Being a Canadian, I know so much time is spent back home on the national conversation of who we are as a people and what we’re all about. Defining our culture is so tough because we are an amalgamation of people from so many different places, sitting right next door to an economic and cultural superpower – the United States.
The Japanese – on the other hand – know exactly who they are as a people. Visit the National Museum in Tokyo, and you don’t have to look far for evidence of a culture which pre-dates current era, with traditions that span thousands, not hundreds or tens of years.
Still, Japan loves western culture, and so much of it has been adopted and adapted to life here. Many of the elements cross the Pacific Ocean with little-to-no change. But not everything gets the same translation. Some things are just different in Japan – despite looking or sounding familiar on the outside.
Take Denny’s for example. The chain came to Japan in 1973, but somewhere along the way things got a little different. Don’t expect to get a Grand Slam Breakfast or Moons Over My-Hammy when you plunk yourself down in a booth. Instead, Denny’s in Japan has embraced the idea of being an American-inspired diner, offering dishes like Hamburg steak (or salisbury steak for those of us in North America), and various types of doria (a popular Japanese dish with rice, cheese, and various protein toppings).
Staying on the topic of food, order a Big Mac in Japan and you’ll notice two things strikingly different. The first is that more-often-than-not, the sandwich will actually look like the pictures on the menu board. Japanese attention to detail even extends to the golden arches, it appears. But the other notable difference is in the taste. To my palate, the “special sauce” on a Japanese Big Mac is slightly less sweet than one you’d order in North America. It’s not bitter, just less sugary.
A number of clothing brands live completely different lives in Japan compared to North America. A good example of this is Carhartt. While the workwear manufacturer seems to be the domain of cattle rustlers, oil roughnecks, and construction crews in Canada and the United States, it is a desirable fashion brand in Japan. Now – young guys aren’t walking around in sagging duck dungarees, but a Carhartt toque will sell for as much as C$30 to C$40 in designer boutiques.
There are brands which were once a big deal in North America which live on in Japan. I was surprised to see that the alcoholic beverage that was the punchline of so many jokes in the 1990s – Zima – continues to show up on store shelves even though production had stopped in the United States many years ago.
Finally, and most interestingly, is how some of the global TV brands have been localized in Japan. Topping this list is CNN which – while it’s offered in its original US version on cable – has a localized channel called CNNj which is co-produced with TV Asahi.
On Saturday nights, the network airs a block of news on sister satellite channel BS A called “CNN Saturday Night,” featuring re-dubbed stories from the US network and a news set which looks more like Ted Turner’s cozy den than a news studio (complete with teddy bears on a shelf wearing CNN t-shirts). It’s a little bizarre, but charming all at the same time.
Traveling is teaching me that the influence of western culture has spread across the globe. How it’s localized can sometimes be pleasantly surprising.