My Japan is not your Japan

What is Japan? It really depends who you ask and when. Ask me what Japan is five years ago before I have experienced parts of it and I would tell you something generic and cheesy like “It is a land of mystery and beauty.” After living in Japan awhile, I developed a more mundane view that it is just another country with different issues than the one I left – I’m just still trying to fit into it.

While I think we all would politically-correctly say we each experience our own Japan, I have seen others’ and my own view of Japan labeled untruthful, invalid, and just plain wrong. But why?

Perhaps the largest contributor to creating someone’s Japan is geography. For example, living on the Japanese mainland versus living in Okinawa will certainly produce different views of what Japan is. Type of environment can multiply contrasting perspectives. I’m talking about country or city living. While I’ve been to Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Sendai on several occasions, I can’t honestly say I know the detailed ins and outs of city life, spending probably less than a total of two months in large cities. I can appreciate and navigate the city, but I’m a country boy at heart. I studied and worked in the inaka, a place you city folk only read about on blogs or in fairy tales. The citizens have an accent and speak a variation of Japanese I never learned in the classroom. Meanwhile, rest stop toilets seem as old as the farmers tending rice in the nearby fields. It’s a slower pace of life and things are done differently here.

There is still a very community centered way of living in the countryside. The local fish market is as much a place to buy fresh seafood as it is a place for older citizens to socialize. Generations of the same family live in the same household, a disappearing rarity as social norms and affordable property in larger cities transform. Traditions reign supreme and a day of fishing with long bamboo poles is for more than leisure, it could be for dinner. Besides the physical environmental differences throughout Japan, there are language differences as well.

As non-Japanese, our Japan will probably contain a mix of the English and Japanese languages. Some of us live on military bases or work as English teachers or ALTs, so our day revolves around English. However, I have met one foreigner (an American to be exact)—and I am sure there are more—that have immersed themselves in Japan by becoming a citizen, only speaking and reading Japanese, and claims he seldom even thinks in English anymore. I have spent three months on a military base then another year studying abroad at an international university. I may have used more English than Japanese inside these bubbles of Japan, but I also had the chance to meet soldiers’ and students’ from other parts of the United States or the world and get a glimpse of their experiences of Japan. Surely I was influenced in some way.

Did my country life and living most of my Japan experiences within an English-friendly environment present a skewed view of Japan? Possibly… and probably. Furthermore, my love of traditional culture has inherently left me in a position to do little more than listen when my younger friends converse about the latest anime. I most certainly experienced and continue to experience a different view of Japan than many others, and a similar Japan to many others as well.

No one’s Japan experience is the exact same as someone else’s. While a well-rounded view from someone who has spent over a decade in Japan and lived in its various locales would be ideal, it’s not a privilege most of us have, or have yet, attained. It doesn’t need be a contest who knows more about Japan—which I see as a reoccurring theme in online forums. Even a western (or a city, or a rural) view of Japan is still a legitimate view to that person, even if not entirely correct by another person’s standards. So we share what we know, ask questions, and create a discussion to learn more from each other. A friendly reminder to us all: My Japan is not yours. Your Japan is not mine.

Author Infomation

Justin Velgus
Justin Velgus
Justin Velgus is in love with Japan. In addition to his over 60 published articles about Japan, he is author of "Ai, Love You? Finding Friendship, Romance, and Heartbreak in Japan." With a stay on a military base near Hiroshima, study abroad in the wintery northern Tohoku, and travels through Sapporo, Sendai, Akita, Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and more, he has lived the Japanese experience. He enjoys sharing his passion through writing about the culture and people of Japan, being featured on media outlets such as Japan Tourist, Japan Today, and GaijinPot. He is continuing his Japan studies and is currently working on his next feature book.
  • 23

    ben4short

    I salute Justin for his exquisite grasp of the obvious.

  • 16

    gaijinfo

    One thing Japan is very good at is promoting it's own mythology about its culture around the world. The people that are drawn here are those that are particularly enthralled with that mythology.

    It can sometimes take years for folks like this to "discover" that, wow, Japan is another country just like any other, filled with humans that have the same problems, strengths and weaknesses of humans everywhere. Yea, there food, religion and festivals are different from back home, but you'd expect that in ANY foreign country you went to.

    That a large part of its self generated and promoted mythology is that Japan is somehow "better' because of its "uniqueness" makes this process of "discovery" all the more "fascinating" and "insightful."

  • 0

    cleo

    One thing Japan is very good at is promoting it's own mythology about its culture around the world. The people that are drawn here are those that are particularly enthralled with that mythology.

    Which bit of that mythology or uniqueness has Justin written about? In his very first paragraph, he states Japan is just another country.

  • 5

    gaijintraveller

    One thing Japan is very good at is promoting it's own mythology about its culture around the world.

    Gaijinfo, I entirely agree with you. I would like to add that in this case Japan, itself, could be included in the world, and most Japanese believe most of the myths they have been taught since childhood.

