying “Buy or get out!” (wait, that scene was from Don’t Be A Menace II South Central When You’re Drinking Your Juice In Tha Hood, which was the parody of Boyz N Tha Hood, but you get the idea). Well,  multiply that scene by oh I don’t know. . . multiply it by EVERY SIDEWALK IN THE CITY.

Put another way: you know what the Citizens United supreme court decision did for political ads in the USA? Imagine that, but applied to walking in public. Either way there is a loss of “the commons.” 

This is hard for foreigners to grasp, since the sidewalks seem so self-evidently common ground, and people are walking on them just like in any Western city. But it helps explain why there are no drinking fountains, parks with green grass, trash cans, street performances, or people sitting down eating in public.

(see my rant on the subject here)


Even in festivals, which emphasize traditional culture, pride in same, and help make everyone feel that they have something in common . . . people don’t talk to strangers. Even if they all put on the same yutaka and clogs. They turn up in great enthusiastic numbers, and all walk in one direction through a gauntlet of souvenir  stands, not talking or even looking at anyone but the pals they came with.

The whole physical layout of festivals is designed to minimize interactions between groups, and maximize people’s exposure to the street vendors: the celebrants are herded down a one-way gauntlet with vendors on both sides, and everyone basically faces one way (i.e. they are not facing each other), and anyone who DOES somehow stop to chat is guilty of holding up the people behind them. 

And this pattern repeats at all festivals, no matter what custom/ritual/religious thing that the festival is supposed to be about. Half the time, if you ask someone what the festival even means, they’ll look at you like you’re out of your mind for even wondering. Frankly I’m willing to bet that most of these festival “traditions” were invented by the street vendors. 

But if Tokyo people don’t feel entitled to use public space like they own it, then how DO they cope with leaving the house? Again, we’re stuck in the spider web: in order to properly explain the node called “public space doesn’t belong to you” node, you have to follow the thread to the next node over . . . the phenomenon of the PERSONAL BUBBLE.


The Bubble – although it relates to the street harassment described above, it's not a gender thing. It's not a young-person thing. (in fact, the first people in Tokyo I saw who really got their bubble on were old guys with the surgical masks, oldschool walkman headphones, nautical caps pulled down low, and mini TVs playing horse-races held right in front of their blackout sunglasses). The Personal Bubble is how Japanese people are able to navigate through public space: they carry their privacy with them. Which, like I said in the beginning: “OK WE DO THAT IN OUR CULTURE TOO, BUT IN JAPAN IT’S DONE SYSTEMATICALLY AND TAKEN TO AN EXTREME.”

Most countries have “personal space” that strangers aren’t supposed to step into. Japan has developed “personal universes.” This goes against the western stereotype of Japanese people being very group oriented, consensus-decision-making folks. That’s true but with a contradiction: take them out of the group and they become the most alienated people on earth. 

I’m going to quote from a rant I posted back in 2005,

“An only-in-Japan phenomenon: the Girls Doing Makeup On The Train. Or the male counterpart, Guys Reading Porn On The Train. Or Kids Wearing Animal Costumes In Public And No One Even Looks At Them. All this, though superficially very modern, is part of the ancient tradition of Being In Your Own Little Fucking World.

And for this, I blame Earthquakes.

See, as people more scholarly than me have noted, Japan has lots of them. Earthquakes. And because of this, in medieval times, they discovered this : HOUSES FALL DOWN. What do you want falling on your skinny ass? A rock wall or a paper wall? Not exactly rocket science. So for safety, houses was all made with paper walls. The side effect of this, though, is you could pretty much hear EVERY FART from the next room. To say nothing of sex noises. Now, at that point, society as a whole was confronted with an Important Issue; in the name of Quality Sleepy Time, do we impose a total ban on farting and fucking? People who tried that, soon found out that everyone in the whole apartment would get stabby really fast. So they went with the other solution : Pretend You Didn’t Hear It. Again, not exactly rocket science. Even if it is like your brother screwing your boss’s wife, you gotta pretend you did not hear it.

