The chorus thunders back and forth across the internet, erupting in reference to everything from cosplay to game shows to dating sims. “lol Japan is soooooo crazy!” subsequent verses exclaim. “They think weird things are normal and normal things are weird–and did you know they sell used panties in vending machines?” In the eyes of the web, Nippon is both glorious and surreal, a land of almost hallucinogenic strangeness, a place that severed all ties to reality the moment somebody slapped a cute anime girl on a body pillow, a country of loonies with coffin-sized bedrooms and Pocky addictions.
Sorry, internet, but I’m afraid I have to spoil the fun. Most of what is said about Japan in the Western media has been cherry-picked to reinforce a certain image. Not only are the “weird” aspects of Japanese culture less pervasive than Buzzfeed and its ilk would have you believe, but Japanese people are fully aware that those aspects are weird. No Japanese person looks at something like Cho Aniki and says: “Yeah, that’s a totally normal thing you see all the time here.”
In Japan, as in America, certain things are designed to be strange to elicit laughter. (The concept of humor exists in Japan. Bizarre, I know.) Assuming the Japanese take them seriously is like watching an episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force and assuming it tells you something deep and meaningful about the American psyche.
That said, there are some genuinely strange and fascinating stories buried within Japanese culture. I’ve assembled a few of them below. There aren’t any used panties involved (yes, I once saw them in a super shady store; no, they weren’t in a vending machine), but if you can muscle past that disappointment, I’m sure you can find something to intrigue you.