A Baker’s Dozen: Observations on Japan

Ladies in kimonos
Ladies in kimonos

Here are a few of our observations, based on our very short first visit to Japan:

  1. To our outsider eyes, Japan is an unusually homogenous country, due in part to its strict immigration laws. Locals claim vast diversity, but it may be a matter of degree (98% of Tokyo’s population are native Japanese).
  2. Another reason for homogeneity: Japan has never been colonized. Kublai Kahn’s Mongols tried to invade twice, and both times were turned back when their fleets were destroyed by typhoons (miraculous occurrences attributed to the kamikaze, or divine protective winds). Most recently, the Americans are largely credited with keeping the Russians from taking over Japan following WWII.
  3. We saw very few pregnant women. 25% of Japan’s population is over age 65, and it has one of the lowest birthrates per year in the developed world. Also, women have become much more involved in the workplace as it has proven harder for Japanese families to make ends meet in the economic malaise.
  4. We felt extremely safe, even in the smallest alleys and late at night (not that we were in small alleys late at night, Mom and Dad :). Crime is minimal. Neighborhood associations, originally started to defend against attacks from competing feudal warlords, are still effective today.
  5. We didn’t see a single beggar. Though people feel the economy is still sluggish and job prospects for young people anemic, the places we visited were bustling. Though poverty rates have been growing, we didn’t see slums or other such evidence.
  6. Japan’s train system is the most efficient, well-signposted and cleanest of any country’s we experienced, including Switzerland.
  7. Eating and drinking while walking on the street or riding in local public transportation is considered bad manners. As is talking on your cellphone. We saw next to none of either.
  8. Slurping hot noodles is not only acceptable, but polite… almost encouraged.
  9. Napkins are rarely provided when dining, but cold or hot towels are almost always provided. These are cloth in high-end establishment, wrapped disposable elsewhere, including on trains and upon entering hotels. A really nice amenity.
  10. Slip-on shoes are a must. Shoes are often removed to enter inns, some restaurants, shrines and temples. A pair of socks comes in handy!
  11. There are very few public receptacles for trash. Apparently, it is expected that individuals will take responsibility for disposition of trash at home, workplace, etc.
  12. Space is at a premium. 75% of Japan is mountainous. 90% of its population lives in urban areas. There are buildings – mostly high rises – and people, everywhere. Maybe partially because of this…
  13. We found the Japanese people to be as advertised: gracious, polite and welcoming, full of smiling faces, and very respectful of rules and space.


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