If you live in Japan but don’t speak Japanese, then you’re the one who’s been causing me all these problems. Let me explain: every time I go into a McDonalds, they flip the menu over to the English side before I reach the counter, and the staffer prepares to try to take my order through sign language. This isn’t for me: I speak Japanese. No, they’re doing this because of you, and it annoys the hell out of me! That’s just the start of it. Public employees don’t accept that I can speak Japanese, and insist on trying to communicate in English, despite it obviously being their first time since junior high school. Almost every time I meet someone new, one of the first questions they ask is, “So you’re an English teacher, right?” I’m not, and I resent this assumption of my job based on my skin color.
The reason for all of these assumptions is the same: the large number of foreigners in Japan who don’t learn the language of the country they live in. Stereotyping all of us based on this is a natural result. That’s why I think that all foreigners living or intending to live in Japan for more than a year have a responsibility to learn Japanese. Of course, many people every year come to Japan because of a love of the country and culture, and make every effort to master the language as quickly as possible. If you’re one of those people, good for you. But this article isn’t about you. This is about the rest of you, the ones who haven’t learned Japanese yet.
So why is it that some people can survive without being able to communicate with the vast majority of people in this country? Well, Japan is pretty easy to live in, with convenience stores galore. Also, people often fall into the pattern of spending most of their spare time with other foreigners, rather than Japanese friends. But in large part, Japanese people themselves are to blame, for their damningly low expectations. It’s almost comical how quick people are to praise: a one-word reply in Japanese will often have people telling you “Ojouzu desune!” Japanese people generally don’t expect that foreigners (at least, non-Asian foreigners) living in Japan will speak any Japanese at all. Consider how different this is to most English-speaking countries: immigrants are expected to learn English as quickly as they can. In Japan, lack of external pressure from society to improve makes it easy to be lazy. So why should you put in the effort? Well, it’s always nice to exceed people’s expectations of you, for one thing. But more importantly, not speaking Japanese means you greatly reduce your opportunities, both professionally and personally. If you met a Japanese person in your home country, chances are you wouldn’t think to ask, “So you’re a Japanese teacher then, right?” But enough foreigners in Japan are English teachers that it becomes the obvious stereotype. And the reason is obvious – if you can’t speak Japanese fluently, the only jobs possible use English. If you have aspirations to a career in anything that doesn’t involve the words “repeat after me”, you’d better start studying. And in your personal life, not speaking Japanese vastly reduces the number of people you can ever call your friends. More than that, it reduces your ability to participate in society. While few people claim total immersion as the ultimate goal of their stay in Japan, you miss out on too much by not speaking the language, whether it’s the best place to eat bee larvae (!) or which onsen really keep the water clean.
So what are your options? First of all, giving up is not an option: no-one is incapable of learning Japanese. If you can speak English, you’ve already proven your ability to learn a language. (And for the teachers amongst us, there are few things more ironic than explaining the importance of learning English without bothering to learn Japanese yourself!) If you’re one of the people who “tried it, couldn’t do it”, then you used the wrong method. Try taking classes, and put yourself into situations where inability to speak Japanese will cause problems for you. Comfort breeds laziness; necessity (and embarrassment!) can be great motivators. Be the only foreigner at a local club – your local community center should have a long list of available ones, including sporting groups. Take an interest in local news. Make friends who don’t speak English, and work hard to keep them. Set goals for yourself. The much-maligned Proficiency Test, held in December every year, can focus your studies clearly. Attending weekly Japanese language classes structures your learning and focuses your skills.
Of course, learning Japanese isn’t going to fix all of your problems, or eliminate the ingrained attitudes of Japanese people toward foreigners. But it certainly can’t hurt, except when you’re trying to avoid the NHK guy. The most important thing is to not give up. Your enjoyment of your time here depends on it, of course. But, more importantly to me, so does mine!
By Evan Kirby, British, Japanese School Owner / Technical Writer
Illustrations copyright Shirley Waisman 2006