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Lessons From Japan
May 31, 2003
By Sally Robinson

I'm spending a year as a middle-school English teacher in Japan. I'm part of the JET program, which brings native English speakers into Japan in order to provide living, breathing examples of colloquial English and Western culture. Since many of my students have never met a non-Japanese person before, I have a unique opportunity to shape their opinions of Americans by giving them the real dirt on my country - not from TV or Hollywood, but straight from the mouth of an ordinary citizen.

Unfortunately, the Bush Administration's bullying, unilateral foreign policy has spawned a worldwide wave of anti-Americanism that makes representing my culture to Japanese children a humbling and sometimes painful experience. The only way for American citizens to gain even a modicum of respect in the international community is to refuse to let the Bush Administration speak for us any more.

One of the biggest problems I face in relating to my students is that they assume all Americans have the same opinions and act the same way. That means that I get pegged as pro-war, pro-gun and anti-France because that's the image our country's leadership has gone out of its way to promote. The Bush Administration has been so brazen, and the media so biased in favor of war in Iraq, that Japanese people are incredulous when I tell them many Americans would give anything to be able to undo the events of the past few months.

My students' one-dimensional view of Americans is partly rooted in prejudice, because Japan is a closed society and few Japanese people have the opportunity to form relationships with foreigners. Still, even when people parrot incredibly biased half-truths (such as, "Americans have steak and coke for dinner every night, don't they?") or complete misinformation (as in, "I heard most Americans don't go to high school"); even when I feel absolutely indignant at facing anti-Western prejudice, I am still embarrassed by how much my country has done to deserve its negative image.

Recently, my frustration with Japanese people always asking if I own a gun prompted me to devote the last half of my 1st year English class to discussing stereotypes of Americans. I had the students write on the blackboard whatever came to mind when they heard the word "America" and we went down the list and discussed what they wrote. Some of the things they came up with were parts of my country's recent history and culture that I would rather forget. My students mentioned crime, terrorism, war on Iraq, SUVs and lawsuits. Of course, there were positive things like the Statue of Liberty, but on the whole it was humbling to face down a class of 13-year-olds and listen to all their indictments of my country and my culture. However, we made some progress on separating the stereotypes from the truth, and in the end, my students agreed that it is dangerous to make generalizations about the attitudes of an entire nation of people.

Since my students have proved they are willing to get past stereotypes and trust me, an American, my country needs to prove itself worthy of their trust. Yes, much of what Japanese people assume about Americans is based on gross exaggeration, but quite a bit of their criticism is well deserved. I hate that my country's president blatantly disregards the opinions of world leaders who disagree with him (who needs the UN, anyway?), but most of all, I hate the fact that because I'm an American, Bush's actions reflect on me. Our government could help assure that Japan's future leaders have a more open-minded and positive view of the USA by having a foreign policy agenda that puts global well-being above oil gluttony. If our government showed a tiny bit of concern for how its actions affect the rest of the world, we would not be facing such an overwhelming swell of anti-Americanism.

These necessary changes in American foreign policy will require a lot of careful political work, but there is something simple that we can do to improve our worldwide image while we work on fixing our government. The clue about how to proceed comes from the fact that people in Japan assume all Americans have the same political beliefs and opinions. Japanese people are assuming Americans are marching in lockstep behind President Bush - is he not our chosen leader? (Well, that's another story...)

Until the 2004 elections, the one way Americans can change our image in the world is by trumpeting the fact that we do not all believe the same things. By voicing our dissatisfaction with US foreign policy, we prove the Bush Administration does not speak for all Americans and make it much more difficult for people in other countries to lump us under one negative label. Far more importantly, we make it harder for our politicians to take heavy-handed measures abroad, like going to war over oil, in the name of American citizens. This country cannot afford to have people with dissenting opinions walking on eggshells in the name of homeland security. The world is poised for a serious conflict over what direction global politics should take and where America fits into that picture. Discord at home will create harmony abroad.

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