Why no one Helps you Learn Japanese

I have a lot of great ideas. Really, just a ton. Oh sure, to the untrained eye, I’m kicking it on the balcony drinking Asahi beer and watching sardine trains packed with commuters ride into the sunset, but really, I’m thinking. Hard. Like about my tiny Japanese apartment, and how to make it more livable. So, first I bought a sofa-bed. It’s a little lumpy. Then a lamp. That came from Ikea, so actually it’s great. They really understand furniture, those Swedes. And meatballs. Then I thought, Hey, how about a little hydroelectric power plant? That’d be a nice addition.

Surprisingly, there aren’t many YouTube videos about doing this at home. But I figured, Well, how hard can it be? I mean, I’ve got a sink, and what am I gonna use it for? Washing dishes? Heh, that’d be the day.

I guess I should probably mention that at my apartment, I pay for electricity, but not water. Why? Because Japan—-how’s that for an answer? I live in a land full of mysteries. Anyway, so my brilliant idea was to save a few monthly yen by constructing a scale-model generator in my kitchen and just letting the tap run forever. Ken Seeroi, livin’ off the grid. Hey, I’ve got a lot of free time.

So that was one excellent idea. My next, possibly worse, idea was for a book to help people learn Japanese. I decided to do this while pulling copper wire and popsicle sticks out of my drain, along with copious amounts of rubber cement. Who knew hydrology could be so complicated?

Curriculum for Learning Japanese

My qualifications for describing how to learn Japanese include spending more than a decade studying the language and, well, eh, that’s about it. I mean, ever meet somebody who knits? And they’re all like, Oh, now here’s this little cap I knitted for Joshua. And that’s the cute scarf I made for Sylvia. And in this closet, why I knitted all these jeans out of the fur of Persian kittens. They’re very, very soft. So that’s how I am with Japanese, only I don’t get to wear anything warm and basically all Japanese people just want to speak English with me anyway. Well, whatever. I spend a lot of time studying, is what I’m trying to say.

And one of the things that’s always struck me is that there’s really no curriculum, no program, for learning Japanese. Beginners are awash in books and CDs all claiming to be the greatest; then materials start drying up about the intermediate level, until advanced learners are left with vapor. Downloading random episodes of One Piece isn’t really much of a learning plan.

So if you’ve read the, uh, internet, then you know that resources for learning Japanese are few and scattered, consisting of a patchwork of random ideas that somebody’s uncle pulled out of his butt, along with broken links to file-sharing sites. Learners are bedeviled with questions like:

What do I study next? and
Why Can’t I just buy real materials off Amazon instead of spending weeks searching PirateBay while wondering when the NSA is going to rappel into my apartment?

What Japanese learners really need is a clear, step-by-step roadmap for how to learn the language, along with solid resources. So I figured, hey, that’d be a good book. And who better to write it than Ken Seeroi? Well, lots of people probably, but anyway here I am. So I inserted a fresh sheet of A4 paper into my MacBook, and started hunting and pecking.

How to Learn Japanese

1. Learn 46 hiragana characters
2. Learn 46 katakana characters
3, Learn 100 survival phrases
4. Listen to Japanese podcasts and conversational lessons
5. Learn 50 basic grammar points
6. Have simple conversations via Skype
7. Read graded readers
8. Learn 2100 kanji
9. Learn 200 more grammar points
10, Have intermediate conversations with random strangers
11. Learn 10,000 vocabulary words
12. Read a mountain of books, magazines, and newspapers
13. Read your cereal boxes and shampoo bottles
14. Learn all the grammar in the worldHow to Learn Japanese
15. Abandon your family and friends, sell everything you own, and move to Japan
16. Talk to Japanese people and realize they wish you’d just speak English

And at that point, you’d be about 1/3 of the way toward being able to have a normal, adult conversation.

So then once I’d typed up the exciting Table of Contents, it dawned on me why nobody’s written this book.

Because nobody in their right mind would buy the damn thing. And even if a hundred people in the whole world did, how many would complete the program? About one, maybe. And he’d be that dude locked in a room scrawling equations all over the walls.

I think most people who’ve mastered Japanese understand this. They know how hard it was, how long it took, and that ridiculously few others are going to go to that much trouble to speak an arcane language. You’d be better off constructing a windmill on your veranda to power your Ikea lamp. Still working on that one, by the way.

Books for Japanese Learners

So nobody spends a year writing a book that nobody’d want to buy, and that virtually everybody who read it would fail at. Instead here’s the book you end up with:

Learn Japanese Fast, for FreeMan, I’d sell that book like hotcakes. Or I’d 3-D print it on hotcakes and then sell those. And then I’d record a TEDx video telling the world how I learned Japanese by “hacking” the language, laying around in my boxers drinking beer, watching Japanese TV, and creating a perpetual motion motion machine instead of taking boring classes. Then I’d purchase half a million of Facebook likes, network with gurus in “the blogging community” claiming the same thing, and nobody’d even care if I could speak Japanese or not, because I’d given the world what it wanted. A way off the hook.

And that’s why no one tells you what it takes to learn Japanese. Because nobody wants that truth. There’s no market for it. Step-by-step plan? Curriculum? Man, who’s got time for that? It’s 2014! Why pay “the establishment” for power every month like a sucker when you can hot-wire your kitchen? And just wait till next month when that windmill starts churning. We’ll see who’s the sucker then.

Learning Japanese from Japanese People

But surely Japanese people can help you learn Japanese, right? Funny thing about that. From the very first time I landed in Japan, I was surprised by how little anyone wanted to help me learn the language. Particularly men. Oh, they loved speaking English with me, but when it came to Japanese, it was like I’d snatched the remote off their coffee table and changed the channel. So over the years, I’ve had to surround myself with Japanese women. Man, my life is hard, I tell you.

So I’ve got this friend who lives near Ueno zoo, an American guy who’s been studying the language for about eight years, and the other day he called me with a question.

“Ken,” he said, “I need you to interpret some Japanese for me.

“Why don’t you ask a Japanese person?

“Get serious.

“Right. Sorry. Okay, what was the question?

“So I asked out this girl at Starbucks . . .

“The one with the ginormous ass?” I’m very subtle like that.

“No, someone new. A cheerleader. Or she was a few years ago.

“Well, once a cheerleader, always a cheerleader, in my book.

“So what does ‘I like sweets’ mean?” he asked.

“It means she doesn’t want to sleep with you.

“Ah, I thought so,” he said, dejectedly. “But why?

“Because you’ve got no fashion sense?

“No,” he said, “I mean, why does it mean that?

“Oh. ‘I like sweets’ means she wants you to take her to a cafe and buy her tiny cakes. It’s a lunchtime date. If she really wanted you, she’d say she likes izakaya.

“Because that translates to what?

“That’s a night date. It means she’ll have a few drinks, and then it’ll get late, and then maybe she’ll miss the last train.

“How come whenever I ask Japanese guys, they never explain this stuff?” he lamented.

“I think there’s a reason,” I said.

Well, two reasons, actually. The first is that Japanese people suck at explaining things. It’s just not a culture that uses a lot of, you know, words. Now I don’t mean telling—Here’s how you should hold your chopsticks; here’s where we change into the teeny-tiny slippers—oh, they’re great at that. I mean explaining, like why the train system in the world’s largest city completely shuts down after midnight.

Okay, so maybe that’s an overly broad statement. I mean, there’s 127 million people in the nation, and surely somebody’s good at explaining something. I just haven’t met that person. Seriously, somebody please explain to me why the trains stop running. Okay, now somebody Japanese.

Or like, remember the original Karate Kid movie? Yeah, I know, not exactly a Japanese movie, but still, there’s a kernel of truth to it. Remember how the kid shows up and he’s like, Mr. Miyagi, teach me karate. And if Mr. Miyagi had been a white dude, he’d have said, Sure. You make a fist like this, and then you punch people. Got it? Good. Now go practice for a year.

But does Mr. Miyagi do that? No, he takes a simple request, and instead of giving a straightforward answer like a normal human being, he makes the kid wash his car. Yeah, I know, that seems all zen and all, but when you actually live in Japan, and you go to your coworker and say “Hey, Miyagi, you know how to use this fax machine?” and he says “Paint my fence,” it’s not so amusing any more.

Japanese People Don’t Want you to Speak Japanese

So there’s that. And there’s another reason that eluded me for years. See, I used to think that Japanese people were always speaking English to me because

A: My Japanese wasn’t good enough, or
B: They wanted to practice their English

One of my roommates helped me understand C: They’d rather I don’t.

This was when I lived in a big house with a bunch of Japanese people and I was the only white guy. It’s a lot less great than it sounds. Well, maybe it doesn’t even sound that great. But anyway, I had this roommate, and every time I’d speak Japanese to him, he’d answer me in English.

“Konnichiwa,” I’d say.

“Hello,” he’d reply.

Oh, he was very annoying. So one day I just laid it out.

“Look,” I said, “I just want to be like everybody else in this house. We all speak Japanese. We’re in freaking Japan. You speak Japanese to everyone else, so why not me?”

And he hemmed and hawed for a bit, then finally blurted out, “Because it’s the only thing I can do better than you! You know, what else do I have?”

Of course, he said it in English, so that was kind of a dick thing, but I saw his point.

And then it dawned on me, the reality. With every salaryman that sat down next to me in a bar and started trying to have a conversation using childishly simple English punctuated with random bits of Japanese. He didn’t want me to be like him. Here he was, working sixteen hours a day, supporting a wife and child who didn’t even live in the same city, going home to a tiny box of an apartment, eating Cup Noodle every night, and now he’s going to accept me as “one of them”? Impossible.

Japanese Pride

His great accomplishment in life is that he survived years of beatings and beratings from his senseis, sitting in freezing classrooms writing millions of tiny characters to master this obscure language, and now here’s this white guy next to him who can jet off anywhere in the world and who’s speaking his language as a hobby?

