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Common Japanese misconceptions regarding foreigners and foreign countries

Written by Maciamo on 9 March 2005


1. Introduction

2. Misconceptions about foreigners

3. Misconceptions and prejudices about Westerners

4. Misconceptions and prejudices about foreign countries

5. Misconceptions about foreign languages

6. Follow-up & related topics

Foreigners can't use chopsticks, a typical Japanese misconception

The Japanese are an unusually homogeneous people, bound by a very uniformising education system. As such, it is easy to say that, contrarily to many other peoples in the world, most Japanese share the same beliefs and the same preconceived ideas. This is strikingly true when it comes to their image of "foreigners", which they commonly refer to as "gaijin" or "gaikokujin", meaning "outside country person(s)". If it is true that (sometimes ridiculous) misconceptions happen to people in every country, it is doubly interesting to notice the constancy and homogeneity of those found in Japan, regardless of the person's socio-economic background, age or region of origin.

The Japanese education system is far from perfect, and one of his most noticeable defect is to teach all children in all the country the exact same things. Teachers have virtually no freedom to customise their curriculum, and must follow exactly the textbooks, including for moral education and "what to think of foreigners" (it is part of the education system in Japan!), regardless of their own opinions or experience.

This has led to teaching of false or prejudicial ideas regarding "foreigners" to the sheer majority of the population. The first of these strange ideas being that all foreigners cab be categorised under the single appellation of "gaijin", regardless of their country of origin, ethnicity, religion, language or culture.

I have gathered here the most common misconceptions that seem to be shared by the greatest part of the Japanese people, based on my personal experience and observations after living several years in Japan and speaking fluent Japanese.

Misconceptions and prejudices about foreigners

Foreigners are criminals

One of the most annoying prejudice held by a high percentage of the Japanese is that only Japanese are "good people", and that foreigners are much more likely to commit crimes, not pay their rent, lie, cheat, steal (eg. bicycles), or commit rapes and murders.

As I have explained in my article Foreign criminality in Japan, the Japanese commit proportionally 15x more crimes than the Westerners or Koreans in Japan. That does not prevent numerous real estate agency to refuse to rent an apartment to both Westerners and Koreans just because they are foreigners. The Japanese police is infamous for constantly suspecting any foreign-looking person to be a criminal, for example by stopping even well-dressed Westerners riding a bicycle to check their bicycle registration. The Japanese media never fail to mention that a crime was committed by a "gaikokujin" ("foreigner"), often omitting to mention their nationality so as to give a negative image to all foreigners.

Foreigners have been refused entry to hotels, restaurants, hot springs or public baths just on the grounds that they were foreigners (see Issues raised by Arudou Debito).

Foreigners cannot speak Japanese, use chopsticks or eat sushi

Almost any foreigner, except maybe Japanese-looking ones, will have experienced the incessant stereotypical and prejudiced questions that almost all Japanese people ask when meeting a foreigner : "Can you eat sushi or natto ?", "can you sleep on a futon ?", "Can you use chopsticks ?", etc.

This may not be annoying at the beginning, but when someone has been living in Japan for 3, 5 or 10 years, speaks Japanese fluently and is still constantly asked whether they can use chopsticks just because they look foreign is close to racism. In my experience, when Japanese or other Asian people visit a Western country, they are not routinely asked by the locals if they can use a fork and a knife, whether they can eat frog legs or snails (in France), or kidney pie (in the UK) or smelly cheese (many European countries), nor whether they can sleep on a bed or sit on a chair. These things are so obviously easy to learn even for someone coming from a different culture that just asking whether they can do it may sound insulting.

Part of the problem is also that Japanese people typically ask "Can you eat (this kind of food)" and not "Do you like (this kind of food)", which makes it sound like they are trying to test foreigners' capabilities to appreciate their food, rather than their personal tastes. It is not a matter of language, as it is the way they typically ask these questions to foreigners even in Japanese, saying "(nanka) wo taberaremasu ka ?" instead of "(nanka) wo suki desu ka ?". The other thing that seems to confirm that they are only trying to check whether foreigners can eat their cuisine, is that they rarely ask about other countries' food, even those available in Japan (eg. French, Indian, Mexican...). I was almost never asked whether I could eat smelly cheese, or other European food, because they just want to know first whether foreigners can it their food.

