Japanese Misconceptions About Westerners
Westerners are infamous for their misconceptions about non-Western countries. Though ignorance is not always a bad thing, misconceptions can often lead to stereotypes, some relatively harmless, some incredibly racist in nature. When I tell people I lived in Japan, I hear all sorts of stereotypes and misconceptions, ranging from "aren't they all good at math" to more dreaded things like "don't they bind their feet there and eat whales everyday?"
But everyone has misconceptions and stereotypes, and Japanese people aren't an exception either. As an English teacher for several years, I had the opportunity to speak with hundreds of Japanese people, and hear how they view the world and its people. Here are some of the interesting things I heard and saw (which certainly don't represent Japanese people's opinions as a whole):
1. Foreigners, particularly white people, have huge noses. I guess humor derived from physical characteristics of other races gets crude laughs wherever you go, and this is Japan's answer to slanted eye barbs and racism from the West. It isn't unusual in Japanese commercials and comedy shows to see actors wearing blonde wigs, blue contacts and a false noses as 'gaijin,' or foreigner, costumes. In many department stores such as Tokyu Hands or Don Quixote, you can find these costume sets especially around Halloween time.
2. Only in Japan do people take off their shoes when entering houses. This one stumped me, as in my home in rural midwest America, houses and apartments have shoe closets at the entrance and usually mats as well to keep shoes from ever touching the floor. Though the no-shoe rule is probably more rigid in Japan, I also cringe when people where shoes indoors.
3. (Non-Asian) Foreigners can't use chopsticks. It's true that chopsticks aren't our eating tool of choice, and many people in the West have never touched a pair. But Asian food, particularly Chinese food, is extremely popular in America and at such restaurants, the use of chopsticks is normal. It's a common exasperation among foreigners in Japan how often their chopstick prowess is praised with shouts of "sugoi!" ("great!") even when they have done nothing more than pick up a piece of sushi.
4. Westerners are usually white, blue-eyed, and blonde. This is the default image of an American or European person, despite the fact that brown hair and brown eyes is probably much more common among white people, no matter what bottle-blondes in Hollywood might have us believe. And that's neglecting to point out that a huge amount of Westerners are not white at all!
5. All Westerners speak English. To be fair, Americans also often adhere to this belief when abroad! When in Japan, I met several white people who didn't speak any English, and were frustrated with how often they were approached in English. I also taught many Japanese people who were traveling or moving to various non-English countries, and seemed to assume that just because the country was in Europe, they could speak English freely with everyone. It's true that English is probably the most international language and can get you through most airports and hotels, but that doesn't make everyone fluent or even competent.
6. Foreigners are very casual. The Japanese language is divided into levels of politeness and generally follows strict social rules, and many Japanese people are under the impression that it's normal for Western people to refer to each other on a first name basis instantly. Americans especially seem to have a "cowboy" image of being loud and friendly. Now, where I'm from, that isn't too far off - anyone, from my boss to elderly people, will use first names in almost any conversation. Heck, I haven't used Mr. or Ms. since grade school. But even within America, there are regions that are much more polite and to skip an honorific with a stranger would be a terrible faux pas.
7. Tap water is unclean in foreign countries. I had several students comment to me with pride that only in Japan was the tap water safe to drink. Though there are many countries where the tap water is not recommended or blatantly unsafe, that doesn't include a lot of so-called "first world" countries.
8. Westerners are more promiscuous than Japanese people. Comparing Hollywood flicks to Japanese cinema, it's easy to see how such a stereotype came about. Typically, Japanese movies and television dramas are more conservative about kissing and sex than American media. However, young people on either side will be quick to debunk these myths as pure generalization that may or may not have any basis in reality.
These stereotypes and more probably exist because Japan is a relatively isolated place, and meeting a foreigner is rare outside of big cities. A language barrier also exists, considering the Japanese language isn't used much outside of Japan, and the average Japanese person is not fluent in English. Of course, as an American, I can attest to the amount of stereotypes that Americans have about foreigners and other countries, too. Thinking about the stereotypes that other people have of us can be a good reminder to double-check the things we might be misunderstanding!