LET’S THINK: Japan’s Image Abroad

An Englishman, Frenchman and a German walk into a bar and…well, I guess they buy some drinks and enjoy a friendly chat. That’s about it.

Well, apart from proving just how terrible I am at jokes, I’m also trying to prove a point (badly): that stereotypes can be fun and funny, but are rarely true.

It’s also interesting how stereotypes are largely negative as well. For every belief that Swedes are uncannily sexy, you have the fat American, the Chinese guy who’s bad at driving, and the Kiwi who needs to dodge through hordes of Orcs on the way to work.

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Which is hard. Orcs are terrible drivers.

But what about Japan? The average man on the street, when asked about Japan, positively trip over themselves to lay praise at the feet of this country. How everyone is so polite, how the culture is so rich, how they work so hard, respect their elders…even things like food and pop culture are name-dropped like it’s a big positive of the country, like sushi or Pokémon. And as great as those things are, why doesn’t that happen for other countries? When people are asked to picture Australia they don’t go all misty-eyed over the thought of a barbecue? Barbecues are awesome.

Even now, when most of the intelligent world uses stereotypes in a tongue-in-cheek or ironic fashion, it doesn’t happen with Japan. People will straight up put it on a pedestal. Gentle mockery is rare. Why? I mean, Japan has lots of great points about it, but so do many other countries. And believe me, Japan has a laundry list of problems too. So how has Japan, by accident or by design, fostered this positive image of itself overseas?

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“Get me off this darn pedestal already!”

There’s no single or perfect answer for this, but hey, that’s what rambling blogs like this are for! Personally, I think it’s a mix of history, confirmation bias and Japan’s geopolitical position in the world.

You see, Japan’s recent history is storybook like with its phoenix-from-flames tale of success. Here was a country that, by the end of the war, was in pieces. Two nuclear bombings, cities in embers, a malnourished population, the Emperor discredited as a living God, and the American Occupation painted a grim picture of a country that, mere years before, had been gunning for playing on the world stage (literally gunning).

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Literally.

A mere 20 years later, Japan hosted the 1964 Olympics. It announced Japan’s return to the world stage, surprising many who thought Japan to still look like the wasteland they’d seen in the photos only a few years earlier. From there, Japan went from strength to strength, becoming a centre for commerce, electronics, automobiles and creativity. Japan exported itself to the world to an almost aggressive degree. To this day it’s nigh-impossible to have a household without a Japanese brand in it. And while Japan has long since stagnated since those day days in the 80s, Japan remains a major force in the world.

The stereotype must have grown from these years. Most modern stereotypes do, I think: the idea of the efficient and serious German and the fiery Italian grew from the postwar years. My native UK, too, has the stereotype of serving warm beer and terrible food – these were also born out that time when the UK was a bit of a wreck after the war, struggling to find its feet again, and food was simple and no-nonsense – who cared about the taste as long as it did the job of filling you up? Nowadays the UK has great food options wherever you go – almost too many. Now, a stereotype about how expensive it is to eat out, now that I could get behind.

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“Welcome to Tall Burger, home of the tall bill – er, burger!”

Likewise, although Japan’s economy has been in a malaise since the 90s, and creativity has been smothered under the layers of bureaucracy and the pursuit of safe but sure results, all those positive stereotypes from the boom years were already firmly wedged into the minds of the world. So you get a lot of confirmation bias. Last year, when news broke out of a giant sinkhole appearing on a road in Fukuoka city, a big song and dance was made about how quickly and meticulously it was fixed. “Three days!” The world headlines declared with a sense of giddy disbelief, “We can’t even fix our potholes in a month! The Japanese do it right!” Thus Japan’s positive image is maintained. This overlooks the fact that it didn’t take three days (it was a week, still an impressive turnaround), and all they did was fill the whole thing in with concrete. Never mind the fact that, even now, the displaced families of the 2011 earthquake still live in prefab housing, and Japan’s construction industry is ridiculously overpowered: Japan spends as much on infrastructure as America does. That for a country that’s the size of a single state. So being impressed at how quickly Japan fixes its roads is like being impressed at how quickly a speedboat races across water compared to swimming.

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It’s on a whole other level! How do those Japanese do it?

But this is just one example of the confirmation bias that exists to reinforce that positive image built from the economic miracle years. Of course, not every aspect of that image is false – some of them are absolutely true, and well deserved, like how safe and crime-free it is here – but it’s interesting how we overlook the facts of the now to reinforce our worldview as it already exists, rather than challenge it. If you believe that the Japanese are efficient, well, a business meeting with a group of Japanese will put that idea to rest!

