What is so special about Japan anyway?

I absolutely adore Japan. And I am not the only one. More and more foreigners are becoming true Japan-o-holics. But where does this fascination with the land of the rising sun come from? What is so special about Japan anyway?

One of the most interesting things about Japan, at least to me, is that it is just so different. Even the smallest aspect of life becomes an adventure if you have no idea what to expect. The slogan of the Japan Tourism Organization captures this idea perfectly with three simple words: “Japan. Endless Discovery.”

Japan endless discovery

Japan National Tourism Organization slogan

Of course any foreign culture might make for an endless discovery. But in my experience, there is no culture quite as ‘different’ as the Japanese culture. Off the top of my head, I can think of two reasons why Japan feels even more different (to us Westerners) than other foreign cultures .

  • Up until roughly 150 years ago, Japan had very little contact with the outside world. During the Edo period (1603 – 1868), foreigners were not allowed to enter Japan. This has given the Japanese culture the opportunity to develop independently of foreign influences for over 200 years, leading to a truly unique culture. I think the influence of feudal Japan can still be felt in today’s modern Japan.
  • Japan is a first world country. Usually when Westerners think about cultures that are very different from their own, they imagine third world countries. And naturally we expect a third world country, that is already so different in terms of infrastructure, economy, etc., to have a very different culture as well. But to experience a severe culture shock in the midst of the comforts of modern-day Japan is quite something else.

Another thing that makes Japanese culture so fascinating is that it is a culture of subtlety and contradictions. In Japan, many things are not what they seem at first sight. That often makes it difficult to accurately describe or understand certain aspects of Japanese culture. But of course it also makes life in Japan very interesting (or frustrating, depending on your viewpoint). Living as a foreigner in Japan, just as you think you have something figured out, you encounter a new piece of information that defies your previous logic.

An additional reason for my fascination with Japan is the sheer amount of cultural expressions there are. There is ancient Japan with its temples, ladies in kimono and the age-old arts of tea ceremony, flower arranging and calligraphy. And then there is the colourful abundance of modern-day Japan filled with game centers, Harajuku girls and karaoke. Even as Japan starts to adopt more and more Western influences, the Japanese always find a way to transform these foreign elements and truly make them their own.

Harajuku girls Tokyo

Harajuku girls in Tokyo – image from blog.theholidaze.com

Perhaps after reading all of this, you are still mystified as to why I love Japan so much. Indeed the reality of life in Japan is difficult to describe. It is something that has to be experienced. This became most apparent when all of my visitors in Japan were baffled by the diversity and complexity of Japanese culture. And they all became fans, vowing to be back for more.

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22 thoughts on “What is so special about Japan anyway?

  1. Pingback: Japan in a word: KY | The Japans

  2. Pingback: Japanese people are human too | The Japans

  3. I hope to Visit Japan in the summer.

    I have a biological father and half-brother in Kyoto, and I’m dying with curiosity towards my herritage.

    • Having people in Japan to show you around will make your experience there all the more special. It is always so interesting to get to know a country beyond what the tourists get to see. I wish you the best of luck with your travels!

      Being of Japanese heritage, do you speak Japanese? And is it your first time to visit Japan?

      Kyoto is infamous for it’s smouldering hot summer weather. Apparently it’s even worse in Kyoto than in the surrounding regions, due to the mountains around Kyoto reflecting the heat or something. I have included some tips for hot Japanese weather in my Japan Guide. Maybe they will help you prepare for the summer in Kyoto. https://thejapans.wordpress.com/gaijin-guide/#Summer%20advice

      • Thanks, this is great!

        As for your question:
        I have some limited Japanese knowledge from when I went to secondary school(my adopted home is Denmark)
        I took the international line, which was classes in all-english except for the bonus that our third language instead of German or French was Japanese.

        My skills are far from enough to properly navigate alone though, I know how to ask for time, directions and present myself. Limited stuff like that.
        I can also understand a bit more though, more than I can speak at least.

        And yes it is my first time there.
        I have been in letter contact with my father for a years time. After I married last summer I realized that I actually wanted to know about my herritage, after having visited Korea with my work.

