A reader named mintyroll recently commented:
The “Japanese People Don’t Want you to Speak Japanese” part is one of those minor things I’ve always been afraid of whenever I think of how my first trip to Japan will be . . . Consequently, it’s made me want to reach at least fluent level of Japanese before I ever make the trip.
So mintyroll—-is that a Spanish name?—-well, I can’t say what Your Japan will be like, but I can tell you about My Japan. And maybe we can extrapolate a bit.
Life in Japan as a Foreigner
Take yesterday, for example. It was a hot, gray day, and I finished work early then hustled to the station. Running up the stairs, I found myself surrounded by school kids, who immediately began yelling, “Hello! Hello!” in English. That warms my heart. Or maybe it’s just the humidity, I never can tell.
Now, on the one hand, I don’t want to encourage them. I mean, is it really all right to publicly single people out? Like if I saw a guy and I thought he looked homosexual, should I shout, “Yo, gay pride! I’m with you! Rainbow all the way! Sparkle!” I’m thinking no, but then again, I don’t know. Maybe he’d appreciate it. Remind me to try that.
But on the other hand, who can blame them? They’ve been trained since birth by their teachers and an army of JETs and ALTs that when they see a white face, speak English. Plus, they’re kids, so you gotta cut ’em some slack. They’re either going home to tell their parents, Today I saw this white guy, spoke English, and he was awesome! or: Today I saw this white guy, spoke English, and he was a complete a-hole.
So I said “hello” back, because although my objective for 2014 is to improve my Japanese, my other objective is not to be such a complete a-hole. Those two always don’t coincide, but hey, you still gotta have goals.
“How are you?” One kid shouted after me. That’s the other phrase they’re trained to say.
“Sensei needs a drink,” I yelled back.
Which was true, and in fact I’d made plans with a friend for dinner, a Chinese-American guy from New Jersey named Kurtis. I got to the restaurant first, a little izakaya in my neighborhood I’d been dying to try out. There was a sign out front saying “Open for Business” in Japanese, so in I went.
The place was empty—-it was still early—-and the owner walked out to greet me. He glanced up and stopped in his tracks. He looked at me. I looked at him. He looked at me. Nobody said a word. Nobody moved. This went on for, oh, about half an hour. Finally, I asked in Japanese, “Are you open?”
“Yesss,” he cautiously replied in English.
“All right . . . “ I said in Japanese, “May I sit down?”
“OK . . .” he said in English. Then in Japanese, “Can you read the menu?” He pointed to a bunch of papers tacked on the wall.
“I can,” I answered in Japanese.
“Beer OK?” he asked in English.
“Beer OK,” I replied in English, and he disappeared behind a curtain, like a wizard. When he reappeared, there was a magical beverage, and when he set it down, he asked again, “Can you read the menu?
“Yep,” I said, and ordered some mackerel and a side of edamame.
He disappeared behind the mystery curtain again. At this point, a salaryman came in, wearing a black suit and carrying a briefcase. He looked at me. I looked at him. He looked at the papers on the wall. Then he turned around and left. It was weird. Guess maybe he couldn’t read them.
Finally, Kurtis arrived. He doesn’t look Japanese, but he still looks Asian, even if he’s secretly white.
“Welcome,” the proprietor called out. “Please have a seat.”
He handed me the mackerel. “Fish,” he said in English, then turned to Kurtis, and in Japanese asked, “What will you be having to drink?”
“Just green tea,” replied Kurtis in Japanese, since he doesn’t drink.
He came back with the tea and the edamame. He gave Kurtis the tea and said in Japanese, “Here’s some tea for you.” Then he handed me the edamame and said in English, “soybeans.”
“Thank you,” I said in Japanese.
“Okay, okay, good,” he said excitedly in English.
“I think maybe he has Tourette’s,” said Kurtis. “English Tourette’s.
“Must be a genetic thing.
“Honestly, I don’t know how you put up with it.”
