You can speak basic Japanese.
You know a few words.
Japanese people compliment you after a mere “arigatou”.
But what happens when you actually speak Japanese (pretty much) fluently?
Will the compliments stop?
Will people think you’re the most awesome person ever?
Will you finally be able to communicate with Japanese people properly?
Uh, maybe not!
This video is clearly an exaggeration, but I bet almost everyone who has been living in Japan for quite some time has had a similar experience at least ONCE. Possibly it happens on a regular basis. If so, it’s EXTREMELY annoying.
There are many different types of Japanese people when it comes to how they react to a “foreign” face.
I’ve had my share of them as well. The ones that are most annoying are those who just keep speaking English to you.
Why is this a bad thing?
Well, this is just my opinion, but here we go.
Imagine you’re in a hurry and you’re just asking a station employee for the right track number so that you can transfer trains.
But that person just wants to test their English on you and thus answers in – what he thinks is – English. In fact, it’s something incomprehensible.
You ask the station staff once again, implying that you’re in a hurry. But yet again, you just get some “Engrish“.
In the end you miss the train.
Well, let’s suppose you’re actually lucky and the Japanese person who is forcing their English on you is actually capable of producing something one could understand. But what if YOUR native language is not English? What if you’re fluent in Japanese and would understand a Japanese answer, but not an English answer? In that case, you’d also miss your train.
Sorry for the train example, but that’s just something that really happened to me once.
Last but not least, why would anyone speak English to you?
We’re in Japan. They’re fluent in Japanese, you’re (pretty much) fluent in Japanese.
Where’s the point?
If they want to speak English so badly, they just can travel somewhere else.
And again, I’m just thinking about all the foreign people in Japan whose native language isn’t English and who might be much more fluent in Japanese than in English.
Why would Japanese people use English then?
How the hell should I know?
No, I’m just kidding. I do understand it to some degree.
They grow up with the image that foreigners, especially Western foreigners, all speak English.
They learn some English in school, but rarely EVER get a chance to use it. When they see a foreigner, they just can’t help. It’s maybe a once-in-a-lifetime chance for some of them. It’s not like I don’t understand the urge to throw their English “skills” at a foreign face.
And how cool is bragging in front of your friends?
“I actually talked to a foreigner today!”
“Woah! Say what?”
“And in ENGLISH!!”
“Woah! You’re so awesome!”
Well, there you go.
But what about all those people who use English on you although they should have noticed that your Japanese is excellent?
It seems (though I don’t know) that some Japanese people just cannot comprehend what’s coming out of a foreigner’s mouth. It can’t be Japanese, because foreigners aren’t able to speak Japanese, right? So, in their mind, whatever comes out of a foreigner’s mouth is something a Japanese person cannot understand. But all foreigners speak English, right? Remembering the few words they once had learned in school, they just randomly throw that at you in panic.
Nah …. I really don’t know if that’s it nor not.
Isn’t it because most foreigners’ Japanese level is too low?
That’s something I get to hear very often. I don’t think that’s it.
And in my case I can even prove it. I’m sure it’s similar for most other foreigners as well.
Like I said, I’ve had my share of experiences with Japanese people who would just continue speaking English to me no matter what.
But I’ve only had that in face-to-face situations. NEVER on the phone.
Actually, I’ve been mistaken for a Japanese person on the phone more often than not (until they hear my name). I guess that proves that my Japanese can’t be THAT bad and it’s certainly understood by Japanese people.
I think it’s normal anywhere in the world that you would just switch to the language that both parties can somewhat communicate with. So, if one party cannot speak English at all, you wouldn’t use it. I’ve had that a few times in Europe. When I wanted to talk to Italian people who couldn’t speak English, but only French and Italian (which I couldn’t comprehend) – we somehow managed to communicate in Spanish instead.
So, I think it’s natural to switch to English if a foreigner’s Japanese level is just too low.
But what we’re talking about here (and what you saw in the video) is a different story. It happens even if a person is fluent in Japanese. And that’s what’s pissing people off.
Though to be fair, I rarely got into situations like that. There have been far more Japanese people who just spoke to me in Japanese like they would to a fellow Japanese person.
Speaking Japanese in Japan: What’s your personal experience?
Now, this video didn’t just appear yesterday. It’s been around for quite some time and it sparked some intense discussions back then.
After all, this is a topic that almost every foreigner living in Japan has to deal with. I’m really curious to hear your experience and – even more – your opinion!
Do you think foreigners who get annoyed by this are exaggerating?
Are you annoyed as well?
Would you even go as far as calling it racism?
Because I’m getting a lot of comments complaining, I want to clarify something:
I write about Japanese people not because I’m saying that these things only happen in Japan. My blog is about Japan and that’s why I focus on life in Japan and Japanese people.
Also, I hate generalizing people. When I say “Japanese people” although I usually put words like “a few” or “some” in front of it, I don’t mean that each and every single Japanese person is like that. It only means that there are people like that and that I’ve personally experienced people like that.