Is Speaking English in Japan Unavoidable?

Is Speaking English in Japan Unavoidable?

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 not, 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.

Restaurant Japanese

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.”

English Tourette’s

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?

Japanese English

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?”

“Nuttin’ much.

“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.”

“Nice place.

“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.



Pay it forward

Like NPR, your donations help keep Ken Seeroi on the air.


Tags :
Previous post link
Next post link

About Ken Seeroi

104 Comments

  1. Say a Russian walks into a Japanese bar. Do they attempt to speak English with him?

    • Does he have a parrot on his shoulder?

      Because unless that parrot looks Japanese, he’s getting spoken to in English.

      • Have you ever tried a straight “I don’t speak English”? Possibly a “yo hablo espanol” for good measure. If not, you should head to the bar and try it, as a social experiment, you know, for science.

        • Oh man, many times. I talked about this a little below, but aside from the fact that it starts to create a web of lies, it doesn’t solve the underlying problem, which is that the other party has already concluded that I’m somehow “different” based solely upon appearance.

          It’s not really about language. It’s more that (to borrow a phrase from Arudou Debito), no one wants to be “othered.”

          • Total agreement here, but I’m sure you’ve come up against the default response to that: “Well, everyone here is Japanese. Of course you’ll be treated differently.”

            I don’t think there’s a totally obvious answer to the issue–too many underlying assumptions. But if I had to give it my best shot, I’d say that Americans (and presumably many Europeans) obviously pick up on racial differences, but we’re taught to at least feign colorblindness (race-blindness?) as a gesture of equality, allowing our opinions and views to differentiate us. Obviously that’s not absolute, but generally Americans acknowledge that there’s a fine line between distinguishing and discriminating. (Explaining this often results in being told that I must be mistaken, as watching the news will quickly reveal that America has plenty of racism.)

            God knows that Japan has its share of feigning opinions to preserve harmony, but for some reason, the idea of playing down racial differences doesn’t seem to hold much weight. The idea that it’s nice or considerate to look past obvious differences and restrain your curiosity seems to baffle lots of people.

            How would you (or have you) explained this to a close Japanese friend?

            • I’ve discussed this with Japanese people, oh, about a million times. I counted. My conclusion is that whether they see non-Asians as gaijin first or as people first is almost hard-wired. My friends are my friends because they don’t have that gene. I mean yeah, we all know I’m white, but okay, some folks are tall and others fat. I wouldn’t necessarily open a conversation with an overweight person with the line, “You must really like donuts.” In other words, I’m only friends with people who possess at least that much social skill. It’s a small circle.

              Some people are just born seeing differences rather than commonalities, and you really can’t logic it away, any more than you could in the U.S. For them, race is a big deal, and good luck explaining why it shouldn’t be.

          • Wow, you’re nicer than me. I am pretty pale looking as well, but I make it clear to any jokers that I don’t teach English and didn’t come there to teach them. I never answer in English, and don’t tend to answer people who speak to me in English – unless it’s clear that they don’t speak Japanese. Yes, that does turn some people off – but those are the same people I want to avoid, so it works out well! And then I can have a normal conversation with the other 95% of the people. Then again, I don’t get that as much as you, probably because my body language, etc. is more Japanese or something.

      • Are you joking mintyroll is not a Spanish name, that’s a minty roll without a space.

      • Bro seriously as a black dude in America I really really really appreciate your introspection in this article.

  2. Ken,

    This post irreverently walks that fine line between satire and sarcasm beautifully and though it contains such poignant certitude (that I happen to totally agree with), I know that there are going to be some that can’t or won’t understand the beauty of this wisdom. I hope you find a way to translate that sagacity into cold hard cash soon (BOOK, BOOK), so that you can live and learn even more about that great mystery that is Japan (Oh God, why do I like Japan so much); or at least afford the best booze and food that Japan has to offer on your way to Hell, you at least deserve that much, Sensei Seeroi!

    P.S. Mischievously said:

    Please don’t burn out from Gaijinism, the world still needs to be saved oh great and wonderful “Seer” (a person who is supposed to be able, through supernatural insight, to see what the future holds) “Oi” (used to attract someone’s attention, especially in a rough or angry way – from the Oxford dictionary). You have a strong name Ken that has powerful Karma…. soooo, tell the next izakaya proprietor who gives you the Gaijin treatment: “I have the soul of the Samurai poet Saigō Nanshū (西郷 南洲) and was born speaking Japanese, so please don’t use any English in my presence” and just see what they say for giggles and grins. BTW, that’s the guy they made the movie “The Last Samurai” about,… hmmmm! Loved this post so, so much!

    • Gaijinism? Did you just coin a new disease? Because that’s awesome, and I gotta use that.

      “So Ken, what’s wrong? You seem a little out of sorts.

      “Oh, you know, my gaijinism’s just flaring up again.

      “Well don’t scratch it or it’ll get worse.”

    • Yeah, it’s all good. I love how random strangers want to introduce you to their kids, and take photos with you. I get that too once in a while, where a mother will push her child toward me, like, It’s okay, he won’t bite. You can pet him.

  3. Hello Ken

    First of all, your blog is great ) Always a good read and almost always to the point, especially the stuff about this whole mess of a stiuation regarding teaching English in Japan – I agree with everything you say there )

    Ah, and I almost forgot what I was going to write here after the introductory part. Yes, being talked to in English. So, apparently Japanese don’t have any ability to distinguish Americans, French, Swedes, Maori or whatever – anyone who lives here knows this very well. That’s why I behave like this – I just say that I cannot speak English. Like, I just don’t know how to. It’ not my native language (and actually, it isn’t), I never learned it and so on. Like, say, Japanese cannot speak French, for instance. Usually it needs some half-apologising, half-shy as well. And if by any chance this conversations gets further than this, and I am asked where I am from – I say “Hong Kong” (can speak Cantonese more or less). It’s just funny to see the reaction ) I don’t do this every time, though, only when I am in a bad mood )) Haven’t you tried this trick yet? Somehow it’s hard to believe.

    • I’ve tried that. I’ve tried everything. Saying I can’t speak English, that I’m from Slovenia, that I was born in Japan . . . but I’ve pretty much given up on it. For one, I don’t like weaving a web of lies, and for another, it doesn’t really solve the problem, which is that We’re still talking about Me, and the fact that I don’t look like you.

      So it’s not just the language. It’s being singled out. So that’s usually how I reply now: I don’t like speaking English because I don’t want to stand out. And then I ask them if they went to America if they’d want to walk around speaking Japanese with everyone, and that usually gets a laugh. And since fitting is very important in Japan, most folks get where I’m coming from. But occasionally someone will persist with English, and then I know they’ve just got the Tourette’s.

      • I see your point. Actually, somehow most of Japanese around me don’t try speaking English to me (idk why, but I’m infinitely far from looking Asian, that’s for sure). My guess is that maybe you just look like “that friendly american guy which will definitely talk English to us and appreciate our English too” type, and I just don’t.

        and I’m much more surprised by this
        >>>I don’t like speaking English because I don’t want to stand out. And then I ask them if they went to America if they’d want to walk around speaking Japanese with everyone, and that usually gets a laugh.

