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English: The Best Way To Get Second-hand, Third-Rate Distortions of Japanese Reality

Any information you get about Japan that’s not in Japanese is virtually guaranteed to be second-hand and third-rate.

Information on Japan that’s not in Japanese invariably leads one to believe both good and bad things about this place that are simply untrue.

Example the first: Japanese people are deep and Buddhist and Zen-like and uncluttered and value emptiness. And all Americans are Mennonites, right? Yeah…no. Most people here barely even know what Zen is (not to mention the fact that Zen actually originated in China as a sort of mix of this thing from India called Buddhism and homegrown Daoism).

As for uncluttered emptiness, I have two words for you: Yodobashi Camera.
I rest my case.

Don’t get me wrong: those “Zen” ideas do exist in Japan, and they are held in high regard in certain quarters. But, they are just one rather small stall in the marketplace of ideas; they don’t dominate Japanese culture to the extent that well-meaning foreigners might wish they do.

Example the second: so-called xenophobia.

Japan simply doesn’t have real, deep-seated, I’m-going-to-tie-you-to-the-back-of-my-truck-and-drag-you-to-death-and/or-gas-you-with-insecticide xenophobia. It mostly has xenophilia tinged with a bit of…xenonervousness.

This is very much a live-and-let-live society. If you’re not emotionally needy, if you don’t crave approval, if you’re calm, articulate and persistent, you can basically do and be whatever you want here. Materially, there’s no door or substitute window that an even moderately determined person cannot open in Japan.

Any actual animosity is directed exclusively (and quite inappropriately 😉 ) toward fellow northeast Asians — Koreans and Chinese. Many Japanese people I’ve read and talked to are surprisingly cognizant of this 同族嫌悪(どうぞくけんお) — this self-hatred/sibling-rivalry thing with the other members of what right-wing conspiracy theorist Takahiko SOEJIMA 1 (of all people!) described as: “the wider Chinese civilization of which Japan, while culturally unique, is simply a part” 2. Nobody hates like family, right?

Japanese people are much nicer and messier than they get credit for. I have visited too many bedrooms and woken up with my head nestled in too many people’s dirty laundry to think otherwise.

Learn the language. Anything you do without knowing the language is about as accurate as those times on MST3K or Whose Line Is It Anyway? where they watch a foreign movie with no subs and make up the lines based on what they presume to be going on. In fact, people who don’t access information about Japan directly in Japanese would be better off going to MST3K than to the usual verbal sewers *cough*gaijin forums*cough* they seem to frequent. That way, at least they’d pick up a sense of humor 😛 .

Those are the two yen I brought with me. ‘Could be wrong.

Image credit: Kotaku | Metal Gear Solid 4 Japan Launch – Osaka

  26 comments for “English: The Best Way To Get Second-hand, Third-Rate Distortions of Japanese Reality

  1. Danieru
    February 19, 2011 at 01:03

    I read this article then immediately ignored it, its not in 日本語.

  2. Leonardo Boiko
    February 19, 2011 at 01:33

    That’s a very interesting article about Japan! …しかし日本語じゃないから信じられない 😀

    • February 19, 2011 at 07:50

      I was gonna say I didn’t believe a word you wrote.
      But, my joke got beat out. : [
      I’m glad I at least got beat in Japanese. ha.

  3. tarkonis
    February 19, 2011 at 01:55

    This isnt in Japanese, ergo. I shall not believe it.

    😛 Just kiddin.

    • tarkonis
      February 19, 2011 at 01:56

      damn the above poster beat me to it 😛

  4. あんど
    February 19, 2011 at 01:59

    I thought the same thing, haha

    Still, though, the article makes a great point. I’ve seen that a lot of what I read about Japan pre-actually-being-able-to-read-Japanese is very conflicting with what I’ve read from actual Japanese materials written in actual Japanese.

  5. Lokideviluk
    February 19, 2011 at 02:15

    Be interesting to hear your thoughts on the many MANY Youtubers who post videos amount Japan in English. It’s funny thinking that anyone who posts a comment on your posts who isn’t fluient in Japanese already and wants to be, isn’t 100% commited to immersion since their reading English posts 🙂
    Me, I’m just a sucker for well written wit.

    • harmony
      February 19, 2011 at 08:29

      Well, if gaijin forums are verbal sewers, then I cringe to think what youtube comments are… I mean just reading through the comments on some of those videos, ugh. I don’t recommend it. But yeah, all this “don’t bother learning Japanese because they are racist, etc” stuff gets to me sometimes. I just ignore it.

    • February 20, 2011 at 02:23

      I post videos on YouTube about Japan in both English and Japanese. And unfortunately, I find that the English videos become way more popular than the Japanese. So just because it is in English, doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t authentic.

      • Lokideviluk
        February 20, 2011 at 06:44

        I’ve seen your stuff before and admit I’ve watched the in English.

        An idea I had which I can’t do anything with right now but that may be interesting to you is this.

