A typical Japanese garden depicted on a typical Japanese lunchbox? Lacquer bento box at Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire. ©NTPL/Stuart Cox

The recent disastrous events in Japan have exposed some lingering preconceptions in the West. In covering the earthquake and its aftermath, western media have often reverted to stereotypes of the Japanese as being impassive, unfailingly courteous and always prioritizing the group over the individual.

An English conception of a Japanese garden? The Japanese Garden at Kingston Lacy, Dorset. ©NTPL/Mark Bolton

As Professors Ivo Smits and Kasia Cwiertka of Leiden University point out, these preconceptions go back to anthropological studies from the 1940s, when it was common to emphasize the ‘otherness’ of the Japanese. For those who read Dutch their comments can be found here.

A Japanese conception of an English garden? Hill Top, Cumbria. ©NTPL/Stephen Robson

Smits and Cwiertka remind us that Japan is one of the most modern societies on the planet and that the lifestyle of its inhabitants is very similar to our own. Furthermore, Japan is continuously changing, just like any other society, and we should take care not to judge it with outdated models.

A typical English interior? The Entrance Hall at Hill Top, Cumbria. ©NTPL/Geoffrey Frosh

The images of the British drinking tea out of bone china teacups, wearing bowler hats and carrying tightly furled umbellas similarly date from the first half of the twentieth century. To preserve and study the past is vitally important, of course, but at the same time we should not forget that we live in an ever-changing present.

11 Responses to “Preconceptions”

  1. Barry Leach Says:

    I look forward to reading Japan, het andere verhaal today. I’ve wondered a few times about the stereotypes that so excited the media in the continuing disaster in Japan – as unreal, to me, as the stiff-upper-lip nonsense that gets trotted out about the Brits. Years ago I remember asking why the gabled houses of Amsterdam were frequently called “typically Dutch” when the majority of houses in the country, it seemed to me, were modern and not 17th and 18th century in style. As you point out, perhaps typical of a time in history but not of today. Stereotypes fit so well in sound bites of a few seconds long and consequently lend themselves very well to constant repetition on the airwaves.

  2. Barbara Says:

    Many countries are stuck in those mid-20th century stereotypes. Just now Japan deserves both our understanding of their present clamity and of their everday life in the 21st-century.

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Barry and Barbara, indeed, stereotypes abound about European countries too.

    Thinking of Amsterdam, it is often conflated with ‘The Netherlands’ as a whole, whereas in fact its history and atmosphere is quite different from most Dutch cities; it is almost like a separate city state.

    And of course Europeans have lots of cherished preconceptions about the US as well 🙂

  4. Blue Says:

    And, I forgot to say how beautiful the lacquer is!

  5. style court Says:

    It’s strange. The press too often reduces everyone to a stereotype, whether it’s a college student or a suburban mom. I suppose it stems from a perceived need to put a quick label on an individual, group, or situation that will be “relatable” and grab the tv viewer’s attention — as Barry says, it’s all about the quick sound bite.

    But I also think many journalists loose objectivity, draft a certain story in their mind and then fall back on stereotypes to make the story work. I agree, too, that the stereotyping is typically worse when commentators speak about a culture other than their own.

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, that reminds me of when I was studying Japanese at Leiden under Ivo Smits’s predecessor, Professor Willem Boot. When doing Japanese translation I had a tendency to guess what a sentence meant before I had really analysed it, and Professor Boot would habitually rein me in by saying “You should translate what it actually says, Mr de Bruijn, not what you think it says” – a classic example of teaching a transferable skill 🙂

  7. Rosie West Says:

    The tropes about Japanese inscrutability are all too familiar but is it not fair to say that it is a society which values less rather than more ’emoting’? In this catastrophe we have seen quiet dignity which could also be shock and we have seen grief expressed. I am not sure if the media have been dealing in stereotypes – just getting on with the job of covering a cataclysmic event.

    I agree we romanticise each other’s culture ; otherwise there is no interest in
    comparing like with like!

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Rosie, I think sometimes emphasizing the difference of another culture can be an excuse for not taking the trouble to understand that culture, and some quite serious media outfits have been prone to that recently.

    But you clearly haven’t fallen into that trap, which is heartening 🙂

    I agree with you that ‘wonder’ at another culture is an extremely valuable reaction, but it should lead to enquiry, not to stereotypes.

  9. Editor Says:

    Thanks, Emile, for a fine posting and for all who have weighed in here with comments. I especially appreciate the selection and use of images in the posting — they underscore the role of historical awareness and what it has to offer in even ‘practical terms’ (i.e. some immediate present need, which seems to be the growing gold-standard for education or thinking generally, at least in the U.S.). In this case, history usefully sheds light on the origins of stereotypes, and the ways in which such preconceptions say as much about the reception of cultures as the ‘other’ cultures themselves.

    I am, incidentally, also sympathetic to what I take to be Rosie’s general interest in cultural differences. My sense that actually sorting through what those differences actually consist of turns out to be really complicated. Perhaps one ‘smell test’: is the characterization of difference used as a shorthand to end discussion or as a point of entry to probe an issue further? Or another related test: does the characterization ultimately help us see other human individuals as such or does it render them less human/humane as they become lifeless members of a some collective identity that we’ve created for them?

    Again, thanks for the posting,

  10. Karena Says:

    Emile such very interesting discourse. I do love your reply to Courtney; that is a lesson to be learned.

    Art by Karena

  11. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Craig, thank you for your subtle analysis: exactly the kind of response we need.

    I think I will try to do a follow-up post about the ambiguous meaning of those four images.

    Karena, I just came upon this quote from Sherlock Holmes as well: “It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” 🙂

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