You Can’t Speak Japanese
Before we get started today, watch this video. You don’t have to watch the whole thing, just enough to “get the point.”
For those who can’t watch Youtube at the moment, here’s a quick synopsis:
A group of foreigners sit down at a Japanese restaurant. Rather than greet the customers normally, the waitress walks up and speaks only to the person who appears to be Asian; however, that person actually speaks no Japanese. The waitress is persistent, even though the other foreigners (who don’t have Asian physical features) are speaking fluent Japanese to her. The undaunted waitress continues to speak exclusively with the person who appears to be Asian, despite her repeated attempts to tell her she has no idea what waitress is saying.
It’s silly and over-the-top, and I would probably have a few things to add in there if I was the director, but the video is based very much on events that really do happen if you live in Japan as a foreigner. This exact situation has happened to me, and will happen to you countless times, whatever your Japanese-speaking level.
Whether it’s a server at a restaurant ignoring you, a gas station attendant just assuming you want a full tank since they not dare ask you, or a person handing out flyers at a intersection skipping right past you (lucky!), it’s going to happen.
While you can’t control whether or not it happens, you can control how you deal with it and how you let it affect you, which is what we are going to get into today. And on a more theoretical level, we’ll talk a little about why it happens in the first place.
Let’s start with the “Why.”
I’m not going to pretend to know enough about Japan to give you a single definitive answer here. Plenty of other websites can help you out with speculation as to the cultural reasons behind it. What I think for the most part, though, is that some Japanese people just work very hard to avoid uncomfortable situations where neither party can understand the other. Interacting with people who can’t understand you is completely un-fun, and it usually creates an uneasy feeling for both sides.
Put yourself in the shoes of a Japanese person for a second. If you decide to simply never believe that any foreigner can speak Japanese, you’ll never put yourself into an uncomfortable or embarrassing situation where you’re trying to communicate with someone who can’t speak the language. Remember, only about 1.5% of all people in Japan aren’t Japanese, so most people will only run across a couple foreigners on any given day, and they’ll actually have an interaction with a foreigner even less frequently. So if you were a Japanese person making a guess at whether any foreigner you interact with can speak Japanese or not, “nope” would be a smart bet.
Note: I realize there are probably many other reasons that some Japanese people just don’t want to deal with even those foreigners who are fluent in Japanese, and those reasons aren’t all as kind-hearted as mine. But this is what I choose to believe. Call me an optimist. They’re not talking to me anyways, so no harm either way.
With the “why” out of the way, here’s how it should affect you when it happens:
Look, I know it’s annoying. Counting up all my thousands of weeks in Japan, I have probably spent a good full week of that time fired up because some stupid waitress asked my wife what I wanted for dinner rather than asking me, after I told her in Japanese that we wanted to sit in the non-smoking section!!!!!
Ahem. So anyways, it’s still a soft spot for me, but I’ve learned (or at least am learning) to just let it go.
I’ve found that thinking of it from a different angle helps me to appreciate what’s going on. Any person who doesn’t think I can speak Japanese yet, or seems to avoid trying to talk to me in Japanese, is just a person to whom I haven’t proven that I can speak Japanese. I haven’t showcased my skills enough for them to see me as a linguistic equal yet.
Look at it like a challenge; not a serious challenge that’ll get you punching a wall if you fail, but a fun challenge. For example, let’s look at the example above with a waitress who refuses to ask me my order. My goal would be to get her to speak to me in Japanese before the dinner was over. I would do that by asking her a question or two in Japanese, maybe even talking to my wife in Japanese a little extra loudly. Whatever it takes to eliminate that unease that the waitress might have about speaking to me in the language of the land.
No matter how you approach it, do whatever it takes for it not to get you down. Whether you’re shaking it off, or making it a mini-challenge like I did, find a way to process it without getting worked up, because it’s definitely not worth the aggravation.
How can you reduce the frequency with which it happens?
1. Become better at Japanese.
If you want to convince people that they made a mistake in thinking you can’t speak Japanese, you’d better make sure you actually can speak Japanese. Luckily, this part is easy, and probably not as time-consuming as you think. The farther along in your journey you are, the more successful you’ll be.
2. Talk to people in Japanese before they have a chance to avoid you.
Show people that you can, before they have a chance to think you can’t. Some people will take longer than others to actually acknowledge your speaking skills, but if you beat them down with enough fluent Japanese, they’ll get it. This is especially true if people try to speak English with you. Forget English. You’re already fluent in that. Speaking more English isn’t going to help you get where you want to be, and it’s also a waste of all the time and effort you’ve spend learning and practicing Japanese. It’s a war, and you need to use your heavy Japanese speaking artillery until they have no choice but to give up the fight.
- Going to a restaurant with a Japanese person? Walk in front, create a physical wall, and force the server to talk to you, or create an awkward moment when you say “konnichiwa” to them.
- Going to a party with mostly Japanese people who aren’t sure of your Japanese level? Put everyone at ease by striking up a conversation in the middle of a crowded room. (This is also just a good way to start socializing.)
- First day at a new school? Greet every coworker in as much Japanese as you can.
This isn’t about putting people in the exact same bad situations I believe they’re trying to avoid by assuming we can’t speak Japanese; it’s actually the opposite. Showing a Japanese person that you actually can speak Japanese will usually help put that person at ease, making everyone more comfortable. There are a small number of other cases in which your speaking Japanese will make them freak out, but those people were probably going to freak out anyways, so who cares, right?
The bottom line here is, don’t let it get you down. It doesn’t matter why some Japanese people will avoid speaking to you in Japanese. What’s important is how you react to it, and how you deal with it. Worrying about the “why” and getting angry is just a waste of your time, and lessens the amount of fun you are having in Japan. In other words, it’s stupid.
Get better at Japanese, show off your skills before people get a chance to assume you don’t have them, and get to doing one of the million awesome things you can do in Japan and no where else.