Strange Japan: Weird Things That Baffle Foreigners

There’s a lot of things about the Japanese culture that amuses, surprises and shocks visitors. Some of the weird things stem from the fact that this is a very reserved culture.

Most of the items on the list are harmless and fun in nature, while others are quite shocking and sad. This is my list of the top things that baffle foreigners when they visit Japan.


Everyone Wears Face Masks

This is the first thing that struck me the moment I stepped out of the airport and into the subway. Everyone, and I do mean EVERYONE, was wearing a cold mask. I felt like I had stepped into a Hollywood movie about a contagious virus outbreak. It actually made me worry a little if there was a health risk I wasn’t aware of.  After some time, I got accustomed to this fact and stopped noticing it.

When I think about it, there’s a practical reason for the prolific use of masks in Japan. Congested transportation force you to press up against your fellow passengers during rush hour, and not everyone has the good manners to cover their mouth when they cough or sneeze.

So this is a great precaution to avoid getting sick. But I do feel part of it may be manic obsessive compulsion or hypochondriac fear of illness.


Sleeping In Public Places

The Japanese are an overworked lot, and they’re desperate to catch up on their sleep.

I was shocked at how normal it is for people to sleep in public places. The subway, in particular, was a very popular place to power nap. During the rush hour, its not uncommon for your neighbor on the train to sleep. If you’re unlucky, they’ll use your shoulder as a pillow. What I never figured out is how they timed their naps so that they didn’t miss their stops!

More shocking, napping at your job is acceptable and may get you promoted. The Japanese call it “Inemuri”, where you’ve worked so hard you need to sleep at work to recover. That sounds like a great deal.

Makes me wonder if I could get away with sleeping 1 hour for every 10 minutes of work 😉


Crazy Themed Restaurants

There are restaurants you go to for the food. There are restaurants you go to for the ambiance. Then there’s Japan’s crazy themed restaurants which you go to for a unique experience.

The themed restaurant business in Tokyo is constantly evolving and changing. Just when you think you’ve seen everything, a new crazier idea pops up. One that you would’ve never thought of in a million years. In fact, the crazier the idea the more popular the place. Some of the most popular include animal cafes, maid cafes, ninja themed restaurants and more.

If you want to learn more about these places then checkout my article on themed restaurants in Japan.


Loneliness Is A Big Industry In Japan

Loneliness in Japan is an epidemic and it’s one of the strangest aspects of this country that I couldn’t wrap my mind around. It seems like the Japanese (especially the males) have been conditioned to be alone through comics (anime/manga), arcades, electronics and general societal norms that place a premium on being conservative and dare I say submissive. This has led to a booming industry that caters to a lonely population. Some examples include:

  • Women hiring male companions for the night, just to listen to them and pretend to be their boyfriend.
  • Thousands of Japanese men using Ninetendo’s “Love Plus”, where they can form a relationship with one of three virtual “girlfriends”: Rinko, Nene, and Manaka.
  • Cuddle cafes, where you can go to cuddle with a girl, to quiet the need for human contact.

Below are some interesting videos that address this subject. WARNING: The first video is NSFW and will require you sign into youtube to prove you’re over 18.


There's A Dark Side To The Loneliness

Loneliness is a dangerous emotion. It’s the gateway to depression and potentially serious mental illness. In Japan this has given way to some bizarre and deadly behaviors including:

  • Suicide Forest: Aokigahara, a forest at the base of Mount Fuji, is the second most popular place in the world for suicides, after San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
  • Hikikimori:  is a condition where men lock themselves away in their rooms and refuse contact with the outside world.
  • Kodokushi: which means “lonely death”. The word itself refers to elderly people dying alone and unnoticed, with their bodies sometimes going undiscovered for weeks or even months. The number of cases is staggering, some 30,000 a year.

Clearly, loneliness in Japan is an open secret that has led to some tragic consequences. Sadly, it’s a situation that won’t be changing anytime soon.


Limited Edition Kitkats

The Japanese love their kitkat, it’s the most popular sweet in the country. The word “Kit Kat” translates to “Kitto Katsu”, meaning good luck. What’s unique in Japan is that they have their own unique flavors like wasabi, baked potato, soy sauce or fruit parfait. Traveling through Japan, everytime I entered a 7-11 or mini market I’d look for a new flavor to try. It became like an Easter egg hunt. Some flavors were great while others made my tongue recoil in horror.

Either way, I’m filing this one under “good” strange.


Japanese Toilets

This goes without saying but Japanese love their toilets and so will you once you try them. Japanese toilets are truly a marvel of human ingenuity. These things have heated seats, play music so no one hears what’s going on, it will spray your behind clean and probably 100 more things I don’t know about. Really once you’ve experienced the joy of using a Japanese toilet it’s impossible to go back to a regular one.


No One Does Cosplay Like The Japanese

If there’s one word I’d use to describe the Japanese, it’s “dedicated”.

They simple don’t half ass anything, that includes dressing up as their favorite anime hero, game character or whatever. Cosplay, a combination of costume and play, is popular with both kids and adults.

Most travel guides tell you to go to Akihabara or Harajuku to catch these crazy characters. When I was there I didn’t have much luck. That’s OK though, I happened to be Japan during Halloween. I spent the day in Shibuya for what turned out to be the mother of all cosplay dress ups.

I really have to tip my hat to the Japanese, the costumes I saw ranged from creative to crazy to scandalous. For all the talk of Japan being conservative and reserved, when they have a chance to have fun and kick off their shoes they do it right.

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