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Japan – some final reflections

Written by Jeff Drake
11 · 25 · 18

I have been pondering our recent experiences in Japan to try and put my finger on exactly what bothered me about our Japan trip. Generally, we had a good trip, but it didn’t really live up to our expectations and left us feeling that our next trip will be on our own once again. I don’t think it’s any one thing as there are potentially multiple factors contributing to the feeling that there was something “off” about this trip.

On the surface, I can tick off several issues, not in any order, which I will explain below:

  • No local tour guides. I believe I have touched upon this issue in a previous post, so I won’t beat it to death. Essentially it boils down to unexpectedly finding ourselves left to our own devices to explore most of the sights we visited. If we had done this trip on our own, we would have been better educated about our planned itinerary, because that’s what we try to do before we leave on a solo trip. With OAT, we were lax about this because we had become used to having local guides who were experts in the various areas we were seeing, someone we could pepper with questions, so we were left somewhat flat-footed when we found ourselves suddenly let loose to “have a look” at the garden, park, shrine, town, etc. We were so used to having local guides previously that it helped dampen our trip experience. Again, I want to emphasize that our guide, Hiroshi, did an excellent job as a “country guide” i.e., getting us to our different destinations safely and in one piece, answering as many questions as he could, providing us with information about our daily activities, etc. It is unfair to expect him to also be an expert in every town, garden and/or shrine in Japan.
  • Poor group dynamics: I never know who is going to read my blog, so I won’t say too much about this publicly other than the group we had in this trip and our last trip with OAT, never really jelled. Any tour group, whether consciously or not, tries to reach some kind of balance, but It only takes one or two people to upset this balance, which can be off-putting at times.
  • Mis-set expectations about what we would see and experience: This issue is also connected to #4 and #5 below. Lisa and I both expressed disappointment with the Japan experience upon our return. It’s hard to put my finger on the specific reason, which is why I’m writing this, but we definitely felt that what we saw in Japan didn’t match what we were expecting to see in Japan. While I certainly wasn’t expecting scenes out of “The Last Samurai” movie, I didn’t expect to find that old Japan, historical Japan, would only be found tucked away in very small pockets of cities and towns surrounded by vast Western shops and buildings. Traveling as much as we have, we arguably should have known better, but there was some kind of mystique about Japan that I, at least, allowed to color my expectations before we left. It was disappointing to find that this particular presupposition was an error. Sadly, Japan really had no mystique like the one I hoped to find.
  • The over-the-top consumerism of the Japanese. This issue was a bit of a surprise. Having been to Tokyo years ago, I know that it is a huge and growing metropolis. Japan is not a Third World country by any means and I didn’t expect to find this to be the case with this visit. Still, the expansive shopping malls and store fronts found literally everywhere was almost disturbing. Everywhere we went, that’s what we would find. And it’s not like they were all boutique shops full of fun, Japanese kitsch. On the contrary, we found that we had to really hunt to find this kind of shop and even then, very few had what we would consider quality kitsch. Yes, there were high quality shops with crafts and local art, but they were damned expensive and usually found in glitzy shopping malls. One could try to make the case that an American complaining about this is rather hypocritical, since what country is more consumer-driven than the USA? But if asked, I would answer that Japan is more consumer-driven than we are! It’s like capitalism on steroids!
  • The disturbing underbelly of Japanese culture. No one knows the exact source for this piece of faux Japanese folklore, other than there is no such ancient proverb in their culture like it, but supposedly it goes something like this:

“The Japanese say you have three faces:

  • The first face, you show to the world.
  • The second face, you show to your close friends, and your family.
  • The third face, you never show anyone. It is the truest reflection of who you are.”

After our trip to Japan, I think this proverb should be changed from a proverb about Japanese people to a proverb about the greater Japanese society. In this case, the proverb should read:

The Japanese say their society has three faces:

  • The first face of Japanese society is the one they want the world to see.
  • The second face of Japanese society is the one they present to each other.
  • The third face of Japanese society is the one they refuse to admit is real, they refuse to talk about; it is the one they choose to ignore at their own peril.

Looking at this just now, I find it curious that the underlying theme of the oft-quoted proverb above and the one I just created is – deception. This was completely unintentional on my part, although I think it’s correct.

