To be “fluent” in Japanese means different things to different people. That said, one such criterion would certainly be the ability to function competently in the spoken and written language in the course of day-to-day life.
Take, for example, being able to negotiate the maze of 申込書 (mōshikomi-sho, application forms) and 質問書 (shitsumon-sho, questionnaires) with which we are regularly confronted. In my personal view, this delineates from being conversational or reasonably functional in the Japanese language to being truly proficient.
I think back to several decades ago, when local hospitals didn’t even attempt to screen new non-Japanese patients in writing but used staff members to interview them verbally. On one memorable occasion when I went for an MRI scan, a Catholic nun clad in a habit actually asked me, 現在、妊娠されていますか？ (Genzai, ninshin sareteimasu ka?, Are you pregnant?) これは作り話じゃない (Kore wa tsukuribanashi ja nai, This isn’t something I made up). The answer, obviously, was no, but 僕は赤面した (Boku wa sekimen shita, I blushed).
A few months ago, I visited a 専門家 (senmonka, specialist) and after presenting my 健康保険証 (kenkōhokenshō, health insurance card), I was handed a clipboard with a 問診票 (monshin-hyō, medical screening sheet) to be filled out by new patients before seeing the physician. It was politely addressed to 初めて診療を受けられる方 (Hajimete shinryō o ukerareru kata, For the person receiving treatment for the first time).
After first filling in the blanks for お名前 (o-namae, name) and 年齢 __歳 (nenrei __sai, age __ years), I was asked questions such as: 当院をどのようにしてお知りになりましたか？ (Tōin o dono yō ni shite o-shiri ni narimashita ka?, How did you find out about this clinic?); 受診の理由は何ですか？ (Jushin no riyū wa nan desu ka?, What is your reason for receiving treatment at this clinic?); and お困りの症状は何ですか？ (O-komari no shojō wa nan desu ka?, What troubling symptoms do you have?) What followed that last question was a list of about 20 items — with 複数可 (fukusū ka, multiple responses) permitted — including 疲れやすい (tsukare-yasui, get tired easily), 食欲不振 (shokuyoku fushin, lack of appetite) and イライラする (ira-ira suru, feeling irritable).
After leaving the clinic, I remembered I’d promised to transfer money to a friend’s account. Now, in recent years the impetus has been placed on financial institutions to cooperate in prevention of 振り込め詐欺 (furikome sagi, bank transfer fraud).
While the number of such crimes has been increasing, non-Japanese, I am happy to say, appear to be largely immune. This is one case where 言葉の壁 (kotoba no kabe, the language barrier) usually seems to work in our favor. Nevertheless, the bank was apparently determined to exercise 相当な注意 (sōtō na chūi, due diligence) to make sure I was not falling victim to a criminal scam, and after being obliged to complete a battery of forms and show my 顔写真つきの身分証 (kaojashin tsuki no mibunshō, photo ID), I was finally able to transfer the money.
But that wasn’t the end of it. After I walked out of the bank, the 係員 (kakariin, attendant) actually chased me down the street. Apologizing, she said, “すみません、送金の目的はやはり「その他」ではなく、もっと具体的にできないでしょうか？” (“Sumimasen, sōkin no mokuteki wa yahari ‘sono ta’ de wa naku, motto gutaiteki ni dekinai deshō ka?,” “I’m sorry, but for the purpose you gave for the transfer, rather than ‘other,’ can’t you be more specific?”)
I found a flat surface on which to write and wrote on the form, 航空券の購入 (kōkuken no kōnyū, purchase of an airplane ticket). That, apparently, let the bank off the hook.
Considering the sheer amount of お役所仕事 (o-yakusho shigoto, bureaucratic paperwork) the bank staff was obliged to process, their service charge of ¥540 seemed like a bargain indeed.
Then the other day I went to a post office to mail a parcel overseas. From not long ago, Japan Post began requiring senders of packages to foreign addresses to fill out a 国際郵便の危険物申告書 (kokusai yūbin no kikenbutsu shinkokusho, international mail dangerous goods declaration form). The form, which is bilingual (and in reasonably correct English — as seen below) and needs the sender’s 署名 (shomei, signature), contains a colored, illustrated checklist by which the sender is requested to confirm the package does not contain various dangerous items ranging from 可燃性物質類 (kanensei busshitsu-rui, flammable substances) to 電子タバコ (denshi tabako, electronic cigarettes).
The key point, I suppose, is that the form carries the weight of the law, as explained in the box you check that confirms 郵便禁制品を差し出した場合、刑事罰の対象となることを承知している (Yūbin kinseihin o sashidashita baai, keiji-batsu no taishō to naru koto o shōchi shite iru, I am aware that it will be subject to criminal penalty if I give out a postal prohibited item [sic].)