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Inscrutable Oriental

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"Everyone is polite. Everyone smiles and bows. But beneath their courtesy, I detect a deep reservoir of feeling."
Nathan Algren, The Last Samurai

Throughout the years, people from East Asia have been depicted in European media as being more reserved and stoic than Europeans. This comes from how the comparatively individualistic culture of Enlightenment-era Europe saw Confucianism, then the dominant philosophy of East Asian (Chinese-dominated) cultures. Due to Confucianism's priority of social harmony and filial piety over individual freedom of expression, it had become stereotyped as collectivist and repressive, like how Stoicism came to be negatively portrayed in modern culture as "emotional repression". Europeans also saw East Asian culture as exotic and highly advanced, but at the same time alien and mysterious, though there was a beauty and intellectualism in their alien-ness. In other words, East Asians had become a real-life equivalent of Elves, including the ancient wisdom that would make them win an argument with a Western gaijin every time.

If treated positively, a character who follows this trope can come across as being a calm, cool, polite 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/or 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.

Compare Japanese Politeness, since Japan was considered the exemplar of this trope. Contrast Asian Rudeness.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Hetalia: Axis Powers:
    • Japan, 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.
    • Hong Kong seems to be this way too, being depicted in his Drama CD appearance as a Deadpan Snarker Emotionless Boy.
  • 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.

    Comic Books 
  • 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...

    Fan Works 

  • 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 appears to be this at first. As we (and Daniel) get to know him we learn this couldn't be further from the truth.
  • 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 & 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 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 80 Days (2004), 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.
  • In Turning Red, Jin is a very stoic and reserved especially in contrast to his wife's Asian Rudeness tendencies.

  • Sean Liu from Abandon All Hope is presented as the Only Sane Man next to Evan and Melissa until he starts falling apart in the second half of the book.
  • 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.
  • In The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Mori (the titular watchmaker) plays this trope largely straight.
  • Inverted in Scanners Live in Vain. The Habermans and Scanners are astronauts who have had their nerves severed to avoid "The Great Pain of Space" experienced while in orbit. As a result, they are very emotionless, but Chang, the Chinese scanner on the crew, is much more expressive and empathetic than the rest of them.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Señor Chang, the Stereotype Flip Spanish teacher in Community, rants about this. Chang himself averts the trop thoroughly, being a loud-mouthed maniac who always wears his heart on his sleeve.
  • Agent Kimball Cho on The Mentalist is the deadest of the deadpan snarkers and most definitely The Stoic. However, he's also willing to go Cowboy Cop and Not So Stoic when the situation calls for it.
  • Averted on FlashForward, in which John Cho played the more Hot-Blooded, emotional and temper-prone half of a pair of FBI partners. In fact, John Cho has pretty much made a career out of averting this stereotype (see Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, above).
  • In season 2 of The Mole, Dorothy was so withdrawn and emotionless that many other contestants suspected her of being the Mole. It turns out she wasn't; she deliberately invoked this trope to draw contestants' suspicions toward her and away from the true Mole so that they would flunk the quiz about the Mole and be eliminated. It worked well enough for her to win in the end.
  • The series bible for Star Trek: The Original Series explicitly describes Sulu as being the total opposite of this. (This got a nod in the animated show; see below.) Instead we get George Takei who revels in Large Ham when he has a chance to do so (see "The Naked Time" for a glorious example). Spock and other Vulcans would end up using many of the characteristics of this trope.
  • Namechecked in the Dr. Terrible's House of Horrible episode "Frenzy of Tongs" when a character actually yells at the Yellow Peril Diabolical Mastermind after being betrayed by him, "Damn your inscrutability!"
  • Played for laughs in Scrubs: J.D. is narrating that many factors influence how each individual patient handles pain. On "race," we see a sushi chef with a kitchen knife buried in his shoulder, stoically asking "Does what hurt?"
  • Occasionally played with on Barney Miller with Detective Nick Yemana, who was pretty scrutable but also a world-class Deadpan Snarker. A blind man who claimed he could perceive character described him as calm, stoic, and in control... that or Japanese. And when Dietrich expressed admiration of the stoic Japanese attitude towards death, Nick whispered to another detective that he personally planned to go out kicking and screaming.
  • Jianyu the monk in The Good Place never speaks due to his vow of silence, only communicates in writing and facial expressions, and wordlessly comforts Michael by putting his hand on his heart in the midst of a breakdown. Subverted when it turns out that 'Jianyu' is actually Jason Mendoza from Florida, who was put in the Good Place by accident. Jason is actually very impulsive and emotional, and he only managed to hide by never talking.

  • "Some Girls" from The Rolling Stones' Some Girls.
    Chinese girls are so gentle
    They're really such a tease
    You never know quite what they're cookin'
    Inside those silky sleeves

    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.

    Video Games 

    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. [winks]
    Kirk: Inscrutable? ... Sulu, you're the most scrutable man I know.