6 WTF Japanese Trends (You Can Blame on White Guys)
It's practically a meme in the West: The Japanese are insane. But, you know, loveably insane -- all squid-penises and liquor vending machines, not boring-old-crazy stuff like murder and cannibalism. What we don't realize, however, is that most of this madness is totally our fault. In the past, we've brushed up against the issue in a crowded train car -- discussing how Japanese manga was totally inspired by Donald Duck comics, for example -- but it goes beyond that. It turns out that much of Japan's iconic wackiness was actually imposed upon it by Western culture. Let's take a look at ...
Tentacle Porn and Pixelated Wangs
Connoisseurs of Japanese porn (hi, every single Cracked reader!) will readily note that, when they start getting down to business, all of the sexy bits are pixelated out like they're trying to keep it PG-13. In the meantime, the uniquely Japanese export of "tentacle porn" has become one of the highlights that illustrate just how bizarre Japan really is.
How It's Our Fault:
Despite what the censored porn might imply, nudity has never been taboo in Japanese culture. Not only were women used to walking around topless, but what we call porn was just another common genre of books, like cooking or travel. Japanese porn, or shunga, was a traditional form of visual media that had no stigma attached to it. Most artists created it without violating any type of social code. They were just making pictures of people fuckin'.
Just the way God intended.
It was only in the 19th century, when Western morality came to Japan, that the Japanese government decided to crack down on such traditional practices as public nudity, in order to make the case to the West that Japan was totally a civilized country. By the time World War II rolled around, Japanese porn had gone from an everyday part of Japanese culture to a demonized art form that, as the Pulitzer-winning expert John W. Dower noted, now inexplicably valued idealized Western versions of beauty, like long legs and big tits.
After the war, the Americans occupied the country and enforced American cultural values. This further stigmatized porn in Japan, to the point where they enacted one of the strangest porn laws in the world: It's OK to have sex on camera, but any display of genitals is strictly forbidden. So now all porn in Japan has the genitals pixelated out.
That of course didn't stop Japan's enterprising purveyors of smut, who quickly found ways to get around the Great Wang Embargo by producing porn that portrayed women being penetrated by tentacle monsters. Tentacles aren't technically dicks -- even when they're explicitly dick-shaped and behaving in a very dickish fashion -- so the government is powerless to censor them. And now the Japanese can enjoy pornography with the power of ... imagination. Or just squinting a little bit.
Seriously, those tentacles are very dick-like.
We all know that Japan has a lust for technology -- look on the back of any of your high-tech gadgets, and chances are it says "Made in Japan."
How It's Our Fault:
For most of Japan's history, wealth and consumerism were looked down upon in total disdain. The early Japanese basically lived like the Amish, if the Amish had kickass swords and unflattering haircuts. In fact, merchants and capitalists were always traditionally considered the lowest rung of society, below bureaucrats, farmers and artisans. Japan didn't trade with the outside world, and even banned technological innovation in warfare, like guns, because the samurai were trained with swords and didn't want lowly peasants to threaten them with firearms -- it would be ungentlemanly.
"We are not savages; we murder each other with decorum."
In 1853, U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry drove his ships into Japan and offered a compromise -- either they would open trade up and buy America's shit, or he would raze their country to the ground. Realizing that they were defenseless against Perry's giant guns, the Japanese opted to fall in line with the rest of the world and industrialize. It's just that when the Japanese do something -- from perversion to social reform -- they don't half-ass it. In a matter of mere decades, they turned their feudal society into a completely industrial nation.
History buffs know what Japan did next -- they suddenly morphed into a sinister industrial empire that conquered large parts of East Asia to feed their newfound technological machine, soon becoming one of the top ten industrialized nations of the world. Their hunger for resources to feed Japanese industry would cause Japan to make the worst decision in its history -- attacking the United States of America. SPOILER ALERT: It didn't end well.
In our defense, they were being total dicks.
After World War II, the occupying U.S. soldiers influenced the Japanese in channeling their energies toward less-threatening forms of technology, like consumer electronics. So to recap: A few centuries ago, we sent the guy from Friends into Japan like a techno-vampire, threatening them with death if they didn't turn into one of us. When they did turn, they found that they liked it a little too much, so we put them back down and told them to make little phones instead. Now we make fun of them for making said phones, because we're all huge mega-jerks. Hey, speaking of mega-things ...
Giant-Monster Movies Are a Reaction to the Atomic Bomb
The Japanese sure do love them some giant monsters. Tokyo has been flattened by monsters more times than aliens have destroyed the Statue of Liberty. It's actually its own film genre, called kaiju. Godzilla is only the most famous example -- screaming, out-of-sync Japanese citizens have since been terrorized by all sorts of towering beasts, like Rodan, Gamera and Mothra. It's a weirdly specific thing for one culture to become obsessed with.
Glass houses, America.
How It's Our Fault:
As we've discussed before, the most successful horror movies tap into what society is really afraid of. So when director Ishiro Honda needed a monster for his horror project, he came up with something that reflected the terror of a nuclear attack. You don't need to be a history buff to understand why Japan specifically might have been afraid of that.
In case the analogy wasn't clear enough, the creators of Godzilla wrote the A-bomb right into the monster's origin story. A mutant who was created by nuclear testing, Godzilla is a force of pure destruction that comes out of nowhere and reduces Japan's bustling capital to ashes in a single night, leaving everyone wondering what the hell just hit them. In Honda's own words, Godzilla wasn't just created by nuclear war: "He would be twisted and mutated by it, into a rampaging uncontainable force; the A-bomb made of flesh."
Curiously, this seems exactly like the sort of problem A-bombs were designed to solve.
