Americans are fat and trigger-happy. Brits have bad teeth and wear bowler hats. Australians always have BBQs and wrestle sharks. French are pleasure-loving and snobby. Germans are efficient and humorless.
Stereotypes. Yeah, they’re pretty annoying, archaic and occasionally offensive. And yet, in this shrinking, increasingly-interconnected world, stereotypes are being used less and less as sincere shortcuts of people and cultures, and when they are used they’re more likely for tongue-in-cheek or straight out comedic purposes.
And yet it seems to be that there is one towering case, one surviving outpost, where the stereotype is still used in earnest to describe a culture as if it were true. That of ‘Quirky Japan’.
I’ll give you an example: on a recent trip back to the UK, I met up with some friends for a few drinks. While sharing some of our adventures we’d had since we last met, one friend (let’s call him Kev) laid down his pint and declared, quite confidently to me: “Of course, they have vending machines that sell used ladies underwear in Japan, don’t they?”
A pause. It wasn’t really a question he’d asked but more of a seeking of confirmation of a fact he knew to be true. My response:
“No, they don’t.”
But Kev was adamant. “There is! I have seen them!”
“In real life? Because I haven’t.”
“No, everybody knows about them!”
And so on. Now, I’m not purporting to be an expert in all things Japan (in fact you should be VERY suspicious of anyone who claims to be), but myself and my other friends were a little bit bemused that Kev earnestly believed in something about Japan that somebody who had lived in Japan for over five years was telling him otherwise. Eventually, I compromised with Kev: that yes, they do exist, illegally, in a single seedy-corner of Akihabara that caters to a veeeery tiny, er, ‘specialist’ (read: weirdo) clientele.
And that, in a microcosm, is the broad strokes with which the world paints Japan: crazy, wacky, weird. Just look at the reputation Japanese TV has. Oversaturated, hyperactive, cartoony and occasionally perverted. Again, these are carefully selected snippets of television blown up, writ large and applied to all Japanese TV. A lot of Japanese TV is in fact very dry and dull. In that case and in the case of the panty-vending machine, it’s just blowing things well out of proportion. I mean, look at Top Gear! Look at some of the ridiculous antics going on there! And yet I see nobody branding the British as being wacky.
But even worse than that, some of these quirky ‘facts’ about Japan are just completely wrong. There was an article a (non-Japan-dwelling) friend of mine posted month back about an Australian guy dressed as Chun Li from the Street Fighter making it big in Japan. I had never heard so much as a whisper of this guy before reading that, and I’ve heard nothing about Aussie Chun Li since. Or how about that eye-licking-craze? No, really. That was a rumor going around about crazy Japan that had literally no basis in truth and yet major news outlets like The Telegraph were reporting on it as if it were happening everywhere.
Imagine if some of the stereotypes listed in the first paragraph received the same level of blanket reporting as fact. Imagine if, for example, The Independent ran a straight-faced article claiming 60% of Australians had boxed with a kangaroo. Or if The Times ran a piece about how India was sinking into the sea under the weight of all the curry it made.
You’d check the dates on the papers first to see if it wasn’t April 1st, because you’d almost certainly consider them to be joke pieces. And yet when we read one of these “Crazy Japan” articles we can’t help but believe it. Where does this come from? Why is western media so fixated on Japan’s supposed quirkiness with complete earnest, without any of the tongue-in-cheek of any other national stereotype?
It’s a tough question to answer, one that I can’t really answer. But I’ll give it a shot! After the war, Japan experienced what was called an ‘economic miracle’, a miraculous turnaround which saw the country go from a war-torn mess into a modern nation hosting the olympics within the space of 20 years. Essentially, it became the first First-World country that wasn’t an English speaking country nor a European country.
Think about that. As far as major world economies had been concerned up until that point, they either had natural ties through language or long, historical relations. And then out of leftfield Japan just springs up out of nowhere, doing things its own way and speaking it’s own language. And yet the culture of the newly-emerging Japan wasn’t entirely unrelatable: it always retained a Westernized flavor post-occupation, taking things that were familiar and known to Westerners and putting their own Japanese twist on them, making them somewhat uncanny to us. When we view this familiar-but-not-quite nation, it naturally appears – yep, you guessed it – wacky, zany and strange.
Or, at least, that’s my theory. Rest assured, Japan certainly has an eccentric side, but I firmly believe that it is no more eccentric than most other cultures or societies out there, it only appears to be moreso because it is harder to relate it to what we know. Every country handles it’s dirty laundry in it’s own way. And not necessarily through selling it in a vending machine.