It’s JLPT season again and the 500 yen application forms are being sold at bookstores across Japan. Sean kindly brought home two this week – one for him and one for me. He sent his off the other day but mine is still on the table; unopened, untouched. When I passed the Level 4 exam last year, trying for Level 3 seemed like a no-brainer but here I am, 8 months later, with hardly any more Japanese under my belt. Thus, I debate. Thus, I court the support of my Japanese co-workers.
When I arrived in Japan, I spoke no Japanese. Unlike Thailand and other South Asian countries, Japan – or at least the city I live in – is not a very foreign language-savvy place, and I was finding Japanese a lot harder to learn than I’d imagined. If a Japanese wait staff member or ward office employee could eke out a few words in English, I was overwhelmed with relief and gratitude. My friends Meir and Sean, on the other hand, were deeply offended. For them, long time Japanese students who have mastered Japanese to the degree where daily life translations are unnecessary, being spoken to in English is a supreme insult.
“It’s the assumption,” they explained angrily after a waitress greeted us by saying “Herro. What you order?” “It’s the assumption that any foreigner in Japan can’t speak Japanese; that they won’t or can’t learn.”
“Fair enough,” I said and returned to my picking at my okonomiyaki, desperately hoping they’d change the subject; we’d only met recently and it was the first time I’d seen them so upset. I understood their appeal intellectually but I was a long way from understanding it emotionally – in fact, I wondered if they were being a bit cynical. Couldn’t the waitress have been leaping at the chance to practice English? Couldn’t she have been being polite? On the other hand, I was a newcomer; what did I know? For my part, I still needed the translation and welcomed it with open arms on the few occasions it came.
Over a year later, I understand their frustration. There are, of course, many foreigners in Japan who refuse to learn Japanese because it’s “too hard” or “worthless back home”, relying on Japanese friends to conduct their business for them. However, I and lots of other foreigners have worked hard to achieve the level of Japanese we can now speak so on the very few instances where I’m spoken to in English first, I struggle to understand. Are they merely seizing the chance to practice their own English? Trying to be welcoming to foreign peoples? Or are they, as Meir and Sean claim, acting on the assumption that we’re too culturally ignorant to bother learning the language of the country we live in? I find myself leaning towards the latter suspicion more and more, especially when I use very simple Japanese phrases and receive applause – literal applause – from co-workers, as though I’m a three year old who has just mastered using the potty by all by herself. Yet, this perhaps-condescension becomes galvanizing when I am teetering between “Level 3” and “No Level 3.” I’ve told myself that if I plow through my book, 4 chapters a week, my skills might be up to snuff by the time December rolls around and, at this point, it seems possible. But first, before I commit, I find myself playing the fool just for the praise because, right now, every bit helps.