There are just some things that the universe wants to resist. White rappers. Chinese guys in cowboy hats. Black sushi chefs. Non-Asians speaking Japanese. Yeah, it’s racial, and no, it’s not good. But speaking Japanese isn’t like speaking English. It’s not just another language. It means something. It’s the language of a people who are planting fields of rice in the pouring rain, who were incinerated by nuclear weapons, and who sent their young sons to die in suicide planes for a war they knew they’d never win. This isn’t ancient history. Japanese people are still struggling, working constantly for no reason other than pride. Pride is all they have. Pride in their long hours, their flag’s blood-red sun, droopy national anthem, and enigmatic language. Lots of people can use chopsticks. Anyone can change into little slippers. But the language—-that’s the one thing that sets them apart. If a bunch of “foreigners” can do it just as well, then what do they have left?

Well, the good news is that I finally gave up on both the power plant and the windmill, which freed up some time for writing. It’s not really a big deal anyway. My electric bill’s only about 30 bucks a month, since I live in a shoebox of an apartment and only heat water to make Cup Noodle. And now I also have more time to study Japanese, so maybe in another twenty years I’ll finally master this consarned language. And once I do, then I can help everybody else to do the same. Uh yeah, probably not. Because if you could do it too, then I wouldn’t look so amazing, and we can’t have that. See, it’s a Japanese thing; you wouldn’t understand.

113 Replies to “Why no one Helps you Learn Japanese”

  1. Wow, you are spot on. Thanks for this article. Your writting really gives a lot of insight not only on Japan, but on humans in general, Thanks Ken. Well, at least you are smarter now that you’ve learned the language. You are now a smart bilingual. You know what, at least you’ve mastered it. (At least that SOUNDS cool )

    And about what you said… I mean, what you are describing about Japanese culture is that it seems like a culture stuck in time. Sadly. I mean… work hard and just for the pride of doing it hard. Have a sad family. Be racist, unpractical and inefficient… according to your writting this is Japan.

    So weird. An era with smartphones but little maturity… Oh well… At least things will improve culturaly in the future, right Ken?

    Well.. though… it will have to if Japan doesn’t fix it’s low birth ratios. The saying is that in 2040 %40 Of japanese will be elders if this keeps up. Do you think the Jap. Gov will be able to handle it? Or is Japan doomed to crash because of old people and no babies?

    1. For me, it’s important to remember that the negative points about Japan—the brutal working conditions, the exclusionism, the rigidity—are also why everyone loves it so much. They’re the reason that the trains are always on time and it’s safe and that when you yell for a beer the waiter comes running in five seconds flat.

      As we continue to introduce “foreign” people and ideas into this society, that will change. It will become looser, in every respect. And there will be good and bad that comes from that as well.

      So in the future, I’m sure Japan will continue to thrive, and involve increasing numbers of foreigners. I’d bet on more and more folks from countries such as India and Pakistan continuing to emigrate here. Japan won’t be the same, but even now it’s not the same as it was fifty years ago. No doubt in some ways it’ll be better, and in others, worse. But it’ll change for sure. At least we’ll have lots of delicious curry.

      1. Good point, Ken. Curry FTW then!

        With your response I can tell that you are really smarter than you are leading us to believe. See… learning Japanese was worth it at least.

  2. I went to Japan in the summer, and while I was there I barely spoke any Japanese anywhere. Ordering food I could either use English because I was spoken to in English or they gave me an English menu and I just pointed to the one I wanted and said “Kore Kudasai!”. The only time I used Japanese for an entire order was in Mister Donut where I loudly read out the katakana for the Vuahniah and then said ETTO and then said Kohi onegashimasu.

    Glorious Nippon.

    1. Yeah, I’ve actually tried that a time or two, just pretending I don’t speak Japanese, and ordering in English. It’s really no problem. Most of the difficulties aren’t in the language, but rather understanding the system. For example, I know that when I walk into Watami, there’s about a 90% chance that the first thing the greeter will say is “Smoking or not Smoking” in Japanese. Even without hearing the words, if you walked in and said “No smoking” in English, things would go pretty well.

      Of course, traveling out to the sticks is another matter. But having said that, I’m now thinking back to some times that I was way, way out in the countryside, and ran into some grizzled old farmer who spent years in the U.S. That’s happened a lot, actually. Just goes to show that you really can’t judge anything by the way people look.

  3. Perhaps it depends on your line of work. It’s true that I’ve been told not to get “too good” at Japanese, because as a not-Japanese, that would be “気落ち悪い.” Seriously.

    But that was one girl on the Twitter-thingy. At my job as a programmer, nobody speaks more than a few words of English, so they don’t bother trying. I mean, originally, when I would struggle to explain something, they were all “英語でもいいですよ,” but I’ve pointed out many a time that this is a hollow gesture of goodwill. If I’m struggling to express myself in Japanese, it’s often because the concept, regardless of language, is hard to explain.

    But I’ve got quite a few coworkers I’m friends with, and when I’ve got a question about Japanese, more times than not, one or all of them will take a minute to make things clear. I suppose it helps when your job and teamwork would be enriched by a better understanding of Japanese, eh?

    1. Yeah, it’s definitely better at work, where people are helping me in part because it’s their job to do so. People speak Japanese with me much more often where I have a personal or professional connection with them. I think they understand that it’s rude on some level to treat people differently.

      But . . . when I’m out for the evening at some bar, then the gloves come off. I get some degree of English spoken to all the time. Something about booze does that. I dunno, maybe if I was drinking in the U.S. and I saw some guy who looked Japanese, I’d run up to him and start konnichiwa-ing him. Remind me to try that next time I head overseas.

      1. Now that you mention it, and it being “at work,” I’m really not getting out that much… I’m pretty much always accompanied by people who know me, or am entirely alone on minor business trips (bank, shopping, etc). Maybe if bar-hopping was my hobby, and not video games, I’d see more coming-off of gloves.

        But I did just remember something of note, much as I have tried to forget it. This anecdote is mostly unrelated to a theoretical desire to keep foreigners deprived of respectable Japanese ability, but in any case, I’ve decided not to go to any local rakugo-kai any longer. The reason is a rather traumatizing incident similar to how you got pointed out at a rock concert, explained below. At this particular rakugo-kai, there was less rakugo and more “old man reminisces about wartime Japan, and what’s this, we have an American in the audience… You are an American, aren’t you?” (アメリカのワシントン州人ですが)”What’s that? I can’t quite understand him, his pronunciation is too good, ha ha ha.” Cue talk of American occupation and continuous nods towards me.

        By the end, walking back to Ekoda-eki in the dark, the experience was enough to show my rakugo-kai-hopping kouhai I wasn’t nearly as thick-skinned as I made myself out to be.

        1. Yeah, it’s funny how these incidents add up. They gave me the English menu at a Mexican restaurant, and now I don’t enjoy going there so much. Why not Spanish? Peculiar. I wasn’t given the appetizer at a yatai, when everybody else was, and now I don’t go there anymore. So by degress, you end up walling off more and more of the country you worked so hard to move to. I know more than a few “foreign” people who rarely even leave their apartments because of this. Hikkikomori. It’s not just for Japanese people any more.

          Some people seem to do well in Japan by acting the part of the foreigner, speaking English, talking loud, standing out. Then everybody’s happy. I really gotta try that more.

          1. I just found your blog yesterday by accident and totally love it! I can’t stop reading it! I usually don’t read Japan blogs but yours totally rocks!!! Seriously thank you so much for writing this blog.
            Every post is spot on with my experience in Japan also. I’m an Auzzie girl who has been in Japan since I was 19 and am now 38 with afew kids ( born and raised in Japan but all get called “gaijin” constantly even though their dad is Japanese and they are all Japanese nationals – they’ve never even been called “half” as far as I can recall by other Japanese people – ALWAYS gaijin).
            Anyway, back to the point of Japanese not wanting us gaij to speak Japanese, my story is I actually didn’t come to Japan to work teaching English (came to study) and I don’t teach – which only means something to me of course (um, I have no interest to teach) and absolutely nothing to Japanese people because they have no respect for how us gaijin feel on the matter – I’m CONSTANTLY bombarded/ ordered/ harassed by various mums of my kids friends (and of course other randoms) to “speak to me in English/teach me English” or “speak to my kids in English” even though I can speak Japanese fluently. I try to be nice about it to them and explain IM NOT A TEACHER and also I didn’t come to Japan to speak in English, we are in Japan after all – but no matter how sweet I am to them about it they don’t take it well. I know Japan’s a whole different (basket) case however If the tables were turned and we were in Aus and we were constantly hounding a Japanese mum to speak Japanese and she said ” Look, this is Australia and I came here to speak English ” we would be like , yeah that’s cool. I get you and let it be.
            (Actually I knew afew Japenese people in Auz like that!)
            I even have at least 3 reoccurring harasser mums that I’ve known for about 6 years that nag me for English, I say no then they get chuffed and lay off but six months later they are back with force asking again. Totally annoying as f@@k. If they want to learn that bad they should find an actual teacher that WANTS to teach them.
            Maybe I’m a b for not letting them get a piece of Engrish from me but honestly if I gave a bit then that would be the end of it and the end of my last thread of sanity living in Japan.
            Anyway, that’s just one example of the thousands of Engrish vampire experiences I’ve had personally. Totally agree with you that they don’t want us to speak Japanese. Seriously thank you so much for your awesome blog!

            1. Wow, a very interesting comment. You know, I find it amazing, and slightly mortifying, to think how much of your, or at least my, social interactions are consumed with just wanting to be treated like a normal person. I mean, is it impossible to speak the same language as everybody else and not receive constant comments about race? Yeah, don’t answer that.

              So watching TV and reading the newspaper recently, I’ve come to realize that being a “gaijin” in Japan isn’t just a thing. It’s a massive thing. Endless television series revolve around nothing more than just finding people who look “non-Japanese” and asking them questions.

              I’m trying to picture how this would work overseas. Hey, I couldn’t help noticing you were “black.” You like basketball? Of course you do! Here, taste this fried chicken. Isn’t it delicious? Of course you’d think so! —and then we’d run this show for a couple hours every week. Surely no harm could ever come of that.

