Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Japanese-speaking 'foreigners' getting ignored, and 'silent translators' in Japan

So this is just a little trip down memory lane, venting about how 'foreign-looking' people who speak Japanese in a group are routinely ignored, while the 'Asian-looking' people who DON'T speak Japanese are addressed as the representatives of a small group.

Not sure what I'm talking about?

When I lived in Japan back in 2011-2012, my (then) girlfriend came to visit me around Christmas for 2 weeks. What followed, was a slightly bizarre experience...

Some brief profile explanations for this true story:

  • I'm a white British male, with pale and pasty skin, probably stereotypically British (British stereotype, not the Japanese stereotype, unfortunately!) 
  • She was a Chinese girl who happened to like Japanese fashion and some of the popular Japanese make-up brands. 
  • I (at least back then) spoke Japanese to an advanced level 
  • She (and probably still now) did not speak any Japanese aside from the basic greetings etc.
  • We'll just call her 'my girlfriend' to maintain the flow of the story.

Chapter 1 - at the hotel

So, after meeting her at Narita airport, we needed to check into our hotel near Shinjuku station and this is where it started..

The hotel receptionist looked through me, and proceeded to speak to my girlfriend in Japanese, to essentially ask if we had a reservation or wanted to make a booking. I thought, 'Well... she does kinda look Japanese... fair mistake to make...', and I proceeded to explain that she couldn't speak Japanese (in Japanese), and I started to take out our reservation details from my bag. 

At that point, the receptionist glanced at with a great look of surprise, as if to say 'What the hell was that noise just now?!', and then replied to what I'd said but directed at my girlfriend - remember I just explained that she can't speak Japanese.

From there, I appeared to be having some kind of indirect exchange through my girlfriend as a silent translator. 

Chapter 2 - at the restaurant

So after booking in finally, and a funny chat about how the staff seemed to have ignored me, we decided to head out for some food. 

Staff at the izakaya (Japanese equivalent of a pub) exhibited the exact same behaviour (directing everything at my girlfriend and even asking her 'What would 'he' like?' despite it being me who was replying, placing the orders and doing all the talking. 

Chapter 3 - at Shibuya 109 (ichi-maru-kyuu)

After finishing our meal, my girlfriend mentioned that she wanted to go to Shibuya 109 for shopping. 109 is a relatively small building (in comparison to some of the skyscrapers in Tokyo), but it has a good number of floors with a range of shops and items to suit probably most girls who are into that sort of thing. 

Anyway, while we were inside one of the shops, my girlfriend wanted to try on some clothes. We took the items to the staff and I asked if my girlfriend could try them on, and of course, directing it to my girlfriend, they responded affirmatively. 

While getting changed, the staff asked (out of politeness) 'How is everything with your clothes' etc, but of course... she couldn't understand so I was asking her in English in order to respond back to the staff.

What I do/don't understand about this..

Foreigners in Japan probably don't speak Japanese

I understand that my girlfriend, for all intents and purposes, looked 99% Japanese to the various members of staff at different places, so the safest option in their view was to talk to her rather than risk embarrassment by talking to me and potentially experiencing miscommunication or talking to her in English and getting the same result.

I couldn't find any data to back this up, but I would assume that the majority of 'western-looking' foreigners in Japan are tourists, a small minority of them are actually living in Japan in the short-term (for study or work placement) and an even smaller minority are long-term residents. For that reason, it's understandable that Japanese people look at foreigners and assume that they don't speak Japanese... BUT!

They have little excuse after they see/hear me talking in Japanese

If I come across a Japanese person in England, who is speaking English to me at a reasonable level where I don't have any issue with comprehension, there's no reason for me to not speak back to them in English. Even if I speak Japanese, for me I think it would be rude to suddenly burst into Japanese when they initiated conversation in English.


So there's my little story. What's your view on this and what would you do if it happened to you? Would you think it's patronising or would you accept it as 'part of the experience'?



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