        I mean, that in my experience, most Japanese people lack the ability to sympathize with something they completely unfamiliar with, that is, pretty much with everything. Like, can Japanese really understand what does it means “to stand out”? Somehow I think they don’t, but they are definitely good in pointing out those who actually stand out and apply various actions to them – just a more sophisticated and “grown-up” version of a thing known as “bullying”. And here you have “English conversation bullying”. So yes, sometimes I tell something along those lines too. And they just go with their usual “naruhodo, soooo desu neeeeeee, eeee” and so on, but in most cases I only see 建前 ( What I am trying to say – in my experience, if you earn this honor of being properly addressed in Japanese, that doesn’t mean anything in terms of accepting you or acknowledging you or whatever. But hey, it’s the point you actually made in the article.

        • I’d say you’re right on the money. I do look way too friendly. It’s a complete facade, but what’re you gonna do. I should probably grow a beard, like a big shaggy thing, and maybe not shower so often. That’d probably reduce the number of people running up to me like I’m a walking eikaiwa.

          Of course, you could also be hanging out in slightly more international—or simply better—places than I am. I can’t imagine any non-“Japanese”-looking person going into a little neighborhood dive bar and not eliciting a wave of comments and at least some attempts at English.

          Of course, the flip side also applies, and I’m sure a Japanese guy in Kentucky would face his own set of problems.

          As for Japanese people lacking the ability to sympathize with pretty much everything, yeah, that seems about right. I guess when I say it gets a laugh, what I’m really describing is my delivery.

          I’ve learned that if I tell Japanese people what I think—and it’s even the tiniest bit critical—they recoil in horror. They just cannot handle any negativity at all. Seeing the harsh treatment they’ve received their whole lives from parents, teachers, and bosses, I can understand why.

          So what seems to work well is delivering remarks with a laugh and a nudge of the elbow. So while laughing, I’ll say, “Like, imagine you go all the way to America, right? Like fifteen hours on the plane, and you get there and you’re like ‘Finally, America!’ but then you go into a restaurant, and everyone says konnichiwa and starts speaking Japanese to you! Like that’d be crazy, right? Right?” And since I’m laughing and it’s clearly some kind of joke, they just laugh along too and nod. Now, how well they actually process what I’m trying to say, I don’t know, but at least I’ve gotten them to think about it a little.

          • Well, in my case it would be even better to explain it like “… then you go into a restaurant, and everyone says ‘nihao’ and starts speaking Chinese to you! …” )) Anyway, I find it somewhat paradoxical, that most times we, foreigners, are being “English touretted” by older generation, while young people (who are supposed to know English better) don’t go further than saying “HARO”. Or, again, it’s just me? By the way, could you tell me as a teacher – are they not taught principles of a damn English phonetics? I understand, that it’s hard to Japanese to pronounce some consonants and, especially, _only_ consonants without following vowel, but… oh, it annoys me to no end, really.

            By the way, I just remembered a funny episode about all this. I went to Kinugawa-onsen with a friend, and while having a walk we decided to eat some udon in a shabby looking udonya-san somewhere pretty far from usual tourist attractions. Obviously, the place was run by century old granny born at least in Taisho era. So, we walk into the place and she looks at us. Well, I was ready for the most awkward development, but she just pointed to the table and waited for us to order. And when we started talking Japanese to her, she just was so happy, that next half an hour she was talking non-stop. Most of all I remember the passage about how some foreigners came here, and how she had such a hard time to communicate with them in English (along the way, demonstrating, actually, enough English to take an order and manage order-related conversation). And suddenly I felt so comfortable talking to her, like I wasn’t some foreigner at all, just a customer. It almost never happens to me here, you know. I’m sure, you know ) Well, maybe she was just lonely, I don’t know really.

            • It’s true, sometimes the older people have a better command of English than the school kids who are actively studying it. My theory for this is based upon what I see in the school system, which traces an arc.

              In elementary school, the kids start off playing English games and songs and they love it. English is often quite popular. Then they get into middle school and Bam! They’re forced to sit there for years and silently memorize grammar rules and the spelling of important words, like Rumpelstiltskin. So by the time they finish high school, they thoroughly hate English, and school, and their teachers, and pretty much everything else. So they’re prepared for the workforce, in other words.

              And then it takes a few years to recover from that, and maybe along they way to realize that Oh wow, this is actually something that could be used for communicating, like with other humans. Particularly those of the white and black variety.

              So I’m not sure if younger people are technically worse at English. They’re just under the impression that if they say “I brung two friends along,” that sensei’s gonna jump out of a bush and start smacking them with a shinai.

              As far as phonics goes, I think it really comes down to practice. I’ve noticed, as I’m sure you have, that my Japanese accent and intonation have improved markedly over the years. Not through conscious effort, but rather just from constant use. And that’s what I see with my students as well.

              My students all get phonics instruction, but I doubt it helps much to practice saying “rabbit” and “lion” for two minutes and then not speak English again for a month. They just need to listen and speak far more, and spend less time taking notes in Japanese about how to correctly form sentences in the future perfect tense.

          • >Like fifteen hours on the plane, and you get there and you’re like ‘Finally, America!’ but then you go into a restaurant, and everyone says konnichiwa and starts speaking Japanese to you! Like that’d be crazy, right?

            Instead of just the plane ride, try appealing to the three years they spent learning English, all ready to bust our their carefully rehearsed English self-introduction after arriving in America, but in the end they found out that everybody just wanted to speak Japanese to them.

            On second thought, that might backfire horribly, since instead of having to go to America to practice English, the America came to them, and wouldn’t it be a real waste of an opportunity if they just let you go.

            Guess you can’t win them all.

            • I’d say you’re right on the money. Sometimes people see a person who looks different and it’s their chance of a lifetime to speak with a real, live “foreigner.” I’ve been asked to pose for countless pictures. Which would be great if somebody were like, “Whoa, it’s Ken Seeroi—I love his writing!” and not “Whoa, a random white guy!”

              I know some folks enjoy attention, for any reason. Maybe I’m just too picky. Yeah, that’s probably it.

      • What did you hope to achieve by telling them you’re from Slovenia?

        Nearly everyone in Slovenia speaks English. German, Italian and Croatian are rather common as well – when your nation consists of roughly 2 million people you damn better learn a foreign language or three.

        I know that because I’m a Slovene myself.

        Anyway, I’m really enjoying your blog, it’s highly entertaining and informative. I don’t agree with your views when it comes to race and it makes it a little less enjoyable from time to time, but I don’t see a reason to start an argument about it here.

        Eagerly waiting for your next post!

      • Well, sometimes at the nearby bar, some new customer will come and start asking me where I am from. The truth is so boring, so I will sometimes pick a random place. One time I was French, and it turned out the guy asking me spoke French! Anyway, I don’t weave a web of lies because they usually figure out I am BSing them after a minute or so when one of the customer says something like “Wait a minute.. last week you were from Germany, and this week it’s Transylvania?” (Then everyone except the new guy cracks up).

    • I’m sure we’ve all tried this trick at one point… the particular point when the NHK guy comes to the door to ask if you have a television.

  4. Yet another great piece, Ken. 😀

    I think in terms of “speaking English” and general “gaijin treatment” Your Japan and My Japan are quite similar. I’ve had the stubborn ones who continued speaking English to me although I replied in fluent Japanese all the time and ON TOP OF THAT told them that I’m German and that my native language ISN’T English.
    Why would we have to communicate in English when it’s neither their nor my mother tongue?! *sigh*

    Oh, I have it often that young kids shout “Hello!” at me. The problem is that they often don’t look at me or because they cannot bring up the courage they shout it at me from behind. How should I know they’re talking to me, right? I usually just ignore them.
    I’ve had people call out to me in crowded places, sometimes they were shouting something in English, sometimes in Japanese. If people are shouting “oi, soko no neechan!” or something behind my back, why should I react? Even more so if it’s something in English.
    If they want something from me, they should come up to me face-to-face.

