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5 misconceptions that foreigners have about Japan

People in Japan eat sushi every day

Whenever you mention Japanese food to foreigners, who have never been to Japan, they immediately think of sushi. It is the most popular type of Japanese food overseas and due to its exquisite way of serving and delicious taste of fresh ingredients, the number of sushi restaurants is still rapidly growing worldwide. However, sushi is not really found on the daily menu of Japanese families. Japanese food is much more than that, and influenced by other cuisines, it is reshaping its culinary tradition. Rice is widely consumed in Japan (as well as many other places worldwide) and can be compared to bread eaten at any possible occasion in western countries. Japanese rice is short-grained and always slightly sticky when cooked, therefore it’s very easy to eat with chopsticks. Japanese are also using different types of noodles (like ramen, udon and soba) as an ingredient of many dishes. Deep-fried food is extremely popular (especially tempura, karaage and tonkatsu), as well as grilled meat (yakiniku/yakitori) and curry. Dishes that are cooked on the dining table add value to social gatherings with friends. Nabe (hot pot), okonomiyaki (omlette) and takoyaki (octopus balls) are delicacies that I most often ate at Japanese home dinner parties.


Note: Most people are very surprised to hear that Japanese cuisine is not vegetarian friendly. Finding things that don’t contain meat is extremely difficult, while fruit and vegetables are served in very small amounts (and they are also very expensive).


Air is so polluted that everyone needs to wear protective masks

Most foreigners think that Japanese wear masks due to incredible pollution in the cities. However, the air in Japanese megalopolis is surprisingly fresh and clean. The reason why so many people wear masks (on the streets, as well as indoors) is to avoid getting a cold or flu, or to prevent infecting others when already ill. It is considered extremely rude to carelessly sneeze and cough your germs around and to contaminate people in your surrounding. Many Japanese have airborne allergies and during the hay fever season, most population covers their nose and mouth with surgical masks.

Another thing that I just recently learned from my colleagues is that girls (especially students) wear masks to cover their face when they didn’t have time to perfect their makeup. Japanese girls really take a great care of their looks – their impeccable hair and makeup (regardless to weather conditions – temperatures, humidity and typhoons) always fascinated me.


Everything in Japan is high-tech and futuristic

Yes, Japan has superfast trains, toilettes that can almost do your homework, all possible types of vending machines on every corner and generally very sophisticated infrastructure. However, it also abuses fax and copy machines more than any other country in the world. Despite technologically advanced systems, paper is still king in Japan. If you ever dealt with any administrative task there, you have learnt that handwritten file sealed with a stamp is the only valid way a to write a document. Officials in public sector don’t use emails and each and every official record is kept in an archive as a hard copy. Apparently, keeping thighs on paper is much safer than electronic data in Japan.

While the rest of the world is going ‘green’ and taking ecological issues as one of the greatest concerns, Japan still loves printing brochures, leaflets and handouts for any given occasion. Japanese employees even print out presentations and distribute them to their contacts during company meetings, just as a backup. And this doesn’t seem to be changing at all.


Japanese people sleep on the floor

Japanese don’t sleep on the floor. Their traditional mattress (futon) is just different than the contemporary one. It is pliable enough to be folded and stored away during the day, allowing the room to serve for purposes other than as a bedroom. Traditional bedrooms also have different flooring, consisting of mats made from straw or compressed wood chips called tatami, offering much softer and more comfortable rest. The size of a room is often measured by the number of tatami mats.

Nowadays in urban areas “ordinary” mattresses are becoming more popular and common than futon beds. Personally I really prefer futon to “sinking” into memory foam (or similar) while sleeping. It is comfortable, as well as convenient.


Japanese and Chinese languages are similar

Japanese has no genealogical relationship with Chinese, but it makes extensive use of Chinese characters (kanji) in its writing system. Japanese language didn’t have its own script and primarily used only Chinese characters, from which it later developed two unique Japanese scripts, hiragana and katakana.  Also a large portion of Japanese vocabulary is borrowed from Chinese. Still we cannot talk about language similarity, as Japanese language belongs to the Japonic language group, whereas Chinese forms one of the branches of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Even though Chinese characters are indeed used in Japan, they have different pronunciations and sometimes quite diverse meanings. If you understand Chinese, it might help you read road signs and restaurant menus, but it won’t get you too far trying to communicate verbally.

Written by Una

Global English 30 Jan 2014 at 09:22
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