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Japanese adults need an education in dealing with difference

To the Ministry of Education, Culture, Science and Technology:

Nihongo ga jōzu desu ne?” roughly translated means “Your Japanese is good.” I have been told this many, many times, and it is the opening gambit in a great number of conversations. To elicit such a response, all I need do is open my mouth and say “hai.”

In restaurants, hairdressers and whilst walking in the park, the same line has preceded the inevitable “Kuni wa doko desu ka?” or, “Where are you from?”

I have been living in Japan for close to 20 years. I hold an M.A. in Japanese Language and Society from Sheffield University and I have attained Level II of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. Still, because my face doesn’t fit, waiters and waitresses in shops and restaurants look to my Japanese wife for confirmation of what I have asked for, in spite of the fact they have already complimented me on my language ability. In addition, I am told in all seriousness by people who have known me for years that I use chopsticks well and am asked whether or not I can eat Japanese food.

I have learned to live with such minor inconveniences, which, unless I am in a particularly foul mood, don’t worry me too much.

However, it irks me a great deal when people say the same thing to my 4-year-old son. He was born in Japan and holds both British and Japanese passports. His Japanese is better than nearly every child in his age group, despite the fact that most of them have two Japanese parents to his one. He is also a gifted speaker of English and is well-advanced for his years. Some Japanese adults even have the audacity to speak to him in stilted English, even though he answers them in perfect Japanese.

He has no complex about being a little different at the moment, but, I wonder, what thoughts go through his head when he is told by so-called responsible grown-ups that his Japanese ability is good? He is then asked what country he comes from and whether or not he likes Japanese food. Although these people mean well, it seems to me a silly thing to ask. Would they ask another child they knew to be born in Japan whether he or she liked Japanese food?

As my son is more Asian in appearance than Western, when he goes out with my wife nobody notices how good or bad his Japanese is. However, when with me, people obviously have a strong compulsion to comment on his language competency or inquire as to his food preference.

I know that most people are well-meaning and are trying to make conversation. However, in the U.K. I would never dream of inquiring as to a person’s country of origin simply because they didn’t have a white complexion. I assume them to be British unless stated otherwise. Likewise, I would never dream of inquiring as to someone’s culinary tastes, especially a 4-year-old’s.

My son now mixes with other children from a vast array of countries. He has never, to the best of my knowledge, contemplated why some have different eye or skin colors. He already has a good grasp of different cultures, as we have been fortunate enough to be able to travel extensively. However, he considers himself to be Japanese above all else, mainly because he speaks the language better than any other, he eats Japanese food at most meals, and he has learned Japanese children’s songs and participates in Japanese cultural events. When he began kindergarten he bowed to the Japanese flag and stood for the anthem. Other children in his school accept him as Japanese, too. They don’t view him as being different and will accept him for what he is.

However, this will only continue to happen if the adults in this country start thinking about the damage that their well-meaning comments might make. If they point out differences that don’t really exist, then other children will begin to see them too.

Please remember that children do not like to stand out, nor do they wish to be told that they speak Japanese well when they have studied it for the same length of time as any other child born in this country.

I suggest people be made aware of how ridiculous their statements sound. Adults, more so than children, need to understand that their remarks, however well-meaning, can have a lasting negative effect on children.

Many adults in Japan seem to have a complex about their English speaking ability. They, in turn, presumably find it incredible that a child who doesn’t look Japanese can speak the language with ease. Japanese children, too, learn from their parents that English is difficult and they enter their first English lesson with a negative attitude, under the illusion that they are about to embark upon something they will never be able to enjoy or master.

In “Japan’s Hidden Apartheid,” George Hicks writes that “Japan proclaims itself to be a homogenous society of a unique and distinctive character,” and “to be Japanese is almost a definition of racial purity.”

It has, therefore, been virtually impossible for Japanese to admit to the existence of minorities and, indeed, Richard Siddle, in his essay in “Japan’s Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity,” states that “Japan’s first report to the United Nations after ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1979 stated that ‘minorities did not exist in Japan.’ “

The government must lead by example and initiate a program designed to inform and educate the public of the need to treat all Japanese children in their country, even though some don’t look Japanese, as equals.

Britain instigated a program of separating foreigner immigrants from native U.K. citizens when they first came to the country in the 1960s. The plan was intended to allow foreigners to live with others who shared similar customs and cultures. Although well-intentioned, this led to isolation and alienation, which, in turn, led to other, more sinister problems. I pray that the ministry of education does not let the same thing happen in Japan.

The media has the power to educate people and, in a country with an increasing number of nonnative residents, one of the first steps might be to help Japanese people better understand that people born in Japan can eat Japanese food and like it, and (surprise, surprise) they can speak Japanese!

GERRY MCLELLAN
Nagoya

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