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Yes, Japan is unique, but it’s not your fantasy land

I've thought about writing this post for a long time. There were some days and weeks over the past year when I'd witness such poor behavior from foreign visitors in Japan that I was honestly close to writing it. But then I would close my notebook and put it aside.

I don't feel like some other bloggers do about needing to be incessantly positive all the time. I've always found as much as people like the upbeat posts, the ones that question and challenge and describe sometimes difficult realities are some of the most appreciated posts.

I guess one of the reasons I put it aside is because I know that not every foreign tourist behaves badly in Japan. I've traveled enough around this planet to know that it's not culture or race that determines whether someone is good or bad, and I come at this topic from the unique perspective of a long-term resident of Japan, who grew up in a Western country.

I can see things from both a foreign and a Japanese cultural perspective, and I like to think this gives me a “well-rounded” window into why people behave the way they do.

Naturally, as someone who writes about travel and a whole lot about travel in Japan, I'm happy Japan is opening up to tourism and more than ever before people are coming and enjoying what this country has to offer.

Japan is a unique place that is exciting for many visitors. I really do hope that as many people as possible get the chance to visit and experience the complete sensory overload of a busy Japanese train station or ordering at random from a Japanese-only menu and seeing what they end up with. It will be a trip like no other.

But as someone in the Japan travel space, I also feel it's my responsibility to speak up when things get ugly, and they have really reached a tipping point this week. More on that a bit later.

First, I want to get into how with all the things that make this country so intriguing to the foreign visitor comes a real danger.

The “amusement park syndrome”

I call it the “amusement park syndrome”. It's when people build up a place as some kind of fantasy land, and become completely detached from reality in the process. Meaning that they see places and the people in them as there to serve and entertain them, and to check things off their list, stripping the humanity away from what should otherwise be real, everyday interactions with fellow human beings.

It can potentially happen in any place, but Japan is a country in which this kind of behavior is particularly pertinent. Perhaps it's because Japan is so very different to any other country on Earth that many people do view it as some kind of alternate reality where rules don't apply, at least not to them.

In the case of Japan, many visitors have a strong image of what they are hoping to expect on their visit. Unlike some nations around the world, Japan has a national culture full of distinctive symbols that are quite easy for foreign visitors to recognize and pinpoint.

Even those who have never visited can probably rattle off a list of things they associate with the country. The more traditional ones being kimono, sushi and onsen, and more modern ones centering on flashing lights and “that famous intersection,” along with Japan's reputation for technological innovation like robots and toilets that talk to you.

And in many ways, Japan does confirm these stereotypes. You can indeed find all of these things in-country and there is nothing wrong with enjoying them on your visit.

What all visitors need to keep in mind, however, is that Japan is a real country with real people, who have real feelings and real jobs. Japan is not a big anime set and the people in it merely characters for you to interact with.

The rise in negative foreign tourism in Japan

I have been hesitant to write a post like this is because I always try to keep my feelings in check by questioning them and putting them in perspective.

There are disrespectful people in every country and culture, so statistically speaking, a rise in tourism will naturally equal a rise in undesirable incidents and “amusement park syndrome”.

At the same time, many people come to Japan with a genuine desire to understand the country and culture, and do their best to follow local norms as best as possible.

It feels unfair to those visitors to assume the worst of people, but at the same time, poor behavior needs to be called out when necessary and it's in the best interests of tourists who want to have a good rapport with Japan and its people to do so.

Poor behavior gone too far

By this stage you might be wondering what kind of poor behavior I'm referring to. It can take on many forms, but generally falls into such categories as being loud and obnoxious, being dismissive of and not following simple local rules or laws, and causing disruption to public order.

Many of you have probably heard by now of the current controversy surrounding a well-known American YouTuber who has been in Japan filming vlogs. I've decided not to mention his name nor link to any of his videos as I do not want to give him any more views than he has already gotten. If you want to find out more about this incident, it won't be difficult to find.

One video in particular received international attention after it went viral, thanks largely in part to YouTube making it a “top trending” video. In the video, the vlogger, along with his team, go to Aokigahara Forest near the base of Mount Fuji.

The forest is often referred to as Japan's “Suicide Forest” as it is unfortunately a place where many people decide to end their lives each year.

In the video, they do in fact find a body of a recently deceased person hanging from a tree. Instead of doing the humane and decent thing, which would be to turn off the cameras immediately and alert the relevant authorities, they approach the body, zoom in on it, comment on the color of the skin and “hang out” with it while laughing and making jokes. The YouTuber claiming that it was one of the “top things to happen to him this year.”

