Quick, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear Japan? Instagram user @Lovecall, recalls associating “technologically advanced, Mt. Fuji, food, cherry blossoms, and Hiroshima” with the Land of the Rising Sun. In advance of the 2018 Japanese Grand Prix, F1 Formula racing drivers, Max Verstappen & Daniel Ricciardo’s, knowledge of Japan was put to the test in the show “Talking Japanese” (see below). Provided with iconic Japanese associated words such as sumo, sashimi, pokemon & bullet train, the drivers shared the first word that came to mind upon hearing the aforementioned.
Whether the exposure to Japan began prior to visiting or as a result of a lived experience in the Land of the Rising Sun, we set out to hear people’s ideas before and after spending time there. Here’s what we learned…
Belief #1: The Japanese are rigid, conformist and/or conservative.
Anyone who has ever gone to 原宿Harajuku, a district in Shibuya, Tokyo, has noticed the かわいい ‘kawaii’ style or “cute” culture that dominates the area. One would be hard-pressed to find rigidity, conformism or conservatism in this Japanese pop culture phenomenon.
Belief #2: Japan is a technologically advanced country.
This was certainly the draw for many visitors, such as FB user, Damon J., whose interest in the island nation was due in great part to it’s “hotbed of technology.” There is, however, evidence that supports this belief. After all, 1964 marked the first time the world had ever seen a 新幹線 (Shinkansen) or bullet train. It was completed in time for Tokyo’s first Olympics.
Many companies across various sectors have also claimed firsts, catapulting Japan to the technological limelight. Hybrids were first introduced by Toyota and now the Prius is sold in 90 markets around the world. Sony & Nikon revolutionized photography with the first still video camera & the first electronic still SLR camera, respectively.
Belief #3: The Japanese are punctual.
@queen_angeline was surprised by “their punctuality. They take their schedules very seriously. All events and meetings [start] and [end] exactly [as] planned.”
@leafmecurious recounts “that their rule-abiding nature means playing everything by the book! Arrive to a hot spring bathhouse just one minute after last entry and you won’t be allowed in.”
International speaker Yokoi Kenji Díaz/YKD (@yokoikenjiOficial), who is Colombian-Japanese, shared where this punctuality stems from in his speech Mitos y verdades sobre Colombia y Japón (Myths & Truths about Colombia and Japan). After spending 10 years in his paternal homeland, YKD learned that in Japanese culture, the belief system is that sooner or later discipline beats intelligence.
The idea of intelligence, therefore, is not part of the equation, nor is it lauded. What is given more importance is discipline. YKD recounts how a Japanese person would not entertain the idea of being late and even in the event that it could possibly happen, s/he would more than likely call two days in advance to let you know that they might be 15 mins. late.
Belief #4: The Japanese don’t like foreigners.
Could this stem from the fact that カタカナ, or katakana, is a writing system dedicated solely for foreign or borrowed words? Perhaps it is the belief that foreigners are not allowed to become Japanese citizens, which isn’t entirely true. It is in fact, a lengthy process and there is quite a lot of documentation required, but it can happen.
@chefos82, who spent a week in Japan, shared that she was “unsure how [she] would be treated as an African-American”, prior to traveling there. While she was surprised at “how homogenous the society is”, her reality turned out to be that people “were very respectful.”
@ktlristina grew up on anime and spent six months putting her Japanese to use. She is frustrated when she hears “that there is true racism.” She shares that “there is miseducation that comes from media that [the Japanese] believe is true. They want to learn more, but there needs to be an opportunity for that education.”
Guatemalan born Fernando López, the owner of López, an お好み焼き (okonomiyaki) restaurant in Hiroshima, was an unlikely candidate to serve up the revered hometown dish. However, he applied the discipline that Yakoi Kenji Diaz describes and nearly 18 years later, he continues to make the famous layered Hiroshima style comfort food. Are there still those who don’t accept his style of okonomiyaki? Sure. There are purists in every culture. However, that doesn’t stop López from taking on local apprentices and passing on what his 先生 (sensei/teacher) showed him. They are now opening up their own shops and carrying on the tradition and culture of the city.
Damon J. recommends that those unfamiliar with Japan, “notice how [the Japanese] experience other cultures, such as music, food, and entertainment. Reggae and Hip Hop are massive. [He] found the way that they relate [is] with compassion.
Belief #5: The Japanese are good at martial arts.
Where do we begin unpacking this? Let’s start with the grouping of all Asians into one category. Bruce Lee, popularized kung fu with his movies. However, he was neither Japanese nor did he practice Japanese martial arts in his movies.
There are a plethora of Samurai movies from acclaimed Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa and many others. Did these directors intend to have Westerners identify Japan with nothing more than Samurai? Perhaps not. Yes, they told stories that were relevant to Japanese history, given that warriors & samurais ruled Japan for the better part of the 12th-19th centuries. However, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us, “The danger of the single story” prevents us from allowing for other possibilities.