It often surprises me that I run into the same misconceptions about foreigners as the first time I came to Japan 17 years ago.

One is that Japanese people tend to think every Western-looking person is American (or if they don’t, they tend to think foreigners are distinguishable by nationality — imagine over 50 identifiable nationalities! Even so, in countries such as the U.S., immigration would have erased any distinguishable national characteristics over 200 years ago).

Japanese people still say to me: “What do you eat for breakfast, bread?” As if we sat down every morning to a large pile of bread on a plate. After so many years of Japanese hotels offering “American Breakfast” with salad, it amazes me that people still see bread as the main component of an American breakfast, without acknowledging eggs, bacon, cereal, fruit, etc.

While the Japanese may very well sit down most mornings to a hearty “Western breakfast” of one piece of toast and coffee, you wouldn’t find many Americans doing that.

The fact is, that although “stereo types” should be limited to Panasonic and Sony, they are still very much alive, even in the Japanese classroom. And I was shocked to find myself teaching them!

How can such culturally insensitive classrooms exist in today’s society? Easy!

It starts when the teachers get together to discuss the next year’s English curriculum. The head of the English department, who is invariably overworked and suffers from lack of sleep, gets out of bed every morning, pulls a few magic tricks at home (making breakfast, obento) to get her own kids off to school. Then she drives to work, pushing the speed limit, arriving in the nick of time to open the morning staff meeting.

After covering a handful of topics and pulling a rabbit out of a hat, she holds up a catalog of English textbooks and says to her teaching staff — very educated and frazzled people who work long hours for low pay — “Pick a textbook, any textbook!” They draw straws. After all, the bell has just rung and the first-period classes have begun. It’s show time!

Meanwhile, the secretary has just arrived with her Hello Kitty handbag. She walks to her desk and sits down in her chair with the Hello Kitty cushion, picks up a Hello Kitty pen and calls in the textbook order. Voila!

The next school year starts, the textbooks have arrived and they are distributed to all the English teachers, most of whom have lost a few kilos by now. But they smile and push on, pick up their new textbooks and go into teaching mode.

I pick up a textbook too. But I sigh as I flip through it. The theme of the book seems to be: This book is for first-year English students: Let’s confuse ’em!

The textbook introduces the words “hat” and “cap.” The example sentence at the top of the page reads “Are these caps?” and has a picture of two baseball caps. The answer is, “Yes, they are.” The next sentence reads “Are those caps too?” and has a picture of two hats. The answer is, “No, they’re not, they’re hats.”

Picky, picky, picky!

I expect the next chapter to ask: Are those shorts or Bermuda shorts? But no, in the next lesson, the example sentence is: “Are you tired?” and the answer is, “No, we’re sleepy.”

Picky, picky, picky! No wonder kids think English is impossible.

Who is writing these textbooks? Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are lots of good chapters. They just forgot to put them in.

Another chapter introduces different people from around the world. “This boy is Paulo” (holding a soccer ball). “He is from Brazil.”

“This is Ms. Kim from Korea” (wearing traditional Korean dress).

“This boy is Miguel” (wearing a Mexican sombrero — or is it a hat?). “He is from Mexico.”

“This girl is a singer” (wearing a party dress). “She is from America” (not North America, not the U.S., but well, um, you get the idea). It’s no wonder Japanese tend to think all foreigners are American — it’s the modern clothes that confuse them!

Perhaps most interesting of all was the textbook example, “This is Kentaro. He is from Japan,” where the photo showed a boy wearing his school uniform. So, this is Japan’s native costume? Not the kimono, or hakama?

That’s the problem with “stereo types”; they’re not all Sony’s.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.