              Ah well, I guess we could go on like this for a while, but that’s why Irish bars were invented. Anyway, thanks for reading.

        2. You are a programmer in Japan? How is it like? Are you still in Japan? Have you found people to speak Japanese with?

  4. Maaaan I have been jonesing for weeks now Ken. That’s the good stuff. As always, you said it. I was that guy who locked himself in his room scrawling equations all over the walls. Only it was Kanji. After my seven years of school and a year of AJATT I rocked up to Japan speaking away like it was a normal language spoken by “people” as opposed to “Japanese people” and the shock of having to finally and forever realize that I was the equivalent of a white rapper is still with me four years later.

    But you know, them times they are a changing. I was at the Daijob job fair on friday, and you could see a nice spectrum held together by the kikoku-shijo and the “haafu”. Sometimes I think they are the glue between the prideful yamato people and us foreign elements. I was chatting with this nice person who had lived in New Zealand for six years, and she didn’t even try to speak English to me. Why would she? She has nothing to prove, and she can put herself in my shoes. Back in Kyodai we had all kinds of folks from Asia, Europe and the Americas whose shared language was Japanese. We could all be talking in Japanese when there wasn’t even a “Japanese person” in sight. It’s still a rare thing. But “rare” wouldn’t even describe the situation forty years ago.

    1. “the shock of having to finally and forever realize that I was the equivalent of a white rapper is still with me four years later.”

      For some reason that makes me think of a rock concert I attended in Kobe years ago. I was probably the only “white” person there. The singer was on stage getting the audience whipped up. People in the back let me hear you! People on the right! People on the left! Then he looked at me and said “Even gaikokujin!” And everybody cheered.

      It’s easy to feel like you’re just one of the crowd. But once in a while somebody publicly reminds you, No, you’re really not.

      1. You know I once had an undergraduate kid visiting our dorm just start singing the ABCs at me while I was in the middle of a conversation with somebody else. I guess that was the only English that had stuck.

        It’s not always being publicly reminded also. I still like to crack open the old manga from time to time, and recently I’ve been giving ごくせん a go. Great for learning some yakuza speech like シマ and so on. Well, I would be enjoying it much more, but by book eight we have had two foreign “characters” appear for a couple of pages, and both times they were basically the “weird foreigner”, one with these really grotesquely caricatured features (eyes, lips, nose, eyebrows, chest hair), both speaking barely comprehensible or fcked up katakana Japanese “どうも!はじめま●こ!”. And you are just sitting there thinking, shit, is that how I look to these people? A clown or a freak? It really gets you down.

        1. And yeah, that’s how we look.

          Think about how Westerners make fun of Asian people. Oh, me so solly. Me make you special wonton soup! I’m pretty sure everybody in the world does that. It seems very important for humans to believe that their group is somehow better than other groups.

  5. I have to ask, how true is this? I imagine it’s true in your case, as it is based off of experience… But is this across the board true?

    I have lived in Japan for a year now, and I have not a single Japanese friend whom I talk in English with. I have not rebuffed them speaking in English either – from the start we’ve only talked in Japanese. The age range for this is from friends who are 19 to friends who are in their 30’s and 40’s. This has never been an issue that’s ever come up, and if it has, it has just been the somewhat abashed comment of, “I wish I could speak two languages.”

    I do agree that there are some territorial feelings surrounding foreigners coming to Japan and affecting the culture – but I largely think that white foreigners are viewed in the most positive light. Yeah, they may be loud and obnoxious, but they are treated much better than non-Japanese people-of-color living in Japan. Zainichi Koreans and black people (anti-black sentiment is on the continual rise) are a far bigger threat in the eyes of a xenophobic (or even average) Japanese person than a white expat speaking Japanese.

    1. It seems to happen to me sporadically, which is just often enough to be a little jolt in the ribs. I’ll go five days speaking nothing but Japanese, and then on the sixth somebody’ll hand me the English menu. That’s a friendly reminder that I’m, you know, different.

      I’ve also become more attuned to the ways in which people are dumbing down their speech toward me, even in Japanese. You might notice this as well, when people choose katakana words over the equivalent Japanese words, like “protein” or “carbon fiber.” You can say those in Japanese, or in Anglicized katakana. Purotein. Caabon Faaibaa.

      I have American friends who look Asian, and typically the way Japanese people speak to them is radically different from how they speak to me. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s not uncommon either.

      Best not to look for this too hard though. Once you see it, Japan’s not quite as much fun.

      1. It cuts both ways. My Chinese GF works in a Japanese company. Being Chinese she gets treated as Japanese insofar as she is expected to behave like everybody else and tow the line (no asserting your rights and complaining about being exploited), and also to have native level Japanese (being slow on the uptake is interpreted as a sign of stupidity). At the same time she is treated as non-Japanese from the perspective of status. The most respect she got from her co-workers was during an English-only training course where she could use her good English, which temporarily forced them to see her from a non-Japan context as a talented individual rather than domestic underling.

        1. You know, I know a number of “Asian-looking” people who were born in Western countries, and whenever they meet someone new, literally the first thing out of their mouths is “but I’m American” or “I’m British.” Apparently nobody wants to be mistaken for being Chinese, include one friend of mine who was actually born in Hong Kong.

          So yeah, I think you have to be careful what you wish for. Being an Asian-born person in Japan doesn’t seem all that great. But being born in the West and looking Asian appears to have some advantages. Maybe your girlfriend should start saying she’s American.

      2. Nah, I’ve noticed the katakanazing of words to me before. Initially, I thought this *was* because I was white, but I paid attention a little more and realized that (at least in my case) the words they were using to me – “protein” being one – were also words that they occasionally dropped in other contexts as well. For example, when talking about my protein shake I drink at work, or the protein powder itself, “プロテイン” is almost always used. But when they talk about the beef bowl I get, it’s always タンパク質.

        Maybe I’m lucky? Maybe I’m just not looking hard enough? I definitely know that there is prejudice there in some people who think I can’t master the language simply because I am foreign, but those people are everywhere in any language. I would be lying if I said I didn’t use simpler words for my near fluent friends who are learners of English – where I might say “corroborate,” I’ll say “support evidence.” Sometimes it just makes it easier if you can avoid misunderstandings, and I understand that some people don’t want to pause conversation to explain something they weren’t anticipating explaining.

        Plus the fact that Japanese is the hardest language for us native English speakers to learn (and vise versa), I would like to imagine that that also plays into the perception. I can’t say it bothers me though – It’s pretty understandable given the amount of foreign tourists are in this country.

  6. I’ve lived in Japan for a couple years of my adult life now (three more when I was much younger, but what I don’t remember doesn’t count). I’ve written a bit about this feeling in my own blog as well, but you’ve got the feeling down. It’s a pretty frustrating situation when you go to any restaurant and the waiters and hostesses look literally over your shoulder at your Asian looking friends to confirm if I did indeed want “no smoking” or am I just making sounds I don’t understand.

    As I’ve lived here I’ve realized that I have to keep reminding myself that I’m dealing with ignorance, not any real malice. It’s still a pain in the ass feeling like a dog at the vet in a restaurant, but trying to pretend that Japanese people don’t know any better is legitimately the only way I can stay sane sometimes.

    1. It’s all about coping strategies. Or, failing that, just staying drunk as much as possible. Just kidding; actually I’m on a health kick lately.

      But yeah, I think everyone eventually adopts some way of dealing with the feeling of being an outcast in the country and language that you invested years into. That, or they leave. Perhaps plastic surgery would help.

    1. Hmmm. Discussing fur coats doesn’t make one a bear hunter, but okay, fair enough. I certainly don’t believe I’m racist, but we can talk about it if you care to. Why do you think that?

    2. For all of the non-native English speaking visitors, these invectives spoken by “NB Nitwit” are oft-said words from the progressive liberals POV that pointedly show how small minded they really are. Mr. Nitwit, you should check out the new reality UK BBC show “Almost Royal” as it parodies people such as you:


      Mr Nit, this blog obviously can’t illuminate you any, so have fun elsewhere, or watch that TV show and learn a little about the world and how small-minded you might really be.

  7. Thanks for this. Was a really good read. I intend to eventually move to Japan someday, and knew to expect xenophobia, but never thought much about it in the light of language. Would you have any experience with how the Japanese speak to non-Japanese Asians? In an earlier reply, you mentioned that the way the Japanese speak to your Asian looking American friends was radically different. Does this hold true generally? Do the Japanese treat Asian looking people more like one of their own?

    1. Absolutely. I recently took part in an interview, where we brought in potential candidates. I was the only “non-Japanese” on the panel of interviewers.

      We had two candidates back to back, both Americans. One was Asian; the other had blonde hair and blue eyes. The Asian guy’s Japanese was decent, but the white guy’s was fantastic.

      To the Asian-American, everybody spoke natural Japanese and seemed very comfortable. But when the other guy came in, they changed. They started using simplified Japanese, and continued to do so, even as he demonstrated mastery of the language. They also commented upon how good his Japanese was, while the Asian-American got none of this.

      To me, of course, they’re both just Americans who happen to speak Japanese, same as me. But the treatment they received—even from educated people in a professional environment—was vastly different.

    2. Sorry for the chime into this comment addressed to Ken, but just wanted to put in my 2 cents as I’m an ABC (though Australian born) living in Japan at the moment.

      I’ve been here for a year and I’d say I get treated a little differently to my more “foreign-looking” friends. If we’re together, Japanese staff/people will direct their questions to me even though my Japanese is terrible and ironically it’s my Caucasian friends who can speak better Japanese. If I’m alone, I definitely blend in more and people don’t stare or be shoot covert stares my way.

      Generally I quite like this because I can just go about my life normally. I don’t look that Japanese but I guess being Asian is halfway there by looks. I only hate it when I try to speak Japanese, then fail, then both the staff and I awkwardly have to complete the transaction in broken English because it turns out I can’t speak Japanese like they might’ve thought =__=; But that’s my own fault.

      Btw Ken, glad to hear from you! What have you been up to!?

