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Lost in Translation
October 11, 2011 7:10 PM   Subscribe

What do the Japanese find "wacky" or bizarre about American/Western culture? Not looking for negative stereotypes, more "WTF??" moments of hilarious cultural untranslatablility.

Here in the states, we've all seen the funny videos of sadistic Japanese game shows, chirpy, surreal pop music, and strangely scatological commercials that tend to make most Americans say "WTF?!?". I usually assume there is a cultural reference I am missing, and that these things make perfect sense if you are Japanese (or maybe not, and that's the point, and Japan just really enjoys that WTF feeling- which would be awesome). Even knowing the historical and cultural background of some of these things doesn't make them feel less weird to many American's western sensibilities (tanukis, anyone?).
My question is, for anyone who is Japanese or has lived in Japan, what American phenomena (if any) illicit the same response over there? I don't mean things like "why are Americans so fat/violent/other negative stereotype", I mean things that are just not culturally translatable or strike the Japanese as surreal or hilarious. I mean, if I were from another culture, I would be completely baffled as to how people could watch "Jersey Shore". Is it supposed to be satire?? Are these people for real? What is the entertainment value? Hell, I live here and I don't even know. Are there YT videos of things like Jersey Shore being passed around Japan the same way we tend to pass around things like this video here?
posted by evilcupcakes to Society & Culture (39 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well, this is not really an answer, but just a note: Japanese people generally have a lot more exposure to Western and American culture than we do to Japanese culture, so I have a feeling that American things are not quite as "foreign" to them as Japanese things are to us. I live in China, which has been much more closed off than Japan, and even the majority of Chinese people have a bit of exposure to American culture through movies and TV, brands, stores, and restaurants, music, and also news which is reported to a large degree in their media.
posted by bearette at 7:17 PM on October 11, 2011


I'm by no means an expert, and this may not apply to younger generations who are becoming more Westernized, but aren't more traditional Japanese baffled by the informality of our work culture- calling the boss by his first name, wearing jeans and a t-shirt to an office job, etc.?
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:21 PM on October 11, 2011


Yeah, I was kind of worried that media saturation would make this a tough one to answer :(
posted by evilcupcakes at 7:24 PM on October 11, 2011


Japan the same way we tend to pass around things like this video here?

Look, the video you linked to is done by a comedy troupe. It's supposed to be funny, and it's one of the remarkable things Japanese culture that people everywhere will laugh at it - Saturday Night Live or David Letterman or the Simpsons doesn't translate nearly as well.

In Japan, foreigners are noted for their big noses, blonde hair and funny accents. That's it. Japanese folks are not as concerned with picking through the remains of pop culture or reflexively discussing social anthropology like we are in the West.

The sadistic, scatological, lewd tropes that characterize Japanese stereotypes in Western culture are primarily based on racism, and that's it.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:29 PM on October 11, 2011 [4 favorites]


I'll have to ask the girl and get back to you on this. Off the top of my head, Japanese people find just about anything involving American love of guns pretty bizarre.
posted by yeolcoatl at 8:14 PM on October 11, 2011


KokuRyu, I wasn't trying to offend you. My choice of words was specifically to illustrate how these things are PERCEIVED by many Americans. Bear in mind, our history here is a puritanical one, therefore, things that are commonplace in many other cultures come across as shocking over here. The point of my my question was that these things seems strange to us, but I know damn well there are things that we do here that seem equally if not more bizarre to others.

I was fairly certain that the video I posted was SUPPOSED to be funny, but it's still pretty harsh by American television standards. That level of slapstick just isn't seen over here. As I was watching it, a woman I work with walked past my desk and said "What do the Japanese see in this stuff!?" (she thought the first contestant was an elderly woman who was genuinely being injured. She isn't known around the office for her brains...). Her ignorance aside, it made me wonder about some of the things that my own culture projects that can be misunderstood in a funny or weird way.

