Japan Around The World
June 21, 2014

Japan Around The World

What do we think of when we think of Japan? Maybe its food, haiku poetry, exquisite ancient culture or possibly its weird approach to sex. I would expect, though, that most people would think first and foremost of electronics and other manufactured goods, and of cutesy, quirky entertainment stuff. Traveling around the world, I have come to discover that it is not surprising that those things are paramount in people’s minds because they are simply everywhere.

No doubt many of us will have noticed that most duty free shops in airports contain virtually the same things: a huge range or cigarettes, perfume, jewelry, candy and — depending on the country — alcohol. They also offer a considerable number of tacky, touristy representations of ‘authentic’ things from their own country. In Saudi Arabia, this means loads of stuffed camels. In Africa, it is zebra print mugs and safari hats. But since I now look out for Japanese things abroad, I have noticed that they all have two other kinds of offerings as well — Hello Kitty and Pokemon stuff. Maybe it is just a coincidence that the airports I have been to recently offer these Japanese icons, but I have been in a fair few, so it seems to be a pattern. Perhaps the popularity of Pokemon is not that shocking, but Hello Kitty was slightly more surprising, to me anyway.

I had never really noticed Hello Kitty — the simple, girly white cartoon cat — before moving to Japan. Chances are it wasn’t aimed at my demographic as a young British male, to be fair. But I am now aware that adults make up a huge portion of the Hello Kitty market which encompasses more than fifty thousand products, over half a billion dollars a year in revenue, and is spread across more than 60 countries.

On a more manly (to gender stereotype) note, but no less indicative of Japanese products’ world domination, just about every vehicle I saw in Livingstone, Zambia was a Toyota. I also noticed how many electronics were Japanese or Korean, a rather boring habit I have taken on ever since a Korean told me how he wells up with pride every time he sees a piece of Korean gadgetry abroad. The Koreans do have a lot to offer the world culturally, but as yet the range of Japanese things we consume is much greater, so for now Koreans mostly live off their electronics, in terms of international prestige. Those, and Ban Ki Moon, of course.

Those two main themes of entertainment (we haven’t even mentioned Mario) and goods aside, I was hearing how sushi is massively taking off in South Africa, and that the trendy young things can’t get enough of it. The same has been the case, of course, for many years in the US, Europe and Australia.

Before we drown in a sea of consumerism, I would like to end on a haiku. Haiku are short Japanese poems which have a long and important history of insightfully and accurately describing deep feelings of the world around us in a very small number of syllables — traditionally 17, although these days not all haiku adhere to that rule.

“To Convey One’s Mood In Seventeen Syllables Is Very Diffic’.”

Thanks to British poet John Cooper Clarke for that one. Okay, now a less silly one; one of the more famous and important haiku from the legendary and mysterious poet Basho, who lived in the 17th century.

(An as accurate as possible translation, originally 17 syllables in Japanese but sacrificed in English to preserve meaning.)

old pond . . .

a frog leaps in

water’s sound

(A less accurate translation, but adhering to the 17 syllables rule in English too):

at the age old pond

a frog leaps into water

a deep resonance

I will leave you with that cultured thought.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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John is a freelance writer from the UK, currently living in Japan and thoroughly enjoying their food and whiskey. His first novel, Three Little Boys, and his travel book, Following Football, are currently available on Amazon.com.

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