Japanese people are so indoctrinated at school that foreigners cannot speak their "difficult language" that they will almost always reply to a "gaijin" in English (regardless of the foreigner's nationality or mother tongue), even when addressed in fluent Japanese. This can become a stigma for foreigners who are trying to communicate with the locals, and makes it only harder to feel part of the community (maybe that's what the Japanese hope, that eventually the "gaijin" give up and "go back home").

See the following discussions for more information:

Misconceptions and prejudices about Westerners

All Westerners are Americans

Westerners are very often assimilated for Americans, whatever their nationality. It is extremely common for Japanese people to assume that any Caucasian is American, although there are only about 200 million white US citizens, and about 650 million white people in the rest of the world (Europe, Russia, Australia, Canada...). This cannot be explained by a overwhelming majority of Americans in Japan compared to other Westerners.

According to the Japan Statistical Yearbook, among the registered foreigners in Japan, there are 57,000 Europeans, 47,000 Americans, 12,000 Canadians and 11,500 Australians. That means that out of a total of 127,500 Westerners, 37% (a bit more than a third) are Americans. The chances are the highest that if a Japanese meets a Westerner in Japan, they will be European.

All Westerners speak English

In the same lines, there is a deeply rooted belief among the Japanese that anybody with blue eyes or Western looks must necessarily speak English. Needless to say that this is due to a startling insufficient of the Japanese education system. Japanese children are explicitly taught that all "gaijin" speak English, which cannot be further from the truth.

Again, a basic geography lesson would be enough to dispel these preconceived ideas. Having a look at Western countries (Europe, Russia, North America, Australia, NZ, Argentina, Chile...), there are just about 1 billion people, and only about 400 million live in English-speaking countries - but probably 1/3 of those are not native speakers of English, as English-speaking countries are predominantly immigration countries. So only about 30% of all Westerners are in fact native English speakers. The European Union alone has 20 official languages, and dozens more non-officials ones and dialects.

The problem is that geography is not a compulsory subject in Japanese schools, contrarily to most Western countries (European countries typically have 6 years of compulsory geography, geology and geopolitics classes). Not only is it an one-year option, but Japanese teachers misinform their students by telling them that all Westerners speak English.

Misconceptions and prejudices about foreign countries

Japan is such a small country

I am yet to meet a Japanese that will not tell me that their country is "so small". Being European, this sounds absurd to me. Japan is bigger (in land area) than any of the 35 or so European countries, except France and Spain. Population-wise, Japan (127 million inhabitants) is twice more populous than France, Italy or the UK (60m each), and one and a half times more populous than Germany (81m).

The problem is that Japanese people always seem to compare their country with the United States and China, as if they represented the whole world. When they look a bit further, all they see on the map are the world's biggest countries around Japan : Russia, China, Indonesia, Australia, Canada and the USA. But there are over 260 countries in the world, and Japan ranks 60th in land area, which means it is larger than 3/4 of all countries.

When I explain this to the Japanese, they seem to be wondering why they have been repeatedly told since their childhood that their country was "small". But very quickly they add that Japan is in fact very crowded. Again, I don't think it is so particular to Japan. In Europe, the density of population of England, the Netherlands and Belgium are similar (even slightly higher than Japan). Bangladesh has a larger population than Japan (144m vs 127m inhabitants) living on a land three times smaller. Even India has a comparable density of population, and China also would without counting the historically separate areas of Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia (all three autonomous regions). Looking at the full list of countries Japan ranks 30th in terms of population density. Not so unique indeed.

Japanese used to be farmers, while Europeans used to be hunters

This is one of the most ludicrous beliefs characteristic of the Japanese. I have been told again and again that the Japanese people used to be farmers while the Europeans were hunters. This usually comes with a relation to blood groups, as most Japanese firmly believe that Japanese are predominantly of type A, while Westerners are predominantly of type O (which is only partly true as type A is about as common as O among Caucasians), and that is is due to the habits of their ancestors, namely that Japanese were farmer and Europeans were hunters. Many Japanese claim that this is why the Japanese are collectivist (mentality inherited from the farming society), while Westerners are individualistic.

