What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate
Coming to Japan there were many things that I was prepared for ahead of time: the relatively low-carb diet, riding a bike to work, and even the compactness of my 230 sq. ft. apartment. But something I underestimated was the difficulty in talking to people.
A lot of people in Japan have experience with English on a somewhat regular basis. Whether it’s watching an American movie, going to Starbucks, or seeing a URL address, English and the roman alphabet isn’t too difficult to find.
On the other hand, I personally don’t remember a single instance of hearing Japanese while growing up. Maybe a hibachi steak house or a sushi restaurant, but that’s about it. As such, most people’s English in Japan is much better than my very limited Japanese. But that still doesn’t make things easy.
The most recent example of this was when I went to a local bagel shop that caters to the air force base crowd. I’ve had no problems ordering in English in the past, so I asked for 2 bagels a hot chocolate.
What I received instead was 4 bagels and a hot chocolate bagel that was warmed in the oven. I have no idea if the waitress actually thought I could eat five bagels at once or thought I had someone else with me, but either way I ended up taking two home with me.
A lot of questions I ask are often met with confusion. Rarely do I get an answer the first time. Instead, I break things down and speak slowly. So instead of saying, “When are we going to arrive at the hotel?” I’ll just say, “What time arrive?”. But even then sometimes I don’t explain things well enough and I just don’t ask any more questions; I’ll just go with the flow and figure things out as they happen.
I am doing my best to learn Japanese. I have one-on-one lessons with a Japanese teacher once a week and even though it took a month to get a book that had English explanations, it has been going pretty well. I can say things like, “Last weekend I went to Tokyo to take pictures of the cherry blossoms” and “What do you usually eat for dinner?” and my vocabulary in expanding every day.
I can pick up spoken words and phrases, but my Japanese is not conversational by any means. It’s much easier for me to understand Japanese than to speak it.
Many people (especially a lot of the Americans working at the air force base I see every day) don’t appear to make an effort to learn any Japanese. While I certainly understand why they don’t due to the time required, the locals certainly appreciate the effort. If you’re going to be in a foreign country for an extended period of time, you should make an effort to learn the local language; it’s no different from people coming to the US and not learning English in my opinion.
One side note about Japanese is that obviously no one speaks it outside of Japan. It’s not like Spanish or French which are the official languages in 20 and 29 countries. Japanese is the official language in only one country. As such, very few people take the time to learn it since it has limited usage. I have to admit after reading this article on why you shouldn’t learn Japanese, my enthusiasm dropped a bit. The author makes some good points that I can definitely relate to since living here.
Outside of Fussa, I’ll get questions about where I’m from – mostly by curious waitresses. In describing where I’m from, I’ll always say ‘United States’ but they always repeat back to me, ‘Ohhh, America!’. I’ll take a minute to describe how I’m originally from the same state as Mickey Mouse, normally by drawing a rough sketch of the United States on the back of a napkin with Mickey Mouse ears pointing to Florida.
But in general, I’ve found the amount of understandable English speakers to be less than what I expected, especially outside of restaurants and major cities. Even people my age who were taught a few years of English in school don’t show much interest to learn more than what is required. In some ways it’s been disappointing, but on the other hand, I don’t blame them.
In the next three months I hope to do what I can to better understand Japanese and improve my vocabulary.
And hopefully not receive any more bagels than I order.
Featured photo is from the movie Cool Hand Luke, the source of the post’s title