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If you’re jōzu and you know it, hold your ground

by Debito Arudou

It’s been a long, hot summer, so time for a lighter topic for JBC:

A non-Japanese (NJ) friend in Tokyo recently had an interesting experience while out drinking with coworkers. (For the record — and I only say this because how you look profoundly affects how you are treated in Japan — he is a youngish Caucasian-looking male.)

His Japanese literacy is high (which is why he was hired in the first place), but his speaking ability, thanks to watching anime in America from childhood, is even higher — so high, in fact, that his colleagues asked him whether he was part-Japanese!

That kinda harshed his buzz. He wondered how he should respond. Should he abide by Japanese manners and deferentially deny his jōzu-ness (skill)? Or accept the praise with a “thank you” and a smile?

I suggested he should not only say thank you and accept the accolades, but also claim the part-Japaneseness. Yes, lie about it.

Why? Because this simple-looking interaction involves several issues, such as social hierarchy, bad science and privacy. And if not handled well, this episode could end up eroding his standing within the group.

First, hierarchy: Longtime readers of this column are by now aware that I see most social interactions in terms of power relationships. This is particularly true in Japan, where just about everything from politeness levels to porn seems to revolve around power. There is almost always some element of social stratification involved — be it senpai/kōhai (senior/junior), jōshi/buka (boss/subordinate), nenpai/wakamono (elder/youngster), not to mention gender, educational background, etc.

One’s social standing naturally affects expectations of how people should behave, and what manners one should adopt. But manners get really screwy if NJ are involved.

For example, consider the expectations behind international communication strategies. It’s pretty much axiomatic that NJ who don’t “look Japanese” can’t possibly speak Japanese: NJ must speak and be spoken to in English!

This means that if somebody has the courage to address an NJ (overcoming the group psychosis of English instruction in Japan; see “Don’t blame JET for Japan’s bad English,” JBC, Sept. 7, 2010), he will often take it as a personal affront if the NJ defies expectations by clicking into Japanese.

Even if no umbrage is taken, the Japanese-speaking NJ is still treated as deviant. You see that in frequent microaggressive behavior like “henna gaijin” (weird foreigner) snipes, or the occasional public figure candidly wishing that “gaijin” weren’t fluent (see “Newscaster regrets anti-foreigner quip”, Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 21, 2006).

That’s one issue. The second is the bad science. Do people seriously believe that having Japanese ancestry makes you better at Japanese?

Actually, many do. But that’s quite unscientific. Admittedly, growing up where people are speaking Japanese around you is helpful for learning what I call “kitchen Japanese,” i.e., unaccented speech but limited literacy. However, not all people with Japanese lineage grow up in a Japanese-language environment, so the connection remains tenuous.

In any case, bloodline doesn’t account for my NJ friend’s Japanese literacy, which rarely happens without structured and disciplined study. He accomplished it, hence the compliments. But the praise is still entangled within a “blood = ability” narrative.

The fact is, Japanese language is a skill, which means it can be learned by anyone able to learn a foreign language, regardless of bloodline or background.

Which leads us to the third issue: privacy. What business was it of my friend’s coworkers to ask about his background?

That’s why he should feel free to lie about it. After all, everyone else in Japan lies about things that are nobody’s business.

Consider the single young lady with the ring on her finger. Ask her where she got it and she’ll probably say she bought it for herself. Even if her boyfriend gave it to her last night at the love hotel. Why? Because personal matters are kept private.

Lying is nothing controversial. I’ve talked before about how not telling the truth is a standard practice of adult life in Japan (see “The costly fallout of tatemae and Japan’s culture of deceit,” JBC, Nov. 1, 2011).

But in this case, lying might actually do some good. By confounding expectations.

Confounding expectations erodes stereotypes. And an excellent way to do this (as comedians and satirists throughout the ages have done) is by poking fun through absurdity and satire.

Naturally, there will be some resistance. Critics of this column essentially believe that Japanese society can never be satirized, i.e., using humor, irony, exaggeration or ridicule to criticize social stupidity and folly. That’s what this column has done for years, raising howls of “cultural insensitivity” and so on.

Such critics are missing the point of irony and satire within social commentary. Since Japanese humor is short on sarcasm, avenues are limited for pointing out foibles. Fortunately, you can still be absurd and get your point across.

Let’s play this out. Consider what would happen if my visibly Caucasian friend were to (falsely) claim Japanese lineage in this setting.

The dogmatists would be pleased to have their expectations confirmed — quite possibly bloodline is the only explanation they’ll accept. The critical thinkers may pause and say to themselves, “Hang on, really?” And maybe, just maybe, a few would realize that the question is patently absurd, and that blood is irrelevant to learning skills.

But what if my friend instead went the route of humility and showed deferential manners? He’d lose. Because, again, Japanese manners are not applied equally to NJ.

For example, even if a Japanese says, either as a response or a disclaimer, “My language ability is no good,” it is usually taken as pro forma humility. People pretty much know “he’s just saying that,” and they don’t take it all that literally. However, if a NJ does it, it reaffirms the narrative and expectation that NJ don’t speak Japanese.

But there are knock-on effects for NJ, especially if you’ve acted deferentially to your juniors: You’ve taken yourself down a rung in the social hierarchy.

Never do that. As I’ve written before (“Toot your own horn — don’t let the modesty scam keep you down,” JBC, Sept. 4, 2012), once you drop down a peg, the group is probably not going to help you back up. Hierarchy is not only something you earn; it’s something you claim.

After all, most native speakers of Japanese cannot appreciate what non-natives have gone through to reach fluency. As I’ve said before, communicating in Japanese is not all that difficult. What’s difficult is communicating with Japanese people.

You have to get over the Catch-22: people not speaking to you in Japanese because it’s not good enough, yet it’s not getting good enough because people won’t speak to you in Japanese. All the power relations and ingrained prejudices accompanying just about every social interaction work both as a barrier and a subordinator for NJ.

So when complimented, say thank you. You’ve earned it, so own it. And if they ask you to play to their expectations, only do so in a way that is to your advantage. Because it’s only going to get more difficult as you get older, and all the young pups who have trouble accepting NJ as senpai will happily enforce stereotypes and police you back into the Dumb Gaijin category. And then you will languish as a permanent subordinate, unrecognized for your herculean efforts.

Defy disempowering expectations, or ultimately it will be your expectations — of equal and respected treatment in Japan after all your investments and sacrifices — that are defeated.

Debito Arudou’s updated “Guidebook for Relocation and Assimilation into Japan” is now available as an e-book. See www.debito.org/handbook.html. Send us your comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Ron NJ

    “communicating in Japanese is not all that difficult. What’s difficult is communicating with Japanese people.”
    Truer words have never been spoken. Japanese is really quite easy to learn aside from the rote memorization involved with kanji – which is really just marginally more difficult than learning proper spelling in most other languages. The real difficulty comes when trying to actually communicate with Japanese people, because they have to overcome a lifetime of reinforced stereotypes that society has given them saying “foreigners can’t do that”; yet even if you’re standing there in front of them, doing /just that/, they’ll often refuse to believe or acknowledge the fact. Then there you are, speaking to someone in perfectly normal Japanese who is replying in (often nigh-on incomprehensible) English – despite whatever nationality you may be – and probably butchering the entire communication process in the act.

    I’ve spent close to a quarter of my life living here, and I can count on one hand (one finger actually) the number of foreigners I’ve run into that have been here for more than three months and can’t communicate to some degree in the national language; the vast majority of non-Japanese people here, students included, are at least able to communicate conversationally, which makes it all the more confusing when the national dialogue the Japanese are having (with themselves!) just keeps reinforcing this patently false belief that “foreigners can’t speak Japanese”.

    You don’t foster integration or assimilation by separating people based on how they look or where they are from – you do it by giving them the same opportunities as others, and treating them as normal people, and not making them “prove themselves” every time they meet someone new – but if what Japan wanted was integration rather than a revolving door cash grab and (a false sense of) absolute ethnic homogeneity, things would probably be quite different here.