      1. Living right. Exercising, getting plenty of fresh air, drinking less, eating healthy. It’s been terrible. Probably the worst thing in the world for a writer, whose natural position is hunched over a keyboard surrounded by empty cans of malt liquor and bags of chips. But you know, it’s good to try new stuff. And never fear, I’m sure it’ll wear off in a few days or weeks. Thanks for asking.

  8. I know, i’m not saying this with any utter arrogance but i can speak Japanese quiet fluently, mainly the accent and i can so so copy that. Already having worked with my boss for three years here in japan, we still have one of these conversation (or say argument) about if learning Japanese is easy or hard and just to make sure i’m not humiliating him, i’d just say ‘ learning Japanese is definitely not a thing for a foreigner but yeah, learning english isn’t that easy too’ you know, just to make a little space for my pride too. Keep on writing, always loved your writings. And whenever i’m reading your article, i imagine the voice of ken tanaka from youtube, you know who i’m talking about right?? You aren’t the same person right?

    1. Yeah, I’ve seen that dude’s videos. He did one recently that addressed a very similar topic (Jeck just posted the link below). But no, we’re not the same person. I’ve got better hair.

  9. Thanks, Ken!
    Is this true about your roommate saying “The only thing I can do better than you?” – Poor guy, it must’ve been quite a moment for him, to admit this on the spot.
    I was thinking about times when younger engineers were joining our team at work, and how they would be objectively better at many things than I, and how it made me feel… Our ego is so fragile!

    A good friend of mine (Japanese) sent me this video. It is a bit of a tangent, but it will surely show the cultural inertia that is at work.


    1. Yes, that’s a literal quote. We were standing in the kitchen of our house and I remember it quite clearly.

      And yeah, I agree, the ego is a massively fragile thing. Especially for those of us with massive egos.

  10. Just as another random question Ken, in regards to your suggestion to learn “100 survival phrases” – do you have any recommended phrases!? Since being here, I’ve picked up a few but I’d love to add to that repertoire so that when people come to visit I can pretend I can speak Japanese. Though to be honest, I’ve only got a month and a half left before I leave Japan 🙁

    The ones that come to mind so far are:
    * いじょうです
    * てんない VS おもちかえり
    * これをおねがします
    * 大丈夫 (for so many situations!)
    * ふくろはいりません
    * べつべつ VS いっしょうに

    Any other suggestions? And I’ve recently the wonders of using www instead of making actual conversation haha.

    1. Honestly, there’s so many, I don’t know where to start. It’d take me a while to whittle it down to 100.

      What I had in mind were the real basics, like 〜どこですか: Where is ~
      then add on important words like トイレ or 駅: the Bathroom, the station. That’s the stuff you need to live, literally.

      But you’re obviously past that 100 phrase point, so maybe something like ご自宅用ですか? would be better for your level: “Is this for home use?” They ask that a lot at department stores. Also, どちらの(国の)方ですか?, which means “What (country’s) person are you?” I get that a fair bit. It’s a bit more advanced way of asking someone where they’re from.

      See if you get a chance to use either of those in the next month and a half.

      1. Thanks for those, Ken! I’ll try and bust out some Japanese soon and impress them (though maybe because I don’t look so foreign it’s less impressive).

        Stay well during this rainy season! Hope you’ll write more soon 🙂

        1. You know, between the short list you included, and the couple off the top of my head, that’s some of the most practical and often-needed Japanese there is. And I’ve never seen any of it in a book. Strange.

          And you’ll have something new from me in a day or two. Stay tuned (and stay dry).

  11. Ken,

    What a truly great and wonderful CM and so much zen intensity here that I almost started chanting a mantra, or maybe that’s Buddhist, whatever… Mang you just wrote one hell of another great chapter for your “Gaijin Decoded” book. This is absolutely perfect as a late middle chapter somewhere near the “turtle over the fence” incident. I’d say that you have 3/4 of your book already outlined from your blog topics alone, you just have to re-organize them and flesh them out a little. Many of the question and answer comments at the end of the post would make a great addendum to the book too!

    BUT, What I really want to know is how so many people commented on this before I saw it… damnit! LOL!!

    P.S. No Really how did you pull off another incredible satirical and yet so so so amazing piece in just these few paragraphs?? You continue to amaze me Ken, and I still want you… to finish that book – Bang Bang!!

  12. I just want to recommend that anybody who plans to stay in Japan should study Japanese – unless you want to be depending on others for the rest of your life.
    I’ve met so many foreigners who – after 10 years in Japan – still couldn’t read their own mail and needed a friend or their Japanese partner to help them with pretty much everything. Pathetic!

    It’s true that there are a few stubborn people, just like Ken said, who will keep speaking English to you no matter what. I will never get it. My native language is not English. Their native language is not English. We’re in Japan. Why the hell, speak in English??? Just doesn’t make ANY sense to me!

    There are some Japanese people who just can’t seem to get a foreign face and the Japanese language together. Whatever comes out of the mouth of a foreigner can’t be Japanese, so no matter how fluent you are, they might not comprehend you! T___T

  13. The whole ‘Salarimen in bars’ only speak English to me is pretty sad dude. I mean, don’t you have your own friends? I think you’ve got it all messed up. You’re putting yourself into lonely situations, half-crying into your beer, blogging about it and believing it’s the truth. Then bragging about women. That’s so Roppongi. There’s a lot more of us ‘foreigners’ who don’t live like that and consequently realize that you’re just pulling the wool over your own eyes.

    1. Relax.

      When I say bars, I generally mean izakaya or teishoku restaurants, where I’m just stopping off after work to have dinner, like about a million other people in this country. I mean, where else can you get a great dinner for six bucks? I can’t even cook it that cheap. That doesn’t necessarily mean I want to become the evening’s entertainment for every guy who sits next to me at the counter, but I understand that comes with having a different appearance. And sure, I go to regular bars as well, sometimes with friends, sometimes by myself. Hopefully that’s okay.

      I guess I’m not sure what your point is. What wool?

      Either way, if you have a different experience with Japan, feel free to share it. No need to start off all confrontational.

      1. I’m looking forward to your next article, “The 10 Dos and Don’ts When Visiting Izakaya And Teishoku Restaurants.”

        1. Rule number 1. Do. Close your eyes and point. Everything’s delicious (in Japanese, dericious), so unless you have some dietary restriction, it’s impossible to order a bad meal. Rule 2. If you like the place, and alcohol, buy a bottle of shochu. It’s usually about 20 bucks, and it’ll probably last 10 meals, so you can have drinks with dinner for 2 bucks a meal. That’s another Do. Rule 3. A don’t. Don’t go into a place you with no menu outside, so you can decide whether or not you can read the darn thing. Some places have picture menus, others are printed, and some are handwritten. Of course, you can always just default to Rule 1 and point.

          You’re right. I probably could write a whole piece on this topic alone. I’ll keep that in mind.

  14. Great post, Ken!

    I cannot believe how spot on your critique of Japanese learning on the internet is. Most of the “language gurus” have a TEDx talk on YouTube, as well as selling a handful of products written/created by them.

    And yes, many times have I found a product on Amazon that I just couldn’t torrent…

    1. Yeah, when did TED turn into a marketing opportunity for hucksters? They’ll get some Nobel laureate on stage, followed by a guy who’s only qualification is that he says he’s awesome. That makes those of us who actually are awesome feel so cheap.

  15. Thanks once again for funny article 🙂 It’s always entertaining to read these.

    I am waiting with interest what will happen next week in izakayas and restaurants when I go there with my Korean GF. She doesn’t speak a word of Japanese. I’m not so fluent, but I can manage myself around… will they try to get confirmation from her… we will see.

    I have also experienced some of the stuff that’s written in this article, but I have been quite surprised that almost everybody starts to speak in Japanese for me, and they don’t even hesitate to speak it so fast that I cannot follow 🙂 Maybe a Kansai thing. But in more turistry areas, I have been given English menu, and when I have had some struggle with words, the waiter also tried to get into his/her own struggle with English.

    1. Yeah, it doesn’t happen constantly. It’s more of a shock, after you get comfortable living here and you go about your life thinking you’re just a normal person. Then somebody blurts out a “Hello!”, and you’re like “Were they talking to me?” Seriously, sometimes I’m walking down the street and some schoolkid will just yell it at me. Kind of unsettling.

  16. Ken, I dunno if you do requests but any chance of an article talking about the kind of speech where Japanese say one thing but mean another? The whole “I like sweets” thing is intriguing as hell and I’d like to know more.
    I know the fairly obvious ones like “X はちょっと” means “HELL NO” but other than those…
    I’d like to be able to speak like a Japanese after all and fluency wouldn’t mean much if I can’t understand what people really mean.

    Love your blog man.

    1. You know, it’s weird, but I often feel that Japanese people are far more direct than Americans.

      Like I was on the train home with a co-worker of mine yesterday, and out of the blue he turned to me and asked in Japanese, “How much do you make?” I was like, hmmm, something tells me I shouldn’t be discussing salary with you.

      But I get that a lot. Very direct questions, and unsolicited information, about age, physical characteristics, and sexual behavior.

      I often read about Japanese people being very indirect, but I’m not at all convinced. I think many Western people have misunderstood the language and the culture, or haven’t carefully examined their own culture. Sure, you’ve got the whole それはちょっと。。。thing, but that’s no different than our English, “Uh, yeah, I dunno man…” or “I’ll call you. Let’s do lunch sometime.”

      I worked in several large corporations back in the U.S., and I can say that there was a tremendous amount of indirect speech, and things that sounded like one thing but meant another. Reorganizing the department? Somebody’s getting fired. We’ll take the matter under consideration? We’re gonna wait a while, and then tell you no.

      So I think you’ve got that in Japanese as well, but I wouldn’t get hung up on it. I personally feel that Japanese people are more direct in their communication. Although there is the whole silence thing, which is another matter altogether.

