The road to hell is paved with good intentions, they say. It’s no less true in the land of the rising sun. Because Japan is 99.9% Japanese, a lot of people are just not used to talking with people who are not. They will make mistakes that will seem strange or even rude. Quite bizarre to the uninitiated, here are a few things I recommend you simply take in the spirit they were offered, and/or just smile and nod when you encounter them.
1) “Hashiga jouzu!” You’re good at using chopsticks!
You will often get flattered on your samurai-like chopsticks mastery, and whoever says it will think they are paying you a wonderful compliment. The first time you might smile and say thank you, but it will get on your nerves the umpteenth time you hear it. And you will hear it.
“A four year old Japanese kid can use chopsticks! It’s not that freakin hard!” You’ll want to scream while tearing out your hair. But instead you will slide them your special “screw you, hashi boy” smile you’ve created for just such occasions.
But just remember, this really is intended as a complement. Whoever praises your ability to hold chopsticks without getting them caught in your nose has never seen you use them before. And in Japan, the common belief is that only asians use chopsticks. So the assumption is, when they see you use chopsticks, it’s probably the very first time you have. (Or close enough.)
They don’t know that you’ve been living in Japan for years.
Or that everyone uses chopsticks when they go to an asian restaurant and pretty much everyone in the modern world can use them. Especially if they have enough interest in Japan to actually come here.
Or that chopsticks are freakin’ easy to use.
So you may want to smile and nod, or politely remind them of all those things. Whichever suits your mood.
2) “Nihongoga jyouzu!” Your Japanese is really good!
You will also be complimented on your lack of Japanese. Lack because you will only receive complements when you are a beginner.
“Oh, Nihongoga jouzu!” You’re so good at Japanese!
“That’s nothin,’ I can also say goodbye…”
(I had that conversation before, without my sarcastic amendment to the end, mind you.) But you will have similar conversations when you start and only when you start. This is universal though, not just Japanese. When someone is just starting to learn your language you want to encourage them, so you find any reason you can to compliment them.
“Wow, Kenji. You’re English is getting much better.”
“Very much you thank!”
“Um, yeah…you too, buddy.”
But when they actually do get good you will stop giving them praise because, oddly, if they can speak your language with any level of proficiency, it stops being impressive and starts being a matter of course. You will notice the one time they used “a” instead of “the” before you realize they just gave an entire ten minute presentation in formal English.
I have a friend, Japanese, whose mastery of English is such that he can quote Shakespeare verbatim. He is an English literature teacher as well as a translator. While he does have an accent, his English is better than a few native speakers I’ve met. And yet, I have never once complimented him on his English. And if I did, he would likely take it as an insult.
“You’re so good at English!”
He sets down the copy of Shakespeare’s Richard III he’s reading. “Why thank you. My Ph.D. in English Literature I have hanging on my wall says the same thing.”
We only compliment beginners, but once they get past a certain point we only get annoyed if they can’t understand a word that we think they should know by now. Slackers. They need to study harder.
So again, take this one as it was intended, as encouragement. And know that it’s only once you stop receiving compliments that you know you’ve really gotten somewhere with your Japanese.
3) Speak English to you even though you speak better Japanese
This can be convenient, unless they suck at English. I’ve had a waitress, a very kind college girl, try to speak English with me at my favorite restaurant.
“Where have you in Yamanashi come to?”
I stare at her, trying to decipher her mangled grammar. I think for a moment, then repeat what I thought she said in Japanese. “Yamanashino nakade doko ni ittakoto aru?”
She shakes her head. “Ah, no. Um… Why have…no…did come…no…why come did you have…no…”
“Doshite Yamanashini itta?” Why did you come to Yamanashi?
She smiles. “Yes! Why did…um, you…”
“Nihongode hanashitekudasai. Daijoubu. Wakaru.” Please speak in Japanese. It’s fine. I understand.
“Oh, okay. Um, do you like Yamanashi? I live here from baby.”
Was she just talking to me to practice her English? While that certainly will happen and you should ignore such people, in this case it was that the restaurant’s owner had sent her out to ask the strange foreigner who always comes to his restaurant about who he was. He doesn’t speak any English, and assumed I didn’t speak any Japanese. And when his waitress finished grilling me she dutifully went to the kitchen and related everything she learned. I know because I listened to her. From then on the owner knew I spoke Japanese, and started chatting me up whenever I saw him.
