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Some Japanese find frustration, others freedom in foreign tongues

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Special To The Japan Times

The Japanese are generally known for being paragons of politeness, but when it comes to dealing with 外国人 (gaikokujin, foreigners), some people tend to forget their manners. ヘイトスピーチ (heito supiichi, hate speech), 差別 (sabetsu, discrimination) and いじめ (ijime, bullying) — one or all these things is likely to have been experienced by many foreign residents, and 排他主義 (haitashugi, exclusionism) continues to be the massive elephant in the six-tatami room of this cramped island nation.

On a positive note, we could be experiencing the birth pains that come with becoming a full-fledged member of the global community. After all, we’re newbies to this game. Consider Japan’s history: We were out of the global loop for nearly three centuries, then Westernized/militarized ourselves at breakneck speed before screeching to a halt in a crushing defeat in World War II. For the past 70 years, we’ve been stuck in this rut of work, more work and trying not to die from overwork.

From time immemorial, the Japanese have never been adept at コミュ力 (komyuryoku, communication skills), but they have been able to fall back on the national myth of 以心伝心 (ishindenshin, tacit understanding) to sustain the belief that everyone understood each other without saying anything. Unfortunately, ishindenshin has never applied to non-Japanese, much to the nation’s chagrin.

The other day, I caught a taxi in Kyoto and the minute I spoke to the 運転手 (untenshu, driver), he let out an audible sigh of relief. やっと日本語で話せます。ほっとしました (Yatto Nihongo de hanasemasu. Hotto shimashita!, “Finally I can speak in Japanese. This is such a relief!”), he said. He went on to explain that these days, Japanese customers were few and far between, having been outnumbered by hordes of selfie stick-wielding foreign tourists thrusting phone screens in his face and pointing to their destinations. He often went for an entire day without hearing a Japanese sentence. 外国人の相手は疲れます (Gaikokujin no aite wa tsukaremasu, “Dealing with foreigners tires me out”), he said, smiling ruefully.

On the other hand, many Japanese would love to converse with gaikokujin — if only they had the skills. The No. 1 motive for people who enroll in English classes, for example, is 自己啓発 (jikokeihatsu, self-enlightenment), according to internet ranking site OCS. My friend Hidemi, who attends English conversation classes after work, says that she wants to find an アメリカ人の彼氏 (Amerika-jin no kareshi, an American boyfriend) and to converse and have arguments with him in English. もっと明るく、前向きで社交的になりたい (Motto akaruku, maemuki de shakōteki ni naritai, “I want to be more cheerful, positive and outgoing”), she says. To this end, Hidemi feels her native language just isn’t going to cut it.

And therein lies much of the problem. The Japanese language isn’t suited to individual expression or positive thinking — which is fine when we’re among our fellow countrymen. However, when facing a foreigner — particularly a Westerner — the average Japanese will suddenly feel the pressure to 自分の意見を言う (jibun no iken o iu, voice their own opinion), to understand and be understood and go that extra mile in self-expression. Most Japanese are well-aware this is their アキレス腱 (Akiresu ken, Achilles heel). And I suspect it’s also the reason why the typical Japanese 会議 (kaigi, conference) is so interminably long: It takes a while for people to warm up and start communicating, and even more time will pass before they start making decisions.

Secretly, many Japanese long to be more articulate and decisive, especially the men. もっと喋るのがうまくなりたい (Motto shaberu no ga umaku naritai, “I want to be able to talk better”) is a line I often hear from Japanese males, and many turn to 海外ドラマ (kaigai dorama, overseas TV drama series) on Netflix (“House of Cards” is a huge favorite) for ideas and inspiration. コミュ力がないと女性とも外国人とも仲良くなれない (Komyuryoku ga nai to josei to mo gaikokujin to mo nakayoku narenai, “Without communication skills, you can’t make friends with women or foreigners”), says my friend Takuma, who at 43 is attending both English conversation classes and signing up for 婚活パーティー (konkatsu pātii, match-making parties) to hone his personal charm and increase his marketability. Says Takuma: このままだとただの日本人の淋しいじいさんになっていくだけ。なんとかしなくちゃ (Kono mama dato tada no Nihon-jin no sabishii jii-san ni natte-iku dake. Nantoka shinakucha, “At this rate, I’ll just end up a lonely old Japanese guy. I’d better do something about it”). His goal is marriage by 45, with foreign friends coming over for dinner once a month.

ひとつ気になるのは (hitotsu ki ni naru no wa, one thing that bothers me) is that when the Japanese speak of gaikokujin in a positive or aspirational way, they’re almost always referring to Westerners, despite the huge increase in visitors from Asia, most notably China.

Five years ago Japanese companies were pushing their employees to prioritize learning Chinese over brushing up their English, according to business magazine President. The implication was that this was purely for business purposes and not enjoyment.

But the demand for Chinese has plummeted, and at a time when we need to study the language more than ever. Which just goes to show: Komyuryoku and a sense of fun are closely intertwined.