  17. Love the blog, Ken!

    This post cracked me up. No matter what you do, you are and will always be an outsider. I’m an expat living in China and, after reading many of your other posts, think that the Middle Kingdom is pretty much the exact opposite of Japan. However, learning an impossible Asian language seems to be about the same – particularly the total vacuum of useful intermediate and advanced level learning materials. I think the comes from the fact that Japan/China had no interest in teaching their language to foreigners and so they really suck at it when you get above a certain level. The English/Americans have been imposing their language on others for hundreds of years so we’re pretty darn good at teaching English to non-native speakers. Plus, English is a forgiving language. Japanese and Chinese – not forgiving at all. Stupid tones and characters.

    Quick question – are your classes/lessons also governed by the “that’s wrong, do it again” teaching method? I’ve pretty much quit asking the question why.

    1. Yeah, it’s crazy. I teach every age, literally. In middle and high school, the classes are hyper-focused on accuracy, and students spend hours reciting conjugations, chanting “drink, drank, drunk” for hours. It’s a stimulating learning method that I wrote about here.

      For younger children, however, it’s all about playing games. Sometimes I think the classes are just to get them used to seeing “white” and “black” people, and not about English at all. Anyway, it pretty much doesn’t matter what they say—“I like cat”—hey, it’s all good.

      And then…when they become adults and start working for a company, after they’ve been through a decade of English classes, it goes full circle. Because apparently being told “you’re wrong, you suck, write it ten more times” didn’t work. The first time I work with an adult, I’d be shocked if they could answer the question, “How’s it going?” Seriously.

      So at that point, we start all over again, just playing games and getting them to the point where they can say something, anything, that enables them to communicate. “I like cat”? Close enough. Me too. I like cat too. Move on.

  18. Me = durrrrrrrr. I’ve been living in asian too long and am starting to ask vague, confusing, non-specific questions. I meant when you were studying Japanese. Have you found any teachers who do not use the you’re wrong teaching method? I get so frustrated with “bu dui” (incorrect), now do it again. I ask “why do you do this?” – Because you do. “Can I use the exact same structure to say this?” No, that’s totally different.
    I’ve pretty much given up asking why things are done and have just started learning in the Chinese style – which is painfully slow and generally not very useful in my daily conversations. Sadly, I’m starting to think I’m in the same boat as you – an endless search for decent learning material and picking up more Chinese in the bar than in the classroom.

    1. Yeah, sorry about that from my end too. I meant to clarify your question before I answered, and then somehow forgot. Asia.

      Anyway, yeah, I’ve probably had fifteen Japanese teachers over the years, and about two of them were any good. But one thing I found that helped was taking conversation-based classes, rather than classes that include a large amount of reading and writing. Now, I’m sure that for Chinese, like Japanese, reading and writing are hugely important, but classes like that naturally focus on accuracy rather than communication. On paper, it may make a difference when you say “My brother is a fungi,” but in real life people will probably get what you’re trying to say.

      But probably no matter what route you pick, it’s gonna be a really, really long road. Better get walking, I guess.

  19. The seven year old I take care off: she’s japanese, and man, she loves teaching me stuff in Japanese.
    She will correct me everytime I say something slightly wrong, speak to me in Japanese, and mimic stuff as she speaks so I can understand (you did WHAT at school? Oh that’s a ladder and that’s a lady garden, well it’s very similar you can’t be crossed at me for mistaking them…).
    My week-end job boss and colleague, they are also Japanese (though well travelled), and they will repeat the same stuff over and over and then literally bully me (Akete! Shimete! Tsukete! Keshite! Fan-chan, AKETTTEEEEEEE!), and spell it so I can write stuff down between serving customers.
    Fair enough, when I ask how to say X, they will give me about 5 version in a row and I just say ‘ah right ok’ as I put a reminder in my phone to check it alone later, but I don’t think they give me 5 versions just to confuse me and prevent me from learning…
    Well. I mean.
    I don’t think so… Or do they!?

    1. Okay, let me preface my comment by saying that few people are language teachers. And certainly nobody’s under any obligation to teach foreigners Japanese (although coworkers do have a vested interest).

      I’ve also had a number of Japanese people teach me words and phrases. And I appreciate every word, I really do.

      But contrast that to how they teach Japanese to ten year-olds. They make little Takeshi or Akiko sit there for hours a day at school, and study. Then they go to cram school in the evening, and study. And on the weekends. More study. Then they come home for Japanese homework and study until little Takeshi and Akiko pass out over their desks.

      And why? Because everybody knows that, for those kids to have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting through high school, they’re gonna need to know a shit-ton of Japanese. That’s a lot, really.

      Then look at foreigners, who on average are probably learning about five new words a week, if that. Nobody expects you and I to actually, really use Japanese. They’re happy if you can just say a few phrases and get your point across. Nobody thinks you’re going to become a functional member of this society. You’ll just live here.

      I did actually date a Japanese language teacher for a while. And her advice to me was,

      “Ken, you just gotta study more.”

      “But I already put in an hour and a half every day,” I protested.

      “That’s nothing,” she said. “My students go to school full-time, plus homework.

      “Maybe I could just be your, you know, private student,” I said.

      “Yeah, and maybe you could pay me too,” she said.

      Touché. So what’s taken me years to realize, and that nobody wants to say, is that learning Japanese to a competent level is a massive undertaking. We’re expected to speak “foreigner” Japanese, as evidenced by the fact that when I say “edamame,” everybody’s like Sugoi! Your Japanese is amazing. Yeah, just wait till you get a hold of my daikon. But actually speaking, reading, and writing Japanese like an adult, well, nobody’s really thinking along those lines. That’s a whole other ballgame. And we’re not even in the ballpark.

      1. Well, that reminds me of an English teacher I’ve met in Japan. He’d been living there for several years, but never really tackled Japanese. At some point he finally decided that it might be helpful after all and started taking classes for some few hours a week. His main takeaway?

        He now understands why his own students make so little progress with their English. Learning a (markedly different) language just takes a huge load of time and commitment and a few hours a week just don’t cut it. What it gives you, however, is a nice alibi. Yeah man, I’m totally learning the language. I’m taking classes and all, you see!

        So all in all actually quite an efficient way to keep that façade polished compared to actually doing all the hard work.

        1. I’m just impressed you used a cedilla in the word “facade.” Real touch of class. So yeah, I must say one of the best reasons for learning Japanese, as an English teacher, is to better understand how your students are thinking and feeling. It’s one thing to say “study harder,” but when it comes down to finding time to do it yourself, that’s when the phrase becomes real.

  20. Ken! A new one! Hurray!

    So when I first read the title, I thought, well, I get a lot of help here cause my Japanese suck! If I want to buy a car, I think I will get my Japanese friend who’s good with negotiation. If I need to take out a loan, I should get my friend who knows all the banking lingo. And if I need to rent an apartment, well, I’d better find a friend who wouldn’t mind being my guarantor for my risky gaijin life. For the most part of my life, I can go by with my so-so Japanese skills. But for the big things, even if I think my Kanji capacity is better than my junior high school students, I’d better get a Japanese friend with me because from what I learned, it just makes thing usually much much easier and efficient (if that ever can be applied).

    So when you rhetorically asked why no one helps you learn Japanese, I thought because we all know in the end, it would be better to have a Japanese person by our side to complete the transaction. The Japanese know this so why would they be bothered to help you improve your skills. And oh, didn’t you come here to teach us English at the first place, they might have asked themselves.

    The Japanese have always said this is a small country and we have an insular mentality…yada yada. What they are saying (as you know) is that we don’t have space for you foreigners and we have no desire to accommodate your so we do whatever we want to do, which is not to associate with you so much and if we do, we make sure it is so foreign to us there’s no strings attached (except for the girls but that’s another big topic for another day).

    Recently, I read how Abe is no longer in support of loosening the immigration control because there has been a lot of friction and unhappiness on both sides. Nevertheless, he is in favor of importing foreign labor to fill low-wage jobs such as building constructions in preparation for the 2020 Olympics. I can only imagine these “low-wage” workers would have to learn Japanese prior to getting their work visa, much like those nurses from the Philippines. Like the Filipino nurses who many are taking care of their growing aging population, I am afraid that the new low-wage workers, who are coming to cover a declining population of young workers, would find themselves discriminated and marginalized. Even after what they have contributed much to the society and the glory of another Olympics, they could possibly be faced as a second-class citizen, only worthy of a permanent residency at the most.

    1. Wow, you touched upon a lot of stuff. I’ll just mention that I actually was, in an offhand way, trying to be helpful. Those 16 steps I outlined—those really are roughly what a person needs to do in order to be fully functional in Japanese. P.S. It would help if you had a ton of free time.

  21. I got the opposite of the dumbed down/katakana Japanese once at the post office out in the sticks. I was sending a crappy t-shirt from Harajuku to my bro in Oz, and after I thought the transaction had finished the chick said a word I’d never come across. So I gave her a coupla sumimasens and a coupla wakanais. and she keep saying it over and over ‘blank hoshii? blank hoshii? BLANK HOSHIIIIII???’ Then, totally frustrated with me she wrote the kanji for this word on a piece of paper. Yep, that’s helpful sweetheart. Then another lady said “aaahhhhhhh receipto??” I was like whaaat? she was saying 受取 rather than ‘receipt’ which everyone else in Japan had always said forever. Of course I rejected the receipt just to burn her ha ha.

    It stings both ways I guess, is my point – or maybe she was the only person to be real with me. Oh Ken – youre baking my noodle now man…

    1. Sure she wasn’t saying 領収書 (ryoushuusho)? That’s a more formal “receipt,” and yeah, it screwed me up about the first hundred times I heard it.

      This is kind of what I mean about Japanese people being generally poor at explaining things. Like hold the thing up so the person can see it. Explain that it’s a small piece of paper that proves you sent the package. Say or do something. But yeah, at least she was being real with you. No one’s ever gonna learn Japanese if everybody just keeps speaking English.

      1. You’re probably right about that word. Yeah exactly try and explain it a bit – just a bit. I thought it was postage insurance or tracking or fancy stamps with the emperor on them cause ya just never know.

