Here’s a conversation I’ve had many times:

Student: Mark, do you have furikake in America?

Me: What is furikake?

Student: やっぱり日本だけだ。(as I thought, only in Japan)

Now, furikake might indeed be a uniquely Japanese thing (flavored sprinkles you put on rice), but I have no idea, and my student doesn’t either.  What makes this type of conversation important is how quickly unique to Japan rushes in to fill the gap in our knowledge about the origin or prevalence of, well, anything.

Nothing against furikake.

There is an argument against theism called the God of the Gaps which parodies the increasingly hair-splitting attempts by modern believers to claim any realm of human inquiry yet unexplored or unexplained as evidence of whatever deity is in prominent in their particular corner of earth.  So we know the ancestor of all primates had a tail, but we aren’t sure how many millions of years into the splitting of apes from other primates apes lost theirs.  Into this gap in our knowledge springs God: “Therefore, He must have taken apes’ tails away in order to eventuate the evolution of Adam and Eve.”  Cold, hard logic.

Like theism as an ideology that attempts to explain the way things are by appealing to timeless hegemonic forces, nationalism can also be like the floor under the gratings of various sizes in a slaughterhouse or the final } else { in a block of computer code that has to deal with whatever questions are left over when all specific applications of reason have failed.  It can be called upon in cases of logical emergency to explain anything observed in our world that doesn’t have a more specific reason already lined up.  The marshalling of logic that occurs before Japanism is called in to resolve any ambiguity is sometimes vanishingly short, as I will illustrate in this code block:

boolean t;

t = ask_foreigner_about(x);

if (t == true) {} //do nothing

else {Unique_Japanese_Things += x;}

What is also a key feature of this nationalism of the gaps in my opinion is that quick resort to it is seen as moral and a desirable quality in people, particularly the young.  That is, just as a child invoking God as an explanation for why rivers bring us water would be greeted with indulgent smiles and nods of approval from adults in much of the US, people invoking Japan’s mythic uniqueness to sweep away unresolved questions is greeted with fulsome acceptance because it reaffirms the final, overriding importance of an ideology that the listener also shares.  It is therefore approved of more than agreed with in a logical sense.

The seductiveness of this answer sometimes allows it to spread horizontally across categories and upward from a specific instance of a category to the category itself – hence if sushi is a unique Japanese food (and many would agree that it is) than any other food known as Japanese may be considered unique as well, and perhaps fish or raw food in general.  Further, as Daniel Kahneman helpfully points out, people are poor statistical thinkers – a prevalence of trait X among one group of people can quickly become exclusive ownership of that trait in the popular imagination (a heuristic which in my mind is responsible for a lot of sexist thought as well).  Several items from the list below are there just because of leaps of logic like this.

So in the interests of building the shareability of this post, below is my list of the things I have heard described as unique to or originating in Japan:

  1. Earthquakes
  2. Above-ground power lines
  3. Pomegranates
  4. Tofu
  5. Kanji (kind of like asserting that Latin words are uniquely English)
  6. The ability to taste umami
  7. The 4 seasons (a classic)
  8. Mint (the flavor and the breath freshening candy)
  9. Mosquitoes
  10. Dragonflies
  11. Cicadas
  12. Hydrangea
  13. Hot springs
  14. Rice
  15. The card game memory
  16. Reciprocal gift giving
  17. Formality in language
  18. Bowing
  19. Soy milk
  20. Hospitality (omotenashi)
  21. Indulgence of children (amae)
  22. Arranged marriage
  23. Professional party/event hosts (shikaisha)
  24. School uniforms
  25. Cram schools
  26. Non-verbal communication
  27. Homonyms and homophones

I’m sure you’ll be able to think of plenty more.


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