Friday, December 15, 2006

"I Know How American High School Kids Live...

...because I have watched Beverly Hills 90210." Believe it or not, quite a few students have said this to me. My reaction is somewhere between incredulity and horror though I keep that under wraps. It's pretty important for Japanese people to understand we don't all grow up rich, white, manipulative, and promiscuous with a colorful cadre of close rich white friends and friendly token ethnic friends.

Even though the show went off the air in the U.S. six years ago, it is still ran consistently on cable television (on a woman-oriented channel called LaLa) in Japan. In fact, it appears to be sufficiently popular that, as of 2 years ago, aging cast members were still visiting Japan to promote the show and special behind the scenes shows about the series continue to be shown. That means the show continues to "educate" the Japanese about youth culture in the U.S. to this day. I'm guessing that the O.C. will usurp that role eventually but manage not to portray life any more accurately.

While discussing prejudice, ethnicity and poverty, one of my students told me that she thought all white people in America were middle class or rich. I have to wonder to what extent the aforementioned types of shows foster this erroneous belief or if this particular student has a much more skewed viewpoint than most Japanese people. She felt that only black people were poor. The fact that her black college teacher has reinforced the idea that blacks are constantly living in poor conditions and at an economic disadvantage has probably fueled that notion but it's no more true that all blacks are poor than all whites are rich.

While I used to see my students as quite naive for their notions that U.S. television programs reflected real life in any way, I'm pretty sure now that other cultures and Asians in particular are misunderstood or stereotyped no less by Americans based on how they are portrayed on T.V. While we don't see as much culture imported wholesale into the U.S. from other countries, we do see distorted American views of them inserted into U.S. T.V. programs. This is sometimes for comic effect (e.g., Monty Python's depiction of Chinese and Japanese), it's sometimes fairly earnest and, on older shows, rather racist by current standards.

Given the number of old American shows on Japanese cable, I've at times stumbled on some pretty overt racist statements which were not seen as such at that time. On the old show Quincy M.E., Robert Ito portrayed an assistant for a dozen and a half shows and, at one point, Dr. Quincy remarks on how "inscrutable" he is. In Star Trek, the character of Sulu, being Japanese (yet not having a Japanese name), knew how to use a sword and the character of Keiko on Star Trek the Next Generation seemed to have grown up with less exposure to western culture than Japanese people in our era. Being Japanese, she had to wear her hair with sticks stuck in it, eat food from the sea, grow bansai trees (though to be fair, she was a botanist), and get married in a kimono.

These portrayals seem to be beating us over the head with the characters' ethnicity but I'm pretty sure that the writers didn't realize how trite their characterizations were. Just like my students know Americans from shows like Beverly Hills 90210, those writers know Japan from things like Shogun. Among U.S. television shows, the only one that gets it right is "The Simpsons" though, of course, they exaggerate things for comic effect.

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