        But like you said with the schooling system – there’s no focus on understanding of concepts, rather memorisation of every detail …

        I have had Japanese people explain things to me however it was disguised as an English activity at my old conversation school. I’d say “explain the royal family to me’ or” why do all Japanese men wear watches when they all have cell phones?” or “why dont salary men ever take their suit jackets off, even in summer?” or whatever I was wondering.

        1. Yeah, that stuff is really fascinating to me. You can learn a lot about the culture by asking those kind of questions.

          On the other hand… When speaking a foreign language, there’s also pressure to simply answer something, anything, and so a lot of answers aren’t real. They’re just the easiest thing to say. The best way to probe a person’s real thoughts and opinions is in their native language.

          I’ve noticed myself answering like that in Japanese. Like when somebody asks, “What’s the most surprising thing about Japan?”

          Now the real answer to that question is a bit complicated, because actually, there aren’t very many things that are surprising. Japanese folks take off their shoes when they enter homes—is that even interesting? And some of things that are surprising—why does nobody cover their mouth when they cough?—I’d prefer not to mention. So I just end up saying something convenient like, “Well, the cars are very small.”

          You have to be on the lookout for students simply providing those convenient answers instead of real opinions. I think a lot of what gets reported on the net probably comes from information that was conveyed in English, not Japanese.

          1. Thats so true man. My wife had a very high level class at her eikaiwa that she’d get to have structured debates – on serious issues like capital punishment and immigration. Sure at first it was all stats and media parroting so she’d use follow up debates to delve. Eg one dude said: cap punishment is good cause our government thinks its good and we voted for them so its good (thats the kind of answer youre talking about I rekon) so the follow up debate was “do Japanese people think for themselves?” That was when the opinions started to come out ha ha – he was not happy, but proved he could in fact think

            1. You know, that word—“thinking”—that’s interesting. Because we all think, but it’s funny the different ways in which we think when speaking a foreign language.

              To give you an example, I’m limited in my speech in Japanese simply because I don’t have perfect grammar and a massive vocabulary. I can get by, but I’m nowhere near as expressive as I am in English, where I can just talk circles around any subject just for the hell of it.

              That’s hardly news for anyone who’s learned a foreign language. But what I find interesting is that my thinking is actually limited. I’m thinking in Japanese, and because I don’t have 100% of the grammar and vocabulary I’d like, my thinking itself is actually curtailed. I literally can’t think as deeply as I can in English. I find that fascinating. I’m sure that happens with our students as well.

  22. Ken and Mikey,

    Regarding this conversation on thinking, I believe that you’ve really hit on something very important that might somehow explain the Japanese attitude towards anything foreign (Gaijin). It might also explain why the Japanese are so reticent to help anyone understand their culture. I wonder if the Japanese habit of perfectionism accompanied by the inverse inability to explain things might somehow be an integral part of this robotic/unthinking behavior (that makes the Japanese also very co-operative in a natural disaster). I’m wondering if there is some underlying cultural characteristic in Japan that explains this cultural attitude that many in the West might seem out of sink with what we would consider normal evolutionary (survival of the fittest – Darwinian logic) behavior (which also makes us not very co-operative in a natural disaster, e.g. Katrina). I would think that you might consider this axiom as the unifying string theory of Gaijinism. Hmmmmmmm!!

    1. Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Japanese culture is out of sync with the evolution of the species. That’s a bit of a stretch.

      It’s just that Japanese culture is very rules-based. If you’ve ever had any dealings with law enforcement in the U.S., then you can see something similar there. “But officer,” you’ll say, “I was just walking down the street drinking a delicious can of beer.” Or, “I was just taking a leak against this tree because I drank so much beer.” And the police man says what?

      “Personally, it’s fine by me,” he replies, “But there are rules, and liabilities. Now get in the squad car.” And that’s how Ken Seeroi goes to jail.

      So living in Japan is a little bit like that. Not in a literal sense; this isn’t a police state. But the culture holds a strong belief in right and wrong (when to take off your shoes, when to bow, how to open an onigiri), and they’re not slow to shun people who don’t follow the rules or end up outside of the system.

      But you know, as in all things, there’s good and bad with that.

      1. NO, Nein that wasn’t it at all… I didn’t mean to imply that Ken, I was referring to the way that Japanese seem to go with the flow of cultural survival instead of individual survival. In Japan after the Earthquake and Tsunami disaster, people patiently waited for the government and emergency services trusting in the authorities and there isn’t any looting or riots to get supplies and everyone cooperated. In comparison: after Hurricane Katrina, it wasn’t 24 hours and there was massive looting and criminal activity taking advantage of the breakdown in law enforcement.

        Americans opted for individual survival of the fittest (really quick) while Japanese opted for cultural survival. Is that because Japanese society is so homogeneous as compared to American society?? I believe that the unthinking aspects you and Mikey were discussing earlier were an integral part of a Nippon survival instinct that has been hammered into the Japanese cultural existence… to cooperate with authority (reinforced in Japan for centuries by the Samurai) means survival of their clans and nation and part of that is to reject anything foreign as dangerous and that was drilled into the Japanese for over 250 years during the Tokugawa exclusion edicts, longer than America has been a country. Whatever axiom could be derived from this Japanese attitude about national survival (which would include the rules governing Gaijins) would certainly string together and unify the Japanese behaviors that are so inscrutable to the western cultures and might give credence to studying it. There might be linkages in such an axiom to the historical penchant for Japanese to commit suicide in such high numbers. You might be able to link in the Japanese need for perfectionism and their inability to to show emotions as part of the reason why they have difficulty explaining things to non-Japanese and their decreasing population. I bet there is a doctoral thesis in here somewhere and possibly a book (Bang bang). Just trying to look at the big picture here Ken! Anyway, those cultural behaviors are good for Japan but might be bad for Japanese freedom in the long run. It might even bode poorly as an indicator of their likelihood of becoming militarists again, who knows?? In the short term, Gaijin are just not good survival partners for those culturally minded Japanese and might be another reason its hard to score with Japanese women on the whole!! Oops, Sorry that’s the next blog article….Hmmmmm!

  23. Reminds me of around the time I got married (in the US to a Jse woman living in the US). After a few arguments I was told that I should never correct, question, or doubt a Japanese person about Japanese things: politics, history, economy, keigo, kanji, whatever. I’m not Jse and don’t have that “right” . I feel like Jon Snow from Thrones being told over and over. “You know nothing Jon Snow”.

  24. Man Ken, I was in a sour mood but then I read this blogpost and it made me laugh out loud as it always does. Great writing, your blog is still my favorite read on the net.

    It felt *really* good to read your post regarding all those “awesome” people that do ted talks and write books about how you can master Japanese in only a few weeks. I’m sure you’ve seen his blog on the net, but there’s a guy named Benny that says he can become fluent in *any* language within 3 months, with Japanese as his latest project. Ironically, he’s also done a Ted talk.

    In his first week of learning hiragana and basic phrases, he writes with pride and arrogance about how Japanese isn’t “that hard” and how it is overrated as a difficult language.

    And as you so eloquently wrote in your post, seeing people brag and try to sell their “do it quick” schemes with Japanese really infuriates me because I spent a good, long chunk of my life learning Japanese. It took me 5 years to even reach a somewhat normal level of fluency, and you’re telling me that you can do that in 3 months? It’s truly infuriating and feels like a slap in the face. And really, how do you define “fluent?” Being able to say “I like mochi, and you?”

    So yeah, I completely understand the Japanese and their personal language pride. I don’t think English is a walk in the park to learn, but due to radically different cultures and the learning environment involved with Japanese, in my book Japanese is far more difficult.

    When I worked at a Japanese company in China, I used to ask my Chinese co-workers: “which is easier to learn, English or Japanese?” Without even blinking they would say English. Despite sharing the exact same kanji, Chinese people still think Japanese is more of a pain in the ass.

    So when a Japanese person asks me if Japanese is hard, I don’t even hesitate when I say: Your language has put me through years of pain. The only way to learn Japanese is through that first book you published up there, and really, there’s no shortcut. It’s just a difficult language.

    Also with the salarymen, I also think speaking English to a foreigner when they’re drinking might be the highlight of their day. After working overtime and living away from their families, it’s probably the most exciting thin to happen to them that week. Plus, speaking some English and having conversation with someone that isn’t repressed and Japanese is probably a breath of fresh air for them. Random drunk Japanese people used to speak broken English to me in izakaya/restaurant/etc and I would usually smile and speak English back. They really appreciated the gesture and usually the conversation ended up in Japanese anyway. I think it’s their own weird way of reaching out.

    1. Yeah, five years is about right to start feeling comfortable in Japanese. I’ve been at it for over ten, and I’m about a third of the way to where I want to be.

      Benny’s truly astonishing. He started off saying he’d be fluent, recorded a couple of painfully low-level videos, then gave up on the whole project before the 3 months even finished, despite discarding Kanji, which is the backbone of the language. He flew all the way to Japan, and failed to post a single video of him speaking Japanese in Japan. I don’t think he’s even studied another language since then. It’s like Japanese killed him. He pretty well proved that Nope, you really can’t learn Japanese in 3 months.

    2. I feel this. I’ve put in my ten years and still have some way to go. But a lot of that time, maybe most of it, was spent using really inefficient methods. Three months? There are people out there who have banged their head against a wall for so many years they would swear you couldn’t do it in three years. Just look at this sad rant regarding the difficulty of Chinese http://pinyin.info/readings/texts/moser.html). But it is doable in three years. Certainly if you use the right approach. So I still like to push back against this. Deep down I’m still an AJATT proponent.
      When I was on exchange I had four mind numbing hours of mandatory Japanese classes a day. If I had been allowed to spend six hours reading manga/watching TV instead I would have got a lot more out of that year. Just one example.

  25. …so…what s the deal anyway? the solution? I still think is better to know the language of the country that you want to go or stay for long time than no understand anything.
    And as I said in other comment, most people do not understand anything in English or Spanish; only basic words; plus, as you say, the Japanese do not want to talk too much even more being a foreigner, the situation would be too isolated.
    I understand that what you say is to do not demonstrate an advanced level or near translator level in daily basis; ok, seems a good take, and a good path to be humble in the eyes of the Japanese; I think.

