Fabien is a sports coach, but with his 14 stays in the Land of the Rising Sun, he could just as well be a guide. However, his Japan is not touristic : it's surprising, sometimes confusing, but especially authentic.
At a time when the country is making sensitive efforts to attract the tourist
(Japan welcomed 28.7 million visitors in 2017), La Carte et Le Territoire asked Fabien, who has observed and analyzed this culture that he loves but knows how to see just as it is.
His phrases and ideas are sometimes like uppercut (not surprising for a MMA Fighter), but sure of him.
WHEN WAS YOUR FIRST TRIP TO JAPAN ?
It was in 2004, I was invited by a Karate club in Tokyo, the Hombu Dôjô. There are several styles of Karate in Japan. I stayed there for two months but I only visited the area where my school was located, Ikebukuro. It is the equivalent of the Opera district in Paris, there are many brand stores.
And since then, I’ve been back 13 times.
WHAT DID YOU LIKE ABOUT JAPANESE CULTURE ?
It's important to know that the generation of men 35/40 years old bathed in a Japanese subculture via mangas such as Saint Seiya, Nicky Larson, and all those that the Dorothée Club (french TV) broadcast. On top of that, I was already a fan of karate. Discovering Japan was therefore an obvious fact.
Japanese culture is attached to spirits, spectres, ghosts, mysteries, including in its recent manga or in film production; the ultra-modern juxtaposes itself with the archaic. It is without doubt, after the United States, the country where mass culture has emerged most rapidly.
Philippe Pelletier – Japon, crise d’une autre modernité
Even so, the first trip there is frankly impressive, we are blown away. Everything is so different from home.
I don’t know anyone who has told me they were disappointed on their first trip there.
Many things pleased me, even if I understood later that it was only Japan of facade: politeness, courtesy of people, a true sense of community (the group comes before the individual), a real social peace. It’s a country of ultra-services, everyone is listening to you. In a shop, sellers come to you without being oppressive, and sometimes use a tablet or a phone with machine translation to solve a language problem. I’ve never seen that in France!
Lost in translation ?!
A dedicated person carefully organizes your shopping. The supermarkets are open all the time, and supermarkets are open until 1am. Everything is done to make life easier for the consumer. You can buy everything at any time. That’s why it’s better to have money...
That said, the cost of living isn't astronomical. Contrary to what one might think, everything is even a little cheaper than in Paris: food, clothes, leisure. Hotels are 30% cheaper in Tokyo than in London or Paris. For those who are accustomed to the large price gap with the others Asian countries (Thailand, Indonesia, etc.), Japan is definitely more expensive.
Cleanliness too. If you drop your gum on the floor, you can pick it up and put it in your mouth cause it's so clean! The subway is clean too. There’s one officer per station, who spends the day scouring it. And in the cars, nobody smells bad...
The crime rate is very low. To the point where some luxury shops don’t seem to be. The luxury codes are being swept away. There is no presentation protocol like ours: a beautiful glass display case, the space between the items. There 300 Rolex and other watches of the same kind are exposed there, without security system! It would not come to the idea of anyone to steal them. And if he took the envy of a stranger, he would not go far…
Yakuzas – the Japanese Mafia, which, unlike the Italian one, is established – play an important role in policing.
“ With them, no thieves, no burglaries, no sex crimes, no dealers roaming the sidewalks. ”
AND A CONTRARIO, WHAT DO YOU LIKE LESS THERE ?
What I don’t like about Japanese culture is what is behind the scenes. You have to have been there several times or spent time to realize that.
It’s sad to say, but Japanese people, especially the Tokyoïtes, are not happy people. Like many Asian countries, social pressure is enormous: they must succeed in life. Or at least acquire the external signs. They often have two or three jobs.
A smooth life, seemingly perfect, that hides serious problems of alcoholism, even worse of depressions that often lead to suicide.
The ultra modern loneliness of men in a hurry…
But how the hell do the Japanese manage to achieve such social peace?
An answer is to be found in the concept of Honne and Tatemae.
The Honne designates what must remain hidden: the intimate desire, the thoughts and personal opinions of the individual,
while the Tatemae refers to what is shown: "unique" thinking adapted to society and, by extension, Japanese behavior in public.
