A simple way to show someone is culturally insensitive (but acceptably so) is for them to be unable to tell Asian individuals from one another. Almost always played for comedy, though occasionally it is used to show that a character is genuinely racist to the point of being unable or unwilling to tell individuals apart since they just view them as a whole.
This could all be partially explained by the commonality of brown eyes and straight black hair in Asia; blondes and brunettes are generally restricted to the Caucasian part of Asia. However, it's a psychologicalfact that humans have a harder time distinguishing details in faces from races that are unfamiliar to them. This trope is often turned on its headfor comedy when Asian people will claim, "All white people look the same!"
Compare Interchangeable Asian Cultures, a subtrope of Mistaken Nationality where entire Asian cultures are confused for one another (by either characters within the fiction or even creators of a work). Also compare Ditto Aliens, which is a similar phenomenon but applied to an alien group, rather than a foreign group. When they really do all look the same, see Only Six Faces.
open/close all folders
Anime & Manga
Exploited in Monster, a young German cop denounces the protagonist Tenma (a Japanese doctor wanted for murder) to his superiors, but after Tenma saves his mother's life he then lies to his superiors by telling them that his suspect was called Dr. Chang and that he mistook him because of his oriental features.
Detective Conan discusses and inverts this in the episode introducing James Black. Kidnappers mistake Black for the wealthy American owner of a trained dolphin show. Conan explains to the Detective Boys that, just as All Asians Are Alike to many Westerners, all Caucasians look alike to many Asians. At the same time, this is subverted when Conan is able to differentiate Black from the show-owner because he speaks English with a British rather than Texan accent (at least for the show's purposes. However, he actually speaks it with a "Japanese actor reading phonetically" accent).
Kitsune no Yomeiri has a variation of this. When Ousuke traveled to his girlfriend's homeland, a bunch of fox spirits come up to him and he believes Tsunemaru has multiplied. Tsunemaru soon appears and feels insulted that he was mistaken for children, only for Ousuke to think they all look the same.
Played straight, but with a twist, by Henry Cho, a Korean comedian born and raised in Knoxville, Tennesse. At home, he never had problems finding his parents in a crowd, but in Korea?
Australian comedian Ahn Do appeared on family history/talk show Pictures of You and invoked this trope, talking about how his father pulled off a Dressing as the Enemy ploy:
Quite a few of Chris Tucker's lines throughout the Rush Hour series refer to this, along with every other crude Asian stereotype in the book. During a fight with a gang of Triads in Rush Hour 2 he accidentally punches Jackie's character in the face:
Lee: Carter! Carter: All a y'all look alike!
In a DVD commentary for House of Flying Daggers, director Zhang Yimou admitted that he added in a new introduction scene for Andy Lau's character, who was originally supposed to be introduced already on an undercover mission, so that Western audiences wouldn't think he was two different characters. He and costar Zhang Ziyi then stated that they sometimes had trouble telling Western movie stars apart. In a separate commentary, he mentioned that he also had Lau eat peanuts in all his initial scenes in order to help audiences subconsciously identify him in his different roles.
Inverted in Help!, where Swami Clang can't tell the Beatles apart: "They look all the same in their similarity and language!"
Parodied and inverted in a Deleted Scene from Mimino: the two protagonists, a Tall, Dark and HandsomePorn Stache-wearing Georgian and a short, plump, barefaced Armenian, ride in an elevator of a Moscow hotel with two Japanese men, who happen to resemble each other like identical twins. One of the Japanese men tells the other: "Those Russians all look the same!"
China is home to at least five dozen ethnicities, but most of these groups have intermarried with each other for so long and to such an extent that, even to themselves, they tend to look homogeneous. Hence such jokes as...
A crime occurred in a Chinese village. The police composite was used to make sixty arrests.
A contest of doubles has been recently conducted in China. Everyone has won.
From Our Dumb World's entry on China: "1999: NATO mistakenly bombs the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, claiming all the buildings look exactly the same."
Demonstrated in Tangerine with the (South) Asian twins Maya and Nita, whose names in the paper following a soccer match are wrong, to Paul's dismay.
In a season two episode, the Korean liaison officer semi-sarcastically explains the difficulty in finding the father of a half-American baby as, "You all look alike to us." There are also several episodes that deal with or make reference to the difficulty in people being able to tell the difference between Japanese, Chinese and Korean people. An Asian blackmarket salesmen posing as a general even uses the trope to deflect suspicion away from himself, claiming, "We all look the same."
Frank Burns: The Chinese are an exceptionally tricky people, you know. They don't all look alike by accident!
In the finale, Klinger's Korean fiancée (played by Rosalind Chao, Chinese-American) is looking for her family, whom she describes several times as "Short, dark hair?"
Parodied in an episode of Sullivan & Son, where Steve's mom (who is Korean) says all white people look alike to her.
