Posts Tagged ‘japanese’

Exotic Asian Rugs Sold by Orientals

November 6, 2011
Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin: An Asian man standing on an Oriental rug

First off, let me make it clear that I don’t want to use any terms that are going to offend people because, well, I want to keep all my teeth. If people want to be called “Asian” instead of “Oriental,” that’s what I do. No sense starting fights.

That said, my question is, when did “Oriental” become offensive? I remember when I was growing up, if you wanted to insult someone from China or Japan, there were many words you could use, but “Oriental” was never on the list.

In my experience, the people who are offended by the word “Oriental” are usually not from the Orient themselves. They’re second- and third-generation Americans with a political agenda. The majority of the 1.5 billion people currently living in the Orient, on the other hand, don’t care. Most go about their daily business, blissfully unaware that there are Americans who make an issue over this word.

Besides, whoever decided we should start saying “Asian” instead of “Oriental” wasn’t looking at a map. By land mass, most of the continent of Asia is Russia. But nobody calls Vladimir Putin Asian. To further confuse things, Japanese people are usually considered Asian, but Japan is an island. Many Japanese people have never set foot on the continent of Asia.

If you look it up, “Oriental” simply means “eastern.” Nothing offensive about a compass direction. True, China and Japan are to the east and Europe and America are to the west only for a person swimming in the Rhine river. But it’s a useful convention that’s not meant to be derogatory toward anyone. In fact, the word “Tokyo” is Japanese for “eastern capital” and the Japanese word for “Japan” basically means “land of the rising sun” – in other words, the east. (This also explains the big red circle on the Japanese flag.) So at least some Japanese people don’t seem to mind identifying themselves as “eastern.”

I searched the Internet to see if someone out there could explain why they were offended by this word. From what I’ve been able to gather, for some people, the word “Oriental” conveys the meaning of “exotic, mysterious, strange.” To bury this stereotype, they say, we should call people from Orient “Asian.” Only rugs and fans are Oriental.

But if the whole point of using the word “Asian” is to combat the “exotic” stereotype, it’s funny how common it has become to hear phrases like “exotic Asian” (1,620,000 Google results) and even “inscrutable Asian” (10,900 Google results). After a few decades of use, “Asian” is taking on the same “exotic” connotation that “Oriental” had. Who knows – after another 50 years, they’re going to say “Asian” perpetuates the “exotic” stereotype, so we have to switch again.

Boil it down, it seems what offends people is not the word itself, but what the word has unfortunately come to be associated with in some people’s minds. It’s the connotation, not the definition. In other words, the problem is not the word, it’s the people.

Actually, by taking a perfectly nice word like “Oriental” and making it offensive, what people have done is created a cause for offense where none existed before, thereby contributing to the problem of racial division that they were trying to solve.

If you want to overcome the “exotic” stereotype, start with people, not the dictionary. As the late William Safire said: “Cool it, humankind; let the language change in its own time, not to fit the schedule of any -ism.”