Beyond a world of stereotypes

By Masaky Ogasawara

Over the past 20 years, technology in communications has grown at an incredible pace. As a result, not only have distances been made shorter, but age-old barriers such as language and culture have become mere speed bumps in today's ever increasing, interdependent societies. The widespread proliferation of wireless technology and the Internet have provided the means to any man, woman, and child with a computer to access any and all kinds of information regardless of geographic location or time of day. Riding the tech bandwagon, mass media has increasingly become more and more relevant, as human beings and businesses of all shapes and sizes, perhaps now more than ever before, are constantly finding themselves in need of being globally informed in order to survive in a highly competitive environment.

Hand in hand with media growth, issues of dependability and unfiltered information have gained just as much prevalence, creating a shift in human perceptions regarding global news. It is no longer important to know how I can get information, but rather where I can find it in the fastest, most unbiased, un-opinionated way. In Japan, however, it appears as though this process has been one of playing catch-up as both television and print media continue to engage in the persuasion game, influencing its citizens to such a degree, that the vast majority still base their opinions of others on decade-old stereotypes and cliches.

In a 2004 lecture given to a group of Ohio State University students, Dr Carlos Cortes, a professor at the University of California at Riverside argued that “television and movies teach society by providing information. They serve as a 'gatekeeper' for information, deciding what gets out and what does not.”

One needs only to look at one of the many recent scandals involving the food poisoning-related deaths of several people in China to understand Cortes' point. Instead of simply providing the facts, the Japanese media took it upon itself to create a circus around the issue, condemning the Chinese with thunderous claims of low food safety standards and reckless behavior exercised by their government. If I did not know any better, I would have thought by how the Japanese media handled the news that the Chinese were all lucky to be alive. After all, how could they, if all their food is bad, unhealthy, and poisonous?

Invariably, the murky state of Japan-China relations is nothing new. Nor is the fact that newspapers and TV programs are businesses like any other and scandalous information sells. This is only an example. However, there is an underlying danger in believing everything you see and hear, especially for a country like Japan, a nation of more than 120 million geographically isolated people who are trying to open their doors to a globalized world but rarely go abroad for more than a couple of weeks at a time. Stereotyping not only leads to prejudice and prevents the Japanese from truly experiencing other cultures, but it also creates unwanted misunderstandings and even bad experiences if and when they do go overseas.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with a Japanese friend of mine, a doctor who had just come back from a worldwide tour for which she planned and saved for more than 10 years. Having looked at hundreds of pictures, I asked her what the most interesting part of her trip had been. She proceeded to tell me that for her, the most enriching experience was finally letting go of the notions she had of other peoples and their countries. The best wine she tasted was not in France or Italy, but in Argentina. She did get mugged once, but not in South Africa or Lebanon; they stole her purse in Montreal. She had food poisoning twice, but not in any city in China. The first time she got sick was while eating an overpriced sandwich in Dusseldorf; the second, a “healthy chicken salad” in New York.

Prior to her journey, she believed Paris and Rome to be the most beautiful, cleanest cities in the world. Although they were in fact beautiful, they were also anything but clean. Instead, the streets were filled with cigarettes butts, garbage, and worst of all, dog excrement. “Cities in South America are not as dangerous as Japanese people think,” she said to me. “The nicest people I met were in Africa, Korea, and Costa Rica, much friendlier than Americans, Canadians, or Europeans. The best food I ate was in Turkey and Morocco. We Japanese need to open our eyes…”

Perhaps one of the many reasons why post-World War II Japan was able to grow at such a rapid pace was the ability of an entire country to look inwards, the drive to rise and meet global challenges by developing from within. Now, however, it is time to look outwards, time for the Japanese to look beyond the thick walls of mass media and truly see for themselves what the outside world is all about.

© Japan Today

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It is true that even the seemingly best-intentioned documentaries on Japanese TV about other cultures and countries seem to present these places and people with a sense of looking down upon them (especially third-world societies, though I make an exception for NHK, which truly does strive for, and usually achieves, a more neutral tone). This attitude of superiority, masked as a false sense of wonderment at the variety of ways of life on our planet, is pervasive enough that it keeps many from ever going to see for themselves, or, having gone, prevents them from appreciating the beauty and value--sometimes far removed from Japanese expectations--of what they are seeing and experiencing. The media needs to move beyond a sort of sociological sensationalism, and start portraying other people and cultures from a less naive point of view.

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The media needs to move beyond a sort of sociological sensationalism, and start portraying other people and cultures from a less naive point of view.

Never going to happen, as long people are willing to watch such programs. Media is, after all is said and done, a business.

It's the people who need to move beyond and think for themselves, instead of wrapping around every word spouted from their televisions. Unfortuantely, the Japanese culture itself is built upon not thinking for yourself, but going with the flow.

As such, getting Beyond a world of stereotypes would require a massive upheaval and reformation (or everyone saving for 10 years for a trip around the world) and such an isolated society like Japan isn't capable of it, at this time. We could start with foreigners not reinforcing worn-out stereotypes anymore on know who you are!

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She's right about Paris. Tiptoe through through the dog-do. Reminds me of a JT story a couple of years back about how some Japanese tourists were so shocked by the condition of Paris and the rudeness of the French that they required psychiatric care.

Still, in works in the opposite direction. Before I came to Japan I thought it would be full of beautiful architecture, amazing technology and wonderfully polite people. The only way to discover the true nature of a place is to go there. Or preferably, live there. An added bonus is that it gives you a sharper perspective of good and bad aspects of your own country.

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I think the article is pretty much how it happens. My experience of Japanese both in Japan and abroad supports this. But one thing I've found different is that a lot (not all) of Japanese, when even overseas maintain a stubborness and even if they see differently, prefer to believe the stereotypes than what's happening in front of them.