With the faux proverb, the “real” person is three levels down. Hidden. Out of sight. In my proverb, what is happening to Japanese society is being hidden – not so much from the world, since with some effort, I feel you can see it (and it’s easier to be objective from the outside looking in); but rather it is being hidden from the Japanese themselves. And this is concerning.

There is a vision of their society that they want the world to see. This is their vision of a very high-tech society; a society that demands high-performance at work and at school; a society that will not take a backseat to any other; a society that has moved on from their past and is putting all their energy into the future. I think this is probably a good definition of today’s Japan, but what is being hidden here from the world at large is the immense personal cost of this social vision. To see any deception in this, you must look under the covers.

Post World War II and especially in the 1950’s, the phrase, “Made in Japan,” was a euphemism for junk. You have to hand it to the Japanese for turning this around. Nothing could be farther from the truth today. Built on the backs of the Japanese working class and emphasis on technology, today people all over the world seek to purchase Japanese manufactured goods from automobiles to electronics, to construction and farm equipment. This is the vision they want to the world to see of their society and I think they have mostly achieved it.

What they don’t want other countries to see or think about is that in Japanese society, failure is not an option. Well, they may feel this is okay for other countries to think because it makes them sound more competitive, but they don’t want anyone focusing on the personal cost of failure in Japan. You see, in Japan, failure has a severe price and can happen at very young ages. Social safety nets for children who are at risk for failure at school, sports, virtually anything, are – as far as I could tell after inquiring – minimal, at best. Here, I’ll refer you to an earlier Japan blog post of mine titled, “Tokyo, Hakone, and the Hikikomori. Beauty and Sadness (beneath the covers)”.  Kids get very few chances at success. You make it or you don’t. We witnessed this first-hand during our sushi lesson in Kyoto. One of our female teachers told us that her daughter had just graduated and was offered a job. She was ecstatic and went around shaking everyone’s had to celebrate this momentous event. It was in fun, but it was also very real. She then told us that her son was going for his college entrance exams – for the second time, because he had failed his first attempt. Our group was silent on this and exchanged some glances, because we remembered what we heard about what happens to kids who don’t get accepted to college. I couldn’t help but wonder if her son might be a future Hikikomori. He may well be.

For kids who are not at risk, the Japanese educational system provides lots of opportunity, much of it equal opportunity regardless of income. But it seemed to me, at least, that kids are expected to lead, follow, or get out of the way. And in the case of most, if they fail, they should also stay out of sight. No need to have a public reminder to others that your family has what they consider to be a loser in its midst.

This effort to ignore, disavow, or otherwise dismiss things that are unpleasant seems pervasive in Japanese culture. Out of sight, out of mind. The Fukushima disaster is another case in point. You’d think everything – the environment, the local citizenry – are well on the way to recovery. Little mention is made at all publicly about the nuclear material in their many reactors that is still very much at risk in the event of another tsunami. They publicize that they shut down those reactors, but the material remains behind. Dealing with all that nuclear waste is no doubt another scandal the government does not want to shine a light on.

The last thing I found a bit disconcerting was that there is a growing movement in Japan to change their constitution to allow the government to build a military force again. I couldn’t help but think that the ongoing social practice of ignoring unpleasantness probably also extends to their own history. One shrine we didn’t get to see to in Japan is the Yukusuni shrine in Tokyo where they still honor Japanese military “heroes”, some of whom are war criminals. Of the 2M+ people contained in shrine’s “Book of Souls,” are 1,068 people who were convicted of WWII war crimes. The government would probably remove the names and the unpleasant historical reminder from sight, but it’s a Shinto shrine and has autonomy. Sadly, Donald Trump’s “America First” campaign is throwing fuel on this particular fire, as our allies begin to really worry whether the US will stand with them in a war with North Korea. They are right to worry.

The bottom line is that I’m happy we went to Japan (so is Lisa), but if we had it to do over, we’d do it ourselves. No need for a tour group. If we ever go back, we’ll have more sound expectations. In the meantime, there is more of the world we want to see.

Let us know what you think…



  1. kathleen Treb

    Great write-up.

    • jeffdrake-wp-admin

      Thanks, Kathy!


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Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.