The Times They Are A Changin’

August 4th, 2007

Things are changing in Japan, vis foreigners. Two things in the last two days which brought this to mind:

This morning, on one of the TV talkshow/variety shows (think The Today Show or the like if you don’t know Japanese TV), they had a segment where they asked a bunch of foreigners what Japanese food they liked. Nothing particularly new there. And they were all surprised when the foreigners said things like “natto” or “katsuo tataki” or the like. Nothing new there. And they were all surprised if the foreigners spoke Japanese well. Again, nothing new there.

What was new is that they managed to find and interview something like 20 foreigners, ALL of whom spoke either decent or good Japanese. Not a stilting stuttering one in the bunch. Which meant that, unlike all the other segments I’ve seen based on Surprise That A Foreigner Speaks Japanese, this one didn’t have the feel of “look at this eccentric and unusual foreigner”, but “isn’t it surprising that there are so many foreigners who speak Japanese?” That is, sure, there was a lot of surprise being directed at their speaking levels, but it was all underlaid with a sense of “we’ve been offbase by assuming that they were so unusual”. Self-reflective surprise, like when you find out a word you’ve used for years means something different than you thought it did.

Which brings me back to something which happened yesterday: I was talking to my wife (in Japanese) near the station, and an elementary school girl came up and introduced herself and asked for my participation in a school project. The project was that she had to interview a foreigner. Now, she was in 6th grade, and while traditionally Japanese schools don’t start teaching English until junior high, lately they’ve been starting earlier. But “starting earlier” means that 6th graders might know the words for “teacher” and “pencil” and “school”. It doesn’t mean that they’re fluent enough to go ask someone questions like “how does Tokyo look different from your home town” in English, let alone understand their answers.

And, indeed, the entire thing was done in Japanese. And I saw the sheet she was reading the questions off of: she wasn’t cheating by asking me in Japanese stuff she was supposed to ask in English. No, all the questions on her page were in Japanese.

Which means somewhere, there’s a teacher who has assigned his/her students to go out and interview foreigners in Japanese, knowing that there are enough of us who speak Japanese that that wouldn’t be a problem. And these kids are going to grow up knowing that white skin or blue eyes doesn’t necessarily mean inability to speak Japanese.

Even 5 years ago, I have a really hard time imagining either of these as happening.

5 Responses to “The Times They Are A Changin’”

  1. peacay Says:

    I had to read that twice, trying to parse out whether the reactions of surprise were yours or the tv presenters. I conclude yours was more to do with their presentation than with the finding of a bunch of fluent foreigners. V. interesting and kind of ‘nice’ or ‘good’ in a general progress of the world/equality/prejudice breakdown sense.

    Did the tv presenters (and I guess I ask this in general about the regular population too) appear to be flattered by so many cultural/language converts? I’m curious because I learnt a little Vietnamese and it was like a passport to a smile and attentive interest (well, moreso) and it was obviously a big (national and cultural) pride swelling thing. Does this same reaction happen in a first world parallel place or..?

  2. bugbread Says:

    Your conclusion is right: they were surprised at the foreigners speaking fluency. That’s typical. What was atypical is that they weren’t surprised in the typical-for-Japanese-tv “This foreigner is a freak – he speaks fluent Japanese!” way, but the “I never knew there were so many fluent Japanese speaking foreigners!” way. So I was surprised at…well, the whole thing. I’m surprised they decided to interview all those Japanese speaking foreigners. I’m surprised they didn’t spin it in the “look at the freaks” way, but just presented it straight. I’m surprised the commentators upon seeing the clip didn’t go all “hey, freaky foreigners!”, but instead “huh, I never knew!”. So there was surprise all around.

    Regarding question two: yeah, people in Japan like it when foreigners try to learn Japanese, and are pretty effusive with compliments when you try to use it. There are two noteworthy quirks:

    1) Apparently, the effusive compliments are kind of a subconscious cheerleading on their part, so they stop telling you your Japanese is good when you actually get good at the language, because you no longer need encouragement. So I’ve heard countless foreigners learning Japanese say things like “I know I’m finally getting good at Japanese, because Japanese people never tell me my Japanese is good anymore!”. They don’t insult your Japanese or anything, they just don’t mention it. It’s a great feeling – like a graduation.

    2) Some Japanese have a mental block where they Will. Not. Understand. your Japanese if you’re a non-Asian. They’ll either speak to you in halting English (which, who knows, might just be them practicing English), or will tell you “I don’t speak English” (in Japanese). I, and every foreigner I know, have actually had to say at some point to someone (in Japanese) “Listen to me. The words I’m speaking to you right now are Japanese.”. This doesn’t happen because of bad pronunciation or enunciation or anything, there are just some people out there who have a mental block which refuses to accept the fact that the words they’re hearing out of some white guys’ mouth are Japanese.

  3. peacay Says:

    Oh I’ve seen that mental block too. Although I was definitely a beginner with Vietnamese, I did actually get taught at the University in Hanoi and with a handful and a half of expressions I am very very confident my pronunciation/diction/tones were 100% correct. There were a few occasions where the phrase was repeated by a nearby local person verbatim so that the person to whom I was speaking could understand. The repeaters also found the seeming non-comprehension quizzically amusing. It must be a certain % of the pop’n have an inbuilt pigeonhole for foreigners which won’t change, even in the face of facts to the contrary.

  4. bugbread Says:

    Have you ever seen the movie “Bananas”? Woody Allen (back when he was young and funny) becomes the leader of some banana republic, basically a mini-Castro, and when he flies up to meet the President of the US, he has an English-English interpreter who just repeats what each person says verbatim.

  5. peacay Says:

    Oh goD that looks like an awfully aged film (but I daresay it was adolescent from the beginning) – there’s a tiny snip of what you speak of in this.

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