To sum up, in a culture where society takes precedence over the individual, expressing honestly one’s opinion can be detrimental to harmony. Thus, an attitude considered hypocritical in our country will be perceived as a mark of politeness – better, as a virtue – by the Japanese.
Alcohol is an outlet for pressure exerted by their wife, or by their company (sometimes up to hierarchical harassment. CF Stupeurs et Tremblements). Every Friday and Saturday, it is not uncommon to run into a man in a tie suit in the street, fallen into the gutter, completely drunk!
The only time you see them weak is when they take a wall and cry on your shoulder and tell you their life is shit. I’ve seen it many times.
Overall, they have very few friends. They go out at night among colleagues in After Work organized by the companies themselves, to reduce tensions. With friends it's difficult to hide one’s weaknesses, and in a society where everything is appearance, facade, this presents a risk that many are not ready to take. In fact, it is very rare for people to receive at home.Getting into people’s privacy is delicate.
In the land of the Rising Sun, “scaling” means going from bar to bar to check how high you can climb. (…) A country where drinking is an art that must be taken seriously. Anything that is never to be expressed can be dropped in front of a drink because nothing said or done during these alcoholic parentheses will exist the next day, including the violation of the sacred hierarchy that governs all private, public and professional behaviours of the inhabitants of the archipelago.
Isabelle Artus. La petite boutique japonaise
Children are particularly fortunate cause their parents spend a lot of time doing activities with them. Everything is done for them to have fun. They know that from the college onwards they will have to enter the system, pass exams, run after the best marks to enter the right faculty, do everything in their power to succeed. If you come out of a big school, even if you don’t know how to do anything with your 10 fingers, you’re sure to get a good-paying job. Everything is governed by networking.
Something else may seem confusing there. From my second stay, I discovered the enclosed and closed side in front of the foreigners, the gaijin. They think you’re funny, but you’ll always be a stranger.
Even if he has long lived, or is married to a Japanese woman, a stranger will never be a “guest”. He will never be fully integrated.Perhaps it comes from the bad example (and it is an understatement) given by the American presence in the country. It should be noted that there are many cases of rape, assault and alcohol-related accidents on the island of Okinawa, where the United States has a military base (Kaneda). Their soldiers are not known for their good behaviour, to say the least...
Moreover, it's not the European manga fans arriving in Japan with their green hair, or the cosplayers in Pikachu’s outfit, who will improve the image of the tourist…
There is even anti-white racism in the older generation. It can happen that elderly people pester and moan when a stranger (white) stands next to them. This has happened to me before: in the Shinkansen (the Japanese high speed train), a woman of about fifty years sitting next to us passed the journey with her head stuck against her window, as if we were stinking. As soon as we were gone, she stopped. There have also been times when I’ve been looked at sideways in the Japanese boxing business, “What’s he doing there?”.
In the big Japanese cities, ultra-nationalist groups, called Uyoku dantai, sometimes march in the streets, immediately recognizable thanks to their vans. Their slogans ? « Break up the foreigners ! » among others. The Issuikai organization invites Jean Marie Le Pen to its conferences... Fortunately this remains marginal.
American bombs are still embedded in people’s minds. And the American soldiers based in Tokyo and Okinawa maintain this defiance by their behavior. The relationship is very conflicting with them.
Personally, I see the Japanese as Corsican Asian version : we mustn't forget that they are islanders. It’s one of the people in the world that has the least mix. We had to wait until 2015 to see a Japanese-Ghanaian metis athlete, won the youth world championships in a sprint.
Abdul Hakim Sani Brown takes 1st place in 100 and 200 meters at the National Track and Field Championships.
On the other hand, they will do everything to welcome you, as the guest you are. On my first trip, completely lost and washed away by my journey,
I walk into a grocery store, a rough card by hand, looking for my Dojo. The grocer closed his shop to take me directly to my address ! And as if that wasn’t enough, he helped me carry my luggage. He was very surprised but actually it’s not rare at all ! While you may consider yourself lucky that a Parisian only deigns to answer you if you ask your way, Japanese is able to accompany you to your destination.
As for courtesy, it has its limits. If people don’t bump into and disturb each other on the subway, they wouldn’t think of leaving their place to a pregnant woman (an application will even be launched to allow them to find a good soul willing to give up their place !) or to a mother with her children. Help them to carry a stroller up the stairs even less. In any case, it's not good to talk in the subway. In Paris, it stinks, it’s not always on time, but we pay a little more attention to certain things ...