I would hate to think that the only impression people in Japan have of us is that we are a bunch of big nosed, blonde bigots, but if so, oh well.
posted by evilcupcakes at 8:38 PM on October 11, 2011


Yeah, they think the whole gun thing is pretty weird, but there is so much western culture visible in Japan anyway that there isn't the "Hey, look at that bizarre activity" that occurs the other way. It's definitely an asymetrical relationship in that sense. Japanese understand and are exposed to western culture much more than the other way around.
posted by zachawry at 8:48 PM on October 11, 2011


WHen I lived in Korea we threw a house party (As in, a party in our apartment, as opposed to going out to a bar) and it just about blew our Korean friends minds. The cops were also befuddled.
posted by GilloD at 8:58 PM on October 11, 2011 [7 favorites]


Using Australian life as a proxy for American culture (and aware of the problems with doing that) the thing that Koreans and Japanese people I've met find most alien is the culture of aged care, with retirement homes and villas, nursing homes, and privatised aged care. And it's not nice befuddlement, they've found it appalling and shameful.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:16 PM on October 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


Well, although they certainly know ABOUT Halloween in Japan, just yesterday a Japanese person said to me, "I heard Americans spend billions of dollars on Halloween. I read about it. I don't understand it. Can you explain it to me? What is the explanation for that?" And the looks on my Japanese students' faces the first time they go into a Halloween store is pure "WTF?!" I love showing Japanese friends videos of private home haunted houses, or those ones where the houses light up to "Thriller" or whatever. Those never fail to elicit sounds of amazement.

(Today at school was super cute, when a 30-something Korean woman read a simple English description of trick-or-treating, got to the end, processed something I'd just read, looked up at me with huge eyes, and said, "This is REAL?!" Ha ha, I know that feeling. Down the rabbit hole!)

Japanese friends have also been shocked and appalled by various food practices (rice pudding, for example). I'm pretty sure I've run into other things, but they're just not coming to mind right now, or they were pretty minor differences (e.g. "Why do Americans smell like soap?!" "Why would you drink something that tastes like toothpaste?!").
posted by wintersweet at 9:17 PM on October 11, 2011 [12 favorites]


Well, Family Guy certainly has a high level of slapstick and general gross-out humour, doesn't it? And the Japanese comedy sketches that show up on the internet show up on the internet because they are outrageous, but they're no more outrageous than Deuce Bigelow or David Spade (or Family Guy).

Japan tends to embrace "low culture", but in a way it is very similar to the UK in that respect.

My point is, people tend to think Japan is weird and gross while ignoring the same weird, gross aspects of their own culture. For example, Japanese porn is no more unusual than American porn. And there are a number of American TV shows (I've written for some of them) that have been adapted from Japan.

But in answer to your question, something like "Jersey Shore" would be simply incomprehensible to most Japanese people. I don't mean that in a bad way, by the way.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:19 PM on October 11, 2011 [4 favorites]


I'm Japanese, and I grew up in the US. A few things I find weird, or that other Japanese people have asked me about:

- having roommates, although this has become more acceptable in big cities within the past 5 years. My landlord still required me to sign a contract that no one other than me would live in my apartment. Subletting is still a baffling concept.
- the HUGE lines for Black Friday, and the amount of money spent on holidays in general
- trick-or-treating. Even though Japan is a safe country, it is weird to go to unknown people's houses to ask for candy
posted by xmts at 9:24 PM on October 11, 2011


Ah, now that Fiasco da Gama mentions "appalling and shameful," I remember driving with some Japanese exchange students in the South past some rundown houses (cars in the yard, peeling paint, boxes left around, etc.). There was a lot of pointing and asking if that was normal. They definitely thought it was bizarre. Even if someone happened to be poor, they expected the person would have some standards.

Along the same lines, the lack of universal government-sponsored healthcare was cause for repeated questioning by a Japanese client. Completely bizarre! He refused for quite a while to believe that we didn't have it and then that the "Obamacare" reforms didn't actually include it, because what on earth would be the point otherwise...It took a while for him to realize that I was telling the truth.

A couple of highly fluent Japanese friends think the fact that "Seinfeld" was considered funny by many is proof of some kind of major American insanity. (I tend to agree.)

