Unintentional cultural misunderstandings became the subject of great debate in Japan recently following a new round of commercials produced for cup noodle manufacturer Nissin. Although intended to be entirely tongue-in-cheek, some people have raised the issue that it is precisely these kinds of advertisements that compound incorrect notions about a country and lead to further stereotyping, which led to a survey being taken which asked Japanese to list the things that they perceive to be the most common stereotypes about their own culture.

Think you can guess what made the list? Keep reading after the jump to find out!

Earlier this year, I gave a presentation about Japan to a class of 20-something American fifth graders. I started off by asking, “What comes to mind when you think of Japan?” The answers, as you might expect, were all along the lines of samurai, ninja and Hello Kitty. “OK, great ideas,” I replied. “Now, can you tell me what kinds of foods Japanese people eat every day?” “Sushi!” the kids shouted. “How about what they wear on a typical day?” “Oh, it’s a kimono, right?”

In the above case, the children were convinced that Japanese people eat nothing but sushi on a daily basis, when in reality, good-quality sushi is expensive and consumed mainly when dining out. Similarly, they were shocked to learn that Japanese people wear the same kinds of jeans, shirts, and Western-style clothing as we do, and that traditional clothing is worn only on special occasions. I probably don’t have to tell you that a large number of the kids also believed samurai and ninja are still out there, battling their days away…

If the above anecdote both amused you and made you cringe, you might find it hard to watch the newest commercial in Nissin’s “SAMURAI, FUJIYAMA, CUPNOODLE” campaign. After previously touching upon the subjects of idols, manga, and football-playing samurai in Brazil, the third series of commercials began airing in October and introduces the concepts of hon’ne [本音] and tatemae [建前]. These two concepts are usually rendered into English as something like “one’s true intention/motive” and “one’s public face/attitude,” but like any culturally related terms, are much more complex than a simple definition.

However, some Japanese people have begun questioning this latest series of commercials about hon’ne and tatemae and how they portray Japanese people, specifically from a foreigner’s perspective. Are these commercials only perpetuating already deep-rooted stereotypes about Japanese people? Will foreigners misinterpret the tongue-in-check message within?

Take a moment to watch the commercial in question, which conveniently already provides English subtitles:

Do you feel like the writers went too far, and that foreigners with little or no knowledge of Japan will be mislead by the subtitles about hon’ne and tatemae?

As previously mentioned, Yahoo! Japan also reported the results from a survey of 200 Japanese working men in their 20s or 30s which explored the misconceptions that people around the world have about the Japanese. Participants could submit three replies–their first reply was worth three points, the second was worth two points, and the third was worth only one point. Keep in mind that these responses show which misconceptions Japanese people believe foreigners have about the Japanese people, and not what foreigners themselves think.

Here are the results of the survey, ranked in order of most points to least:

“The top 10 things that Japanese people think foreigners misunderstand about Japanese”

1. All Japanese men have the spirit of the samurai (238 points)
2. All Japanese people like working diligently (147 points)
3. All Japanese men wear topknots (108 points)
4. All Japanese people like working collectively (96 points)
5. All Japanese people eat only sushi and tempura (83 points)
6. All Japanese people like lining up (78 points)
7. All Japanese people wear kimono all the time (69 points)
8. All Japanese people love anime and manga (67 points)
9. All Japanese people are pros at using technology (54 points)
10. All Japanese people live in houses with tatami and shoji (paper sliding doors) (49 points)

Now, let’s take a look at the top five responses in greater depth:

1. All Japanese men have the spirit of the samurai (238 points)

“Samurai are very recognizable to foreigners as a symbol of Japan.” (25-year-old)

“When people overseas are introduced to Japan, they typically see historical pictures of samurai, etc.” (26-year-old)

“The word ‘samurai’ can stand on its own.” (29-year-old)

“I myself have no clue what ‘having a samurai spirit’ means.” (29-year-old)


2. All Japanese people like working diligently (147 points)

“If I could manage to get by by working only moderately, I wouldn’t want to work hard.” (29-year-old)

“The idea that ‘working overtime is good’ took root with salarymen.” (26-year-old)

“Slackers really do slack, even if they’re Japanese!” (29-year-old)

“There are a lot of people doing unpaid overtime.” (27-year-old)


3. All Japanese men wear topknots (108 points)

“Topknots are virtually nonexistent nowadays, so don’t get the wrong idea!” (26-year-old)

“Apart from sumo wrestlers, I’ve never seen someone with a topknot.” (26-year-old)

“They must be watching too many historical dramas.” (28-year-old)

“That’s a severe anachronism.” (25-year-old)


4. All Japanese people like working collectively (96 points)

“There are lots of people who don’t like collective action.” (29-year-old)

“There are people who don’t necessarily like working together, but they just do it because it’s logical.” (29-year-old)

“They’re just flocking together because they feel uneasy when alone. There are very few groups that take true collective actions.” (21-year-old)

“Many people follow a group organizational structure at work, but actually like solitude outside of work.” (27-year-old)


5. All Japanese people eat only sushi and tempura (83 points)

“They think everything we eat is healthy.” (26-year-old)

“Maybe it’s because Japanese food is so popular around the world, but there are many foreigners who think that Japanese people eat only Japanese food.” (28-year-old)

“It’s like the image that Americans eat only hamburgers; it can’t be helped.” (26-year-old)

“It would be unhealthy if we ate only those things.” (27-year-old)


The whole premise of Japanese people thinking about misconceptions about themselves seems a bit strange to us. We think it would be interesting to poll a bunch of foreigners to see how their images of Japanese people stack up against the Japanese people’s own ideas. In the meantime, we’re looking forward to whatever crazy antics Nissin features in their next round of cup noodle commercials…

Source: Yahoo! Japan
Images: YouTube (Nissin Group)