And this is what led to the modern day custom of Being In Your Own Little Fucking World. Because as life expectancy improved and technology allowed totally huge cities to be built, shit got more crowded. As shit became unbearably more crowded, people started taking this Pretend You Didn’t Hear It Rule out of the bedrooms and into the streets. And city officials were like, “Great! People are so fucking docile, we do not have to make public parks or places where people can have actual privacy! Nothing but profitable real estate, woohoo!” and it became a DIFFERENT vicious circle. Unlike other major countries, there is no place in Japan’s big cities to Take A Break. If you need to relax and have some private time, there is no fucking infrastructure. So people do their private thing out in the trains, or on the sidewalk.”

This explains how people deal with the crowds by NOT LOOKING AT PEOPLE AROUND THEM. But they don’t collide because they walk REEALLLYY SLLOWWWW.  So in one sense, they’re all cooperating, a philosophy proudly expressed to me by a taxi-driver as 少しズツ (sukoshi zutsu)。 In other words, “little by little.”


What blows my mind about this is that the crowds in Tokyo are all playing by the rules, and what’s more, those rules stress cooperation. Which in theory sounds like everyone’s on the same team, it sounds in theory like everyone’s all pals. But at the same time they’re all totally alienated, furtive and exposed, and deliberately tuning each other out. Which is the opposite of what you’d expect. Then again you get your more shovey-shovey, jump-the-queue-type societies like NYC or Germany, where people are very selfish or individualistic, but on the other hand they have to look at and engage with each other (if only to determine who to shove) way more than the all-on-the-same-team Japanese. Weird!

And you can’t discuss the bubble re: fashion without getting into this OTHER node on the spiderweb:


I bought the things and now I am that person, even if I don’t look like that person or walk or have the attitude of that person, or do the things which I admire that person for having done.

Like you know how people make fun of spectators at a game . . .they BUY the tickets, they BUY the official sports team shirts and then sit on their ass while the actual players win the game, then the fans jump up and down yelling “WE won!” Lots of people comment on the absurdity of this, but as usual Japan takes things a step further: not just sports, but ALL hobbies or subcultures can now be consumed purely as a spectator. For example, if you’re “into” bass fishing, you read all the magazines, can comment in detail on internet forums about the exact specifications of lures which you’ve memorized. . . but you don’t ever fish. Too much overtime. Or if you are “into” skateboarding, you buy all the magazines and skate-company t-shirts, but you have never ridden an actual board. 

The “subculture uniforms” or “fashion uniforms” work the exact opposite of work uniforms, which mean I DO THE THING ALL DAY. And the rules are also the opposite of most western fashion, where you’re looked at as a poser or a failure if you buy the thing but don’t lead that life.

Put another way: in the west if you cop a certain look you want attention. In Japan you have the courage to cop a certain look only because you assume people WON’T pay attention. 

(assuming that you haven’t really had the experiences or lived the life of the persona you’re dressing up as. Real punks or gangsters or hookers or whatever is a different story. They make eye contact, they have a certain walk, they have an attitude which corresponds to the fashion).


The "buy the outfit as a substitute for actually living that lifestyle" phenomenon maybe explains  the lack of judgement re: silly walks.   Seriously, haven’t you wondered about those? I don’t just mean the crazy pigeon-toed, super-pronated walk of certain young women. I mean how like 90% of women have walks that don’t remotely match their outfits. Like the femme fatale boots with the matching fishnets and Beyonce hair and giant sunglasses. . . but she walks with her shoulders all forwards and her feet clump clump clump like a zombie horse. Or sexy dressed women but they walk with a tight ass or walk like a middle aged man. Especially in a very competitive and fashion-crazed city like Tokyo, where every inch of womens’ bodies is scrutinized and judged, the total lack of judgement of walks is even more amazing. I guess they haven’t found out a way to merchandise it yet. But anyway, I think the reason is: You have to actually have led such-and-such a lifestyle in order to stride in such-and-such a way.ditto attitude. And buying the things substitutes for having led that kind of life.