    Does it sometimes happen to you that Japanese people suddenly change the topic when they notice there’s a foreigner around? Like … when I’m in a train standing and people cannot see me because they only can see my back, they have normal conversations, but then I sit down, I can see something in their face is changing and very often they change the topic to something “foreign”. They talk about America, they throw in a lot of English words etc.
    And I just think to myself, I have no fu***ing idea what you guys are talking about, I have never even been to the US.

    I often get those standard questions as well: Where are you from? Can you eat sashimi? Can you use chopsticks? Blah.

    But to be fair it doesn’t happen ALL THE TIME. I think it just feels like it happens so often, because we’re annoyed by it. I deal with Japanese people every single day a thousand of times and this doesn’t even happen on a daily basis, but when it does it’s extremely frustrating.

    And it’s just like you said: it doesn’t matter how long one has been in Japan, how well one has adapted to the culture and lifestyle or how good one’s Japanese is.

    As for studying Japanese, it depends on your goals.
    It takes a long time to become somewhat fluent anyway, so if you don’t have a very good personal reason for studying it, it will be hard to see it through.

    One more thing about the “speaking English” part of the article. Like I said I’m not a native speaker of English, so SOMETIMES when I tell Japanese people that I’m German, they try to throw some German phrases at me that they’ve learned in university. It’s really like a Tourette syndrome …. ^^;;
    And they also like to show me how “well” they know my home country by mentioning every single stereotype they know: Oktoberfest, sausage, beer, …

    • “Does it sometimes happen to you that Japanese people suddenly change the topic when they notice there’s a foreigner around? Like … when I’m in a train standing and people cannot see me because they only can see my back, they have normal conversations, but then I sit down, I can see something in their face is changing and very often they change the topic to something “foreign”. They talk about America, they throw in a lot of English words etc.”

      Yeah, that. All the time. They start weaving English words into the conversation, just loud enough so I can hear them. I never imagined words like “okay” and “sank you” could be so annoying. Japanese God, grant me tolerance.

  5. Ahh Ken, you’ve pointed out one of my biggest struggles in living in an overseas country. How far should you fit in? How far should you be proud of your nationality and stick to your traditions?

    On behalf of all the other crazy Australians in Japan, my apologies. I guess we like drinking too much 😛 I find it frustrating when foreigners here (& of course other countries) totally disregards EVERY aspect of Japanese culture and parade their own habits from back home. My pet peeve is jaywalking – I know back home I’d jaywalk in an instant, but something about seeing foreigners here jaywalk instead of waiting that extra second for the green annoys me..!?

    But then if the country basically rejects your attempts to assimilate, why not continue parading your own heritage? It’s a fine line between finding acceptance and showing your cultural background. I guess there’s gotta be middle ground somewhere?

    To be honest, I’m only deeply fascinated by Japanese culture so I don’t know how it is for other expats in other countries. But surely it’s got to be similar, right? In comparison to other countries, how crazy is Japan’s stubbornness to accept foreigners?

    • Oh and also, you mentioned that it’s the 60-70 year olds who want to strike up an English conversation. Do you think for future generations it will change?

      I hope it will but I guess from a young age, children are taught: white face = impossible to be Japanese.

      • I do think it will change, and it’s already begun, but not the way people expected. There’s already tons of foreigners in Japan, only they’re largely ignored.

        There are great numbers of people from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and other parts of Asia. Japan is becoming more and more multi-ethnic. White people are just a distraction. Everyone’s focused on Caucasians being the foreigners, while all around, people who don’t look that physically different are quietly integrating into the society. This place is a lot less homogenous than it’s usually portrayed.

        • Yup. Lots of Indians in my neighborhood in Tokyo. They even have their own school nearby. But the secret is that “Gaijin” doesn’t actually mean “foreigner” or “non-Japanese”, it means non-Asian looking person. Generally, a Chinese or Korean or Indian person can be a 外国人 but not a 外人. Same in China. A Japanese is not a lao-wai. And in that respect I don’t see the “Gaijin/Resident” distinction weakening all that much into the future.

          • Agreed. The gaijin/Japanese distinction will probably persist forever, but it’s also losing its relevance.

            It’s funny when you read Japanese newspapers that cite increasing numbers of foreigners coming to Japan. On top of the article is a picture of something like two German-looking dudes sitting in a rickshaw, but when you read the contents, they’re actually describing an influx of immigrants from other Asian countries.

            So while Japanese folks still conceive of “foreigners” (whether you call them 外人 or 外国人) as white or maybe black, an entirely different group of foreigners is quietly amassing in Japan, largely unnoticed. Ultimately, it won’t be people who look like me who change Japan, but people who look like them.

          • First of all, why do foreign people like using the word “Gaijin”? I have almost never heard any Japanese people use it. I hear white people use it all the time, in the middle of English sentences, like using it makes you hip or something.

            Anyway, “Gaikokujin” originally included people from other cities in Japan, etc. It certainly does include other Asians, etc. – but usually Japanese people can tell something more specific, and so refer to them as Chinese, Korean, etc., instead of just “foreign”.

        • My wife is Thai and she gets far more inane questions about Thailand than I do being from the USA. I thought the questions I got were odd but she gets far odder/ruder questions. I am convinced Japanese people have no idea what Thailand is like.

          Mez – To answer your question about other expats in other countries. In Thailand the locals do not care about such things as jaywalking, parading their own culture everywhere, ignoring local culture..etc. (mai phen rai) Just as long as you respect the King.

          Oh and my wife and I jaywalk all the time I apologize in advance if you see us. 🙂 Besides we are only here for 2 more years and 4 months and 13 days (but who is counting…)

    • I find it’s very hard to find that in between you where talking about (between trying to be completely Japanese all the time and failing because ‘completely Japanese’ isn’t a real thing- and certainly not a thing Japanese people are- or alternatively just deciding to ignore all cultural customs and run with the foreigner thing).

      So I’ve talked with some foreign female friends here who agree, but one of the things I struggle with a lot is trying to go against the grain of what Japanese people expect of women whilst at the same time trying to go against the grain of what they expect of foreigners. Sometimes it’s small things- if I go to a 飲み会 I don’t want people expecting me to dish out salad just cause I’m a girl but and the same time I don’t want them to think I have no 気遣い cause I’m a foreigner. It’s actually really ridiculous, I got paranoid my boyfriend’s parents were thinking I can’t cook cause I’m a white woman and subsequently put a stupid amount of effort into making meals every time I go to their place just to prove I can but at the same time I want to be like ‘but it’s not cause I have lady parts! Just so we’re clear!’

      I’m sure there are other similar things where stereotypes clash and people don’t want to be seen as one or the other. There are probably a whole bunch of foreign people in Japan working their asses off in Japanese companies because they don’t want to be seen as ‘the foreigner who can’t hack a Japanese work schedule’

      I guess at some point you’ve just got to stop giving a crap what people think about you or you’ll go crazy.

  6. Your post brings up this video.

    But we’re speaking Japanese! 日本語喋ってるんだけど
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLt5qSm9U80

    “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.”

