I went to Japan in 1991, sure I’d stay for “a year or two.” Then I met my wife and we had two wonderful kids, then the Internet happened, and somehow 28 years passed. During that time, I’ve made a lot of observations of the Japanese people I interacted with, first as an ESL teacher, then during my brief career as a “facilitator of internationalization” at my local city office, and finally as an entrepreneur and company owner. Here’s a list of ten things the Japanese really hate, based on my observations over the years.
- Sugar. The Japanese have an interesting relationship with sugar, using it in many mainstream dishes, from sukiyaki to teriyaki to nikujaga. But they seldom drink sweetened soft drinks or tea, and are shocked that the rest of Asia drinks sweetened bottled teas.
- Chocolate mint. I’ve never figured out why, but most Japanese I’ve met have had a strong dislike for chocolate mint, even avoiding the wonderful Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies my mom used to send me.
- Mexican refried beans. I’ve got a theory that beans and pickles lie at the heart of every culture, and often form a kind of culinary barrier between people from that group and outsiders. Japanese expect beans to be sweet, but when they eat non-sweet Mexican beans they nearly always hate the taste. If a Japanese likes refried beans, you can assume he’s been living in the U.S. for long enough to have acquired a taste for them.
- Black licorice is like Kryptonite to Japanese people. Which is a shame as it’s one of my favorite candies.
- Root beer is nearly always hated by the Japanese because it smells like Salonpas to them, a pain-relieving medicine. This is interesting because root beer happens to be the favorite drink of Okinawa, where A&W Restaurants outnumber McDonald’s 2-to-1. Okinawa spent 25 years as a U.S. territory after WWII and a lot of American food culture became internalized by the residents there.
- They hate open-ended questions, such as essay questions that can be answered anyway you like, since in Japan tests are much more likely to have exactly one correct answer. American-style job interviews, with broad questions like “tell us about yourself” or “describe your strengths and weaknesses” would cause most Japanese to break out in a cold sweat.
- Japanese also hate ridiculous stereotypes about themselves. Back in the early 90s, before the current era of cultural imports from Japan began, there was a movie called Mr. Baseball about Tom Selleck going to play professional baseball in Japan. He encounters a Japanese woman who follows all the expected tropes, drawing his bath and treating him like a geisha from Madame Butterfly. When she saw this, Mrs. J-List hit the roof, complaining that people around the world would think Japanese women were actually like this.
- While there are plenty of exceptions (my wife among them), the Japanese are not big fans of spicy foods. When visitors from Thailand, India or South Korea come to Japan, they usually smirk to themselves at how bland and un-spicy local versions of their favorite foods are.
- Oatmeal or Cream of Wheat is mistrusted in Japan because they resemble okayu, a runny rice porridge given to sick people. As I was raising my kids to know everything American kids should know, I persevered and made sure they loved the stuff.
- Socialism. Perhaps because of the country’s close political relationship with the U.S. over the past 75 years, Japan tends to be very pro-business and pro-personal responsibility when it comes to economic and social issues, and Western-style “labour” parties have rarely enjoyed much political success. Japan has managed to create one of the most functional meritocracies in the world, and there’s a lot of expectation for members of society to ganbaru. Happily, in the case of Japanese society, hard work is nearly always well-rewarded.
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