It also explains why cosplay people not being expected to stay “in character”


On the bad side, sure, people are treated as interchangeable parts. But the fluffy warm blanket on this particular Procrustean bed  is that you can expect the same exact polite treatment wherever you go, regardless of if you’re a 90 year old, a young biker thug, a club kid, or a salariman. 

Put another way: in the west, if you cop an attitude or outfit, you want people to treat you a certain way. If you’re dressed sexy, but the guy who hands you your whopper with fries doesn’t blush or stammer when he makes change, you realize you’re not that sexy. If you’re dressed in your leather and spikes but nobody is scared of you, and old ladies ask you for directions, you know you’re not tough. 

But in Japan, it’s the opposite: because of the whole all-Japanese-are-peas-in-a-pod mentality, you expect to be treated exactly like the salariman next to you.  People dressed as (jimmy page / beyonce / 50 cent / club kid/ whoever) don’t have to convince those around them to respond to them as if they’re cool or sexy or famous or scary. Which is very egalitarian, but it does sort of “lower the bar” and make it easy to pretend to yourself. For example, If you have an awkward pigeon-toed walk and stuff 4 socks into your bra and wear a red wig, people won’t treat you like you’re the Black Widow.   But in Japan, because of the Bubble effect, you never had any expectation that people will treat you like your costume. So you can push your self-deception to record levels. 

 This phenomenon is what makes BUY THE THING AS A SUBSTITUTE FOR LEADING THAT LIFESTYLE phenomenon possible. Since the point is not to convince strangers that you are hot / cool / famous / scary, all you have to do is buy the thing and wear it, and pretend to YOURSELF. Which is much easier to do. So people here can take their delusional fashions way farther. Safe in your bubble!

I’m not saying that Japanese never judge a person whose outward fashion is clearly out of step with who they are. There’s a whole slew of expressions to make fun of these people. For example,   気取り屋 (kidoriya)、イッタイ人 (ittai hito) , and  はったり (hattari) are all great terms to belittle pretentious people, self-deluding people, and posers, respectively.

I’m just saying it’s really bad form for them to ever express that to the person directly.  


The bubble also explains why Japanese are the most cell-phone obsessed people, and why it became popular here before other advanced countries.

Basically having a keitai just gave Japanese people a good excuse for the bubbles in which they’d been living all along. The main point of keitai is to reduce the cognitive dissonance required to ignore the 20 people pressed into you on the train: “I’m not staring directly at the armpit of some stranger for half an hour. Actually I’m . . .I’m having a fun conversation with my friends by text! I’m looking at a small plastic rectangle which happens to be in a stranger’s armpit!” . The actual communications technology of keitai is a plus, but hardly essential. Honestly some enterprising tycoon could have just started selling 5” blocks of black-painted balsa wood with buttons glued on, just as a “bubble placebo.”


It might sound like I’m making fun of Tokyo people, or ridiculing the bubble. But here’s the good thing: the bubble leads to people’s fashion getting a little out of control.

Since no one makes eye contact, since even NORMAL folks drag their own little worlds with them, then it’s comparatively easy to get really goofy with your fashions: you’re in your own little world . . . . but unlike everyone else on the train, you’re dressed in the native garb.   The self-deception on display is wonderful to behold.

Which explains how women can dress in a “How am I NOT a prostitute in this outfit?” way. (the actual street-walkers are 50 year old Taiwan ladies in gray bubble-goose coats, which is a whole other contradiction).

And it explains  the clearly-office-job-having short-hair middle-aged men on the trains every weekend with their bizarre Jim Morrison getups . . . these totally thought-out, accessorized, historical rockstar outfits, but with the walk and attitude of Dilbert still in effect.

And then the best are the people where you can’t even guess what the fuck they are going for. You have no idea what they see when they look in the mirror.