Some people, it’s true, when they see that non-“Japanese” face, seem possessed with the need to blurt out an uncontrollable stream of English utterances. I guess if you’re a tourist, you might not notice it so much. But it never diminishes. You can be here for a week, a year, or a decade, and it’ll still happen. Sometimes it doesn’t happen for a few days, other times, all day long. If you don’t look Asian, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Japanese citizen, speak perfect Japanese, or a descendant of Oda Nobunaga himself, it’s still gonna happen. Don’t be too sensitive, is my recommendation.
How to explain this? Maybe white people do this to black people in the U.S. Nah, I’m sure they do. Like, I always thought I dealt with everyone equally, but now thinking back, well, when I met a white guy, I probably said, “Hey, what’s up?” But when I met a black guy, suddenly my voice rose in intonation and I said, “Yo man, wha’s happenin’?” And then I give him a “black” handshake. I shudder to think about it. It was just the Tourette’s, really.
Honestly, I don’t know how black people put up with it. I wasn’t even conscious of this stuff until I’d lived in Japan for a few years. But now I’m worried that I was a complete a-hole to a large percentage of the American population. So to any persons of color who happen to read this, I’d like to personally apologize for every time I sang “Rapper’s Delight,” while of course holding the microphone sideways.
But my overwhelming black-ness aside, dinner was great, as Kurtis and I had some pretty great clams in butter sauce, a plate of fresh sashimi, and a massive tofu salad with sesame dressing. Of course, we covered all the usual ground with the proprietor, and he couldn’t help but remark on how well I used chopsticks or how incredible it was that I could eat octopus sashimi. Apparently, these things are quite normal for people from New Jersey. You know, Newark, octopus capital of the world.
Then after dinner, Kurtis peaced out, caught the train, and I was faced with a dilemma. Let me spell it out for you.
The Two-Beer Dilemma
See, I’d had two beers. Which means that, naturally, I wanted four more. It’s an exponential thing. Okay, that’s not the dilemma. The problem was that at this point, I had three choices:
1. Grab a couple of tall ones at the convenience store and go home and drink alone. Always a popular option.
2. Put on a clean shirt, brush my teeth, and ride the train for half an hour to a gaijin bar. There I could blend in, speak English, and be with “my people.” You know, all those folks from France and New Zealand. My people.
3. Walk two steps and go into a Japanese bar.
Note that just taking a shower and going to bed at a reasonable hour is not one of the choices. I’ll also mention that Choice 2 means paying six dollars a beer and eating some truly horrible soggy fish and chips and ending up with my wallet forty bucks lighter. Choice 3, by contrast, costs next to nothing. I know some small neighborhood bars where a glass of shochu is 70 cents and you can get a nice dried squid for a buck. I’m a sucker for a bargain.
So I knew what was coming, but I did it anyway. I looked at the red paper lanterns out front, said a silent prayer for Japanese God to grant me tolerance, and slid open the sliding door. A sea of Japanese faces looked at me, gasped, and immediately someone said in English, “Welcome!” while another blurted out, “Oh! gaijin-san!”
I walked in, and it started. Even before I had the chance to order a glass of shochu, the questions were flying. Where you from? How long have you been in Japan? You can drink shochu? That’s amazing. You don’t want appetizers, right? You people never eat them when you drink. Why is that?
And the English. I found myself sandwiched between a taxi driver and an architect who seemed determined to make it the topic of conversation.
“We have many words in Japanese that come from English,” said the architect in Japanese.
“Yes we do,” I replied in Japanese.
“Like, ‘orange,’ and ‘red,’ and ‘white,’ and ‘blue’ . . .
“And foods too,” said the taxi driver. “There’s ‘lunch,’ and ‘snack,’ and ‘juice,’ and ‘cola,’ and ‘milk,’ and ‘hot’ and ‘cash on delivery,’ and . . .”
“How about that World Cup, huh?” I interjected in Japanese. “Did you guys watch soccer this morning?
“Ah ‘soccer,’” said the architect. “That’s from English too. There’s ‘goal,’ and ‘match,’ and ‘stadium’ . . .
“And ‘ball’. . .” the taxi driver joined in, “and ‘shoot,’ and ‘play,’ and ‘team’ . . .
And things pretty much proceeded along those lines, until they dragged out this seventy year-old Japanese lady from the back.
She had on a bright red dress. She took one look at me and said, “Yo, wha’s happenin’?”
