by Ryan LaRosa
So here’s the thing, I decided I was going to write about how Japan really isn’t as crazy as most media makes it seem. Cut to last month at a small rock club in Eastern Tokyo. My friend and I saw a sign out front advertising The World’s Most Dangerous Mosh Pit and once inside we are asked to sign a waiver that (I think) said the club was not responsible for any injuries sustained in the mosh pit, a basic “at your own risk” kind of thing. We were wondering what the hell was going on until we got near the stage and I saw hundreds of banana peels on the floor. Being Japan, it was still very organized, the mosh pit area was very clearly laid out and all the speakers, monitors and soundboard equipment were wrapped in cling wrap. And god forbid they wasted any bananas — on the menu were banana cocktails, banana curry and, of course, banana pancakes. Because nothing says mosh pit madness like banana pancakes. Well shit, I thought, this is pretty crazy; there goes my piece about Not Crazy Japan.
I’ve lived in Japan for about 10 years and like a lot of lifers here I get annoyed by much of the international coverage of Japan. It seems like anything the least bit strange will be written about as if it is a national craze because you know, Japan is crazy and everybody is the same. Even respectable news organizations fall for it. It’s like Japan has entered the Tyson Zone, any story, no matter how crazy, is taken as fact. The Tyson Zone, coined by popular sports columnist Bill Simmons, describes the point when someone has reached the point that nothing they do surprises you anymore. It’s named after boxer Mike Tyson, famous for face tattoos and ear biting and so much more. It occurred to me that for the media, Japan has entered the Tyson Zone.
Case in point, in June of 2013 a weird story about an eyeball licking craze made the rounds and got repeated by sites like Huffington Post and The Guardian; it even had a scientific sounding name, oculolinctus. The problem is that none of the sites that repeated the story questioned the original source; they just took it as fact because it sounded like something that could happen in crazy Japan. Because this was causing pink eye, the claim went, it got more attention than most of the weird news about Japan. One foreign journalist looked into it and couldn’t find any sources to back up the story, if anything it might have been based on an isolated incident, but it certainly wasn’t a dangerous trend that all the high school kids were doing. And that’s just it, most of it is innocent enough and based in truth, sexy robots, crazy Kit Kat flavors, weird pop music, it’s just the way it’s portrayed as the norm and not the fringe that is the problem.
I will admit that Japan can definitely be crazy and there are unique aspects to living here. From square watermelons and $100 cantaloupes, all girl idol pop groups with over 100 members, and manga and anime featuring tentacle penetration (I realize that as I type some of this I’m weakening my own argument). My problem is the way it is presented. Most articles highlight some crazy fashion and suggest it is a fad sweeping the nation. I know it’s easy to stereotype and Japan already suffers from the stereotype that everyone is the same, so it’s easy and lazy to transfer that to any reporting about the news here.
Obviously the Headline “Crazy New Japanese Trend” will get more clicks then “Hey, Look At This Crazy Dude I saw In Shibuya”, but it’s still crappy reporting. It would be similar to me going into a Spencer Gifts (do those still exist in the US?) and finding the craziest thing and presenting it to the world as the new US trend. Every country has stuff that seems weird because of cultural differences or some stuff that is legitimately out there, but few countries seem to be defined by their quirks as much as Japan. For example; Lady Gaga wears a meat dress, she is crazy; Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, often referred to as Japan’s Lady Gaga, wears crazy clothes, Japan is crazy. I suppose that all countries suffer from this to varying degrees, but I don’t live in other countries, only Japan
There is a lot of crazy in Japan, especially in Tokyo, and whenever visitors come, I take them to see it. I took my parents to a Maid Café and my dad to the Robot Restaurant, those are definitely crazy, but they are pretty niche things. The Robot Restaurant attracts a majority foreign crowd that specifically came to see some crazy Japanese show. But in many ways, Japan is just like everywhere else. Much of what we consider weird either isn’t seen as that weird here or is unknown to the majority of the Japanese population. Japan is known worldwide for its manga and anime and with that, the “crazy” phenomenon of cosplay, where people like to dress up as their favorite characters. Part of this comes from some of the strict constraints of school and office. When people shed their uniform or business clothes, they want to have fun and express something about themselves. And this isn’t unique to Japan, they were just ahead of the curve. Go to any Comic Con, Horror Con or any other Con in the States, and you will see the same thing.
It also seems that a lot of the reporting is done by foreigners living in Japan or foreign media. I’m not sure if this is done simply to lure readers or if it’s some subconscious effort to make Japan seem super cool and out there, so they can feel like they are a part of or have a secret window into something really unusual. I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for it, too. I click on the links, I want to see what craziness is happening, and I share the craziest stories about life here. It makes sense, do my friends back home want to hear that there is a Starbucks on every corner, or are they more interested in a Maid Café, where cute female staff members cast spells on your food and perform choreographed dance numbers to anime songs? The later, obviously, and that’s natural, but it’s important to present the news with some context. If you visit Japan for just a couple weeks you might be overwhelmed by all the new stuff, but that doesn’t make Japan “crazy”. If you live here for any length of time you’ll see that just like anywhere else, people are pretty much the same, living a pretty normal life and looking for distractions in their free time. Even if it’s going to shop for a $100 cantaloupe.