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.

References

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