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.






6 responses to “A Mystery”

  1. rabuho avatar

    I think it’s a bit of #3 and #6. I’ve had similar experiences as you have regarding being spoken to in Japanese. At first I figured it was because my Japanese was more-or-less the same in intonation and word-choice to a native of Tokyo, so Japanese people naturally responded as such. However, even if I am not the first to speak, I’m still overwhelmingly likely to be spoken to in Japanese. I don’t *think* I have any kind of special aura (though the fact that I dress like a boring, not very fashionable Japanese 20-something might have something to do with it), so I’m led to believe that I’m treated normally. I do still get praised for my Japanese ability, but usually only once upon first meeting someone, and then never again.

    Now, I’m sure there’s also a bit of regional bias, but I can’t say I’ve been treated all that differently when I travel elsewhere in Japan. I think this is an occasion where the adage “the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’” comes in handy.

  2. David Chart avatar
    David Chart

    Oh, I get praised on first meeting from time to time, too. I tend to see that as just “something sensible to say”; it’s like “where are you from?” which I remember asking everyone in my first week at university. I can’t see that ever going away. After all, I compliment Japanese people on their English, when it’s appropriate.

    And, yes, the “special aura” hypothesis does seem a bit unlikely, doesn’t it.

  3. Joe Jones avatar

    If it’s anything it’s 4 and 6. It isn’t 5 and it isn’t 3. In many cases, foreigners get English thrown at them before even opening their mouths.

    I would also cite personal appearance as a possibility. Based on the banner photo, you look like you could be part-Japanese given your general body color scheme. I (and many other foreigners) don’t really have that luxury of camouflage…

  4. David Chart avatar
    David Chart


    Thanks for the comment. I think it must be something; as I say, it never happens to me.

    The banner photo was taken at night, incidentally. I’m quite pale, with fairly light brown hair, and I’m 187cm tall; I really don’t look part-Japanese. I’m afraid “camouflage” isn’t a viable hypothesis either.

  5. Roy Berman avatar

    It has certainly happened to me, but not very often. The last time it happened was the other day when a dour policewoman told me in broken English that I wasn’t allowed to bike on a certain section of downtown street.

    On the other hand, last week I went to grab a quick bite in McDonald’s and the counter girl put the English menu in front of me, but as soon as I said something in Japanese she grabbed it back and hastily swapped it for the Japanese one, looking somewhat embarrassed. I should mention that this was the branch directly next to the Imperial Palace, so they probably get about 90% non-Japanese speaking white guys.

  6. David Chart avatar
    David Chart


    Thanks for the comment. That’s an interesting story about the McDonalds. I wonder whether they also get a fair number of non-English speaking white guys there?

    Your comment that it hasn’t happened to you very often raises a possibility I forgot: It’s not common, and so far I’ve been lucky.

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