Unusual facts about Japan
The Land of the Rising Sun is an interesting place, to say the least. Japan has influenced the world in numerous ways – innovations that have changed our daily lives, food that has shaped international palates, and subcultures that continue to influence popular culture.
Japan continues to evolve rapidly – just when you think you understand everything about Japanese culture, something new pops up. We’ve made a list of 20 unusual facts about Japan to prove that this mighty nation will surprise you at every turn.
1. Late-night dancing was illegal until 2015
Image credit: Heshan Perera
Imposed after World War II, the ban was meant to crack down on prostitution as the dance halls were a hotbed for vices. Dancing in venues without a dance licence after midnight was illegal, and you could be arrested.
However, it was not regularly enforced in the late 20th century. The ban saw a revival in the 21st century when a spike in celebrity-related drug busts led to the police reinforcing the law and requiring clubs to close at midnight.
The archaic law was replaced by new legislation that allowed clubs equipped with lighting brighter than 10 lux – about as bright as twilight – to apply for a new licence to operate 24 hours.
2. Nearly all smartphones sold are waterproof because people use them even in the bath
Image credit: Roberto Nickson
Water-resistant phones have been the norm for over a decade in Japan. Approximately 90% to 95% of the phones sold are waterproof.
Some attribute this to the bathing culture in Japan. Many people soak in bathtubs to unwind after work, and users find the waterproof function useful just in case their phones slip into the water.
3. The world’s oldest company was from Japan
Image credit: @junichi_kobe
Kongō Gumi was a construction company based in Japan and the longest-operating company in history. It operated for over 1,400 years, between 578 AD to 2006.
The construction company was founded by an immigrant from Baekje, which is part of modern-day Korea. He was commissioned by Prince Shotoku to build the Shitenno-ji, a Buddhist temple in Osaka that still stands today. The company was also involved in the construction of many historic buildings, such as the Osaka Castle in the 16th century.
Kongō Gumi was passed down the family for 50 generations until it fell into financial troubles in 2006. The company was liquidated and absorbed as a subsidiary to the Takamatsu Construction Group, and it continues to specialise in building Buddhist temples.
Interestingly, the 5 oldest companies still operating today are Japanese, 3 of which are in the hospitality industry.
4. Japan consists of 6852 islands
Image credit: Rough Guides
While it is widely known that Japan has many different prefectures with different climates, not many know that Japan is actually an island nation. It is, in fact, the largest East Asian island country, and the 4th largest island nation in the world.
The four biggest islands in Japan are Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku, and Osaka, which makes up about 97% of the total land area altogether. The largest island is Honshu, which is considered mainland Japan
5. Japan has a festival dedicated to the phallus
Image adapted from: @kawasaki_city
This Shinto festival is known as Kanamara Matsuri (かなまら祭り), which literally translates to the Festival of the Steel Phallus. The festival is celebrated in the city of Kawasaki on the first Sunday in April.
The phallus is the star of the festival, and everything is phallic-shaped in its honour. This includes candy, carved vegetables, and decorations. The highlight is the mikoshi parade, which sees large decorated phalluses paraded in a float shaped like a shrine.
The origin of the festival comes from an old Shinto fable. Legend has it that a demon once hid in the private parts of a goddess and bit off two of her suitors’ penises on their wedding night. A blacksmith then created an iron phallus, which broke the demon’s teeth and caused it to flee.
Image credit: @kawasaki_city
The shrine is a haven for prostitutes and people suffering from sexually-transmitted diseases to seek prayer and protection. People also pray for fertility, marriage, and businesses.
Today, the festival is an LGBTQ-friendly event as it also promotes inclusiveness. The money raised from the festival is then donated to HIV research.
6. Taking a power nap at work is socially acceptable
Image credit: Mackensie Leigh
The Japanese work longer hours than any other country in the world, and sleep the least hours on a weeknight. It’s clear that the overworked Japanese desperately need their rest.
Thankfully, Japanese employers allow their employees to take power naps at work. The term inemuri (居眠り) refers to this culture – it translates to sleeping while being present. Catching a quick snooze is considered as a sign of working hard and being busy, rather than slacking off.
There is also a strong culture of napping publicly in Japan and you’ll find people catching some shut-eye in places not associated with sleeping. This phenomena also attests to the level of public safety in Japan.