And if we add the problem of the Tchikans, that is to say, men rubbing to women in the subway, whose phenomenon is otherwise more important there than in Paris – to the point that there are special oars (roses) for women, like in Delhi or Mexico City – the apparent order in public transport needs to be kept in perspective. Where’s the real civility ?
In a country with such rigid social codes, the need for conformism drives people to behave like sheep. That’s why they buy all the same luxury bags in Paris ! More than fashion accessories, they are real social markers for the middle class.
WHAT ABOUT GENDER RELATIONS ?
They don’t have the same sex education as we do. Actually there isn't... at all.
There are more women than men in Japan, because families prefer boys to girls, so that their names are perpetuated.
If you’re not married at 30, you’re a loser. So marriage is often more a kind of contract, where the goal is reproduction and security.
Japanese companies prefer to hire married men rather than single because they believe they will be more responsible. As a result, neither older men nor single people over the age of 35 can easily find work.
It's common for young people to marry without dating beforehand. They are not always marriages arranged strictly speaking (although they exist), but still an arrangement between single people to whom society doesn't forgive to be so. Actually, many men get married by convention and then take a lover. This is part of the Japanese culture.
Many surveys show that, for both men and women, out-of-wedlock affairs are immediately imagined, if not tolerated, provided there is mutual silence.
Philippe Pelletier – Japon, crise d’une autre modernité
This is the reason why there are a lot of Love hotels (rabu hoteru), where discretion is required. These can be booked for 1 hour, 3 hours or even a week. It's up to the couple to choose their theme (ultra kitsch, psychedelic, design, ambiance Bali, California, etc.) and their possible costumes (school outfit, costume of Dragon Ball Z, etc.). Each room has its ambiance, its gadgets. It’s rather amazing ! But not gloomy fortunately.
In the mood for love ?
Seventh heaven ?
Coach bed and armor in an abandoned love hotel: the typical Japanese WTF !
These hotels are also frequented by young unmarried couples, who aren't allowed to sleep together at their parents' house.
Gay couples aren't allowed. They have their own Love hotels, and even if the Japanese society isn't homophobic (it has a lot of transsexuals), they don't mix, everyone stays in his place.
Even in the Purikura, these ultra popular Kawai photo booths that inspired Snapchat, two men alone won't be allowed.
Social pressure, body distances and marriage codes result in sexual frustration for some men, who let their desires be expressed in the many sex shops and strip clubs in the city. They really enjoy the lolitas kawaï style : naughty childish women.
Teenage girls are making their pocket money by passing on their used panties, which are sold in vending machines ! WTF !
Fake candid's land
We could see Japanese lolitas as stuffy and completely crazy.
But if their style is so extreme and anti-conformist, there is a reason.
Create your own mode of expression (sweet, gothic, punk, hime, country lolita; there are so many...) to push back the adult age and the locking in of a life where self-realization will no longer be possible… In Japanese society, a woman is supposed to stop working as soon as she becomes a mother. Women who decide not to marry at the conventional age, in order to pursue their studies and develop their careers, scare men and have difficulties to find the soul mate. The Japanese have gone on to rent a boyfriend to live, for a day or an evening, a fake relationship.
WE KNOW THE RESPECT THAT ASIAN SOCIETIES HAVE FOR THE ANCIENTS. WHAT IS IT LIKE IN THE LAND OF THE RISING SUN ?
In the past, grandparents educated grandchildren, so they stayed in the family home, but that tends to change. Two-thirds of the homeless in Tokyo are over 70. There are no young people sleeping on the street. I know that from experience. It broke my heart so much that I started organizing free lunch distributions in various parts of the city. They are the ones who give me the most : the gratitude in their eyes is so immense that I return every time with a heart full of happiness.
After 50 years, a man or a woman without a family, who has lost his job and who hadn't the chance to save enough money, doesn't have the opportunity to bounce back, in this ultra-productivity society where performance is the key. He no longer interest anyone. There is a retirement system, but it's so minimal, not enough. It’s not uncommon for an 80-year-old granddad to serve you at the convenience store.
Japanese have a strong tendency to think that if someone is on the street, it’s very much an individual responsibility.