    This reminds of a scene from the movie, “Tropic Thunder,” with Robert Downey, Jr., Ben Stiller, and Jack Black.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHxAuCjiDlA

    • Jack,

      Hilarious link; like someone scripted part of this post into a vid for KS-Oi… hmmmm; maybe I wasn’t paying attention before, but do some Japanese really totally ignore what a foreigner says, even when they speak fluent Japanese?? I remember seeing some films and documentaries made back in the 50’s and sixties about Japan’s recovery, and it sure seemed like more Japanese were fluently speaking English then, compared to today. I also heard that same thing from someone who spent 10 years in Japan after the end of WWII as part of the reconstruction and then returned to Japan in 1995 at the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII. He was very surprised that the English fluency rate in Japan had declined over the 40 years he was in the States and he said the people today in Japan were much ruder to each other, as well as to foreigners than he remembered! How can the country regress so much and still have stringent requirements to teach English over a 70 year period????

      I guess I can’t blame the Japanese when the US is dumbing down our own education system to accommodate the millions of illegal aliens flooding the US nowadays (maybe 25-35 million in the US now)!! They have Teachers Unions here (encourages by the liberal progressives running the country) that use socialist progressive techniques to lower education standards and remove requirements to meet minimum levels of proficiency for students and teachers alike. Our military is ruined now with a large percentage of Gang members joining the military to learn how to fight and I predict that it won’t be long till the US has to re-institute a draft since they’re not meeting recruiting goals in quality or quantity. Maybe we’ll just start employing illegals in our Military so we can teach them how to take over the whole damn country. Whew, that felt good!

    • Some truly classic lines in Tropic Thunder. Thanks for that!

  7. I commented on a similar post of yours a few weeks back, and I reckon we both agree that it’s all about the coping strategy you employ. My strategy lately has been to completely ignore and talk through the “あ、日本語上手ですね!” when it has no relevance to the conversation (when does it ever, though?). As in, when I’m in a small group and contribute a quip, only to have someone turn around immediately and look at me for the first time as a semi-real person and ojouzu-ing it up, I’ve just stopped acknowledging the statement all together. I just keep talking about whatever it is we were all talking about and leave the person to just sit there and think about what they’ve done. Timeout for everyone.

    • Yeah, I agree with that. Ignoring the inevitable “jouzu” comment is the best response. You’re pretty much guaranteed to get them if you use enough colloquialisms or proverbial phrases. I mean, you could say “nuclear power plant” and nobody’d bat an eyelid, but the moment you throw out something like “the early bird catches the worm,” everybody’s all su~goi. There’s nothing you can do but ignore it. It’s all about the coping.

  8. Thanks, Ken! Pulling people out for a good discussion, as usual.

    Few people here mentioned that this doesn’t change how long you stay in Japan, but this this should be understood – after all a Japanese person seeing you a first time doesn’t know how long you have been in Japan.
    Stereotyping foreigners does decline though, I see it among my friends, who actually reach out and try to communicate with various people, curious about the world, etc.
    Using English is a default behavior, because this is a common language these days. I’ve had plenty of stereotypes used around me when I can to USA, as soon as people hear my distinctly non-American accent, and stereotypes I experiences in Japan are really so much less annoying.

    I’ve learned a trick that the initial surprise with “nihongo ga jouzu” and “hashi jouzu” and all the regular stuff at the restaurant or business can be shortened if I just firmly but with friendly smile repeat myself again in Japanese. In other situations where my Japanese is insufficient (that happens often!), I try to start the conversation by apologizing with o-jigi and eventually ask “eigo de ii desuka”, and I get very good service after that.

    Maybe in your honorable pursuit of not being yet another a-hole gaijin (heaven knows we do need more polite gaijin, not less!) you indeed open yourself for too friendly “buddy” treatment, and some people maybe slide into treating you with less respect that you deserve. But if Japan is strong in something, it’s the proper hierarchy. In most situations you can show, with warm and friendly firmness, that you would like things your way.

    • Regarding the decline in stereotypes, it really does seem to change depending on not only the city, but the neighborhood, or even the particular business.

      What helped keep me sane in Kyoto was having a little cafe I could go to often where I knew the left-wing master and oku-san. Truly excellent people. They were kind of a bit like my surrogate parents. The even sent me some of their special mix coffee beans in the post recently. Actually, the master datsu-sara-d back in the seventies to start is blues/jazz cafe, living upstairs from his shop for years and being part of the alternative scene in Kyoto at that point. Funny thing is, not that many young Japanese will come in, so many of his customer were us ryugakusei. Some Japanese kids would kind of idiotically ask him “国際交流がすきですか?”, which he found really funny. Foreigners would come and chat and appreciate the atmosphere, while the kids would mostly avoid it. They generally aren’t so good at strange places or situations.

      Come to think of it there are heaps of places like this in Kyoto I have found, where I can swear that if you just up and moved it to overseas it would be a massive hit. But nobody comes in. Like this spagetti place that is excellently located right in a very busy sho-ten-gai. Great food. Good coffee. Excellent atmosphere. Does anybody come in? Heck no. Because you have to walk along a little corridor for a few dozen feet first, so people cant scope it out from the outside. I think this speaks a lot for why it can be so alienating as a foreigner here, because we can kind of be like these shops. They require a little courage and a little daring to go inside, but people think “入りづらい” and avoid it, or with us ”話しかけにくい” and avoid it.

      • You know, I’ve always had a good time in Kyoto. I love those little places. People seem friendly, except for those weird shops where they hate everyone who’s not from Kyoto, and even there they warm up to you after a while.

        Oh, that and the guy who ran up to me in the train station and blurted out, “Welcome to Japan!” I was like, What? I live here. Go welcome a Chinese guy.

        But yeah, generally a very nice city with a mellow vibe.

        • Heck yes it is much more mellow than Tokyo. God do people here do anything but work? And do they have to be so smug about it? Black kigyo are able to function because there are all these middle management types who don’t appear to feel that bad about screwing over the new recruits.

          But yeah, Kyoto. One thing I learned about living there was that there are certain “zones” that get such high foreign tourist traffic that the moment I stepped into them I became a tourist. I guess you got to experience that. A Myself, every single time I would go to the starbucks near the station I would get complimented on my Japanese. Never in any other starbucks in town. Just that one. Oh yeah, and this one time I went to the manga museum (I can’t really recommend it unless you want to spend the whole day there reading) they had somebody in the hall ask me in English what country I was from. And I was like… erm.. here?

          • You know, I have a theory about Starbucks. Of course, I have a theory about everything, so no surprise there. Anyway, I think they’re specifically trained not to speak English. I mean, I’ve only had an English word tossed out at me once or twice in the thousands of times I’ve been to Starbucks. No way that’s random, so my guess is that treating everyone the same is part of their training program. If so, they need to roll that out to the rest of Japan.

          • “Heck yes it is much more mellow than Tokyo. God do people here do anything but work? And do they have to be so smug about it?”

            This is good to know. I’ve traveled a number of places but only worked in Tokyo and you sum it up perfectly. I am not in the “live to work” camp and need to find more people that aspire for “work to live” in this city.

  9. Hi and thanks for your interesting post.
    I really enjoy your style. It’s quite traditional “roman” style.
    Not old one, but recent ironic approach to life.