Japanese culture couldn't get enough of the kaiju phenomenon; Honda made a career of it, being responsible for Rodan, the giant nuclear pterodactyl, and Mothra, the giant nuclear moth. Japan's very specific fear of obliteration by the West lasted long enough for kaiju to become an iconic tradition in Japanese film -- and it clarifies why it was such a dumb idea for Hollywood to transplant the idea to 1990s New York. Although it might explain why they cast Matthew Broderick (he's slight, and good with machines).
The Japanese Are Obsessed With Panties (Since We Introduced Them)
You've heard about how Japan has vending machines that sell used women's panties, right? That's actually true, and really weird. Sure, Western men do enjoy seeing a flash of women's undergarments now and then, but few would ask a naked woman to put on some underwear before she gets intimate. What the hell, Japan?
"Awww yeah. Now put on a parka ... slowly."
How It's Our Fault:
It's important to understand that Japanese women didn't traditionally wear underwear before the 1930s or so. Then, in the late 1950s, Western culture started to pour into Japan, and with it came Western clothing styles, which included women's underwear. The Japanese historian Shoichi Inoue pinpoints this as the time when the West helpfully taught Japanese women the concept of being ashamed of their vaginas (thanks, America!) and it became standard practice to cover them up.
"Seriously, have you seen a vagina? It's horrifying."
So why didn't the rest of the underpants-wearing world develop the same fetish for women's underwear when they were introduced? Well, when panties first came to Japan, they were an expensive commodity. After World War II, when Japan plunged into poverty, the only women who could afford to wear Western style underwear were "pan-pan girls" -- high-class hookers.
So, during the crucial first years of exposure to women's underwear, Japanese culture associated it almost exclusively with sexuality. Before too long, the Westernization of Japan brought women's underwear into the mainstream, but by the time regular women started wearing them, it was too late: Coming-of-age Japanese men had already boner-associated with them, and a cultural fetish was born.
They Kill Whales Because We Told Them To
As Greenpeace constantly reminds us, the Japanese still kill an inordinate number of whales in the name of "scientific research." And most of this research seems to center on the question of their deliciousness when paired with soy sauce. Although the rest of the world has mostly given up on whaling, due to the fact that we're running out of whales and cows don't swim very well, Japan won't let something like morality get between them and a juicy whale buffet.
"Oooh, I'll take that one, he looks like he has some fight in him!"
How It's Our Fault:
We tend to assume that, because they're traditionally a fishing-based society, whaling is just an extension of that practice. But whale meat was never really a significant part of Japanese culture until recently. Like the rest of the world, they briefly tried to harvest whale oil on an industrial scale, but even that was Norway's bad influence. To explain this modern craze, we're going right back to World War II again (it was kind of a big deal at the time).
After the war ended, the Japanese became deeply impoverished and were on the verge of famine. It was General Douglas MacArthur, leader of American-occupied Japan, who helpfully suggested that the answer to Japan's food shortages was to take up whaling as a large-scale industry. Ever since then, whale has become a notable factor in the Japanese diet.
"The secret ingredient is mercury."
But that doesn't explain why the Japanese remain whale-crazy after the rest of the world decided that whaling was a bad idea, does it? Well, Japan's answer to that is pretty simple: After centuries of having all these other weird traditions -- panty machines and giant monsters and penises-that-should-not-be -- pushed on them by the West, Japan is finally taking a stand against being told what to like. It's just unfortunate for the whales that Japan decided, arbitrarily, to make them the line in the sand.
The Japanese Work Themselves to Death (Because We Taught Them To)
One of the most well-established stereotypes of the Japanese is that they work too damn hard. So hard that there's an actual word in Japanese, karoshi, that specifically means a death caused by overwork. It's not an obscure concept, either: Karoshi is so common in Japan that it's recognized by insurance companies as a reason to pay out benefits. It seems so bizarre to the rest of us because we can't imagine why those crazy Japanese businessmen don't just take a personal day when they start getting heart palpitations.
Whereas we call in sick to work if we can't find our cellphone charger.
How It's Our Fault:
That whole World War II thing basically hit the reset button on Japan's economy. Having come closer to Mad Max style nuclear apocalypse than any other nation in history, their task in the following years was to rebuild their economic system from the ground up. Luckily, in 1950, Japan's deliverance from economic ruin came in the form of an American statistician named W. Edwards Deming.
Deming came up with a unique style of company management that focused on perpetual improvement. His philosophy was that you don't just pick a standard of quality and settle for it, but constantly improve upon your own quality standard, going through a constant cycle of never being satisfied. If your employees have worked their fingers to the bone, tell them to grind those bones down to a fine powder, and after they've done that, have them go door to door selling that powder as some sort of aphrodisiac. It's known as the Deming cycle, and it's been standard practice in the Japanese workplace since Deming ran a series of lectures in 1950s Japan that were so effective that they cemented him as a folk hero in Japanese corporate culture.
Like if John Galt was played by Carl Fredricksen.
So why does Japan fall victim to this culture of office suicide while the rest of us simply flip the middle finger when our boss tells us to work overtime? First of all, thanks to Japan's unique economic situation, they were the only country to adopt Deming's teachings on a wide scale. (Why would we? We had a booming economy that was working just fine.) But perhaps more significant was the way the Deming cycle combined with ingrained Japanese tradition.
The Japanese have a deep respect for seniority, so it's extremely impolite to go home before your boss does. And your boss might just stay at the office until one in the morning because he's such a hard worker ... or because he hates his wife, or possibly just because he's got a Nintendo in his office.
S Peter Davis is the visionary behind Three Minute Philosophy. For more crazy Japanese stories, check out Eric Yosomono at Gaijinass, or just LIKE him on Facebook like all the other cool kids are doing.
Just can't get enough Japan? Then check out Bukkake of the Gods: Japan's Insane Creation Myths and 6 Japanese Subcultures That Are Insane (Even for Japan).