    -regarding difficulty; depends on what level you want to achieve; you can speak basically English, Spanish or Japanese to make the daily stuff; like go to the supermarket, take the train, etc, but when you want to reach a higher level of communication, like deal in a business transaction, etc; you need to understand what a translator can understand or decipher; understand the ironies, etc.
    Having that level in Spanish, is very difficult; and I still do not know any English spoken guy that can achieve that (current people)
    The Spanish is a bigger and a difficult language than most due to the Grammar (more complete than the English language, so you can really express all what you want BUT not too many Spanish speakers use well the language; normally most use it at minimum)
    and a vast vocabulary. There are lots of words to describe an item.
    So I can imagine the difficult thing to mastery Japanese could reside in the Kanji, the advanced meanings and to have the knowledge to interpret those silences, faces, moves, manners, etc that Japanese have.

    1. I wouldn’t place too much importance upon the “silences, moves, manners, etc.” Japanese people really aren’t that subtle. Or humble for that matter. The major difficulty is in learning the kanji, first individually, and then in compound words. And not just for reading. You need kanji to be able to speak at a decent level.

      So if you’re looking for a solution to learning the language, that’s it. Learn the kanji, first about 2100 characters, and then 10,000 words. That ought to keep you busy for a little while.

  26. Hi Ken, just found your blog and you have given me many laughs. This post struck a chord. My wife is an foreigner who grew up in Japan and went to Japanese elementary school. She speaks unaccented Japanese and I was shocked when a Japanese guy at a party said to me, 奥さんが日本語を話す時、気持ち悪いです (or some thing similar)。That’s pretty strong and I still don’t really understand why someone would feel that way. I do notice that Japanese men and women seem to react differently. I was recently at the airport and the Japanese woman at the check-in chatted amiably with me in Japanese and, when I stumbled on how to say “aisle seat” in Japanese and dropped to katakana-eigo, she just smiled, said the word and wrote the kanji on my boarding pass. It surprised me that she was happy to speak in Japanese, since her English was no doubt better than my Japanese, and even more surprised that she assumed writing the kanji would help (it did – 通路). I guess my point is that I agree with much of what you said and also that I am thankful for the times when Japanese people surprise me. Otherwise, I would have given up by now.

    1. That matches with what I’ve seen as well. Japanese people in professional positions are much more likely to speak Japanese, and treat “foreigners” the same as any other customer. Also people with higher levels of education and international experience—those not just good at English, but at human relations—are more likely to use Japanese and not make a distinction based upon appearance. Good thing too, since there are a lot of people like your wife who grew up here, but don’t look the part.

  27. Another great article Ken. I just got back from a trip to Japan and man do i wish I knew more Japanese. I spent more time with my friend’s parents-in-law than I did with my friend. They don’t speak any English, so day trips with them were ok, but over night in an Onsen Hotel in Shikoku I was pretty worried. My butchered Japanese got me by, but I noticed one thing. They couldn’t even understand each other. So I couldn’t imagine my speaking Japanese fluently would have helped more than my butchered version. With all the dialects out there I definitely noticed some translation issues within their own language. They speak Kansai beng and I quite enjoyed people’s puzzled expressions when Otosan would speak to them. He even told a parking attendant he didn’t speak Japanese. In Japanese. I think they need to work on their damn in car GPS systems more than anything. I swear those things are programmed by the ETC to take you the most expensive route. Plus with a 2 second lag it made freeway exits a pain to figure out the exact turn. You take trains so maybe you haven’t run into this issue yet. I ended up having to direct Otosan with migis and hidaris to make sure we were going the right direction. Suddenly I became some sort of GPS god and they started wanting me to input the destinations. Not easy when I don’t know any Japanese characters. I did get good at my numbers though. Man I’m gonna miss picking up a doughnut and a nudie mag at the local convini. Not to mention the beer vending machines. I’m quite surprised you haven’t incorporated one of those into your room decor.

    1. Yeah, it’s funny when you see Japanese people unable to communicate amongst themselves. It’s not so much a dialect thing as a fundamental inability to make oneself understood. It’s not like they’re trying to explain the origin of black holes or something. They’ve just never practiced explaining things. A lot of folks barely speak at all. I’m positive that a significant number of people go all week without uttering more than a few sentences, if that. Some folks probably haven’t spoken to anyone in months.

      As for beer vending machines, honestly I don’t even understand them. You’re never more than 100 meters from the nearest convenience store, anywhere in the nation. Not that I haven’t used one or two on occasion, mostly just for the novelty of it. I guess if I put one in my room it might decrease my consumption, since I’d have to pay for beer instead of just jacking open the fridge. The thought of that alone is enough to give me fear.

  28. Well, I’m probably commenting way too late on this post, but it struck me so here goes…

    When I first got here (the middle of nowhere – literally), a co-worker told me, “Don’t study Japanese. That way we can all improve our English by talking to you.” Well, she was hot so I figured, yeah – good for me. Three weeks later, I’m sitting in an office of over 30 people and haven’t spoken to anyone other than a student in over a week – let alone had an adult conversation with anyone in English. Never felt lonelier in my life. All those people laughing and enjoying life, and me not understanding – let alone participating in it. (I knew nothing of Japan when I came here except that my salary had tripled.) Of course, sweet cheeks was no where to be found and definitely not interested in speaking English – though teaching it was her job.

    That was 20 years ago. It was also a hell of a motivational factor. To make a long story short though, I found that it wasn’t kanji or vocabulary or even local dialect that was the biggest wall for me. It was the thought processes of the people themselves. We have certain subconscious rules that we follow when conversing in any given language that are driven by the cultural and societal rules that created the language. In other words – we kind of forecast possible responses to what we are saying and prepare our own responses to get the conversation flowing. It took me three years of living in an 80% Japanese only environment before I could participate in daily conversations. And being able to predict the flow of conversation was the hardest thing for me to get. (I probably should have found a teacher!! – But J. for Busy Ppl gave me a decent foundation to work off of.)

    Or I’m just dense – but whatever. Over 20 years in country and now I’m the head of the department, and sweet cheeks is just still… well, cheeks.

    1. I’d agree with that. Following the conversation, and forecasting where it’s leading, are key communication skills. And, yes, Japanese and English do seem to have quite different patterns.

      A simple example is how we greet people. In English, there’s usually some question about the other person’s well-being, i.e. How’s it going? Or possibly what they’ve been doing: What’s happening?

      In Japanese, it’s often the weather. Sure is hot today. Yep, sure is. Supposed to rain tomorrow. Yeah, I heard there’s a storm coming.

      This seems analogous to collocations (words that naturally follow one another). There are certain topics that would logically branch off, and they vary depending upon the culture. What Japanese find important (like food), they can spend a long time discussing. And what they don’t want to talk about (like family circumstances) are quickly avoided. It’s a very interesting approach to understanding the language and culture.

    2. That is a really great point about the flow of conversation and how for the vast majority of communication there is a fairly small set of expected responses. Very reasonable theory I’d say, and pretty complex. For example, I could say “how’s it going” and depending on my tone of voice, facial gestures, and body language I could be asking you to actually tell me what’s going on with you, or just using it a set greeting.

      The hardest obstacle for me is overcoming the frustration arising from the communication barrier, much of which – as you note – has nothing to do with vocabulary, kanji, or grammar, but stems from the differences in the thought process. Ken Seeroi, you are a trooper, and I value your blog immensely. Just asking myself honestly if I really want to pursue this goal. Since my kids are more or less locked into life here, I will more than likely attempt to live here for a long time, therefore, yes, it seems reasonable to pursue the goal. If I want to do something, truly want to, I can and will, but I’m finding it increasingly to be a battle for motivation, based solely on my urge to just say “ok, you Japanese folks have fun with that, I’ve got a lot better things to do with my short life than devote myself to learning the language and culture of a people who at times seem to prefer that I would just visit and get the hell out.

      1. Yep, you nailed it. Everybody’s super happy if you’re a foreigner, so throwing more and more time at improving your Japanese and acting Japanese is counterproductive. No one wants you to bow properly. They want to bow and for you to look around like “what the hell’s going on?” and then they can laugh and you can laugh and everybody’s pleased as punch. If you just solemnly bow in response, well, what fun is that? Plus it looks goofy unless you’re Asian anyway.

        On the subject of thought processes, I’ve come to expect one additional type of communication: the single word. At lunch yesterday, one of the kids at my table looks at me and says “rinkon.” Then much later, at a neighborhood bar, I meet two old men. Of course, the first thing they ask is where I’m from, and when I tell them, the one guy looks at me and says “ido.”

        What to make of these words? More than once I’ve said, “Use sentences, damnit!” I suspect they’re not speaking in sentences because they think I won’t understand, so maybe one word is better? Either that or they’re truly awful at communicating.

        I did, however, understand what both of these words meant, simply because I’ve gotten used to this type of communication. In the first case, the boy meant: you’re tall. Like Abraham Lincoln, whom they’re currently studying in school. In the second case, the word “ido” means latitude. In other words, “Oh, the place you’re from in the States is on the same latitude we are.” One word communication. Amazing.

        1. Hahaha, yeah. Being concise is good, but one word doesn’t exactly lend itself to further conversation. Keep up all the great writing!

  29. 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. I see so many people talk about how they get treated different and how some people don’t get that treatment at all, that I just don’t know what to expect anymore. Consequently, it’s made me want to reach at least fluent level of Japanese before I ever make the trip–no exceptions, which is a pretty nice goal to set for myself as I’ve always wanted to visit Japan.

    So far on the net I haven’t met any Japanese person that would use English instead of Japanese, even after knowing my native language is English. There’s one person on Instagram that would sometimes use English, but only because they want to improve it. Other than that, every post I’ve made in Japanese gets responded to in Japanese, which is kind of a relief considering it’s supposed to be the opposite on the streets.

