Sushi, sumo wrestling and geishas. Before I went to Japan, I knew it was a cool place with a quirky culture unlike any other, but I can’t say I knew many more facts about Japan to give more depth to what I saw.
But after five weeks in Japan back in 2015, I came away feeling a little more educated. Still so many questions though. I’ve since been back and thanks to having a guide for a week in Shiga, I’ve learning more facts in Japan and wanted to share them with you.
Here are the wackiest and weirdest facts about Japan in the hope you’ll be as equally intrigued and want to go on your own Japanese adventure. Japan really is one of my most favourite countries in the world.
Interesting facts about Japan
1. Watermelons are square
The story goes that over 40 years ago someone had the genius idea of genetically modifying watermelons so that they’d fit more neatly inside a fridge. And so the square watermelon was born.
While they look really cool, the fruit doesn’t have as strong a taste in this shape so instead of eating them people tend to keep them as an ornament, kind of like a house plant. Fruit is really seen as a luxury in Japan and is fairly pricey and so this kind of quirky treat is often given as a gift.
2. A people crammer is a real job
Well technically that’s not their job title, decades ago they were called oshiya or pushers but now regular railway staff are tasked with pushing as many people into a train carriage as they can. There are just too many people trying to use the system to get where they need to go, especially in somewhere like Tokyo, so they’re needed on the platforms.
I was recently on the train in Osaka when this happened – it was horrible!
Top tip for Japan: avoid public transport at rush hour.
3. There’s a maid/master subculture
Japan loves a maid cafe. In fact, there are over 200 of them.
Never heard of one? Well you go inside a brightly decorated cafes and choose yourself a maid from a menu. Then, rather than a waitress, the maid will serve you. They’re usually dressed to the nines in a traditional maid’s outfit complete with a pinafore and headpiece and the maids see patrons as their masters and play this dramatic subservient role.
I went to a Maid Cafe in Akiharaba in Tokyo, totally unaware of this fact about Japan. It was definitely a strange experience…
4. Japan has a ‘suicide forest’
This is possibly the saddest thing about Japan: they have a high suicide rate and there are certain places in the country people go to do it.
Aokigahara is one of the most popular suicide hotspots. It’s a forest northwest of Mount Fuji and unfortunately, over the years, it’s become a lot of people’s final resting place of choice. No one really knows why but apparently, in 2010, 200 people tried to commit suicide here. Authorities have since stopped releasing the figures to discourage others from following suit. The number of deaths this place has seen make it a slightly eerie place surrounded by stories of paranormal activity.
I recently went to the Tojinbo Cliffs in the north of the country, which are also known as one of Japan’s suicide hotspots. Thankfully there is an ex soldier there who patrols the cliffs and in his years of doing so has brought the rate down dramatically, just by listening.
5. Japan has over 5.5 million vending machines
That is the biggest amount any country has worldwide and equates to around 1 machine per 23 people.
You’ll find them everywhere but the machines don’t just house your usual chocolate bars and bottles of water. There’s live lobsters, soup, sake, underwear and even sex toys inside. That means if you run out of clean undies, you’ll easily be able to find a pair wherever you are.
The cost of labour and the Japanese’s love of technology are thought to be reasons why the machines are so popular.
6. Japan hosts a crying baby contest
Possibly the meanest contest there ever was, the Naki Sumo Baby Crying Contest takes place in April every year in various locations across the country. If you’re there around that time you can choose to watch what has to be the most bizarre afternoon event.
The babies are carried by sumo wrestlers onto a stage where a referee judges on how can make a baby cry first and makes sure the sumos follow certain techniques to make them cry. The idea is that the babies’ cries will ward off evil spirits and they’ll then grow up to be strong and healthy.
You’d think it wouldn’t be so popular but it’s a Japan fact that parents are so keen to have their babies take part that they enter a draw each year.
Pin me for later
7. Nearly all adoptions are of grown men
And if you don’t have a baby, you could always adopt – something many people do in Japan. But whilst you’d assume that would mean cute babies, you’d be wrong. Over 98% of adoptions in Japan are of men between 20 and 30 years old.
That’s not because they’re just so adorable but because centuries ago Japan made a rule that family money could only be passed down to a son. For people who didn’t have sons, adopting them became a thing and although that rule has since changed, it’s really common for bosses to adopt their employees in order to keep their company ‘family run’.
There are even matchmaking companies to link up adoptees with businesses.