    • Mark Makino

      Not that I haven’t also experienced the real-time spectacle of cognitive dissonance that emerges when visibly non-Japanese people speak Japanese (and had said ability chalked up to ancestry), but we can’t discount the tendency of many people in Japan to avoid conversation or even acknowledgement of people they don’t already know. I’ve been in many situations before where it turned out a person I thought was ignoring me in particular just had a policy of ignoring everyone except his/her immediate family.

      • JS

        Or, it is possible that you are not seeing the complete picture. I have been in the same situation many times in business settings where I thought the Japanese person was ignoring Japanese and foreign coworkers equally. That is, until I realized that that was just a facade to keep the foreign workers out of the loop, since in reality there was plenty of communication going on behind the scenes and in secret. It’s just that the foreign workers were not included, so they were not aware of it.

      • 6810

        Or perhaps, JS you have not grasped the whole context? This goes back to the respect issue. What have you done to earn your position within a network of relationships? The “behind the scenes” you refer to are quite often simple and pragmatic reality.

        Many (though not all, there are many exceptions, notably those too busy/engaged in other matters to comment here) foreigners are working in Japanese companies as transients. They know it, the locals know it. “Keeping you out of the loop” is less to do with discriminatory hegemony and more to do with the fact that long after the transient foreigner is gone these people will still be working at the company, organising, planning and doing what they always do. Their role is to maximise the contribution of the “guest” worker and minimise the complexities of responsibilities that s/he may be unable/unequipped to deal with because of a lack of local language ability and local business experience which could ultimately have greater consequences than individual misunderstandings.

        Finally, there is no unified block of “foreigners”. Your experiences don’t speak to mine, and likely mine don’t to yours. That doesn’t necessarily invalidate either: my point is this – we simply need to move beyond monolithic definitions of foreigners based on the repetition of outdated stereotypes in part created as a result of simplistic anthropology and sociology research from a very different age.

      • JS

        Your comments are a perfect example of the point I was making and they actually validate my point. You have automatically made the wrong assumption that foreign workers in Japan equates to transient workers. This is an absolutely wrong assumption on your part, since many foreign workers in Japan (including myself) did not come here to be transient workers, but rather to be long-term members of the workforce.

        Unfortunately, many Japanese WANT foreign workers to be transient only. This is why they generally do not trust foreign workers and are exclusionary towards them. As a result of the Japanese attitudes towards them, the foreign workers may very well be forced to become transient workers. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. So, you see, you’ve got this backwards.

        Also, have you ever heard of the Pygmalion effect?

      • 6810

        Ahem.

        Let me quote myself:

        “Many (though not all, there are many exceptions, notably those too busy/engaged in other matters to comment here) foreigners are working in Japanese companies as transients.”

        Let me quote you (JS):

        “You have automatically made the wrong assumption that foreign workers in Japan equates to transient workers.”

        Notice the disjunct? Many of something + many exceptions =/= all.

        There was no assumption, automatic or otherwise. I recognise that this is a complex issue, do you? I notice you feel particularly entitled to speak on behalf of all Japanese when referring to a transient workforce? Who accorded you such authority? My experience, and that of many others is rather different from yours. Does that invalidate these perspectives? Just what effect do cultural complexity, hybridity and individual circumstances have on maintaining monolithic assumptions about the Japanese?

        You say you came here to be a part of the workforce. That’s an interesting story and worthy of more unpacking. Meanwhile, I am part of the workforce but came here to be a part of the community (family reasons). Perhaps that’s why our perspectives differ so greatly? I have worked hard in my company, in my community etc to build solid relationships with individuals, organisations and businesses. I have achieved this through Japanese literacy, persistence and personality. I don’t feel excluded because I have worked hard to create and maintain community.

        When the new girl at the local Komeda praises my Japanese, I don’t get angry, I tell her thank you, the conversation continues, she learns I’ve been here for a long time. I learn she has never traveled abroad or spoken to a non-Japanese in her own language before. Assumptions dissolves. No high horses. The good news spreads. Now that’s activism.

        I am not the last to admit that there are numerous obstacles to immigrants in Japan yet these obstacles are not unique to the archipelago. They are, however, an enduring aspect of immigrant identity. The multi-lingual Indian mathematics teacher who can only get a job as a taxi driver in the US or the Iranian medical doctor who after years of hard fought nonsense has his prior learning (including a PhD on top of an MD) recognised is able to get a job as a high school science teacher in Australia (both of whom I know personally, though are not representative of the full spectrum of immigrant experience and are used here only to illustrate a specific point) will attest to the same thing.

        Transience does not always equal exclusion to the extent that permanence is a guarantee of belonging. In other words: there are many reasons why foreigners feel excluded from local society and these reasons do not necessarily correspond to their residence/visa status.

        Feeling excluded? I recommend a moratorium on perpetuating internet/gaijin pub folklore/dodgy anthropology and getting out there and making friends, working hard to earn trust and respect, be aware of the limitations that immigrants face (and transcend them) and be the greatest version of yourself that you can be. But that my friend, is merely my perspective.

        ps – literary analogies while certainly fun and fancy and have functions within their own cultural context are often dangerous shortcuts that fail to take into account the full degree of diversity and complexity of other cultures. Perhaps Mr Shaw is capable of working in reverse and echoes against your own monoliths? Just askin’.

      • JS

        I object to your association of non-Japanese who are living and working in Japan with transients and referring to them as “guest” workers. Even the Japanese will quit or retire from their jobs sometime. Does this make the Japanese transients also?

        The fact is that even those non-Japanese who do not plan to work in Japan for their entire lives should not be referred to as transients. I have never heard anyone in my home country of America refer to foreign workers there as transients or “guest” workers, regardless of the amount of time these workers plan on working in the US. Most Americans treat these foreign workers with respect, dignity, trust and mutual respect. These workers often make it to the very top levels of management at American companies, so they are an integral part of the decision making process at these companies. The contributions these foreign workers make during their time in America, no matter how brief, are appreciated and valued by the vast majority of Americans.

        The story in Japan is very different. I suggest that you read the excellent book titled, “Exposure”, written by Michael Woodford about his time at Olympus (not so much for the financial scandal which we all know about by now, but rather for its description of the closed, exclusionary and insular nature of corporate Japan).

        There are many positions that are not permanent or life-long which people work in for fixed periods of time (including the President of the US, who cannot stay in power for more than 8 years by law). This does not make them transients and does not mean that they do not take their job responsibilities seriously. Their loyalties, sincerity and hardwork should not be dismissed on the basis that they are transients.

    • 6810

      Faux-cultural warriors abound.

      It is interesting to watch how people apparently concerned with discrimination and rights are so quick to interpolate the full range of potential diversity of Japanese between their limited contact with the locals and then extrapolate these points into universal, homogenized cultural traits.

      Let me relate a story via autobiography. Once upon a time I worked at an eikaiwa. Life was hard, I still knew very little Japanese and that little bubble world became my font of knowledge about all things Japanese. Individual student idiosyncrasies blossomed into national cultural behaviors, incomplete and often very rough, second language opinions on various topics became gospel and the OLs were the ultimate adjudicating authority about all things local…

      Then my Japanese ability caught up. My world widened, opportunities increased and the pool of people I knew and could get to know expanded. Japan became a different country. The elementary level cultural diplomacy phrases complimenting my chopsticks use or my Japanese level were not the “micro-aggressive” annoyances that the subject of this article suggests. They were/are simply what they are – small talk between locals and someone who by appearances is not. Ice breakers equivalent to “Sure is nice weather today”. These exchanges are easily transcended when they no longer live in the abstract.

      To that extent, even now when I occasionally get the old nicety about my chopsticks or Japanese, I simply say thanks in a manner consistent with local custom, complete with a little bit of self-deprecation for the sake of humility, humor and warmth. The utterer of such phrases doesn’t know me, how would s/he. Stands to reason that they’d want to break the ice, no?

