It's interesting that even cultural anthropologists are weary of perpetuating stereotypes. Sawa Kurotani looks at the fine balance between cultural descriptions and generalizations/stereotypes in her latest Behind The Paper Screen colum in the Daily Yomiuri:
The founder of anthropology in the United States, Franz Boas, was the strong and vocal advocate of an approach to cross-cultural understanding that is often referred to as "cultural relativism," the idea that cultural beliefs and behavior can be understood and judged only in their own cultural context, and not by imposing outside standards. Behind this concept is Boas' belief that every culture has its own internal logic, and customs and beliefs that may seem outlandish or nonsensical from an outsider's point of view all "make sense" once you understand this internal logic.
For an outsider to come to understand this internal logic of a culture, long-term cultural immersion and careful study are essential. This is why, in the discipline of cultural anthropology, fieldwork of over one year has been the established norm. Even then, anthropologists have struggled with the self-doubt that, no matter how hard they try, they can never really "get it." Some have concluded that the best anthropologists can hope for is a reasonable outsider's interpretation of it.
I also keep wondering what "Japan" really is. Is it about age-old traditions or about contemporary social realities? Is it about a coherent "cultural whole" or the lived experience of individuals who consider themselves Japanese? Is it about official rules and normative values or their infinite variations as practiced in everyday life? And how do we convey all of these things in 30 class sessions or less?
I always struggle in my classroom to strike a balance between the generalizations and the particulars. There are certainly general patterns or tendencies that we may label typically "Japanese."
For example, many anthropologists of Japan have analyzed that the Japanese sense of self is more "relational" and less "individualistic," and argued that the distinction between uchi (inside/home) and soto (outside/strange place) is a key concept in the Japanese worldview. While these generalizations have explanatory values, they gloss over the particulars that makes the actual experience of being Japanese or living in Japan more complex.
My own lived experience of Japan is limited by the fact that I grew up in the Yokohama area, a very large city only about 50 kilometers from Tokyo's city center, in the family of a "salaryman." I have no idea what it is like to grow up on a rice farm, or be the daughter of a small business owner, or live in a small town in Hokkaido. When I travel within Japan, or meet someone who grew up in a different social environment in Japan, I am struck by how different it means to "be Japanese." All these internal differences are key to understanding how actual "natives" live their lives and how the rest of the world appears from their points of view; yet they get erased by theoretical generalizations.
It's interesting that at a recent Entrance Examination meeting where we were critiquing questions for next year's test, one of the Japanese professors objected to a question that he felt was stereotyping Japanese people (Unfortunately I forget the question). I found his objection hilarious, if not accurate, "That sentence sounds like it was written by Ruth Benedict!" (Benedict was the author of the seminal anthropological work, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, the study of the society and culture of Japan that she published in 1946).