Japanese culture is getting more and more popular and people around the world know about it far better than they did 20 years ago, but there are still a lot of misconceptions about Japan. Do the Japanese really put their hands together when they greet? Is every single one of them ninja or samurai? Do they eat sushi every day? The answer is NO.
I’m going to give you 10 major examples of myths and misconceptions about Japan. Some of them are true, but others aren’t.
You can read many similar articles on the internet, but most of them were written by non-Japanese who don’t know how to read or speak Japanese. What’s written here, on the other hand, is all based on the experience and knowlwdge of genuine Japanese. My husband is a full Japanese, and both he and I were born and spent our whole lives in Japan. I’m also going to quote some tweets of the Japanese people to show you that I’m telling the truth.
False: Every Japanese knows how to fight like ninja or samurai
I hope you know that ninja and samurai don’t exist anymore (although some Japanese claim to be successors of ninja), but it looks like some non-Japanese people still think that the Japanese know how to fight like ninja or samurai. Well… some Japanese might, but unfortunately nobody around me can fight like ninja or samurai and not many in the entire country can.
The Japanese art of swordsmanship or ninja isn’t something that is passed down from generation to generation, and parents don’t teach their kids how to fight. Some schools teach you Japanese art of fencing, but that doesn’t make you a samurai.
Let me ask you something now – is every single American a cowboy and rides a horse? Do the British know how to fight like a knight? Don’t ask such a stupid question, you say? You now understand how the Japanese would feel if you asked them if they knew how to fight like ninja or samurai.
Knowing that many foreigners think that every single Japanese is a ninja, many Japanese make jokes about that on twitter:
将来、外人に— クリス・クライス (@chrifon) March 13, 2020
Quick translation: “If a foreigner asks me ‘why aren’t the Japanese hesitant to wear a mask?’ in the future, I’m ready to answer ‘that’s because every one of us is a descendent of ninja, of course.'”
なぜ日本人は暴動を起こさないのかと外国人が憤ってる、というツィート流れてきたけど、日本人みんな忍者だから隠密戦でちゃくちゃくと敵をやっつけてるのであって、怒ってないわけじゃないよ。— 遠藤平介 (@heisukeend) June 7, 2020
Quick translation: “I saw a tweet saying that foreigners are upset about the Japanese who never start riots even when they are oppressed, but the Japanese are all descendents of ninja and we beat enemies surely and steadily by covert actions. It’s not that we are not angry about the oppression.”
*The user doesn’t use the word “oppression,” but I added it to make it easier to understand.
VRchatで外国人と話す時に— 蓮木 犬太Vtuber21時配信ザリガニとテッシュが主食 (@hasuki_kenta) June 6, 2020
Quick translation: “When I say to foreigners on VRchat ‘I’m from Japan and I’m a ninja. But it’s a top secret so don’t tell anyone,’ they get all excited and answer ‘of course, I promise!’ So adorable.”
In case you believed that these Twitter users were actually ninja… no, they aren’t. They are just joking and they are no ninja. But looking at these tweets, it looks like most of the Japanese are not upset about foreigners assuming that every single Japanese is a ninja, because they know that foreigners adore ninja and they are not mocking at the Japanese.
By the way, when you spell ninja or samurai in plural, don’t put an “s” at the end because no such Japanese words as “ninjas” or “samurais” exist. The Japanese always spell them “ninja” (忍者) and “samurai” (侍) regardless of how many of them there are and never “忍者s” or “侍s.”
True&False: Every Japanese eats whale and dolphin
Next example is “do the Japanese eat whale and dolphin?” The answer is yes and no.
I wanted to say with confidence that this was false because I have never seen whale meat sold at the supermarket nor eaten it in my life, but it seems I was wrong. According to this survey conducted by the Japanese government in 2001, 87.7% of the Japanese have eaten whale. I thought that 20-30% of people would have eaten whale at most, but it was totally the opposite. The survey was done 20 years ago and things might be different now, but another survey (Japanese) conducted in 2018 says that 63.9% of people have eaten whale.
So it’s safe to say that the majority of the Japanese today have eaten whale at least once in their lives.
However, the second survey says that 64.7% of all the responders have never seen whale meat sold, and 67% of those who have eaten whale before haven’t eaten it in the past 5 years.
In summary, although most Japanese have eaten whale in the past, it’s not regular diet and they only eat it on limited occasions.
By the way, there are no distinct differences between whales and dolphins but the only difference is their sizes. Dolphins are smaller types of whales, but I’m not sure how many Japanese have eaten what we call “dolphins.”