But Kokuryu is definitely dead right that a lot of the "weird Japan" stuff that we get here is the equivalent of the "News of the Weird" stuff that we get in English and rightfully ignore, because we know it's fringe/wacky/weird/tabloid/probably fake/a passing fad/a tiny minority/subculture/that one part of the state/those kinds of people.
posted by wintersweet at 9:24 PM on October 11, 2011


A Japanese colleague of mine was quite visibly shaken because of his overcooked tuna steak in a fish restaurant in Cuxhaven, Germany. I mean I would not have liked it either (and I was wise and ordered plaice), but he was shocked.
posted by Namlit at 9:54 PM on October 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Putting soy sauce on white rice always got my husband's coworkers to think he was a complete freak in rural Japan. Explaining that it was a standard US thing to do with Asian food provoked even stranger looks.
posted by deludingmyself at 11:16 PM on October 11, 2011


Blue cheese (from 0:33):
"I have today, for the first time in my life, tried the most disgusting food ever."
posted by iviken at 11:50 PM on October 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Back in the early 1990s a club a belonged to hosted a visit from a small group of Japanese women from our "sister city." They stayed for a week, and as they were leaving I hugged (without really thinking about it) the one women whom I'd spent a lot of time with and she looked very uncomfortable. She then looked at her feet and apologized, telling me she was just surprised because she'd never been hugged before. She was married and had two children and her own husband had never even hugged her. She gave me the impression that this was somewhat common in Japan; dunno if that's still the case these days.
posted by Oriole Adams at 1:27 AM on October 12, 2011


Rice pudding was definitely a "WHAAA?" sort of thing when I first told my coworkers about it.

One thing my supervisor was completely baffled about was how we Americans allowed babies to crawl on the same floor we walk on with outdoor shoes on. Wasn't it horribly dirty and dangerous and gross? He couldn't get over it. Shoes in houses in general tends to be something that Japanese people would get stuck on, in my experience.

People also seem fundamentally confused by the lack of rice in American diets. They have gotten the idea that Americans don't eat rice with every meal, but since they eat rice with the large majority of meals in Japan, they expect that Americans/any other culture must have a similarly ubiquitous carbohydrate. It was always difficult to explain that no, Americans don't eat bread with every meal, that we actually eat a variety of different things, and sometimes it is bread.
posted by that girl at 1:43 AM on October 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


The house party concept definitely gets weird looks, as does te idea of having a BBQ. Coming from the Midwest, where there is pretty much a grill on every patio or balcony, one of my main goals when we bought a house was to have enough outdoor space to grill and have people over. This became something of a runnin joke for several agencies we worked with, to the point that it got a bit insulting. It was hilarious to them that the gaijin wanted to have a BBQ. We didn't end up buying from any of those jerks, luckily.

One of the stranger disconnects ia the sandwich. I've done an ESL lesson on instructions where the students watch me make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, then write a set of instructions for makin the sandwich. There are, without fail, gasps of horror everytime I put the piece of bread with the jelly together with the piece of bread with the peanut butter. I usually pass the sandwiches around after, and on average, fewer than half the students will even try a bite.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:22 AM on October 12, 2011 [7 favorites]


Oatmeal blew my friends' minds / disgusted them.
We also put cheese on EVERYTHING and it's weird to many Japanese
Seconding the PB&J thing, but that's not limited to just Japan
The everyone owns a car/everyone owns a gun thing is pretty prevalent
posted by MangyCarface at 6:21 AM on October 12, 2011


Thanksgiving dinner, or just going to dinner at a friend's house. A friends mother was visiting from Japan and had to be convinced that it was OK to eat at the house where you were invited for dinner. It happened to be thanksgiving. She was amazed at the quantity of food. Once we convinced her to try some she was hooked. She even went home with leftovers!
posted by Gungho at 6:30 AM on October 12, 2011


With regard to the whole peanut butter and jelly thing, I don't think that is a purely Japanese reaction. I'm British and the thought of mixing those two together makes me gag (although I love them on their own). I've never understood the American obsession with that combination...
posted by teselecta at 7:05 AM on October 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


The French mob where I lived in Japan always made people titter or feel uncomfortable with the bisous - so they see one girl kiss alllll the guys in her group and no one among them is bothered by it - and the toast of chin-chin, which in Japanese is a handy slang word for penis.

Seconding the parts about roommates, having people over to your house, and the casual work environment (first names, casual dress...). Though as always there are exceptional people and the times they are a-changing.
posted by whatzit at 8:52 AM on October 12, 2011


My elderly Japanese-American friends in Hawaii were shocked when I said back east we put butter on our rice.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 8:54 AM on October 12, 2011


teselecta - I know, I used to be you. Try it - Tiptree Loganberry and Whole Earth crunchy pb, on a toasted bagel. Best £4 you ever spent.
posted by cromagnon at 8:55 AM on October 12, 2011


Gungho, I had the same experience with a friend from Kagoshima. Nothing quite like a lanky Japanese girl passed out on your sofa in a turkey coma (I know this phenomenon doesn't exist, supposedly, but at some point she pulled the carcass over to her and just kept slicing and sawing and gnawing--it was a sight to behold).

