Interesting is an underrated way to describe Japanese culture. We all know it’s a rich culture full of customs and beliefs far different from ours. No matter how much we read up on it, there’s always going to be another fact popping up that we didn’t know about before.
And among these cultural facts, there’s a fair share of them that can be considered weird and strange. If you’ve visited Japan, you would’ve experienced some things that are just uniquely Japanese. Here, we’re going to look at 16 weird and strange cultural facts of the Japanese culture.
1. Vending machines in Japan sell adult toys
Vending machines are big in Japan. There are about 5 million of them in Japan alone! While the most common product offered at these vending machines is beverages, don’t be surprised if you come across ones offering unusual products…like adult toys.
When the first adult toy vending machine opened in Sapporo City in Hokkaido, the news went viral. Nowadays, it’s not as uncommon as when it first popped up. There are even gachapons (ガチャポン) similar to these vending machines. Walk down the streets of Shibuya and you’ll see a few amongst the cartoon keychains and souvenir ones.
2. Kids had epileptic seizures from a Pokemon episode
Pokemon was big in a lot of people’s childhoods. This well-loved anime series is not only popular in Japan but also internationally. Before the show made it to the US, back in 1997, an episode of Pokemon induced epileptic seizures in 685 children. They were rushed to hospitals all around Japan.
The episode is called Dennō Senshi Porygon. It had intense flashing red and blue strobe lights that went at a rate of 12 flashes per second. These lighting effects are more common in older anime. However, it went on for almost 6 seconds, long enough to trigger photosensitive epilepsy in some children. There were reports of other kids experiencing milder symptoms like temporary blindness, seizures and nausea.
3. Phones made in Japan are waterproof
If you’ve bought a phone in Japan before, the first thing you’d notice is that the shutter sound for taking photos can’t be turned off. That’s a unique feature only in Japan. Another one is that almost all phones sold here are waterproof. This has been the case for over a decade now.
Some people link this to the bathing culture in Japan. It’s common for Japanese people to soak in bathtubs after a long day’s work and use their phones while at it. The waterproof function might be just in case phones slip into the water.
4. Indoor smoking is made illegal only recently
Not too long ago, smoking indoors was quite the norm. Whether it was in a cafe, bar or restaurant, there were designated areas for smokers (kitsuen, 喫煙). This was a huge part of Japanese culture.
In April 2020, there was a ban on smoking indoors going around in Japan, starting with a city-wide ban in Tokyo. The response has been 50-50. Some are against it as they claim it’s part of their culture, and others strongly support this decision to increase non-smoking areas.
5. Before 2015, late-night dancing was illegal
Japan’s capital city Tokyo is known for its entertaining late-night nightlife in bars, pubs and clubs. Little did you know that, not too long ago, late-night dancing was made illegal. Before 2015, you’re not allowed to dance in areas that didn’t have a dance license past midnight.
This was imposed after World War II to regular prostitution since dance halls were popular destinations for that. In the early 21st century, there was a spike in celebrity-related drug busts. There was a reinforcement of the ban then.
Now, you’re allowed to dance till the sun comes up. There’s new legislation which allows clubs to operate 24 hours. Clubss are able to do that as long as they have brighter lighting than 10 lux.
6. There are more adult diapers sold than baby diapers
Japan’s facing a rapidly ageing population. More than a quarter of the country’s population is over the age of 65. Birth rates are at an ultimate low. Research shows that the production of adult diapers is more than baby diapers. The ageing population is likely the cause for this.
7. There’s a festival dedicated to the phallus
Japanese people will never say no to a festival. There’s probably a festival every other weekend throughout the year. There’s even a festival for the phallus, called Kanamara Matsuri (かなまら祭り). This literally translates to “Festival of the Steel Phallus”. Everything in the festival is shaped as the phallus, from floats to snacks. This Shinto festival is celebrated in Kawasaki City on the first Sunday of April every year.
An old Shinto legend has it that a demon hid in the private parts of a goddess. The demon bit off two of her suitor’s phallus on their wedding night. Because of those incidents, a blacksmith created an iron phallus that broke the demon’s teeth.
