Japan to Foreigners: Tell Us How Impressive We Are

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From the Japan Times

by Robert Moorehead

The above photo and caption from the Japan Times really says a lot about Japanese attitudes toward the country and the rest of the world.

The article is about a symposium in which youth from various countries, and dressed in their ethnic attire, gave short speeches in Japanese about peace and communication. Hailing from the United States, Poland, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, Romania, Kazakhstan and China, the speakers spent a month in Japan, visiting various sites, including Toyota Motor Corporation and tsunami-hit areas of Tohoku.

One speaker discussed the need to challenge Japanese stereotypes of Romania as a dangerous place. Another discussed the need for people in Poland to become more rule-abiding, like the Japanese.

We can analyze the symposium, and others like it, as performances that are staged to define meanings and relationships. In particular, the symposium is about “internationalization” and “native place-making.”

As Jennifer Robertson notes in her article “Empire of Nostalgia,” “internationalization and native place-making exist coterminously as refractive processes and products, and … together they index the ambiguity of Japanese national identity and its tense relationship with cultural identity (or identities)” (p. 98).

While the symposium includes the views of non-Japanese, the event is less about “securing a place for ‘real’ foreign bodies in Japan and more about reducing the level of ontological anxiety supposedly experienced by Japanese” (p. 101) who worry about Japan’s place in the world, or who are exposed to non-Japanese inside Japan.

The photo at the top of the article captures a telling moment, in which the speakers are asked to hold up signs displaying their thoughts on “the most impressive feature” of Japanese corporate culture. In other words, they were asked to tell their hosts how great they are.

The cynic in me imagines the conversation going a little like this: “First question, tell us how great our corporations are. Second question, tell us how great our culture is. Third question …” you get the idea. “Now go back to your countries and teach everyone how great we are.” By implication, the message is also how inferior the youths’ home countries are.

After spending a month in Japan, these youth are not going to be offering analytical insights on life in Japan, or on the merits or demerits of the organizational culture of Japanese corporations. But that’s not the point. The point is to reify differences between Japan and the rest of the world by dressing up foreigners in ethnic attire and having them talk about Japan from “foreign” perspectives.

Robertson notes something similar in the inclusion of foreign residents in a parade during the city festival in the Tokyo suburb of Kodaira. In 1992, City Hall allowed the first foreigner contingent to march in the parade, and required the foreigners to dress in kimono.

Instead of using the parade as an opportunity to display visually the differences represented by a multi-ethnic assortment of resident foreigners, City Hall has insisted on their marching dressed in kimono. Accompanying the sartorially Japanized foreigners are Japanese residents wearing the stereotypical folk costumes of the representative foreign countries. Both parties are reduced to caricatures of cultural and ethnic difference in a spectacle informed by an underlying ontological anxiety (fuan). (p. 100)

… what is represented as ‘international’ is but dominant stereotypes of the national characters, as it were, on parade (e.g. lederhosen for Germany and Stetson hats for the USA). Not only do the kimono-wearing foreigners reify Japanese tradition, but the diverse cultures they represent are reduced to the quaint and unthreatening images embodied by the costumed Japanese. (p. 117)

In 2006, my family and I participated in the city festival in Kasugai, in Aichi Prefecture. Our role was to sit at a table in City Hall so that Japanese could come up to us and practice speaking English. We smiled as people approached us and said hello, or pushed their children use the English they had been learning in school and private lessons. After two hours, we had sufficiently performed our role of reducing English-speaking foreigners to “quaint and unthreatening images,” while making Kasugai seem like a cosmopolitan hub of cross-cultural communication. There were no tables where Japanese could try their hand at speaking other languages, and my neighborhood still had crime-watch signs in Chinese posted in front of nearly every home, so Kasugai still had a long ways to go before it became truly “international.”

These events define Japanese and foreigners as distinct entities, and internationalization as a controlled space where the twain shall meet only briefly, and under safe conditions—like going to the zoo, except in this case, the animals are not asked to tell the humans how impressive they are.


Robertston, Jennifer. 1997. “Empire of Nostalgia: Rethinking ‘Internationalization’ in Japan Today.” Theory, Culture & Society 14(4):97-122.

9 thoughts on “Japan to Foreigners: Tell Us How Impressive We Are

  1. In your view, what else can fill the void in Japanese people’s identities if foreigners are no longer portrayed as appreciative and approving of Japan and Japanese culture? Individualism? Local identity? Something else?

