The Internet TESL Journal

Coping with Problems Caused by Stereotypes in Japan

Mario McKenna
mckenna [at]
Nagasaki Junshin University (Nagasaki, Japan)

The whole idea of stereotypes is a rather confusing one; there are as many definitions as there are dictionaries; as many opposing ideas as to what constitutes a stereotype as there are individuals. However, I think I'll use my own experience as a starting point for talking about stereotypes. I'd like to use the initial images I had of Japan which I encountered when I was growing-up in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The United Kingdom comic books I read when I was a child, had testosterone-loaded titles such as "Too Tough to Kill", "Warlord" or "Battle". Many of those stories were set across the Pacific and told of battles between the British and the Japanese. The first picture almost always showed the "typical Brit. officer"; poker-faced, perfect uniform, and speaking in a perfect accent, explaining the dangerous mission that he and his men were about to do. After this, the picture changed to the Japanese; buck-toothed and speaking in strangely accented English. They would be shown charging through the Jungle, sword carried over their heads screaming at the top of their lungs, "BANZAI".

As the story would continue. The Japanese were always done in by a Brit. with a name like "Union Jack Jackson". The NIPS, JAPS and yellow skins would die screaming. This scream, the Japanese death cry was a strange thing indeed. It was made-up of an "A", followed by an "I" and then a string of "e"s which produced the resultant "Aieeeeeee!".

Several pages later, I would be somewhere in Russia or North Africa where the Germans are diving in droves; no match for the dash and daring of "Lord Peter Flint", code named "Warlord". The German's death cry was just as strange as the Japanese. It was composed of a lot of "A"s followed by a lot of consonants: "Aaaargh!" Essentially it sounded something akin to a drain emptying.

So in death, as in life, the enemy was stereotyped. The Japanese had narrow eyes, thin body and died with a yelp of narrow vowels. The German, broad, with a square head, would die with a deep guttural voice. For a young boythese comics were sublime; they took me to far-off new places and let me see strange, new people. On cheap paper, in black and white, week after week the Japanese and the Germans died in the same way; looking the same, sounding the same. It is just such a ceaseless reiteration of an image that perpetuates stereotypes.

With the wisdom that hindsight grants, I now realize that these comics were jingoistic, dehumanizing, badly written and hopelessly stereotyped. But they had a purpose, believe it or not. They attempted to make something foreign, familiar. To a young boy, they provided a safe and exciting way to explore different places and different people. They made the foreign familiar, because they used stereotypes. These comics showed only one side, albeit a wrong one, of what a German or a Japanese soldier was like. And by association what their countries were like, which of course I and other boys at that time thought were true, but were horribly wrong.

However, what we can deduce from the comic book experience is that the images of childhood, received in comic book form and reinforced in play are very powerful in shaping subsequent attitudes and ideas, in short, one's adult mindset. In this respect the child is father to the man. The proof that these very images have become cemented in the public consciousness was laid to bare a few years ago on the fiftieth anniversary of the Japanese surrender when, as one British newspaper put it, the public chose to indulge their "current fascination with the inscrutable, unapologetic East."

In the weeks before "Victory Over Japan Day" the British papers and tabloids were filled with articles about the "unapologetic Japan". The report continued, "it's no surprise to find a flurry of books on Japan. Since mid-July, they have been massing on bookshelves like paratroopers by far the most popular genre of Japanese book around at present is the Grisly Tales compendium, those first person reports of torture and inhumanity from Changi Jail or Outram Road or the other POW camps, with their sadistic guards and rat casseroles, make grim but compulsive reading: "Nippon Slaves" by Lionel de Rosario, "Back to Burma" by Mary Davey, or "Prisoners of the Japanese: POWs of WWII in the Pacific" by Gavin Daws. Beyond the stretches a chill British compulsion to believe the worst excesses of Japanese brutality."

The medium may have changed from comic to compendium, from picture to print, but the message is still the same. The Japanese people are still seen as "alien", "strange" and the most common image of them is at least 50 years out of date and is mediated by wartime memories.