A Japanese guy once told me that Tokyo women were 武装してる (busou shiteru)。 Meaning, they were “armed” with clothing. That blew my mind! Lately though I’ve come to the conclusion that the extreme fashion – even though it seems confrontational or stand-out-in-a-crowd-y – it’s more of a defensive thing. People use the clothes to compensate for perceived deficiencies. They use them like rags stuffed into old wounds to staunch the spurt of bloooooooood. The middle-aged Dilbert in his weekend Morrison costume knows full well that he is not passing for Morrison. The chubby working-class girl in her overdone Princess costume knows perfectly well she is not passing for a Royal supermodel. By dressing exaggeratedly, by armoring their weak point, they are just trying to bring the weak point up to an average person level, so they can feel confident enough to just leave the house. So the clothes actually have the OPPOSITE meaning than you’d think. . . Like how Seventeen Magazine is actually for 12 year olds. Or how Muscle Bodybuilder Macho magazine is for 90 pound weaklings.

In other words, maybe fashion victims are not dressing like that because they’re in some dream-world and totally unaware people are judging them, maybe they dress like that because of the opposite reason: because they’re way too self-conscious of people’s judgements and need some sort of armor against it.

Wanting to disappear into your clothing. Never mind my homley face or my chubby body or short legs or receding hairline. Look at what I bought. It’s what inside that counts, and inside me is a wallet that opened up for this particular uniform.   In a way it’s kind of like the internet, where nerds can pretend to be martial-arts tough guys and tough guys can pretend to be horny MILFs and etc. Because you’re not visible to the other people on the net, and they can’t ask you to do the thing to prove you’re that person. But in Japan, the social isolation substitutes for the physical isolation of the net, but the result is the same: you’re in a bubble, and no one expects your average everyday life to live up to your persona, so you’re free to re-invent yourself in various idiotic ways.

see also:


  Not to single out women –judging from the amount of guys with Lolita complexes here, apparently neither can men. This attitude towards fashion (“Isn’t my thigh boots and micro skirt so CUTE?”) is part of a more general idea that females should act naive, girlish, and doll-like well into their late 30s attitude. Retarded development is what im saying. You’re issued a cute little girl outfit at age 5, and you’re encouraged to keep it on until way into your teens. You’re never issued a “woman” outfit to change into (not cute! Old! Eww!) . As you enter adolescence and sexual desire, you’re just expected to keep shortening the hem and deepening the neckline on your little-girl outfit to keep pace. Yikes!

 If you want to see how scary that is imagine if that attitude was applied to a man. That’s right:  he turns into Michael Jackson. Imagine a country where it was normal for all boys to develop that way.

And you can’t talk about how women’s junk is kept back in little-girl mode without also explaining how ALL children’s development is retarded in general.


I don’t mean retarded like down’s syndrome. I mean like there are certain traits which grown-ass adults are supposed to possess in, well, pretty much every other country:
Being active, not passive
Making one’s own goals
Standing up for one’s self
Making friends outside of the people that work or study next to you
Being able to evaluate arguments based on logic rather than “is it my friend saying this or someone I don’t know?”

And in Japan these grown-up traits are suppressed or delayed or stomped out. Since kids are kept from developing adult parts of their brain, I think it’s not 100% racist to say that their development is retarded by society. That’s what I mean. Sure, all countries have certain taboos, but usually those involve certain actions (robbery, assault) or politics (saying mean things about El Commandante’s mother).   Any half-assed dictatorship can get POLITICALLY repressive but Japan attacks the fucking brain development.
I know that sounds harsh or borderline KKK, so let me back that thing up (!)
1) when it comes to being able to evaluate arguments based on logic rather than relationships, America is trying real hard to be even more retarded than Japan. We’re racing backwards on that one.
2) in other ways, Japanese kids are way MORE adult than their gaijin counterparts. They do paramilitary exercises in PE class, they get to wear little suits and ties, and have to work over 12 hour days like their daddies.  Wait, that makes it sound even worse. BUT IT’S FUCKING TRUE B. Even Cotton Mather would be like, “Lighten up dudes. Just kick back a notch!” and then he’d pull out this huge blunt and be like, “Now who wants to get blazed with the C?!?!?”