      Finally @ El Anon: what have you done to command status and respect? This is a bizarre habit of so many foreigners concerned with their position in local hierarchies. I say again: what have you done to deserve respect? Sure, there’s a seniority system in Japan, it’s more explicitly coded here as it is in other Asian cultures but it is also a phenomenon which occurs everywhere in the world. You want respect, you have to earn it. As a foreigner, whether expat or permanent resident, it is likely that you didn’t come up through the system, you don’t fit. No big deal, if you want in there are ways to do it but complaining in the community pages of the Japan times is not one of them.

    • Mark Garrett

      “…the vast majority of non-Japanese people here, students included, are at least able to communicate conversationally”

      That is quite possibly the biggest crock of you know what I’ve ever heard!
      Perhaps if your sample size wasn’t restricted to folks you’ve met at The Hub you might change your tune.

      According to the most recent census, there are approximately 2.5 million foreigners living in Japan. Removing the Chinese (670,000), Koreans (530,000), and various other asians who probably aren’t running in your circles, that leaves around a million dispersed throughout the country.
      What percentage of them do you believe speak at the level you suggest? I’d put the number modestly at around 25%
      Meanwhile there are at least a million and a half western tourists who visit annually as well as a large number of temporary workers, etc. none of whom probably know any Japanese.
      Sorry, but your math just doesn’t add up.

      The fact is that just because you know a few folks who can speak passable Japanese, the majority of foreigners that the natives meet here can’t which is why it’s fine by me if they want to assume I’m one of them and do their best to accommodate me.

      • kamakiri

        I concur. I know alot of people, usually westerners, who live in japan for at least two years and don’t know how to talk any japanese at all or have any japanese friends for that matter. you can find them at gaspanic and so on.

  • El Anon

    The scary part is having less status as you get older. When you are young, you are the up-and-comer, no matter where you live in the world. When you get older in your own country, people respect you naturally as sempai. In Japan, you can always be treated like kohai because you are the humble foreigner. Sad but true.

  • Moonraker

    Or overcome the hierarchy by pointing it out and insisting that it not be adhered to. Exposing the implicit assumptions of your interlocutors can be revelatory to them.

  • Fight Back

    Before being sent to a Japanese subsidiary of my company I was given a 3 month language course and I found that more than enough to quickly become fluent. I was in for a rude awakening, arriving in Japan in the 90s to find the locals pretending not to understand me, hesitant replies in English, and ‘suddenly’ acquired tone-deafness. The situation has changed little today, making even the most trivial of commercial transactions an excruciatingly painful experience. There can be little doubt than any communication between NJ and Japanese is anything less than forced and humiliating, no matter what the apologists wish to believe.

    • ChrysanthemumSniffer

      “Before being sent to a Japanese subsidiary of my company I was given a 3 month language course and I found that more than enough to quickly become fluent. I was in for a rude awakening, arriving in Japan in the 90s to find the locals pretending not to understand me”

      You are almost a national treasure, FB.

    • Eamon

      Wow, 3 months to become fluent in Japanese. You must be the Mozart of languages. Meanwhile, I went to Japan after studying Japanese for a whole year and not being anywhere near fluent. Despite occasional misunderstandings and people attempting to speak English, the majority of people went out of their way to be pleasant and helpful, all the while speaking in Japanese to a non-fluent speaker. After years in Japan my experience only got better. But like Debito Arudou and you say, anyone with a different experience is an apologist. So I must be one too.

      • Toolonggone

        “anyone with a different experience is an apologist.”

        Wow. That’s pretty much unscientific truth. I must be one of those because I speak/write comments in English, which pretty much goes against the grain for a native speaker of Japanese. Many Japanese don’t like it, so I could be seen as an “extremist(!)” Oh boy.

    • Devil Dude

      “…I was given a 3 month language course and I found that more than enough to quickly become fluent.”

      Cool story, Bro!

    • kamakiri

      he’s like the jim breen of expats.

  • JS

    Excellent article, Debito.

    I have seen many foreign executives fail in Japan due to their being overly polite in their communication and mannerisms, since they bought into the myth of Japanese politeness. I say that you never truly know the Japanese until you have worked with them and have been in the trenches with them. In my experience working both in the US and Japan, I feel the Japanese can dish it out much more than American executives. It’s just that many foreign executives have difficulty recognizing and understanding this, until it’s too late.

    As the article points out, all relationships in Japan are heirarchical and power based. Language (both, verbal and body language) plays an important role in this. Foreign business executives are told to be extemely polite in Japan, but too often this backfires since it is perceived as a sign of weakness and exploited to subordinate them. The Japanese facade of politeness can fade away very quickly, revealing extremely aggresive, tough and non-compromising personalities under the cloak.

    Foreign business executives are often shocked and disoriented by this change in character and have difficulty recovering. The element of surprise is very powerful and is one of the best offensive strategies to disarm one’s opponent, as the Japanese are well aware. Hence, I fully concur with the ideas so eloquently expressed by the author in this article.

    • El Anon

      They use language as a power tool. As a businesman, if you speak Japanese with them, you are immediately putting yourself in an inferior bargaining position. If you speak English or French with them, then they get all defensive and inward and offended. they make it difficult for you to communicate with them, and this allows them to take a stubborn position and stonewall you until you give up and say “shogannai”. They always get their way. Ask anybody who is married in Japan!

      • JS

        You are absolutely correct. Most other cultures use language a means of communication and understanding each other. On the other hand, I have seen many Japanese use language as a shield to hide behind so that they can either avoid communicating altogether, or to play mind games based on some antiquated notions of power and heirarchy.

  • Steve Novosel

    “For example, consider the expectations behind international
    communication strategies. It’s pretty much axiomatic that NJ who don’t
    “look Japanese” can’t possibly speak Japanese: NJ must speak and be
    spoken to in English!”

    Written by someone who clearly enjoys spending time around foreigners and not around Japanese people despite having taken Japanese citizenship.

    I spend a whole lot of time (the entire working day and most of my social life) being the only foreigner around, and I rarely have a problem with people thinking they “must” speak to me in English because I am pretty clearly not of Japanese heritage. Usually when someone does speak to me in English, if I respond in Japanese they switch to Japanese as well.

    They are being courteous. Not rude. They’re not making complicated assumptions about your personhood.

    “You have to get over the Catch-22: people not speaking to you in
    Japanese because it’s not good enough, yet it’s not getting good enough
    because people won’t speak to you in Japanese”

    Ridiculous. Speak Japanese to Japanese people and they will respond in Japanese 99.9% of the time. Absolutely none of my coworkers will refuse to speak to me in Japanese, and in fact they tell me they wish I spoke more in Japanese. Again, these are ALL Japanese people.

    • Damn-Skippy

      Curious where you work. I have a similar working environment as your, but my findings are completely antipodal. Several of my coworkers refuse to speak Japanese to me. In fact most of them just refuse to speak to me at all.

      • Steve Novosel

        Just a normal office – about 200 in the building and 20 or so in my department. My Japanese coworkers often comment at how much friendlier the staff in other departments are to me than to them, actually.

        At the office bonenkai last year some of the staff from other departments insisted we speak in Japanese even though they were pretty fluent in English. And there’s always someone who wants to chat about baseball or other casual topics in the hallway or elevator.

      • Eamon

        Could you elaborate on “refuse to speak to me at all” means? Are you standing at their desk, asking them a question, and they act like you’re not there? Do you say “hello” as they walk by and they act like they didn’t hear you?

        If it’s the former, I’m amazed that one of you hasn’t quit or been fired. If it’s the latter, this has happened to me in every work place I work in, in Japan and in the United States. It has nothing to do with language or culture (unless you’re working in a tech company where this kind of behavior seems to go hand and hand).

        Also, I wonder how many people actually speak up and say “Hey, you know what, I’d prefer it if we talk in Japanese.” Maybe, and this could be a negative in it’s own right for some, they just don’t have other opportunities to use their English, so they’re taking the opportunity given to them. I know people around me are always asking when they find out I speak Japanese if I get to use it in my job. Unfortunately I don’t, but if I did I might constantly talk in Japanese when I could.

