Gaijin Eye for the Japanese Guy

I like to watch western views on Japanese culture. Why, you may ask, would I do that when I myself am surrounded by it? It’s probably because I like shouting at televisions. Of course my own experience of Japan is the only correct one and any differing view is false, idiotic, misinformed. I think you’ll find that with most people, actually.

The western media and Hollywood alike seem to want to portray Japan as a mystic, polite, sexually deviant and utterly confounding place. And though it is these things and more the Devil on the outside looking in sees things differently from the Devil on the inside looking in the same direction. Here is a little summary of Western media’s views on Japan and exactly what I think of it.

Adam & Joe Go Tokyo
Your enjoyment of this excellent television series depends largely on how much you enjoy Adam & Joe’s brand of humour. The shows are fairly typical of your average geek looking at the “weird and wonderful” world of Tokyo, but the way they deliver it makes it a fun experience. Often bemused but never overawed they tackle the usual subjects in their own inimitable ways. Especially hilarious was their bid for fame where they walked around Tokyo and had some actors disguised as public treat them as if they were celebrity royals, just to see how other people would react. Sure enough everybody started snapping photos and asking for autographs. If they were being cheered on and photographed they must be famous, right? Their quest also brought them on a date with the hideous Kana sisters and a musical performance in Yoyogi Park. The show always balances between benign piss-take and honest geeky interest.

It’s programs like this what cause unrest. It ticks all the boxes I hate. Trendy, semi-Designers’ Republic intro graphics, check. Reference to vague 70s robot television shows that only thirty year old virgin bachelors have ever heard of, check. A rather slanted view at all the wackiness that surrounds Japan, check.
It’s the kind of show that seeks out specifically weird phenomena and extrapolates them as a general view of Japan, as if everybody in Japan is a rich, horny deviant who goes to maid cafes every day for hand massages and video games. It’s a little like filming in Soho and claiming all Englishmen live like Peter Stringfellow. It’s pure sensationalist claptrap, or “Japcrap” if you will.
If you watch this series and think you know what Japan is going to be like when you visit here you’ll be in for a shock.

Lost in Translation
This cult classic is a little troublesome. At the heart of it lies a great story with great actors and as such it deserves the love it gets. On the other hand, though, the Japan they portray is fairly stereotypical and shows the experience from a tourist point of view. The overly polite businessmen, the karaoke, Hatchiko square, the rape-play prostitute, it’s all a little clichéd and doesn’t really show Japan how it truly is, at least not when you live here.
But Sofia Coppola obviously knows her stuff. When the protagonist is talking to his wife on the phone he tells her Japan “is not better, just different”, and that hits the nail pretty much on the head. What this film seems to portray really well is the effect such a vastly different culture as Japan’s can have on a visiting westerner. Lost in a world they don’t understand two people find each other, a timeless story that could have been told in any foreign country where English is hardly spoken and the culture is vastly different from America’s. Ironically it is set in the most wannabe-American country in then world.
It’s a great film and if you haven’t yet you should watch it. But only if you come as a tourist, scratch the surface and deliberately seek out the special experiences will the portrayal of Japan resemble yours. If you end up living here it’s all a little…flat, though it may make you yearn for the wide-eyed first weeks of your arrival when things were still special.

Fear and Trembling
This little probable-gem had completely passed me by until a reader emailed me about it, and I am very glad he did! I’m going to have to pull a little game journalist trick here by writing a review of something I have not seen yet, as I can’t find this film anywhere in Japan. But judging by the trailer it will show Japanese office life from a foreign perspective in an exaggerated way, yet closer to the truth than you’d probably imagine. Screaming, insecure bosses, backstabbing colleagues and bullying are par for the course as poor foreign girl tries her damnest to survive her one year contract, come what may.
It looks to be a humdinger, so expect a full review when I finally manage to see it. For now, though, it seems to be a film which shies away from the usual “oh, Lordy, isn’t Japan a wonderfully weird place!” malarkey and focuses in stead on office life, which, let’s face it, will encompass roughly 90% of your life in Japan.

Kelly Osbourne Turning Japanese
Whether the makers are aware “turning Japanese” is slang for masturbation or not, it’s a fitting title. Though the program makes the usual stereotypical mistakes, like “the strangest country on Earth” and “polite society” and focusing on love hotels and maid cafes a little too much, strangely this series perfectly encapsulates the gaijin experience in Japan.
Exhibit A: Fat brat with an inflated sense of worth (“By being an intolerable fat brat I am giving hope to fat slappers everywhere”, is Kelly’s philosophy) says she “loves Japan” though she clearly has no clue what Japan is all about. Totally unprepared she moves over here and immediately gets lost. Having no discernable skill, talent or charisma she hops from crappy, low-wage job to crappy, low-wage job, is repulsed, confused and ends up alone in her apartment crying. Meanwhile the people around her tolerate with bemusement and irritation the presence and utterances of this sociopath. She thinks her life and actions are important enough to show to a wider audience (in this case by making a television show, but it could also have been, say, a blog) and that the world owes her its rapt attention. Friendless and depressed this spoiled westerner stumbles through life in Japan in a meaningless succession of failures.
Apart from the lush apartment this is the gaijin experience in Japan, and I’m shocked it was left up to someone like Kelly Osbourne to portray it on screen so succinctly. Shocked, I tell you!


