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.
Blood Type Personalities
The weebs among us will have experienced this before: you’re reading a manga and are introduced to a new character. Said character invariably comes with stats such as weight, height, date of birth…and blood type. “What’s the point of that?” you might wonder. “What do I care if my waifu is AB-negative or O-positive? All I need to know is that she’ll be faithful and moe to the end.”
The answer, of course, is that you never know when you might need to ask your waifu for a blood transfusion. Beyond that, though, the explanation lies in the belief–widespread throughout Asian countries, but especially in Japan–that blood type determines personality and compatibility. ABO blood type in Japan is like star signs in the West, only taken more seriously and with a less savory origin.
Shortly after ABO blood type was discovered by the German scientist Ludwik Hirszfeld, the Nazi party hijacked it, transforming it into another bit of racist pseudoscience. Blood type A, the eugenicists claimed, was closely tied to the “superior” white European races, while blood type B characterized the “lesser” darker races. This isn’t to say that Japanese people embrace the science of the Nazis: though once considered “honorary Aryans,” they’re as horrified by genocide as the next culture. ABO blood type horoscopes didn’t take off in Japan until the 1970’s, and by then, their origin had largely been lost to history. Most people who use them today simply don’t know.
That doesn’t make it any less creepy that B-type is still considered more or less the “asshole” type, while type A’s are everything good and wonderful. When a friend of mine learned that he had type A blood and shared that fact with a Japanese friend, her response was: “I’m glad you’re not type B!” In 2011, a disgraced minister, Ryu Matsumoto, blamed his incompetence on his type B blood when he resigned from his post.
Even today, there are people who take blood type into account when choosing a spouse or hiring a new employee. That’s not to say everyone in Japan is cool with blood type discrimination. The scientific community has been very vocal in their attempts to discredit the theory that ABO blood type dictates personality, and there are plenty of activists who speak up for the minority B and AB blood types.
The Lost Tribes of Israel in Japan
Once upon a time, the Bible tells us, there were twelve tribes of Israel. Then ten of them got deported by the Assyrians. Where did they go? What did they do? Have they gone extinct, or are they still out there somewhere, too perfectly assimilated for detection?
For hundreds of years, Westerners have been trying to figure out just what the hell happened to these tribes. During the age of exploration, European sailors had a habit of running into “undiscovered” populations in foreign lands and declaring them the lost tribes.
“Totally found them!” said explorers in China.
“Totally found them!” said explorers in Ethiopia.
“Totally found them!” said Portuguese explorers in Japan, citing as evidence the fact that Japanese people kind of, sort of, if you squinted hard enough and really wanted to believe, looked like Portuguese Jews. Nobody put much stock in this theory, least of all the Japanese themselves, who were a little busy being a feudal society at the time.
In 1878, a Scottish immigrant named Nicholas McLeod published his theory that the Japanese were descended from the lost tribes. They had to be, he contended, because the Bible said that Noah’s son Japhet would “dwell in the tents of Shem”–and Japanese people totally lived in tents! It was such a slam dunk that other writers followed suit, and the theory of Japanese-Jewish common ancestry has remained on the periphery of Japanese scholarship ever since.
The main points in favor of this theory are as follows.
- A festival in Nagano prefecture that superficially resembles the story of Abraham and Isaac. At Ontohsai, a young boy is tied to a pillar and a priest comes at him with a knife. Then another priest shows up and lets him go. The festival also includes animal sacrifice, which is not normally a feature of the Shinto religion. An alternative name for the festival, “the festival for Misakuchi-god,” is said by one commentator to derive from the word “mi,” meaning great, and the word “isaku,” meaning Isaac. And “chi” means…well, no one really knows. But it’s probably something Jewish!
- The crest of the Imperial House of Japan bearing a passing resemblance to a decoration on Herod’s gate. (They’re both round flowers, you see.)
- Japanese omikoshi (a float-like contraption carried at festivals) looking sort of similar to traditional illustrations of the Arc of the Covenant.
- Similarities between priestly head wear.
- Similarities between certain Japanese and Hebrew words.
The main points against include:
- Lack of genetic evidence.
- Lack of historical evidence.
- Lack of certainty if the lost tribes of Israel were even a thing that actually existed.
But, you know. Apart from those minor issues, it’s pretty airtight.
Japanese Religious Cults
Japan has loads of cults, and no one really knows why. Some blame it on a spiritual emptiness at the core of Japanese society. Modern Japan isn’t particularly religious, and the two biggest religions there (Buddhism and Shinto) aren’t heavily organized “communities” of believers so much as general philosophies. Others blame it on the government’s policy of tolerating all religious movements, no matter how extreme. The memory of Meiji era, state-mandated Shintoism still looms large in the government psyche, so officials aren’t keen on exercising control over religious practices–even when those practices are dangerous or exploitative. Still others blame it on the stress of modern life.
Whatever the reason, Japan is fertile ground for “new religions.” The most infamous of these is Aum Shinrikyo, a now-“defunct” organization led by Shoko Asahara. It was pretty much your standard doomsday cult until the leadership got it in their heads to start murdering anti-cult lawyers and attacking subway lines with sarin gas. This last event was the most deadly incident of domestic terrorism in Japanese history.
Other Japanese new religions are all over the map. There are left-wing cults, right-wing cults, communist cults, cults that think electricity will give them cancer, cults that try to read the future in your feet, and a cult that “cured” a terminally ill man by keeping his corpse in a hotel room for four months until it was partially mummified. Activists are pushing for more accountability and oversight of new religions, but it remains to be seen if things will change.
For reasons best known to themselves, Japanese McDonald’s decided to change their mascot’s name from Ronald McDonald to “Donald McDonald.” This has always amused me to no end, especially since–if you say it the right way–the Japanese pronunciation of “Donald” sounds like the name of a Spanish bandit. DONARUDO! Gentlemen thief and all-around sneaky guy!
Japanese people apparently find Donald funny, too, because there are entire threads on 2Channel (mother of America’s 4Chan) dedicated to re-editing his commercials to make them as obnoxious and creepy as possible. To illustrate, here’s a typical Japanese McDonald’s ad from several years ago. In the ad, a title card asks Donald why he always says “RAN RAN RU!” (his Japanese catchphrase) and Donald replies that he says it when he’s happy. Which doesn’t really answer the question, but okay.
And here’s a version that 2Channel got its grubby mits all over.
It’s extremely long and extremely stupid–but doesn’t it make you feel better to know that they have annoying memes in Japan too? We’re half a globe away, but we have the power of YouTube Poops to unite us. Nothing weird about that!