8. The first geisha were men
Major Japan fact shocker right? Memoirs of a Geisha would have been a whole different movie. But it’s true.
The first geisha back in the 13th century were known as taikomochi and they were hybrid of a host and performer, but they were men. Fast forward 300 years and it was soon realised that female company was preferred and they quickly outnumbered the men, so much so that today you’d be hard pushed to find a traditional male geisha.
Anyway, if you fancy seeing what it’s like to be a geisha, you can get all dolled up and do a geisha photo shoot like I did.
9. There’s a penis festival
Kanamara Matsuri, to use its real name, is a spring time event held in Kawasaki. And it’s not some weird fetish thing but a celebration of fertility and the penis’ role within that.
If you were to go, you’d see a huge array of art, sculptures and portable shrines in the shape of phalluses along with what seems like a load of hen party paraphernalia: penis lollipops, candles and straws and a lot of pink. Although it dates back to the 17th century, today the festival uses its popularity to promote safe sex and HIV awareness.
10. Streets don’t have names
Talk about confusing.
Japan uses a complicated system for addresses but in effect there’s no actual street names so getting lost is inevitable.
The streets do belong to a certain block, and each block has a number so you can ask for the number and hopefully you’ll find yourself in the right vicinity for wherever it is you’re going. If you’re staying in a hostel or like a certain restaurant, a top tip is to get the place’s business card and usually it’ll have a map on the back to help you retrace your steps.
Check out some of the best things to do in Shiga in my video
And subscribe to my YouTube channel for more!
11. Mum’s hire partner fixers
I was chatting to my guide about her son, as she’d already told me he was the same age as me and single. Apparently it’s perfectly normal for parents to hire ‘matchers’ who will match up single men and women at their parents’ request. She said this is more popular than Tinder when you get older.
You will go on a date with the other person and see how you progress. Basically a Japanese Cilla Black and Graham.
She said it hadn’t worked out for her son so far, as he didn’t feel ready for the commitment. She was desperate for him to meet someone though.
12. Women marry themselves
I saw this on the Sue Perkins documentary about Japan and actually couldn’t believe it was a thing. Turns out it is. Confirmed by my guide and the quick Google search I did.
In Japan, women are choosing to marry themselves.
“They encourage the woman to have positive feelings about themselves” says this report on women marrying themselves in Japan from Cosmopolitan.
13. Dating, marriage and sex are declining
There are many reports stating that Japanese people have just stopped having sex. There are all kinds of stats out there about those who’ve never tried it, or have and never again. A recent Japanese government survey found that over 40% of young people aged between 18 to 34 in Japan are actually still virgins.
The concept of ‘Mendokusai’ is a thing. It means ‘can’t be bothered’ and is used across Japan to describe people who aren’t interested in getting with anyone. Apparently it’s an accepted and popular way to be – keeps things simpler hey?
14. The population in Japan is falling
Japanese people just aren’t procreating as much as they used to. Blame it on the dwindling numbers of marriages, the internet, anime or the cost of the school system – whichever way you look at it, Japan’s population is an ageing one. And thanks to the fact Japanese people live longer than most, there aren’t going to be enough people to take care of them in the future.
Most children in Japan are the only one.
The Japanese Statistics Bureau estimates that the Japanese population will fall to just over 100 million by 2050, from around 127 million today. The United Nations estimates that Japan’s population will decline by a third from current levels, to 85 million, by 2100.
15. Kids in Japan clean their own schools
Schools still have cleaning staff, but an important part of the day for school children is the time spent cleaning their classroom and libraries. This is to teach the children about respecting their surroundings, and I think it’s a great idea!
If you want to know more about this Japan fact first hand, check out this post in the Japan Times.
16. It’s ‘a thing’ for men to not leave their home
Known as ‘hikikomori’, there are over 500,000 men in Japan between the ages of 15 and 39 who live in total seclusion. Usually at their parents’ house.
If you haven’t left your house or interacted with anyone outside of your home for over six months, the Japanese Health, Labor, and Welfare Ministry has coined you as a ‘hikikomori’.
17. Tipping in Japan is rude
Last time I visited Japan I’d been in the USA for two weeks, so not tipping was absolutely glorious. And the fact that it’d rude just totally works for me and my budget.
Just makes more sense to us Brit’s y’know?
Which fact about Japan surprises you the most?
Let me know in the comments below.
Interesting country hey?!