The media won't change - 'cause they know it sells. The majority of the country won't change, 'cause they'd prefer to follow and be wrong, than to stand out and be right. A tall poppy syndrome indeed.

That being said, I'm not innocent of such things - I've let myself generalise many over the years, but I am trying to be more open-minded on things.

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a nation of more than 120 million geographically isolated people

Not just geographically.

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Bolt Krank's comment was interesting in that I've noticed that Japanese living abroad (Canada) are seemingly eager to shed their "Japaneseness" and get right down to the business of assimilating into their adopted cultures. This includes everything right up to adopting a suspicious view of the media and griping about the government.

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When I say I don't like France, most japanese are shocked I don't like this beautiful conuntry (=Paris ...). And then I ask "Have you been there?" ... "No" ... "That's why". (Even if south of France is good enough)

As a reader commented, a lot of japanese become psycholigically fragile when they live in Paris. French doctors wonder why. According to a study, that's not because french are rude (in Paris, I have to admit they are) but because in France, you have to think by yourself, noone will tell you what to do, where to go, unless you ask. And most of the japanese who became more and more depressed where the kind of people thinking the school or the company would tell them what to do, how to manage their time etc ... The study shows that mostly, it is women who have problems to adapt to the French, or even European, "way of life".

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kurisutofu: what study? I think Japanese women tend more to adapt than males.

Males regret quickly their mom. Talk about stereotypes...

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Another example offered in a media of stereotyping Japanese culture from an outside-in perspective. Yes, I am tire of hearing this type of cliche. Media is another source of gathering information (gaining knowledge) whether it is obtained quickly as it is today or 500 years ago. How this information is digested is one's business! This commentary is a typical myopic view of Japanese culture that is negatively perceived. Every person in the world demonstrates his/her attitude and behavior individually or as a part of group. Simply being a high tech junkie does not qualify himself as an accepted mature worldly person as this author implies. I suggest that the most important aspect of understanding other set of cultural groups is to experience one on one relationship with each person and enjoy what each person offers without defining what a group sociological culture is. Another problematic delivery of this commentary is that offering one example of one's experience does not qualify or justify his points of view. Therefore, this commentary is extremely nearsighted.

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Toshinobe - It's just an observation with comments, a generalization and I'm sure the author would acknowledge it as such.

I didn't detect any profound barrow-pushing.

And most people would agree with your obvious point re meeting the locals to gain an understanding and insight into their culture.

But it doesn't change the fact that many people in Japan (and other countries) are extremely nearsighted in their convictions regarding other places & cultures. What could I say to my dear Japanese friend when she asked me last year if I thought it was a good idea to hold the family reunion dinner at a Chinese restaurant - you know the food issue & all of that. She finally decided to, and after the event told me she was so relieved because the chef was Japanese.


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browny1 san,

Meet someone else for a change! There are others who are different than your taste. Good luck.

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toshinobe - what's your point. You seem so agitated.

Please read ALL of my post carefully to get a glimpse of what you don't know.

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Views are definitely filtered by the media and by tour guides, but I've met so many especially younger people who have studied abroad or traveled enough on their own like the doctor in the article. They tend to have a much greater global outlook than the older generations, and they also tend to speak more foreign languages.

I'm not surprised the doctor didn't find Canadians overly friendly, as I don't either. And her being mugged in my home town is only slightly surprising.

Still, the fact that the media plays such an important part is not really that surprising when you figure the average Japanese over 40 probably speaks only Japanese, and has little experience actually meeting and talking with people from other countries. On top of the language divide, the vast majority could probably count on one hand the number they've actually conversed with, as opposed to just seen on tv or passed by.

Actually, what surprises me most about this article is the kind of naivete with which it approaches the subject. The underlying assumption is that people in the West are just so worldly. Ironically, this kind of looking down on the Japanese is indeed a parallel of how the Japanese tend to view the Chinese. Foreigners living in Japan should always that they are not representative of their own countrymen, the vast majority of whom have never had such a mind broadening experience.

Canadians may like to think they are global, but the ones who don't live in the biggest 3 cities really are no different from the Japanese in their insular views. Sure, there is a little more cultural diversity due to the history of immigration in Canada, but that's about it. Their "global" view extends about as far as Florida. For many, it extends only to the next town.

I think the same can be said about many, if not most countries, just to greater or lesser degrees.

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There is no objective reality. Reality is subjective. Based on a person's beliefs, experiences, upbringing, values, etc we perceive (filter) a particular reality. Two people can be looking at the same thing and see two completely different things. Who is right? Both people are right within their own respective realities. Everyone commenting here is trying to prove their reality to be THE one true objective reality... but it doesn't exist. When people say "Most Japanese people are narrow minded". What people are saying is "Of the 50 Japanese people I've met in life most of them I've found to be narrow minded." We see the world as we are, not as it is. This is the cause of conflict... a lack of understanding of this principle. When we truly understand this principle we take the time to listen and understand a person as best we can from their reality.

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The nicest people I met were in Africa, Korea, and Costa Rica, much friendlier than Americans, Canadians, or Europeans

thats probably true for a reason, that reason is a "Japanese" in the US or Cda or even Europe the average local wud never notice the tourist because many wud figure they were just locals as well not a tourist & hence not pay them much heed, where as in Africa & CRica & a lesser extent in korea the " Japanese " wud simply stand out more.

Generalizations to be sure but I cant count how many times I had to explain to Japanese that every Canuck aint a blonde(ok grey or is that silver...) & when I point out that THEY THE JAPANESE PERSON cud in fact easily be mistaken as Cdn in Cda.... they just have a great deal of difficulty comprehending that, ah well, shouganai as the saying goes ha ha

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