Image for Three things Australians could learn from the Japanese

I have it on good authority that explicitly quantifying what you’re writing about in the title of your story leads to a higher click-through rate.

That’s a shame, because so often the “Six things you didn’t know about cataracts” or “Eight reasons not to believe a digital marketer” stories can leave you feeling a little ripped off.

You get the impression that somewhat less work has gone into that particular list than went into, say, the three laws of thermodynamics. In an article I saw recently, “Seven ways to get a flight upgrade”, the number-one tip was:

Be a frequent flyer

As if you can decide while you’re in the check-in queue to magically become one. You either are or you are not a frequent flyer with that airline, and speaking as someone with a bit of travel-hacking experience I can tell you that anyone who is not a frequent flyer with a gazillion status points need not trouble themselves with the remaining tips in that particular article. Smile all you like, dress to the nines, if you ain’t Platinum status you’ll sit where you’re bloody well told, you cheeky sod.

Anyway, thanks for indulging me. To the point of my essay, which I could argue segues nicely from the frequent-flying gripe because it was a plane trip to Japan that prompted the idea.

The missus and I love Tokyo, so much so that we’ve made four trips there in under two years, stealing time off work (or even working from Tokyo) just to re-immerse ourselves in that wonderful city. Yes, the sights are amazing – the neon, the building-sized TVs, the scramble-walk crossings, the markets. That the food is outstanding goes without saying too. If you screw your nose up at eating raw fish it’s because you haven’t had a Japanese chef prepare it for you. If you think that a small shop on the Hobart waterfront makes the best fish-and-chips ever, I bet I could change your mind. Likewise with just about any world cuisine you might favour: the Japanese can probably match it. They took French food and perfected it. Basque pintxos? Covered. They looked at an Indian curry and went, meh, we reckon we can do better, then for an encore they developed a burger and cheesecake combo that would make a New Yorker say forget abart it. Their beer isn’t all hoppy and IPA-ey, it’s the crispest, freshest, thirst-quenchiest brew on the planet, to the point where my missus Jess – a devout non-beer-drinker – will seek one out, at least until she finds the plum wine on the menu.

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A baked tuna head. One of the finest seafood meals I’ve ever had. Just don’t eat the eyeballs – they suck. The thingy at top-right is a propane burner on our table, which you use to cook other things. Because in Japan you can be trusted with fire.

Spectacular cityscapes and culinary perfection aside, here’s what’s been bugging me about Japan – or rather, what’s been bugging me about Australia – and how, with a bit of imagination and some balls, we might just be able to add a bit of cross-cultural pizazz to our ockerness.

1. Eat while you drink

As a seasoned Aussie drinker with a good three decades of practice propping up one Hobart bar or another, I can honestly say that on my first trip to Japan, the dearth of the type of stand-up bar we’re used to was disappointing. I just want a beer, buggrit, not a tiny restaurant. But, necessity being the mother of a fucker, it didn’t take long for us to squeeze into our first tiny Japanese eating house to see what would happen. Several trips to Japan later, having now visited literally hundreds of such places, I’m convinced our Australian drinking and dining culture could benefit from a rethink.

Like the Spanish, the Japanese offer menus chockers full of small dishes, for peanuts. Some of them are peanuts, boiled to sweet perfection. You’re talking a few bucks for a plate of something delicious (it doesn’t matter what you choose, it will be delicious, such is the respect that Japanese cooks have for their patrons). Then, drink away. In doing this something magical happens: you tend not to get so drunk as you do – speaking for myself – as when you commence drinking at the bar, then maybe think about a bowl of wedges a few hours later but probably give up and get a kebab on your stumble home. 

Before you say the comparison isn’t a fair one because everyone knows that Japanese people don’t drink much, let me tell you this.

That is utter bullshit.

I’ve already mentioned that I’m a seasoned drinker. Some might call me a seasoned drinker’s seasoned drinker. But in Tokyo I’m merely somewhere in the middle of the bell curve. I don’t have any hard-and-fast data, of course, but come lunchtime you’ll see more people sucking on a beer with their meal than you will at any dining house in Australia. At night the scene is even more colourful, with the vast majority of diners getting well and truly stuck in to a Sapporo or nine. Among groups of salary-men (and increasingly, office-ladies) drinking heavily is expected, to the point that they even have a rule that whatever you might say while drunk is effectively off the record. It means that you won’t be sacked if you blurt out that your boss’s mother wears army boots. In turn, the boss can often be seen late at night on the Metro, smiling drunkenly, being tactfully propped up by a subordinate or two so he doesn’t slide onto the floor of the train. To no-one’s surprise, around each of the larger stations are dozens of small bars specifically intended for said salary-men to imbibe a skinful as quickly as possible before heading home for the night.