    Going to the point, I have an interesting option for you.
    Declare yourself as Non-American, in any new bar you step in. Funny effect.
    Direct experience: I am Italian but this configuration doesn’t fit soon their scheme.
    1. So they could be surprised by the fact I am not English speaker (gaijin = English)
    2. Funny faces of children when I reply with my “ciao”
    3. Oh Italia, pizza, pasta, Zaccheroni…
    4. My son is considered Japanese (half) but he is my clone
    5. Others…

    my job is annoying you, Japanese standard
    Just take it easy 🙂

    • You know, that’s one of the guesses I get. Like sometimes when people speak English to me, I simply ignore it and continue on with Japanese. And frequently when I do, they’ll ask “Are you Italian?” So I guess I look American first, but failing that, Italian. Disappointingly, nobody ever guesses that I’m Japanese. Apparently that’s not an option.

      • If it’s getting that bad, and you’ve already put 10 years into learning the language, perhaps it’s time to do a little Sean Connery and get some surgery to make you “look” Japanese 🙂

        • I was thinking more of getting The Kenny Rogers special. Either that, or maybe The Bruce Jenner. Ah, so many good choices.

          • Yes Timo is referring to the 1967 James Bond movie: “You only Live Twice”, where Sean Connery is made over to look Japanese and then marries a Nippon woman to live on an island where the bad guys have a base. I was really disappointed when the girl died too. Here is a Youtube clip, titled – “Sean Connery becomes Japanese” where they show him going thru some kind of transformation that looks like fake hair and eye modifications:

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PM7HQjIcc08

            BTW: At 58 seconds the woman that is helping to train James Bond to act Japanese says something that makes the other women laugh, could someone please translate what she says?? Isn’t her English pretty good for a Japanese girl, too! This movie really gave me a very favorable impression of the Japanese that was really dispelled when I went to Okinawa as a Marine several years later!

            • She says, in effect, “That’s our little secret.” I suppose it’s intended to be a sexual innuendo. Didn’t really strike me as funny, but then I don’t know why they’re standing around in their underwear either.

          • If you dress up like the Amazing Racist does in this video there’s no way they could mistake you for a Caucasian!
            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2RoNemjcjGE

      • Ken,
        I don’t know you,
        But recently I have solid temptation to ask Japanese citizenship.
        Just to get a Japanese passport, kanji name, all the stuff…
        To prove “I am original, certified Japanese”.
        strong annoying weapon 🙂

        Disclaimer: I like Japan, I am peaceful guy, I live in deep countryside where foreigners are alien and I find it funny, usually.

        PS & OT: did you notice on visa, document title is “certificate of alien registration”

        • Yeah, I know that feeling. I think the only reason I’d ever want to get citizenship here is so that when someone called me a “foreigner” (or alien—which is worse?), I could bust out that red passport and be like, “Japanese, bitch.” Only I know it wouldn’t really work. Then I’d just be the gaijin with a Japanese passport, or the gaijin with a Japanese name. Sigh. It’s probably easier to just move somewhere like France.

          • IF you get citizenship, police will not annoy you anymore… ops maybe not true.
            anyway if you go to France,
            I may stop reading you 🙂

            • I think we’re pretty safe for the moment. I’m in Japan for the forseeable future, and I’d rather be harassed by the Japanese cops than the French any day.

  10. Haha, this was great. I have now found an awesome blog.
    Sometimes I wonder if and when I visit Japan or come to live there for an extended period of time if these things and the ‘tourettes’- esque behaviours will annoy me more, less or the same in comparison to being in the US. I already deal with these mini microagressions daily in my own native country simply for being a black female. haha

    “Maybe white people do this to black people in the U.S. Nah, I’m sure they do.” – I had a hearty chuckle. As for the mike holding sideways, don’t worry, you needn’t apologise. I belted out a slew of rap songs recently as I went to karaoke with a couple friends last night and not only did I hold the mike sideways as I rapped Kanye’s “Gold Digger”, I made sure to gesture at no one in particular and attempt to twerk. good times

    • Well, I hope you do visit someday. You’re gonna love the karaoke here. It’s cheap and plentiful, and they’ll deliver all the beer, pizza, and edamame to your room you want. I used to go about twice a week, although I can’t say I’ve ever twerked. Probably just as well.

  11. How often do you go to “local Japanese bars”? I mean, if you do it often enough, if you even concentrate on going to just one of them, isn’t there a chance that people there will eventually accept you at least a little more as one of them? Though you might become the infamous foreigner, more infamous than a sex offender in the same neighborhood. But hey, isn’t it worth the risk? You know, for science. Who knows, you may end up tearing up and feeling at home one day.

    • Yeah, that’s a good question. I have a number of local restaurants and bars that I go to regularly. How often? Eh, maybe in rotation I might go to the same place once or twice a week. I’m cutting back. But if you do the math, that’s a few hundred times over the years. Best not to think about it, actually.

      Am I accepted as one of “them”? Well, I pretty much divide the world into thirds. 1/3 of the people don’t notice or don’t care about race. Another third notices, and will make the occasional comment about “you people,” or “your country,” but that’s about it. The last third, that’s all they see. Holy shit, a white guy. Hello! Can I shake your hand? Let’s take a picture together!

      So is it possible to feel at home in Japan? Sure. Just so long as you ignore 33 to 66 percent of the population.

  12. Have you ever had that awkward moment at the station where you are just looking at the map to see how much to pay for a ticket for a place you haven’t been to yet for just a brief second and a Japanese person will come up beside you and just look at you waiting for a moment to pounce with the english and it makes you feel self conscious so you spend more time looking at the map then you would have (even though in your head you’re like ‘just find the damn station on the map as soon as possible, oh crap, their waiting, their looking, their gonna pounce, hurry, hurry, hurry-) and you panic and then- ‘Hello! Can I help you??!’
    and then it’s a matter of explaining that ‘no, I’m fine thanks’ (I just need to look at this map without being stared at so I can concentrate) and then they assume your being polite because you are still looking at the map so they;re like ‘CAN I HELP? Where do you want to go?’ and uhh…..

    I had this one girl literally ask me three times ‘okay? help?’ and stand and watch right beside me as I bought the ticket and put it in the gate…

    But anyway, nice jab at Australians, lol. I do find that it’s either one or the other with us. Either they’ve been here so long and are married to a Japanese person and don’t really remember english anymore (and even if they do, their english has morphed into a Japanesified American accent with no traces of an australian accent) or they’re throwing beer bottles on the ground and picking up zabutons in restaurants to use as back pillows… I’m hoping I’ll be able to develop a good enough strategy so that I don’t become either…

  13. Not that having people constant trying to help me when I look slightly lost is something to complain about…I’m just really self conscious so sometimes being white person here is panic-inducing.

  14. Try working at a hotel to get your fill of Japanese! I work at a resort out in the sticks of Tohoku which basically only has Japanese guests outside of the ski season. They see your uniform and they’re like “Where is the onsen?” and then 2 beats later they’re like “???WTF are you doing here?” But it is all in Japanese.
    Almost everyone I work with speaks in Japanese, the customers speak in Japanese, my boyfriend speaks in Japanese. After three years of militant “don’t speak to me in English,” I’ve done a 180 and am more than happy to use my native language.

    Every so often someone tells me my Japanese is “better than a Japanese person’s” and I go “ahahaha!” but secretly I hate it. Things I hate: talking about food, talking about where I’m from, talking about how my Japanese is better than a Japanese person’s Japanese.
    If my Japanese is better than yours, why is it that I constantly feel like my ears are stuffed with cotton and I can’t make out what the hell it is you’re saying without concentrating hard enough to get a nosebleed?
    Can I just use your blog comment section as free counseling?

