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…