What is the deal with Japan's smile merchants?

Last week, both the New York Times and The Guardian ran articles about a crisis unfolding in Japan. Giant kaiju? Super robots? Marie Kondo giving up on tidying? Yawn! Old news. Those are everyday things here. No, this was something truly dire. It seems the people of Japan have worn masks for so long that they've forgotten how to smile. Cue the appearance of a new sort of hero: the "smile coach" who can turn frowns upside down – for a fee.

Intriguing stuff! On the one hand, it fits a pattern of offbeat fads from the Land of the Rising Sun. Over the last few years, Western media has reported on ninja-wear designed to thwart street crime, "murder hornets" hellbent on poaching American souls, ancient demons unleashed from long slumber, and rental services vending simulated friendship and familial love to the lonely, among others. None of this was tabloid. It was all mainstream press.

But there's a hitch. None of those supposed fads turned out to be true – or at least, not trends in any meaningful sense. The ninja vending machine costumes were the work of a single performance artist. The murder hornets, more mistranslation than menace. The rampaging demon was just a rock. And the business of paying actors to play friends or family members? That one is a real doozy. After spawning dozens of credulous stories in the mainstream press, not to mention a Werner Herzog biopic, fact-checkers debunked the rent-a-friend company as a media-trolling hoax in 2020.

Now we have a case of a woman coaching Japan to smile again. Forgive my skepticism. I've lived in Tokyo for twenty years, through quakes and through pandemic. Now, I'll give you that it has been a tough couple of years for everyone. Yet I haven't noticed any inability to smile among my neighbors or friends. Or any less ability than normal. My sense is one of a nation enjoying newfound facial freedom as the muggy summer months rapidly approach.

I recall Googling the rent-a-friend gent, when those stories were big, a few years back. Given all the hoopla I was surprised to learn that his company's contact number was a personal cell phone. There are similar red flags on the website of the smile-coaching organization. They don't list their basic financials, as companies normally do in Japan. Their address is that of a co-working space. And the only contact is a cell phone. Same pattern as the "rent a family" firm.

Which isn't to knock an enterprising individual with an offbeat business model. I am all for offbeat business models! I love entrepreneurship and empowerment and forging your own path, no matter how odd it might be. And, sure, the world could use more smiles. But a lone individual does not a trend make. 

Still, I get it. We live in an attention economy. Stories about plucky folks in weird situations draw clicks, and they often do contain kernels of truth. There really is a woman claiming to be a smile coach. And she really has worked with a number of people. The caveat is that the majority of them seem to be residents of elder-care facilities, an inconvenient fact the Western coverage all but glosses over. Are Japanese citizens with dinner times past five P.M. really embracing smile coaching? Are Japanese in ninja clothes dodging demonic murder hornets while getting smile-coached on their outings with rented family members? I wish. It'd make life more interesting.

All of this begs a bigger question. Why are we so primed to believe Japan is an alternate universe where things like this could happen? Westerners have long been fascinated with trends in the Land of the Rising Sun, dating all the way back to the first moments of contact, when Japan's ports opened in the 1850s. Back then a flood of unique arts and crafts upended Western conceptions about style and sophistication, nourishing the Impressionists and launching fads for everything Japanese, such Gilbert and Sullivan's now-cringeworthy epic of cultural appropriation The Mikado.

We've come a long way since the days of "othering" and Orientalism, but seems there's still a hunger for strange tales from exotic Japan. Perhaps this is because, like the offbeat stories themselves, there are kernels of truth in Weird Japan reporting as a whole, too. Japan really IS an incubator of trends – those Walkmans and Pokemon and sparking of joy weren't figments of imagination. But they didn't emerge because of any inherent strangeness. 

It's because Japan happened to arrive at the future a little ahead of the rest of the advanced world, demographically and economically and socially, in ways good and bad and perplexing. It's why the Western press marveled over the strange trends of a hyperaging population, or "herbivorous" Japanese men who eschewed sex and marriage in the Aughts, only to find themselves covering the very same sort of phenomena in the West just a decade later. For just two of many examples. 
So it turns out Japan isn't really bizarre at all. Japan is a mirror of us. It's the new normal. And as our ongoing fascination with the nation hints, it seems to be doing okay. Reading about it makes us think maybe we will be, too. It's something to smile about, anyway.

Matt Alt is author of Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World.