      • JS

        It is very common for Japanese staff to ignore and not speak to non-Japanese staff at Japanese companies. I have seen this happen at many Japanese companies over the course of many years.

        There can be various reasons for this in the mind of the Japanese staff. Some may think it’s too much trouble (menduksai) to have foreigners around, or they may be jealous about the good outcome of something the foreign worker was involved in, or they may not like the seat assigned to the foreigner, or they may not like that the foreigner does not wear only boring white shirts to the office everyday, or they may not like that the foreigner can speak clearly and confidently when it is called for in business settings, or they may not like that the foreigner is married to a Japanese woman, or thay may not like that the foreigner is tall, fat, white, black, brown, etc. The list goes on.

        It could also simply be that the Japanese person was having a bad day and decided to take it out on anyone he perceives to be lower in status (this means women and foreigners in the office).

        In short, the reasons the Japanese staff may ignore and not speak to the non-Japanese staff usually has nothing to do with something the non-Japanese person either did, or did not do.

        It would also be unrealistic for the non-Japanese to speak up about his treatment, since he is the one who would be blamed for not understanding the Japanese business culture and for ruining the so called Wa and Japanese harmony in the workplace.

      • Damn-Skippy

        I mean I get paid six figures, but I am actively excluded from all work events–meetings, training, social events, etc. I am literally sitting by myself in the corner (assigned seat). People who come in and leave skip me on the greetings. I have talked to my supervisor who is also Japanese. He said it is just Japanese culture, and I can try harder to engage my coworkers but not to expect much.

        We had two other non-Japanese employees, but they literally got pushed out by all the others. It was rather insidious the way it happened. They all talked about the person behind their back to the boss. I guess I should be content I am just ignored, but I literally have to go through my supervisor to get others to work with me, and then they want to do it in English via email even though I am a few meters from them.

        I should mention that I am actually on my second supervisor as well as the first completely ignored me. He skipped scheduled meetings and always asked that I come back late at night as he was too busy to talk during the day. I should probably leave.

      • Sam Gilman

        I’m terribly sorry, but I’m going to call BS on this.

        Presuming by “six figures” you mean an annual dollar-equivalent income (more than 10 million yen a year) and if as you imply, you are fluent in Japanese, it would be quite surreal for a company to underuse you like this. It makes no business sense at all.

      • Damn-Skippy

        I assure you–not BS. I agree it makes no business sense, but I was hired from abroad by someone who is no longer with company. I do work, but it is all via email and in English. I am definitely being underused though. I have a PhD.

      • Sam Gilman

        I really don’t mean to offend by doubting you – as you can see from other comments here, whenever there is a Debito Arudou article, both his supporters and people satirising his supporters make outlandish statements.

        If you’re thinking of moving employers, I would do so, both for your own immediate well-being and because the company doesn’t sound good. When someone tells you that their bad management is because of “Japanese culture”, they’re just making excuses. You can see from the disbelief of other people working in Japan that your situation just sounds weird given your paygrade.

        The thing is, I have heard of company policy in a couple of large Eikaiwas that discouraged certain kinds of interaction in the way you say you have in your organisation on the grounds that it was “Japanese culture”. It was actually a way of dividing and ruling between Japanese staff and customers and non-Japanese staff so that they didn’t share notes about how bad the management was. The companies that I am aware had these kinds of rules subsequently went bankrupt.

        But that’s at the low end of the jobs market. At your level, Japanese ability is usually positively welcomed; exclusion from social events in particular sounds very odd if it’s known that you’re able to converse in Japanese. There are considered reasons why I apologetically said that I find it difficult to believe you.

        So if it’s as bad as you say it is, and if you’re a Japanese speaker with a PhD and employable skills, move employers. You’ll likely find a much better place to work. One of the worst things that can happen when working abroad is being stuck in a sxxxhole and having a miserable time when just around the corner are far richer experiences to be had.

      • JS

        Sam, you are questioning another Poster’s credibility, based on your assumption that all Japanese companies are managed properly, efficiently and productively. Anyone who has either worked at, or researched them knows fully well that this is simply not the case.

        You don’t have to take my word for it. One of the most commonly used and objective measures of a company is Return on Equity (ROE). This measures a company’s profitability, and in turn, how effectively and efficiently it is being managed. It is no accident that the ROE of Japanese companies is generally less than half the ROE of their American counterparts. So, obviously these Japanese companies are not as concerned about using their resources as effectively as you seem to give them credit for.

      • Sam Gilman

        Er…no. Comparing the ROE between countries is invalid, as the rate is partly a function of expectations within a country’s business culture. The historical differences between Japan and the US in ROE are not down to the US being more efficient, but the different position of stockholders. Using it as a measure of efficiency in labour inputs across economic cultures and industries is armchair economics.

      • JS

        Sam, the definition of Return on Equity is as follows:

        ROE = Net Income /Shareholder’s Equity

        Shareholder’s equity does not include preferred shares in this calculation. So, it is a perfectly valid to compare ROE of companies in like industries across countries, as long as the results are based on international accounting standards (which is what I have done). This is standard practice all around the world when comparing companies in similar industries to each other, that operate in different countries.

        By the way, ROE has absolutely nothing to do with your statement that, “the rate is partly a function of expectations within a country’s business culture”. I’m sorry, but this is a pretty ludicrous statement.

      • Sam Gilman

        Precisely. It’s a measure used for assessing the value to investors of individual companies in the same industries under similar circumstances – not a measure used as you were trying to do, to compare labour market practices across and between entire economies. And yes, the institutional reinforcement (through law and structures) of the notion and meaning of value to shareholders does actually result in differences in ROE even after the implementation of IFRS, although the general international move to shareholder value has been lessening that difference.

        I do like your idea that the recent low profitability of Japanese companies is down to them preventing interaction between foreign and native-born staff. It’s always interesting when someone tries to reduce a complex problem such as labour productivity to “culture”.

      • JS

        Let me try to put it very simply for you. The “Net Income” in the ROE calculation is a company’s Revenues minus its Expenses. Labor costs are usually the single largest expense for Japanese companies. Therefore, the more inefficiently the company manages its human resources, the lower its Net Income and ROE.

        Second, the low profitability of Japanese companies is not a “recent” phenomenon, as you have put it. This has been going on for at least a couple of decades now.

        Lastly, my original point to you was that you should not question another Poster’s credibility, based on your flawed assumption that Japanese companies are always good at using their human resources effectively and efficiently. For the record, I have never stated that the low profitability of Japanese companies is the result of the interaction between their foreign born and Japanese staff (even though, it is a symptom of, and a good example of what ails corporate Japan).

      • Paul Smith

        I understand how you could be skeptical of Damn-Skippy’s account, but what keeps me from being as skeptical as you is that I have witnessed any number of business practices at Japanese companies that make no business sense at all to anyone who comes from a western business background. Most of those practices had nothing at all to do with the treatment of non-Japanese employees, but I have seen several cases of clearly capable people, both Japanese and non-Japanese, simultaneously being paid generously and shunted into do-nothing positions, for reasons that were never made clear. And these were not troublemakers or misfits by any stretch of the imagination. Conferring with a trusted Japanese friend from outside the organization, I explicitly raised the issue of how the company was flushing money down the toilet by paying these people so well and then not using their abilities. His response was that Japanese companies just don’t think in those terms. That leaves someone with a western business background gaping in disbelief, which is why I understand your skepticism, but it is no less true for making no business sense.

      • Sam Gilman

        Paul, I appreciate that there are micro-level irrationalities that may make sense from a Japanese manager’s perspective, but the situation described here just sounded weird, and not representative at all of more systemic issues of apparent wastage.

  • ChrysanthemumSniffer

    Um… Don’t the people who really do study this kind of thing think that porn always revolves around power? What makes power relationships more central to Japanese porn than to its western equivalent?