7. Slurping noodles is considered polite
Image adapted from: The Dallas Morning News
In a country known for its strict customs and manners, one particular dining rule continues to baffle visitors. Contrary to conventional table manners, loudly slurping noodles is considered good manners. The act of slurping when you’re eating noodles shows that you’re enjoying your meal and paying compliments to the chef.
Slurping also has a scientific purpose – it enhances the flavour of noodles, especially soba. Soba (buckwheat noodles) doesn’t have a strong taste on its own. Slurping helps to increase the retronasal smell and allows you to better perceive flavour dimensions.
8. The literacy rate in Japan is 99%
Image credit: @nirro04
Literacy amongst youths aged above 15 hovers around 99%, which is one of the highest in the world. The literacy test evaluates the test-taker’s ability to read and write simple sentences and solve basic arithmetic equations.
9. Japan is the second-largest consumer of seafood
Image credit: Michael Wu
Japan has a seafood consumption footprint of 7.4 million tonnes – approximately the weight of 37,000 blue whales. In comparison, the United States – with a population 2.5 times larger than Japan – has a seafood consumption footprint of 7.1 million tonnes.
Fish and seafood consumption per capita in 2017 was 45.49kg. But in the bubble economy years from the mid-80s to 2000, per capita consumption was even higher, averaging 70kg per person. That’s like eating sushi for 3 meals a day, 206 days a year.
10. Tokyo is the most populous metropolitan area in the world
Image credit: @c.j131
Greater Tokyo is the most populated metropolitan area in the world, with 38 million people residing in Tokyo and the 3 neighbouring prefectures – that’s 30% of Japan’s total population.
Greater Tokyo covers approximately 13,500km2, and it includes Tokyo Metropolis and the surrounding prefectures, such as Kanagawa, Chiba, and Saitama. In comparison, New York City covers 784 km2, approximately half the area of Greater Tokyo.
11. Adult diapers sell more than babies diapers
Image credit: Ash Edmonds
More than a quarter of Japan’s population is over 65, and birth rates are at a record low. According to the Pew Research Center, there are more diapers produced for adults than for babies, and Japan’s ageing population is likely the cause.
This change in consumer demographics is also resulting in a shift in most industries, which includes food, retailing, and hygiene.
12. A Pokémon episode once caused epileptic seizures in kids
Image credit: Syfy
Pokémon is a well-loved anime series and the adorable pocket monsters are household names worldwide. However, the series hides a dark incident in its past. In 1997, 685 children were rushed to hospitals in Japan after a Pokémon episode induced epileptic seizures.
The episode, Dennō Senshi Porygon, contained intense flashing strobe lights. The red and blue lights blinked at a rate of 12 flashes per second, for a total of ~6 seconds. It triggered photosensitive epilepsy in some of the children. Others experienced milder symptoms, such as nausea, headaches, temporary blindness, and seizures.
The incident was dubbed the “Pokémon Shock” by the Japanese press. Pokémon stopped airing for 4 months after this incident, and had to rework some of its scenes to prevent a similar incident from happening again. New episodes also included warnings for children to watch the anime in a well-lit room at a distance from the television.
13. Japan has over 5 million vending machines
Image credit: Charles Deluvio
Vending machines can be found almost anywhere in Japan, and they’re loved for their convenience. Japan’s public safety levels have helped ensure that these vending machines are rarely vandalised, allowing them to be placed almost anywhere.
Most vending machines in Japan sell soft drinks, tea, and coffee. Others sell age-restricted items such as alcoholic beverages and cigarettes. Vending machines selling such products require a special ID for age verification.
Image credit: @joonhan.ng
Some of the more peculiar vending machines even let you buy rice, fortune-telling slips of paper, and live rhinoceros beetles.
14. More paper is used for printing manga than toilet paper
Image credit: Martjin Baudoin
You’ve probably seen videos of Japanese toilets and their futuristic, automated bidets that spray warm water and air-dry people’s bottoms. Most people use bidets in Japan, and toilet paper isn’t used as much as in other countries.
Image credit: Miika Laaksonen
On the other hand, manga, or graphic novels, are widely read by people of all ages. Manga has a long history – it was first introduced in the Meiji era as comic strips in magazines to encourage literacy in children.
