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


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.

  • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Toolonggone

    Nice illustration. It’s hilarious!

  • 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.

  • 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”.

  • 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.

  • 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…

  • 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?

  • 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.