By Amaël Cognacq
Since I arrived to Tokyo in September I noticed a lot of references to my country. From Lever Son Verre, the French restaurant at the Komaba campus to Tokyo Tower that looks like the Eiffel Tower, not to mention French language on mugs, notebooks, and other goods at 100-yen shops , lots of things made me wonder about the perception of France in Japan.
Then I also started thinking whether I noticed all those French things because I am French or because they have a dominant presence? After all, there is also an Italian restaurant on campus, and the colors of Tokyo Tower are those of Japan, not France. To get to the bottom of this, I asked University of Tokyo students several questions about how they see my country.To the question “Do you think Japan is influenced by French culture?”, almost all of them answered yes.
That being said, it needs to be nuanced by other answers I got from the interviews. Indeed, to the question “Do you think French culture is better-liked than other Western cultures in Japan?” the majority of the answers was “Yes, but not that much more than the others.” Therefore, it is important to note that other European cultures such as German, British, Spanish or Italian cultures are also well-known and appreciated in Japan.
Then the next question that entered my mind was if there were a “Western interest,” that mixes the Western European cultures together in the eyes of the Japanese, or if it was more of a distinct interest for each culture. According to Yuzo Hoshino, a graduate student of the University of Tokyo going to study in Italy, “We [Japanese people] have a common understanding of some differences of Western Europe cultures and people, like we consider French people romantic or Italian men more like play boys. However, we do not make clear distinctions between all of these cultures like we would do, for example, between Chinese and Taiwanese cultures.”
I also asked another question to the students: “What is your idea of French people?”. Many of those asked used the same adjective to describe the French:「おしゃれ (oshare)」- fashionable. Another adjective often mentioned was proud. Interestingly, both Japanese students who have and have not actually been to France used these two adjectives. It is hard to decide whether those appellations are true or not as it does not only depend on French attitude – if there is any – but also on the perception of it by the Japanese people.
However, one thing is for sure: just as the tip of an iceberg represent only a minuscule part of the whole, first ideas about France do not offer a panoptic vision of the country.
Because of that, some Japanese tourists are really surprised when they visit Paris for the first time. The gap between their vision of the city and the reality, their inability to speak with French people, and the differences in manners cause them to sometimes undergo a sort of disillusion. An example of this could be the security. While in Japan pickpockets are not that common, this kind of misfortune can happen from time to time in Paris and experiencing it can be a very difficult moment. In order to make Japanese people aware of that fact, security advice are given in their language in all the Paris subways.
A lot of other things could be said about the way Japanese people seem to perceive France. However, at the end, I think the best way to have an opinion about something is to experience it by oneself. Therefore, please, come and visit France! Go to Paris, but also to other wonderful cities like Bordeaux, Aix-en-Provence or Lyon, or in the countryside such as the Pays Basque or Normandy. Each region is for sure rich of discoveries as it has its own particularity be it tradition, architecture, or food. Being a French student living in Japan, I believe there is a mutual and vivid curiosity between Japanese and French cultures. Having seen it from the two sides, I now hope more people will, like me, cross the bridge and taste the other country’s culture from the inside.
Amaël Cognacq is a first-year PEAK student at the University of Tokyo.