So then, why did his waitress insist on speaking only English when my Japanese was clearly better? I’ve asked a few Japanese about this, and the honest ones told me that there was probably two reasons. One, she was nervous. Japanese can get nervous when they speak to foreigners. They feel a kind of expectation to be able to speak English, so they feel they must at least try–sometimes too hard–to do so.
Two, she probably thought I couldn’t speak Japanese.
“Even though I was speaking Japanese?” I asked when I was told this.
“Yes, even though you were speaking Japanese.”
I didn’t believe this until I recently opened a post office money account. (You can do that in Japan.) The staff had just explained everything in Japanese, which took about ten or fifteen minutes. Then, for some reason, the guy turns to his boss and asks him “Eigode anshobangowa nandesk?” What is PIN number in English?
“Sikureto namuba,” he answers.
I watch this exchange and laugh when he says for me to input my “secret number” into his little machine.
“Anshobango?” I ask, still laughing. I couldn’t help it. You’ve been speaking in Japanese for the last ten minutes and you suddenly think I don’t know this particular word?
“Ah, hai. Anshobango.”
So yeah, even when you can clearly speak Japanese–and are–some guys will think you can’t. Just for the fun of it, I suppose.
It’s just a few people though. But they will really stick out because your mind clings to negative experiences like an alcoholic does that last bottle of whiskey. Try to remember the fourth grade. What do you see? Likely, you either remember something really good, really strange, or really bad. But you certainly don’t remember all those normal days you had when nothing happened. Your brain just kind of works that way.
4) Give you BS answers to cultural questions
This is another universal one. If someone from another country asks you about the history or culture of your country, you want to give them an answer. You want to sound like a limitless wellspring of information and satisfy their healthy curiosity about your great and wonderful culture. Call it national pride.
If a Japanese person asks me “who is Davey Crockett?” My answer will be something like this:
“He was a great American hero, known for always wearing a racoon hide hat. He was friends with the native americans of the area and worked to build peace with them. He was killed in the battle of the Alamo, which is in Georgia. He died a hero because he was fighting for freedom.”
Did I BS? Heck yeah! What do I really know about old racoon hat? Well, he wore a racoon on his head. He died in the battle of the Alamo. (Or did he? I don’t know.) That stuff about the indians was just plucked out of some soggy pool in my mind because it sounded right. And I’m not even 100% sure if the Alamo is in Georgia or not. (Now that I think of it, maybe it was Florida. Or perhaps Louisiana?) Again, it just sounded right.
So, I’ve asked Japanese a lot of questions about Japanese culture, and have recieved the most obviously BS answers from people who would have been better off just saying “I have no freakin’ clue, man.”
“What’s the sand pudding at Ginkakuji?”
“The sand pudding?”
“The thing in the sand garden that looks like flan. It’s like a little sand mountain.”
“Yeah, what is it?”
“Ah, well.” Pause. “It’s an observatory. You climb on it, sit, and observe the stars. Stars have great meaning in Shito.”
Did a cow just walk by, because I smell BS. “But…since it’s sand, wouldn’t it be quite difficult (if not impossible) to climb? And wouldn’t it fall apart if you tried? It’s not that big. It wouldn’t support your weight.”
So the next time someone from another country asks you something about your cultural heritage, make sure you actually know what you’re talking about before you start spouting BS like some kind of crap fountain. Nice image, isn’t it?
5) Kancho, and grabbing your junk
I hesitated to add something kids do to this post, but I decided to because no one I know has ever tried to grab their teacher’s junk while they were in elementary school. And if they ever did, they would most definitely recieve a long lecture about Mrs. Johnson’s private space, then be shipped off to a school for “emotionally disturbed” children on the short bus.
But it’s common in Japan. And not just to foreigners (though we certainly are on the recieving end of grabby little hands more often) but little Japanese kids will go for the goal when it comes to any question they have about their teacher’s sexuality. Think of it as a “hands on experience.”
Or they’ll just ram their little fingers into your rectum. This is a prank little boys like to play on adults called kancho. When you turn around they will creep up behind you and shoot their pointer fingers up your bunghole like two little nuclear-tipped needles.
That’s the prank. Funny, isn’t it?
And that’s some stuff that will grate on your nerves (including those nerves you would rather not be grated) if you stay in Japan for any length of time. Most of the time it’s just good intentions misplaced, other times it’s just a kid sticking his fingers up your butt. But, take it all as it comes, smile, nod, and enjoy. (Except for maybe kancho.) Because Japan is an awesome place, and every day is a minor adventure…for good, or bad.