  • JS

    Effective communication requires trust between the parties. The problem in Japanese business settings is that the Japanese do not seem to trust non-Japanese workers the same way they trust other Japanese. As a result, the non-Japanese return the favor, which results in general mistrust between the two. It is impossible to have effective communication in such an environment of mistrust.

    I have seen this pattern repeated time after time in Japanese companies where both Japanese and non-Japanese work. This is the real reason behind poor communication between the Japanese and non-Japanese, even more so than their respective language abilities.

    • http://www.dadsarmy.co.uk/ GMainwaring

      “the Japanese”

      Ah, that monolithic hive mind…

      “do not seem to trust non-Japanese workers the same way they trust other Japanese. As a result, the non-Japanese return the favor”

      Bit of a chicken-and-egg argument there, and in any event trust is earned, not given. In any work environment I have ever been in, either in Japan or elsewhere, there were employees who were trusted regardless of their ethnicity or nationality (and regardless of the ethnicity or nationality of their supervisors/fellow employees) and employees who were not trusted – and the reason why those employees were not trusted was because they were either brand new and an unknown quantity or had shown that they were not worthy of being trusted beyond a certain level.

      • JS

        There is unfortunately a cultural problem in Japan, in that many Japanese feel that a non-Japanese person can never be trusted when it comes to important matters. To these Japanese, it does not matter how sincere, loyal, hardworking, capable, accomplished or intelligent the non-Japanese person is. To them, the only litmus test of whether someone can be trusted or not is based on the binary notion of Japanese vs. non-Japanese.

        In my home country of America, I often see people cross racial, ethnic, country of origin, and religious lines, etc., to defend, support each other and to develop long lasting productive relationships based on mutual respect and trust. In contrast to this, in my many years living and working in Japan, I have never seen a Japanese cross the line which they feel seperates them from the rest of humanity, which is all lumped into one big non-Japanese mass in their minds.

      • $14141131

        People in America still practice discrimination because of the color of their skin. It is just many of them there who come to work here still feel over and above the others that they want to ram their culture to Japanese and the rest. What you believe in is not always right or best. Cultural aggression has no place in Japan.Respect has always a place in Japan, that’s for sure.

      • JS

        May I remind you that the American people elected a black president to lead the country, not just once, but twice. Walk into the offices of any company or government agency in the U.S. and you will see people from all races, colors, religions, nationalities and sexual orientation represented very well at all levels of these organizations.

      • Eamon

        “May I remind you that the American people elected a black president to lead the country, not just once, but twice.”

        Yes, a little more than half voted for him. That leaves the other 40+ percent of a country over twice the size of Japan.

        “in the U.S. and you will see people from all races, colors, religions, nationalities and sexual orientation represented very well at all levels of these organizations.”

        “Very well” is debatable and debated regularly in the United States. In addition, the United States is a nation of immigrants, Japan is not. If in a couple hundred years there are isn’t a bit more parity then maybe it’s reasonable to compare the two. Not to mention Japan’s history of being a closed, then authoritarian, country over all but the last 68 years of it’s history.

      • JS

        I do not get your point about the percentage of people who voted for Obama. If you check American electoral history, the same thing can be said of all recent American presidents and presidential elections. This is called democracy. So, what’s your point?

        In regards to issues of diversity, yes, they are discussed vigorously in the U.S., and that’s a good thing! That’s the definition of diversity, where different people express and discuss a range of opinions. I’d much rather have healthy discussion and debate about tough issues like diversity, instead of either burying one’s head in the sand or muzzling diverse opinions.

        In regards to immigration to the U.S., yes, it may be an immigrant nation historically, but much immigration there has been recent. Furthermore, the recent immigrants to the U.S. have a very different make-up than earlier waves of immigrants to the U.S. So, I think it’s just a lame excuse to say that Japan cannot do immigration since it has no history of immigration.

      • Eamon

        Let me recall the conversation:

        murtson:
        “People in America still practice discrimination because of the color of their skin.”

        JS
        “May I remind you that the American people elected a black president to lead the country, not just once, but twice.”

        It appears that you’re trying to say that America doesn’t practice discrimination. My point is that there is only proof that 50-60% of the population isn’t motivated by discriminatory thought patterns. There are some in America that say that even some of those who voted for Obama are discriminatory in their behavior toward other “more black” individuals. Ironically, it’s mostly those in America who didn’t vote for Obama that argue that racism is dead because of his election.

        To extrapolate then, if, hypothetically, 40% of the population of America is motivated by race, language, nationality, etc., and 100% of Japanese are, then the number of prejudiced Americans (in an immigrant, historically democratic nation) is actually greater than the number of prejudiced Japanese (a non-immigrant for the time-being, and until quite recently authoritarian nation).

        “So, I think it’s just a lame excuse to say that Japan cannot do immigration since it has no history of immigration.”

        I’m not saying that they can’t do immigration, but I don’t think expecting Japan to behave in the same way as America is reasonable, considering their divergent histories. Japan believes (both rightly and wrongly in my opinion) that it is a country that benefits from homogeneity. America has never been made up of a homogenous group (even when the majority of “Americans” were white, there was a great deal of diversity in background, whether it be economic, ethnic, or ideological).

        I believe that murtson was pointing out that some Americans come to Japan and, despite their own country’s imperfection when it comes to race, pick apart every incident and make it out as if the entire Japanese population is backwards and out to get them. I agree with his point, even though there is obviously discrimination in Japan, just as in other countries. The idea that Japan is more discriminatory than most other nations is not backed up by the facts.

      • Toolonggone

        >The idea that Japan is more discriminatory than most other nations is not backed up by the facts.
        I agree with this statement, but I don’t see many people saying so just because there’s no anti-racial discrimination law in Japan. Just because you see some persons addressing the issues in Japan doesn’t mean that they are saying Japan is more discriminatory than US or any other country. It’s a matter of consciousness, and all we can say is that Japan’s consciousness of race is apparently different from most countries.

      • Nicole

        I was being sarcastic. The National Policy Institute is a white supremacist organization. The point was that your arguments relied on generalizations applied on a wide swathe of people, which is always ridiculous.

        I guess you really believe your own hype.

      • JS

        Actually, I was commenting on your reference to Sikhs and people wearing headscarves, not the National Policy Institute (which by the way has Non-Profit Status awarded to it by the U.S. government).

        I believe the word you should use for your earlier comment is disingenuous, not sarcastic.

      • Nicole

        Really? I just came from Montana. Nope, didn’t see any headscarves or Sikhs in the National Policy Institute office I went into. Some white people got really upset though that I just walked in unannounced.

        But America is still perfect! It must be. How can I ever return to my country the same person knowing I have had a taste of paradise? JS says so. It must be true!

      • JS

        Montana is one of the most rural and predominantly white states in the U.S. It’s cowboy country, in case you didn’t notice. There are no large businesses, companies or meaningful employment opportunities there to speak of. That’s probably why you did not see much diversity there. It’s hardly an apt comparison to cities like Tokyo. As they say, it’s the exception that proves the rule!

      • $14141131

        When America elected Obama, that didn’t stop some Americans to practice discrimination. Just listening at the way they blurt sarcasm and inappropriate language would make you shrink or shiver. What can you say hearing a white Californian alleging that people in one state are racists? It is a statement coming from an educated person that is having a laugh of his life observing that some racists are flipping burgers while some Asians are comfortable in their high-paying jobs. One reason why there are some other races in offices is that immigrants especially Asians are better or doing much better that the locals.

        Try looking at the academic field and see who are usually on top. This situation even became a catalyst for the locals to strive now in school. Asians are not distracted by the bullying they get. Objective as they are not to give benefit to the silly guys who are perennial losers. And just like anywhere else, there are whites who are fair and discerning (especially the educated ones) and there are those hounded by their supremacist belief that earns them black dog. Culture is a way of life and the quality of life so it is relative.

      • Toolonggone

        And don’t forget that the word “respect” applies only to Japanese– predominantly Yamato, mid-to upper-middle class male in the society. Not for naturalized citizens or ethnic minorities in this respect.

