SAPPORO SOURCE DEBITO column Dec 2009: Top 9 Things I Like about Japan


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Hi Blog.  Time for a Sunday Tangent.  My latest tangental column in SAPPORO SOURCE — on the top nine things I like about Japan.  (It’s a Top Nine because that’s all I could fit within 900 words.)

Download the entire issue of SAPPORO SOURCE here in pdf format.  Cover, scanned page, and text of the article follows.  Arudou Debito in Sapporo

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SAPPORO SOURCE Column 6 to be published in December 2009 issue

By Arudou Debito DRAFT SEVEN

People often ask me, “Isn’t there something you like about Japan?”  The answer is, plenty!  Nine things I think Japan is peerless at:

9) PUBLIC TRANSPORT.  Overseas I’ve often said, “Drat, I need a car to get around!”  But even in Hokkaido, I can find a way (train, bus, taxi if necessary) to get somewhere, including the sticks, given a reasonable amount of time.  Besides, in urban areas, how many cities the size of Tokyo can move millions around daily on infrastructure that is relatively clean, safe, and cheap?  Not that many.

8) SEAFOOD.  Food in Japan is high quality, and it’s difficult to have a bad meal (even school cafeterias are decent).  World-class cuisine is not unique to Japan (what with Chinese, Italian, Thai, Indian, French…), but Japan does seafood best.  No wonder:  with a longer history of fishing than of animal husbandry, Japan has discovered how to make even algae delicious!  Japanese eat more seafood than anyone else.  Justifiably.

7) ONOMATOPEIA.  I am a Japanese kanji nerd, but that’s only the bureaucratic side of our language.  Now try gitaigo and giseigo/giongo, i.e. Japanese onomatopeic expressions.  We all know gussuri and gakkari.  But I have a tin ear for pori pori when scratching the inside of my nose, or rero rero when licking something, or gabiin when agape?  Japanese as a language is highly contextualized (say the wrong word and bureaucrats sit on their hands), but the universe of expressiveness found in just a couple of repeated kana is something I doubt I will ever master.  My loss.

6) PACKAGING.  Stores like Mitsukoshi cocoon your purchase in more paper and plastic than necessary.  But when you really need that cocoon, such as when transporting stuff, you’re mollycoddled.  Japanese post offices offer boxes and tape for cheap or free.  Or try the private-sector truckers, like Yamato or Pelican, whom I would even trust with bubble-wrapping and shipping a chandelier across the country (for a reasonable price, too).  If you don’t know how to pack, leave it to the experts.  It’s part of the service.  Because as Mitsukoshi demonstrates, if it’s not packaged properly, it’s not presentable in Japan.

5) CALLIGRAPHIC GOODS.  I’m used to crappy American Bic ballpoint pens that seize up in the same groove (and inexplicably ONLY in that groove, no matter how many times you retrace).  But in Japan, writing instruments combine quality with punctiliousness:  People prowl stationery stores for new models (with special buttons to advance the pencil lead, twirl cartridges for multiple colors, or multicolored ink that comes out like Aquafresh toothpaste) that they spotted in specialty stationery magazines (seriously!).  Maybe this is not so mysterious considering how precisely one has to write kanji — but I know of only two countries putting this fine a point on pens:  Germany (which has a huge market here), and Japan.

4) GROUP PROJECTS.  Yes, working in groups makes situations inflexible and slow, but when things work here, they really work, especially a project calls for an automatic division of labor.

For example:  In my former hometown of Nanporo my friends and I were politically active, and we’d rent a room at the choumin center for a town meeting.  Before the meeting, people would show up early to set up chairs and tables.  Afterward, attendees would help put everything back before going home.  I’ve done presentations overseas and the attitude is more:  “Hey, you proles take care of the chairs — what are we paying you for?”  Sucks.  Nice to be here, where pitching in often goes without asking.

3) PUBLIC TOILETS.  Sure, public conveniences exist overseas, but they are frequently hard to find (I think shoppers overseas must have enormous bladders) — and when found, look like they’ve been through Lebanon or Somalia.  Japan, however, generally keeps its toilets clean and unstinky.

And pretty comfortable, too.  Sure, I hate it when I’m turtle-heading and can only find Japan’s squatter-types.  But I also hate being trapped overseas in a stall where strangers can see my bare ankles under the door.  Besides, whenever I’m on the road in Japan and need a time-out, I head for the nearest handicapped toilet and bivouac.  Ah, a room to myself; it’s a love hotel for my tuchus.

2) ANIME.  I’ve read comic books since I was two years old, and I’ve long admired Japanimation and comic art.  I can’t resist anime’s clean lines, sense of space and forcefulness, and storyboard style of storytelling.  Once underrated overseas, Japan’s comics are now one of our largest cultural exports.  Resistance is futile:  Knockoffs are all over Cartoon Network (I love POWERPUFF GIRLS and SAMURAI JACK).

