Friday, January 16, 2009

Jumping Jacks

I'm standing in front of a class full of Japanese high school students. This is a special class for high school seniors who've already passed early admission into college and thus have no burning incentive to sit through regular classes. The high school brings in college professors to teach a "college class" for them.

My class is a lecture on images of Japan in Western media. I've taught a variant of this class each year for four years now, and here that moment comes again. I finish showing them a clip from the 80s Michael Keaton movie "Gung Ho." In the movie, a Japanese company buys an American car maker and the Americans have to please their new Japanese bosses. On the first day of work, the Japanese bosses have the Americans gather in the factory courtyard for exercises, as is traditionally done in Japan. They exhort the Americans to work as a group, then launch into a series of perfectly-synchronized jumping jacks. The Americans slouch and scoff and mock them openly, disbelievingly. The poker-faced Japanese men in their identical suits wave their arms robotically and glare disapprovingly.

The clip ends and I bite my tongue, trying not to say what I always say next. But it's no use: try as I might to resist, it's an involuntary reflex. I open my mouth and, as I do every year, explain to the students:

"This is a stereotype, of course. It's America's image of Japan, not how Japan really is. It's an exaggeration, for comedic effect. It fits the basic culture of each country, but of course Japanese people aren't really like that."

The students blink at me, as they do every year, and I kick myself. I've had this conversation. I know that the students, on the whole, find the slovenly, slouching, selfish Americans pitiable. My instinctive cringe at the robotic, obedient, humorless Japanese is culturally-bound and not necessarily one they share. I'm apologizing to them for a movie that presents Japan in a positive light, I'm saying "Don't worry, I don't think you're really like the efficient, selfless people in this film". I'm speaking gibberish. They smile at me politely and wait for me to start making sense again. I try to do so.

After the lecture, I pack up my computer and notes. As I leave the building, a group of students has gathered outside in the chill, thin January sunlight for a PE class. They're all wearing identical PE uniforms.

As I walk by, they start doing jumping jacks in perfect unison.

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