“Nuttin’ much,” I said. “’n’you?”
“She speaks English fluently,” whispered the taxi driver in Japanese.
“Yeah, I can see that,” I replied in Japanese. And then to her, in English, “How long’d you live in the States?”
“Twenty-five years,” she said. “In San Diego.”
“Can’t beat the weather,” she answered.
So I had another shochu while everyone marveled at my ability to drink the equivalent of watered-down vodka and meanwhile a new guy sidled up next to me.
“So you’re from America?” he asked in English.
“Yes,” I replied in Japanese. “But I live here now. And yourself? From around here?
“You can speak English with him,” said the taxi driver. “He’s an English teacher.”
And so I got to practice more English. Even in tiny dive bars, even way out in the country, I never fail to meet somebody who’s lived abroad, studied English, teaches English, or whose son or daughter is currently living overseas. I’ve been handed cell-phones with relatives on the other end speaking English, and patched into Skpe conversations with Japanese people living abroad, presumably so we could enjoy speaking English together.
The Gaijin Treatment
The thing is, you can live in Japan and almost never get this gaijin treatment, if you avoid the neighborhoods and stay in the city centers. People there don’t want to appear racist, so they don’t say what everybody’s thinking. Also, traveling with a Japanese person helps a great deal. They’re like an invisible force-field.
But go alone to where Japanese people live and congregate, and talk to a bunch of sixty and seventy year-olds? Hell, they don’t care. They’re gonna tell you exactly what they think. They’re honest, and they think you are absolutely not one of them, and you never will be.
I mean, what white person in their right mind would think they’re Japanese?
Do’s and Don’ts for Japan
Okay, let me tell you an easy trap to fall into. You know how you’ve heard all about what you should and shouldn’t do in Japan? You know: Don’t blow your nose in public. Don’t leave your chopsticks sticking out of your rice. Don’t smile in pictures. Do shower before you get in the bathtub. Do pass money with both hands. Do sneeze on the train without covering your mouth. There’s a million small rules that all Japanese people know and foreigners don’t. And they love to lecture you on them.
Well, there’s the trap. Because if you’re not careful, you’ll end up learning the rules, internalizing them, and behaving like a Japanese person. If you study Japanese, it’s even worse, because your language becomes the same. So while you’re thinking, behaving, speaking, and eating just like everybody else, you’re overlooking the glaring fact that you don’t look the same. In fact, you could be a Chinese-American from New Jersey and be treated more like a Japanese person, no matter what you did, simply because of the shape of your nose and eyes. I’m pretty sure African-American people know what I’m talking about here.
So what’s the solution? It’d probably help not to become too “Japanese.” Lots of long-term expats in Japan seem to manage quite well by simply being their usual obnoxious selves and not worrying about social conventions. Why do Australians naturally come to mind? Probably just some stereotype of mine, sorry. Anyway, it seems you can either spend a lifetime trying to prove you’re as good as the worst Japanese person, or opt out and just be “foreign.” Maybe there’s a third option, but I’m still trying to work out what that is.
Studying Japanese in Japan
So should you study Japanese? Well, lots of “foreigners” who came here excited to learn it seem to have decided it wasn’t worth the payoff, and eventually stopped. Personally, I don’t know. I will say that speaking Japanese has enabled me to go into thousands of small restaurants and bars, converse with real people, and ironically have them speak English with me. So I guess if that’s your dream, then study Japanese. Probably a good idea to brush up on your English too though.
So I had a few more shochus, ate some squid and peanut snacks, and spoke Japanese when possible and English when unavoidable. One more old guy came over, stared, and the architect introduced us: “Oh, this is Seeroi,” he said. “He’s just like a Japanese!”
So apparently I’ve done it. I finally fit in, just like everyone else. Ken Seeroi, the just-like-a-Japanese guy. So I finished my drink, said my goodbyes and stepped through the sliding door. Behind me, the taxi driver called out in English, “See you again!” Then I went to the convenience store, grabbed a tall beer, walked home, and drank it watching Japanese TV, completely forgetting the fact that I’d biked to the restaurant. Anyway, it was a nice warm night for a walk. Gotta appreciate the small things in life, you know.