Moreover, social harmony must be preserved, and those who create disorder must not be supported for fear of being rejected.
Mélanie Hours, lecturer at the University Toulouse Jean Jaurès and specialist in poverty problems in Japan.
WHAT DO YOU FIND THERE, THAT YOU CAN’T FIND IN PARIS ?
First, service and quality of life. If you have money you enjoy a higher quality of life than in Paris. Everything is clean, the subway is never late, the shops close late. It’s hard to readjust back home !
Then there’s the food. There’s everything.
« Tokyo is the mecca of gastronomy, there are more Michelin-starred chefs than in Paris ».
In 2017, 12 restaurants in Tokyo won three stars, 52 two stars, and 161 only one. And Osaka took 2nd place.
Hideki Ishikawa, le chef du restaurant 3 étoiles Ishikawa.
On the other hand, the Japanese cuisine isn't the most creative one. They are too restrained in their work to be able to innovate; it’s all about following the rules. But they wanna learn from the best. Offer a culinary study stay in France to a Japanese chef, he will go home with a recipe that he will carefully reproduce, with the best products he can find. In short, they are excellent performers.
And finally, there’s sports. They’re not great performers, but everybody does sports. It's part of their way of life, quite healthy even regarding food. There are more sports clubs in Tokyo than in Paris ! And although Japan conveys the image of the country of martial arts, the national sport is baseball. Every Saturday, 120,000 people fill the Tokyo Dome to watch a " yakyû ". There are baseball stores all over the city.
Football came in second place, since the infatuation of the World Cup in 2002.
WHAT WOULD BE FOR YOU THE FUNDAMENTAL DIFFERENCE BETWEEN JAPANESE AND FRENCH PEOPLE ?
The structure of society : it comes before the individual. Moreover, it4s extremely difficult for a Japanese who has lived in Europe to return to his country’s “mould” because he has tasted a freedom that he won't regain.
And a gaijin, a foreigner, will never fully adapt to it. Someone normal won't fit into the Japanese mould. To get you in, they will crush you. And if you’re minimum structured, you can’t get in.
ARE THERE ANY DIFFERENCES IN BEHAVIOUR BETWEEN REGIONS ?
Clearly. The biggest differences are between the centre, the north, and the south. Tokyo is like Paris, but with much nicer inhabitants lol
Osaka is smaller. The city had in its past more contact with foreigners. They are traders, more open, more sociable. More tan and big mouth too… These are the Japanese Marseillais lol
The islands also stand out. In Okinawa, we clearly feel the Chinese influence, especially in the cuisine and architecture. The population is very welcoming. Hokkaido, in the north, has a colder climate (it can be up to -20,-30 degrees). It’s a much tougher, but also very open, fishing population. They are the Japanese Canadians. A little rough but nice.
Kyoto is a large-format museum, Japan’s facade. Tourism distorts relations, which are carried out on a monetary basis. Going to Kyoto thinking visiting Japan is like visiting the Louvre and thinking having discovered Paris. It's the Disneyland of ancient Japan (doors in papyrus, women in kimono), not the current one. 100% Japanese cliches. It’s nice, but as soon as you get off the tour there’s nothing.
Be careful : If the cowl doesn't make the monk, in Kyoto, the Obi doesn't make a Geïsha...
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVOURITE SITES ?
For a urban trip, Tokyo and Osaka. Both cities are great, in different styles. You can spend 10 days discovering Tokyo. Even now I’m discovering things there. Each of its 10 districts is a quarter of Paris. I love the Shinjuku district. It’s very lively.
Shibuya crossing, the Japanese Times Square. Up to 3,000 people can cross this crossroads.
For a wild nature trip, without hesitation, the island of Hokkaido. These are large forests with even bears ! This is the Japanese Canada. That’s where all the ski spots in the country are.
Noboriebtsu bear park in Hokkaido.
Okinawa is a paradise island. Moreover, it's rare to meet foreigners there, relatively unknown to Europeans. So it's not distorted by tourist buses. People are often amazed to discover its beaches.
Paradise (almost) eternal
Okinawa is known for the longevity of its inhabitants. It has the longest life expectancy (especially for women) and the highest number of centenarians worldwide. They seem to be spared from degenerative diseases, thanks to a physical activity of little intensity, but constant.
