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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Japan, China, Korea: All the Same?

I got a question for the next 「ボビーと1ビール」from YouTube user "jetdaisuke" who's a pretty popular electronics/product reviewer on J-YouTube.

His question is this:

"よく欧米のテレビや映画などで
日本と中国と韓国が、混同されています。
In Western television and movies, you often see a confusion of the cultures of Japan, China, and Korea.

服とかインテリアとか音楽とかね
みんな、どれくらい違いが分かるのかな?"
Like, mixing up the clothing, or interior decorations, or the music.
How much do Westerners actually know about the differences between these cultures?


I'm trying to frame my response to this, but I'm not sure what to touch on, so I'd like your help.
Can you think of any specific instances of confusion I might be able to reference?

I was wondering also if I ought to talk about how it's not just a one way street. Most Japanese people think a white face equals English.

If you have any links I might be able to use, let me know. I was trying to find an article I remember reading recently, about how people of other races really do all look alike (it was a scientific study about having trouble with facial recognition when dealing with a racial group that you didn't grow up seeing). Does anyone know where that is?

And in the comments, please tell me what you think about the question in general:
If someone asked you, how would you answer?

8 comments:

Defendership said...

I imagine I'd point out that theirs is not a unique generalization. Could the average person, Japanese OR American, tell the difference between somebody from Iran and somebody from Egypt? What about Morocco and the Congo? Sweden and Switzerland?

They might get a few attributes right, but undoubtedly mistakes would be made, the same way some people confuse all the East Asian countries.

Part of it can be based on actual similarities. Chinese characters, for example, are part of all three cultures, and everything else comes across as just shapes to people who are not familiar with it.

On the other side, think of how a Japanese person would interpret a page with a sentence in Latin, German, French, Spanish, English, Dutch, and Russian (all in Roman characters). An American could probably distinguish which was which, but could a Japanese person? Were the same sentences spoken, would they then be able to tell the difference? Some would, certainly, but with nowhere near the success rate of somebody raised in Western culture.

It's just a matter of what you're exposed to and confusing the forest for the tree (to hack up that analogy for my own purpose).

Blue Shoe said...

Indeed. Just as Defendership mentioned, there are a lot of cultural overlaps, and one's awareness of these overlaps depends a great deal upon one's own origin.

Back in the West, things like gongs, Kung-Fu, and exotic "oriental"-sounding music are kind of just considering "Asian."

It happens both ways, I think. So many Japanese people associate hamburgers with America that I bet many would be surprised to learn they are actually of German origin.

David said...

In the historic university town in the UK where I studied we would get busloads of Chinese tourists. To me, Japanese speaker and one time resident of Japan, it was pretty obvious not only from the language but also from their outer appearance and behavior that they were not Japanese. But very many students and residents referred to them as "Japanese tourists".

Come to think of it maybe this isn't so strange. If you've never been to Asia, how are you supposed to know how people in the different countries act or dress? At least in the circles I move people do seem to have a fairly clear concept of what is Japanese (sushi, samurai, ninja, computer games, etc) and what is Chinese (communist party, massive economic growth, lingering poverty).

The Sweden-Switzerland confusion annoyed me a lot when I lived in Japan (I'm from one of these countries and, incidentally, now live in the other). In retrospect, maybe I was too demanding. What still annoys me though is that many Japanese people seem to think that the _native_ language of Sweden and/or Switzerland is English.

Hachimaki said...

A fairly high-profile recent example of this kind of cultural confusion in the media is the re-make of The Karate Kid - which replaced a Japanese martial art and sensei with Chinese kung-fu and Jackie Chan, without changing the title or acknowledging the change in any way.

It's a fairly minor thing which didn't deserve the Internet backlash it received, but a good illustration of how a lot of people in the west don't perceive a real distinction between Chinese and Japanese culture. (Although there are certainly things that the vast majority of people could easily identify as uniquely Japanese, such as sushi.)

As another example, a colleague back in the UK recently sent me some documents to translate from Japanese to English as a favour - when I opened them, it turned out that they were all in Chinese. He just saw the kanji characters and assumed they were Japanese - a pretty easy mistake to make, of course, if you're not familiar with the character sets used by the languages.

Of course, as you say, exactly the same is true in reverse. White people in Japan are automatically assumed to be American much of the time - and as an Irish guy, I've had to fall back on describing myself as English quite frequently, after 「アイルランド人」 has been met with a blank expression! Enormous differences between European and American culture are incredibly surprising even to many well-educated Japanese people - there's an assumption that an Americanised caucasian mono-culture exists in the west which can be quite hard to overcome.

I don't think any of this stuff is offensive or particularly ignorant, though. I'm very familiar with East Asia so I know my way around the differences between cultures, but drop me into Africa or the Middle East and I wouldn't have much of a clue about differences in culture, language and so on. We can't all be polymaths, and while everyone should strive to know more about the world, we shouldn't take offence at people who have yet to discover knowledge that we consider basic. (On the other hand, people who shrug off explanations of such differences with lines like "who cares, it's all the same" are quite a different story...)

Rocks for Brains said...

Yeah I can't tell the difference between most people from European countries. Or people from Africa. Or people from South America. Or people from the Middle East. Etc. Etc.

It's not like most people are studying anything about the East or Africa or the Middle east to know all the cultural differences between each individual country.

I study Japanese so yes I am becoming more aware of some things from the east that are specifically Japanese but unless someone is studying Japan or Japanese they shouldn't expect the world to know the differences. Every country is preoccupied with there own events and outside of political relations the average citizens has no real need to know the differences. We learn out of necessity and it just isn't necessary for most American citizens to learn what kind of tree a traditional Koto is made out of let alone what a Koto is.

Heidi H said...

Short and easy. People who dont have alot of interest in asia, can't see the difference, because of their ''Trade-mark'' - Eyes. Blame the eyes, hair and language! Even though I see alot of difference, all of my friends says that they're all the same. Anyways, I'm the one to laugh at last, by their mistakes :)

Amy said...

In general, people often assume that I am of a particular ethnic group.

Last year I went to Japan and approximately 95 per cent of the Japanese people I encountered thought I was Japanese. Whereas back in my home town (Melbourne, Australia), I am often assumed as either Chinese or Vietnamese. However, when I visit Sydney, I often get mistaken for being Korean and Japanese in the Gold Coast or Cairns.

I think some people cannot distinguish between certain asian groups because they assume that all asians have similar facial features, same hair colour (black) and skin colour.

I'm used to people questioning my ethnic background.

I can usually tell the difference between Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai and Filipinos. As I grew up being exposed to these ethnic groups directly.

In general I think Asians are different and similar in many ways, in terms of looks, culture and behaviour.

I grew up in a multicultural, which I been around Anglo saxon and Europeans throughout my life, yet I still struggle to distinguish between certain European groups from time to time.

At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter which ethnic group a person belongs to.

nanya said...

Whenever I am asked that or a similar question, usually referencing a "foreign" interviewee who said 'all Asians/Japanese are/look the same' on the news here, I just say, 'Oh, so do you think all foreign people think the same'.

As you said, it's a two-way street and I understand how the interviewee's willful ignorance begot the unintentional ignorance that resulted. So, when I give my response, it's by no means spiteful, but a way to turn the looking glass back on the person asking the question, and forcing them to reflect on the nature of the question itself. In some cases, such a mirror can be one of the best windows to the world.