Culture · Culture Shock · Japanese Language · Living in Japan

Japanese Only?

you heard the man

As ridiculous as it sounds, I was told this last night when I was out with some foreign friends. We were talking outside of the station and this little old (probably drunk) man stood listening to our conversation for a few moments before interrupting us saying 『何言っているか全然分からん』 (I have no idea what you are saying). We kind of laughed at this and sarcastically told him that we were sorry. He then went on to tell us that we should not be speaking English at all because we are in Japan. We had to speak Japanese. I was rather offended by this and asked him if it was OK for me to speak English as I was an English teacher. He seemed rather taken aback by this and stumbled around his words before saying, “No…English…”

Oh…annoyingly drunk Japanese men.

However, the man did make an interesting point in his drunken rant. He mentioned that when Japanese go to America, they are expected to speak English. While this point can be argued, I am sure that most people agree that when you go to a store (in America) and you talk to the clerk (let’s pretend we are at McDonald’s in California) and the person cannot speak English well, it is very frustrating.

In 1914, President Theodore Roosevelt stated, “We have room for but one language in this country, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house.”
U.S. English, an advocate group for “Official English” summarizes their belief that “the passage of English as the official language will help to expand opportunities for immigrants to learn and speak English, the single greatest empowering tool that immigrants must have to succeed.”

I find these all to be valid points, but what I find interesting is that Japan does not expect foreigners to be able to speak Japanese and therefore have English practically everywhere. While this shows that Japan is all about the customer service, it is also a little offensive.

In my experience, practically everyone I talk to is impressed that I can say the word こんにちは(konnichiwa which means “hello”). It is definitely getting old and downright annoying hearing a Japanese person that I have amazing Japanese skills when all I say “hello.”

In fact, some have argued that foreigners who are fluent in Japanese are often viewed with some alarm and suspicion.

In an article I found

“I’ve spoken fluent Japanese to people and they’ve called me a `weird foreigner,’ or an `overboard foreigner,’ ” Simmons said. “They don’t feel anybody but the Japanese can speak their language.”

Many foreigners fluent in Japan puzzle over the phenomenon. In their more charitable moments, they wonder if the reaction is based on surprise that anyone has mastered the difficult language, or disappointment that an exotic foreigner has suddenly become less interesting.

“I would call it defensive superiority–to make their club more exclusive,” said Dave Spector, a Chicagoan who is a celebrity in Japan where he appears on television shows as a Japanese-speaking commentator and entertainer. “The Japanese are proud of the fact that they take a long time to get to know. If someone speaks fluently, then all of a sudden the theory that Japanese are impenetrable doesn’t hold much water. It threatens the status quo.”

While things are changing with the younger generation, the middle-aged and up population of Japan definitely seem to hold this opinion of foreigners speaking Japanese. I am thankful that the teachers I work with praise the fact that I can speak Japanese as it makes them feel more comfortable working with me.

Language is a really strange concept…


5 thoughts on “Japanese Only?

  1. Unfortunately, I have to agree. I always hear my Japanese friends say “ちょじょず” everytime I use a word that they describe to me as “むずかしいにほんご.” But why is it hard Japanese? Because they don’t hear it from Americans often, not because it’s difficult to learn, only that it’s rare to hear.

  2. Yes I believe that when you move to another country you should speak their language when interacting with native speakers, but why should you have to speak it in private conversation?

    If I were you I would have told that old man “We are speaking English so you don’t eavesdrop on our conversation” haha^^

    Japanese language is not so difficult to learn, but it’s really not an international language so that may be part of why people don’t scramble to learn it. But Japanese people shouldn’t be shocked/disappointed when people do actually take the time to become as fluent as possible.

    Interesting post!

  3. Isn’t it amazing all of the “artificial” barriers that people set up to insulate themselves from one another? Is it any wonder that peoples and countries have difficulties understanding one another and cooperating even when both parties are well intentioned? Overlay that with a little inherent suspicion and even hostility and it is no wonder that there is conflict and misunderstanding in the world.

    A really interesting post!

  4. This is a really interesting topic ! I actually had one of the new TIUA students, after I used a few words of Japanese to clarify something I’d explained in English, say (exactly like this, in an I-dare-you tone): “Okay, now do 自己紹介.” I was kind of taken aback because, like what you were saying, the fact that I demonstrated some Japanese language abilities seemed to make him suspicious of me really suddenly, when he hadn’t had that attitude at all before. So I did it and then told him that it was his turn to do a personal introduction in English.

    But it is definitely a weird phenomenon that some Japanese people don’t seem to like it when foreigners know more than a couple of words of Japanese. Like it’s a special club we 外人 aren’t supposed to be able to get into or something.

  5. I don’t know. People in America get fed up with foreign languages too; maybe because I lived on the Border and so there were a lot of Mexicans, but there are a lot of people who are of the opinion that if you live in America you must speak English. Once I was on a bus with a Brazilian boy and we were talking in Portuguese and this woman told us to “stop talking about her” and that it was rude to talk about her in a language she couldn’t understand. And no, we weren’t discussing her.

    I think it’s generally because people feel left out and isolated. We eavesdrop more than I think we’re aware of at times, and it’s difficult to smash into a language barrier in a place where we’re comfortable. What the guy said to you was way out of line; you should be able to speak whatever language you please wherever you are, but his drunken comfort zone was probably invaded, in his mind.

    Otherwise, I’ve been told that Japanese is one of the hardest languages to learn, but more importantly, I think Japanese people in general have a difficult time learning other languages, and they study English in school all their lives. So combined with Japan’s xenophobia, it sort of makes sense that they get really impressed when someone who is not Japanese speaks Japanese.

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