      • The Apologist

        Ahh, America. That beacon of virtue when it comes to handling the problems of minorities.

        But I hear you, JS bro. I too appreciate the hard work that American minorities put in. You know what I mean, those ubiquitous cases where people of colour are serving white folks.

        If only Japan could be progressive like that!

  • ChrysanthemumSniffer

    “For example, even if a Japanese says, either as a response or a disclaimer, “My language ability is no good,” it is usually taken as pro forma humility. People pretty much know “he’s just saying that,” and they don’t take it all that literally. However, if a NJ does it, it reaffirms the narrative and expectation that NJ don’t speak Japanese.”

    This is utter nonsense. If you reply humbly you’re more likely to be seen as someone who understands the expectations of language speakers, and hence understands the language better. There are even florid ways of saying “My language ability is no good” which ironically shows your interlocutor that you are effectively acknowledging that their praise stands as a compliment of your true ability. That’s actually pretty basic Japanese, and people who choose not to see it that way, citing some twisted form of persecution trap instead, perhaps have their own issues to deal with.

  • 思德

    I am not in complete agreement with this article. I live in a relatively small town of 40,000 (spread out a fair distance) and frequently visit Hamamatsu (of about 800k people). I have found that Japanese people appreciate it when I speak Japanese and, in fact, go full bore into fluent Japanese when I say something simple. Sometimes, I would actually prefer they dumbed their speech down, to be honest, although I suppose I would rather be bombarded by speech I don’t understand than be talked to very slowly, since the latter indicates an assumption that I am competent even if this is (sadly!) false.

    I have heard from a non-ESL working expat who has been around for about 3 years that as a foreigner there are advantages to intentionally not behaving Japanese all the time. I tend to agree with this.

    Regarding Japanese suddenly becoming deaf when I speak Japanese, on occasion it happens, but not as much as I thought. It happened in Taiwan as well, although frankly Chinese is way harder to speak so it’s much more excusable there.

    Personally, I would rather be a foreigner who acts decently, makes an honest effort at work and at learning Japanese, and who responds to bias as I encounter it rather than run around trying to mount a crusade against entrenched ignorance that can’t be changed from the outside.

    • Ebisu man

      I have found it a lot easier in the Japanese countryside to get around with Japanese only, and people talking to me in proper Japanese. Maybe its the secludedness or the lack of any proper English education, but people in the countryside seem to take a foreigner who speaks Japanese a lot more naturally and friendly than people in bigger cities who a lot of times seem to take a position of ‘stand your ground’ and wanting to talk in english only to foreigners. Maybe it’s the snob-factor. Being in the countryside is great, since you get to speak Japanese a lot more naturally without people getting too defensive, and because noone speaks English, your Japanese improves a lot faster.

      • 思德

        I want to move to a big city next year because honestly, I do not like the country life. But I do appreciate this aspect to it.

        I wonder if the city people see more foreigners, and thus the illusion of some kind of foreign intrusion must be dealt with by not letting them speak Japanese? Or maybe city people are just more ambitious and insistent on trying to learn English. Who knows.

        An addendum to my comment about crusading against ignorance: It’s not that I think foreigners should sit there and do nothing. What I mean is that getting whipped up into a frenzy doesn’t help. What does help is what you can do in your day to day life to help people realize you are not some subhuman creature. Sometimes, it starts with not assuming people think that about you, until there is evidence to the contrary. And then you deal with it there.

  • Toolonggone

    Nice illustration. It’s hilarious!

    • El Anon

      Yes, these JT illustrations are really good lately.

  • iago

    Well, yeah, if your going in position is that every social interaction is some kind of power play, and every question is a carefully laid trap designed to put you in your place, then naturally communicating on an equal footing is going to be somewhat challenged.

    Conditioning people to distrust fear interacting with The Japanese (surely the very definition of xenophobia), to deceive each other (“Yes, lie about it,” because that’s what *they* all do) and to take umbrage over normal, get-to-know-you social small-talk (“What business was it of my friend’s coworkers to ask about his background?”), positions you to be part of the problem when you could smile, chat, enjoy the interaction your hard-won fluency has enabled, and be part of the solution.
    Moreover, people are people; take them as such, foibles and all. Stop looking for the secret decoder ring. There isn’t one.

  • $14141131

    You are teaching the man to lie in Japan just to prop his social standing. That’s absurd! This country value honesty strongly and is practiced as part of the tradition and culture.

    • JS

      I suggest you read the earlier article in this series by Debito that was also published in the Japan Times some time ago. Debito describes in great length how lying and deception are common and accepted parts of all aspects of Japanese everyday life.

  • EQ

    “I suggested he should not only say thank you and accept the accolades, but also claim the part-Japaneseness. Yes, lie about it.” – I would not. Why? So I can get a perceived “higher societal position” in Japan? Pfff…Not THAT important to me. I would just accept the accolades with a “Thank You – I studied very hard”.

    • Mark Makino

      In my case, it wouldn’t be lying to say I have Japanese ancestry, but using that to explain my language abilities would be devaluing all the time I put into studying, implying that my dad and cousins should be better Japanese speakers than I am (they’re not) and also implying that I should also speak Gaelic and German.

  • Zenigata

    One of my favourite replies was: “Maybe I was Japanese in a previous life, who knows?”. This works always well with those who believe in reincarnation, karma, and so on…

  • KaiHarate

    putting all japanese in one boat is silly. rural japanese are completely different than urban. osakans different than tokyo residents. okinawa from hokkaido. then of course individuals are all different and unique. yet they are no different than other nations that have a sense of nation and cultural quirkiness they all seem to know (some of it good, some bad) and laud over those who’ve come “fresh off the boat” – which lasts a lifetime in most countries. traveled about 3500 km in japan and saw a lot of it. i spent time in rural japan learning forestry. all this nonsense that a nation of people would spend so much time and energy bowing and being exceedingly polite only to feel opposite underneath is utter nonsense. “japanese” is far too complex for these observations. japanese are no different than any other place. they’re diverse, good, weird, happy, stressed, angry, curious, “just not having a good day so wish you’d just not even look at me let alone ask me anything”. some japanese are racists. some japanese wish japan would become multicultural. they also are born with and live with things they really aren’t into. some japanese hate japan and never go back. these complaints of NJ are shared by japanese about japan. you learn quickly that quite a few japanese sound similar songs as this guy. it happens in all countries japan is no different. some white americans living in white areas hate america and want to leave. adamant they don’t fit in and never fully understood in a place where anyone can pretty much be whatever they want. go figure. and japan shares another thing will all nations…some japanese think other japanese are strange, stupid, backwater, ignorant, and not worthy of their time, friendship, business, rental space, vote, best bluefin. in extreme cases some japanese think certain japanese sort of like monkeys. i had a weird conversation with a man in himeji how a certain area of japan has japanese that aren’t too much higher than monkey. “can’t talk to them. they can’t understand japanese. very low people with intelligence just above monkey”. i simply asked what it was like there. he was serious and he was not mentally ill. lol. he had no problem telling a foreigner that some japanese are basically monkeys. he wasn’t exactly thinking “japan first, so keep this secret from gaijin invader to protect our superior japan!”, as this article seems to insinuate that all of japan has some secret code never to be shared fully with gaijin.