  • 3

    Konsta

    No one's Japan experience is the exact same as someone else's.

    I would like to join ben4short in salutations. Good job, Justin Velgus!

  • 3

    gaijinfo

    Which bit of that mythology or uniqueness has Justin written about? In his very first paragraph, he states Japan is just another country.

    Right after he explained that it took him FIVE YEARS to realize that.

  • 14

    zichi

    I don't see the purpose of the post. "My Japan is not your Japan" could be stated the same for any country in the world, "My country is not your country?"

    Not even will all foreigners have exactly the same experience.

  • 5

    gokai_wo_maneku

    His "author information" states:

    he has lived the Japanese experience

    However, the point of the text is that there is NO "the Japan experience", just mine and yours (and never the twain shall meet?). But anyway, this is true whether you are a Japanese or a foreigner. Each Japanese also has a "my Japan" too, just like I have my life and you have your life.

  • -3

    Yubaru

    One thing Japan is very good at is promoting it's own mythology about its culture around the world. The people that are drawn here are those that are particularly enthralled with that mythology.

    I disagree. It's the foreigners in Japan and those who live in gaikokuland that watch "Last Samurai" too often.

    No one's ____________ experience is the exact same as someone else's.

    Insert favorite country name in the blank.

  • 2

    Ramzel

    This man pointed out that experiences, in general, can vary. Excellent point.

    I’m talking about country or city living. While I’ve been to Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Sendai on several occasions, I can’t honestly say I know the detailed ins and outs of city life, spending probably less than a total of two months in large cities. I can appreciate and navigate the city, but** I’m a country boy at heart. **

    It is blatantly obvious.

    No matter which country you are taking about, city life will always be different from country life.

  • 5

    philsandoz

    Wow! Somebody who likes Japan, but doesn't completely understand it! How original!

  • 1

    gokai_wo_maneku

    Let's at least say that Justin is putting himself out there and trying to do something. We just criticize on a message board. Remember the old saying:

    "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. Those who can't get teaching positions, become critics. Those who can't become critics, write criticism on message boards."

  • 1

    Frungy

    YubaruDec. 02, 2012 - 05:03PM JST No one's ____________ experience is the exact same as someone else's. Insert favorite country name in the blank.

    I very much agree with this point. I have a friend from the U.S. who flips out every time anyone asks him to, "Give a presentation about the U.S.". The problem is that he's from a major city in the North East U.S., and the culture, language, geography, etc. is quite different from elsewhere in the U.S. His "U.S.A" is very different from someone from, for example, Utah who lived in a small town. Plus he didn't travel much.

    I've travelled most of Japan and there's a saying that expats in Thailand use a lot that I think sums it up nicely, "Same, Same, but different".

  • -1

    Cos

    One thing Japan is very good at is promoting it's own mythology about its culture around the world.

    Obviously.

    I disagree. It's the foreigners in Japan and those who live in gaikokuland that watch "Last Samurai" too often.

    What's the equivalent of the "Last samurai" for Finland, Laos, Congo, Poland, Venezuela.... ? They are surely very interesting places too, when you know them, Whatever you think about it, you go around the world, you say ninja, kamikaze, geisha, anime, seppuku, gameboy, cherry blossoms, capsule hotel, sashimi fugu that kills you, naked public bath, yakuza, ukyo-e, cup-noodles, etc.... and most people will say "ah, Japan....", even if they know nothing more about the country, they have a grocery list of cliches about it. And that's not the same about everywhere. They have a lots of cliches about my country too and that's even worse as I don't even fit the stereotype myself, well not the one they think. So when I'm tired, I say I am from Sweden (ikea, meatballs and Abba, yes,it's cold in Winter, game over) and I'm a resident of Taiwan (yes, it's in Asia, and yes, it's developed now, no they don't have that fat dictator Kim-what's-his-name, you confuse with North Korea) and they never ask any question so I won't answer anything inaccurate. Because if I answer about Japan or France, and I am wrong (=not saying what they expect), I'm the meanie attacking their fantasies.

    quite different from elsewhere in the U.S.

    He's Amish ?

    before I have experienced parts of it and I would tell you something generic and cheesy like “It is a land of mystery and beauty.”

    But it is a land of mystery and beauty. You can't see... Kooky yomenai.

  • -2

    sighclops

    I urge all to experience living in both the city and the country (of Japan). I have, and I think it helps put things in perspective at times (eg. young people and the pressures of early marriage in the countryside)(don't ask!).

    Tokyo is so far from traditional Japan, even down to the way people think! Without a doubt, this point is missed by most foreigners.

  • 2

    AKBfan

    Of course everyone experiences it differently, but many come here precisely because they are drawn by a part of the mythmaking about Japan. Could be samurai spirit, marital arts, zippy modern culture, babes on tap, zen, drifting, otaku, whatever. And then find that real life is not often as expected.

