A-Z of Japan


A Abortion Officially about 350,000 abortions are performed per year in Japan. The real number could be as much as three times higher. One of the reasons is that the pill was illegal before August 1999, leading to a large number of unwanted pregnancies. See also contraception.

Alcohol is the most commonly used drug in Japan, followed by nicotine and amphetamines. It acts as lubricant and safety valve in a rigid society with overly formalized modes of communications. Problems are largely underestimated. See this collection of facts and opinions.

Amakudari = descending from heaven. The lucrative practice of senior civil servants retiring early and then accepting jobs in industries regulated by their former colleagues at the ministry.

Ao means blue or green, depending on the object it's applied to. In Japanese usage, grass and leaves are the same colour as the sky. Ao shingo is a green traffic light, though Japanese traffic lights tend to be a turquoise colour. By adding a bluish tint to the green the lights are intelligible even to red-green colourblind people.

B Banks in Japan are, well, different. They charge exorbitant rates for money transfers and payments, they close their doors at 3pm and previously their cashpoints closed after 6pm or all day Sunday, though this is changing. They also feature the coldest air conditioner settings in summer (all those people in suits working in there, you know) and lots of helpful staff standing around to help you if you have a problem. You may get free packs of tissues. I remember one that offered free cigarettes to customers applying for loans. There are no personal cheques or the equivalent of eurocheques in Japan, so people often carry large amounts of cash in their wallets.

Beer is the most popular recreational drug in Japan. There are only four major brewing companies in the whole country, Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and down in Okinawa, Orion. Germany, with 2/3 the population of Japan, has 1500 brewing companies. For decades the Japanese beer market had effectively been closed to new entrants through government regulations. In the 1990s it was liberalised a little under Prime Minister Hosokawa, which has spurred the startup of a few micro-breweries. Most Japanese beers taste the same, essentially like lager beer in Europe. Alcohol content is about 5%. Beer is sold in vending machines at street corners so that even adolescents and children could buy it. Alcohol acts as a lubricant and safety valve in this high-pressure society and even excessive consumption is not frowned upon. It's a common Japanese myth, by the way, that Sapporo, Milwaukee and Munich ("three beer capitals") all sit on the same lattitude: Munich is about 400 km further north than the other two.

Bullet Train = shinkansen. A high speed train initially introduced around the time of the 1964 Tokyo olympics. It is almost as fast as the French TGV, covering the 500 km between Tokyo and Osaka in about 2 1/2 hours. Some bullet train lines in rural areas are highly subsidised and were only built due to political patronage.

C Capsule Hotels are vastly overrated. They are used as a resting place of last resort, where sarariman will stay if they've missed the last train home after the drinking party after the office; they are not regular hotels for business travellers.

Condoms are the most common form of contraception in Japan. Former UK health minister Edwina Curry became the object of severe criticism by the Japanese ambassador to London when she mentioned on a TV talk show that condoms imported from Japan during the AIDS education campaign by her ministry had to be returned because their size was inapropriate for the UK market. There are in fact mail order businesses in Japan that make a living selling condoms imported from Europe and the U.S. to the gaijin (foreigner) community.

Contraception is a touchy subject in Japan. It is little talked about and the low dose contraceptive pill was illegal until August '99, even though the high dose pill which causes far more side effects could be prescribed. The issue had been evaluated and sat on for many years and the ministry came up with many different excuses why a decision to legalise the pill should be postponed yet once more. This guaranteed fat (and usually untaxed) profits for doctors from performing numerous abortions every year. After Viagra won Japanese pharmaceutical approval in a record-breaking six months, the ministry finally had no choice but to approve the low dose contraceptive pill after more than a quarter of a century after the first application had been made.

D Diet is the Lower House of the Japanese parliament. The origin of the name is unclear. It is supposed to be from Germany (the Meiji government copied the Prussian constitution and administrative system) but there the term refers to the salaries of the Members, not the chamber itself.

Dioxin, one of the most poisonous substances known to man, was not subject to any emission standards in most cases until the late 1990s, and even now there are loopholes. Incinerators burning less than a certain amount of waste per day could emit practically any amount of this cancer causing chemical and government officials could not even enter the facilities for inspection without permission of the operator, let alone shut them down. The official excuse was that, despite regulations in other developed countries, the toxicity of dioxin in Japan was not scientifically established. On a similar note, until the late 1990s the maximum penalty that could be imposed for illegally dumping industrial toxic waste was a fine of 1,000,000 yen (about US$9000).