Consider one knock-on benefit of a society so consumed by comic art:  Japan’s average standards for drawing are very high.  I come from a society with an enormous standard deviation in artistic talent:  you either get stick figures or Pat Oliphants.  Here, however, consider this example:

I once gave an exam at a Japanese university testing spatial vocabulary.  I drew a room on the answer sheet and said, “Under the table, draw Doraemon.”  Amazingly, 98 of 100 students drew a clearly-recognizable Doraemon, most complete with propeller, collar bell, philtrum, and whiskers.  Try getting people overseas to draw a recognizable Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat, or even just Snoopy, and you’ll see how comparatively under-practiced drawing skills tend to be outside Japan.

1)  ONSENS.  Of course.  If you can get in.  Ahem.



Arudou Debito is a columnist for the Japan Times and author of three books:  Japanese Only: The Otaru Hot Springs Case and Racial Discrimination in Japan (English and Japanese versions), and Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants (co-written with Akira Higuchi).  His website, updated daily, is at  An expanded version of this essay is at


16 comments on “SAPPORO SOURCE DEBITO column Dec 2009: Top 9 Things I Like about Japan

  • Amen on public transportation. If I remember right, Debito, you’re from upstate NY so I don’t have to tell you; but to those outside of America not from here, I don’t think I can communicate how worthless public transportation here and how necessary a car is. It really is all so wasteful…

    — “Here” is where for you?

  • Amen to the seafood and transport. For a guy from a wee place (Scotland) and brought up in a wee-er place (NZ), I’d add Tokyo – it’s a constant treat. Like London (also great) but without the grime and the muggers.

  • Deepspacebeans says:

    I can definitely agree on the point of writing utensils. I never leave home without my trusty Staedtler drafting pencil. It has served me for almost 10 years now and has never once jammed.

  • I like politeness about Japan by the way, even if that’s a bit cliche. Western countries can feel almost uncivilized in comparison. It’d top my top-nine list, followed by the indeed-awesome public transportation.

    I’m curious, is Japanese politeness intentionally not on your list? Is it something you just don’t care much about?

    — Of course I care about it. But just I thought these items were more important. Politeness is a mixed bag in Japan, I’ve found. Shopkeeps, for example, will refuse NJ entry into their stores very, very politely… but it’s still a refusal.

  • Mark Hunter says:

    Politeness, Food, Hiking Heaven, Transportation, Appreciation for favors granted, Loyalty, Deflation (cause I’m a cheap Scot), Stunning scenery in the countryside, Lack of street crime. That’s my 9. Oh, and did I mention the food!

  • How about the little things that you really notice the absence of when away like…
    the irrashaimase when you enter a store,
    the plain bizarre TV shows that you somehow have to watch even when you’re cringing,
    the bizarre flavors of chocolate that somehow make sense,
    the impossibly (when you’re from the UK) punctual trains,
    the dialects that can astoundingly different or incredibly similar,
    the endless stream of places to discover,
    the (mostly)friendly nature of people,
    the super clean air in the countryside,
    finally – and it’s a bit weird – the people that use dish washing liquid to wash their hands.
    (I’ve never got it yet…)

    I could go on, but you’d think I’m mad!

  • Yep, here it is from Dec. 2008:

    Come on Debito, we deserve fresh commentary!

    — Hey, you’ll read what I put up here and like it! You’re getting what you pay for! 😉

    But seriously folks, if you look at the article closely (as in, read it all the way to the very bottom with the bio), you’ll see that I acknowledge a much more elaborate version of the article at the link you indicated above. It wasn’t published then. It’s published now. I put all my publications up here, so that’s that. And a lot of the stuff that becomes publications later springboard from what I write here as well.

    Thanks for reading and remembering what I wrote, anyway. D

  • Trains
    It’s just so easy to go anywhere, near or far and if like me, you can ride your bike to work you can avoid rush hour and most of the time get a seat. They are clean 99% of the time and run on time the same 99%.

    Vending machines
    I can leave my apartment in be in front of two in 20 seconds. If those don’t have the beverage I want I can go to the ones down the street or the ones on the other street or, well, you get the idea.

    If you spent 11 years walking to school through a meter of snow, sometimes at -40c, but usually -20c every winter then the weather in Tokyo/Chiba is wonderful. Unlike most people I even like the hot, humid summers (as long as I can turn my air conditioner on to 25c when I go to bed).

    Convenience Stores
    If I can’t find what I want at the one two minutes away, I can go to one of the ones five, six or 10 minutes away. All this and I can pay my bills too!

