What is Japan really?


Reading time: 4 minutes

Contrary to popular belief, Japan as a whole is not a country that is comparable to a scene from your favourite neo-cyberpunk film, whereby there is a juxtaposed combination of ‘lowlife and high-tech’, in fact, it is quite the opposite. In this quick read article, you’ll learn what life outside of the main cities of Japan is really like. Subscribe here for more upcoming Japan focused content and also follow Clueless in Asia on YouTube and Instagram

Japan Is Not Tokyo.

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This is vital to recognizing what Japan is and what it is not. So, what is Tokyo? Picture a panoramic view from ‘Ghost in the Shell’, where the night air is visible in gargantuan holograms marketing lewd teen idols and where the downpour is seemingly trickled out through overhead cables that squeeze in swollen alleyways. Imagine the sound of juggernaut neons and screens cracking and buzzing over a public announcement of how to be a model citizen, as the rebel breed Bōsōzoku gangs rev their motorcycles.

Scale that back by 20% and that’s Tokyo. Scale that back an extensive 95% and that’s Japan as an average. Japan, outside of Tokyo and other major cities like Osaka, is not a fast-paced setting of efficiency, modernism, and clinical hygiene, in fact, it was written by author and novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki in his essay, In Praise of Shadows(Free PDF), that the Japanese saw beauty in shadow and dirt:

  • and so it has come to be that the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows—it has nothing else.” 
  • “Westerners attempt to expose every speck of grime and eradicate it,
    while we Orientals carefully preserve and even idealize it”.

Is It Hygienic?

Yes and no. Personal hygiene is taken pretty seriously, but what about the hygiene of an establishment? 

Without question, there is a sense of vulgarity within western white-floodlighting and bacterial extermination with chemical cleaning, for the reasons that it can fully annihilate both privacy, texture and character, but, although there is beauty in shadow, there has to remain a sense of sanitation, think of it as, ‘speckless shadows’, but in Japan, this is not the case. Everything that comes with shadows is included, filaments, skin cells, and quite literally inches of grime. In Japan, it is evident that shadow is favoured still to this day, but for the reasons of aesthetics, I am not so sure. Is there really deep conscious reasoning behind the layers of dust you’ll almost certainly find resting in the recesses of shadow? And what of smell? In many buildings, an old musky odour from yellowing plastics and smoke-stained ceiling tiles dominate the air, are these also aesthetics? Try to imagine visiting your grandmother, and for the purpose of creating this picture, she’s a smoker. The walls have yellowed from an opaque film of tar and a musky haze lines the air, and as you draw back her curtains you cough as a fog of dust falls down your gullet. This is a very real standard of what you might expect to see in Japan.

So, despite the cliche imagery of Japanese people wearing surgical masks to prevent the spread of sicknesses, there is without doubt priorities as to where efforts should be placed in the realms of hygiene, and establishments seem to fall short on that list. That’s not to say that you’ll be holding your breath as you sit in a restaurant, as many chain restaurants, of course, adhere to stringent requirements, but certainly, on average, you’ll feel the same way when visiting your smoking Yoda’esque grandmother, “It’s old and I don’t want to touch it”.

Modern & Efficient?


“a 90’s timebomb hit the suburbs and it has never recovered”

The gadgetry associated to Japan somewhat eludes those outside of the main cities as the rest of the country still assembles behind boxed screened monitors and clunky keyboards; it’s as if a 90’s timebomb hit the suburbs and it has never recovered. You’ll still encounter fax machines being used fashionably, as is the case with flip phones, cassettes and DVD rental shops; it’s like watching an old American soap with oversized suits and crimped hair. This may be a result of Japan’s ageing population, whereby in 2050, it’s estimated by the government that a massive 40% of Japan’s population will be over 65 years of age.

How does ‘old-tech’ affect Japan? The manner in which services are offered is frustratingly tedious, with mounds of paperwork and stamps being preferred over the modern-day preference of emails and phone calls. To expand on this, Japan is utterly obsessed with paper trails and hardcopies which results in manic inefficiency and a methodology that not only seems but also behaves, in a totally illogical sense, thus making simple matters complex and dragged out. There seems to be a whiff of stubbornness to change from an 80’s style of business management and it is easy to understand why so many Japanese companies stay in Japan; their business model will not work with today’s global economy. This, is vastly different to that of China, a country that could be said is ‘less technologically advanced’, yet, has a ‘same day’ mentality that adapts to demand (well, in most cases).

What about Japanese homes? Japan’s new age construction is remarkable, the buildings showcase an architect’s personality and are years ahead of the bore and drab designs you’ll find in the west, but what about the average Japanese home? The traditional buildings outside of the many cities are without a doubt architecturally remarkable as they retain history in their wooden shells and heavy tiled roofs, but with this comes dampness and rot. These homes are, of course, understandably prone to such, but situated all around are slightly more ‘modern’ twenty-first century homes that unfortunately ruin the view with their dilapidated, single glazed looking designs.


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Japanese people live up to the expectation of an unwavering decency and respect which puts us westerners to shame“.

Despite the contrasts between the main cities and the suburbs, there is a uniformed and very real culture that does not waver, one that has not bent in favour of one or the other and is in fact shared by all. If you put aside the weeaboos (watch for unbearable cringe!) and their extremely misguided opinions on what Japan means and disregard what you think Tokyo might be, Japan, under its shadows, is still the Japan we all think it to be. On your average stroll, you will see temples and shrines elevated on hills and hidden in shade, people do wear kimonos and practice tea ceremonies and above all, the Japanese people live up to the expectation of an unwavering decency and respect which puts us westerners to shame.

So, no, Japan is not bustling with futuristic daily technologies and it certainly is not anime crazed, but it is all of what I mentioned above, and that, for some paradoxical reason is why I couldn’t be prouder to say, “I live in Japan“.

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