Undoing foreign stereotypes


Foreigners in Japan have been grumbling for years about assumptions that Japanese people sometimes make about them. As a long-term resident, I can sympathize to a degree; however, they should remember that some of the stereotypes they face have been perpetuated by foreigners themselves.

Take ideas about language and food. There is a long history of foreigners — especially native English speakers — living for years in Japan without ever becoming proficient in the language because they have been able to get away with it (their counterparts would not succeed in the United States). This has reinforced the stereotype of non-Japanese-speaking foreigners. This image is slowly dying, thanks to people like TV personality Daniel Kahl and professor Robert Campbell. One thing frustrated foreigners could do is write essays in Japanese for a Japanese audience.

As for food, consider natto. Many foreigners in Japan delight in joking about natto, which in turn helps to perpetuate the myth that foreigners generally cannot eat it. But there are probably far more ethnic/native Japanese who cannot eat natto than there are foreigners in the same boat. Do they joke about natto? No. Belittling the food of an entire people is actually quite lowbrow, and it stems from a deep-seated sense of superiority.

I am always happy to surprise Japanese people by saying I like it and thereby slowly whittle away at one stereotypical idea about foreigners. This is how residents of Japan who have come from elsewhere can help make Japan more comfortable for others who are also different. Certain stereotypes have been fed by foreigner behavior, and they can be undone in the same way.

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.

donald wood