Just to clarify Ghidorah's post--"the sandwich" is not at all unknown in Japan (they love their club sandos), rather PB&J. Really, despite another client's assertion that "American food is easy to understand," we could probably list food combinations that have shocked and appalled (and occasionally won over) our Japanese friends, students, and clients all day.
posted by wintersweet at 9:39 AM on October 12, 2011


I was helping run a Japanese summer school once for Japanese students learning English and one of the classes was about western attitudes and prejudices about Japan and vice versa. Lots of history and study of propaganda from WWII, which was really interesting.

In one class, the lecturer (who is English but has lived in Japan for long periods) showed the class some of those very slapstick obstacle course style game programs. The students all laughed but only one had ever seen anything like it before. It really isn't a mainstream thing.

One thing that really stuck out with the students I was looking after is that they didn't get our sweet/savoury distinction - I watched a whole group go to brunch, choose all the sausages, bacon, toast, eggs etc and then cover them in the chocolate custard that was supposed to go over the sponge pudding. They liked it. However, they thought baked beans were disgusting and complained so much that the chef ended up serving rice at every meal. This pleased nobody since the rice was really badly done.
posted by kadia_a at 10:12 AM on October 12, 2011


Maybe someone else can confirm or deny, but I read somewhere that wedding cakes are viewed differently in Japan than in the US. Where in the US the cake can rival the bridal dress in complexity and cost, the Japanese cake is less the center of attention such that the majority of the cake itself is fake and only meant to be viewed as a part of the decor. Also, couples in the US may hire bakers specializing in wedding cakes, but in Japan the couple might bake the cake themselves.

Unfortunately I am not able to back this up with any evidence, so this might be specific to only certain parts of Japan, or certain age groups (and I'm sure there are couples in the US who view weddings in similar light so to them it may be less wacky and more sensible).
posted by CancerMan at 10:28 AM on October 12, 2011


As wintersweet said, sandwiches definitely exist here, though the Japanese concept of a sandwich (and pizza, for that matter) is something that could easily give an American a bit of a shock. I'll never understand the yaki-soba (stir-fried noodle) sandwiches here. It's not really a sandwich culture, though, and for the most part, anything beyond white bread (with the crusts cut off) is pretty much unheard of. Pret-a-Manger tried to make a go of it here, and they folded within a year (despite having some amazing sandwiches).

The Thanksgiving thing is similarly boggling to most Japanese people. When I tell them that it was pretty normal to have between 14 and 20 people come over to the house back home, they have a hard time understanding it. A lot of that has to do with the massive differences in housing between the U.S. and Japan. Here, it's not uncommon for people (especially single people) to live in absolutely tiny apartments, but drive a nice car, or spend most of their money on luxury items. The culture surrounding friends and social situations is one based almost entirely on going out to meet people, and bringing people over to your place is pretty much not done, due to the cramped spaces most people live in. Personally, I do a Thanksgiving meal every year, and now that we have a house, we can finally have a decent party, about 10 people, friends and family. Last year, we had a Buddhist monk and his wife, her sister, and her sister's son, in addition to a couple Americans and Canadians. The Japanese people were agog at the amount of food, and also at the number of people around the table. Once they started eating, they relaxed, and indeed took home leftovers.

Pumpkin pie, however, did not go over well. The spices are utterly foreign to the Japanese palate. A friend who worked at Costco here told me about how (due to the return policy) a lot of people would bring back the pies they'd bought, claiming that they must have spoiled, since the flavor was so bizarre. In every case, it was a perfectly normal, non-spoiled pie, but to the customer, it was inedible. See also rootbeer.

As for the wedding cake, CancerMan, I've never heard that. For the most part, especially when it comes to weddings held at hotels or wedding salons (the vast majority of weddings here are), the hotel takes care of everything, the food, the cake, the invitations, the bride and groom's clothing, everything. The cake is a pretty big part of the event, complete with a spotlight on the bride and groom as they cut the cake together with a gigantic knife. For the most part, Japanese people don't have big western ovens, so making a wedding cake would be nearly impossible.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:19 PM on October 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


The culture surrounding friends and social situations is one based almost entirely on going out to meet people, and bringing people over to your place is pretty much not done, due to the cramped spaces most people live in.