If you happen to discuss this issue with a Japanese make sure to ask "when" were the Japanese farmers and the Europeans hunters. The problem is they never say when, and one can only assume they are referring to ancient times, or saying that agriculture came to Japan before Europe. I asked a few times and was usually told "mukashi" (a long time ago). Ask for examples. As many Japanese are so completely ignorant of world history (including their own), I have been told that the vikings were forcedly hunters as they had axes !!

The truth is, Japan was one of the last Eurasian countries to develop an agrarian society. According to Wikipedia, agriculture reached Greece from the Middle-east by 7,000 BC, and it had reached northwestern Europe by ca. 5,000 BC. The Jomon people (until c. 300BC) of Japan were primarily hunters. Farming came to Japan with the Yayoi invaders from Korea from the 3rd century BC, but did not spread to most of Japan (but Hokkaido) until the 1st century AD, at the height of the Roman Empire - and several centuries after the golden age of Ancient Greece.

I believe that Japanese prefer to consider themselves as traditionally "farmers" rather "hunters" because it sounds more civilised, and they like to picture Westerners as barbarians living in caves and wearing animal skins ! Well yes, hunting societies were after all characteristic of the prehistory, as farming made possible the rise of Ancient civilisations, that developed the first writing systems.

I don't want to sound insistent, but just in case this is not clear for the Japanese, but the Japanese prehistory lasts until the arrival of writing from China in the 5th century AD, when the Antiquity had just ended in Europe with the collapse of the Roman Empire. So even not knowing exactly when agriculture came to Japan, the Japanese should know that it cannot possibly precede writing, and all Japanese are taught at school that writing came in the 5th century, i.e. about 1000 years after the great Greek philosophers or the first Olympic Games (which they also learn about).

This mistaken belief that the Japanese were farming well before the Europeans can only be due to some kind of societal indoctrination, maybe to demonstrate that the Japanese ought to be thought as more civilised than Westerners. The Japanese like to try to put this in the mind of unwary Westerners by asking their blood group, then explaining that if they are O-type, it is because the person's ancestors were hunters, while the predominantly A-type Japanese were farmers. It is a very polite and indirect way (typical of the Japanese) of trying to prove one's racial or cultural superiority (see "Nihonjinron" below).

Only Japan has four seasons

Japanese have become master not only in copying things from abroad, but in thinking that they are unique, and most of what is good in Japan doesn't exist outside Japan.

It may be difficult to believe for a Westerners that almost all Japanese believe that their country is somehow unique for having four distinct seasons. You can't even excuse them for not travelling the world and see for themselves that this is not true. Isn't it common knowledge that all countries that are not tropical or arctic have four seasons ? All European countries do, and so does most of North America, parts of South America and Oceania, as well as neighbouring China and Korea. Living in Japan, I can see everyday evidences on TV or in photos from travel brochures that many countries have snow in winter, flowers blossoming in spring, people going to the beach in summer and leaves falling in autumn. Some countries have even more distinct seasons than Japan, like many Europeans countries that have very marked differences of daylight between summer and winter. This only goes to show what indoctrination at school can do.

I wouldn't make so much fuss about it if it was just for the seasons. But there are so many things that many Japanese, to a varying degree depending on their education and interests, think are unique to Japan.

Indoctrination goes so far that most Japanese do not know that 1st January is not their traditional New Year day before Japan adopted the Western calendar in the late 19th century. They do not know that the custom of sending greeting cards for Christmas and New Year originated in the West. I was asked so many times "Do Westerners also send greeting cards ?", as if it was an old Japanese custom. Many Japanese also believe that mother's day or father's day are Japanese traditions, although they originated in the West. Soon they will ask whether Westerners know about their old Japanese tradition of Christmas and Valentine's Day (the Japanese have started celebrating both after WWII due to American influence).