True&False: Every Japanese loves anime and manga
I think people in the world thinks that every Japanese loves anime and manga. Although I would say that not everybody watches anime or reads manga as frequently as you might think, every Japanese loves anime or manga to some extent. Some say “I don’t like anime or manga,” but they have watched at least one Ghibli film for sure, and everyone around me watched Evangelion 20 years ago. In 2021, the whole nation is crazy about Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba. Even if they don’t watch anime every day, anime are firmly embedded in the Japanese culture without doubt.
Also, many “salary men” (Japanese-English meaning corporate employees) read manga magazines on the train. Free web comics are growing more and more popular too.
However, let me explain something important: Even though everybody has watched at least one anime in their lives, it doesn’t mean that every one of them is keen on recent anime or manga. So even if you ask a Japanese about a recent anime and he doesn’t know, don’t show your disappointment because it will piss him off.
Also, note that no Japanese talks like anime characters in real life. If you are thinking of learning Japanese from anime, I wouldn’t recommend it.
False: Every Japanese can read all Chinese characters
The Japanese can’t read all Chinese characters.
If you think they can because the Japanese language uses Chinese characters, don’t get upset when a Japanese asks you if you can read Latin because both English and Latin use the Roman alphabet. As well as most Americans can’t read Latin, most Japanese can’t read Chinese. If you insist “but English and Latin are completely different languages,” the Japanese would say the exact same thing.
Although the Japanese and Chinese languages share many letters and vocabulary in common, they are completely different languages and have evolved differently. While modern Chinese has simplified most Chinese characters, Japanese hasn’t and this is why the Japanese can’t read modern Chinese characters.
See these Chinese characters for example:
These were originally the same Chinese character 業 meaning “means of livelihood,” “business” or “karma,” but the Chinese simplified it and most Japanese don’t know how to read the simplified version. I knew this simplified character because I had learned some Chinese, but my husband who is a full Japanese had no idea how to read it.
There are also other cases where the Japanese can’t read some Chinese characters used in the Japanese language. Some family names and place names have so many ways to read and even the Japanese get confused. Here are some examples of Chinese characters which have multiple ways of reading:
- 本町: Motomachi, Hommachi, Honcho (place name)
- 東雲: Shinonome, Toh-un (family name, place name)
- 金城: Kinjo, Kaneshiro, Kanagusuku etc. (family name, place name)
- 新谷: Shintani, Araya, Niya, Aratani etc. (family name, place name)
本町 is a very popular place name which means something like “main street,” but it has at least three ways of reading it. 東雲 is usually read “shinonome,” but in some cases it’s read “toh-un.” So confusing. Place names and family names are full of exceptions and even the Japanese don’t know how to read many of them unless they know that place or person. So many non-Japanese say to me “what, you don’t know how to read this Chinese character even though you were raised in Japan?!” but please, we have to learn more than 2,000 Chinese characters and they are full of exceptions! From next time, when they ask me that question, I think I’ll ask them if they can read “Lyngtungnafjallshjalli” 😁 It’s a place in Iceland.
False: Slurping noodles is a compliment for the cook
It seems some non-Japanese think that slurping noodles is a compliment for the cook.
But, uh… what? Is there such a custom in Japan? I have lived in Japan for my entire life, but I have never ever heard of such a thing to this day. My husband who is a full Japanese says he doesn’t know it either.
The Japanese do slurp noodles, but they only do so to enjoy the fragrance of cold soba (buckwheat noodles) or chill hot noodles. Slurping is considered etiquette all right, but I don’t think any Japanese thinks about the cook when they slurp because they only do so out of habit. Do you think about the cook when you try not to clink your knife against the dish???
I googled it (麺 すする 作った人への礼儀 – noodles slurp compliment for the person who cooked), but all I got was “slurping noodles is considered ill-mannered outside of Japan,” “the Japanese slurp noodles to enjoy the fragrance or simply to cool the noodles,” “even some Japanese can’t stand the slurping noises,” “the Chinese don’t slurp noodles” etc. and no results for “compliment for the cook.” Maybe I could find some mentions about it if I tried harder, but would you call it a common practice if only a few people talked about it? I couldn’t find any tweets about it either because I’m sure nobody has the concept of it.
I’m guessing that this misconception was made up by some foreigners when they labored to attach some meaning to the etiquette. They heard that slurping noodles was the etiquette in Japan, but they didn’t understand why the Japanese did so. They then thought that there should be a reason behind it and came up with the idea that the Japanese would slurp noodles to show appreciation for the cook… I don’t know. This is just my guess.
