A Mystery

If you read blogs and websites by foreigners (or former foreigners) living in Japan, there is one experience that you come across repeatedly. People who do not look Asian find that Japanese people will not speak Japanese to them, and insist on speaking English, even when the foreigner has displayed Japanese ability. If the foreigner does speak some Japanese, this is met with amazement and disbelief — “It speaks!” — but followed by a relapse into speaking English. You can see examples here and here.

OK, so what’s the mystery? Here it is:

This has never happened to me. Not once.

Well, I suppose it might have happened once, but if so I’ve forgotten it. It’s true that Japanese people occasionally address me in English to start with, but they always shift to Japanese quickly, and most shop assistants start off in Japanese. There was one occasion when the young man serving me wanted to practise his English, so he tried doing the order and such in English, but broke it up by asking me in Japanese how to study a foreign language. (Get lots of practice.)

How to explain this difference in experience? Here are some hypotheses.

1. I was Japanese in my former lives, so I have a Japanese aura. When I suggested this to my wife, she said she thought it was a possibility, but I’m  a bit more sceptical.

2. There are two different Japans. I live in the nice, welcoming Japan, and they live in the nasty, racist Japan. While it sometimes feels like this while reading debito.org, I think there’s actually only one Japan.

However, regional differences are a possibility. I live in Kawasaki, which has a pretty high foreign population (about 3%), so maybe people around here are more used to people who don’t look Japanese, but can speak it. However, I’ve not had the experience anywhere in Japan, even up in Akita, where most non-Japanese are almost certainly tourists. Still, that could just be luck; my experience is rather limited.

Another real possibility is changes over time. The number of people of apparent (or obvious) foreign origin who speak Japanese has been increasing recently, so the average Japanese person might be getting used to the idea. It’s also possible that the idea that this annoys foreigners has seeped into customer service training, but that seems rather unlikely; most places wouldn’t have enough foreign customers to make covering this topic a priority.

3. My Japanese is much, much better than theirs. Not in all cases, certainly. And, in any event, this fails to explain the fact that people almost always start out by addressing me in Japanese. I can’t see any way I could conceivably look fluent in Japanese. (Well, apart from in a bookshop, where the fact that I have chosen a Japanese book all by myself might be a hint.)

Again, though, a variant on this may be a partial explanation. Japanese is not an easy language for English-speakers to learn (and vice versa). Thus, a lot of foreigners in Japan may not be as good at Japanese as they think. Thus, when they speak Japanese, the Japanese person’s response is to think “this person cannot really speak Japanese; better to try English”. However, Japanese people are subject to the same illusion about the quality of their English (see “Funny Engrish” blogs, passim). And so, the foreigner is faced by a Japanese person addressing him in largely incomprehensible English, and can’t understand why the Japanese person doesn’t just try Japanese.

(I’ve recently passed an important milestone here: Japanese people have stopped praising my Japanese, and started correcting it. (At least, I assume he or she is Japanese.) The next milestone is when they stop. The one after that is the Akutagawa Prize.)

4. It’s a matter of attitude. I just don’t see things as a problem. This may well be part of it. For example, I don’t have a problem with people initially addressing me in English, or handing me the English leaflet. It is, statistically, the sensible assumption. Most white people in Japan do not speak Japanese, and can make a stab at English, at least. I don’t even have a problem with people who want to practise their English, as long as they don’t let it get in the way of whatever we’re supposed to be doing. Thus, I may have had experiences that other people count as the Japanese not accepting that they can speak Japanese, but I don’t classify them that way.

On the other hand, whether someone is insisting on speaking to you in English is not just a matter of perception. This can’t cover all the cases.

5. They’re all lying. When I initially thought of this hypothesis, my reaction was “why would they lie about this?”, but then I thought of some reasons. People do lie about trivial experiences in conversation, for various reasons such as to make themselves sound more interesting, or to assert membership of a particular group. So, actually, it seems likely that some of the reported experiences of this never happened. But all of them? That doesn’t seem plausible. If it wasn’t somewhat common, you’d get a lot more people popping up and saying “that never happens to me”.

6. “I was treated normally” is not an exciting story. This is a selection bias. People don’t normally post to the internet about being treated normally in Japan. (This article is obviously an exception, but it’s a reaction.) Only the unexpected, problematic, or particularly good is newsworthy. Japanese people refusing to accept your linguistic competence on the basis of your race is noteworthy; shop assistants casually speaking Japanese to you is, generally, not. I’m pretty sure that this is at least part of it.

While none of the hypotheses can convincingly solve the mystery alone, combining all of them (except, perhaps, number 1) might do it. Each, individually, can plausibly reduce the frequency a bit, so all of them together could make the difference between “The Japanese never accept that white people can speak their language” and “it never happens to me”.

Still, if anyone has other suggestions, I’m interested.