We asked Japanese people to tell us the things foreigners say or think about Japan that really gets their goat — and they were happy to oblige. How many of these faux pas are you guilty of?
We expats living in Japan tend to gripe about the stereotypes about our native countries. If you’re from England, for example, someone here might bring up the poor reputation of English food; if you’re Canadian, you probably don’t like being mistaken for American; and I once met an Iranian living in Japan who lamented that people confuse Iranians with Arabs. So today we’re going to turn the tables and ask Japanese people about the things foreigners say or think about the Land of the Rising Sun that really irks them.
1. “Ni-hao” (“Hello” in Chinese)
A recent Japanese tourist to Italy said that she was surprised that vendors in the streets selling umbrellas, selfie sticks, etc. (who also appeared to be foreigners) greeted her with “Nihao” instead of “Konnichiwa.” Furthermore, at a restaurant in Rome, her family was seated in a section with other Asians rather than among tourists of all nationalities. “It reminded me of the now famous incident with Gackt, at a French hotel,” she said.
2. “You must be Korean.”
If you can’t tell the difference between Japanese, Korean and Chinese people, don’t feel too bad because some Japanese people say they can’t either. But most Japanese people say they most definitely can detect the difference, so you’ll likely be insulting them if you call them anything other than Japanese. If you’ve never been to Asia, it may be even harder to recognize where someone is from, but it’s best to be sure before you make any desultory comments. Keep in mind that these three countries, despite any similarities they may have, are vastly different when it comes to politics, language, culture, and just about everything that isn’t superficial! And as politics continues to divide Asian countries along sociopolitical and religious lines, this has become an even more sensitive issue. Find out, or ask, before passing judgement.
3. Saying, “You’re Japanese, right?” to an Okinawan.
An American living in Okinawa laments that once he was chastised for thinking a Japanese woman was Okinawan. “I couldn’t tell the difference between Japanese and Okinawans then and I still can’t. I didn’t mean to be rude,” he said. “I learned later that it was a cultural thing.”
Just like Hawaii is part of the U.S. but has a distinct Hawaiian culture and people, Okinawa, although part of Japan, has a distinct original population. Naturally, indigenous people are proud of their roots and are partial to the things that make their culture unique. When visiting Okinawa, if you’re not sure if someone is Okinawan or Japanese, rather than risk an uncomfortable situation, better to find out first.
4. “What do you think about Yasukuni Shrine?”
Yasukuni Shrine, a place so controversial that even Justin Beiber’s visit was considered scathing, is a place that breeds contention between Japan and some other Asian countries, namely China and South Korea. One of the most popular and important shrines in Japan, Yasukuni honors all 2,466,532 men, women and children, who have ever fought for Japan (including foreigners) and thus serves as a memorial to Japan’s fallen soldiers. The problem with Yasukuni is the dilemma it presents other countries, since 1,060 of the buried are war criminals, and 14 are considered Class A war criminals. Fortunately, the controversy has been out of the news for some time now since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe no longer visits the contested shrine, favoring Ise Shrine instead. On one hand, he has ceased stoking of the ire of other Asian countries who oppose a prime minister’s visit, while on the other is aligning himself with the Imperial family, who have a close connection to Ise Shrine.
Your average Japanese person doesn’t want to get involved with the sociopolitical cross-fire, and feels uncomfortable voicing their views, whatever they may be, in front of others, so it’s best to avoid the topic of Yasukuni altogether.
5. Why do you still have an emperor?
Foreigners are generally curious about the oldest continuing hereditary monarchy in the world and may even ask why there is still an emperor. Although Emperor Akihito and the royal family are treated more like celebrities these days, foreigners raising the subject of Japan’s emperor often has some connection to WWII and Japan’s history before the war. In modern, peace-loving Japan—a result of the outcome of WWII and the imposed constitution (Article 9)—most Japanese have moved on and prefer not to talk about their country’s Imperial past. If you must talk about the royal family, talk about kawaii Princess Aiko or beautiful Princess Kako (something everyone agrees on!).
6. How often do you meditate?
While most Japanese, when pressed, will tell you that they are Buddhist (and Shinto) that doesn’t mean they meditate, know the Lotus Sutra by heart or are familiar with the finer points of either religion. Although most Japanese follow religious protocol at weddings, funerals and assorted festivals, when asked specific questions like, “So, what’s the priest doing now?” while watching a festival, or “How often do you meditate?” they’ll probably feel like they’re being put on the spot, which is never comfortable.
Which leads us to faux pas number seven:
7. Why? When? How?!
“How can you eat fish three times a day?” (Answer: sushi, sashimi, octopus salad, grilled eel, chirashi zushi, tempura udon, miso soup, shrimp curry, dried squid, nabe, etc.) “Where are all the bicycles?” (Answer: Um, China maybe?). What do you think of the issues surrounding the Senkaku Islands? (Answer: Uhhh…). Foreigners ask a lot of questions! While it’s fine to be curious, and it’s flattering to know there is so much interest in their country, many Japanese feel exhausted at the end of a day showing foreigners around, especially if the host’s English isn’t that fluent (and probably even if it is!). It can seem like an unending pop-quiz on Japanese history and religion for the locals. Choose just a couple of your most pressing concerns to ask each person, rather than bombarding someone with everything you’ve been dying to know.
8. Honda, Panasonic, Toyota!
We’ll leave you with a funny story from one of my ex-colleagues. “When I traveled to the U.S. and people found out I was from Japan, they’d often call out a few company names in a row. I do not recall all of them, but one name I vividly remember was always ‘Toyota!’ I usually replied saying ‘I have nothing to do with the company.'” While this is just seem like a playful reaction at first, hearing it over and over just might get your goat. Meh-eh-eh!
Foreigners — we’re a curious lot, aren’t we?
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