Calling occupants of interplanetary craft

Entering Planet Japan

Travelling to Japan, the TV critic Charlie Brooker wrote, is like travelling to another planet. Whilst it’s still the case that relatively few British people have been, although it is increasingly popular as a tourist destination, if you ask most will say they would expect Japan to be very different with a culture bordering on the alien.  Some of the common conceptions include:

  • People in Japan are very reserved and polite
  • Japanese society is very conformist and individualism is frowned upon
  • Japan is very expensive
  • Japanese food is strange but they mostly eat sushi
  • Japanese workers are slaves to the company
  • Japan is very advanced technologically
  • Japanese young people are obsessed with things like gaming, anime and manga.

I’ve only been here a couple of days so maybe it’s too early to judge but to what extent do these stereotypes seem valid?

Certainly the first impression is that Japanese people are unfailingly polite. In my experience it’s not usual for immigration officials to hold out their hands in a cup shape to receive your passport.  And everyone does bow, if not dramatically, and say thank you several times during each transaction.  Any hitch leads to a flurry of sorrys and further bowing.  And the Japanese are even better at queuing that us Brits.

Queing for the train

But they’re not necessarily reserved. This lot were getting pretty vocal during the baseball game that we went to last night

Come on the Giants!

and when, on our trip around the Toyosu fish market, a trader invited us down onto the ground floor where all the selling takes place but not open to the public, our guide, Lily, could hardly contain herself with excitement.

And on the subject of food then the Japanese definitely like sushi. But then they like all food. Going round the market I was struck not just by the sheer variety of foods on offer but also by the knowledge and enthusiasm with which people talked about food.  Sushi is only one strand of a vibrant and extensive food culture. And, yes, some of it is definitely strange to our minds. Grasshoppers, sea urchins and pig entrails are not things we would eat but I can vouch that the grasshoppers and entrails are very tasty (I’m yet to try sea urchin) so maybe it just shows how conservative and unadventurous we are in our culinary tastes.

Grasshoppers – nicer than they look

And food is not expensive. Last night we had a meal for four with beer and wine for around £35. That’s in total – not per person.  It was just a cheap café on the street but the food was excellent.  Transport is also cheap – a journey on the subway seems to cost around £1.50.  Even our hotel at £80 a night for a room is not costly for what is supposed to be one of the most expensive cities in the world. Along with the food the relative cheapness has been one of the big surprises so far.

What about the salaryman?  The man (it is always a man) who, in return for a job for life, sells his soul to the company, working long hours and putting work before family.  There was one morning when we were travelling in the rush hour and walking along in a large throng of men wearing identical dark suits it did feel a bit like being in a robot army. However I’ve seen plenty of people strolling into work at 10 o’clock and whilst it’s the case that it’s mostly women picking up the children from school I have seen a few men doing it. Apparently 50% of married women now work, although they are still expected to do 90% of the household tasks, largely driven my Japan’s severe labour shortage with unemployment at just 1%.  So things are perhaps changing here as well.

Not salaryman!

Technologically it doesn’t seem much different from Britain (apart from the trains which will be the subject of a blog all of their own).  There are huge stores selling electrical gadgetry but it’s the same stuff we get at home – just more of it.  I’ve seen one robot at the airport but that was little more than an information screen on wheels. At immigration the electronic passport readers worked less well than at the UK border. On the train on which I’m writing this blog most people are reading paper books with not a kindle in sight and very few on their mobile ‘phones. Most people seem to pay for things in cash – the hotel where we are staying tonight doesn’t even take credit cards

What about the youth culture?  There are lots of very noisy and smoke-filled gaming arcades filled with serried ranks of gaming and slot machines.  But the people playing the machines are not all young geeks, there are a surprising number of older people as well and even a few women.  There is plenty of kitsch around, shops that sell nothing but clothes for dogs and cats but the most ubiquitous youth culture seems to be ‘J-pop’, a style of bastardised Western pop music that wouldn’t be out of place in the Eurovision song contest.

It’s not just young people in the gaming arcades

In many ways Tokyo feels like a western city. There is none of the hustle and bustle that I’ve seen in places like Hanoi or Delhi. Traffic and pedestrians walk and drive in a very orderly fashion.  There is little obvious pollution  and the streets are very clean. Buildings are modern. Everyone dresses in western clothes. If it wasn’t for the Japanese characters on the street signs and shop displays and the strange looking food on offer in the restaurant windows it could easily pass for a European city (not British, it’s too clean).

Downtown Tokyo

But if there is one thing that does score high marks for strangeness it has to be sumo. Two fat men wearing little more than a thong, slapping their bodies and bowing before grappling and trying to push each other out of a small clay ring. Weird but fascinating!

High drama at the Sumo. Yokozuna, in black, number 2 in the world rankings, about to win.

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