Wednesday, October 06, 2004


In one of my classes - of English majors, so they're pretty good - we've been tackling the topic of stereotypes. I'm not sure where we're going from here. Today we talked about the stereotypes we have about a whole bunch of nationalities, and I've given them some homework about it, and I'll see what comes out of that. But the students want to know what stereotypes are common about Japanese, Korean, and Chinese people. This class has all three nationalities. They had fun teasing each other today, and are totally enthused by this topic. We talked about how it was possible to get to know people from other countries who were totally different from our stereotype, and yet still hang onto the stereotype for when we meet the next person from that country.

I've been here too long. My image of Japanese people - and of Chinese and Korean people - has been coloured too much by my time here. I was hopelessly undereducated about this part of the world before I came. My image of Japanese people was probably... let's see... a little guy with glasses and buck teeth comes home from a long day at the car factory, shouts BANZAI! and ritually disembowels himself while flying his plane into an aircraft carrier in the middle of an typhoon. While eating a bowl of rice.

My oldest brother had a secret stash of old war comics which I discovered when I was a kid. (Did I need to tell you that? Didn't you guess already?) My education about other cultures wasn't helped along much by my dear Grandma, who was hopelessly racist, and who, when she heard I was coming to Japan, was horrified. She passed on the message that I should watch out for those terrible yellow Japs and for goodness sakes I hope you don't marry one. All that WWII propaganda obviously made a big impression on her. I can't think where else her ideas could have come from, since she never met a Japanese person in her life and didn't have TV or radio. (Maybe she'd found my brother's war comics?) And no, I never told her about The Man. She was 90 when I met him, and I didn't think it would do her any good.

Speaking of war comics, the Japanese weren't the only villains in my secret reading. Those Germans were pretty bad, too. We had a German guy living here for a while, and one day when he and The Man were sitting in the kitchen having one of their long philosophical discussions about racism and cross-cultural misunderstandings (involving lots of table banging and shouting and laughing), I sat down with them and listened for a while, and then told them I thought it was time for me to air some of my prejudices. I had all these terribly racist attitudes hidden inside me, I said, nurtured by a secret diet of war comics when I was young. To demonstrate what I meant, I shouted ACHTUNG! and BANZAI! and so on until they begged me to stop. (Apparently my pronunciation of German is pretty good. I've never seen anybody look so surprised as Jörg did in that moment just before he slid off his chair and disappeared under the table, making strange hooting noises.)

But anyway, I seem to have gone off the point here. What I really wanted to do was to ask you for some input.

What are the current stereotypes of Japanese, Korean and Chinese people? My students want to know - the bad as well as the good. It fascinates them. I'm looking for more or less uninformed cultural generalisations garnered from the media rather than educated personal opinions. If I can collect a few I'll use them in class next week.

Thank you. And... BANZAI!