“Afraid of the Dark” – Not Really a Thing in Japan?

May 25th, 2011

When I was a kid, growing up in Texas, my room, like the room of every kid in America, had a light switch, which was used to turn on or off the incandescent light bulbs in my room. Switch on: room brightly lit. Switch off: room pitch black (except for whatever moonlight might filter through the blinds on a clear night). As a result, whether or not I was afraid of the dark was something that I faced each and every night. Fortunately, I was not particularly afraid of the dark (didn’t even have a nightlight).

Japanese houses, however, are different. The typical Japanese house doesn’t use incandescent bulbs in every room. Instead, they use big circular fluorescent bulbs. The other trait about these lights is that they have, built in, a kind of “super nightlight”. You can set the light to “On”, which is fully lit, “Off”, which is pitch black, or “Dim orange”, which makes the room dark enough to sleep, but still light enough to read books with big letters, as long as you’re willing to eventually screw up your eyesight. A lot of people use this “dim orange” setting every night to sleep, as you can wake up and go to the bathroom without stumbling in the dark, banging your toes, or stepping on things.

My son sleeps with the “dim orange” setting each night. He doesn’t like to go to sleep with the light off. He can, but he really prefers the orange light. Which prompted me to think of the expression “afraid of the dark”. There’s no Japanese equivalent with the same feeling of “set phrase”. Sure, it can be expressed, and easily, but it would be the equivalent of, say “scared of bears” or “scared of sharks”. Sure, those are relatively common fears, but they don’t carry that sense of “set phrase”, like “scared of heights” or “fear of flying”.

I’m guessing that there are just as many kids in Japan who are scared of the dark as their are in the US, but because of the lighting used in houses, it just doesn’t come up much. The only time my son’s fear of the dark comes up is when he wants to use the restroom after sunset, and he has to go up to the dark upstairs to the bathroom, or the dark downstairs to the bathroom. It’s certainly not a daily occurrence. So fear of the dark has a prominence, in the US, that makes “afraid of the dark”, as a set phrase, so well established that it can be used with no sense of awkwardness as the title of a horror movie, or scary children’s book, or video game. In Japanese, using it as a title would be like titling your book “afraid of loud sounds” or “afraid of leaving the curtains open when you go to sleep”.

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