Mascots, robots and dressing up like children – welcome to the weird ‘Cultural Galápagos’ of Japan

Greg Dickinson
Japan has developed customs, cuisines and cartoons to the beat of its own taiko drum - 2015@Museimage (2015@Museimage (Photographer) - [None]

My brother Ali’s message came in response to the barrage of photos I’ve been sending the family WhatsApp group: “That’s a pretty weird week you’ve had. Mascots. Robots. Dressing up like children. Nuclear radiation.” He’s right. It’s been up there with the more memorable weeks I’ve lived to date.

I’m in Japan with a Telegraph film crew, four of us in total, zipping around at bullet-speed to shoot in various locations across the country. So far, I’ve had the lens pointed at me in Tokyo and in the exclusion zone at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. I write these words from the cloud-cloaked Mariolandscape of Kamaishi in the north. Our next stop is the subtropical archipelago of Okinawa to the south, where I hope to learn the secrets to longevity. 

You might come across a robot or two Credit: 2017 Getty Images/Tomohiro Ohsumi

Japan is sometimes described as a “Cultural Galápagos” – a country that has developed customs, cuisines and cartoons to the beat of its own taiko drum. From Britain, it can feel a world away, so what exactly should you expect to find when your own HMS Beagle makes landfall on Japan’s shores?

First up, you will witness exotic beings like you’ve never imagined before. Namely, robots. And some are more advanced than others. In the Shinjuku Washington Hotel, where I stayed in Tokyo, the room service was operated by a robot named S-Mile, a piece of bin-on-wheels-technology that would have looked passé in the 1958 World Fair.

There are some more 2019-ready species to observe, though. At the Tokyo Metropolitan Industrial Technology Research Institute, I met a 6ft “security guard robot” named Perseusbot, which will be patrolling train stations during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. And over at Toyota’s robotic research institute, I stood, jaw-ajar, as I watched a human in a full-body sensor outfit operate a robot a few metres away, carrying out intricate tactile tasks. The chap could actually see and feel what the robot saw and felt.

Mascots are a serious business Credit: GETTY

There are even more peculiar species to be observed: mascots. In England you would only expect to spot a big-headed, furry mascot at a sports match. In Japan, mascots are a serious business. You will spot kawaii (cute) mascots not just in every prefecture, but in retirement homes, at roadworks, as part of the national drive to persuade men to have their colons checked. There’s even a “reformed delinquent penguin” mascot who I met at a prison exhibition in Tokyo. Tomorrow, I will meet Iwate prefecture’s mascot – a smiling bowl of noodles called Sobachi.

On the real Galápagos Islands, there are examples of invasive plant species damaging the ecosystem. You could argue that the introduction of certain coffee and burger chains has compromised the delicate balance of Japan’s unique way of being. But then again, it’s not always a negative thing. What you will discover are instances of Japan taking western ideas and advancing them to the next stage of evolution. A urinal on a train? Of course. Chopin’s Nocturne No.2 in E Flat being blasted out at a service station? Eureka! An ice cream vending machine? Ingenious. You will come home with a notepad full of similar learnings.

There's no shortage of vending machines Credit: GETTY

They’ve also taken drinking culture into new territories. Just tonight, I sat cross-legged with the crew as we ate crunchy shelled shrimps and knocked back a few sakés at a smoky izakaya (a kind of Japanese saloon bar) in Kamaishi. It was filled with men who worked in the local steelworks plant, but in the cities there is a craze for themed izakayas like the primary school one I visited in Tokyo. Here you can practise calligraphy, dress up in a child’s school gear and embrace the notion of “natsukashi”, a kind of intangible nostalgia for the lost days of childhood.

So yes, my brother is right, it has been a weird old week.In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin wrote: “Whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” There’s no better place to embrace the beautiful, wonderful diversity of human imagination than in the Cultural Galápagos of Japan.