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‘Japan’ – the other side of the story

Since the disaster in Japan, professors, staff and students of the department of Japanese Language and Culture at Leiden University have regularly been contacted by the media asking for their opinion about the events taking place there. Ivo Smits and Kasia Cwiertka, Professors of Japanese, give their thoughts on the images portrayed by the media.

Images as threat

Japan has been hit by the worst disaster in the country's post-war history: a combination of a very strong earthquake, an enormous tsunami and major problems with a series of nuclear reacators. It goes without saying that we empathise strongly with the victims, particularly as Japan is a key focus of our work and lives, and that we are concerned about our friends and contacts in the country. Ironically enough, Japan is now facing a further threat: the image of the Japanese and their culture as portrayed in recent days in the media.

‘The Japanese’

The reporting throws up at least two misconceptions: (1) that all Japanese are the same, or that there is such a thing as a single national character, and (2) that everyone in the world should respond in the same way as the Dutch. It's so easy to fall back on long outdated anthropological readings of 'the Japanese', and on the idea that it is strange that people do not react as we in the Netherlands would expect. Such clichés come to mind here as the culture of shame rather than blame, putting other people before yourself, the lack of emotion of the Japanese, the fact that we find it so incomprehensible that the Emperor of Japan waited five days after the earthquake before addressing his people, the Japanese workers in the nuclear plants being ‘kamikazes’, and so on. It's equivalent to us righteously claiming that all Dutch families scrub their doorsteps on a daily basis. 

The Netherlands is not the benchmark

Believe it or not, but Japan is a complex society that is subject to change, like all complex societies. The idea that there can be a single template for all Japanese reactions to the world around them is in fact a painful admission of our own inability to accept that the world is very diverse and that the Netherlands is not the benchmark for social and psychological conduct.  

What makes the matter more complex is that Japan is a society with a long history as an 'object of exoticism':  or, Japan serves above all as a symbol of being different. The opera and film success of such titles as Madame Butterfly, and the stereotypes of 'the barbaric Azian' and 'the stoic Japanese' illustrate the lasting attraction of a Japan that is more than anything has to represent the absolute opposite of Western conventions. Given this mindset, it is simply a distraction when it is explained to us that the reality is more complex and more subtle. 

Leiden expertise

This is exactly what we at Leiden University want to do with our fellow Japan experts: explain that we should take a more subtle approach when considering the reality of the Japanese responses to the disaster that has befallen them. Yes, of course, the Japanese have an emotional response to the disaster, but maybe this response is not as immediate as the Dutch media expect; yes, the Japanese do feel a greater obligation towards other people - which is not the same as the primacy of the group; no, the Japanese imperial house works differently from its European counterparts, which is something people in Japan are more than aware of. And there are further examples that could cited.

Japan is not an exotic paradise (certainly not at the the present time), nor is it some surrealistic dream. It is a complex country, populated by real people. To be able to understand this, it helps to talk to people who prefer to look beyond the clichés.  

Ivo Smits, Professor of Languages and Cultures of Japan
Kasia Cwiertka, Professor of Modern Japanese Studies


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