The shrine associated with this festival is a haven for prostitutes and those suffering from STDs. They seek protection and pray here. Others also pray for marriage and fertility. Nowadays, this festival is an LGBTQ-friendly event that promotes inclusiveness. Money that’s raised from this festival is donated to HIV research.
8. Sumos compete to make the other baby cry first
Most of us know about sumo wrestling. But do you know about sumos carrying babies and trying to make their opponent’s baby cry first? This festival is called Naki Sumo Baby Crying Festival. This 400-year-old occasion takes place every April in Sensoji Temple, Tokyo.
Parents bring their children to the festival and sumos will carry them on stage and make them cry by making scary faces, yelling or wearing a scary mask. It’s believed that making a baby wail can chase off demons lurking around. Some believe that the best crier is blessed with a healthy, long life.
9. A lot more paper is used to print manga than make toilet paper
The Japanese comic (manga, 漫画) is, without a doubt, extremely popular in Japan. It’s used as comic strips in magazines back in the Meiji Era to encourage literacy in the youngsters. Because of the extreme use, they’re printed more than toilet papers are made. The hi-tech, futuristic bidet toilets also play a part in the lack of toilet paper usage.
10. The original geishas were men
Whether you’ve been to the ancient capital city Kyoto or seen pictures of it, you’ve definitely heard of geisha (芸者). A geisha is a refined woman with skilled in the traditional Japanese performing arts. They’re usually pictures of dolled-up Japanese ladies dressed in luxurious kimono (着物).
But did you know that the original geishas weren’t women; they were men. Taikomochi (太鼓持) were male entertainers who performed for feudal lords in the 1730s. They’re like the jesters of the West. 8 years later women would emerge as “odoriko” (踊り子) and shamisen players. It wasn’t until 1751 that female geishas became the talk of the people.
11. Crooked teeth are cute
Some of us have spent thousands of dollars on braces and dental care to get our teeth straightened. For the Japanese, they wouldn’t do that. Because crooked teeth are considered cute among people. While it’s always been the case, it’s becoming a big trend recently.
In fact, some dental clinics in Japan are offering their customers a crooked smile. This involves glueing artificial (or permanent) canines to the customer’s real teeth.
12. Adult adoption
It’s the norm to adopt kids when they’re young, but in Japan, it’s the opposite. Adopting adults is a bigger practice than adopting kids, and it’s common in families with no children. This usually happens when a Japanese family needs an heir for their business or fortune.
Sometimes, this is also used as an alternative to the illegalisation of same-sex marriage.
13. Japanese students clean their own classrooms
Having janitors and cleaners at school is common in most countries. In Japan, these aren’t jobs offered in high school and universities. The school students are the ones that take on the role. Japanese students clean their own classrooms as part of their school day. This also includes bathrooms, hallways and other public facilities.
14. Social withdrawal is common among Japanese
There are approximately 700,000 Japanese people that live in social isolation. This is known as hikikomori (引きこもり) in Japanese. Adults are still living in their parent’s house or their own houses, but don’t go to work or hang out with friends.
It’s said that some people can be socially withdrawn for up to 20 years. The most common cause of hikikomori is the high expectations of Japanese society.
15. The number 4 is unlucky
In Japanese, the number 4 is pronounced as “shi” which is the same as the Japanese word for “death” (死). It’s considered as an unlucky number. Some other countries in Asia also have similar beliefs. If you can’t find floor number 4 in apartment buildings, hotels and malls, don’t be surprised. This is probably the reason why.
16. Black cats are lucky
Contrary to popular belief, black cats are lucky according to the Japanese. In Japanese culture, instead of bringing bad luck, black cats bring good luck. You’ll see them in the shape of the beckoning cat, or known as maneki neko (招き猫). They’re believed to bring wealth and prosperity.
Which fact is the weirdest?
Just as how it is enriching, Japanese culture can also be pretty strange. Which one of these 16 cultural facts did you find the weirdest? There’s always something new you can learn about a culture, whether it’s an enlightening one or one that makes you think twice.