  • 0

    JackInMilwWI

    I don't know who the Japanese people are. I think The Treaty of Kanagawa, in some ways more than others, did more harm than good. From Samurai to Scholars all in one day. Shades of cultural heritage notwithstanding, I think they have basically been absorbed by other cultures of the World.

  • 1

    tkoind2

    Sorry but have to agree, this article is really just a statement of the obvious.

    My Japan is most often an Orwellian march of black suited salarymen on crowded weekday commutes to and from work contrasted wtih wonderful creative and traditional elements on weekends.

    But my friends who live outside Tokyo seem to have a better view of it on weekdays.

    Simple perspective and personal point of view.

  • 3

    as_the_crow_flies

    Sorry but have to agree, this article is really just a statement of the obvious.

    tkoind2 - have to agree with you. As I see it, the need to theorise about the gaijin experience is the gaijn response to nihonjinron. I call it gaijinron. All that nihonjinron makes gaijin believe there is something so unique about their experience of being foreign that it has to be stuck in a jar for the world to inspect it. I've been foreign in other places, and found that everywhere, people rant and gripe about the place they're living, but nowhere I've lived has it been mystified into something so transcendentally significant as happens here. I think the JET programme has a lot to answer for, by parachuting impressionable young people into their first job in small country towns, telling them they're "ambassadors", giving them not enough to do and an internet connection, and telling them what they're doing is something earthshattering, and actually encouraging outpourings of earnest, starry-eyed drivel with cherry blossom petals and maple leaves, from every ISP in the country.

  • -3

    LH10

    japan needs to open its doors to the whole world. stop being scared of "gaikokujin" -_- plus japanese are becoming extinct!! T____T

  • -1

    gonemad

    To summarize the article in one sentence: we tend to make generalizations about things, countries, people which we don't know and start to differentiate when we get to know them better. It seems pretty trivial, but when reading the comments here on JT for a while you notice that sometimes it becomes necessary to state the obvious again ;-)

  • 0

    GW

    Crow,

    That post made me laugh thanks haha!

  • 0

    Fadamor

    It doesn’t need be a contest who knows more about Japan—which I see as a reoccurring theme in online forums.

    LOL. A point displayed here - repeatedly.

  • 0

    Sean Schloss

    I lived in japan for the past 18 years, 3 on a military base, 12 as an Eigo sensei, 3 on a base. I'm visiting the states now. I can definately say that there is a difference. Japan is the place to be.......

  • 2

    flygirl1221

    Oh Japan is definitely very good at packaging itself and marketing itself as a "special and unique place" to the rest of the world. I've seen it done in the States, and I've seen it again at travel fairs in other Asian countries. The thing is, other countries just don't try so freaking hard to market themselves. The official stance of Japanese policy is that, of course, Japan is perfect and has never done anything wrong in its entire history. eye roll

  • 0

    CrisGerSan

    Interesting to see the awkward response of this aspiring authour, Justin San reflected in some of the replies here, and i have seen the same sort of response in quite a few other threads on this news service site. What many Americans seem to have trouble with, not only in Japan but elsewhere, is allowing other cultures and people to be different without making a fuss about it. I think it has to do with the shallow nature of modern America which lost much of its roots and sense of self after WWII, in a huge orgy of modernization. I am glad you enjoy things there. Japan is both modern and ancient, fast and slow, and with all modern societies, working to find a balance with old and new. I will continue to enjoy very much seeing the authentic Japanese news here, and events, people and places discussed. I am not here to seek out filtered or 'arranged" views, i am hopeful just to enjoy and see the real thing. thanks.

  • 0

    wipeout

    Oh Japan is definitely very good at packaging itself and marketing itself as a "special and unique place" to the rest of the world. I've seen it done in the States, and I've seen it again at travel fairs in other Asian countries.

    Isn't that what travel fairs are for? I mean, you couldn't actually pay me enough money to force me to attend one, but I would have assumed they have nothing to offer beyond a bunch of cheesy national cliches. The world seen through the eyes of a PR agency.

  • 1

    Thunderbird2

    For me, Japan is experienced in three-week chunks once a year... and for me it certainly isn't seeing too many samurai films or 'babes on tap'. My Japan was one which was trampled by Godzilla and chums, and that was what got me interested in the country as a kid.

    Only later did I fall in love with the country, get a Japanese girlfriend and want to learn more about the culture. I know that as a visitor I probably don't have the right to comment on this subject, but what the hell, I've visited the country every year since 2006 so I thought I might as well comment.

  • 0

    badsey3

    Indoctrinated people are always upset when the book is not 100% truth. If people would just look for the truth first this would not be an issue. Nature being the ultimate truth I suppose and the ultimate book still not written.

    =humans are bizarre creatures with bizarre sensibilities. Why should nature even try to make them happy?

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