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Common Japanese Misconceptions About the US

By Josiah Lebowitz

It’s only natural that people develop stereotypes and misconceptions about other countries. Especially countries that they’ve never visited. In the US, we even have a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions about other states. Even if you really take the time to study and learn about a place (which people often don’t), you can’t truly understand its culture, lifestyle, etc until you’ve spent a decent amount of time there yourself. Since we generally lack that experience, we tend to form opinions based on what we see on TV, read in the news, hear from others, and the like, regardless of how accurate all that information is.

Now, imagine taking someone who has never visited or studied the US and sitting him down to watch some episodes of The Simpsons, Friends, CSI, and 24. What kind of opinions would shows like that give him about American values, manners, family life, crime, and the like? Probably not anything very positive.

Basically, I’m just trying to say that you can’t really fault Japan for the things I’m about to talk about since it’s an unfortunate fact that people do the same thing everywhere. And they actually have a much more positive opinion on the US than many other countries. So, with that said, here’s a look at some of the Japanese peoples’ more common misconceptions about the US.

#1: Manners

My mom and I dressed up old Japan style

This one applies to non-Japanese in general, not just Americans. Anyway, the belief is that foreigners are loud, rude, and not very neat, at least when compared to Japanese people. To some extent, that’s true.

When it comes to being loud, it’s true that many foreign languages are naturally spoken a bit more loudly than Japanese. Then there’s the tourists who tend to think that they’ll be better understood if they speak louder (which is occasionally true, but often isn’t). Finally, English teachers in public schools (who are the only foreigners many Japanese people have any real interaction with) are encouraged to talk loudly to help students pick up on the proper sound of the words.

On the subject of politeness, Japanese people tend to be extremely careful not to bother or inconvenience others (sometimes to rather ridiculous extremes). Plus, Japan and the Japanese language have an enormous number of rules and mannerisms related to politeness. Unfortunately, there are some foreigners who simply couldn’t care less about proper Japanese etiquette and just do what they want, which tends to reflect badly on their home country as a whole. But, even when you try to be polite and conscientious, it can take years to master all the facets of Japanese etiquette. Some are easy enough to pick up (like bowing and not wearing your shoes where you’re not supposed to) but others are extremely complex (such as speaking with the proper level of respect to people who are socially above or below you).

As for neatness, while I myself tend to keep things pretty neat and clean, I know lots of people in the US who, though not really slobs, rarely both to clean or straighten up. There are some Japanese people like that too but, as a whole, the Japanese do tend to be a bit more obsessive about order and cleanliness than your average American.

While Japanese people are generally too polite to act on any of these beliefs, there are some landlords who won’t rent apartments to foreigners because they’re afraid that they’ll trash the room or bother other tenants. Though that’s only a problem if you plan on staying in Japan for a very long time.

#2: Crimes
Once again, this applies to all foreigners, not just Americans. And, once again, there is some truth to it. Crime is Japan is very low and violent crime is almost non-existent. You can walk the streets and alleys of downtown Tokyo in the middle of the night with a wallet full of cash with nothing to fear. For that matter, you could drop said wallet on the ground and, when you come back to look for it the next day, you’ll likely find it either right where you left it or waiting for you at the nearest police box. I’ll get into the reasons behind Japan’s lack of crime another day and I won’t deny that things do get stolen occasionally, but when it comes down to it, Japan is one of the safest and most crime free countries in the world. So, while I’m not sure if foreigners in Japan actually commit many crimes, it’s easy to see why the Japanese can be a bit weary of people from other countries.

#3: Guns

Despite it's warrior past, Japan is now one of the safest countries in the world.

Quite a lot of people in Japan assume that everyone in the US walks around carrying a gun and are very surprised to hear that many Americans have never even touched a real gun, much less bought one. Naturally, this belief makes them feel that the US isn’t a very safe place, especially compared to Japan which, despite its history of samurai and territory wars now has a near total lack of violent crime and very strict anti-gun laws (the only people in Japan with guns are military, some policemen, and hardcore criminals). And yeah, the US isn’t anywhere near as safe as Japan, though not that many people carry guns around and shootings really aren’t all that common.

So how did this belief come about? Well, first off, Hollywood action movies and shows like 24 are pretty popular in Japan. And, in stuff like that, it seems like just about every character keeps at least one gun handy. And hey, if it’s like that in the movies it must be true (just like Jackie Chan taught us that all Asians are martial arts masters). But Hollywood isn’t entirely to blame. See, a while back there was a Japanese college student who went on a trip to the US. Problem is, he didn’t really know much English and ended up missing some warnings and trespassing on someone’s property. Unfortunately, the owner was a bit of a nutcase and shot him. The Japanese press had a field day with the story and it was blown way out of proportion. And the regular US news doesn’t help either since most of the “big” stories (which are the ones most likely to get reported in other countries) are about something horrible happening. Since, when it comes down to it, “everything today is just fine and dandy” makes for pretty boring news.

So there you have the three biggest Japanese misconceptions about the US. A bit ridiculous? Maybe, though there is a hint of truth to most of them. As the world grows more and more connected, maybe people will learn more about other countries and these types of misconceptions will clear up. Then again, the way things are going now, everyone will just watch more foreign TV shows and weird youtube videos and makes things worse…


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