Can you tell a Japanese face apart from a Chinese and Korean face? Many say they can. That's rubbish, I say. I certainly cannot. Show me a gathering of Japanese, Korean, and Japanese faces and have them speak their languages, and I will identify their nationalities. Truism, indeed.
Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, they are all the same to me.
We used to hear a comment like this in my early years in America. It is considered a racial slur in the present climate of political correctness. It is more likely to be rephrased today in the form of uncertainty or curiosity rather than as a callous generalization, at least in public. People may refer to a certain Oriental person, and say, "Japanese or Chinese. . . I don't know. . . they all look alike to me," or, more likely to play safe, they may simply say "an Asian" or "an Oriental person," and leave the distinction a blur. Sometimes I insist and ask "Japanese? Chinese?" And I get an answer in a tone of irritation: "Japanese, Chinese, Korean, I can't tell; maybe you can." And I get my last word: "No, I can't." It's usually the fairer-skinned Far East Asians who are clustered together as indistinguishable, not the more distinctly darker-skinned and physiognomically more marked Maoris, Indonesians, and Srilankians.
The Asians whose racial identity is misconstrued don't generally take the confusion kindly even in the form of curiosity. Japanese, in particular, when mistakenly called Chinese or Korean, seem to consider it a slur perhaps in their propensity to insular ethnocentricism. Saying to a Japanese that she or he looks Chinese or Korean is no compliment. Few Japanese are charmed, as I am, to be mistaken for a Korean or Chinese or, for that matter, a Maori, Thai, Filipino, Taiwanese, Peruvian, or Puertorican. Koreans and Chinese probably are not flattered to be called Japanese, either. There is perhaps a subtle trap of racial superiority if the ethnic misappellation is felt to be similar to the case of a professor being mistaken for a salesman, a nurse or a bank clerk.
Certainly, I am not saying that Korean, Chinese, and Japanese are all the same to me. What I am saying is that I cannot tell their faces apart.
A Korean friend of mine insists that she can tell a Korean face from Japanese or Chinese. Perhaps there are certain facial features that distinguish some Japanese. If they are cited, we will look for them and find them. On the other hand, it is not hard either to find Japanese faces lacking precisely those features. This goes, of course, for Koreans and Chinese as well. I know Thais, Filipinos, and Indonesians, not to speak of Chinese and Koreans, whom I can easily mistake for Japanese. New York, being a melting pot of immigrants and foreign visitors, is a perfect site for a fieldwork in ethnophysiognomy. Sitting in the subway, I do a great deal of face watching, not only the faces of various Asians but also Hispanics, Western, Eastern, and Nordic Europeans, African-Americans, and Middle Eastern peoples, too. Watching them just sitting, reading, or snoozing is fascinating. But I like watching them talk; it's more instructive.
There are undeniable cultural differences among Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese. There are languages and customs. Custom is most manifest in the clothes people wear; custom and costume are cognate words, after all. In the nineteenth century different Asians wore different national or ethnic costumes. In contemporary America, differentiation in Asian clothing is virtually nil; it's all contemporary American. In fact, among the young today, it's almost all contemporary American anywhere in the world. When I lived in Italy, I watched in Assisi a souvenir vendor hawking postcards. He would call out in turn, cartoline, cartes postales, postcards, and Postkarten. But he was not merely repeating the words mechanically but addressing approaching tourists accordingly even before he could hear what language they were speaking. Fascinated, I asked him how he knew someone coming up the street is American, French, Italian or German, and without missing a beat he said: scarpe signora, scarpe. Shoes, he said. This was before Nike and Reebok. Clothing, even shoes, is not very helpful in setting apart the Japanese face any more.
Food, of course, persists longer than costume, traveling with the immigrants wherever they go. But they don't accompany the faces in the public, and today they, too, cross ethnic boundaries. Sushi is everywhere, and it is served in America in Chinese and Korean restaurants as well. This is a proof that their clientele knows that Chinese, Korean, and Japanese are not the same. As universal as sushi are moo goo gai pan, bibimpap, and Thom Ka Gai, well, universal perhaps among select circles.
So, of cultural components, language is the surest index; if a couple is conversing in Japanese, I know they are Japanese. But if I see Asian faces talking where I can't hear the language, like across the street, beyond a glass wall, or in the roaring subway, I can still see it. Yes, I see and read the language where I can't hear it.