  4. I have always wanted to visit Japan (sort of became obsessed with Japan during the miniseries Shogun in the early 1980s). I haven’t made it there yet, but of course it’s on my “travel to-do: list. Thanks for the informative posts and great photos — I look forward to learning more about Japan. Thanks also for following Travel Oops! Steph

    • I love Shogun as well. The book is actually what inspired the name of this blog. The sailors in Shogun refer to Japan as ‘the Japans’. I hope you will get a chance to visit Japan someday. It is a fascinating place. And thanks for following this blog as well!

  5. Yeah, why is Japan so interesting?

    Geeze, I keep on trying to write a good response to this question, but yeah – I dunno! I suppose it’s a lot of things all put together… Japan’s isolated history? It’s place in the world as a first-world country that wasn’t colonized by Europeans? It’s place as a first-world country that doesn’t speak English?

    • It is indeed hard to put into words. It was only as I was writing this post, that I began to really see what makes Japan so special for me. Perhaps the most difficult part was limiting myself to what I deemed to be the essentials. There is just so much I love about Japan!

  6. Whenever I’m called upon to justify my Japanomania, those are two of the exact reasons I always give!

    One of the details that encapsulates for me the Western view of Japan as being extremely different is that Japan is the last place that Gulliver visits when he goes on his great voyages of discovery as recounted in Gulliver’s Travels. Even in the 1720s, Japan was seen as being on the border between the real world and pure imagination.

    Describing one of this journeys, Gulliver says: “This island of Luggnagg stands south-eastward of Japan, about a hundred leagues distant. There is a strict alliance between the Japanese emperor and the king of Luggnagg; which affords frequent opportunities of sailing from one island to the other.”

    • That is actually quite poetic. Thank you for sharing this!

      Usually when Belgian kids, and even adults, think of a place that is very far away and very strange, they think of China rather than Japan. If there is a language we don’t understand, we say it might as well be Chinese. And on the playground at school we told each other that if you would start digging right here and keep digging for a very long time, you would end up in China. But then on the other hand, we do have an expression in Dutch ‘from here until Tokyo’, which denotes something that is very large or takes a long time.

  7. Spot on. Living in Japan was an endless adventure for me, too! Your post reminds me of the Jusco experience: It’s a grocery store. It looks like my grocery stores – aisles, lighting, displays, etc., all visually ‘right’. Except all the products have been replaced with mystery food. And it goes in those funny little basket/carts (in the U.S. our grocery carts are as big as small Toyotas). And it seems like the cashiers must have graduated from some sort of university program in packing the little baskets so efficiently, because my two baskets worth of stuff fit into half a basket when they were done ringing me up. Oh, and the funny stuff like such a cultural focus on safety, yet the top of Inuyama Castle is surrounded by an old wooden railing at just the right height for a person to tumble over quite easily. ;-D I could go on and on. Thanks for posting this, I can so appreciate your perspective!

    • Your stories are very familiar 🙂 I once heard a Japanese friend say that the store personnel at supermarkets must be very good at Tetris, to be able to pack the baskets like that.

      The safety contradiction is so true! I was already planning to write a post about that someday. My personal favourite is how some Japanese people watch tv on their gps while driving, despite all their concerns about safety.

  8. Fantastic article! I too became a Japanophile back in 2008 after renting a flat in Ebisu, Shibuya ward, Tokyo. My site, the HoliDaze, was originally called Shibuya Daze, until about a year ago (I got tired of explaining what Shibuya was to so many people).

    Not only is Japan’s history intriguing but their culture strives for perfection, a trait which is revealed in countless miniscule ways in every aspect of daily life and is impossible not to notice and appreciate. From impressive cities and futuristic technology to stunning countrysides and amazing historical sights, Japan really does have it all. Oh yeah and the food.. super delicious!!

    • I couldn’t agree more! The perfectionism is also one of the things I love about Japan. Being a self-admitted perfectionist myself, it was great to be in Japan where that trait is culturally valued. In Belgium I am often scolded for my desire to complete tasks in a perfect way. And you are so right about the food. It’s the best!

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