Sunday, 29 December 2013

The Japan Files ~ General Misconceptions

The world is rife with stereotypes. All Black women are aggressive? All slim people are healthy? All Japanese people are short…? And while I do believe that stereotypes possess a small manner of truth to them (a very small manner), I also dislike stereotypes because it’s not physically possible to generalise an entire population. So for this article, I’m going to talk about some common generalisations that people – including myself – have made about Japan and I’m going to both confirm or debunk them.

So let’s kick this thing off with the thing about Japanese people being very short. For the most part, things are much smaller her. My fridge is small; my washing machine is small – heck, my apartment is small and yes, some Japanese people are small. But some Japanese people are really tall as well. I find this to be especially the case with men. Now I’m pretty tall myself and people are often amazed at my height – granted, I’m a foreign woman – but I’ve even seen Japanese women tower over me, making me look tiny. So let’s kick this conception to the curb, shall we? Japanese people come in many different heights.

The same thing could be said about size. I’ve already had it confirmed by a Japanese friend of mine that in Japan – thin is in. Thin gives way to small, and small and cute things dominate here – especially for women. But in Hiroshima, I’ve seen many a shape – men and women alike. I’ve seen super lanky women and big and rotund men. My students are all different shapes and sizes and while I’m pretty sure I’m the only one I’ve seen with my particular shape so to speak – I’ve yet to come across someone wearing tight or revealing clothing – I don’t feel so out of place. In terms of shape and size, I could very well be walking around London.

Now, bodies aside, I reckon I’ve mentioned it in the past but Japan has a big drinking culture – very much like the UK. But unlike the UK, people are under the notion that the Japanese can’t hold their liquor. Now of my very small circle of Japanese friends, a couple have admitted that it takes all but one drink to put them under the influence – although I wonder what actually passes for drunk over here. For the most part however, the Japanese are pretty much like people anywhere else in the world. There are some people that can hold their drink and some people that really should start taking lessons. I mean, I was at a party and I had no idea that this small Japanese woman was wasted. She managed to switch from Japanese to English with perfect ease at one point and simply kept knocking them back whereas in the UK, I’ve seen what can happen when the average British punter knocks back around seven or eight pints.

And speaking of mannerisms, I’ve constantly heard it said that Japanese people are super polite. And once again, a lot of the time it is true. Starbucks here is a perfect example of this. I have never gone to a Starbucks in Japan and felt unwelcome. People welcome you into shops (most of the time), and I even had a random stranger come up to me welcoming me to Japan. But Japanese people are like any other people really. They have their good days and their bad ones; they may or may not be good at hiding how they feel. And they may get drunk and unruly. I’ve been turned away at a shop with a rather abrupt “no” when I asked for help. I’ve had people jump in front of me when going through the ticket barriers. So yes, while some people are generally quite nice here, some people just aren’t.

And speaking of politeness, let’s not forget Japanese children. Now before I arrived, I expected that most children would be pretty well behaved due to that famous Japanese notion of uniformity and not making waves. I promise you this – Japanese children are like western children who are like any other child in the world. Some will be adorable to behold and some will be little demons in disguise. Children are children are children. They will love you, laugh with you, laugh at you and they will test your patience. Don’t let this culture of politeness fool you. Kids will be kids and teenagers will definitely be teenagers.

Which brings me to my final point. Rules. In the UK, there are rules that don’t necessarily warrant a fine or are difficult to police like littering or drinking alcohol on the underground. Naturally, people will still do things if they know they might not be caught. I already mentioned the idea of uniformity being common here and it is. People will queue up to get on the train. People will wait at a road crossing for the green man to appear even when it’s quite obvious that no cars will be coming for a while. But people are people and there are some people that break these rules. Some people smoke on the street even though they’re not supposed to; some people kick and break vending machines. And I’m pretty sure that there’s a person that purposely drops a bag of rubbish every day in the middle of the street near my ward office just because. I’ve had people admit to me that they prefer to play to the beat of their own drum. So yes, while some people conform to rules here, some people just don’t want to.

So I think the message here is to consider that hearsay isn’t always guaranteed. And just because something may seem commonplace because of the associated culture, it isn't always set in stone.

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