You might think that Japanese people are obsessed with Sumo and Cameras but these are not the real Japanese national passions. What are Japanese truly passionate about? After living in Japan for ten years I think I have a pretty good idea. Here is my ranking of the top fifteen Japanese passions:
A bit of a disclaimer about this one. Japanese have a reputation for perverted stuff. For the most part this is not true. Western media and entertainment has picked up on sensationalized stories from Japanese tabloid magazines such as used panties from vending machines or eating sushi from a naked woman. These are excessive stories that do not reflect everyday realities in Japan. Westerners are inclined to believe such stories because Japan seems so far away and exotic.
International sex surveys have indicated that Japan is amongst the least sexually active countries in the world. In many ways Japanese people are conservative about sex. Having said that, it is true that Japan is a sexually passionate place.
Firstly, Japanese are imaginative about sex as evidenced by Japanese pornography, manga and anime. Unlike much American pornography, Japanese pornography shows some creativity, often has elaborate plots and may take some time to get to the point.
Secondly, Love Hotels are everywhere in Japan. With over 500 million visits to Japanese love hotels every year it is clear that some Japanese people are having sex. In fact, when you break down the numbers this is equivalent to %14 of the Japanese population going to a love hotel every week!
Japanese people love gambling in the form of a uniquely Japanese game: Pachinko. Pachinko resembles an elaborate pinball machine with many small balls. Players buy buckets of balls to play with and may win or lose balls as the game proceeds.
Gambling is technically illegal in Japan (パチンコ) and Pachinko exploits some technicalities in the law. It works like this: within the Pachinko parlor the balls are virtually worthless and can only be exchanged for stuffed animals and nominal prizes. However, right outside the parlor (usually in a dark alley) there is a small shop that exchanges balls for cold hard cash. So technically there is no serious gambling within the Pachiko parlor itself. The police look the other way and likely have deals with the Pachinko industry (that is controlled by various organized crime groups) to look the other way.
How big is the Pachinko industry in Japan? Well, ever heard of a Japanese car? The Japanese Pachinko industry is bigger than the Japanese auto industry. Yearly sales are around US$160 billion a year. About one out of four Japanese people plays Pachiko and average spending per player is $7000 a year.
The Japanese love to travel. Japanese tourists can be found in every corner of the world. From Waikiki beach, to Banff hot springs, to Paris brand shops, to African safari Japanese tourists are everywhere. Japanese also frequently travel domestically and hotels in Japan are often geared to the domestic market rather than international travelers. For this reason it is hard to find English speaking staff in Japanese hotels.
In 2009 14 million Japanese people traveled abroad. Top destinations where Korea, China and the US.
Japan is one of the most highly urbanized countries in the world. Perhaps this is why Japanese people are passionate about cleanliness and avoiding germs. It is very common to see Japanese people wearing masks in public. Japanese people wear masks for three reasons:
a. to avoid getting a cold or flu.
b. when infected with a cold or flu (many companies and schools mandate that staff or students wear masks when sick).
c. to avoid air borne allergens (1 out of 10 Japanese people has a allergy)
Japanese gossip magazines are just as bad, if not worse, than their American or European equivalents. In Japan, there are dozens of weekly tabloid magazines jam packed with sensational stories that are at most half true. Examples of stories include:
"Coffee pot tips seductress plucking schoolboy cherry"
"Depraved duo target pregnant women in terror rape spree"
"Quirky quacks prescribing sexual harassment"
"Intoxicated man assaults firefighter for entering his home without taking his shoes off"
Nobody in Japan seems to worry about the effects of these magazines. However, when Mainichi, a large Japanese newspaper with the fourth largest circulation in the world, started translating some gossip columns into English in a service they called "wai wai" there was a public outcry. Many right-wing Japanese felt the English version of the articles were embarrassing to Japan. Mainichi bowed to the pressure, shut down the service, fired some employees and issued a lengthy apology letter. As far as I know there has never been a public outcry about the dozens of Japanese language weeklies publishing the same pulp.
Some Japanese may have been sensitive about the English versions of the articles because the mainstream western media sometimes picks up an article from the Japanese tabloids. This would be equivalent to a national Japanese newspaper picking up articles from the National Enquirer in the US and publishing it as fact. In many cases, this has unfairly perpetuated the image that Japan is a wacky and perverted country.