15. Sumos compete to make babies cry first
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Every April, the 400-year-old Naki Sumo Baby Crying Festival takes place in Sensoji Temple. Parents bring their children to the festival in the hopes of ensuring good health, and sumos will carry them onstage and try to make them cry. Some of them pull a scary face or yell at the babies to try and get them to wail. If all else fails, a scary mask is used to get them going.
While it may be weird to voluntarily make your child cry, it is believed that by getting babies to bawl, they can chase off any demons who are lurking nearby. The contest also has an attractive prize – the best crier is promised a long and healthy life.
16. Norway introduced salmon sushi to the Japanese
Image credit: Helga Christina
While many of us think of salmon sushi as a Japanese staple, raw salmon wasn’t in their diet until the 1990s. The Japanese did eat salmon before that, but it was served cured or grilled, not raw.
The Japanese believed that salmon caught in the Pacific was unclean and exposed to parasites, as well as not being fatty enough to taste good. That’s why it was never served raw as sashimi before the ‘90s.
Image credit: Derek Duran
Norway began exporting salmon from the Atlantic in 1980, but it took 15 years of market research and campaigning before the Japanese finally began to put raw salmon slices onto vinegared rice balls.
Changing the Japanese perspective on raw salmon was a multi-million endeavour that involved tireless campaigning. However, it paid off – it also opened new markets for Norway, and they began to export to other Asian countries such as Hong Kong, South Korea, and Singapore.
17. Japan imports approximately 85% of Jamaica’s annual coffee production
Image credit: Nathan Dumlao
Japan is known as a tea-centric nation, but coffee also plays a large part in the hectic lives of the average Japanese salaryman. Coffee is widely consumed there, with the average adult drinking more than 10 cups a week.
Image credit: Kirill Petropavlov
It’s no surprise that Japan imports so much coffee from Jamaica, too. Blue Mountain Coffee, a high-quality type of coffee from the Blue Mountain region in Jamaica, is sought after by avid coffee drinkers in Japan who are willing to pay premium prices.
18. Smoking indoors was socially acceptable until recently
Image credit: Erica Leong
Japan has one of the largest tobacco markets in the world, and smoking in establishments such as restaurants and kissatens (old-school coffee shops) is considered socially acceptable.
In April 2020, a city-wide ban on smoking indoors came into effect. This was part of the efforts to make Tokyo more tourist-friendly for the now-delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Image credit: Parker Ulry
Many have bemoaned this ban, stating that it was part of their culture. Others strongly supported this move to increase the number of non-smoking areas in other cities as well.
19. Fortune cookies originated from Japan
Image credit: Meritt Thomas
Even though fortune cookies are served in almost every American Chinese restaurant, it didn’t originate in China. Instead, it is based on a cookie made in Kyoto.
The tsujiura senbei (辻占煎餅) is visually similar to the modern fortune cookie but it contains miso and sesame, rather than vanilla and butter. The tsujiura senbei is still sold in some parts of Japan, such as the neighbourhood of the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto.
The modern fortune cookie is believed to have been created by Japanese immigrants in the early 20th century, and is served at the end of a meal in Chinese restaurants in the USA today. It’s likely that the immigrants were inspired by the temples of their homeland and slipped in the fortune-telling slips of paper into the cookies.
20. The original geishas were men
Image credit: Han Min T
Walking down the streets in Kyoto, you’re likely to come across a beautifully dolled-up lady dressed in an intricately embroidered kimono, with only the click-clacking of her slippers announcing her presence. You’ve met a geiko, or geisha, as they’re called in Tokyo – a refined lady skilled in the art of traditional Japanese performances.
Many foreigners mistakenly assume that geisha are ladies of the night. This is likely because sex workers of the past dressed similarly to the geisha. And don’t get us started on skewed Western media portrayals à la Memoirs of a Geisha. However, the original geisha were far from what they’ve been portrayed as – they were men.
Image credit: Tianshu Liu
Geisha (芸者) literally translates to “arts person”, and this term was used to describe the taikomochi (太鼓持) – male entertainers who performed for their feudal lords, much like the jesters of the West.
The first female geisha was introduced in 1751, which made waves in the entertainment scene then. They were instead called geiko, or “arts child”, and their popularity spread quickly. Soon, they outnumbered the original male geishas.
Japan fun facts
How many of these facts did you already know about, and how many are completely new to you? One thing’s for sure – Japan is an unusual place, and no other country can rival its penchant for the bizarre.
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