Research conducted in Britain has shown that textbooks depicting the Japanese in the United Kingdom have been inaccurate for several decades. A 1953 text describes the Japanese as "emigrating from China and intermarrying with the Ainu, the aboriginal inhabitants of Japan. And until recently, had always admired everything Chinese." Things improve a little and in a 1961 text we find the following, "when we think of Japan we think of sunny sky, cherry blossoms and chrysanthemums, charming miniature gardens and kimono clad ladies sipping tea in open, sunny rooms". A harmless and gentle image, but still a stereotype. But with this image we are forced to yet another extreme in our image of Japan.

In order to get a more balanced image of Japan in over-seas countries, an agency called the International Society for Educational Information (ISEI) was created.
It had three purposes: 1) to check the accuracy of education material about Japan, 2) to publish educational material about Japan and 3) to act as a consulting centre for educational material about Japan used abroad. The creation of the ISEI is certainly a brave attempt to deal with the stereotypes of Japan over-seas.

Up to this point I have been addressing the stereotypes of Japanese in an English speaking context and we have seen that this problem has been serious enough to merit the creation of a government agency to fight these stereotypes. However it is these stereotypes which English language teachers in Japan face every day. This is most readily apparent in the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) programme where Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs) and Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) encounter the problem of stereotypes in their personal and professional lives and the problems that they create.

For many English language teachers living in Japan we are all too familiar with little children pointing their fingers at them and yelling, "hey, there's a foreigner!" (gaijin). This is especially true for those teachers who live in the countryside. These children are simply reacting to a stereotype; an image of a "foreigner" or "outsider" that they have learned. Let's take a closer look at this "stereotype".

This generalization of a foreigner (gaijin) as an outsider is fairly typical of an island community such as Japan and similar attitudes exist in many countries. In my own case, if I travel to Prince Edward Island, where small island communities are in plenty, I am still regarded as an outsider; even though I am Canadian. Similar attitudes exist in the United Kingdom and can be found in Ireland and Scotland for instance; or in some of the southern states of America. These "distinctions" even exist in Japan. In Amami Oshima where I lived for three years as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT), the mainland Japanese were referred to as "mainlanders" (naichi) and the islanders referred to themselves as "islanders" (uchinanchu or more commonly shima no hito).

Therefore these stereotypes are very natural responses and are not unique to the Japanese per se. There really is little you can do about breaking down these attitudes. If you as a professional English teacher, Japanese Teacher of English (JET) or Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) setout every day on a cultural crusade, vowing to confront and destroy the stereotype of a foreigner (gaijin), then your life will soon stop being fun. Either for you or for the people around you.

Here are some suggestions as to how you can cope with some of the problems caused by stereotypes:

  1. Think and act locally. You are relatively insignificant and are not responsible for the global propagation of what a westerner or what a Japanese is; although CLAIR (Council of Local and International Relations), the Ministry of Education (Monbusho) and the Associationof the Japan Exchange and Teaching programme (AJET) might tell you otherwise. What is best for you to focus on, is to think locally and act locally. Try to remember that the crusades ended several centuries ago. And that if you try to do it all by yourself, the end result will be you standing alone reinforcing more stereotypes than you destroy.
  2. Try to show students your real daily life. Show them photos and coins, television advertisements, comics, postcards; anything that will have an effect.
  3. Acceptance of differences. When I was an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT), I used the dreaded Sunshine English textbook for junior high school students. The "we're all one big happy family, so why can't we get along" textbook. It would usually read something like, "Our eyes and skin colour may be different, but are hearts are the same. Why can't we live in peace?". The Sunshine text always brings back the massive pile of books burning in the Ray Bradbury novel Fahrenheit 451. The bottom line is that we should celebrate the differences between us.
  4. Perfect your past and your present self. In the liner notes of the REM album "Eponymous", Michael Stipe writes that his face on the cover is smooth and perfect, no sign of the childhood acne he suffered. His wry comment reads, "they airbrushed my face". Well, perhaps I'm sticking my neck out a bit, but you as Assistant Language Teachers should airbrush your own lives. Touch-up the family portrait. Make your sister a super model. Make your brother an international ballet star. Our lives are a little too prosaic, a little too common, so inject a little adventure into your life. But be warned. Acceptance of this advice will make you a liar and a liar needs a good memory.
These are some suggestions which hopefully open some dialogue of discussion for what is a very serious issue; stereotypes. In conclusion, the main reason we need to be aware of stereotypes is because Japan truly is changing, in that more Japanese with differences live here now; not just foreigners. This is the real internationalization of Japan.

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. V, No. 7, July 1999