Parodied in an episode of 30 Rock. Jack Donaghy has a meeting with a group of scientists from India, who accidentally call him "John Donovan" and dismissively remark that all American names sound alike to them. For added humor, a delivery boy who looks exactly like Jack (and who like Jack, is also played by Alec Baldwin) later shows up, and one of the scientists wonders aloud if it's racist to think the two white guys look alike.
Inverted in Heroes when Ando and Hiro see a precognitive painting of Matt Parkman. When Hiro asks if they know him, Ando responds that all white people look the same to him. Hiro scolds him for being racist.
In the American version of The Office episode "A Benihana Christmas", Michael Scott (after several drinks) was confused as to which of the two Asian waitresses brought back from the episode's eponymous restaurant was with him. They even switch actresses when the waitresses come to the office. Michael goes as far as to mark the arm of the correct waitress with a sharpie.
Michael: You know how all... waitresses look alike.
The Craw: Actually, the only girl we want is Princess Ingrid. Maxwell Smart: Then why did you abduct the others? The Craw: Unfortunately, Mr. Smart, all Americans look alike to us.
Played straight in another episode where CONTROL's computer was not able to identify the KAOS agent, who was from a fictional East Asian country, because apparently the computer can't tell the difference between people from there.
Chappelle's Show featured a sketch where Dave had an attractive white woman sing all his prejudiced thoughts, one of which was "All Asian people look alike." He then went on to admit that pretty much everyone who isn't black looks alike to him.
Inverted in an episode of Life on Mars; Sam is questioning an Asian witness about whether he saw a certain white guy, and the witness (used to racism from police) says deliberately that he doesn't know, because white people all look alike.
Parodied on the Mind of Mencia segment "CSI: China" where an attempt was made to find a name that matches the profile of the Asian killer. The results were 1,000,000,000 matches.
Inverted in an episode of Barney Miller: when an Asian prostitute has been purse-snatched, she looks through the mugbooks. When she comments to Sgt. Yemana that "they all look alike," he responds, "I know, I'm Japanese too."
On Sabrina the Teenage Witch a Chinese restaurant delivery man hears Salem talking and captures him, saying that he can make enough money off of him to move back to Tokyo. Salem sarcastically wonders what a Japanese guy is doing working at a Chinese restaurant.
Inverted in Flower Drum Song. When Wang's son asks him what the man who robbed him looked like, he says, "Don't ask me what he looked like. All white men look alike."
Educomix: Inverted. Not only do the Asian characters look different from each other, each Asian is a clone of each non-Asian person, so Asia is by necessity as diverse as the rest of the world.
The Joueur du Grenier starts making such a joke while commenting on the Japanese Spider-Man series, but he is cut short by a censoring alarm.
In Family Guy, Peter says "Oh my God, it's Jackie Chan!" to various Asian people, even his sumo wrestling opponent ("Wow, you've put on a lot of weight, Jackie Chan!"). He only gets it correct by the 3rd or 4th try. Inverted when Jackie Chan himself confuses the Griffins for Ethan Hawke (and in the case of Meg, Frankie Muniz).
Played with in an episode where Homer is in a Chinese orphanage, trying to find a specific baby. It might not be that all Asians look the same, but all babies look the same — or more likely, both at once making it extra confusing.
Played with again about Southern Asians when Homer is in India trying to find Apu's cousin; his difficulties are mainly due to the vagueness of Apu's description — along the lines of "he has dark hair and eyes'" (Somehow, he manages to find him in about three tries.)
In "Conjoined Fetus Lady", all the Chinese kids look alike. One Chinese commentator remarks to the other that he is unable to identify a member of the South Park team, as "all Americans look alike." Also, bizarrely, Kevin Stoley is said to be Chinese-American yet looks totally white.
The pictures of 2013's Miss Korea contestants have gone viral and provoked discussions of plastic surgery and how one particular type of face is idealized.
People magazine screwed up an article about Google founder Sergei Brin dating an Asian employee by showing a picture of the wrong Asian woman.
This Asian mother talks about a time when a summer camp accidentally gave her son to another Asian woman.
Face Blindness (Prosopagnosia) is a brain disorder that causes people to have difficulty identifying faces. This leads to embarrassing incidents that look like this trope when the person they are having trouble recognizing is Asian, and the person tries to explain that he's not racist, everyone looks alike to him.
In the UK, there have been scandals in which Asians would exploit this trope by hiring other Asians to take driver's tests for them. Keep in mind that in the UK, "Asian" generally refers to South Asians (such as Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis) rather than East or Southeast Asians.
After the Attack on Pearl Harbor, Magazines like Time and Life all published articles on "How to tell a Chinese Person from a Japanese" to stop overzealous mobs from accidentally attacking Chinese people (who were, after all, on America's side). Similarly, Chinese-Americans took to wearing buttons that say in large letters, "CHINESE".