Before I got to Japan, I thought I knew the Japanese. I had met Japanese people on all of my travels around the world, I had read books, and taken an interest in the news. But nothing could have prepared me for everything I discovered when I finally arrived in the Land of the Rising Sun.
It turns out that the things one sees from up close aren’t seen from afar: when you’re in Japan, you suddenly discover many things. The Japanese are a special nation and I’ve learned a thing or two about them during my trips to Japan and during the five years I’ve been living here. Here are five interesting things you should know before you come:
1. All Japanese people have business cards
Do you have a business card? If not, how many people you know have one? Does your children’s teacher have a business card? What about your fitness trainer? Have you ever seen the greengrocer’s business card?
While we’re used to people in certain professions, such as lawyers and estate agents, having business cards, there are professions today in which people are less likely to have business cards.
But in Japan? Everyone has a business card. How do I know?
During one of my trips to Japan, sometime in 2013, I volunteered in the decor team for a music festival in order to enjoy free food and lodging. Just like any festival, I met people, chatted, and wanted to stay in touch after the festival ended and we all went our separate ways. At the end of the festival I found myself with a decent stack of business cards listing the person’s name, profession and contact details. The professions, if you were wondering, were: masseur, macramé artist, coffee roaster, itinerant singer, and marijuana grower. By the way, on the last business card, which was decorated in the style of a tie-dye T-shirt, the way to get hold of the person was: “I’m normally near my tent somewhere in nature”.
This may sound farfetched, but in Japan it’s quite common for everyone to have a business card. It’s simply a standard – the accepted thing is to give a business card, and that way it’s easier to remember your name, and people know how to get hold of you more easily.
2. Japan has three different elections
Japanese elections are far from simple. There’s an election for the upper house every three years and for the lower house every four years, and amid all of this, local elections every four years. Confused? So are they.
In the upper house, it’s a six-year term, but only half of its seats are voted on in each election. That’s why they have to vote every three years. However, the lower house has a four-year term.
Although the voting right in Japan was from 20 years of age up until 2016, the law has changed, and now a citizen can vote when he or she turns 18. Of course, that age comes with its own challenges, including entrance exams, hormones, and all the other confusion about life. So it’s hard to expect elections to be at the front of the minds of Japanese youths. Thus, in the upper house elections held in 2019, the voter turnout among 18 and 19 year-olds was only 31% (the national average was 48.8%).
The voter turnout in Japan changes over the years, but remains relatively low, with only 53.68% of those eligible voting in the last lower house election. Incidentally, this was just over one percentage point higher than the previous election.
3. Japanese people get world-class grades in math and science
Ever looked at the results of the PISA test? Neither had I, until I decided to write this post 😉
But if you do look, you’ll notice that Japan consistently appears in the top positions in the world, especially in the science test. However, in the 2018 PISA test, Japan scored comparatively lower in the reading test (16th out of 79 participating countries). Of course, the Japanese didn’t like this, and experts pointed a finger at the fact that children today are used to reading and writing only short sentences because of smartphones and social media.
But why blame only devices and applications when you could also blame educational institutions? Critics claimed that schools have failed to develop students’ ability to problem solve and cope with questions that have no clear answer.
In any case, no matter how you look at it, Japan is still a world leader in the three areas tested by PISA: math, science and reading.
4. A book-reading nation
Even though Japanese people constitute only 1.6% of the world’s population, their book market accounts for 7% of the global market! The Japanese market is the fourth largest after the US (30%), China (10%), and Germany (9%). Taking into account that the Japanese language is read only in Japan, one can rightfully say that the Japanese are big book readers.
The truth is, I encounter this often in trains, coffee shops, parks – lots of people sitting, reading a book. Perhaps to encourage people to read anywhere and everywhere, the books themselves are mostly a suitable size for carrying in a bag or even a big pocket. As a result, they can be carried around conveniently without being a heavy or unwieldy nuisance.
Another interesting fact about books in Japan: In bookshops you can find books that are read from right to left (like Hebrew) and from left to right. There’s no single standard, and in Japanese you can write both from right to left (then the lines will be written vertically, from the top down) and from left to right (then the lines will be horizontal, like English).
5. Falling asleep during lectures is allowed
It might sound like a contradiction of the last two sections: The Japanese do well in tests, read a lot and… fall asleep in lectures? How does that work?!
It turns out it does work.
I already wrote to you in this post about the common practice among students of dozing off in class, but it can get even more extreme. For example, the lecturer himself could fall asleep during his lecture.
I discovered this in a rather amusing way. In one of the first seminars I attended at university in my first month in Japan, one of the students presented the background of his research. He handed out papers, which were written in Japanese, and as he read aloud, we all followed the text. There were two professors in the seminar: an older one and a relatively young one, who were running the seminar and the discussion. The student kept reading aloud, and I tried to look serious and to closely follow the dense article with the little Japanese I knew back then.
I was very focused on the paper, when suddenly I heard a loud grating sound, and couldn’t figure out what it was. I was sure the gardener out the window was using a hoe, or some other agricultural tool, but when I looked up, a surprise awaited me: The older professor had dozed off and had started snoring. What was even more surprising was that none of the other students seemed to pay it any attention, not even the second professor. They had definitely heard him, but no one even looked up.
Whether it was out of respect for the lecturer or because they were accustomed to snoring in lectures – I’ll probably never know.
There’s so much more to write about Japan and its people, but for today, that’ll have to do.
Which of the five sections surprised you the most?
Write to me in the comments!