    • Yeah that is a pet hate. I use lang-8.com to get some writing practice in, and I swear every single comment, every single time is “your Japanese is so good!” or “your Japanese is better than a Japanese person!” or “your Japanese is better than mine!” etc. Now, OK, everybody likes being complimented, but it gets old after the fiftieth time.

      • Yeah, and it’s not gonna to get any less-old. It’s impossible to get to the point where you’re simply normal, and people don’t feel the need to comment upon how normal you are. I’ve seen people born in this country get it too. There’s a fine line between a compliment and passive-aggression.

        I can’t wait to go back to the States and find Asian-looking people to compliment on their English.

    • I don’t see why not, since I do the same. You know, those things you mentioned all boil down to the fact that we don’t look, you know, “Japanese.”

      Of course, I’ve heard the opposite from my Asian-looking friends, that every time they speak Japanese, people look at them like they’re retarded. So I guess it’s no picnic either way.

    • Hey Ana, I work at a hotel reception too! Do you get that thing where you say ‘irashaimase’ and the person walks toward your counter to check in and then they actually took up and see your face before making a speedy beeline for the counter next to yours? haha It doesn’t happen that often and I don’t really care that much when it does (less work for me!). Most people just assume I’m half Japanese (I don’t look in anyway half Japanese, but there must be some biological explanation for why I can speak Japanese right? lol) and come up and let me check them in without any problems.

      The worst I had was this one old lady who came up to my counter and after I asked her politely for her name in Japanese, she was suddenly like ‘bring a person who is good at Japanese!’ and I was like ‘woah… okay…’ and asked my boss to come out (cause everyone else was too busy to serve her). My boss was really indignant about how she wouldn’t let me serve her though and said it was really rude, so that was nice. Afterward she came to the reception and started chatting to the Japanese receptionists and mentioned how she hadn’t let me serve her, then turned to me and yelled out in english ‘SORRY’ and I was like ‘とんでもないです’ and she was like ‘SO-RRY’ and it was all really confusing. In the end when she checked out I ended up having a nice chat with her in Japanese and so I think she managed to compute that just cause I have a non-asian face doesn’t mean i don’t speak it and she asked for my name thanked me a lot and said she would come back… so it ended nicely…

      Do you take phone reservations? I love taking phone reservations and getting calls from Travel agents because they have no idea I’m not Japanese and then at the end they ask for my name and I’m like ‘My name is Ko-ru’ and they’re like ‘…Ko-ru…? that’s an unusual name, what’s the kanji for that?’ and I’m like ‘It’s in Katakana’.
      Most of the time they’re like ‘oh so you’re from China?’ and if I can’t be bothered I’m like ‘yeah, China, sure’ but if I can be bothered and tell them I’m actually from Australia they’re always like ‘Oh your Japanese is so good!’ which is funny because somehow if I pretend I’m Chinese they don’t say anything about my Japanese…

      • What I like is when Chinese people compliment me on my Japanese. That’s very weird. I’ve concluded there’s no irony in China.

        • do you know why China is full of ironies??

          cuz they friggin memorize everything and never ask ‘why’

          very frustrating

          • I feel that. Same thing in Japan. But what I’ve come to realize is that there’s a lot of good in that too.

            Take the U.S. Please. Service is highly variable from place to place, and person to person, because nobody does things the same way. Everybody’s all like, It’s my own style, man. Sorry, but you’re a bus driver. You don’t have a style. Just drive the damn bus, and quit asking why and trying to open the bus door in some unique way.

            So you know, there’s good and bad. Gotta be careful what you wish for.

      • I met a young Chinese man once with excellent English and Japanese. He studied damn hard as a teenager, and studied smart. Watched lots of TV online on top of the book study so his accent was decent. And what, only twenty years old? And as much as I dislike the constant praise, I also found it kind of funny that here was this guy who deserved a heck of a lot of recognition for doing something amazing, but not much was going to come his way.

  15. After reading this post, I really wanted to put your theory to the test. Well, actually, truth be told, I wanted to get out in the thick of it, you know, knee deep in the culture and practice my Japanese.

    Well, o.k. really, I just wanted an excuse to stop in at any local watering hole and grab a beer and some raw squid.

    Yum, right?

    Well, I don’t know. Maybe I am strange (I’m mean, by definition being a foreigner in this country makes me strange. But I mean really strange.) cuz, my experience was really quite different from yours.

    For starters, I rolled into this Italian café bar in Shimbashi on Wednesday, which just happens to be lady’s night. ☺

    I was braced for a barrage of English. But for whatever reason it was AJAAT, All Japanese All The Time.

    Which was cool. Cause, that’s why I went in the first place. Well sort of.

    Anyway, I asked if I could sit at the table outside, cuz it was like hot and cuz like, well the scenery on the street was the same.

    No problem responded my demure little waitress in perfectly correct nihongo. BUT, I would need to pay a JPY 5,000 deposit.

    I was like, “Nan desuka? Doshite?”

    “Standard policy” she replied as some guest “forget” to pay before they leave.

    I then asked if it was because I was a gaijin, or if it was because I was white.

    She hesitated for a while and then made a really convincing effort at saying “no, even Japanese are subject to the policy.”

    I then asked her if Japanese ever sat outside. “Of course not” she said, “it’s too hot.”

    So there you have it. Nobody spoke English to me. But then again, I did get treated like a paroled felon.

    Then again, I did get my beer, and it was, after all, Lady’s night.

    • Okay, that’s an excellent start, and I commend you for it. But here’s your next assignment.

      First of all, get a copy of “Heart of Darkness,” by Joseph Conrad and read it, cover to cover. Or failing that, just watch “Apocalypse Now.” Pretty much the same story. Anyway, they’re always heading up this river, deeper and deeper into the jungle.

      So after you read or watch the story, then go back out and find another restaurant, only find a small place that looks like no white person’s ever set foot in there. Shinbashi’s okay, but somewhere off the Yamanote would be better. Further up the river, like, I dunno, Oji. Either way, you’re definitely looking for a place with a hand-written menu in Japanese and about ten old dudes sitting at a bar. Oh, and no women. Like no woman would even think about setting foot in a place like that.

      So once you find this heart of darkness, just part the noren like you’re a normal person, saunter up to the counter and sit down and order a grilled fish and a glass of shochu. Let me know what happens next.

  16. Hi Ken,

    Are you talking like, “I love the smell of natto in the morning!” kind of place? If so, I think I’ve found it. Well, kind of.

    You see I’ve been on my bike (I know it’s supposed to a boat) riding along the coast of Miyagi-ken and Iwate-ken (I know its suppose to be a river in a jungle…but hey, I’m on a budget, ok), and there’s not really much out here except small villages, small fishing ports, and local watering holes filled with salt of the earth crusty ole Japanese peeps.

    I can honestly say that in the last week I have only had one person speak English to me. And, even she was kind of “special,” as she started shouting “hey you, hey you! Where are you come from? Where you going?” from about a 200 meters across the parking lot of the only supermarket in the area.

    I was like, uh oh, here comes trouble. But she actually turned out to be very sweet, and a possibly a little “touched.” She also ended up reverting to Japanese every time her English failed her which was a lot because she was out of breath from running across the parking lot. Even better, a short time later I was the proud owner of a hand drawn map with all the local attractions in pretty colors. I

    In the same place I had a 30-minute conversation with a retired fisherman who had worked in Alaska and in British Columbia on some Japanese fish processing ships. The only word of English he used the whole time we were talking was “Seward” as in Seward Alaska. I guess it’s probably the same in Japanese, so maybe that doesn’t count.