Finally, let’s go back to about 5 nodes or so, to the phenomenon of THERE’S NO EXPECTATION THAT YOU’LL BE TREATED LIKE YOUR COSTUME.  That particular node has so many connections I saved it for last. If you’ll remember, the reason there’s no such expectation is that everyone (thugs, punks, gals, vice-presidents of marketing,  you name it) is supposed to be treated equally. But us foreigners find the Japanese version of “equal” very confusing, because their version contradicts many of the illogical and arbitrary and unspoken assumptions buried in our OWN concept of “equal”. Some common contradictions noted by newbie gaijin are:


Explaining these seeming contradictions is pretty much taxing my brain to its limit, so let me back up again and dish out some basic context stuff before we get into the crazy:

Japanese people are proud of their culture – not just that it’s the best culture (everyone thinks that about their own culture (except Canadians, bless your humble souls!)) , but more specifically that they’re connected by their culture in a much more fundamental, telepathic-mind-meld way, compared to other countries. At a café, I overheard some lady at the next table telling her friends (in loud Japanese) how “We understand all the linguistic nuances and unwritten rules of our land in a way foreigners can’t. Frankly even some nuances are hard for us!”   Keep in mind she’s not saying “we identify with or know the nuances of our particular in-group (co-workers or students in the same school club, etc.) She was saying there was a strong connection to ALL other Japanese. I’d agree with that, but as with wa, there’s a dark side that Japanese all perpetrate, without acknowledging it. For instance, one of the things that strikes us gaijin when we first come here is how COLD the Japanese are to each other. Not US, but each other.  This seeming contradiction might be explained just by “ingroup-outgroup dynamics” and by “keeping harmony by not puncturing a stranger’s bubble”, but I’m convinced there is something more at work here.

To us it seems like, yo, if you’re all on the same page, on the same team, why don’t you talk to strangers? If you’re all such peas in a fucking pod? What’s the point of “knowing all the cultural nuances and rules” if you’re still terrified of offending people all the time? The point being, only a foreigner would think that having a strong cultural bond with a stranger means you care about them or would look at them or talk to them ever. Ha! Crazy gaijin! So if that’s not what the peas-in-a-pod group-oriented deal means, what DOES it mean?
The clearest example I can think of this contradiction-between-super-polite-and-super-cold-hearted is this:
You can go to the same restaurant – not even a chain, it could be family-owned – for a year and the owner still won’t say anything except for the same very formal polite ritual greetings. No small talk, no “How’s the wife and kids?” , no nothing. The only reason I can think of is JEALOUSY. If the owner talks to you about personal stuff, then all the other patrons will get jealous: “Why is the owner playing favorites? I’m not coming back to this bullshit place. I didn’t come here to be snubbed!” 
So what seems like coldness is an effort to treat everyone exactly equal. Which is also a kind of contradiction: in the west we are taught equality is freedom and rights to do whatever you individually want. So when we see a form of “equality” in which no one is doing what they want, we’re confused. Even though it’s our own sort of illogical cultural assumptions about “equality” that make Japan SEEM contradictory.  In Japan, “equality” means treating people as interchangeable parts. 
The idea is that treating everyone equal means not making exceptions (thus the famous Japanese inflexibility, another thing that reads as “cold” to foreigners). If you have an allergy to the appetizer and want the restaurant to serve you a different one than all your co-workers at the after-work banquet, that is seen as “I’M SO SPECIAL I GET SPECIAL TREATMENT BECAUSE I AM BETTER THAN YOU.” 

Put it another way: in western countries equal means everyone is entitled to dress and act differently, to be different races and religions, and still get the same basic rights. Where in Japan, equal means no matter what you look or dress like, you’ll be greeted with the same exact formal, pre-scripted conversations: いらっしゃいませ! お客様! ご案内いたします! (welcome honored customer! Please let me take you to your honored seat!)
In closing, let me just say: TL;DR? FOAD!

19 Comments so far

  1. C. February 16th, 2013 3:17 am

    Great article – thanks, man.