  1. Fear and trembling is the movie of the book "Stuper et tremblements" of the french author Amélie Nothomb. It tells about her working one year in a japanese company.
    the book is very good, better than the movie, in my eyes, so perhaps you should read the book first and watch the movie afterwards.

    short review of the book:
    Amelie, a well-intentioned and eager young westerner, goes to Japan to spend a year working at the Yumimoto Corporation. Returning to the land where she was born is the fulfilment of a dream for Amelie, but working there turns into a comic nightmare of terror and self-abasement. Disturbing, hilarious and totally convincing Fear and Trembling displays an elegant and shrewd understanding of the intricate ways Japanese relationships are made and spoiled.

  2. Cheers, Sara. I'll probably get myself both the book and the film in one Amazon delivery some time soon. I'll read the book first.
    I read somewhere it is (loosely) based on a true story.

  3. it is her true story, with false names of course and with a lot of sarcasm and irony. I also read another book from her where she tells how life was when she was a kid and still lived in Japan. Her father being an ambassador, travelled a lot and was alos in Japan when Amélie was born. That's for the background information. :D

    i stumbled upon your blog a couple of days ago and spend whole evenings reading through it. i really enjoy reading it.

  4. I've been a reader for a few weeks now and I've found your stuff really interesting (where do you find the time to write such long and interesting pieces??). This topic is one I've thought about recently, having seen the Kelly Osbourne thing. I really can't stand watching mainstream TV stuff on Japan. Adam and Joe is okay because it's comedy, but every time someone makes a TV show about love hotels, maid cafes, geisha, capsule hotels, a little piece of me screams "NO!".

    It's the kind of stuff that reinforces stereotypes about other countries, and keeps Johnny British going "hur hur weird Japs"

    I've seen some Japanese shows about the UK and America and it's just as biased, but I wonder what the average Channel 4 viewer would make of a show dedicated to drunken brawls on Friday nights, teenage pregnancy, football hooliganism, smoking at the age of 13 etc.

    Actually, I doubt they'd be surprised.

  5. I'm looking forward to your comments on the book/movie.

    Is there anytime when someone will say that the movie is better than the book? I still to this day haven't experienced that, for reasons which I guess we all can guess. ;)

    Personally, I found the movie to be great! :D

    As I wrote in my mail, I did guess it must be exaggerated, but somewhat based in truth. Afterall, it's filled with emotion how this woman experiences this country, so naturally she emphasizes the parts of her experience which struck her the most.

    Much like if you would tell someone a story about an experience you've had, it would probably not be entirely accurate.

  6. I haven't seen (or heard of) Adam & Joe, but I'm curious how they spun the "if we act like stars, people will treat us like stars, because that's how Japanese people are" angle. If so, I'd just like to point out Rob Cockerham's Paparazzi Contest, which was (ostensibly) a contest to see who could get the most paparazzi-like photo of Rob and his family in their local mall in the US, but which resulted in: people who knew nothing about the contest, and who didn't know it was staged, taking photograhs and asking for autographs, because, hey, if they were being cheered on and photographed, they must be famous, right?

  7. Yaaay! Adam and Joe! Yaaaaaay!



    I like them. My favourite bit is adam's Radiohead rendition in a karaoke bar.

  8. Im really surprised you liked the Kelly Osborne thing. I thought it was terrible! She was constantly moaning, being disrespectful and very narrow minded and clueless considering she 'loves japan'.
    Adam and Joe, on the other hand is frickin suuperb! Best Japan based entertainment series in my opinion. They seem genuinely intrested and excited about stuff. Funny as hell too.

    How do you get to watch these things - the Osborne thing in particular. It only just finished its run, so id be surprised if its on TV over there already.
    Do you download UK TV or something?

  9. Andy, I think you misunderstand me. I positively loathe the Kelly Osbounre program. It is, however, a pretty accurate portrayal of the average gaijin who comes to live and work in Japan; no skills, no hope, crappy jobs, isolation and mental breakdown. I guess my attempt at spiky ironic humour failed. :)

  10. I this your humor on the Kelly Osbounre thing came off ok. I understood it anyway. I don't think I'll be watching it though. I would constantly be seeing my friends in Kelly's place, doing the same things. It would really depress me. :|

  11. I was re-reading this entry again, and a book that I recently saw at the bookshop came to mind -- the "Blue-Eyed Salaryman" by Niall Murtagh. Have you ever seen or read that book? Just curious.


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