Doctors have a unique status in Japan. They dispense drugs without a blurb sheet because you as the patient do not need to know about potential side effects. When you become a new patient you may be asked if, should you ever develop cancer, you want to be told or not since it is common practice to lie to patients about what illness they suffer from as they are not supposed to be able to handle the truth. There are no fixed appointments. You may be told to come back a particular afternoon and are then expected to wait for an hour or more. My wife was sometimes given candy when her doctor showed up late after his lunch break. You'll pay cash at the end of every treatment, even if you are covered by the national insurance.

E Electricity in Japan is at 100V. Japan east of Nagoya (e.g. Tokyo) uses a mains frequency of 50 Hz as in Europe while western Japan uses 60Hz as in North America. Most electrical appliances for North America will work in Japan but items imported from Europe usually need a step-up transformer.

Enka is sometimes called the Japanese Blues, a sentimental type of ballad sharing many themes with Blues or Country and Western. This is the main type of song sung in Karaoke bars or heard in certain types of restaurants. I actually have a weakness for enka, though not for karaoke.

F Fuel for cars did not used to be sold in self-service stations which were banned by law in Japan. There were always at least three attendants waiting on the forecourt for you to drive up. They'd clean your windows while the tap was running. This changed around 2000, when the self-service stations were permitted and they have been gaining market share ever since. Fuel prices are a little lower than in European countries but higher than in North America (July 2008: approximately 176 yen = 1.13 euro per litre for regular unleaded and 187 yen = 1.20 euro for premium unleaded). There already was no more leaded fuel when I first visited in 1990 (it was phased out in 1987). Besides diesel fuel there are two grades of unleaded fuel, "regyura" ("regular") and "hai-oku" ("high octane"). Their actual octane ratings are not disclosed at the pumps, but according to data on an oil company website, "regular" is rated at RON 90 (a little lower than unleaded regular in most European countries) while "high octane" is rated at RON 98-100 (comparable to "Super Plus" in Europe). Note that the US uses a different rating system (AKI) which is based on the average of the RON and MON ratings. Because of the different measuring system, the exact same fuel is usually rated about 4-5 points lower in the US system than in the (European and Japanese) RON rating (e.g. 87 octane AKI in the US = 91-92 octane RON).

Mount Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan: 3776 metres. Remember this figure and your Japanese friends will always be amazed. In Japanese it's referred to as Fujisan (rarely Fujiyama), the particle -san or -yama meaning "mountain". This has nothing to do with the -san prefix applied to people's surnames that means "Mr." or "Mrs." Every summer the mountain gets so busy with climbers that it is said that one is crazy not to climb it once in one's lifetime and one is also crazy if one climbs it more than once. The climbing season is short because due to the altitude the weather can be severe outside summer. Only climbers experienced in arctic conditions are advised to go to the top to see the first sunrise of the year from its peak.

G Geishas can only be found in certain parts of Kyoto (such as the Gyon district). While they are not regular prostitutes many of them have a regular patron who maintains them as mistresses.

H Hirohito was Emperor of Japan from 1926 until his death in 1989. He is now referred to as "the late emperor Showa". The years from 1926 to 1989 are counted as Showa 1-64. 1989 is also Heisei 1 and 2004 is Heisei 16. The Japanese refusal to leave Hirohito's fate to the Americans delayed the Japanese surrender in 1945 to the point where two atomic weapons had been dropped and the USSR had entered the war against Japan. Then Hirohito himself stepped in to ensure surrender against militarist resistance and addressed the nation over the radio, using the famous understatement: "The military situation has not necessarily developed to our advantage." Hirohito's son Akihito is the current emperor of Japan. The Japanese emperors claimed to be the direct descendents of the Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess.

I Izu is a volcanic peninsula southwest of Tokyo and my favourite place in Japan.


K Karaoke means "empty orchestra". A form of entertainment that originated from Japan. People sing into microphones to an instrumental background track. Initially this took place in karaoke bars, now also in "karaoke boxes", places where you rent a room by the hour to sing as many songs as you like.

L Love Hotels = rabu hoteru. A common type of hotel that is frequented primarily by couples, married or unmarried, to have sex. Many young people still live with their parents and some married couples with their in-laws, creating a need for more private spaces elsewhere. In the evenings they are charged by time, usually for a two hour slot. After 10pm or at daytime there's a flat rate, which is far cheaper than conventional, less spacious and less generously equipped bishinesu hoteru.