    “An only-in-Japan phenomenon: the Girls Doing Makeup On The Train. Or the male counterpart, Guys Reading Porn On The Train. Or Kids Wearing Animal Costumes In Public And No One Even Looks At Them. All this, though superficially very modern, is part of the ancient tradition of Being In Your Own Little Fucking World."
    This observation about clothes being an extension – or spacesuit – of the bedroom-world that people cocoon themselves in, affected in order in to navigate public spaces – is brilliant; and applicable to the west too, for everyone. Dress is an unspoken social agreement isn't it? "I believe in X and in order to strengthen my belief system I appreciate you treating me as a stereo-type of X". Brilliant.

  2. Max February 17th, 2013 7:23 pm

    In America identity is so commodified that it's a safe bet treating people like what they look like, because our consumer choices are themselves statements of beliefs. The only judgment required is figuring out how much someone spent to do it. I think this is why it's socially acceptable to wear T-shirts or accessories that do nothing but describe what you like to spend money on or who you buy it from. It is perfectly normal in this country to buy clothing emblazoned with extreme opinions about boring things on them that are specifically worn to inform the world exactly what the wearer is or believes. You don't even need a complete costume in this country to express an identity, just a declaration on the torso. Which must look absolutely bizarre from the outside looking.

  3. TSB Voidmare February 17th, 2013 9:43 pm

    I would love to see this become an ongoing series. You've described many of the bewildering contradictions here in Tokyo (the inaka is pretty different, for better and worse) more eloquently than anyone to date.

  4. Matt February 17th, 2013 10:50 pm

    Sorry dude, I think you're mixing up your problems with Tokyo (of which it has many) with an entire race of people. I bet you – actually, I know – a lot of non-Tokyo Japanese find behavior here odd or even repellent. What you're doing is taking (say) Manhattan or San Francisco and projecting their interpersonal quirks to the entire nation of America. I actually really dig your site, but this post reeks of someone who dislikes the place they're living in and trying to justify why. 

  5. admin February 18th, 2013 12:07 am

    @ matt: I don’t know where you got the idea that I’m making fun of tokyo culture or putting it down. But I look forward to YOUR 5,000 word article about culture and public space in Fukuoka or Aomori!
    @TSB: Thanks and good point: I ALSO want to read about inaka, and how the unspoken rules/assumptions are different than Tokyo. I just don’t want to, you know, GO there.
    @ max: stop making fun of my ICP hoodie.

  6. Matt February 18th, 2013 12:36 am

    Forgive me if I wasn't clear. I don't think you're making fun of anyone. I'm saying I think you're conflating TOKYO culture with JAPANESE culture. They are not necessarily one and the same, and many of the issues you describe above, particularly regarding alienation or standoffishness, are common to a lot of big cities.
    Your last paragraph for example. Yeah, "polite yet cold" could describe the TOKYO mindset. But  JAPANESE PEOPLE? I don't think so. When I'm in Osaka or Kobe I can barely get people to leave me alone. People are always coming up and shooting the breeze, or at least way more than in Tokyo.
    Which is cool in its own way, but here's the kicker: I actually PREFER that people keep to themselves here in Tokyo because I'm not really looking to make new friends or get into deep conversations when I'm on the way to work or going shopping or whatever. I guess a lot of the things you dislike about Tokyoites are things I like about them! Which again is cool – everyone's different – I'm just saying that it's silly to conflate your experience in Tokyo to a blanket Japanese people aren't friendly.
    Not a dis!  Just some food for thought from someone who lives in the same city but seems to be having a very different experience here.

  7. Max February 19th, 2013 1:10 pm

    That depends on whether you're fronting or not. Can you make a balloon animal or emerge from a car with an improbable number of people?

  8. 古山田咲郎 February 22nd, 2013 1:37 pm

    Matt is right, your observations are 100% correct for Tokyo, but have only partial validity for other places in Japan.
    Having lived in Kansai for many years (with occasional stays in Tokyo) I get the feeling that people there are quite the contrary of what you describe. Osaka folks would just walk over to you to have a chat and discuss about private matters with complete strangers.