When I went to Italy, I already knew Italian well enough. But while living there, I learned to speak it better, and I did that by imitation. Learning certain verbal expressions, I inevitably learned the gestural expressions to go with them. For example, there is the typical gesture of chopping the air. You keep the palm open straight and bent back at the wrist and, with the fingers close together, you go chop chop repeatedly through air at a slight angle as you say something like, anzi (indeed), certo (surely), or eh, signora. Or, there is another characteristically Italian hand gesture of weighing a pinch of salt for emphasis. You position your hand with the fingertips pulled together as though you picked up a pinch of salt, hold it up with the fingers pointing upward, and move it up and down in the action of weighing, at times both hands, all ten fingures, held together. Then, you say, appunto (precisely), assolutamente (absolutely), davvero (ain't that the truth), and such. Or, in resignation, you roll out your lower lip, pull the corners of the mouth downward, and squint your eyes, and you say: eh, come si fa (what's to do). When you shrug Italian way, you keep the elbows pressed to the sides of the body and your both hands held out as though to say, see I ain't got nothing, and you say, ma scusi sa (ironic excuse me) or eh, non so (what do I know). The seated disciples in Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper provides us with a compendium of Italian gestures still in currency today.
Going from Rome to Paris, one suddenly realizes that you don't see these gestures but others peculiar to the French. In the more typical French shrug, for example, the elbows are close to the sides and the hands are brought up closer to the chin, palms facing up. Americans gesticulate much less than Italians. But they are still histrionic to the Japanese eye. Conversely, Westerners find the Japanese conversing virtually immobile except for the frequent bows. Inscrutable Japanese.
True, Japanese don't gesture much unless they are overly excited and get histrionic. Then, an imported English word is used to describe the action: jesuchah tappuri. Still, even the most inscrutable Japanese make gestures, and there are unmistakable Japanese gestures. I have become keenly aware of them in New York where I can observe Japanese visitors and recent arrivals, on the one hand, and acculturated long-term residents and Japanese-Americans (that is to say, English speaking Japanese), on the other. Then, watching their gestures I can tell a visiting Japanese clearly apart from a Japanese American even at a distance far beyond the audible range.
One of the most telling is the pecking head. Two people, especially women, conversing nod in agreement alternately almost at every syllable and in rapid repetition like a pecking bird, often two nods close together, obviously saying: un, un (informal short yes). A slower nod accompanies oon and foon (yeah) and ah, so. Men nod similarly when saying such phrases as: ja'a (well, a slurred form of dewa), chotto, ah sôdesuka, or sô sô sore sore (right, that's it). Such a nod can be seen as an abbreviated form of a bow, as in the one accompanying the expression, ya'a, dômo shitsurei (do pardon me). Take note that while the head nods twice in saying, ah, sô, for its English counterpart, I see or oh, sure, the head is thrown back and then brought back just once, and unlike the American nod, the Japanese nod drops the head more and in more rapid succession. In saying, or rather implying, ah, sô, for example, the head sometimes nods twice for each syllable, four times rapidly, peck-peck peck-peck. Say to yourself punctuating with nods such phrases as "Sô nan dayo, sukkari komarikitte irundayo (right, I am in a sorry pickle)," and imagine being the listener and you will be nodding the Japanese way.
There are many other gestures, of course, but only a few should suffice to make the point. There is the tilting of the head in doubt which may accompany a phrase like sô kanah (I wonder if that's so), daijôbukana (I wonder if it's OK), etc., or even sôneh and foon, implying "I doubt it," "I don't know," or "I'm not sure." There is the waving of the hand, palm open and fingers straight, in front of the nose, as though brushing off a gnat. This is negation, as in saying, dame dame (no good), or, more specifically, when refusing a drink saying, zen zen damenandesuyo (sorry, I can't drink at all).
Watching Far Eastern faces, if these Japanese gestural peculiarities are missing I presume they are English-speaking Japanese, or else Korean or Chinese. If and when I am proficient in Korean and Mandarin, I should be able to identify their kinesic markers. Kinesis is the semiotic study of gestures as cultural indices. Those who claim to be able to tell if a face is Japanese, Korean or Chinese are probably reading, not their faces per se, but their kinesic features. Their observations are cultural rather than physiognomic.
A friend, a Korean American, currently in Korea, wrote me that he is often mistaken for a Japanese. I tell him that's probably because being a Korean American he doesn't have the kinesic arsenal of the native Koreans. Once in a Kyoto Hotel, as I registered, I was complimented that I spoke Japanese very well. I told the clerk that I am Japanese, born and brought up in Japan. But she did not look convinced. Obviously, I didn't nod, peck, peck, like the Japanese.
T. Kaori Kitao, 04.22.02, courtesy of Chanpon