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These old ladies matched us drink for drink. And they spoke fluent Billy Joel.

Of course, if you have any discipline at all it’s easy to achieve the correct liquid:solid ratio when you’re out on the town here at home too. It’s just that that isn’t the way our venues are set up. Many of our bars are drinking houses that happen to have a food menu, typically one that has double-figure prices beside each item. Clubs, which tend to have more tables than bar space, aren’t really helpful either because they expect a financial commitment in the form of a full counter meal to go with your drink.

It’s no wonder our young folk skimp on the tucker for the sake of maximising their spend on the good stuff. The result? We see it every Saturday night. A bunch of stonkered 25-year-olds looking for a 3am potato-cake amidst a sea of smashed beer bottles, possibly on their way to pick up Ricky from the casualty department. The yelling, the swearing, the abuse. And the boys are even worse.

The restaurants in Tokyo at lunchtime are packed with men and women drinking. They drink a lot, too. Our new Japanese friends – a couple we met in a tiny bar in Piss Alley, just outside the world’s biggest train station – drink every day and get drunk often. But at the same time, they eat, and so the drinking is relatively sustainable (or at least not simply downright dangerous). It’s a recipe for success.

If you suspect that our new friends might just be the equivalent of what we in Australia call “pissheads” you’re kind of right – except that he’s a fifty-two-year-old orthopaedic surgeon, and they both regularly run marathons.

What can we Australians learn from this? That it isn’t necessarily our drinking that makes the city streets horrid after dark, but the way we ignore the complementary tucker aspect. If you do elect to eat at a pub in this country you’re up for thirty bucks a pop; whatever you buy, it won’t be cheap, and many of us – in particular the young-uns – simply don’t bother.

You might find a pub or two in Oz boasting a hipster-esque tapas menu to go with their expensive micro-brewed beers, but each dish tends to be at least eight or ten bucks – not three – and in any case it’s still perfectly acceptable not to partake. In Japan it’s the opposite – it’s considered rude not to order a bit of food, even if you’re not hungry. After a very big meal of fugu one night our Japanese friends took us to one of their favourite bars … and ordered a tasting plate of food. No-one was offended that we ate very little of it. It’s just the polite thing to do. In this way the food economy churns happily and a sensible drinking culture reigns.

An easy solution for us would be to offer drink-and-nibble specials that cost the same as the drink alone. A second proposition would be to overhaul the way your pub operates in general. You don’t need a big menu, just a small selection of simple dishes that are super easy to prepare. Make one simple thing really well. Your pub could have the best chicken skewers in town. Or the best tacos. Or noodles or prawns or veggie tempura, or just a bowl of those delightful edamame beans. The idea is that your patrons snack more or less continuously while they drink without it costing them a bomb.

Oh, about the food: it has to be healthy. Like the no-drinking myth, that Japanese are all slim is wrong. They get fat too – just not the ones who eat Japanese food. In fact I was amazed when I realised that by Japanese standards I’m a very small eater. They eat prodigiously, men and women. But the food is so healthy that few people gain wait, the exception being the modern generation of McDonald’s worshippers. Yep, they’re struggling with that too.

2. Give up on the “me me me” thing

The city of Tokyo is about one-and-a-half times larger than Hobart, but it has 50 times the population, at about 10 million. The people here know how to get along. They respect one another’s space, don’t take up any more room than they need to, and certainly don’t demand special treatment. You don’t get manspreading on the Tokyo subway. No-one will use a phone on a bus, or in a restaurant, nor anywhere that their conversation might annoy others. Groups of teenagers do not congregate and intentionally get in the way just to be noticed. There’s no yelling – you can walk down a street in downtown Tokyo and feel compelled to whisper to one another, such is the relative silence.

