by Kirsty Munro
“The tea ceremony is a quintessentially Japanese experience.”
“Journey through Kyoto to discover this mysteriously unique culture.”
“I strolled through the Blade Runner-esque streets of Kabukicho on a rainy night.”
Are you asleep yet? Got any more tired cliches about Japan?
Travel writing should be fun and inspiring and your content should be fresh. Using cliches in travel writing or translations reduces a destination to a set of Instagram tags, and your reader misses out on discovering the real personality and beauty of the place. Let’s stop serving up more of the same, by going deeper into the whos and whys of your story.
Respect the reader
Many Japan-specific cliches read like the writer’s research consisted of watching “The Last Samurai” or “Blade Runner” on repeat. Our audience is global and well-informed. Before they travel, they’ve done their research. I remember the first time I came to Japan; I had watched every Studio Ghibli movie and every episode of Terrace House and read every Haruki Murakami book that I could find. I read the Lonely Planet guide front-to-back and I’d searched all the beautiful Instagram hashtags; what I wanted was something real.
Leave the Oriental theme park
From reading some travel articles, you might believe Japan is overrun by geisha, samurai and anime characters. That might have worked back in the 1990’s when anime was a rare sight on cable TV and Japanese cuisine meant the food-throwing spectacle at Benihana. And yet, we are still getting served up the same tired tropes about “exotic Japan,” that you only actually find at Edo Wonderland.
Packaging a destination in a familiar way makes it easy to sell, and some commissioning editors cling to stereotypes that Japan is all about bygone traditions and politeness or just weird and wonderful. When I first moved here, I was so excited to write about my experiences, only to find my editors back home were still looking for “wacky Japan” stories. For the first few months, I dutifully filed stories on canned oxygen, men who married computer games, and cat cafes, but that wasn’t my real experience. Looking deeper into the culture lost me those regular short columns, but got me commissions from high profile travel magazines. You might think this “exotic” image of Japan is old news, but I recently read this in a major newspaper: “This was followed by an even more bizarre experience – an hour in the company of bikini-clad, gun-wielding, tank-riding, robot-battling dancers at the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku. Only in Japan…Our final stop in Kyoto was Gion, home of the ancient and mysterious geishas.”
Invest in research
As part of a team of writers and editors who get to live and work in Japan, I know I’m very lucky, and I don’t take all those amazing Japanese sights for granted. Yes, I still get excited when I see Mt Fuji peeking through the clouds from the shinkansen, and I have been known to whip out my smartphone and go all paparazzi when I see a geisha or maiko. And sometimes at work, we struggle to avoid the cliches when writing the umpteenth article on “where to see cherry blossoms,” or “Hokkaido’s beautiful powder snow.”
Our mantra is always: serve the reader. Conduct deeper research to know as much as possible about your subject. If I’m writing about a well-known location like Asakusa, I’ll take the time to search out the fascinating stories and insider knowledge that might draw the reader in. Who was Nezumi Kozo, the Robin Hood of the Edo period? Which public bath welcomes patrons with tattoos? Where can you find the softest, sweetest melon bread? When researching a new place, if we can’t go there in person, we look at Google maps, street and satellite views; we research all the ways to get there; we talk to locals if we can, we search videos and images; and research around the subject, following all the leads to learn more. We search in Japanese and English. As writers, our job is to be curious. Remember back to your first visit to Japan, and what you wanted to know. Tell your readers a story, and bring the place to life. It sounds like a lot of work, but down the line, this depth of knowledge will pay you back in better commissions and job satisfaction.
Create your own cliche list
You’ve read them too many times before; some might even be favorite standbys: “not only…but also…” “A hidden gem…” Our editors have a growing collection of words on our own “do not use” list. Here’s a small sample of cliches and overused phrases about Japan that we’ve encountered. Feel free to add your own.
A technological hot spot
A mysteriously unique culture
Undulating hills and rolling meadows
An unsullied natural paradise
A hidden gem
Off the beaten track
Steeped in history
Only in Japan
Quaint and charming
We’d love to hear your “favorite” Japan cliches. Post them in the comments below, and we’ll publish the phrases we all love to hate, in a future FunkyCorp blog.