10. Small things
Japanese people value small things. Japanese restaurants serve tiny portions and the better the restaurant the smaller the dishes. In the 1970s and 80s Japan helped to revolutionize electronics and cars by making them smaller, lighter and higher quality.
There are some notable exceptions to the Japanese passion for small things, Sumo comes to mind.
In Japan, the average person consumes 70 kilograms of fish a year. The global average consumption is just 13 kilograms a year and even developed countries such as America only eat about 20 kilograms a year per person. Japanese domestic catches have been in serious decline for many years and Japan sends large fleets all over the world to make up the gap. Many kinds of fish that are popular in Japan such as bluefin tuna are now in serious decline worldwide. Japan has from time to time ignored global fishing agreements such as the global ban on fishing whales. Whale meat such as dolphin can easily be purchased in Japan and is served to children as part of mandatory school lunch programs.
Aesthetics is the philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty and taste. Japanese arts such as Ikebana, Bonsai, Architecture, Japanese Gardens, Calligraphy, and Tea Ceremony are all about the pursuit of a simple and beautiful aesthetic. Aesthetics are an important part of every facet of Japanese life from cuisine to electronics and the Japanese are world renown for their aesthetic sense.
In many situations Japanese people are as quiet as can be. However, there is a real culture of yelling in Japan. When you go to a restaurant in Japan the staff will yell a welcome at you with a loud irasshaimase (いらっしゃいませ) and likely yell your order to the kitchen too. Yelling seems to be tied with with the Japanese concept of team. The staff of a restaurant are a team and as part of their teamwork they are expected to yell. Any team activities in Japan tend to get fairly loud.
6. Not wasting things
The Japanese word Mottainai (もったいない) means the sense of regret about wasting something. Japan is a small island nation with few natural resources and is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Japanese people tend to be frugal and take care not to waste food and resources.
Japanese are known as major consumers of expensive brand goods such as Louis Vuitton. Despite this, the Japanese traditionally have a very high savings rate and tend to live well below their means. In Japan quality is respected and people take good care of their possessions.
Drinking is the national past time of Japan. Tokyo restaurants and bars are jam packed seven days a week with salary men, office ladies and students relieving a little pressure.
Japanese varieties of alcohol such as Sake and Shōchū are popular but beer is hands down the most beloved beverage. Cocktails are also popular and some of them are incredibly weak with about 2% alcohol. Most Japanese people are strong drinkers but a minority of Japanese people seem incredibly sensitive to alcohol.
Japanese comic books (manga) are remarkably popular in Japan. They are popular with old and young, men and women. Manga have many types including highly sexualized stories specializing in every fetish you can imagine, sports, romance, animals, gambling, business, history, fantasy and crime. Internet cafes are abundant in Japan and they all have huge libraries of manga for customer use. People are not ashamed of their manga addiction and respectable looking business men are often spotted reading them on the morning trains.
It is a stereotype that Japanese people value membership in the team while westerners value being individual. There are exceptions to every rule. However, for the most part this seems to be true. Western people will often consider themselves to be "special" while Japanese people will often consider themselves "normal". The well known Japanese saying that "the nail that sticks up will be hammered down" exemplifies a concept that is deeply ingrained in Japanese culture.
Japan was traditional a highly agricultural nation. Farming is a very organized activity that requires the coordinated efforts of the community. This is the context in which Japanese culture developed this strong sense of team.
Here is another stereotype about Japan that is generally true. The Japanese are incredibly diligent workers and the quality and effort of their work is astounding.
In Japan it is bad manners to go home before your boss. Often the boss is a workaholic type that stays late. Employees may stay late even when there work is complete and they have nothing to do.
Onsen is a Japanese hot spring bath that features geothermally heated spring water. Onsen may be communal or private; outside or indoors. Generally onsen is taken in the nude and bathing suits are not allowed. Usually, sexes are separated but there are some mixed-sex onsen in the countryside. Japan is very geothermally active and there are tens of thousands of onsen in Japan at hotels, ryokan, spas and public onsen. On holidays and weekends Japanese flock to the countryside craving a nice long soak in hot water. I have yet to meet a Japanese person who is not passionate about onsen.
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