The average diet of an Okinawaan over the age of 70 includes a lot of fatty fish, rich in omega-3. The island benefits from a prolific sea, thanks to the abundance of plankton mixed with various warm and cold marine currents that feed the fish. The result is fish, shellfish, crustaceans and algae in quantity and quality, which benefits the entire archipelago.
They consume little meat and dairy products but a lot of soy (the biggest consumers in the world) in the form of tofu, fruits (bananas, pineapple, papaya and passion fruits)and super foods that are often found only there: goya champuru, a cucumber rich in vitamins, algae (nori, kombu, wakamé, hijiki), and shiitaké, a miracle fungus.
They are careful not to eat too much, but only to their hunger, even to the limit. Not surprisingly, few cigarettes and alcohol.
Okinawaan cook goya with foods that help soften its bitter taste.
The Shiitake or Oak Lentin contains a lot of vitamins and minerals. Rich in fiber, selenium, mineral salts. It can be found in Europe, in dried form (to be soaked a few minutes in water to let them swell) or in capsules.
More specifically, I really like Laqua in Tokyo. It's one of the biggest onsen in the country. Very classy, modern, but keeping the traditional side. Between the spa and the onsen. It has outdoor baths, a body care service, sun loungers, TV, slides for children. You can get a massage, sleep there (it opens from 11am to 9am the next morning, all year round). This is where end the alcoholic managers when they miss the last train lol
The onsens, perfect for clearing body and mind.
Be careful, if you are tattooed, you won't access. A small tattoo is ok but the bigger ones are repellent. This was put in place to deny access to the Yakuza, but the rule is the same for everyone. This will also be the case on all public beaches in the country (if under surveillance so no worry in Okinawa), and in the gym (long sleeve t-shirt obligatory if tattooed on the arm).
In Japan, even crime is over-codified
Yakuzas are members of Japanese mafia clans, controlling drug trafficking, prostitution, racketeering, usury and gambling. They were even used as henchmen of the government and by some companies to ensure the tranquillity of union meetings, to break strikes, to intimidate political opponents. An illegal form of deterrence.
Japanese people prefer to have a well-organized crime than disorganized crime.
The newcomer must prove his loyalty to the leader, the Oyabun, during a very ceremonial ritual.
The tattoos (irezumi), which differ according to the clan, are irreversible because the ink is inserted under the skin by needles. Each new member must respect 9 commandments, in which case he will have to cut himself a finger (Yubitsume) as a sign of repentance.
1- You will not offend the good citizens.
2- You will not take the neighbor’s wife.
3. You will not steal the organization.
4. You will not use drugs.
5. You must obey and respect your superior.
6. You will agree to die for the father or to go to prison for him.
7. You will not speak about the group to anyone.
8. In prison you will say nothing.
9. It is not permissible to kill a person who is not a member of the mob.
This organization descended from the Machi-Yakko (« servants of the cities »), militias whose primary role was to defend the population against attacks by samurai without master. They then became professionals in various sectors of dubious activity (gambling and commerce).
Even though their popularity has dropped sharply in recent years, due to dubious business affecting politics, their code of honour, their respect for citizens and their function in helping to maintain forms of delinquency not linked to freely agreed vices, enable them to integrate into society, hard to imagine in our Western minds.
They even have their festival in Tokyo (in the Asakuza district), the Sanja Matsuri, on the 3rd weekend of May.
To learn more about yakuzas, read Jake Adelstein’s excellent Tokyo Vice novel :
My favorite temple is undoubtedly Asakusa. The most known and the most touristic.
And of course Kinkaku-ji, the Gold Pavilion in Kyoto. A must seen.
The pavilion’s gold leaf façades are reflected in the calm waters of the basin.
Fans of temples will enjoy Kamakura : there are 5, dating from the 12th century. It's 40 minutes by train far from Tokyo. And there is the beach.
The Great Buddha Amitabha in Kamakura.
The country is full of beautiful gardens, but I particularly appreciate Korakuen's one, the oldest in the country. It can be visited quickly, not very big.
Whether in autumn, when it wears orange colors, or in spring, when sakuras blossom in pink and white pastels, this Japanese heritage treasure is an ideal place to let yourself go for a contemplative nap, before penetrating again into the ultra modern and superabundant Tokyo.
