I was once walking down the street with my Japanese friend when a blonde, blue eyed woman passed by. He immediately turned to me and asked, “Where is she from?” I was instantly confused. How was I supposed to know that? He was adamant that he could tell the difference between Japanese and other Asians. Being from the U.S., the famed “melting pot” where birthplace is more usually more important than bloodline, this idea was strange and somewhat ridiculous to me.
It turns out that it’s a relatively common belief in Japan (and other Asian cultures, too, as shown in the video above) that you can look at someone’s face and know where they’re from based on genetic appearance. I’ve had other friends and past boyfriends express this to me as well, pointing to other people in Shinjuku and telling me, “Oh, that person is Korean. I know because [insert random facial feature information here]”
I wanted to find out if there was any truth to this.
I found numerous articles written about the topic. They all held the same message: you can tell the difference…to an extent.
The first article I found was written by a Filipino author who says you can “kind of tell”. The article spends a lot of time talking about how to tell the difference between Japanese, Korean, and Chinese people based on fashion and habits. Whenever it refers to genetic appearance, the author attaches a disclaimer saying that despite these typical indicators, sometimes people from a country don’t fit the pattern.
Another article is a commentary on the video I linked to above. The people in the video had trouble deciding where people were from based on pictures. The article blames the fact that the people were looking at pictures rather than the real person for why they made so many mistakes in matching person to country. This article also said it’s easy to tell in person, especially using accent and clothing as a clue, again highlighting that cultural factors are important when guessing someone’s origin.
I wanted a more official, reliable source, so I looked at newspapers and studies. An article by The Washington Post sheds interesting light on this subject. It says that when people were showed 17 pictures of Asian people of different ancestral background and were asked to guess where they were from, they only got the answer right 33% of the time.
Additionally, it references an experiment in which a computer analyzed images and made a guess about the person’s country of origin. While the computer’s success rate was 75%, researchers still found that the computer was using “cultural features, like hairstyles or glasses or facial expressions” more than genetic markers to make its guesses.
Is it possible to tell where someone is from just by looking at them? Maybe. The Washington Times article does cite psychological research that finds humans “are much better at distinguishing members of [their] own race or ethnicity than members of other races or ethnicities.” So Japanese people probably can distinguish differences in other Asian faces more easily than they can non-Asians. But, based on the evidence, it seems more likely that cultural, not genetic differences, allow people to guess country of origin correctly.