Saturday, February 28, 2009

Japanese Stereotypes - American Stereotypes

I’m convinced that people teaching English in Japan are now the de-facto western “cultural commentators” on all things Japanese. It’s interesting that we never hear about Japanese culture from an American businessman or a Christian missionary, for example, who may also understand Japan quite well…English teacher Amy Chavez writes about Japanese stereotypes in The Japan Times Online:

“Japanese people tend to think every Western-looking person is American (or if they don't, they tend to think foreigners are distinguishable by nationality — imagine over 50 identifiable nationalities!”

Okay. Very true statement. But is seems to imply some Japanese cultural backwardness. Are we to assume that Amy can tell the difference between white Americans, Germans, Canadians or South Africans? Maybe Amy’s point is that Japanese people should simply see white people and say “white people.”

I’d also have to assume that Amy has trouble distinguishing between Koreans, Japanese and Chinese based on appearance alone. We in the west solve this by saying, “Asian people”, Japanese people solve their issue by saying “American people.”

This alone, is not a Japanese issue. While traveling in South America, this writer learned that all white people were also “Americans.” So we must understand some universality to this issue. While being seen as an American in Japan can be an advantage (foreigners in Japan get away with a lot), this is decidedly not an advantage in Latin America. One Scandinavian chap wrote on his backpack, “I am not an American. I’m Norwegian.” So goes the cause of a common humanity!

“Japanese people still say to me: ‘What do you eat for breakfast, bread?’ As if we sat down every morning to a large pile of bread on a plate.”

On the surface, this is a simpleton question. Yet it the question must also be understood in the negative, as in: “So you don’t eat Japanese rice and miso soup every morning?” Which, by and large, is the norm for Japanese people.

It must also be understood that when you don’t speak a language well, you tend to stick to safe, easy questions. There are also some Japan etiquette and Japanese behavior customs here; the Japanese often ask about safe topics to create a pleasant, surface-level conversation. This is being polite in Japan.

Yet the writer appears to be searching for some Utopian civilization where everyone thinks of human persons in the particular, and never succumbs to the temptation to talk about humanity in generalities. Japanese people, like their counterparts in America, Uganda and Bolivia, all rely on stereotypes to a certain extent.

Amy writes:

“The fact is, that although ‘stereo types’ should be limited to Panasonic and Sony, they are still very much alive, even in the Japanese classroom. And I was shocked to find myself teaching them!”

Shocked! Ah, don’t be. You’re human and so are the Japanese people…As a teacher if you have fun with your Japanese students, they’ll have fun with you. This may be a teaching English in Japan stereotype, but I’m sticking to it.

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