  9. admin February 22nd, 2013 5:30 pm

    @hans, matt: ok, you’re right. I’ve heard that people in kansai will make eye contact and talk to strangers more. my question for you is: how does this affect the way kansai folks occupy public space? I haven’t heard any stereotypes about this one way or the other.

  10. Matt February 23rd, 2013 12:38 am

    I dunno as I don't live there, but I get nervous whenever I see attempts to explain "the Japanese" as though they share some sort of hive mind. For example, what you call the "dark side of wa" is more accurately an example of the "bystander effect," famously described in the Kitty Genovese murder in New York City. That behavior isn't anywhere near unique to Japanese, or even Tokyoites. It's human nature. It's my experience that people are people, and Tokyo is filled with everyone from samaritans to psychos just like any other huge city.

  11. admin February 23rd, 2013 7:44 pm

    @matt: oh, you’re no fun anymore.

    It’s true that too much generalizations about a given culture is lazy and wrong. But taking the opposite road as far as you’re going , “People all over the world are pretty much the same” is kind of silly.

    Everyone has to draw the line between “lazy or racist generalizations” and “reasonable generalizations” , and we all draw that line in different places.

    For me, I try to use this formula to stop from being racist: If Japanese do XXX and only white people find that weird, then it’s not a “Japanese are weird” thing, XXX is a “White people are weird” thing.

    But if Japanese do YYY and the majority of gaijin from ANYWHERE who visit here (from mainland Asia, Africa, Peru, Eruope, wherever) find YYY weird, then I’m going to take the position that YYY is weird. Not bad or wrong but definitely worth looking into and trying to figure out.

  12. Matt February 24th, 2013 3:56 am

    Sure, I find "it's a small world after all" as boring as the next guy. And one would have to be blind to claim cultural differences don't exist. Or that Tokyo and Japan don't have their problems – they do, and some are absolutely huge.

    I'm just saying that I find your examples and your reasoning pretty out there. People getting punched out on trains and left to bleed… "90%" of women being forced to wear "little girl" outfits until adulthood… passive salarymen who have their goals pre-chosen for them and never make friends outside of their work…I'm sorry, but this isn't the Tokyo I know. If it's yours… Hey, it's your blog and we can agree to disagree. But I just wanted you to know that there are other foreigners out there  who know Japan isn't paradise, but still don't find its inhabitants as "weird" as you do.

  13. 古山田咲郎 February 24th, 2013 2:08 pm

    Sounds like you're living im Tokyo for too long in a row, Schultz. How about an extensive vacation? Matt is right in pointing out that some of the described can be attributed to city culture in general, i.e. the "cell phone phenomenon" and girls (I'd also include guys) acting childish and cute well into their mid-20s.
    But let's focus on your point. There are huge differences in the social attitude of Japanese compared to most other cultures, not only Western but close ones like Korean. Some that immediately come to mind:
    遠慮/我慢 – try to be the opposite of selfish
    嘘も方便 – rather blatantly lie to someone than tell the truth, you may hurt someone's feelings…
     Th irony is that every Japanese totally realizes that and in the end gets the harsh truth that is supposed to be concealed from him/her
    "don't know the word that probably exists in Japanese for what I'm trying to say" – Japanese cannot get to the point. There is not such a thing as a definite "yes" or "no", and if you'd use it, everybody would look at you like an outcast who just pissed everybody off. "Could I rent that apartment?" "Well, basically yes, but you see… you are our first foreign client and we never before…blabla" instead of "No!" (cause you're a friggin foreigner) – 紛らわしい maybe
    Other things you mention sound 100% like Tokyo, and let be give you an example on usage of public space. Actually from a discussion between Osaka and Tokyo moms, so not a gaijin perspective.
    Rush hour. Crowds of busy salarymen trying to get to work, high priority. Mom pushes oversized stroller with into overcrowded elevator (which are usually tiny and not laid out for moms with strollers). Baby is crying like hell.
    This is what I was told happens:
    Tokyo – capital sin.
    Salarymen geezers will look at the mother with full despise, making the usual hissing sounds of utmost dislike. It is rush hour and the elevator is theirs. Mom wishes to never have left the house today.
    Osaka – cute baby.
    Salarymen make space so mom and child can get on. At least one uncle makes funny grimaces to cheer up the baby. Will comment on how cute the litte brat is. The elevator is there for everybody, in particular those who cannot use the stairs.

