This is the title of a very good essay written by Patrick Sherriff, a writer/journalist who lives in Akibo, Japan.
How to Write about Japan takes on some of the story lines and stereotypes used and reused by people who write about Japan: the "inscrutability" of the Japanese, the poor suicidal "salaryman", the recycling of old stories about weird "trends" that may or not really exist outside the observer's mind, the strange food, and the pictures that always show the Japanese doing something odd and so on and so forth.
Sherriff pulls no punches about the travel writers who use these themes in their articles. "If the Japanese are so darned inscrutably different from regular folk," he writes, "how in the hell can you, whose only expertise is you got through two-thirds of Shogun in college, get at the Real Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun Japan, The Cat and the Concrete Japan?"
The Real Japan? Ah, this I recognize. It's a close cousin to a place called The Real France (aka la France profonde). In this imaginary world the French are just as mysterious - a strange but adorable tribe with quaint and exotic customs that are an endless source of amusement and wonder.
It is generally true that wherever an expat finds him or herself is unique and completely unlike any other place on the planet. The vocation of the travel writer and long-term residents who write expat biographies is to assert insider status and reveal differences to an audience out there in the world who will hopefully find it interesting enough to pay to read about it.
Note that this uniqueness is always defined by the culture of origin of the writer, and probably reveals more about the writer himself and his relationship to his home country and culture than it does about the country he or she writes about.
Sherriff's "rules" show what is sacrificed in that effort to be interesting and saleable. Articles that emphasize the exotic and perpetuate negative and positive stereotypes have the effect of practically writing the population concerned out of membership in the human race. Complex human beings who are themselves unique individuals living on a planet composed of other unique individuals become static cardboard cutouts defined by their deviation from norms that are the mental and cultural baggage of the writer, and read as gospel truth by readers continents away. How dangerous is this?
Very. That the Japanese are "inscrutable" and impossibly different sounds very much like something my grandfather might have said - the one who went to war against them.
I invite you to read the article that inspired this one: How to Write about Africa.
And I would love to hear from you, Flophouse reader, about the rules for writing and selling articles about the country where you live.