Global East Asia Japan 2015

By Jotham Sadan

This year, Global East Asia scholars are participating in the USC Dornsife Problems without Passports (PwP) program, a month-long program aimed at teaching students through problem-based learning and experiences that go beyond the classroom. As a part of this program, we will spend two weeks in the US gaining a theoretical understanding of our problems of interest in class, spending time with guest lecturers and preparing research projects for execution abroad. The latter two weeks will be spent in Japan researching individually chosen topics and experiencing firsthand the issues we studied prior to our Japan trip.


Group meeting at a park near the Japan Foundation

We are focusing on historical cultural misunderstandings between the United States and Japan: where they originated, why they happened, and how to analyze modern issues of similar nature by applying what we learned in the case of the US and Japan. More specifically, we are examining American stereotypes of Japan and Japanese stereotypes of America: starting with the 1980’s when US-Japan tensions were high, then looking back at their presence in World War II, and then using this knowledge to make broader statements about the prominence of these stereotypes today.

We spent our first two days of discussion pinpointing stereotypes of Japan from the past thirty years, both from personal experience and using Pico Iyer’s The Lady and The Monk and David Mura’s Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei. While both memoirs detailed very different experiences of foreigners in the same country, one of the themes that appeared frequently in both works was that Japan was viewed as an enigma by the West. According to individual accounts within both books, Japan was the complete opposite of the US in many ways. Where the US praised individuality and creativity, Japan emphasized being a cog in the machine. Where the US prided itself as being an equal opportunity country, Japan had strict gender roles that oppressed women, as evidenced by Sachiko throughout Iyer’s book.

Once the discussion was opened to analysis of these claims, we quickly began to discover that several of the ways in which we viewed our country were the same as the Japanese viewed theirs, and that all of these radical ideas we attributed to the Japanese could just as easily be applied to the US. This trend is most easily demonstrated in John W. Dower’s War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, in which the author examines stereotypes like the ones above in World War II propaganda. Speaking specifically to the issue of inequality, the US made accusations that the Japanese mistreated the Chinese and Koreans (Kindle Loc 466), and that the United States was fighting for the free world. On the other side of the war, the Japanese pointed out that the States’ treatment of African Americans was inhumane and that the imperialist West was treating its constituent colonial citizens as sub-human, and that in fact Japan was the true freedom fighter.

All of the examples we studied afterwards all pointed to the same message: for two countries that consider one another opposites, the United States and Japan have a whole lot in common. Moreover, the idea of Japan being an “enigma” was less a matter of its culture being completely different and more a matter of perspective.


The instructor (left) teaching us how to say “ありがとうございます (Arigatou gozaimasu = Thank you).

During our trip to the Japan Foundation, we discussed this topic briefly, but focused more on preparing to travel to a country whose native language most of us do not know how to speak. In the hour and a half clinic, they taught us etiquette in public places and a few important phrases, such as “なになにはどこですか” doko desu ka, or where, and “ありがとうございます” Arigatou gozaimasu, or thank you,  to help us navigate and communicate during our free time.

The more I prepare for our flight next Thursday, the more excited I get. Having spoken to several of my fellow classmates, I know they feel the same. We may only have two more days of class left before our trip, but we definitely have a lot more to discuss before we travel to the Land of the Rising Sun.