It's almost moving
so it's beautiful.
Ueno Park in Tokyo is nice because it also includes a zoo, museums and temples. It's the largest one. Do you remember the photos of paths lined with sakuras in bloom in spring on the internet ? Well, that’s it.
Ephemeral beauty and the duality of nature
It’s hard to find a country with a more advanced and controlled nature cult. The poor have no choice… Faced with the multiplicity of natural risks affecting their archipelago, the Japanese became artists, and philosophers. Beauty is ephemeral and fleeting (like sakuras that bloom only a few days a year), we must enjoy it, and create spaces where nature can show all the strength of its fairy tale and its enchantment, between “ the wild and the artifice ” – which explains their mastery of the art of the garden – because it can also be terrible and destructive – earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunami, typhoons, floods, heavy snowfall, floods, landslides, mudslides. There isn't a cataclysm that is spared to Japan.
But then why do they stay ?!
Because some disasters, with their share of pain and suffering, also bring some benefits. When you say volcanoes, you mean fertile land and hot water sources, when you say heavy rain, when you say paddy irrigation, when you say tsunami, you mean abundance of fish.
A duality that the Japanese have well understood, and which is felt in the depths of their culture (cf Godzilla or Princess Mononoke), which express their relationship with nature.
WHAT ARE THE BEST SEASONS TO GO ?
Spring, of course, when the cherry trees bloom. In autumn, the country’s parks and gardens are also beautifully colored. The seasonality also depends on the region. Snowy Hokkaido in winter it’s just so beautiful... In any case you must not go there from August to the end of September, unless you wanna die of heat and suffer a typhoon !
AN ANECDOTE TO SHARE ?
To hold a table at Starbucks while you’re waiting in line for your order, you can put your wallet or cell phone on a seat. That’s what I did, except that I forgot it when I left. I went back : it had been put aside… of course. If you do the same thing in Paris, you’ll be in trouble !
Another : there is a shop in Tokyo called Don Quijote. It’s like a Foir'Fouille but with a Japanese sauce. You find everything but really… everything ! Rolex and children’s costumes are alongside some amazing sex toys, such as the Shikuru, a “ male solo pleasure instrument ” with options. That’s all I’ll say.
If you wanna look like a lobster, in Don Quijote, it’s possible.
ANY ADVICE FOR THE FUTURE TRAVELLERS ?
First, I would say buy a data card when you arrive, at the airport or in Big Camera stores. It's forbidden to use a telephone number other than his own there, therefore to buy a sim card. In any case, it would cost you too much in data. Moreover, surprisingly, Wifi doesn't work well in the city, or is paid. With a data card, for 25 € you will have access to internet everywhere, which will be useful for you to communicate and especially to find your way with Google map or other navigation app. You should know that it can be difficult to find one's way (even in the opinion of the Japanese) in Tokyo. In addition, the 4G is really great there.
Apart from the main roads, the streets have no name in Japan. An address is based on a geographical area. To find your destination, don't look for an address but the name of the building. A brainteaser, even for the Japanese
Be careful, it's forbidden to smoke in the street, since a cigarette butt burned a child’s eye. However, it's allowed in restaurants.
Eating out on the street and blowing one’s nose in public is also a bad idea.
In Kyoto, rent an electric bike or a car because the distance on foot is long from one temple to another.
Don’t be surprised, Tokyoïtes metro stations can be huge.
Are you planning a trip to Japan?
Have a look at this :
The Japanese Tourist Board has set up a super-well web experience. After choosing several options of the style: traditional art or modern art, organized itineraries or wild nature, the site offers a video of your future trip. No need for that to want to visit the country but it foreshadows the experience quite well. Japan is definitely putting a lot of effort into developing its tourism.
Fabulous images of a relatively unknown Japan : The Pacific Islands.
Fabien runs a MMA room (Mixed Martial Arts) in Paris.
Whether it’s for a combat preparation goal or for muscle building, you go whenever you want, in group training or in private class format if you prefer.
It hurts, it sweats, but you serioulsy bulk up. Girls like boys.
Only in Japan…..
Feeling of falling into the burrow of Alice’s white rabbit...
Bioluminescent light of sea fireflies (Vargula hilgendorfii) in Okayama. ©Trevor Williams and Jonathan Galione