    as for this issue of japanese speaking to nj in english or just clamming up… in sendai region i stayed with a family that had 2 daughters my age (both married with kids but husbands living at different houses). the father of the house and i talked all the time how country people are better (we’re both country people). it was a joke but a little bit serious and my travels back up this theory to near “no doubt about it country people are better” status. we both disliked tokyo for the same reasons…rude, arrogant, stressed out, robot life and the nice people just basically gave up long ago so they just drone back and forth to work or social life (if they have one) with no expression or rebellion. we both agreed osaka is better than tokyo – the city and the people. it is our opinion of course so in reality it is our preference not that osaka is officially better just because 2 people said so. :) we used both low level english and japanese combo to create conversation and did it naturally. whatever language got us to the next sentence or deeper meaning just flowed out. we bonded immediately. he never once answered back in english if i spoke japanese unless it was an obvious need for english. he said “you and i can talk until the stars burn out. i can’t do this with others. it is so rare”. his friends were so relieved i could speak a little bit of japanese so they talked flowingly at me in japanese as if i could understand. the mother never spoke anything but japanese too me and sometimes i think she forgot i couldn’t really understand her. i just did a lot of “hai” “doozo” “arigato” “sumimasen” and she kept talking in japanese. she just accepted me as part of the house and would tell me what this and that was or speak about what i was eating. my japanese got decent so it wasn’t like i couldn’t do some conversing but never once did i just start getting english at me or just refusal to talk rather than speak japanese to nj.

    older daughter would just sit fascinated by father and i talking. she didn’t say much but just watched like a good movie was on. she could speak of bit of halting english but mostly tried babyish japanese with me so i could understand. she would speak japanese sometimes to me in hopes i’d understand then laugh and say in japanese “why am i speaking japanese to him he can’t understand?”. my point about her was that she preferred japanese with me even when english would have been more convenient. nor did she ever clam up because she wouldn’t speak japanese with nj. his other daughter spoke just a little english but my japanese level is not smooth conversational level so she and i did not have conversations at all. the father told me she said she’d like to talk to me very much but because i could not speak japanese well enough for her to have a conversation she saw no purpose in attempting to speak english to me. later, she wrote me a letter in english thanking me for visit and regret she never got to know me because of language barrier. she said she had so much to ask me about where i am from, my life, and my opinions so she told me to study japanese more and come back to talk to her. in her mind, it was my job to learn japanese if i was going to spend a lot of time there. she was like “he will speak japanese or he won’t be spoken to”. it wasn’t an arrogant thing though. it was her saying i really want to talk to him but what’s the point? neither one of us speaks the other’s language so why bother.

    so that was a case of a family all so different. none of them alike. none of them doing anything what this guy says.

    i do feel bad for nj who want so bad to be treated as japanese treat each other. but then again i can recall plenty of times where japanese said kooky things about other japanese and they never would treat them the same way they would treat their co-workers and friends. there is regionalism in japan. many japanese have a “no doubt about it” feeling that other regions of japan are filled with a different kind of people and there is no point in talking to them or wasting much time in trying to incorporate them into their local society should one move in their area. and they block them out of politics, jobs, apartments. it reminded me of an extreme version or regionalism: bosnians and serbs. you visit one house then the other. EXACTLY the same. same looks. same ways. same city. same mountain village. same voice. basically same language. same joys same sadness. yet both will tell you “they are not human. they are neanderthal from 10,000 years ago.”. you can only go “okaaaaay. suuuuure. whatever you say”.

    this article does not reflect my experiences in japan though writer has spent much more time and deeper into japanese daily life than i ever went.

    • http://www.dadsarmy.co.uk/ GMainwaring

      “this article does not reflect my experiences in japan”

      Does not reflect mine either, nor the experiences of almost anyone I know. Whether they speak the language or not.

      The very small handful of people I know who *could* relate to this are people who are slightly paranoid, don’t understand Japanese anywhere near as much as they say they do, and often have obvious problems dealing with life in a country where the whip is not held by their fellow caucasians. They are incapable of seeing anyone but their fellow foreigners as individuals – yet can complain loudly without the slightest hint of irony or self-awareness about “the Japanese” all thinking thus-and-so, or “the Japanese” being unable to accept foreigners as individuals and instead mindlessly following a “binary notion of Japanese vs. non-Japanese” or lumping all foreigners “into one big non-Japanese mass”.

      “though writer has spent much more time and deeper into japanese daily life than i ever went.”

      That… is very debatable, actually. He certainly spent more time *physically* present in Japan than a lot of people. But that’s about as deep as it goes.

      • Eamon

        People like you remind me that not every “NJ” (how I hate that abbreviation) believes antithetically to myself. I appreciate your comments!

  • Aaron

    Similar strange situations in Hong Kong with Cantonese learners….most professionals in the city speak fluent English, albeit most with an accent that trips up some new arrivals and non-native english speakers sometimes, so the opportunity to learn cantonese is rarely there if you confine yourself to the office environment and foreign friendly places…
    My recommendation to eagre learners is always to start with Mandarin first, there’s a billion and a half people across the border to try and talk to if you are willing to dive right in, and if not there is also Taiwan for those a little less adventurous, in both places most people are really excited to help foreigners who want to study… you just can’t get turned off when people insist on speaking to you in English, it might be funny at first you speaking in Chinese and them answering in English, but what the heck, everyone is practicing right? and the conversation is flowing, so what does it matter? persist and if your personality clicks (same way you’d make a native english speaking friend) you’ll be fluent enough fairly soon…once you can read and speak in mandarin, bridging the other gap is easier…
    japanese and chinese cultures are very different, regional chinese cultures are very different for that matter, but i think there is an element in these scenarios that is distinct from culture. are you the shy type who doesn’t like making friends? are you comfortable ‘kompai’ -ing at a company party till you can’t stand? do you like your japanese coworkers and friends because they are japanese, or because they would be friends wherever you were? it’s perfectly fine if you feel cut off, or introverted, and find cultural differences daunting, that is the whole point of travel, but do recognize those feelings for what they are, and don’t blame every situation on relationship dynamics…
    just dive in, be the bombastic loud foreigners, and then out polite people when you need to, you aren’t japanese but who cares? if they follow the Osaka tigres then talk about the tigres, and insist on speaking japanese when you want to, and english when you get tired of it…

    • John

      Enjoyed the discussion, however I am lucky to travel to Japan very often to enjoy the cultural aspect of the country and the polite Japanese population. Pleased not deal with petty office politics or mistrust based on ignorance and lack of international exposure. However it exists everywhere and I found living in Hawaii the best example of a total lack of educational and historical reference when dealing with outsiders. I honestly believe the future of Japan will depend on the ability to be more inclusive in order to succeed in this new world economy and survive going forward .

  • Normal-English-Teacher

    Honestly, I am with the Japanese on this one. If there were more foreigners that actually tried to speak the Japanese language well, then Japanese people would not be so surprised when they see it.
    Blame it on yourselves.

    From the article;
    “In any case, bloodline doesn’t account for my NJ friend’s Japanese
    literacy, WHICH RARELY HAPPENS [my caps] without structured and disciplined study.
    He accomplished it, hence the compliments. But the praise is still
    entangled within a “blood = ability” narrative.”
    ——–

    Okay, so Japanese people see a white looking guy that can speak Japanese really well. This is rare for a white person- however it is common for mixed race kids that look white, but have a Japanese parent and/or grew up in Japan.

    So Japanese people ask the OBVIOUS question: “Are you half-Japanese?” Because that is the normal thing to assume because it is so rare (as Debito mentioned) for a foreigner to actually speak Japanese well. So what is the problem?

    • Mark Makino

      Your logic is sound, but whether it’s the logic people are using when they ask whether you’re “haafu” because you speak Japanese is another question. To put a finer point on it, people have told me explicitly that I understand Japan more (than I actually do) because “nihonjin no chi ga nagareteiru”. I doubt there’s much nuanced sociological thinking behind that.

  • gn

    What a fool I’ve been! Thank you, Debito, for opening my eyes.

    Before reading Debito’s article, I casually chalked up Japanese people complimenting my Japanese language skills to some combination of good manners, understandable surprise, and small talk. I can now clearly see the sinister undertones.

    Before reading Debito’s article, I thought that I was genuinely developing relationships and – dare I say it – occasionally friendships with Japanese people when they engaged me in hours-long conversations in Japanese about a wide range
    of subjects. Now I realize that their warmth and good humor were merely performances (Oscar-worthy performances, at
    that!) and they were actually seething with xenophobic resentment.

