I’ve been collecting Japanese oxymorons – things about this country that seem to directly contradict themselves. I’ve been here for a year and a half, and while I’ve learned the true face of Japan, there are still aspects that bug the hell out of me. I will probably never have answers to these questions. I think you have to be born Japanese to understand, but sometimes I think Japanese people don’t get it either.

1. How is it that everyone works so late, yet everything closes so early? How do people ever go to the bank, supermarket, hospital, etc.? And why do these things close so early if everyone is working so late?

I especially like the hospitals, which close at 12. 12 pm, that is. Or you can find one with “evening hours” that may close around 6 pm. Apparently, people who have jobs aren’t allowed to get sick. I have also concluded that being a doctor in Japan must be the easiest job ever. Arrive in the morning, see a few old folks, close up shop at noon, then go home. Holy shit did I ever go into the wrong profession! Show me the “Japan Exchange and Doctoring” program and I’ll be all over it like a crack fiend.

2. There are at least five ways I can think of to say, “My true feelings,” in Japanese, but Japanese people are far too indirect to ever actually tell you their true feelings.

This results in a lot of guesswork in Japanese exchanges, because apparently actually saying what you want is just shameful. But it does make the drive-thru at McDonalds an interesting experience.

Clerk: Welcome! How may I help you?
Man: Ah, today is a lovely day, isn’t it? And I’m really hungry.
Clerk: How many?
Man: Well, there are four people in my car, but my wife is kind of small and kids are too young to be ingesting so much grease.
Clerk: Right. So that’ll be one Big Mac set, one Double Cheeseburger set, and two kids meals, with one oolong tea, one Hi-C, and two Orange Juices, one without ice.
Kid: Dad, he forgot!
Man: Ah, I see. So, I was thinking about Plato the other day…
Clerk: I’m so sorry! And two Apple Pies. To go. Please drive to the window.

Note that this didn’t actually happen. But it could.

3. You will never find a trash can anywhere, but you won’t see litter either. Apparently, people just carry around their trash all day until they get to the one (yes, the one) trash can. I suspect that each prefecture gets one and only one trash can. I have yet to find the Kyoto Trashcan, but I am determined to before I leave this country.

4. Japanese people will tell you the country is cramped for space, but there sure is an abundance of golf courses.

5. This is a nation that prides itself on its almost suicidal work ethic. They work until late at night, then go in early in the morning. They work on Saturdays. Sometimes Sundays too. Even holidays. Despite all this working, they’re not actually doing much. I can say that with confidence when the guy next to me has taken his 10th cigarette break, and it’s only 11 am. Hey buddy, maybe if you laid off the menthols you could actually go home on time.

Sure, they are legitimately busy from time to time, but a great deal of time is spent making it look like they’re busy, or on tea/coffee/cigarette breaks. Yet, if someone actually skipped the cig breaks and finished his work around 4 or 5 pm and, oh my God!, left, they would be a slacker, an embarrassment to the company.

Ride any train around 8 pm, and you’ll see slews of tired and weary salarymen on their way home. Even as late as 11 pm. They catch a late dinner, maybe see the wife and kids briefly, go to sleep, wake up, and do it again.

While I’m thinking of salarymen on trains, here’s another thing I don’t understand. My friends and I will see businessmen absolutely passed out on the train. Some are exhausted from work; some have been drinking too much. But no matter what state of peaced-out they’re in, they always wake up just before the train gets to their stop.

This isn’t limited to salarymen. Anyone who is knocked out asleep on their train will somehow, magically, just wake up before they reach their stop. My friends and I are amazed. How do they do that? It must be another thing you’d have to be Japanese in order to understand.

6. It would be shameful for a Japanese person to directly complain about something to you. But they sure can comment on how big your foreign dick/boobs are.

Personally, I’d think something like, “Hey, would you mind turning your stereo down?” would be slightly less embarrassing than, “Hey, you’ve got a huge dick, huh?” but I guess this is not meant to be understood by the gaijin mind.

7. How is it that Japanese women are somewhat promiscuous, and have bad birth control habits, yet the population rate in this country is actually going down. This I really don’t understand. I suppose it’s a good thing, but what the hell?

Back in America, there are some people we can’t stop from having kids. They’re popping them out like Pez Dispensers. I used to theorize that the amount of issues a girl had was directly proportional to how fertile she was, where more issues = more fertility. So if you see a girl who is not at all well adjusted and you think she’s the last person on Earth fit to have a kid, she’s probably as fertile as the supple plains of Idaho. You may not even have to have sex with her, just wave your sperm in her general direction. That should do it.

Japanese women are not particularly well-adjusted. According to my theory, there should be babies popping out of rice cookers and zen rock gardens. And yet, they’re not. I don’t get it.

8. This country has cell phones more advanced than some of your personal computers, cameras the size of Kit Kat bars, and GPS systems in every car, yet they’ve failed to grasp the miraculous wonders that are the drying machine and centralized ventilation?

