Japanese myths- common misconceptions about Japan

Japanese are naturally keener savers than Americans

 MYTH! “Japan did everything it could to facilitate exports while making sure that its own citizens were careful to save- slowing them down, if need be, with heavy commodity taxes” The Reckoning pg 426 

A chabudai (ちゃぶ台- a low table that is often found in Japanese restaurants) is traditionally Japanese
MYTH! The Japanese traditionally ate from individual tables and trays rather than from a common table, the chabudai was introduced in the Meiji period specifically to Westernize dining habits.


MITI (the Ministry of Trade and Industry) was the secret power behind the Japanese economic miracle
MYTH! “The effectiveness of administrative guidance, never very great, has in fact been diminishing. MITI, for example, has had a long string of guidance failures… Most notable were the unsuccessful attempt to promote mergers in the Japanese automotive industry in the late 1960s; the proposed paper producers’ merger… and ongoing efforts to consolidate the number of producers in the computer industry” Kodansha Encyclopaedia of Japan (1983) pg 12

Japanese traditional wooden housing is good at withstanding earthquakes

MYTH! “Homes built by Canadian carpenters conspicuously survived the [Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995], spotlighting the structural superiority of platform-based two-by-four construction over post-and-beam construction” Saying Yes to Japan pg 79

John Manjiro was the first Japanese to visit North America

MYTH! “Hasekura Tsunenaga and the 180-member diplomatic mission that he led en route to Europe in 1614… travelled… up the east coasts of Florida and Georgia before crossing the Atlantic Ocean to Spain” letter to the Japan Times, 9 Mar 08

Karate means “empty hand”

MYTH! That kanji is now used to write its name (空手) , but its original name came from kara meaning Chinese (漢 ??) and te for hand (手), as the Okinawans who developed it (to fight against the Japanese who were trying to take Okinawa over) had developed it from Chinese marshall arts.

Kabuki means song dance acrobatics.

MYTH! – Although kabuki is now written with the kanji with that meaning (歌舞伎), it originally came from the unconnected word kabuku,meaning “fashionable” or “twisted”. 

The advent of Christian weddings is killing the old tradition of weddings in shrines

MYTH! In fact, before the Meiji period weddings were usually held at home. Moving them to the public space of a shrine was a response to exactly the same pressures of showing off in a world where not everyone is a neighbour as the present changes

Taiko drumming is traditional Japanese music

MYTH! “The style of taiko best known today is not more than fifty years old… The first recorded use of taiko drums was as a battlefield instrument; the drums were used to intimidate and scare the enemy, …and to coordinate movements” Uneasy Warriors pg 193

Tokyo is the ultimate dehumanized metropolis.

MYTH! The crime figures alone are enough to suggest this is not true (yet). Unlike in London, most people in Tokyo have both strong family ties, a link through at least one parent or grandparent to a smaller hometown or village (often visited), an emotional connection and dedication to their work or company, and/or a connection to the area where they live. Looking at how many of the high profile crimes and suicides in Tokyo involve people that is not true for and how many more people in the UK lack those ties and/or are being brought up by parents who lack them, you might understand my despair for the future mental health of the UK

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo was the only building to escape the 1923 Kanto earthquake unscathed.

MYTH! Lots of Western buildings still stood after the quake, the Imperial Hotel was just lucky in being in an area with no fires.

There were so many fires after the 1923 Kanto earthquake around Tokyo because it was lunchtime and people had their fires lit for cooking.

MYTH! In fact chemicals were the single largest cause, followed by electric wires- both of which there are a lot more of now in Tokyo than in 1923. A little worrying…

Lifetime employment is the Japanese way

MYTH! “According to one estimate, only about one-fifth of all Japanese workers enjoy the lifetime employment and other benefits that supposedly characterise Japanese labour relations” Yankee Samurai by Dennis Laurie pg 90

It is perfectly okay for an adult to read manga and everyone does it.

Not true! Explanation somewhere else on this site…

See also:

Geisha myths


  1. April 29, 2008 at 4:32 am

    […] the Japanese Myths section for more Nippon stereotype […]

  2. Jillian said,

    July 15, 2008 at 5:35 am

    I notice you have a question mark where you’ve used the character 漢 for the ‘kara’ in karate. This is just a random guess, but might it be 唐? It seems to be more often used in old documents when referring to mainland Asia, e.g., China…

  3. alexcase said,

    July 15, 2008 at 8:39 am

    I think you are almost certainly right, which leads me onto my next question…

  4. jonholmes said,

    July 8, 2009 at 6:08 am

    If Tokyo is so great, why are there so many hysterical, panicky people and girls having to work at either a bar or in the sex trade just to pay the rent? The fact that they have to do this suggests 1. Their parents back home dont know what they re doing and 2. Cannot support them.

    There are also a lot of “kept” women or “I love you, you pay my rent” syndrome.

    Its psychotically expensive,although, yes, London, is even worse because there you re paying through the nose for BAD quality and service.

  5. Buku said,

    February 19, 2013 at 12:10 pm

    You are not right enough with the word “karate”. As it exists today, 空手kanji is used, which means “empty” and “hand” in Japanese. Don’t mislead people by saying “karate doesn’t mean empty hand”, because as it is written today, it does.
    By the way, yes, karate developed from Chinese shaolin kung-fu, so its origin is Chinese. When karate first appeared in Korea, they used the 唐手kanji for it. It really means “Chinese hand” if you translate it.
    But I have read in japanese wikipedia, the following:
    It says: In Okinawa, the pronounciation “karate” existed, but if it was 唐手 or 空手, it is not clear.
    It’s true, that for a long time both were used, but in 1936, 空手 became official.
    By the way, if you write a statement, like this, you should at least search for the right kanji, as it is not 漢, but 唐.

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