    • Good question. I’m not sure what’s driving this relationship is need to fill a void, although MJ Sheftall’s analysis of Japanese identity in the postwar era certainly sees the decline of the emperor as leaving a void. Japan is not alone in enjoying receiving praise from foreign visitors.

      I think the void comes into play in people not having a sense of, or language to describe, precisely how Japan could effectively integrate a more diverse population into the country. The discourse about foreigners often includes claims that Japan has almost no history of contact with foreigners, and thus it cannot easily include such people into Japanese society. People seem more likely to cite Japan’s period of near-seclusion, which ended in the mid-19th century, than its more recent period of being a colonial power, which ended in the mid-20th century. I’m not saying the period of imperial expansion provides Japan with a good model to follow, but it does challenge the idea that Japan has never been diverse.

      • I found this while reading Brian McVeigh’s “Japanese Higher Education as Myth” yesterday:
        “For all the talk about ‘internationalism’ in Japan (genuine and specious), one cannot help but have a sneaking suspicion that some of Japan’s elites still view the world through the grand visions of the nineteenth century: statism, nationalism, and racialism.”
        I feel this way whenever I hear about Japanese historical revisionism, esp. when related to education. One common assertion made by revisionists is that Japanese kids have low self-esteem because they’re taught that Japan has done bad things. It’s easy to imagine how that could be true if you assume that the only source of identity and self-esteem people have is their nationality, and in Japan, their ethnicity. I think a significant portion of the population would find this self-evident, and assume that citizens of other countries feel the same.

      • Great point. What’s also amazing about the self-esteem claim is the extent to which it gets reprinted without any questioning of those who make the claim. What’s really being protected isn’t children’s self-image, but the privileged position of those in power. That is, if the country’s youth knew more about what those in power did during the war, then they might be less likely to support those in power. You can see similar issues play out in school curriculum debates in Texas, like whether to rename the Atlantic slave trade into a “triangular trade.” The particular Japanese spin on this is the statism/nationalism/racialism that you, and McVeigh.

  2. “We can analyze the symposium, and others like it, as performances that are staged to define meanings and relationships. In particular, the symposium is about “internationalization” and “native place-making.””

    I seriously thought you were making a tongue-in-cheek reference to the recent Olympic bid. Is Japan seriously this insular and sheltered from “Foreigners”? Amazing.

    • Thanks for the comment!

      In answer to your question, Japan is a mixed bag, I think. It’s a global economic power, but its population is much less diverse than that of other economic powers. It has cosmopolitan pockets, but its people tend to think of the country as homogeneous and monoethnic. The discourse about Japan’s relationship with the rest of the world that was shown in the symposium isn’t the only discourse in Japan, but it’s a rather prominent one.

  3. Pingback: Il Giappone agli stranieri : "Diteci quanto siamo grandiosi" | Moshi Moshi Netizen!

  4. Any past cross-cultural efforts/social movements that have worked (even a little bit) to grow a more cosmopolitan sort of way in Japan? Interested to read more on this and maybe learn something from what has worked, and what hasn’t…

    • Thanks for the comment. I think there is a lot of interaction across racial, ethnic, and cultural lines in Japan, and that interaction is helping Japan become more cosmopolitan. That interaction is happening outside the formal symposia and other events. There are areas of Japan that have fairly large (at least by Japanese standards) foreign populations, and in these places, seeing and interacting with someone who is not Japanese is an everyday thing. I’m thinking, for example, of Aichi prefecture, where I lived previously.

      The symposium I critique in the blog post also had some moments of deeper interaction, as the speaker from Romania criticized depictions of his country in Japanese mass media. There were likely other comments made during the symposium that were similar. So there are competing discourses within the event. One challenges Japan, and another reifies it. The two discourses work together, as the first one grants legitimacy to the event, making it seem that the hosts are open to critique and exchange. The second one contextualizes that critique within the Japan as superior frame that I discuss in the article.

      I’m skeptical of large-scale events leading to much change, mainly because the events end after a few hours. Daily interactions have a greater potential for change, I think. Also, the greater number of those interactions, the harder it is for people to dismiss their relationships with individual foreigners as somehow exceptional. That is, I like you as a foreigner, but you’re different from other foreigners—what Tim Wise calls “enlightened exceptionalism.”

      Sorry if my reply is rambling.

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