The same goes with inventions. No the Japanese did not invent the telephone, not even the first mobile phone. They did not invent the audio tape, video tape or CD, they did not make the first video game, and no, they did not invent the camera (although most cameras are now made by Japanese companies). There has been a few notable Japanese inventions like digital quartz watches, instant noodles or karaoke, though, but many Japanese mistakenly think that Japan has given all the technology that surround us to the world. They can be partly forgiven because of Japan's strong market protectionsim, which means that the Japanese don't have much opportunity to see the technological products made in Western countries. For more information on this subject, read the threads Who invented what and Greatest Japanese contribution to the world.

Causes and consequences of this attitude

We have seen how the Japanese like to insist on Japan's uniqueness, try to confuse foreigners into believing that the Japanese were farming before Europeans (so that ultimately Japan is a more ancient and civilised society), and claim that Japan, although being such a tiny country has been able to become a major world power.

I am afraid that this tendency may be linked in the 'common subconscious' to the theory of nihonjinron ("Japaneseness"), a term referring to culturally nationalist concepts of Japanese uniqueness from a scientifical, artistical, or political point of view. The nihonjiron has played a major role in giving the Japanese a sense of superiority, which has culminated in their invasion of East Asia in the 1930's and 40's.

Unfortunately, the nihonjiron is still well alive today, and many important politicians and businessmen have not hidden their support for the theory, as for instance the governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, or the founder of Sony, Akio Morita. Nowadays, the nihonjinron is mostly expressed in everyday life by doubting the ability of foreigners to understand the Japanese mindset or language, or question the foreigners' ability to appreciate such things as cherry blossoms, Japanese food or be able to sit in seiza, sleep on a futon, or use chopsticks (see 2.2 above).

Misconceptions about foreign languages

English and Chinese are similar

This may be more a matter of ignorance than indoctrination. It is nevertheless startling to see the number of Japanese people (especially among English learners) who seem convinced that Chinese language is closer to English than to Japanese. I am not sure whether this is due to a sheer lack of critical thinking, or if it is related to the above issues of seeing Japan as unique.

It should be obvious to any Japanese speakers that Chinese is much closer to Japanese than to English, because both classical Chinese and English is part of the Japanese school curriculum (in the way Westerners still sometimes learn Latin or Greek). The only fact that Japanese language distinguishes the pronunciation of kanji in Chinese words ("On" reading) from that of original Japanese word ("Kun" reading) is enough even for a foreign learner of Japanese to know that about half the words used in modern Japanese come from Chinese. It is as easy to distinguish words imported from English, which are written in the distinct Katakana script.

In fact, we could say that Japanese is halfway between English and Chinese, having imported thousands of words from both languages, while Chinese has stayed relatively pure, and English only has a handful of words from either Chinese or Japanese.

I heard times and again Japanese people saying that Chinese and English grammar are similar, while Japanese is completely different. This couldn't be further from the truth. They only base this assumption on the word order in these languages, claiming that Chinese has a Subject-Verb-Object structure like English. Even this is only partly true, as the complement of time (eg. "yesterday"), place ("at work") of accompaniment ("with my friend") have a completely different order in English and Chinese. The Chinese order is just like the one in Japanese !

But more importantly, Chinese share in common with Japanese the absence of articles (the, a, any, some) and relative sentence markers (that, which, who, whose) common to most European languages. Chinese is also closer to Japanese for not having any conjugation (e.g. go, went, gone) and few tenses (no perfect or future tenses, no conditional or subjunctive forms, etc.). Needless to say that the Chinese and Japanese writing systems are more similar with each others than with English. All in all, the only major difference between Chinese and Japanese are the order of the verb and object, and the functional particles used in Japanese (wa, ga, wo, ni...).

Follow-up & related topics

Discuss this article at the Japan Forum. Here are a few other related threads :

  • For our Japanese readers : Things you should not say to Westerners
  • Should all Japanese directly address foreigners in Japanese ?
  • Fluent Foreigners Now Accepted In Japan!
  • Discrimination in Japan
  • 40 reasons to think that the Japanese are superficial
  • Hanami, a tradition unique to Japan ?

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