The Myth of Modern Japan
Everywhere we go we hear people talk about how modern Japan is. Having traveled through the country a bit on two separate trips, we found the opposite to be true. Japan isn't a futuristic utopia where everything is automated and robotic. True, most of the toilets in the major cities are heated and play music and squirt customizable volumes of water at your butt, but by and large we found drop toilets. If you don't know what those are, don't google it.
Here are some examples that busted the myth of modern Japan for us and left us scratching our heads. A tech and modern oasis it isn't. But that doesn't make it any less fantastic and worth repeated visits.
Myth #1. Cash Machines
They close after dark. Why would a cash machine close at all, you might ask? Who knows. Maybe it’s a safety issue. Maybe they think that the only thing you can buy after dark are things you shouldn’t buy after dark. Things like sex and drugs. I’ll tell you this though: the thousands of automated vending machines dispensing coffee on every corner never close. Japan: I can see your priorities! And in this case you are about 50% aligned with my own.
Myth #2. The Stamp
Welcome to 1840. Every citizen, as far as I can tell, gets a small cigarette shaped plastic stamp with their name on the end. If you have possession of this, you basically have the key to that person’s kingdom. It’s used for official documents, getting into (or opening) a bank account and even buying a home. Why a stamp? Probably because that’s how it’s always been. Or like your parents told you when you asked why you can’t have ice cream for breakfast or wear your tutu into the swimming pool: BECAUSE.
Myth #3. The Bus System
We were super confused the first time we were on a bus in Japan. We had to get on in the back and take a ticket. That ticket had a number on it. That number marks your origin point, but also determines how much you will pay when you get off. IF you can decipher the big screen at the front of the bus next to the driver.
It’s like playing bingo. As the bus continues, the amount owed increases. When you need to get off, you ring the bell and show the driver your number and dump your change in a box/conveyor belt that counts the money. Then you have to place your paper ticket in another box before getting off. Pretty simple, right?
Myth #4. The Train System
Thank Google for mapping the world because without it you wouldn’t know how to get anywhere in Tokyo. Nothing is in English or in any other language other than Japanese. Which makes sense, right? You are in Japan after all. But come on now. We’ve been in some really underdeveloped countries and even those have better signage for foreigners. What about with all the Olympics and football tournaments coming up? Some guidance would be totally helpful.
But more specifically about the trains. They are owned and operated by several different companies, so none of the payment systems match. Which also means you often have to get off the train to get another ticket in order to continue. Which means getting a token or a card or a slip of paper again. And that means you may miss your train.
Myth #5: Tattoo Taboo
In general there is a large dislike of tattoos in Japan. There are many places like temples and onsen (public baths) that prohibit people from entering if they have a tattoo. From what I’ve read this stems from a very old belief that the type of person who would get a tattoo isn’t moral or clean, and somehow that morality would spread to others in the onsen. And that isn't how you keep order now is it?
How did Japan get such a reputation for being so modern and technologically advanced? Well, because it is. Most video games that I played as a kid in the 80's were from Japan. At one point they had the most robots per capita than anywhere in the world. This shifted as the rest of the world caught on and developed their own robots and video games. This applies to other industries as well of course.
I don't want you to get the impression that we think Japan isn't modern. It is in so many ways. but in so many ways it's mired in the past. Just talk to any young Japanese trying to find a better life. The theme we heard over and over again is that they feel there is no way out. No where for them to go.
There is a strong resistance to change in Japan. And this is what makes it such a unique place to visit. There is nothing in the world like it. The friction between tradition and the forces of true modernization driven by visitors and young Japanese creates makes for some very interesting culture.