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Inscrutable Oriental
Japan: So inscrutable that he can't even smile.

Throughout the years, people from East Asia have been depicted in European media as being more reserved and stoic than Europeans. This comes from the perceptions of European merchants, soldiers, and officials unable or simply unwilling to appreciate the astonishingly diverse social customs of a region of many million square kilmetres and more than 300 million people (from the 17th century onward). Faced with a continent even more heterogenous than their own, they more-or-less gave up on trying to figure out what each region's 'hat' was and simply wrote them all off as 'inscrutable' or mysterious/unreadable.

If treated positively, a character who follows this trope can come across as being a calm, cool, and fairly collected (if a bit eccentric) person who may also serve as a source of wisdom and encouragement. If treated negatively, characters come across as being overly dour, uptight, dull, and all around boring fellows who seem to have trouble comprehending concepts like leisure or fun. The distinction is similar to that between Stiff Upper Lip and British Stuffiness, respectively.

This can be shown tropewise as being The Stoic in more serious and/or positive portrayals. And as The Comically Serious or Only Sane Man in more comedic and negative portrayals. The Old Master may also be this trope.

All in all, this trope can be described as the Eastern counterpart to Germanic Depressives. Any kernel of truth in the stereotype can be attributed to the one universal social mannerism throughout East and Southeast Asia of "maintaining face", and which British people would understand: Don't make a fuss.

One reason for this trope being less popular nowadays is its association with offensive Yellow Peril villains, who were frequently untrustworthy, scheming Chessmasters who used their lack of emotion to disguise their motives.

Contrast Asian Rudeness.

Examples:

    open/close all folders 

     Anime and Manga  

  • Japan from Axis Powers Hetalia, pictured above, who is extremely popular in his country's fandom due to the self-deprecating stereotypes he embodies. His memorized rules of conduct consist of gems like agreeing to consider options when he actually means 'no', never giving straight answers in a corner, becoming more polite when he is annoyed by other people, and apologizing when others are causing trouble.
  • Taki from Maiden Rose, although done rather interestingly so that he has his defrosting moments while at a foreign military academy and then suddenly switches to "inscrutable" mode upon returning home, only to confuse the hell out of Klaus who goes with him.

    Comics 

  • The new Judomaster's first appearance in Justice Society of America is characterized by her being silent, cold and reserved out of combat. Mind you, before then, she'd been portrayed as witty and perfectly capable of speaking English, but these things happen. Mind you, she did warm up a bit when she fell for Damage.
  • Mocked in a strip of the italian comic Sturmtruppen where a crossdressing spy is ordered to escort the japanese ally to another base, and affirms that "Nothing can surprise these inscrutable orientals". Cue to the japanese ally trying to hump him.
    Spy: Hey, does he know the meaning of "disguise?"
    Sergeant: Who knows, he's inscrutable...

    Film 
  • The English lawyer's Chinese assistant in The Letter, who maintains his air of obsequious politeness even as he demands $10000 blackmail in return for handing over a letter that incriminates the lawyer's client.
  • Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid.
  • Parodied with a line from the western comedy The Great Bank Robbery, something along the lines of: "You sure are inscrutable, Fong. Just like all you Secret Service fellas."
  • Seraph and the Keymaker from The Matrix films were meant to invoke this trope, fulfilling the "Orientalist fantasy".
  • Subverted in the Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle: Harold's coworkers think he is this, but for the viewers, he's The Everyman with a weed habit. Culminates in a spectacular "World of Cardboard" Speech in which Harold spells out to his coworkers how very goddamned much he is not this, thank you.
  • Spoofed in Around the World in Eighty Days, where Fogg asks for help from a stereotypical looking old Chinese man in loud pidgin English. The man turns out to speak English perfectly.
  • Subverted (and how!) by every role Sessue Hayakawa ever played. One of his greatest roles was a man who was doing his best to appear impassive and inscrutable — but wasn't.

    Literature 

  • Shiro and Ancient Mai from The Dresden Files until we learn that Shiro is a Cool Old Guy and Ancient Mai has elements of an Obstructive Bureaucrat, then they don't seem so inscrutable.
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn features a Chinese Launderer character who's stereotypical in other ways, but it actually calls out this trope. The young heroine sees the Chinese man as a wise mystic and assumes he's listening thoughtfully when she talks to him, when in reality he doesn't speak English and is just waiting for her to leave.
  • In The Westing Game, Mrs. Hoo is seen this way at first, but it soon becomes obvious that it's solely a language barrier.

     Live Action TV  

     Tabletop Games  

  • Lampshaded in the description of Lacquered Tablet, an Agatean ambassador described in GURPS Discworld Also:
    Someone once told him that the rest of the world sees Agateans as inscrutable, and he decided this was a good idea. He is very inscrutable, and goes everywhere with a gang of large guards chosen for their inscrutability.

     Web Comics  

  • The ethnicity of {...} from Hanna Is Not a Boy's Name is unknown, although he's vaguely Asian: he has almond-shaped eyes (more noticeable when they're not surrounded with black stuff) and black hair, and apparently has a sentimental attachment to paper cranes. And he matches the wise-but-stoic part of the trope well, commenting that he's been told he's "hard to read", and smiling so rarely that Hanna considers it a bit of an event when it happens. So he might be this, or he might not. Or maybe being dead leaves you a little detached from emotional ups and downs. It's hard to say.
  • Damara from Homestuck is "fake troll Japanese" and her insistence on speaking in bad Japanese while maintaining a generally deadpan expression causes Meenah to refer to her in frustration as an "INSCRUTABL-E FIS)(WIF-E".

     Western Animation  

  • Lampshaded on an episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series, during an exchange between Kirk and Sulu. Incidentally, this episode was written by Walter Koenig, who played Chekov on TOS and was friends with George Takei in real life:
    Kirk: Any chance of teaching me that body throw? Could come in handy sometime.
    Sulu: I don't know, sir. It isn't just physical, you know. You have to be... inscrutable.
    Kirk: Inscrutable? ... Sulu, you're the most scrutable man I know.

     Video Games  

  • Shen Yu in Evil Genius is described as "inscrutable", which is not surprising as he's a take on Fu Manchu.


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