    Anyway, one thing that has definitely impressed me on this trip is how matter of fact the people have acted whenever I’ve rolled into whatever local shop, minshuku, bar, etc. In fact, I think the people in the countryside, or least the ones I’ve met, just expect foreigners to be able to communicate in Japanese.

    It’s kind of like the farmer I sat next to on long distance train in China. After about an hour, he taps me on my shoulder and asks in Mandarin, “are you from China?” After I explained that, no, I was actually not from China, but an American living in Japan, he then started to complain to me about the prices of the lunch boxes on the train. (which by the way, I would not recommend to anyone.) Anyway, it was kind of refreshing to be treated like a regular Joe, or should I say, Zhang.

    So back to your original point, I actually do agree that often times you will get one person or more that either don’t want to acknowledge that you can speak Japanese (for me that’s understandable, since my Japanese sucks), or perhaps because they want to demonstrate to their fellow patrons at the bar that they have a mastery of like 10 English words. Or who knows, maybe, quite possibly, it’s just they are like a mile high on cheap shochu or happy Hoppy concoctions.

    Which reminds me, I once got into a taxi in Tokyo and the driver, after finding out I am from the US, started to name of all of our state capitals one by one. Fortunately, it was a short ride, and I got out before he made it to the east coast states. I bet you would have fun meeting that guy over a glass of shochu.

    Anyway, I don’t know much about Japan. But I have to say that I do feel a different vibe here, up river with Colonel Kurtz, than I do back in the Big T. It’s like people are more real, if that makes sense. Or who knows, maybe I’m romanticizing and they are all just the same.

    One parting thought, while I have also experienced the same thing you described, IE people insisting to use messed up English to communicate when it would be easier if we were all just to speak the local lingo, in Taiwan, China, and Korea, I do think it’s easier to practice the local language in those countries. People are just more inquisitive and talkative with strangers.

    In Korea or Taiwan taxi drivers ask about my business, how long I’m staying, what I had for lunch, what’s in my bag, etc. etc. The same goes, in perhaps a slightly more restrained manner, for most of the other locals.

    But, in Japan, especially in Tokyo, people seem to be averse to random conversations with strangers. In fact, I think people are even down right suspicious, or possibly neurotic. Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it. But, I do get a lot of one-word answers to questions that are intended to be conversation starters.

    Last, last thought, in Tokyo, I get people who compliment my Japanese all the time. Which is ridiculous, because we both know they are lying because, as I said, my Japanese sucks. But, out here on assignment, people just talk and it’s like they can’t be bothered with the BS flattery. That’s kind of nice.

    • Mark, I’ve read some of your site and you, my friend, have definitely ventured into the heart of darkness. You’re way up in the jungle, for sure. Remember, if you get into trouble, call in an air-strike.

      I’ve also done many months of bike touring, in the U.S., and it’s my favorite way to travel. You see so much, and meet so many real people. Although watching Mt. Fuji race by from the window of the shinkansen while eating an ekiben and slamming down a cold Asahi is a close second.

      Like you, I also have long stretches where nobody even notices my appearance or speaks any English. Maybe that’s why it’s such a shock when I walk into a place and suddenly some dude’s like, “Welcome to Japan!” I’m like, What, did I just do some David Banner/Incredible Hulk thing, and now I’m green?

      Like, have you ever worn a Halloween costume, and after a while you forget you’re wearing it? You still feel like you, only every so often somebody will bust out laughing or starting pointing when they see you. It’s kind of like that.

      So yeah, something I’ve noticed is that if one guy starts doing the “you’re a foreigner” thing, then sometimes it’s like a landslide, and everyone starts to collectively view you as an outsider.

      The reverse is also true, though. If there’s one guy who just talks to you normally, then everyone’s like, “Oh, this dude’s all right.” It’s weird. Group-think is a strange thing.

      • Hi Ken,

        Well, I made it back home safely. No airstrikes required.

        Hey, do you remember the scene in Apocalypse Now where they are out on the isolated jungle river for like weeks, and all of the sudden they round a bend and there’s like a small US Army base that’s having a huge party with Playboy Bunnies and helicopters?

        Well, I kind of had the same experience, well except for the Playboy Bunnies and helicopters.

        After ten days on my bike out in the Japanese countryside, I ended up in Misawa one evening. There’s a good-sized US Air Force base there, and a bunch restaurants and bars by the main gate. Since I had been eating pretty much natto, tofu, and raw fish for the past week, I decided to head to the base and get me some fine American cuisine.

        Ended up cruising into an awesome little Tex-Mex restaurant. Great food, nice people, but pretty much on the surreal side for a guy who’s been on his bike in the “jungle” for the last ten days.

        I step through the door, and it’s like a magic portal to middle America. Lots of large, English speaking, casually dressed, pierced and tattooed folks. Most excellent!

        I’m thinking it might be nice to visit a place once in a while where I’m just a regular Joe, and don’t have to worry about being outed as a “outside person.”

        Is there a place in Tokyo where you can do that?

        • Well, maybe gaijin bars aren’t that far off. But they present their own set of issues.

          You know, I’ve been living in the jungle doing the whole natto, tofu, and raw fish thing for a lot of years, so I actually don’t feel “at home” with American food any more, and sometimes it’s the same with way with Americans. It’s a real paradox, and I think a lot of ex-pats get into this space. I mean, I have some things in common, but there are a lot of differences too at this point. So I kind of feel like, Who are you people? And why do you wear such baggy clothes?

          Basically, I’ve gone a bit too Colonel Kurtz, and I’m not sure what the antidote is. Beer seems to help. The horror…the horror.

    • I have seen that.

      And well, although I think he makes some good points, it’s a wee bit loooong. I’m pretty sure the video could’ve been done in about three minutes, tops. But maybe there was some artistry I missed. Maybe hidden shapes in the shrubbery?

      But okay, length aside, I think he’s thought fairly deeply about the issues, and I respect that. Yet, am I the only person who sees some absurd theater in this? A white guy alone in a park or on the side of a highway taking about what it means to be integrated into Japanese society? All right, probably just me.

      The thing is, here’s a dude who’s been here for years, and he’s still discussing the issue of fitting in to Japanese society. And “we” all do. We think about it, and talk about it, and try to solve it as though it were a logical puzzle. And that’s cool, but I’m not sure we’re really going anywhere with this discussion.

  17. i’m wondering… how japanese people treat foreigner that came from Asia?
    Is it the same way they treat the westener, as a Gaijin?
    are all non-japanese automatically treated as Gaijin? What about those who is born in japan?

    • Let’s see…

      To some extent, it depends upon what kind of non-Asian you are. A Chinese person from China might be treated differently than a Chinese-American. In the same way, someone who appears Korean might receive different treatment than someone who looks Filipino.

      Japan is a melting pot, only most of the “races” are Asian.

      Of course, it depends upon the Japanese people you interact with as well. There are so many variables that it’s hard to generalize. However, I can say with great confidence that folks who appear Asian will not be treated the same as those who appear to be white or black.

      As for the word “gaijin”…when the newspapers report about “gaikokujin,” they are referring to the masses of Chinese, Korean, and other Asian people who reside in Japan. However, when folks on the street speak about “gaijin” or “gaikokujin,” it virtually always means white or black. This discrepancy is significant, since the popular perception is that foreign = white/black, when the reality is that “foreign” actually means miscellaneous other Asian.