M Methamphetamine, also known as shabu is the most common illegal drug in Japan, accounting for 90% of all drug related arrests. It is sold mostly by yakuza (gangsters) who smuggle it in from China, Russia, Southeast Asia and other countries. It was initially popularized during WW2 when the government and armed forces gave it to Navy pilots, soldiers and factory workers to stimulate them to fly further, march longer and work harder, without consideration to the health risks. Remaining military depots were plundered after 1945 and the stuff flooded the open market. As this drug is more profitable to gangsters than soft drugs and the government takes a hardline policy against even soft drugs, dominance of this dangerous hard drug is ensured, along with very harmful solvent abuse.

N Natto is a kind of fermented beans which tastes a bit like very mature camembert. It's often eaten with soy sauce and raw egg. Most foreigners can't eat it, but people in Western Japan don't eat it much either.


P "Pushers", that is railway employees whose job it is to push people into crowded trains so the doors can close, do indeed exist but contrary to what many people think they can only be found in certain places at certain times, i.e. at Shinjuku station of the Yamanote line in Tokyo during the morning rush hour. Outside the rush hours travelling on trains in Japan is a pleasant experience. Trains are frequent, fast and much cheaper than cars.


R Rice is the Japanese staple food, though its consumption has been declining for years as other grains and meat have gained in popularity. Japanese rice is mostly of the japonica variety, which is shorter than the long grain variety mostly grown in Thailand, India and other countries. Domestic prices are in the order of US$ 35 per 10 kg (22 lbs) bag. The average farm in Japan has 1 ha (2.5 acres) of farmland.

S Sarariman or salaryman is how white collar employees are referred to in Japanese. Many of them commute for two hours or more every morning or evening.

  Sekkusu or sex is an interesting topic. On one hand it is very visible, as you can see people read pornographic manga on trains and callgirl services ("deribabari herusu" = delivery health) are advertised on ads stuck to electricity poles along major roads. On the other hand the Japanese seem to be having far less of it than other countries, according to a global survey by condom manufacturer Durex involving 350,000 people in various countries. The French topped the world league at having sex on average 137 times a year, well above the global average of 103. Japan trailed the list at only 46 times. The Chinese do it twice as often. Japan is not the most sexy country in the world. Execpt for some young couples, people generally avoid physical contact in public. Parents often share their bedroom with little children. Add to that long commutes and a lack of privacy in crowded homes often shared with in-laws.

  Sushi is not raw fish but the sticky rice seasoned with vinegar used in many raw fish dishes. Raw fish itself is called sashimi. It is usually fairly expensive. As in many Japanese dishes, the cost is not only determined by the taste but also by the texture. Though there are some sushi bars that serve whale meat, it is quite exotic.

T Tamagotchi is the latest brain-corrupting drug coming out of Japan. Well, not really. If kids have any interest in the world that surrounds them, chances are they will lose interest in that chicken very quickly. It is the number of children that don't that concerns me. I consider this a symptom rather than a cause of social problems.

Tobacco is consumed in larger quantities in Japan than in any other country but Greece. Every year it kills more than 40,000 Japanese through lung cancer alone. Until recently, next to Nepal and the Philippines Japan was the only country in Asia and the only developed country in the world were tobacco advertising was still legal on TV. Even nowadays, Japan Tobacco stil advertises on TV, under the pretense of encouraging good manners amongst smokers. 60% of all Japanese men smoke. In Japan tobacco falls not under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health and Welfare but of the Ministry of Finance, which not only collects tax revenue but also continues to own 67% of the stock of Japan Tobacco (JT), which in turns has a market share of about 80%. Former Prime Minister Hashimoto was a well known tobacco addict who declared publicly that since tobacco was an important source of government revenue, he would smoke as much as possible "without damaging my health". After developing heart disease he pretty much dropped out of politics and died only 68 years old.





Y Yakuza are Japanese gangsters. They operate from openly known business premises where anyone can visit them. Their membership is known to the police. The idea is that by letting them operate in the open you gain their cooperation in suppressing individual (unorganised) crime and you know what you're up against. Yakuza are involved in drugs, prostitution, pachinko gambling, excessive rate lending, real-estate, construction and "mediation" businesses.

Z Zen is one of the forms of Buddhism practiced in Japan. Some foreigners pay a lot of money to be woken up at 5am, take a cold bath and say prayers at Zen monastries long before I would consider breakfast. But read this little story a Japanese businessman was told at a zen monastry.

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