    As long as I buy a drink, most of them don’t care that I’m wearing a t-shirt, shorts and sneakers. “You want me to put on dress shoes? So I can dance? No thanks. I’ll just go back to Tokyo.” That’s an actual conversation I had in Vancouver a few years ago.

    I can look at prices at 10 different shops for hard drives and CPU and motherboards and, well anything computer related. Heaters, fans, TV, any many other electric and electronic goods can be found for good prices. Sometimes I go just to window shop and look at the pretty, pretty shiny things.

    Post Office
    They deliver the mail three or four times a day. They deliver on Saturdays. You can pick up packages on Sundays. There’s a small one on my way home from work or a five minute walk from my house. The main one is five or six minute bike ride.

    Delivery service
    I’m talking about takkyuubin, not any other delivery service you might be thinking of. Buy something too big to carry on the train and have it sent to your house (usually for free!) Order something on the internet and have it delivered to your house (usually for free!) After riding my bike from Kanazawa to Kitakyushu, I sent my tent, sleeping bag, extra clothes, etc., back so I wouldn’t have to carry them and my bike home on the shinkansen. They picked it up at my hotel and they guy was literally knocking at my door as I got home from the station the next day. I paid less than 500 yen for that service.

    I love trains. The more people in trains the fewer people in cars. Mmm…trains.

    Just to be curmudgeonly and irritating, I’m going disagree with some people:

    As a vegetarian, Japan is the most difficult country to eat in that I’ve ever lived in or visited.
    “Is there meat in this pasta?”
    “No, there isn’t”
    “Uh, why is there bacon in this pasta?”

    I find many Japanese people to be quite rude.
    People walking up or down the down or up stairs and blocking your way.
    Old ladies cutting in front of you and forcing their way onto the train as you wait patiently for everyone to get off before you get on.
    Old men forcing their way onto the train while you’re trying to get off.
    No one getting out of the courtesy seats while you’re standing right in front of them with a broken arm.
    People who’ve rang your doorbell just to stare at you and not say anything when you answer the door.
    The old ladies in line behind laughing at you, the foreigner speaking Japanese, while you’re trying to explain to the nurse that you think you might have skin cancer.
    The people at the camp site next to yours drinking and talking and making lots of noise until one or two in the morning and then the people in the other camp site, or their kids or their dogs barking, or playing or talking loudly at five or six in the morning.
    The person who you’ve just asked a question turning to look at the Asian person beside you and answering.

    Back to the positive:


  • Hi there:
    About japanese people’s politeness as one of the great things this country does have, I have to agree with Debito, you have to live here enough to understand that it doesn’t necessarily mean what it looks, it’s just a social convention, not a true demonstration of sincere consideration to the receptor, mere form but not necessarily feeling.

  • Mark Hunter says:

    Random thoughts on politeness:

    Most politeness is part of social convention, in any culture. It helps to smooth out daily interactions and makes societies function more smoothly. The check-out person in Canada who says “Have a nice day” really means it? Or is it social convention. I take it as a form of convention that helps move things along, not as sincere consideration. I still prefer to hear it, though. George Carlin hated it and wrote an entire sketch about it. Very funny if you can find it on You Tube. I shudder to think what Japan would be like without its conventions. I really appreciate the consistency with which that grease is applied here.

  • yeah trains (saving up for a motocycle though). I am Pasmo’s no. 1 fan! I like public service in Japan in general. When you call a company, there’s always an actual person picking up instead of a computer (dial 1 for invoice questions, 2 for….you know the deal), and they always try their best to help you out.

    And, as a DJ/music producer, I looooooove the sound systems in studios, bars and clubs. Sound technicians in Japan are the best in the world!

  • I am surprised that you mentioned anime. Yes, the art is very nice(I am fond of it myself), but it seems to me that the japanese spoken in the shows are too dramatized and makes many grown men speaking like “atashi wa kawaii desu ne?” teenage girls. Of course, I think you are a better judge than I would be, but still.

  • Public transportation, AMEN!
    One of the #1 reasons I wanted to raise kids here in the first place… I remember all too well being at that awkward age between wanting mommy there for everything, and being 16… and that phase lasts for quite a long time. Kids here can take a bus or train to their friends’ houses from elementary or jr. high age, usually on time and safely. Gives the kids a chance to do something after school other than watch TV, even if the parents work, and gives the parents a chance to work and/or have hobbies and friends of their own.

    I’ve changed my mind about a lot of my likes and dislikes over the years, but public transportation (plus the general smallness of everything that makes biks and taxis reasonable options in many areas) is one I’ve always loved and probably always will (oh, I love my car too… but options are never a bad thing).

  • How about the endless small and very funny little bars and diners we can choose from when we walk out our doors and start walking down the street in any good sized city in any part of Japan. Compared to the chain dominated landscape of North America, the variety here, is endless.

    — Yes. If they let you in.


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