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December 1999 - Issue No. #37 (p.12)

Images of Africa: Japanese Students and EFL Textbooks

by Yasuko Enomoto

Ichihara Senior High School, Chiba, Japan

In the 13 high school English textbooks published by 8 companies in Japan, there are 15 topics which touch on Africa. Of the 50+ countries in Africa, only 10 are dealt with:

    Kenya (6)     Nigeria (3)     Guinea (2)    Ghana (2)      South Africa (2)
    Zambia (1)    Ethiopia (1)    Gambia (1)    Zimbabwe (1)   Mozambique (1)
                     (the number of times dealt with is given in parentheses)

These ten countries are comparatively well-known in Japan. Ethiopia is known for its marathon runners and Ghana for Dr. Hideo Noguchi while Kenya gets the most coverage, with topics such as nature, animals and student exchange. When South Africa appears, apartheid, human rights (and Gandhi) are always covered. Guinea appears twice due to Ousman Sankhon, a former Guinean diplomat who is a popular Japanese TV personality.

However, most Japanese people have difficulty in telling one African country from another and don't realize how different African countries are from each other.

When Japanese EFL textbooks deal with Africa as a whole, rather than with a specific African country, they usually focus on world hunger and foreign aid, and see African nations as developing countries which always need assistance. Textbook lessons on Africa can be divided into the following categories:

      * foreign Aid (2)                 * human rights (2)
      * world hunger (3)                * nature/animals (3)
      * student exchange (2)            * culture (1)
      * history of black people (especially slavery) (1)

These themes are important in terms of their role in introducing Africa to Japanese students. However, something is missing — the daily lives of contemporary people in African countries and the issue of colonialism, an important historical aspect which should be covered for its negative and positive results, including the influence of the European nations which ruled African countries.

I conducted some research on Japanese students' attitudes and interest towards Africa. This consisted of a quiz I gave to my EFL students to measure how much they're influenced by the media and how broad their knowledge of Africa is. My hypothesis was that Japanese students have stereotyped images of African people, societies and cultures because they have no opportunity to learn about them and get little information from the mass media except the vague notion that Africans are poor an malnourished.

My quiz was conducted among first year Japanese high school students from 4 classes: one Intensive English class, two higher level academic classes, and one regular class. The average scores obtained by my students were:

     40%  (4/10) for the two higher-level classes
     60%  (6/10) for the regular class
     70%  (7/10) for the Intensive English class.

Interestingly, while students' academic levels didn't match their answers, students who were more interested and motivated in learning English had fewer prejudices, more knowledge, were more open-minded and had a better sense of foreign cultures. From the quiz results, Japanese students' images of Africa can be summarized roughly as follows:

  1. It's always hot in Africa - about 35 degrees centigrade.

  2. African people wear nothing because it's too hot.

  3. There are no supermarkets, golf courses or tall buildings in Africa.

  4. People in Africa can't speak English or are not so good at speaking it.

  5. People in Africa have no air conditioners because they can't afford to buy them.

This isn't so surprising considering that many adults in Japan have similar notions about African cultures. People in Japan know what people in Western countries wear and eat, but have limited knowledge about people in African countries. The Japanese media put too much focus on Western cultures, but not on African cultures or other Asian cultures.

Another reason is that the Japanese media seem to have a fixed image of "what countries should be" and cover issues according to these stereotypes. For the media, Africa "should be" the Black Continent. If they go to an African country, they think they should take pictures of dirty streets and poor children instead of the fancy hotels or safari lodges they stay at.

If the textbooks carry images free from cultural stereotypes, the attitudes of Japanese people towards other cultures might change. Not only the media, but also teachers have to be free from prejudice and stereotypes. To raise global children, the media, adults and we teachers must all become global citizens.

To take the quiz yourself, please click here


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Kip A. Cates, Tottori University, Koyama, Tottori City, JAPAN 680-8551
E-mail: Work Tel/Fax: 0857-31-5650