When you think about “Japan”, what stereotypes come to mind? There are loads of myths surrounding Japan – about the people, the culture, the trains, and even the food! Many of them are far from accurate, but several common stereotypes are actually spot-on! Read on to find out which stereotypes about Japan are true, and the facts that back them up.
1. Japan is Safe
Japan has a reputation as being one of the safest countries in the world. The crime rate is incredibly low, and has been continually decreasing every year for the past 15 years. 2017 actually set a new record low for crime in Japan, with a rate of just 915,111 recorded crimes, according to The Japan Times. And, according to the 2016 UNODC statistics, Japan’s rate of intentional homicide per 100,000 population is the second-lowest in the world at just 0.3, which is incredibly low compared with 0.9 for Australia and 5.4 for the United States. Japan’s low crime rate is apparent in the way people conduct themselves in society, and many foreign visitors to Japan often comment on how they feel safe walking down an alleyway even in the late hours of the night.
Day-to-day life in Japan is also incredibly safe – if you lose your wallet, its highly likely that the people around you will chase you down to give it back, or turn it in to the nearest police station, kōban. Many people leave their belongings such as bags or phones in public places or restaurants to hold their seats. People often park their bikes without a lock, and they aren’t taken. Many shops and stores display goods outside with no staff watching over them, and none get stolen. Even in crowded cities like Tokyo, it is quite normal for children to play outside without the presence of an adult, as well as for them to take buses or trains to school all by themselves.
2. Japan’s Public Transportation is Top-Notch
Many people associate Japan with it’s high-speed bullet train called the Shinkansen (新幹線). Year after year, the Shinkansen makes international headlines for its futuristic design, incredible speeds, and sometimes, even for apologizing for leaving 25 seconds early. While not all trains in Japan are on the same level as the Shinkansen, Japan does invest a great amount of money into keeping the railways clean, renovated, and efficient. And, with the vast network of ferries, buses, and local and high-speed trains, you can get almost anywhere in Japan just by relying on public transportation.
The public transportation system in Japan is also typically very foreigner-friendly, especially the trains. Most railways have signs onboard and in stations that have Roman characters as well as Japanese. And, if you ever have a question or get lost, feel free to ask a stationmaster. The staff are friendly and courteous to passengers, and they even bow to each carriage as they finish their duties and routine checks. It’s a very Japanese touch that you would not find on public transportation in other countries!
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3. Japanese People Work A Lot
This is one of the strongest stereotypes towards Japanese people and Japan’s working culture, and unfortunately, there is truth behind it. Yes, it’s true that there is a word in the Japanese for “death by overworking”: Karōshi (過労死), which literally translates to “overwork death”. In many Japanese companies, overtime is quite common. According to a 2016 report about karōshi in Japan, 20% of people in a survey of 10,000 Japanese workers said they worked at least 80 hours of overtime a month. And, on the list of first-world countries with guaranteed paid time off for employees, Japan ranks close to the bottom with just 10 days off a year (though the number does increase the longer you stay with the company).
In 2015, Japan was shaken when a 24-year old employee at the biggest advertising firm in the nation committed suicide after being severely overworked. The government has since taken steps to improve the work culture in Japan and prevent further cases of karōshi as a result of overworking. In June 2018, a bill was passed that capped overtime work at 100 hours a month and 720 hours a year. That number was slashed to 45 hours of overtime a month and 360 hours a year by even newer law passed in the spring of 2019. The Japanese government also has a program called “Premium Friday”, encouraging companies to send their employees home early on the last Friday of the month to promote good work-life balance. However, this program is not taken very seriously, and even two years later, is still regarded as a joke.
4. Japanese People Are Polite
Some people refer to Japan as being “the most polite country on Earth”. Japanese people are known for being well-mannered, soft-spoken, and incredibly hospitable. One reason for this is the concept of omotenashi (おもてなし), which is a fundamental part of Japanese culture. Omotenashi is often translated as “hospitality,” although that word fails to describe everything that omotenashi means. It’s more than genuine kindness towards guests – omotenashi is also an eye for detail, an awareness for an individual’s needs, a genuine effort to always go the extra mile. The Japanese often apply this concept in every aspect of life, in shops, restaurants and even helping strangers in the street. It also contributes towards Japan’s stereotype of having the best customer service in the world.
The politeness exceeds customer service interactions, and is often apparent in day-to-day interactions. Japanese people always try to follow the rules and pay attention to social codes, etiquette, and manners – even if it is bothersome. If you’re a foreign tourist in Japan and you’re walking down the street looking lost or confused, it’s likely a Japanese person will come up to you and ask if you need help. As mentioned previously, if you lose your wallet or phone, the odds that they will be returned just as you left them are incredibly high. Even in crowded places, such as in busy train stations, Japanese people will patiently wait their turn in line.
5. Japanese Food is Healthy
You might have seen this on our list of stereotypes about Japan that aren’t true, but it’s a bit of a two-sided coin. On the one hand, there is certainly a number of Japanese foods and dishes that might be unhealthy – fried tempura, karāge, and hefty bowls of gyūdon, just to name a few – but overall, and compared to other countries’ standard diets, the Japanese diet is on the healthier side. Japan often earns high rankings on lists of the healthiest countries in the world, including a spot on the definitive list from the Bloomberg Global Health Index. A huge factor behind the health of the Japanese people is their diet.
Three important factors of healthy eating are balance, variety and moderation, all of which are essential to the Japanese diet and lifestyle. The Japanese diet itself is incredibly nutrient-dense, as it is full of fresh meats, seafood, and lots of vegetables. Superfood staples for many Japanese people include yams, green tea, seaweed, soy foods and mushrooms. Fermented foods like tofu and nattō are also fundamental parts of the Japanese diet, and are believed to be beneficial to digestion. The way the foods are prepared also contribute to the high nutrition, as many of the foods are eaten raw, steamed, or lightly pan-fried. When eating a meal, Japanese children are taught to use chopsticks at an early age, to eat slowly and show appreciation for their food, as well as practicing the art of Hara Hachi Bu (腹八分目), or eating until you’re 80 percent full.
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