        Create a show/video thats entirelly in Japanese, keep it to 10minutes or less.
        Then take all the audio and then break that up into SRS’able sentence packs, so that you end up with maybe 200 sentences, and then you send that out to your email list, tweet the download link etc. The subscribers/fans then download that, input it into their SRS and bang away at that for a week so that at the end of that week you upload the video, entirelly in Japanese and that person having studied your sentences would be able to understand a full Japanese Vlog. Maybe hardcode timed Japanese subtitles into the Video as well, but no Furigana.

        Then on the release of that video, it will come with links to the next set of audio/text SRS files for the next video, and so on.

        Just an idea 🙂

  6. Serena
    February 19, 2011 at 04:54

    I need to direct my family to this article…particularly my grandmother. She has so many misconceptions about Japan and she frequently mixes Japan in with China. There is no difference between the two in her eyes.

    • あんど
      February 19, 2011 at 11:01

      >she frequently mixes Japan in with China
      I don’t know how many times, in response to “I’d like to live in Japan”, people have said “WHY WOULD YOU WANT TO DO THAT THEY EAT DOGS OVER THERE”.

      • Jarome
        February 21, 2011 at 00:31

        And besides, dogs are D-licious.

      • Lina
        March 7, 2011 at 14:21

        Well, most of the people now perceived to be Japanese *did* come from Korea….

  7. Carl
    February 19, 2011 at 15:19

    I just wanted to say that MST3k fucking owns

  8. 魔法少女☆かなたん
    February 20, 2011 at 01:00

    I hate reading most English-language fora and blogs about Japanese language and culture (except this one, of course!) because it’s all stuff like ZOMG HIVE MIND IN-GROUP!!! At some point, I think I realised there’s an issue with poor social skills and language ability that creates incorrect perceptions, which is pretty much like going into a disco without bringin’ the funk.

  9. Herman Sheremetyev
    February 20, 2011 at 01:11

    For anyone that loves MST3K:

    Those guys are still around and doing awesome commentaries of current movies.

  10. ジャスデヴ
    February 20, 2011 at 03:57

    Right on the money. As an economics grad I often read and write a lot of information about the state of the Japanese economy, but I constantly have niggling doubts because everything I read is English-language. If I were to read the Japanese news I’m sure I’d get a WHOLE different perspective.

  11. 星空
    February 21, 2011 at 10:50

    全く、勝元先輩。。。 本当に可哀想なんです。主眼が死んじゃった、殺されたの!

    誰にも信じられない事が欲しくなければ、これを *翻訳* しなさいよ!

  12. Jason
    February 21, 2011 at 14:37

    English blogs or English youtubers talking about the Japanese language seriously bugs me.

    I hate it when they say how Japanese is so “honorific” and only males can say this and females can say that…

    seriously wtf…

  13. February 23, 2011 at 05:21

    When I watch the news in Japanese, especially about worldwide things -like the whaling-, I get a different picture of what’s going on. In anime/manga they don’t draw a lot of clutter (obviously because that takes money!) but if you watch enough movies and dramas, you’ll notice that that lack of clutter is more rare lol. Take モテキ, the lead guy’s apartment is completely stuffed head to toe, wall to wall.

    Also another big thing I’ve noticed is when I talk to my Japanese friends. They’re not the stereotypes that bloggers painted, also they tell me that I’m not what they imagined I would be as an American. (apparently out in the world we’re all a bunch of fat selfish pride-filled haters!)

  14. brityan
    March 2, 2011 at 00:22

    I studied quite a bit about Japanese culture and society as part of my university major, and after becoming fluent in the language and living among the people, I realize what a load of BS all those English-language textbooks about Japan are. There are definitely two entirely different Japans that exist: the one translated for us English-speakers, and the one I’m living in now. (Not to say that the Japanese don’t have equally off-base misconceptions about Americans, though!)

  15. March 2, 2011 at 23:23

    Absolutely, I’ve been saying for a long time now that you cannot possibly understand a people and their culture, no matter how long you live in the country (looking at you, English-speaking expats who have been in Thailand or wherever for 20 years and still don’t speak the local language fluently), if you don’t speak the local language.

    Also, on another note, have you read Tokyo Vice? Although it seems that most people are xenophilic or neutral on foreigners, there definitely does seem to be some xenophobia within the culture, especially if you actually want to live there and integrate yourself into the society as opposed to just visit.


  16. salem
    March 5, 2011 at 12:44

    The real irony of foreign language taxonomy I’ve found is that they want it both ways: languages like Chinese and Arabic are so alien you’d have a better chance of understanding a species from Zeta Reticuli II, but so similar to English that you can grok them just by reading lists of English -> Chinese words and translations. It makes so little sense that you have to wonder why no one said “Hey, wait…” sooner.

    • N/A
      March 6, 2011 at 01:57

      Couldn’t have better said it myself.

      Ironically, I learned English (2nd Lingo) , the AJATT way (AEATT way actually) before knowing about AJATT, and now I’m learning AJATT to learn Japanese…
      Life is wierd.

  17. Rick
    April 12, 2011 at 22:05

    Don Quijote is a better example to Yodabashi. at least yodabashi has high roofs.

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