Feynman gets the wrong idea upon seeing a beautiful Japanese woman.

In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, chapter Would You Solve the Dirac Equation?, Feynman recounts his first stay at a Japanese hotel in the early 1950s:

I pushed open the doors and admired the lovely garden, and sat down at the table to do a little work.

I wasn’t there more than fifteen or twenty minutes when something caught my eye. I looked up, out towards the garden, and I saw, sitting at the entrance to the door, draped in the corner, a very beautiful young Japanese woman, in a most lovely outfit.

I had read a lot about the customs of Japan, and I had an idea of why she was sent to my room. I thought, “This might be very interesting!”

She knew a little English. “Would you rike to see the garden?” she asked.

I put on the shoes that went with the yukata I was wearing, and we went out into the garden. She took my arm and showed me everything.

It turned out that because she knew a little English, the hotel manager thought I would like her to show me the garden — that’s all it was. I was a bit disappointed, of course, but this was a meeting of cultures, and I knew it was easy to get the wrong idea.

Feynman had read books about Japanese culture, most likely written in English by Westerners. Although he had devoured textual knowledge of Japanese customs from the perspectives of Westerners, this textual knowledge, or his interpretation of it, was shown to be inaccurate or misleading when it came to real-life human interaction.

Feynman assumed that the woman sent to his room was a prostitute, when in fact, she was a highly-educated woman who knew a foreign language. Both gender prejudice and race prejudice (specifically presumed culture based on race) led Feynman to make a quick assessment about the situation that was incongruent with reality.

It is interesting that these stereotypes of Japanese women are transmitted through texts that are mostly read by educated individuals. If Feynman was not textually educated about Japanese customs, perhaps he would not have been as confident in his initial impressions.


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