3 Misconceptions About Japan

It takes many years of concerted effort to learn the language and culture of Japan. Even for dedicated learners, Japan can feel like a room with smoke and mirrors… Confusing, and hard to navigate. For newcomers, it is very easy to jump to the wrong conclusions.

Here are some misconceptions I’ve heard from visitors to Japan:

1. “Japanese aren’t emotional.”

The culture values being in control of one’s emotions so Japanese express emotion sparingly or in ways that are hard for foreigners understand. Japanese use subtle body language, nuanced words, tone of voice, and other subtle clues that communicate feelings. This does not mean that “Japanese aren’t emotional.” It does mean that foreigners are often clueless as to what is really going on.

“Saving face” is a value inherent in the culture of Japan and plays a part in why Japanese don’t show emotion – to save face for themselves or the person to whom they are talking. Children are taught from a young age to not show their emotions. Not that they don’t have emotions, but to not show them.

2. “Japanese aren’t interested in spiritual things.”

It IS true that very few Japanese are interested in organized religion. However, the vast majority of Japanese are extremely interested in spirituality. Evidence of this interest abounds in pop culture (manga, movies, TV, novels) which is saturated with spiritual themes. One example is the animated movie Spirited Away. Another clear sign of interest in the spiritual side of life are the millions of Japanese who visit shrines and temples at new years. The Unseen Face of Japan is a very valuable resource for gaining understanding about the intense interest Japanese have in spiritual things (see link below).

Modern Japan Photo by Andrew Benton
Modern Japan (Photo by Andrew Benton)

3. “Japan is a Westernized post-modern nation.”

Influenced by the West? Yes! However, it is a huge mistake to look at stuff like cars and buildings and jump to the conclusion that Japan’s people and culture are thoroughly Westernized.

It is true that Japan has an amazing infrastructure and advanced knowledge of science and technology. It is not true that Japan’s culture is similar to cultures in the Western world. Nor is Japan “post-modern.” How could a culture that has never been “modern” be post-modern? I think the best way to describe Japan is “pre-modern” with a veneer that looks Western and “modern.”

The church in Japan is an example of how the outward trappings of the church culture looks Western — the clothing, music, and architecture. But, the leadership style and the way people in the church think and act is not Western. In most ways, the church has typical Japanese culture patterns.

What misconceptions about Japan have you observed?

Related links:

The Unseen Face of Japan (Book by David C. Lewis)

Is Japan Post-Modern? 

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3 thoughts on “3 Misconceptions About Japan

  1. Really good insights. I would also add that #1 depends a bit on context. People are a lot more open and relaxed about showing their emotions if they’re in a small group of close friends than in a larger, more formal gathering, or with people they’re not as close to.

    1. We shouldn’t confuse having emotions with the expression of emotions. While Japanese express their emotions less, or less overtly, their decision-making processes are far more based on emotions than in the West, where we place a high value on logic. If someone had asked me (before reading this article), whether Japanese or Americans are more emotional, I would have answered, “Japanese, by far.” So when I read #1 in the article, I thought, “Really? People think Japanese aren’t emotional?”. But then I thought about the lack of overt expression (tatemae vs. honne) and realized that is what visitors to the country would notice first.

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