The vent thing especially kills me. The Japanese have something called a kotatsu, which is a table with a small heater underneath. You can put a large blanket over the kotatsu, so everyone can sit around it, put their legs under the blanket, and share the warmth. Well, that’s nice, right? Families spending time together and bonding around the kotatsu? You’d think, wouldn’t you? But I can guaran-damn-tee you, the only conversation around that kotatsu is, “It’s really cold today, isn’t it?” In America, sure, we’d all be in separate rooms watching our own separate TV, but at least we’d be warm. And later on, we may actually talk about what we saw on TV to the other members of our family.

9. Japanese people always seem to be in a hurry, but they’re not going anywhere important. To their jobs. Why hurry for that? To school? Again, what’s the rush? Home? Where exactly is the fire?

The rushing problem is so bad, it’s made a mockery of Japanese traffic lights. Here in Japan, green means “Go,” yellow means “Go faster,” and red means “Two more cars.” Most of the time, it’s not even close. The light’s been red for 3-4 seconds and a car will still come barreling through the intersection. The Japanese government would be so filthy rich if they installed those red light cameras at every intersection and charged about $200 a ticket.

10. The Japanese economy is apparently pretty bad right now. But I have yet to enter a house/apartment/love shack/cardboard box without a plasma/HD TV. This is an economy in shambles? What was it like when it was good? Two plasma TVs? Man, I wish I could say that kind of thing! “Well, I wanted to buy the summer home in Lexington and Sri Lanka, but with the economy the way it is now, I could only afford the Lexington one. It’s terrible. I’m thinking of applying for welfare.”

11. Come to think of it, that’s another oxymoron – everyone here has nice TVs. But the television here absolutely sucks. Save a few good shows, I’d much rather watch evolution – literally stare at a monkey and wait for it to start becoming human – than watch Japanese TV. I can promise you, the monkey would be 100x more entertaining. Even if it were dead.

  1. September 12, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    About point 5: I think it’s an Asian thing. All Asians get a +5 to the skill “waking up prior to stop”. It’s like how all Chinese women stay young and sexy for an awfully long time, and then suddenly transform into an old crone somewhere around the age of 70. (We also get super powers after the transformation, but don’t tell anyone)

    My method of waking up on time is by looking at the train station board, roughly calculating how long it’ll take me to get to my stop and then deciding to sleep for the amount of time it’ll take me to get to my stop.

    Complicated, but it works.

  2. Darkrider
    December 10, 2010 at 6:50 am

    I’ve got another one for the list of Japanese oxymorons. In Japan its’ pretty standard to apologize as a matter of politeness however there are some instances where the Japanese don’t apologize even when they should! Like if you got in a car accident. You or the other person driving wouldn’t apologize because that would imply taking fault. Or if a prominent bank or company makes a mistake their instructed not to apologize falling back on some ridiculous saying of “run your business like you were a feudal lord” which makes absolutely no sense in twenty-first century economics.

    So basically you’re expected to apologize for minute, insignificant things unless it means being wrong or taking fault. Ah Japan. You continue to confuse and amaze us.

  3. Darkrider
    December 5, 2011 at 6:35 am

    I totally agree with you on the kotatsu thing. You should check out the blog of the guy who runs the jlist website. This guy goes on and on about kotatsu’s as if they were the greatest invention of the 20th century. For pete’s sake it’s a coffee table with a blanket and a heater, BIG FRIKKEN DEAL!

  4. Vidgmchtr
    December 24, 2011 at 8:43 am

    Agreed with 3. A lot of the time in Shizuoka I’d be carrying an empty can of soda/juice or a water bottle around with me simply because I hadn’t found a place to discard it.

    While in Kyoto I’d be carrying a Coke can around with me. My teacher, who was from Sendai, would literally get mad at me for still carrying it even though I was done with it. Every few minutes, she’d see me with it and go “Why haven’t you thrown your garbage away?” It took quite a bit of energy for me to not snap at her with “IT’S YOUR COUNTRY’S FAULT I HAVEN’T FOUND A GODDAMN RECYCLING BIN YET!”

    Of course it had to be a recycling bin because throwing it in the garbage/cigarette butt bin was no good, and those seemed to be a bit more frequent than recycling bins, but only by a very small amount. XD

  5. Darkrider
    March 23, 2012 at 10:32 am

    Japan is country that’s pretty liberal when it comes to it’s adult entertainment which makes it rather odd that they censor frikken near all of it. I mean isn’t the whole purpose of having porn so that you can see the naughty bits? What’s the purpose of having all these doujin artists and dating sim game makers spend hours creating all these sexy/raunchy images if they’re just gonna pixelate the good stuff? Isn’t that what the customer is paying for? And it’s so specific. Breasts and butts are all up for display but any hint of genetalia(be it male or female)is completely obscured. In the mangas it’s a little better but it’s still kind of a pain to have a hot scene ruined by a censor block no matter how small. So let me see if I understand this properly. Breasts, butts and nipplage are all perfectly acceptable for the viewing public but any sign of the nether regions will apparently result in the collapse of society. There are a few exceptions to this rule but anyone who’s seen enough of it has to admit there is a ton of censorship in Japanese porn. Yet another of the many oxymorons that make Japan the bizzare/messed up country that it is.

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