Lastly, there’s Japan’s geopolitical position in the world. After the war, Japan became the first outpost of Western democracy in Asia, and remains the strongest. Despite the appearance of younger, more dynamic tiger economies cropping up, such as Taiwan and Singapore, Japan remains the most powerful bastion of democratic values that allies itself with America.

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*Game of Thrones theme plays*

So not only are there vested interests to keep the image of Japan abroad a positive one, but it also means that, looking from the outside in, Japan is one of the most accessible countries in the Far East. Those from Occidental countries can recognise a lot of their own societal values in Japan, compared to somewhere like, say, China, which maintains a sense of mystery and otherness. That, combined with the mass of pop-culture that pours out of Japan, gives its international image this heady mix of exoticism with a dash of familiarity. It’s why so many people also hold the stereotype of Japan being ‘weird’. On balance Japan is no more weird than any other countries, but it only seems especially strange to us because it’s a mix of what we understand and what the Japanese understand. The idea of stripping down stark naked and dipping into an outdoor hot spring full of strangers may horrify most people because it seems so out of place, yet that is very much a part of Japanese culture. They are like us, but not quite, and the differences stand out all the more.

Now, you might think that this is all par for the course. All countries have stereotypes and misconceptions that they have to push back against. What makes Japan so special? Besides, isn’t it good to view a country positively? Doesn’t it make a refreshing change, especially in today’s political climate?

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Nope. One picture of You-Know-Who on this blog is more than enough.

I hear what you’re saying. And you’re right, it’s refreshing to have some positivity spilling out of people’s mouths when talking about another country. But the problem is just how seriously Japan takes its own image abroad. Seriously, the Japanese are obsessed with how other countries view them. Entire TV shows swell with interviews of foreigners declaring their love for Japan. And the locals lap that up – at the expense of addressing their very real problems. For example, Japan has a serious problem with bullying, both in schools and in the workplace. It can be invisible to the untrained eye due to the language barrier and how the bullying manifests itself in subtle, culturally-based ways. So when you get a microphone pushed under the nose of Johnny Foreigner saying “oh, Japanese people are so polite!”, it diverts attention away from that fact. Things like this get repeated so often to the Japanese public that there’s a general vibe that the whole world has a love affair with Japan, that any problems Japan may have are not as bad as other countries. Why work hard to resolve a bullying epidemic when the whole world is telling you that your country isn’t that bad? When Japanese people constantly hear from abroad how safe it is here, it glosses over issues like domestic violence, which is rampant. And when the whole world keeps praising you, a Japanese local can’t help but build an image of the outside world as being dangerous, rude and scary by comparison.

Now, this isn’t really Johnny Foreigner’s fault – he’s just trying to be nice to the Japanese interviewer. It’s a combination of the Japanese media and its filter of criticism, and the inherent desire of Japanese people to have a good image and self-esteem. But it is damaging Japan as a whole, I think. It’s making Japan complacent, skewing the vision of the outside world as being an uncivilised mess that is constantly in awe of Japan’s sense of order, when the truth is that many countries are catching up and overtaking it. 99.9% of the time the outside world wakes up, lives, works and returns to sleep just fine without a single passing thought to Japan.

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“All this thinking about not-anime and not-sushi and not-overcrowded trains makes my sleepy!”

One of the reasons Japan achieved the economic miracle of the postwar period is that it was obvious to all how far behind Japan was, and it worked tirelessly to catch up. Nowadays Japan acts like it is in a constant epilogue, it’s journey completed, destined to be praised as The Best Place Ever for the rest of time.

Praise is good where it is due, but Japan would benefit from being called out on its bad points now and then, especially from abroad. It wouldn’t tarnish the image of Japan to have one or two eye-opening documentaries on the problems this country faces. It would sting the public, but it might just energise them into action once more, and fight to properly earn that positive image rather than just coast on it.

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One comment

  1. Very interesting. Just about an essay. I agree with most of your sentiments.

    My thought is about whether the ordinary Japanese person knows about or is interested in the international view of Japan. Maybe you can advise me on that one.

    In my limited but wide travels In Japan meeting and connecting with citizens, yes everyone is extremely polite. But observations of others (the locals) seems like this behaviour is the norm.

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