Life as a foreigner in Japan can be quite annoying sometimes.
Everybody who has lived in Japan for a certain time knows that and will probably agree!
While everybody has their very unique experiences, if you comb through them you’ll see a certain pattern. Everybody is going through the same things here, maybe slightly different, but over all still the same.
Today I want to talk about another annoying “phenomenon” that will hit you sooner or later:
“Wow! Your Japanese is so good!!!”
Be honest! Who of you hasn’t heard this sentence at least once yet?
Funny enough you get to hear it after only a few words of speaking Japanese like “arigato” (ありがとう, thank you) or “konichiwa” (こんにちは, hello).
When you’re a tourist and you find a Japanese tutor, you might probably be happy about such compliments on your progress.
You might think it’s strange that they throw it at you after just a few seconds, but maybe you’re just that awesome?
However, after living in Japan for a while and after getting the very same reaction after just a few words of Japanese – it gets annoying. VERY ANNOYING!
Imagine your Japanese is advanced.
Would you feel good about a “Wow, your Japanese is awesome!” after only a few words?
Japanese people don’t mean any harm!
They just don’t expect foreigners, especially non-Asian foreigners, to be able to speak the language (well).
Furthermore, they expect you to just be a short-term visitor / tourist.
Tourists usually don’t study the language of the country they visit. It’s normal to expect that they don’t know more than a few phrases.
A lot of Japanese people also have the “weird” idea that Japanese is the most difficult language in the world and that others will never be able to learn it (properly).
Some might also react that way because of their previous experience with foreigners.
I hate to say this, but unfortunately there are SO MANY long-term residents in the foreign community who can’t speak more than basic Japanese – if at all.
Many of them are married to a Japanese citizen, might even have kids with whom they can’t communicate properly.
It’s sad. They make me angry, but that’s another story.
Maybe now you can understand the reaction of Japanese people to your “oh, so awesome Japanese“?
It doesn’t change the fact that it’s annoying.
Japanese need to realize that their language is not THAT difficult and that some foreigners are very well able to speak the language fluently.
My personal experience:
When I visited Japan as a tourist and also during my first few months in Japan, I also was complimented a lot after just a few words.
However, as time passed and my Japanese skills improved, I didn’t give them a chance to do so anymore.
Especially when traveling I tend to just approach people to ask for the way or ask a lot of questions at once in a tourist information center, for example. I can see the surprise in their faces.
After talking with me for quite a while they usually compliment me on my Japanese, my pronunciation and then ALWAYS ask the following:
- if I’m an exchange student
- for how long I’ve been in Japan
When they hear that I’ve been here for “only” a few years, they continue complimenting me:
“Wow, you managed to get that good in just a few years?! Unbelievable!”
That displays very well their mindset and how they see foreigners.
I often read in Japanese learning forums that the compliments will get less the more advanced your Japanese becomes.
Honestly, from my personal experience I don’t think this is true!
It doesn’t depend on your Japanese skills, but on your Japanese counterpart.
But, you know, it also has its good points that Japanese don’t expect you to be able to understand / speak Japanese!!
1.) NHK and other annoying people randomly ring your doorbell:
NHK (Nippon Housou Kyoukai, 日本放送協会) is Japan’s public broadcasting organization. You’re supposed to pay a fee to them if you have a TV (no matter if you actually watch TV or not).
For my German readers: It’s like the GEZ!
Legally they can’t do more than just asking, but they can be VERY annoying!
However, as a foreigner it’s really easy! Just stare at them and pretend you don’t understand a thing!
Some will give up at that point.
Others will try to use very bad English: “You, TV?”
At that point, I just tell them in German(!) that I don’t have a TV (which is true anyway).
Usually that scares them away – and I never see them again!
2.) Other people are talking about you:
As a foreigner you’ll be stared at. Anywhere, anytime!
However, some people don’t just stare, they also talk about you! Even if you don’t understand Japanese you might get that they’re talking about you from their gestures.
If you understand what they’re saying, it can be amusing, but also get quite annoying. It doesn’t have to be anything bad, just the fact that they’re right next to you and dare to talk about you!
It’s up to you how you react in that situation.
I had a few times when I snapped and said something. It was only in situations when I thought that it was getting ridiculous.
You can always just turn to them and say: “Ano, kikoemasu ga.” (Uhm, I can hear you, you know?! あの、聞こえますが。)
3.) Pretend to be the “baka gaijin”:
There are many situations when you can play the “gaijin card”. People will forgive you because you are a foreigner and don’t know any better.
They don’t expect you to understand the culture and the language. In some situations it can help you (see #1 above), in others it’s annoying!
While I don’t think it’s a good thing to always play the “gaijin card”, there might be situations when it actually helps you – for once. But don’t exaggerate it!
What’s your experience with this?
Have you been told that your Japanese is great? How did you react?