  14. Matt February 24th, 2013 4:59 pm

    Maybe the issue isn't even spending too long in Tokyo but too long in certain sections of Tokyo? I get the sense TDR spends a lot of time in the Shibuya-Harajuku-Shinjuku area, where behavior and dress can be off the wall even by Tokyo standards.

  15. jd February 25th, 2013 9:06 pm

    interesting post but your explanation about lack of privacy in houses explained by earthquakes is not true I think. Japanese houses have very heavy roofs, the best way to get killed in an earthquake. The lack of proper walls is explained probably by history and the climate (southern origin of construction, heavy standardization of construction structures, etc.).
    More generally I am not sure anything you said was true even 60 years ago (I wasn’t there but you have no proof). As many other commentators said, you have many good points concerning Tokyo today.
    The main issue I think is that rules of polite engagement are so burdensome that avoiding engagement is the best tactics. In addition, there is absolute lack of training toward unusual things and this lack of training is a self-reinforcing mechanism (because you are not trained, you avoid anything unusual and because you avoid it you can’t get trained).
    The no-exceptions allowed can also be explained by a very bureaucratic view of things where the only aim is avoiding risk (but I don’t agree with your comment on restaurants: there are many where this is not the case and I think that the only issue is the personality of the owner).

  16. mudakun March 3rd, 2013 10:51 pm

    Wow! heartfealt and to the point.. I add 2 things: My friend taught me how to FINALLY stop being a furreigner roadblock while walking on sidewalks in Japan: Just gaze at a destination point on the horizon and walk blindly towards it! Surprise! I no longer snarl sidewalk traffic, the ocean parts for me! How weird is that? TWO: Who the fuck wears black suits in the West? I never noticed it before, but Japan is full of MIB agents!!! Somehow they got the idea that black suits are for business! I guess you gotta be senior management to wear a grey or dark blue suit. All the employed youth wear RECRUIT SUITS, and look like priests/ blues brothers/ MIB wanna bes or bouncers. How weird is that?

  17. Brendan April 13th, 2013 11:06 am

    I hope you've got this site backed up somewhere in case the server crashes cause this is one of my fav places on the innernets. If you decided to bust out a print publication of some kind I would def buy it!

  18. Andrea C. April 28th, 2013 3:10 pm

    I've only been a visitor to Japan and never a resident, but FWIW, these are the two pieces of advice anyone will ever need in Japan:
    1.   Always bear left; and
    2.   Never mess with the "wa".

    One size fits all – good for pretty much anyone…

  19. C. April 28th, 2013 8:32 pm

    Just got back from Japan – Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Shibu-Onsen, Takiyama, Yakushima, Hiroshima &c. &c. I didn't find people to be be any more disconnected than anywhere else. In fact I found the Japanese to be just like anyone anywhere – except – for the fact they were generally better behaved and way more friendly if engaged in conversation. Helpful to the point of making me feel guilty for asking directions – people would miss their train to work to show me what train I needed to catch… Amazing. The stereotypical Mr.Pervert, Ero-Guro Extreme Noise Demon, emotionally mute salary-man, caffeinated cram-schooler, and Harajuku Candy Kid the internet colors as the majority as were really rare, and mostly teenagers, or just lost and alienated people – not at all the majority (like in the west with it's marketing front-end of smack addled celebrity posers). The only people worth noting were the guys going out of their way to pose like they were menacing in Golden Gai and Broadway Mall in Tokyo – but even there they were a rare exception. I loved the place.

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