    Also, I know people on the internet don’t speak for the majority of the country, but it’s nice knowing that when issues like this from other forums (I’ve seen 4chan, Reddit, etc) get translated into Japanese for Japanese readers, a good handful of the readers are, from what I can tell, sympathetic and aren’t all, “日本はウッザイ外人いらねぇよ。いやなら自分の国に帰れ”. For example, for the video Jeck posted (which made me laugh) I was interested to see what the Japanese thought of it, and came across this translation of some Reddit comments: http://himasoku.com/archives/51846876.html
    Most are laughing at the exaggeration of the video, but there some interesting comments in there.

    Again, I know a bunch of people on the internet don’t speak for the majority, and my naivety is probably showing, but seeing a bunch of positive discussion by the Japanese on the issues that many foreigners bring up makes those issues not seem as major as people are making them out to be.

  30. I’m going to say that whole “Japanese People Don’t Want you to Speak Japanese” point is blown out of proportion and simply not true in a lot of cases.

    Case in point would be Galileo 2, a primetime super popular drama, having a gaijin (African American) with a decent position within the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department and speaking fluent Japanese with the heroine in multiple scenes, and Japanese with everyone else he converses with.

    If Japanese people felt that way they wouldn’t want to see things like that in the Japanese language dramas designed for them. If they all didn’t want to speak Japanese with foreigners because of “fear of being worse at everything if they give that up” then they wouldn’t want to watch themselves do it.

    1. That’s interesting, but I’m not sure that’s the way drama functions. TV and movies often portray things we don’t want to see in real life: rapes, murders, Mexican-American cops on motorcycles. Arguably, one of the functions of drama is to defuse those things we are most uncomfortable with.

      As for whether it’s overblown, yeah, I don’t know. How prevalent is this? Enough so that I’ve encountered plenty of people who absolutely refused to speak Japanese with me, and resented it when I did. In terms of the actual percentage of people, I’m sure it’s quite small. But I feel it’s enough to be remarkable.

  31. That second last paragraph was pretty damned moving Ken. It’s nice to have an insight in to these things sometimes. Like that kid that bullied you in high school, he wasn’t just inherently mean, he was that way for a reason, he had things going on. Sometimes people forget to see past their own feelings and reactions. Much love, keep up the good work mister

    1. Thanks. If there’s a truth about the world, it’s that everyone thinks they’re right. Well, maybe, I think.

  32. FYI, Japan must be changing… there is a new mixed race Black/Nippon Miss Japan, who says she will be trying to raise awareness of racial issues while representing her country.

  33. I know this is an older article but I just had to reply. I’m guilty of thinking this way. And I didn’t even really realize it. It bothers me.

    I’m half Japanese and I was born in California but raised in Tokyo. A year before high school I moved permanently to the States. Japanese was my first language although I’ve forgotten most kanji and most of the language though I understand well ww

    When I see my friends here call themselves “weeaboo” or “otaku” I cringe.
    Or when someone tries too hard to bow or use words like “kawaii”
    When someone I know is learning Japanese I don’t offer to help unless I’m asked.
    I often suggest English dubbed anime or translated manga because the nuances are different.
    I’ll be overly praising someone who has basic chopstick skills.
    It weighs on me that Ive thought this way. Maybe it’s cultural? A deeply ingrained thing?

    Because whenever I visit sometimes a non-Asian friend will be WAY more fluent than I but the waitress or other JP friend will look to me. As if they don’t register the other persons Japanese was better.

    I catch myself thinking “wow, foreigners really like learning Japanese” then realize I’m American too.

    This IS changing. It really is.
    Quickly and for the better.
    The open visa really helped.

    But it’s hurtful to realize my friends get categorized into “others”.
    And it’s shocking and saddening to realize I do it too. Because I do. Pride is sometimes bad.

    Thank you for this article. Biased or not it is very true for a lot of people.

    1. Nah, you’re cool. It’s natural for people to have biases. They’re built in. We acquire them as children—brown people and white people and yellow people, hey they’re kind of different—and that helps us make sense of the world. The only danger is in not progressing beyond that stage, because then you’re stuck as an eight year-old.

      So yeah, the first time we see a black dentist or female airline pilot or white Japanese person, maybe it does challenge some assumption we held. But then we reset and move past that.

      Just look what’s happening to the world—I mean, it’s exploding national, cultural, and ethnic barriers. The days when we could categorize people based upon how they look, or even speak or act, are gone. Why, I’ve heard they even have people in the U.S. now who speak fluent Spanish. What’s next—Canadians who speak French?

      So I wouldn’t sweat it. But it’s good to be conscious of this stuff, and take steps to move beyond it.

  34. I love your writing Ken, and currently going backwards through your old writings. Wasted many hours at work reading the articles and the comments.

    Part of me wishes I came across your blog before I started studying Japanese for three months (dropped it for other hobbies) and did my trip to Japan, but the other part of me was happy to experience the trip with a child-like ignorance. I love Japan and looking back at my trip, I had some unique experiences, but I love how only being there for a month I can remember the ways people treated me as a gaijin (although I am half Chinese so I didn’t get the same experiences of someone who is Non-Asian). Probably the one time I remember feeling insulted was going to ramen shop in Tokyo and the waiter giving my friends and I bibs to wear while we ate. I didn’t say anything as I didn’t want to kill the mood.

    I would imagine the only way to not be offended is to play into it (I read your previous comments of doing this) but it does get tiring. Growing up in a small city my friends would call me ‘Chink’ and there was the occasional racist joke about being good at math and penny pinching (I fit both of these :\ ). I still get asked “What are you?” Responses vary and usually ends up as a game depending on how much time I have (even did this to a Japanese girl while in Osaka). Japan helped me feel this way for my white-half.

    I think my favorite time learning Japanese was writing arbitrary sentences in a diary allowing people to correct them. Sentences like “I walked on water today” or “My cat drove to the grocery store” left many Japanese people confused.

    1. Then by all means do. Along with accurately pressing the buttons on your phone, it’s entirely within your control.

  35. I get the whole exclusiveness they feel about their way of speaking, but what if i just wanted to learn it,( well am attempting to learn it, with non stop study and practice). Not to show of or go around pretending i’m one of them, but out of respect for the culture, and a desire to not make anyone have to speak English that doesn’t want to. I love Japanese culture, and I mean i most likely have a better hold on Japanese, and Chinese history then my own at this point. and its because of that love that i want to learn it so bad.

    1. I applaud your efforts to learn the language. The only thing I’ll note is that learning the language and the culture is to become “one of them.” Especially if you live here and immerse yourself in the local communities, it’s difficult to remain forever “foreign.” But if you look different than everyone else, it’ll create some, uh, challenges, both for them and you.

  36. how can you like a culture that you never experienced? and why do so many people like japanese culture more than their own (again, usually when they never experienced it)… transethic?

    1. I must say, I feel a twinge of this when I hear people enthuse about Japan. As a visitor, it’s different from what you’re used to, and that seems exciting and strange. But once you grow accustomed to it, it’s not such a remarkable place. Sure does have good PR though.

  37. No,no,no Seeroi-Sensei,say it with me ; it’s over
    Quit your job,stop with japanese and take up some beer,you don’t need master japanese and either teach the younger generation’s the obscure art of spell word’s like “stroganoff” or “sixth”,geez,look,you already have the talent of write some amazing stuff like ur do at this blog,so forget all from your “Past-Life” your day now is based on beers,youtube,make novels and did i say beers?
    So now that all is settled up ,please lets write some posts Ken,oops,Seeroi-Sensei,has been a while since the last and you need help the society with your talents as well :ddddddd
    (sorry for the bad english,i still think i can do better at spanish than in it,despite i never really have caught up spanish classes :/ )

  38. Yep. It took me a few years for the penny to drop as to why my wife A. wouldn’t teach me any lingo and B. didn’t want me to learn nihongo anyway.

  39. Obvious solution…
    To the guy who always responds to your pleasant こんにちは with English, you just switch to using あくにちは when you meet. Either you lose the one you love, or they just weren’t worth pursuing anyway (along with other possible side effects; the state of Indiana is not responsible for your actions).

  40. Hmm I am sure they exist, but I have never even heard of someone not wanting you to learn Japanese. I think that is probably very uncommon.

    I am “half”, and look fairly white, and I know some people at work in the same situation (half American, Half French, Half Chinese, etc). – but if you’re born and grow up in Japan and your Japanese is “normal”, nobody says “Hello” to you in English. Maybe in a tourist spot before you open your mouth.

    Most of the time when annoying people want to speak English with you, it is because they have spent thousands of dollars worth of money on English edutainment classes at Nova or the like. They want to feel like that money wasn’t a complete waste. Also, even if they are good at English, English is absolutely useless in normal life in Japan, so it’s a chance for them to use it. For people who studied overseas, it can be a feeling of nostalgia, and for people who have never been overseas it seems like some kind of sophistication. Or.. they may be hoping you will be their free English teacher. That will also make them interested in talking to you in the first place.

    So yes, if the guy at the bar next to you knows some English and figures out that you do, then they may start trying to force the conversation that way.

    On the other hand, if you are in a less casual situation where you actually need to convey important and detailed information, then they will be very happy you speak Japanese. (I.e. if you have a real job like a lawyer, accountant, etc.)

    As for the annoying guy at the bar scenario, you have two options:
    1. Don’t let them know you know English. If you are white/black and they assume you do, you can just tell them you are from Russia or France and don’t speak English. Most Japanese people assume that all white people speak English, but that is not reality and you can remind them of that. They may be disappointed and not want to talk to you anymore, but that was possibly what you were going for. Props if they happen to speak Russian, French, or whatever and call you on your bluff!
    2. If you really want to learn Japanese and people are annoyingly using English then just find friends who don’t know any English at all (or hate English class). That’s not very difficult in Japan.

    I know one asian guy who learned all the Japanese he could from textbooks, and learned more at work. He wanted to work on his erm.. unofficial everyday Japanese, so I suggested golden gai (in Shinjuku). He tells everyone he is foreign (they often don’t figure it out even after a few minutes of conversation), and tells them he doesn’t know much English (he does), so that nobody tries to turn him into a free English teacher. Judging by his progression, I would say his “classes” fueled by Lemon Sours and High Balls is working pretty well.

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