Japanese folk are never in your face. They have dealt with their often cramped lifestyles by accepting that they are not special over anyone else, that they are part of a community, and they must, therefore, respect others’ space and their need to get where they’re going. No-one demands right of way. No-one toots their horn. Road rage incidents are virtually nonexistent. If you walk out onto the street, cars will stop to let you go first. If there’s a queue for a restaurant, the people in it will hug the wall and leave the footpath clear.

You only need to bump into a western tourist in a restaurant to see the difference between our cultures. American and Australian tourists will happily sit in a tiny eight-seat bar and speak loudly enough that everyone can hear. We will complain about the $3 cover charge, despite the beer being criminally cheap, and despite such charges in the smaller joints being a respected Japanese norm. It’s especially galling to hear a Yank – from a country where tipping 20 per cent is normal – complain about a cover charge. 

We are just generally in the way, taking up more of everything than your typical Japanese would. And we’ll sit there, butt firmly planted on a highly-sought-after seat, nursing our drink to make it last longer and not ordering any food. “No thanks, I ate at the last place” I heard one Yank saying. All class.

To sum up: take a leaf out of the Japanese’ book and be more considerate of others. Be smaller, in the sense of your personal presence and empathise with the people you share a city with. It’s not all about you.

3. Loosen up a little

Not only do Japanese people know how to have fun, they don’t mind when others do too. If you want to dress up as a superhero even though you’re 28 years old, all power to you. Can we put a four-story-high Gundam robot in the courtyard? You betcha. Statue of Liberty? Just put it on the waterfront there. My dog wears a onesie. Cool, huh? Their sense of fun is all pervasive, and childlike pursuits are well and truly within the grownups’ domain.

Such fun is conducive to friendliness overall, I think. Try feeling grumpy at someone who’s wearing Mickey Mouse ears, even if they did just tread on your foot. Many neighbourhoods have their own mascot – a fun kind of cartoon-like character – that occupies each street corner, whether as a colourful statue or just painted on shop windows. Everywhere you go in Tokyo you are immersed in fun and the happiness that tends to go with it. Crime rates are low. You feel safe walking the streets, even at night, even in the red-light district.

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This is the look Jess gets when she’s deliriously happy.

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Most Japanese folk considered me to be quite butch.

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It’s not a robot, it’s a wearable Gundam suit.

(This isn’t to say that Japanese people are invariably happy, of course. I’m sure they have as many life problems as we do. It’s just that they’re really good at having fun when circumstances allow. Also I’m not claiming that I’d feel comfortable standing on the street yelling “Yakuza suck!” The Japanese have their fair share of thugs and no-good crims just like we do. But the balance of civil vs uncivil behaviour in Japan is very much weighted towards the positive.)

This wonderful societal attribute struck me most when I saw a boy who couldn’t have been more that six years old on his way to school. Alone. On the Metro.

Or the time I saw a kid, probably 10, double-dinking his sister down a busy street on a bicycle. Neither was wearing a helmet. And, best I could tell, no-one was outraged.

But possibly the single biggest tell for me that the Japanese have their shit together was the Maricar experience. Maricar offers tours of the city in a go-kart. In a pack of half a dozen or so drivers you charge around the city centre, including through Shibuya – where the big pedestrian intersections you see on TV are – all while dressed as a cartoon character. At first I was wary of annoying the local drivers, getting in the way and taking up valuable lane space, but the reaction was out of this world and explains why the business is thriving. At one point I got separated from the group owing to a bad traffic-light decision. The drivers between me and the others pulled over to let me rejoin my mates. Imagine that happening in Sydney? I can hear it now: “Get off the fucking road, wanker!”

And the crowd goes wild. The hoots, thumbs-up and general merriment you get from the myriad pedestrians you pass is phenomenal. They love it! There are now in excess of 10,000 Japanese people with a photo of Jess and me riding a bright-red go-kart wearing Pikachu onesies. And no helmet? Inconceivable.

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Australians, don’t take yourself so seriously. Realise that a sense of fun and being friendly go hand in hand. Quit it with the mock outrage. Let’s change our drinking scene and put fooding right alongside drinking.

If you’ve read this far it might just be that the digital marketers were right – you’ve read my “three things” list. Of course, Enid Blyton first came up with the idea of using quantification as reader bait – “Five go to Smugglers’ Top” was a classic.

*Bruce Ransley runs Impress, a technical writing company

Originally published here