    Indeed, before reading Debito’s article, I attributed the relatively
    rare occasions when I’ve encountered narrow-minded or condescending Japanese people to the fact that Japanese people are, after all, human beings and individuals. Now I know better: these and other negative traits are the exclusive province of, and intrinsic to all, Japanese people.

    Of course, it’s possible that Debito’s vision of Japanese people is distorted. Perhaps he just needs a new pair of eyeglasses. I don’t know what you call the opposite of rose-colored glasses, but that may be what he’s wearing.

  • vasu

    seen comments quite interesting some of them but almost from the westerners .They find natives reaction to their language capability abnormally absurd since usually in the other part of world people would appreciate with more enthusiasm to communicate through the foreigners have acquired but it’s the case with Japanese. Without going through thorough postmortem why its so ,the simple reason could be for others it’s only a language as any and learn for own benefit .Apart from it no more importance being stressed on it .But for them it’s not only language to communicate through ,instead it’s their all they have had been nurturing with utmost deference all these years. with it attached their love and
    prayer . whatsoever they have had once adopted even if how small or futile it’d look to us but for them it could have immense value .Take an example of tea ceremony .What’s so special about it for us but simply enjoying a cup of tea .
    For us if things are logical good and fine but for them illogical is more essential .we want all should do and behave as we presume them to.In short they treat all they possess as worshipful as any their deity no matter it’s their language. With this mindset how could they be comfortable anyone trespassing their holy shrine where their language being kept .

  • David E. Spence

    The writer over analyzes, methinks. I lived in Japan for fifteen years (ended up marrying a Japanese, as well) and speak, read and write decent Japanese (I used to think I was “fluent” when I was younger). Despite al of that, there were always some people who would speak only English to me. Then there were people who would only speak Japanese to me (and a whole bunch of “in betweens”). I made many friends (still in contact with them today, lo, these many years). One generally gets the treatment one “asks” for. How one presents oneself and how one feels about oneself shines through, whether one wants to admit it or not. I gave speeches in Japanese, I did business in Japanese and I chatted in the bars with friends in Japanese, but at different levels. One does not sit in a bar sharing jokes sounding like a professor. Neither does one use casual Japanese in a business relationship (except, maybe, if you’re enjoying a relaxing evening in a bar with business associates). Ha, Ha. I was the “Sumo expert” in the company. Anybody wanted to know anything about Sumo, they came to me. Like the old saying, “clothes make the man,” how one comes across makes a bigger difference than whether one’s Japanese is absolutely “correct” all the time. Just don’t talk like a bar girl in business (one of my American employees did and the president of the company suggested I may have made mistake hiring the kid and I had to let him go). Just relax, be human, and go with the flow. I would suggest that people read some of Jack Seward’s experiences. You’ll get a laugh AND an “education.”

  • Ebisu man

    “communicating in
    Japanese is not all that difficult. What’s difficult is communicating with
    Japanese people.”

    truer words have never been
    said when it comes to Japan and its surprisingly simple to learn language. The
    most obvious way to notice this is when you talk to people whose native
    language is Japanese, but who look foreign. I have many half Japanese and
    foreign friends who speak Japanese at native level, and communicating to them
    in Japanese only is very simple and easy, just because most of them do not have
    this immense complex of having to stand your ground and having to elevate
    yourself the way so many Japanese people do.

    Noone in Japan likes to
    admit it, but the reason for this is something that is attributed to western
    mentality: narcisicm. Claiming that your mother tounge is difficult to learn
    for foreigners is a subtile way of proclaiming your own intelligence. And
    meeting foreigners who pick up the language so easily after just one year (yes,
    there are many who actually commit to study Japanese and naturally become very good at it) then deals a blow to many Japanese people’s self esteem: Japanese is a simple language, and accespting it seems to be very hard to many natives of the Japanese islands.

  • Sam Gilman

    I really do try to find something good in these Just Be Cause columns. This one, however, is so downright strange that it defeats me.

    Here’s what happened. A foreign-born resident speaks such good Japanese that someone Japanese asks if he is half Japanese – meaning, as everyone should be able to guess, that he was brought up by a Japanese speaker in a home where Japanese was spoken. To anyone who’s tried to learn a foreign language, this is a really nice compliment. Passing as “native” is a nice thing.

    However, in Debito’s hands, this exchange is represented as a nasty skirmish in an unspoken race war against non-Japanese. As I said, downright strange.

    Other people have written about the strange claims he makes that Japanese are offended by westerners trying to speak Japanese, and like others, I am rather surprised by his claim that Japanese is very easy to learn for English speakers. I have also never met a Japanese who has never tried to learn a foreign language, nor one that thinks learning Japanese is a walk in the park. Also, Debito overlooks that learning a language to a high level is more than learning vocabulary and grammar, but also the pragmatics. For example, reacting with modesty to a compliment in Japanese is not the same as reacting with modesty to a compliment in English. (One fears that Debito is using US conventions of social interaction as a universal and correct human standard. Again.)

    I’d like to focus on a central fallacy in Debito’s argument, which involves his misuse of the word “power”. To begin with, it’s not just him, but sociology in general that recognises that all relationships can be viewed from the perspective of “power”, meaning that any two interacting individuals are of unequal status, authority, influence etc., and attempts to understand the meaning and impact of what each person says and does need to acknowledge this. This is not simply in obvious situations, such as a boss and an employee, a teacher and a student, a parent and a child. It also applies to situations such as between men and women, people of different ethnic groups, different sexualities, etc. depending on the context. Underlying a lot of it is the way that access to political/economic power varies between these different categories. Power in this sense is important to look at because imbalances in power in a relationship can lead to abuse.

    The false and – as one or two others have pointed out here – disturbing move he makes is to say that because social interactions are power relationships, therefore social interactions are in essence direct attempts to assert power. They are attempts by one person to dominate, humiliate, and/or assert authority over, the other. He takes “power” to means “desire for power”. In this view, all interactions between Japanese and foreigners (which seems to be his constant fundamental binary category of human being) must be viewed as hostile.

    That’s quite a scary idea for someone to express who has made it his business to tell foreigners how to live in Japan. With that in mind, I’d like to comment on this:

    Critics of this column essentially believe that Japanese society can
    never be satirized, i.e., using humor, irony, exaggeration or ridicule
    to criticize social stupidity and folly. That’s what this column has
    done for years, raising howls of “cultural insensitivity” and so on.

    I suppose I qualify as a critic of this column – but my problem is not that Japanese society should not be satirised. It’s just that the satire needs to be good before I’ll like it. It needs to hit the target, which is what this column frequently fails to do (instead it misidentifies, invents, or contorts abuses of power) Satire needs, obviously, to be funny. Most of all, and this is what I suspect provokes the critics, it should also be used to attack prejudice, not spread and reaffirm it.

  • zer0_0zor0

    The presumption that “henna gaijin” is necessarily derogatory is incorrect.

    In fact, the opposite is generally the case, at least in my experience.

    Foucault is obviously your mentor as far as your adherence to power relations as an organizing principle for your interpretations of social relations.

  • Kailene Falls

    Silliest story ever, but when I was in Japan, sometimes I would walk around faking a Japanese language phone call… I’d get “done” before checking out or interacting with a stranger, and I usually had no problems with people being afraid to communicate in Japanese to me without prompting. That was the only way (aside from wearing a 「日本語ができます」sign around my neck) that I could strike up easy conversation at times… or if I just didn’t want to deal with the really awkward attempts at English.

  • tangxin

    Someone said I spoke good Japanese – WHY AM I SO OPPRESSED? GOD, WHY?

    This is your mind on western ethics.

  • Seamus

    I lived in Japan for nearly 20 years and I sometimes encountered hostility if I spoke Japanese. Some people actually ordered me to speak in English. It wasn’t a daily occurrence but it did happen. Although some J people are trying to be helpful by speaking in English, I think others want to use foreign-looking people or do not like it if they speak their language.

  • OlympicsNay

    The other day, a store clerk looked at my stepson and asked, without really acknowledging me, if he was my translator. It was…really weird. I can’t help but agree with the general message of this article.