      As for people born in Japan who look non-“Japanese,” I imagine they have to deal with the whole here’s-an-English-menu on a regular basis.

  18. Just say you’re french and don’t speak english…works fine for me 😉

    • I’ve tried that! But then people always ask where in France I’m from and I end up weaving a pack of lies. Which if I’m going to do, I’d rather just say I was born in Japan. I mean, if you’re gonna go, go big.

  19. New to your page and am total enjoying posts. I gained more knowledge than reading news articles and Wikipedia about Japan. Super insightful

  20. Whoever You Are…

    Extremely interesting, and I MEAN it, like UNIQUE, UNPARALLELD.

    Although I’m sure you’d love France…

    And I’d love so much to read about your adventures in Paris or wherever!

    But, my God, what’s missing HERE?

    A BOOK, A BOOK, come on, what are you waiting for, we need a bloody BOOK!

    Have a heart!

    Don’t keep us hangin’!

    What is it, I mean, anything against being a hit on the bookshelf side of life?

    But most of all, keep on truckin’, man, and any old way you fancy!

    Cause… you are the one!

    NO doubt about it.

  21. I completely understand what your saying. I’m Canadian, Anglo descent, and recently moved to Syria to open up a New York Style Deli-Cafe… everyone who sees my white face is constantly running up to me and beheading me, burning me alive, or eating my still beating heart right out of my chest while slurping down mint tea.

    There are things far, far worst for the Ex-Patriot than eager Japanese running up to you wanting to Practice English.

    Plus, you can have a credit card swiped attached to your cellphone now, and charge by the minute for casual English transactions. Watch as they flee from you. Or better yet, become a door to door vacuum salesman, selling only in English! $$$$

  22. You know its interesting, the things you mention here sound very appalling to someone like me. See regardless of my skin color I am a person who is considered different no matter where I go and the overwhelming effort of most people to be polite to me and ignore what are often glaring differences in appearance and function is tiring. The idea of being in a place where I am glaringly different for something OTHER than what people usually pay attention to sounds delightful to me. I like the idea of maintaining my “foreigner” status. I would have little desire to assimilate more because there are just too many thing I wouldn’t be able to achieve even if I wanted to. I must look more into this. Thank you.

    • Thanks for the comment. If you like standing out, Japan may just be the place for you. By the way, and no offense, but I think you meant “appealing.”

      • oh the irony… most people who “stand out” (whatever that really means), or consider themselves different, want to move to japan.. by all means, do and try, but dont forget that you would be moving to a conservative country and japanese people dont like people who stand out at all, with little exceptions…

  23. Hello Ken,

    It might be some consolation to you that the Japanese aren’t the only ones with an obsessive-compulsive disorder to speak english with non-natives. Maybe something to do with the trading enclave the Dutch had in Japan, who knows?

    Ex-pats living in the Netherlands complain that it’s hard for them to learn the language. 90% of the Dutch are able to hold a conversation in english and the minute they notice you aren’t speaking dutch fluently , will immediately without asking continue the conversation in english.

    On the bright side, should you ever want to visit and/or teach english here. It wont be necessary for you to learn a whole new language only usable in that country.

    Met vriendelijke groeten,
    Pepijn

    • You know, I visited the Netherlands once. Fantastic place, in my extensive two-day experience.

      I don’t know if it’s related to OCD or not, but maybe you can help me characterize this disorder: When a people are virulently proud and protective of your their nation’s language and culture (even if it originated elsewhere), while simultaneously fetishizing over things which appear “foreign,” to the extent of trying to mimic the clothing and speech patterns of foreigners.

      What the hell’s that? Because that definitely needs to be included in the DSM-6.

    • A common question is why do Japanese expect Asian foreigners (Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipinos, etc.) to speak Japanese and behave like “Japanese”, but don’t expect that from white foreigners. I believe many Japanese do indeed consider the culture from the USA and European countries to be “cool”, “sexy” and “noble”, just like many non-Japanese have this opinion of Japanese culture. Whenever you see a high school/college anime featuring a foreign “exchange student”, the student comes from say Germany, France or Italy, not from China, Vietnam, Bangladesh or other countries where most actual exchange students in Japan come from.

      Well, imagin if you are a typical otaku who loves anime and manga, is studying Japanese and is eager to “immerse” yourself into Japanese culture. And you meet two Japanese people living in your country. One speaks perfectly your local language, hates manga, anime and J-Pop, gets offended when people talk to him/her in Japanese, and is actually only interested in local sports, HBO and Netflix series. The other one mixes a bunch of Japanese expressions with your local language, attends cosplay events, loves talking about anime and going to the karaoke and sing J-Pop songs, and praises you whenever you use Japanese words with him/her? Which of these two you would prefer to hang out with?

      (I actually known one overseas Japanese person in each stereotype above. Guess which one is the most popular?)

      On the other hand, when people from Western countries get immigrants from countries which aren’t considered as “cool”, “sexy” or “noble” like say Pakistan, Turkey, Central America or African countries, they want these people to “integrate into society”, “to speak the local language”, and “not bring unacceptable behaviours to their country”. That’s also how the Japanese feel about Asian immigrants.

      So, yes, the definition of being a “cool foreigner” versus being an “obnoxious foreigner” varies according to the country you come from. That doesn’t happen only in Japan, of course. For instance I can assure you that in Southeast Asia, people will have very different expectations from you depending or whether you are Western, Japanese/Korean, or from another Asian country.

  24. Maybe you spend too much time in touristy areas? The only time I ever have this problem is if I`m in Shinjuku or Shibuya eating somewhere close to the station. It used to happen to me more often, but now it doesn`t really happen. Here`s why: I used to dress too much like an American and I wasn`t able to speak convincingly enough that they would lay off the English. In my experience, Japanese people are usually super relieved when they don`t have to speak English. I can see people relax if I open my mouth and Japanese comes out of it. So if you are wearing clothes that don`t really follow Japanese fashion norms or have a heavy accent, I can see why this happens. You have to remember that white people are less than 0.1% of the population, so you are far more likely to be a tourist than a dude who lives here.

    • Yeah, maybe, I don’t know. All my clothes are Japanese, I get my hair cut at the Japanese barber, brush my teeth with Japanese toothpaste, and hang out in places that’ve never seen a white person. There are certainly folks who prefer to speak Japanese, but eventually there’s that one dude who finds a way to show off his English. Doesn’t happen every day, but since I’m out a lot, it happens a lot. Just odds, I guess.

      I doubt anybody’s ever mistaken me for a tourist. Just for a white guy.

  25. I’m curious, if I want to become a English teacher in Japan (preferably for kindergartners, mostly asking because of that.), would it be better to learn japanese than if I just went there for any other job? I was thinking of learning japanese as I get a teaching degree, but if it a bit of a mute point, I might just want to learn enough to get by. Your opinion?

    • Normally, I’d say just learn enough to get by. But judging from your comment, I’d guess you’re not what some might call a “native” English speaker.

      Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. All varieties of English are valid, and to think otherwise is ethnocentric. But that being said, it may be a bit of a handicap in Japan, a world-beating country in ethnocentrism. Here, if you look like a “Westerner” (i.e., black or white person) and speak American or British-style English, you’ll have reasonable employment options. If not, your choices may be quite limited. Reading, writing, and speaking Japanese would expand your range of possibilities.

      It’s a tough question, honestly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*

Scroll To Top