False: Japan is technologically advanced
Japan might look to be technologically advanced, but in fact it’s not quite.
80% of people still use cash (cashless billing adoption rate is only 20% as of 2020 according to this survey by the government), and most people still use physical seals or handwritten signatures for agreements instead of electronic signatures. Many people over 50 years old don’t know how to use computers and they ask their assistants to create simple Word or Excel documents. When they have to type, they use their two index fingers. Touch typing? What the heck is it? In addition, they still use fax in this 21st century! In case you don’t know what a fax is, here’s Wikipedia for it.
I work for a huge IT company that every Japanese knows, but it was only very recently (late 2020 I think) that my company finally introduced electronic signatures. Until then, we had to go to the office using packed trains even during the COVID pandemic to get handwritten signatures of superiors whenever we made an agreement. And the Japanese employers think it’s the most precious thing for their employees to come to the office sacrificing themselves to show loyalty to their employers. Pah!!!
But that’s not the end of it. Japanese government officers don’t know much about technologies and their servers keep getting attacked by foreign attackers. Even Japan’s national Cybersecurity Center was attacked on May 26th 2021 because, ironically, their security measures weren’t sufficient 🤣 Also, COCOA (COVID-19 Contact App), which checks if you had any close contacts with COVID-19 positive people, has a fatal error and it doesn’t function at all on Android devices. This is because the Japanese government has no knowledge in app development and they forced a third-party developer to develop and debug the app only in two weeks (it usually takes months to develop a smartphone app). And they spent like millions of dollars (billions of yen) to develop it. WTF!!!
If Japan looks technologically advanced, that’s because of the few young smart people that are not allergic to new technologies and start up new businesses.
True&False: Every Japanese loves sushi and fish
This is a bit tricky part, but if you ask if the Japanese love sushi and fish, the answer would probably be yes. But when it comes to whether or not they actually eat them every day, I doubt it.
Most Japanese do love sushi and fish, but they don’t eat sushi every day because liking something and actually eating it every day are different things. As I wrote in this article, sushi is expensive and usually eaten on special occasions. Most people don’t eat it every day even if they want to. It’s like you don’t eat roast turkey every day.
If you asked a Japanese if he eats sushi every day, he would be either pissed off or laugh at you in their heart without showing the expression, so be careful.
Also, not to mention, some Japanese don’t like seafood and don’t eat sushi.
False: Every Japanese wears kimono and knows how to wear it
In modern Japan, unfortunately nobody wears kimono anymore. Well, I can’t say “nobody” because I haven’t asked around the whole country, but even if I walked on busy streets in Shinjuku or any other areas of Tokyo, I don’t think I would see more than one person a day who wear kimono. Some people might wear kimono in older areas like Sugamo, and priests wear Japanese clothes similar to kimono, but general people on the streets don’t wear kimono unless there are special reasons.
Also, because they don’t wear kimono anymore, most Japanese don’t know how to wear it. Kimono consists of many layers and it’s difficult to wear it anyway.
In the modern age, kimono is considered as ceremonial costume. The Japanese wear kimono on special occasions such as graduation ceremonies, weddings, funerals etc. If you think that the Japanese should wear kimono every day, people in the West should dress like Mozart and Mary Antoinette every day.
Here are some tweet by the Japanese about foreigners thinking that the Japanese wear kimono every day:
外国人が「日本人はみんな着物にちょんまげ」っていうのに通じるものがあるな(笑)— ワンダフル雑種 (@izanagi137) February 23, 2017
Quick translation: “It sounds like foreigners thinking ‘all Japanese wear kimono and have chonmage hair’ lol. So stupid.”
*It seems this is a retweet of someone else’s tweet, but the original tweet was deleted.
そうだ オリンピック見に来る外国人を日本人みんな着物着て男子はちょんまげで迎えて間違った日本観植え付けようよ— 鬨乃美弦🎨📮skebとSKIMA開設 (@tokinoweb) September 8, 2013
Quick translation: “Hey, why don’t we all wear kimono and chonmage hair during the Olympics and give foreigners the wrong impression about Japan?”
外国人がしてる日本の勘違いbest３— ちまてぃー (@chimatty_0619) March 17, 2013
Quick translation: “The three worst misconceptions about Japan that foreigners have:
3: The Japanese wear kimono every day
2: High-tech lifestyle with full of robots
1: Samurai exist
Isn’t it the world of Gin Tama? LOL”
*Gin Tama is a Japanese anime.
False: Every Japanese puts their hands together whenever they greet
I’m pretty sure that the majority of you guys think that the Japanese put their hands together whenever they greet or say thank you, but that’s a big no.