It really doesn't matter that they blurred the face and part of the torso, or that they included numbers to suicide hotlines in the final video. This is completely unacceptable and despicable behavior, and this footage should never have been put out into the world.

I'd like to say that this video was an isolated mistake for this YouTuber, but the rest of his channel is full of videos of him being immature and disrespectful wherever he goes.

The rest of his Japan vlogs are a disgrace and show him behaving so poorly at a temple that he actually gets kicked out, him flinging around raw octopus and fish at Shibuya crossing before dumping it on the trunk of a moving taxi, jumping on to moving vehicles and throwing ‘pokeballs' at them, and the list goes on.

Of course, this is an extreme example and most people don't go this far. But there are unfortunately too many people who possess a similar attitude with regards to Japan being a place merely for their entertainment, where they view their actions as having little to no real-world consequences.

There may not be any direct ones for them, but these actions do have consequences – for the local people having to put up with this kind of nonsense, and to the reputation of foreigners overall in Japan.

Understanding Japan's unique historical and cultural context

To understand Japan, you need to understand the unique Japanese historical and cultural context.

Japan underwent a long period of isolation from the outside world from the 1600s-1800s. It's a period that cemented so many of the distinct cultural traditions visitors come to Japan to enjoy today, but it also created a very particular “insider-outsider” mentality.

Even today, it's taken essentially a national emergency of an ageing population and declining birthrate, along with increasing urgency for “internationalization” in the lead-up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, for Japan to pursue a more lenient immigration policy.

And with all that, the foreign population in Japan is still just a fraction of the overall population, most of these residents being of Chinese, South Korean and Filipino descent, along with an increasing number of Vietnamese. People of Color, Caucasians, Middle Easterners and other Asian residents often get piled into a very small and inconsequential category known as ‘Other'.

With a rather ethnically homogeneous nation, foreigners naturally stand out. For better or worse, our behavior is dissected in a way that doesn't always apply to ethnic Japanese. And so when foreign visitors act inappropriately, it impacts the foreign population at large – both those that live here and have to deal with the aftermath and other temporary visitors who come after them.

Living in constant apology 

When you are a minority in a foreign land, whether you want to be or not, you do become a representative of your country. Even more than that, given Japan's unique historical and cultural context, it extrapolates to being representative of all foreigners here in general. And I'm finding myself feeling the increasing need to apologize for other foreigners' bad behavior.

There's a small counter restaurant that I often frequent in downtown Tokyo. The staff know my order by heart and give me a nod when I walk in with the simple question of, “The usual?”

It's in a busy location so sees a large foreign clientele. The restaurant has an English menu, a fact that they advertise in their front window, and the staff have been trained in some basic English so they can help visitors navigate the menu and take their orders.

They try to make it easy for many visitors to frequent their restaurant, yet some of the nuisance behavior I witness is mind-boggling. Especially when the staff work up the courage to request that they don't do it, in English (to English speakers), but then they refuse and just continue anyway. I've been so disgusted at times that I myself have informed tourists that what they were doing was inappropriate.

I then find myself overcompensating for this behavior by being overly polite and trying to make sure that it's clear “we're not all like this.”

Exploiting Japanese cultural tendencies

Japanese people are usually non-confrontational by nature and in light of that they will often hide their true feelings. It's something referred to as tatemae (one's public facade) and honne (one's true feelings), and you can expect most people to be in tatemae mode most of the time.

Just because people aren't overtly condemning your behavior, doesn't mean you aren't annoying them. It's taken me the better part of a decade to master the art of reading Japanese facial expressions, and I still sometimes get it wrong.

While some, hopefully most, foreign tourists make mistakes simply because they don't know otherwise, there are some who really exploit this non-confrontational aspect of Japanese culture and consider it a free pass to act however they like.

Look around you and use your common sense

Japanese people are very aware that they have a unique and complicated culture and language. They do not at all expect you to speak Japanese or understand the complexities of hundreds of years of tradition during your 10-day holiday.

They will often admit that there are aspects of their own culture they don't know that well either. If you make an honest mistake, they will forgive you.

What we are talking about here are not detailed cultural sensitivities that to a certain extent we all learn as we go in a new country. We're talking about basic respect and common sense.

By all means come to Japan and enjoy yourself. Just remember that simply because you are on holiday, doesn't give you the right to treat others as though they are not real people, trying to get through their days just as you do when you're back home.

And if you ever do come across someone in distress, or worse, do the right thing and show some respect.

You don't need to be an expert for that; only human.

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