There is nothing like being kicked when you are down.  Two British newspapers, the Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard  have published reflections on the recent events in Japan by two people with extensive cultural knowledge of the country. They are both wonderful examples of how living and breathing a foreign culture does not make you immune to the odd impulse to stereotype it. The Daily Telegraph writer lived among Japanese geisha and now writes novels. After discussing the earthquake and culture she strays out of her area into telepathy.  “Japanese street cleaners are proud of their jobs. Rather than resenting not having a better job, they make sure their streets are really clean.”  Why? Because if you do a job to the best of your ability you are not ambitious? Had she interviewed any street cleaners?  What about Japanese films from the Twilight Samurai to Tokyo Sonata portraying  characters who were unhappy in their jobs but nevertheless try to do them well?  It gets worse.  She tells us that the Japanese love of the cherry blossom means “the culture itself celebrates transience.”  So what is the implication here? That the Japanese do not mind the destruction they now need to deal with?  Surely not, but that is the danger of romanticising a culture.

Recognizing impermanence is not the same as celebrating it.  It would appear that the Japanese also value permanence give the effort they have put into engineering quake-proof buildings and with considerable success. My Japanese friend in Yokohama was at a restaurant at the time of the earthquake. She watched tall buildings like the one in which she lives sway this way and that. But when she reached her apartment she found no damage.  Near the end of her feature the writer condemns Japanese politicians calling them  a “notoriously flaky bunch.”  I am aware of the troubles at the top in Japan in recent years ( and who would like to change places with Mr Kan at this moment?) but what of the local politicians on the front line? Are they included? I haven’t heard any Japanese people on television calling their prefectures “flaky.” Judging by the pictures they do seem to be doing their best to get people help. If they are not,  may we have examples please?

Not to be outdone the Evening Standard found an expert in Japanese literature who promptly turns psychologist and fortune teller with predictions about “the Japanese national psyche.”  His first insight into the Japanese tells us that “Japan is not the land of blindly obedient automatons it once was.”  Automatons? All that cultural knowledge and he can reduce a people to mere machines!  Then he writes “Japan was overtaken last year by a resurgent China and saw itself as powerless to resist the inexorable rebalancing of history. The latest earthquake is sure to cause a similar quake in the Japanese national  psyche.”

My knowledge of Japanese literature is minimal but I have known many Japanese diplomats and journalists over the years  and I never heard anyone express anything but pragmatism over China’s economic position. And why not? It was six years ago in 2005 that the Washington Post announced that China had surpassed the United States as the major trading partner for Japan. A cursory look at news articles reveals concern in China about the extent of the impact on the Chinese economy by the events  in Japan. Their economic relationship then is more complex than the literary expert’s view.  The final pronouncement is the strangest.  He predicts that the quake will lead to a “fumbling towards a new, more open, artistic and complex personality rather than the anodyne ‘economic powerhouse’ of old.” Is that another way of saying they lack proper emotion like the automatons? People seem to imply that a lot about Japan. The street cleaners are not taking out their emotions on their work so they must be quietly content. “Blindly obedient automatons” certainly do not have emotions.

We all approach foreign societies from different angles. Maybe the literature expert is unable to access the full complexity of Japanese society in which the fact of being an economic power has been so important (as it has in the United States). Similarly, perhaps working with a part of Japanese culture where ceremony and ritual are so important has made it difficult for the expert on geisha to properly assess other areas of life. Cultural stereotypes have a long history and I have heard mild leanings in news reports as well where the reporters emphasize “stoicism” even when people are plainly in distress. They see stoicism.  I see courage.

The first rule of intercultural statements, whether racial, religious or international is to put yourself in the place of a person from the culture you are describing and ask yourself how you would feel reading that your country “celebrates transience” in an article about the worst devastation since two atomic weapons were dropped on it. Or ask yourself how you would feel about being told by a foreigner that your ancestors were “automatons.”