Until now I’ve mostly just gone on about how Japan is a wonderful fun-filled utopia. And it is, to a large extent. But like every country it isn’t without its social/political issues, or its little downsides. So this time I’m going to tell you all about the things in Japan that AREN’T amazing. (Note: although there are many things about Japan that aren’t amazing, overall it is still amazing.)
1) What even is gender equality?
Most countries are guilty of gender inequality, but in Japan such inequality is very deeply rooted and kinda refuses to go away. Despite government efforts (because the government WANT more women to work and have higher roles in the work force – this is beneficial in a lot of ways) men dominate the workforce, and housewife culture is completely normal here. It would be presumptuous to say that the high number of housewives in Japan is a problem for women, since many are housewives out of choice (if your husband’s income is high enough, why work?). But with so few practical options for childcare and company bosses’ unwillingness to give you a good job under the presumption that you’ll get pregnant and leave, it’s difficult to know just how many are housewives by choice and how many have been pressured into this situation. The poverty rate for single women versus the rate for single men is much higher, understandably, as a result.
Expectations of women are also a huge issue in Japan. I go to Tokyo University, which is 70% male. This isn’t a coincidence – although the university would like more women to apply, they don’t because of the stigma associated with being a woman at Japan’s best university. From men you’ll hear things like “aha, a Todai girl, I can’t date her, she’ll earn more money than me!” and “I don’t want to date such a smart, serious girl – she won’t be cute at all”. Even some Todai guys avoid dating Todai girls, and look specifically to less highly-regarded universities for girlfriends. (Basically a lot of Japanese guys have serious inferiority complexes.) It’s awful that some of the girls here deliberately hide the fact that they go to the country’s best university so that they can seem ‘cuter’ and get boyfriends (even though they’re far better than any loser who would refuse to date a girl because she’s smart). I hope Japan realises soon that cute and smart are definitely not mutually exclusive traits. Although you should be aware that there are also lots really lovely awesome guys in Japan who will love you for who you are! They’re not all awful.
2) Mental illness? Don’t be silly, that doesn’t exist in Japan.
Japan does not acknowledge mental illness. In fact, people won’t even go to be diagnosed most of the time. It’s estimated that Japan has one of the highest rates of autism in the world, but barely anyone ever gets diagnosed with the condition. Everyone is treated the same at school, where they learn, or try to learn, in classes of about forty people. Despite the push in the UK and other places to de-stigmatise and get people to talk about conditions like anxiety and depression, in Japan people continue to treat it as taboo, with parents being too ashamed to admit that their children have mental illnesses and children bottling it up forever for fear that it’ll make them social outcasts. The Japanese attitude in general is ‘even if you’re sad or angry just pretend that everything is fine and don’t complain’, and this extends to mental illness.
There are people in place at Tokyo University with whom you’re meant to speak if you’re struggling emotionally. I’m sorry that I can’t verify how well they deal with people who come to talk about mental illness, since I’ve never been to see them, but it’s nice to know that they’re there, in any case – it’s better than nothing.
If you suffer from mental illness and you’re planning to come to Japan for a long time, you should definitely be aware of this. I’m sure things can be worked out, but it’s important to be prepared for much more of a struggle than you might face in the UK.
Some of you might be thinking ‘well this is probably why so many people in Japan commit suicide’. This is hard to say, because alongside issues of mental illness remains the fact that suicide and ‘not being a burden to society’ is actually a big part of Japanese culture and history, so these factors also potentially play a large role in causing someone to decide to kill themselves.
3) Education isn’t lighting a fire; it’s filling a bucket!
High school education and below in Japan sucks. There’s barely any dialogue between students, or between students and teachers, and asking things like “but why” or “can we think about it from this angle” is a useless waste of your voice. You’re basically meant to cram your head full of factual information and then regurgitate it in a test. This is a problem in the UK too, where there’s not enough chance to form, voice or discuss your opinions, but the problem is severe in Japan where this sort of exercise is non-existent. As a philosophy student, this makes me sad. It also makes me sad that in Japan people don’t really care about philosophy – they care about mathsy subjects, not creative subjects (which don’t even exist until university). It’s lucky I go to Tokyo University, else I’m sure nobody would care about my academic goals!