My in-laws have a three-story townhome out in the sticks with plenty of space, and I'm pretty sure the reason why no one is invited over to most Japanese homes is because they are, without exception, too much of a goddamn mess.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:21 PM on October 12, 2011


I went to an anime convention when I was about 16 solely to meet one of my favorite musicians, and waited in line 6 hours to get an autograph. I was like the 5th person next in line, when they said he had to leave for a publicity thing. He agreed to come out and walk down the line and say hey to everybody, though. The group of girls in front of me were from Taiwan, and they all bowed to him, as he started down the line. I gave him a high five. One of the girls, who I had been talking with the whole time, stared at me in amazement and said" You just touched him! You can't do that! Can you?"
[This particular artist had lived in California for about a decade, and I figured if I held out my hand, he'd either understand and return the five, or he'd wave and bow. Luckily my hand got slapped. ]
posted by shesaysgo at 2:38 PM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thanks, Ghidorah. I was probably reading one of the more esoteric reactions, then.
posted by CancerMan at 3:31 PM on October 12, 2011


"the thing that Koreans and Japanese people I've met find most alien is the culture of aged care, with retirement homes and villas, nursing homes, and privatised aged care. And it's not nice befuddlement, they've found it appalling and shameful."

There are old age homes in Japan. I visit them frequently to play shakuhachi for the old folks. The facilities have all been pretty nice, though.

Also, this is exactly right on:
"People also seem fundamentally confused by the lack of rice in American diets. They have gotten the idea that Americans don't eat rice with every meal, but since they eat rice with the large majority of meals in Japan, they expect that Americans/any other culture must have a similarly ubiquitous carbohydrate. It was always difficult to explain that no, Americans don't eat bread with every meal, that we actually eat a variety of different things, and sometimes it is bread."
posted by zachawry at 6:54 PM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


One thing that really stuck out with the students I was looking after is that they didn't get our sweet/savoury distinction - I watched a whole group go to brunch, choose all the sausages, bacon, toast, eggs etc and then cover them in the chocolate custard that was supposed to go over the sponge pudding.

I'm pretty sure your particular group of kids were just playing around with their food.
posted by misozaki at 8:13 PM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


American bathroom set up is shocking to most Japanese. I mean really, toilet and bath in same room?!? To most Japanese that is truly horrifying.

Why are Americans unable to slurp their noodles? Some people have quite silly and elaborate theory.
posted by Carius at 8:28 PM on October 12, 2011


To go along with zachawry, there are indeed old age homes all over. In fact, several have sprung up in our neighborhoods. It's just a part of life in Japan, with such a large elderly population, and the younger generations being so comparatively small, that families can't take care of each other as much as they used to.

For the most part, are neighborhood is pretty boring, but at least the old people are quiet.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:23 PM on October 12, 2011


And the looks on my Japanese students' faces the first time they go into a Halloween store is pure "WTF?!"

I think you'd find this in many countries outwith America - we don't have 'the holidays' like you do, and having specific decorations for St Patrick's Day, Easter etc. is fairly unusual.
posted by mippy at 6:46 AM on October 13, 2011


When I have asked Japanese people the specific question in the OP, one of the most common answers was Americans' eagerness to sue, as evidenced by the McDonald's hot coffee lawsuit. Another frequent answer was that Americans go to convenience stores and buy cola in cups that they judge to be buckets. The giant sizes of packaged foods in American supermarkets, guns sold in sporting goods stores, also were mentioned.

About the wedding cake in Japan: yes, it is often a fake plastic cake with one slice of real cake for the cutting, and the shoving into faces and mugging for the camera. Then the fake cake is whisked away and servers appear with delicious slices of cake on plates, all baked efficiently in big cake pans.
posted by planetkyoto at 7:11 AM on October 16, 2011


About the wedding cake in Japan: yes, it is often a fake plastic cake with one slice of real cake for the cutting, and the shoving into faces and mugging for the camera. Then the fake cake is whisked away and servers appear with delicious slices of cake on plates, all baked efficiently in big cake pans.

This is no longer that uncommon in america. My wedding reception had this style cake and other venues also practiced this.
posted by jefftang at 8:45 AM on October 18, 2011


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