The Japanese don’t put their hands together when they greet. They only do so before meal, when they pray or apologize.
If you have seen any Japanese put their hands together when they greeted, that’s probably because they knew that non-Japanese people believed it was the Japanese custom. The Japanese only put their hands together to entertain the non-Japanese.
I’m almost sure about this because I have seen so many Japanese TV stars put their hands together to greet when they were shooting a TV show outside of Japan, but they don’t usually do so in Japan. When they greet other Japanese, they never put their hands together.
In case you don’t believe me, here are some tweets by the Japanese wondering why foreigners think that the Japanese put their hands together when they greet:
外人さんって日本人相手に挨拶するとき手を合わせる祈りとかどっかの拳法の組手前みたいなポーズするけど認識がアジアひとくくりなんだよなぁ（ムネリンも向こうでたぶん求められてそのパフォーマンスやってた）— ほーへん🐧 (@hoffen9001) July 10, 2019
Quick translation: “Foreigners put their hands together when they greet Japanese like other Asians do in some martial arts, but they simply mix up Asians all together (once a Japanese comedian held that pose outside of Japan only because he was asked to). Well, but we can’t tell apart the Westerners either and we can’t blame them though.”
ずっと気になっているのが、外国人が日本人に挨拶するときに(｡-人-｡) って手を合わせるけどさ…普通日本人って挨拶で手は合わせないよ。タイ人なら解りますが？誰。日本人と挨拶する時に手を合わせるって教えた奴。なんか変。気持ち悪い。— ぱずー (@papazoo77) November 22, 2017
Quick translation: “I’ve been wondering about foreigners put their hands together when they greet Japanese… But the Japanese don’t put their hands together when they greet. I could understand if it was Thailand? Who made up that practice of putting hands together to greet Japanese? It’s rather bizarre. Gross.”
日本人は手を合わせる挨拶はしないけど、勘違いしてる外国人は多いねー。ついこっちも手を合わせちゃったりw— ミウミ (@ae_griffith) June 30, 2017
Quick translation: “The Japanese don’t put their hands together when they greet, but so many foreigners have a wrong perception about that. Looking at them, sometimes I accidentally put my hands together too lol”
Let me add something before moving on to the next example: As some of you know, Christel Takigawa put her hands together during her Olympic Speech in 2013, but so many Japanese criticized her because she could have given the wrong impression about Japan to the whole world. I don’t know why she did such a thing, but maybe she was trying to entertain the non-Japanese like the TV stars were.
True: Trains in Japan (Tokyo) are always packed
Last example is this: Are Japanese trains always packed? And the answer is HELL YES.
Of course, there are less people once everyone has arrived at their offices, and suburb areas don’t have enough people to get trains packed anyway (or there is no train at all in the first place), but commuter trains in Tokyo are packed as hell. I don’t go to the office anymore because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but when I did, I had to get into insanely packed trains as in the above picture EVERY SINGLE MORNING.
It makes me and everyone sick. Everyone is stressed and they are so easy to start quarreling. The reason why commuter trains in Tokyo are so crowded is that Japanese companies want to found their companies in Tokyo and everyone moves there because of them. There are simply too many people here.
For inbound tourists who don’t have to commute in packed trains everyday, looks like it’s amusing and many of them use packed trains for entertainment, but please, if you have enough time, don’t use trains during the rush hours and use them when they are less crowded! 😭
By the way, although trains were not crowded during the first COVID-19 state of emergency in April-May 2020, they are back to “normal” and as packed as they used to be as of May 2021.
Conclusion: There are many misconceptions about Japan, but the Japanese are not always upset about them as long as they don’t feel they are mocked
So, did you learn anything new reading this article, or did you know everything? I’m sure you learned something new unless you know more about Japan than a Japanese. 🙂
There are so many myths and misconceptions about Japan such as the Japanese put their hands together when they greet, and some Japanese are upset about them for sure. This is because some non-Japanese people blindly believe the widespread false information and throw irrelevant questions at the Japanese. Especially when the non-Japanese mix up Japan with other Asian countries, the Japanese are pissed off because there is no respect for Japan as well as the rest of Asia.
However, when the Japanese don’t feel that they are mocked or looked down on, they don’t always get upset. For example, as the Japanese know that people in the world adore ninja and samurai, they don’t get upset even if foreigners think that every Japanese is a ninja or samurai.
Japan might be so peculiar and different from the rest of the world, but it’s pretty much the same for the Japanese too. The rest of the world is so peculiar and different for the Japanese. What makes the Japanese upset will most probably get you upset if you were in the opposite position.