Tuesday, February 14, 2012

"Here We Go Again...?"

Mental forecasts regarding what you expect someone to say have a lot to do with being able to comprehend what people are trying to communicate, and so, when expectations of the listener are different from what the speaker is saying, typically the listener will either hear something the speaker didn't say, or just not understand them. When you cross international borders and look different from the locals in the new area you visit (or live in), this sort of problem intensifies.

In the early 1980's in Japan, most foreigners who visited the country were tourists, and so most foreigners, almost by definition, didn't speak the local language (this was before manga and anime caught on overseas, incidentally), and so there were many times when someone would see a foreigner and *expect* them not to speak Japanese, and so wouldn't hear Japanese even when the person was speaking it properly. (Amusingly, you could call someone on the phone; begin a normal conversation in Japanese, and when you identified yourself as a foreigner, sometimes they were extremely reluctant to believe it, as they basically believed that no foreigner spoke the language well enough to sound like a local.)

In this era, when a large part of tourism to Japan was from North America (north of Mexico) and Europe, there was a fairly reasonable expectation by locals that foreigners spoke English, so there were some (many, actually) strange verbal exchanges (in public, on trains for example) like this (F=Foreigner / LR=Local Resident):

LR: Where are you from?

F: Watashi desu ka? Igirisu kara kimashita. (Me? I'm from England.)

LR: Oh. I've been there before.

F: So desu ka. Sochira-wa, doko kara kimashita ka? (Is that right? Where are you from?)

LR: I'm from Japan!

F: Sore wa wakarimasu ga, Nihon no doko desu ka? (Yes, I know, but what part of Japan are you from?)

LR: I'm from Osaka. Do you know Osaka?

F: Mochiron! (Of course.)

Etc. etc. And it was a sort of contest in a way, with each side determined to use the other's language. I had one 25-minute exchange with a businessman on a train, and throughout the entire 25 minutes, I refused to use any English and he refused to use any Japanese, but we were able to communicate that way. (Come to think of it, that must have been amusing to witness from the sidelines. I can imagine someone going home and saying "I saw the weirdest thing on the subway today...")

At stores, you could ask for something in Japanese and the clerk would say with some urgency while waving a hand back and forth: "No English!! No English!!" (As in "I don't speak English!"), but if you said something in English, then they would answer in Japanese saying they didn't understand English(!). And at restaurants (I had several bad experiences at McDonald's, of all places) you would order one thing (in Japanese) and they would give you something else.

Why? Your guess might be as good as mine, but what it *felt* like at the time is that some people were fiercely determined to believe that foreigners could *not* speak Japanese, even when they could, and they would kindly *remind* you of this. Maybe not, or even probably not, but that's certainly how it felt at the time (genba 現場 and ginji 現時 folks! - hop in a time machine if you can and go have a look for yourselves!) In short, it was often a rather difficult time to try to be a normal part of local society.

And then the value of the yen shot up (more than doubling in a very short time) and suddenly Japan was a much more profitable (in overseas currency terms) place to work. In came foreigners from far and wide, and many of them didn't speak English, so the only possible way they had of communicating was to learn Japanese - quickly! So with that group of people, speaking English at them had no effect and locals began to view Japanese as a possible tool for international communication. I still remember the first time I went to a shop in a train station and asked for something, and the shopkeeper just responded as though I were a regular-issue biped. ("Far out! Very cool!" thought I.) And from that point forward, it began to feel more normal going about the city speaking Japanese... until recently that is.

Maybe the stories of mass numbers of foreigners fleeing the country (to escape Fukushima emissions) are true, because suddenly I've begun having some experiences like those I used to have in the early eighties - a full quarter century ago. When I say something in Japanese, I'm increasingly getting "Oh, you speak Japanese!" comments, which I was blissfully free of receiving for more than two decades. I've also begun re-experiencing people in food selling places giving me something radically different from what I asked for. Just this evening I asked for one thing at a counter (and pointed very clearly at it), and the woman inside the shop very steadfastly refused to understand me. The high school students standing next to me understood what I was saying with no difficulty, but not the clerk. Finally, the combination of the high school students telling her she was putting the wrong thing into a bag and the shop owner coming over and telling her what I wanted got me my order. It was freaky. It took a team of four people (all speaking Japanese) - myself, two local high school students, and the store owner to force the woman to give me what I ordered. Weird. Very weird. And a similar thing happened last week at a different shop in a different area of town. Back to the weirdness of the early eighties? [Big, deep, heavy sigh....]

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

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