The lack of critical thinking and philosophy that students are asked to do in school means that a lot of people graduate as opinionless, philosophically clueless buckets full of facts. And the worst thing is that to get into the best universities you just need to be a really full bucket – test papers don’t care how much fiery passion you have for your subject. Full buckets aren’t good thinkers – they’re just people who know a lot, and don’t necessarily have any idea how to begin thinking about what they know. Which means that the people at Tokyo University, although sometimes genuinely great thinkers, are mostly just the people who are best at memorising information and aren’t really that smart at all (which explains how many of them can be so sexist and idiotic). And these are the people who get all the most important jobs in Japan.
This is all very awful, but on the bright side many students at school and university take matters into their own hands through independent club activities, which are a really big part of Japanese youth culture. There are clubs for everything, from music to philosophy. This doesn’t stop stupid people from becoming high ranking government officials, but at least it’s something!
4) Animal cruelty? What’s that?
Despite being extreme lovers of cute animals in Japan, barely anyone seems to understand the concept of animal cruelty. I’m a vegetarian and often people can’t even comprehend this. They’ll ask why and I’ll tell them it’s because I don’t want animals to be killed and they look puzzled like they had no idea that their beef was ever a cow. But it’s not just eating meat that people don’t understand could be wrong; we all know that Japanese people have hunted whales and dolphins in the seas surrounding the country, and while this goes on there is virtually no public outcry whatsoever and the government is like “yeah, we’re chill with this”. Around Tokyo you’re also likely to come across a bunch of awful pet shops that display tiny tiny kittens and puppies in the windows, in restrictively small cages, left to become distressed at being exposed to constant flashing lights and streams of people. There’s no Japanese RSPCA equivalent so I often feel really sad and helpless when I see animals being treated badly here. Again, the fact that Japan is a nation of animal lovers makes it surprising that they could be so indifferent to such displays of cruelty in everyday life. I know that people here really care for their own pets (so much so that you’ll often see dogs being pushed around in prams and wrapped up warm in their own little coats for the winter). But I suppose this is a land of many contradictions.
5) WHERE IS THE CHEESE?
On an only slightly less important note, if you’re coming to Japan in the near future, be prepared for a severe lack of cheese. In the supermarket, all they sell is fake cheese, and even that is stupidly expensive. Even in restaurants you’re given fake cheese. You can forget stiltons, emmentals, jarlesbergs, and whatever else. They are gone from your life (unless you’re willing to go on a long hard search for a cheese shop and pay about £20 for a small block). There’s also no good bread, to add to your misery. It’s all really fake and artificially sweetened.
Other bad things in Japan include POLITICS, Abenomics, a ridiculous overabundance of plastic, and an increasing lack of press freedom. I’ll leave you to read up on them in your own time.
Everything I’ve complained about here (except the cheese) is something I’ve learnt about while at Tokyo University so far, as well as through every day experience and Japanese friends. So the good news is that you’ll get to discuss it all in depth during your time here if you do come.
Japan is a really interesting society with a unique, intriguing history. It has some big problems, but it’s still an absolutely amazing place where people are lovely as a general rule and you can have a ton of fun and learn a lot. There are also many things that Japan takes care of a lot better than the UK – for instance, the gap between rich and poor here is surprisingly narrow, and crime rates are very low as well as the numbers of people in poverty and on the streets (in all my time here I have not seen a single homeless person). Despite their lack of chances to be creative in class, Japanese youths are making some great music and putting on some great fashion displays, and the art scene in Tokyo is really diverse and interesting. Maybe next time I’ll write an entry on the positive things about Japanese society! So I by no means wish to dishearten or discourage anyone from coming to this magical place. I love it dearly and you probably will too.