The Japanese way of thinking and international images9 min read

 Japanese people seem to be rather interested in what foreigners like the British think of Japan, so let me give a brief answer. The romantic stories of Lafcadio Hearn and others, and the influence of Japanese art over nearly a century, is have given the impression that Japan is a very beautiful country. There are those like myself who, having lived in Japan, know that there is also an ugly side, but this is hardly appreciated by the general public.

 It takes a long time to alter an international image. The Japanese people seem to think of Englishmen as all carrying umbrellas, wearing bowler hats, and gentlemen to the last man. One has only to think of the Beatles to see that we do not all wear bowlers. But in spite of that the image of so many years does not disappear. And it is the same with the Japanese image.

Let me illustrate by discussing an example from the Times, a famous newspaper with a history of 190 years. This newspaper does not have many pictures in it, but sometimes there are two or three photographs of outstanding artistic merit. I want to say something about two of these which appeared not long ago.

One was a picture of Nagoya, which is of course an ultra-modern industrial city. But this picture showed the entrance to a traditional restaurant.

The other one was an advertisement for a Tokyo theatre, showing Hasegawa Kazuo in Kimono. The huge Kanji announced a special performance in September. Just the sort of picture which makes Japanese so annoyed.

In the first photograph there was also a high- school boy in an open-necked shirt, and in the second one too one could see some people in modern clothes. But many people do not notice these little details, because they are so fascinated with the historical traditional aspect.

The beauty of these pictures does reinforce that traditional image of Japan. Of course we do see photographs of the Shinkansen and great factories of Japan, but these do not make the same impact because there are high-speed trains and great factories in other countries too. What makes the impact is always what is specific to a country and its people, and found nowhere else. Like the Englishman’s bowler hat.

Japanese people have to accept the fact that all over the world rather unsophisticated people have an idea of a Japanese salary man coming back from the office and changing into a kimono to take part in a Tea Ceremony, with his wife playing the Koto. This is no more ridiculous than the image which some unsophisticated Americans have of English people perpetually drinking tea and arguing whether a bishop should go through a door before an earl, or whether he should give him the precedence. After all, the Japanese international image is not such a bad one!

It has to be accepted that the images are wildly inaccurate. The French seem to think English people keep up an elaborate facade of artificial self-control even in bed, whereas we tend to think the French are interested in nothing but sex. The Germans have had a reputation of being scholars and scientists who suddenly turn

into aggressive militarists—as Heinrich Boll remarked, “ My people are not much liked abroad.” Think of some of the European jokes about Hungarians (which Hungarians themselves like to tell).

“A Hungarian is a man who goes into a swing door behind you, and comes out ahead of you.” “If you have a Hungarian for a friend, you have also an enemy.”

“A Hungarian will sell you his grandmother for sixpence, or if you will not pay that price, then for four pence. And often he cheats at the last moment and fails to deliver her, so you do not even get the grandmother.”

I may add that all these jokes were told to me by a Hungarian who was, incidentally, one of the kindest and most honest men I have ever met in my life.

I have met Japanese who bitterly attacked Japan, but not Japanese who loved Japan and yet could tell this kind of joke against his people. When I mentioned this fact to the Hungarian, he said, “Well, we have some good points too. For instance, for our small population we take a great many Olympic Gold Medals, don’t we?” Perhaps the ability to enjoy such jokes arises from a deep inner self-confidence. But anyway one can say that the international image of the Hungarian is one which most Japanese would not care to have.

But the truth is that people all over the world are the same. There is not much difference between English and Japanese. Some are clever, some are stupid, some are brave, some are kind, and so on. The writer Somerset Maugham, a widely travelled man with great experience of the world in his long life, was once asked:

“Do you like the French?”

“No,” he replied. (His mother was French.)

“The English?” is “No.”

“ Italians ? Indians ? Japanese ? Americans ? ”

“No,” was always the answer.

“Well then, who do you like?”

And he answered, “I like my friends.”

 Let us look at another British newspaper to see how Japan is shown. Probably a good many Japanese people have read, at least in translation, about the James Bond story set in Japan. A few years ago a popular British paper, the Daily Express, serialized this in strip cartoons, and I used to look at these pictures carefully every day.

On the whole the pictures were drawn very carefully and accurately. Even the Kanji were a reasonable representation—this is always a difficult point for us. (Sometimes we copy them out carefully, but they get printed upside-down.) There was no mistake in the kimonos of the girls in a restaurant. Often English people think of Japanese kimonos as having long sleeves because we have seen so many pictures of the Kyoto maiko, but in these cartoons that mistake was not made. In fact one of the girls had a tasuki.

The artist took a great deal of trouble over certain details—he depicted the difference between the British and Japanese style of tie at the time, and when 007 was impersonating a young Tokyoite, his haircut was the type then fashionable in Japan for a young man. I do not know how he would have done with a middle-aged man, because whether by luck or judgment, Tiger Tanaka was bald.

There were many other examples of the pains which the artist must have taken, and I could find only very small things to criticize. In the Bojutsu practice in the Japanese secret agents’ dojo, the poles were shorter than usual. (Of course in the film which came out later these details were perfectly correct, as it was made with full Japanese co-operation.)

I asked some young Japanese in London about the faces of the Japanese in this strip cartoon. “Some of them are a bit Chinese somehow” was one reply which several of them made. But when I pressed the point, “Well in what way would you say they are Chinese rather than Japanese?” they could not say exactly.

I did not think, just because they could not explain it, that they did not really feel a difference. I know the situation well from my own experience. We too, living in London which is a great international city, sometimes see someone and think “He is German” or “She is Italian”.  But we might find it difficult to explain just why we think so. I suppose we have an inner image of an Italian woman with large eyes, black hair and vivacious movement, and with quick changes of mood. Then we think of a middle- aged German as having a fat thick neck which consequently gives the impression of a small head. Even with someone who does not conform obviously to one of these stereotypes, we still may get a strong impression of a particular nationality.

It is comical how often these impressions are completely wrong. The BBC External Services broadcast in forty languages, so that on the staff are hundreds of foreign broadcasters of many nationalities. Often in the canteen members of the same section sit together at one table, so that there is a French table, an Iranian table, Malay table and so on. Of course the tables are not fixed—it is just that when there are four Romanians sitting at one table, we call that a Romanian table.

When  we invite a guest from outside to the canteen, we have a little joke which we can play on them. We say, “There are three tables there in that corner. One is Turkish table, one is a  Russian table, one   is a Spanish table.

Can you identify them?” Hardly ever does a guest manage to do so. I admit that it may not be quite fair sometimes, because for some years we had one Turk with fair hair, and if he was there I used to try to include the Turkish table. The guest would assume that neither a Turk nor a Spaniard would have fair hair, so he would take it that the fair-haired man’s table would be the Russian one.

When I travelled in Europe I was often mistaken for a Norwegian. Very tall, I suppose, and with fair hair. It was a shock to me in Mussolini’s Italy to see the cartoons of the English (generally hostile, of course, at that time). We were shown as tall thin stooping men, with prominent front teeth like a rabbit. However I learned then that as a rule there is something derogatory in most of these international images, and that one should not be upset by them.

To return to the Daily Express cartoons showing Japanese. When I finally forced a young Japanese to say why he thought some of the faces  looked Chinese rather than Japanese, he said, “ I think Japanese faces are more intelligent than Chinese.” When I heard that, I was reminded of an English friend of mine who used to say, “French and Italian people get excited and they always somehow miss the point.”

© TrevorLeggett

This was taken from Trevor Leggett’s book “The British and the Japanese” published in 1976