Weird Japanese stuff explained

Why do some many weird stories about Japan get into Western newspapers?

There are two possible answers, of course- it could be because there is more weird stuff going on or it could just be the way the coverage is biased. And, as usual, both are somewhat true.

There are of course plenty of weird people doing all kinds of weird stuff in every big city in the world, and Tokyo is still one of the biggest. The first big difference in Japan is how much people are willing to commercialise and exploit those little foibles. The way a Japanese businessman came up with the classic 80s story of non-pan shabu shabu (a restaurant where the waitresses wore no pants) is, believe it or not, intimately connected to how Toyota and its ilk became worldwide successes.

The Japanese innovate by making lots of small changes rather than leaps of imagination. This can often lead to a new car that is almost as dull as the last one, but could also lead to a linking together of ideas that would make no sense if you did a “big picture “design, for example giving customers chopsticks, strips of meat, a bowl of stock and a mirror for looking up the skirts of the serving staff. It makes no sense at all until you trace back the small increments that got you there.

The other big difference is the reaction these commercial exploits get. There is no Japanese Mary Whitehouse filling the pages of the midbrow newspapers with moral outrage, and the coverage in the gutter press is pure titillation without the pretense that even the Sun and Mirror in the UK make to be covering these things as a way of protecting us against them. And so we get onto the press coverage part of the equation…

The vast majority of “crazy Japan” stories in foreign newspapers are simple translations of stories from the Japanese weekly magazines. The reason the tabloid press-equivalents have so many pages of such stories is, bizarrely, that stories on mothers who give their sons blow jobs as a reward for studying hard are the least controvertial stories they print. The controvertial ones are the ones that question the state of Japanese politics and society and the position of the ruling classes. These stories do get in the trash mags, where they can be ignored, but are never covered by the serious press, which just prints endless government pronouncements on North Korean hostages. Hence, foreign journalists learn never to read the Asahi Shimbun and get all their stories from Flash, Friday etc. etc. And hence the picture foreigners get of Japan. And as everyone likes their stereotypes reinforced, the market for those “nutty Nippon” stories grows and so the cycle goes on….

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