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Cuteness vs. Fluency


Shukan Gendai has an article this week called “(Super-popular 21st Century Agnes Lum Has a Surprising Secret) Leah Dizon is Actually Fluent in Japanese!?” (人気沸騰“21世紀のアグネス・ラム”に意外なヒミツ■リア・ディゾン 実は日本語ペラペラ!?)

At first I wanted to write about this as an example of the weekly magazines being a totally unreliable vehicle for news (Leah Dizon is fluent? Yeah, right), but in classic shukanshi style, the headline kind of oversells the actual meat of the article. The writer never claims that Dizon is “fluent” fluent, but does point out a disparity between her on-air Japanese — described as “カタコト” (stilted, talking like a baby) — and her off-the-job Japanese, which apparently is not so bad. In other words, Leah Dizon is intentionally being pushed (by her management?) to bring down her Japanese level in public.

The writer implies there is a need to appear adorable for her legion of otaku fans, and she appeases them through saying things like “オナカスイタ!” (Very, very liberally, “Oh, me so hungry.”)

Ever since foreigners starting showing up in Japan, many Japanese have been fascinated with the idea of non-Japanese Japanese speakers. Apparently, Tokugawa Ieyasu got a big kick out of making British wash-up William Adams repeat Japanese phrases. Even when the barbarians put in an effort, the locals did not always respond positively. John Nathan claims in his book Japan Unbound that in the early ’60s he would speak to people on the street in relatively fluent Japanese and they would ask for a translator.

These days, society seems more accepting and comfortable with foreign speakers of the language, and Leah Dizon’s allegedly-fake katakoto seems less to be about the threat of fluent foreigners and more about constructing an infantile linguistic image to go along with her cleaned-up visual package. This is very similar to Bobby Ologun whose ridiculously-complicated, fake “dumb mistakes” help paint him as the big, jolly African oaf. This latest charge about Dizon fits with this strangely-progressive 21st century conspiracy theme: The media forces foreigners (who are not white men) to speak mangled Japanese for the delight of the public. The underlying criticism seems to suggest that a certain sector wants a naturalization in feelings about foreign speakers of the language. Or maybe it’s just a larger extension of the paranoia about TV constantly lying to us (i.e., yarase).

I think that if Leah Dizon gradually starts getting better at the language before our very eyes, that probably wouldn’t necessarily damage her persona, but for whatever reason, her handlers are erring on the side of feigned incompetency. Is this some strange form of orientalization — where the (otaku) Japanese male desires the subservient American female who is sexily mute due to language inadequacy? Or do the handlers still think her audience fears the fluent alien? You would think that she would be better at connecting with fans through able use of the local language, but for whatever reason, they are making her play out a different role using a more limited script.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
February 26, 2007

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

39 Responses

  1. Chris_B Says:

    Could language be the “last line of defence” against the invading hoardes of the capitalist West?

  2. lauren Says:

    I’m so going to start saying “Oh, me so hungry,” from now on. That is the new hotness.

  3. Aceface Says:

    Do that in Roppongi next time,girl.
    You’ll be a hipster.

  4. dzima Says:

    “he would speak to people on the street in relatively fluent Japanese and they would ask for a translator”

    but Marxy, I would be dumbed down by people all the time or dumb myself down for a laugh, things that still happen on occasion, exactly because of this Japanese people mental block. And I don’t even have a management…

  5. dzima Says:

    And how about that classic situation in which I was the one at least as fluent (if not better) as my Chinese friends but the Japanese person (salesman/waitress/shop staff) would direct the conversation to him/her (my friends) but not to me assuming I wouldn’t have a clue of what was going on because I’m not Asian…

    Or in other words, nothing is changed: a lot of mainstream Japanese don’t listen with their ears or see with their own eyes when interacting with foreigners.

  6. Momus Says:

    How about the idea that it’s Japan that’s more cute when one is less than fluent?

  7. lauren Says:

    Momus, that’s true too. It is much easier to enjoy your stay when you are a guest and don’t really know what’s going on, so you just have to take everything how it is in front of you without worry about the implications of everything. I am sure I acted like an obnoxious teenage American girl the first summer I was in Japan, but I had so much fun my heart almost exploded with joy. That was before I took ‘dame’ seriously… I feel bad about the trouble I must have caused my hosts, but I was a kid and didn’t know better.

  8. Do Says:

    Its always been interesting to see how the whole world of talents are played out on TV here.

    Bob Sapp was basically a cartoon character for most of his time in the spotlight. But that is hardly a gaijin-only thing as the same can be said for Hard Gay as well.
    In a familiar gaijin trope,the fact that you can see those talents on tv every night pulling the same schtick over and over again never ceases to amaze.

  9. Do Says:

    I would have to disagree with you Lauren (and Momus). Perhaps I am just opposed to the ignorance is bliss outlook in a lot of life.

    Perhaps Japan is no longer rose-colored or a playground, but I have been here 6 years and have found each year better with my increasing Japanese ability. The process is also fun – things open up and start to make sense.
    I know too many foreigners who form rather strong opinions -good and bad- about things they really have little information about.

    Besides Japanese is great for breaking apart the thinking that permeates a lot of western languages. The new OS, if you will.

  10. lauren Says:

    I should clarify.

    I don’t think that it is better to be ignorant and I agree with you totally on what you’ve said, Do. I’m just saying that that rose-colored playground does exist and it is very cute indeed.

  11. lauren Says:

    Or exists for some – I assume for everyone who makes the effort to learn more of the language ‘n culture. Of course some people don’t enjoy their time in Japan, but those types probably don’t frequent Neomarxisme often.

  12. Andrew Says:

    I’ve been reading this blog for several years, but this is the first time I’ve commented. I’m glad you mentioned that “Bobby” guy in this article. I was always fairly amused by the unusual depiction of foreigners on Japanese television, but for whatever reason, I’ve always found Bobby uniquely offensive. It’s like watching a minstrel show or something. I tried to explain to my Japanese family why it was racist, but they just seemed amused. I know that he most likely knows Japanese better than he lets on, and I find it dispiriting that he’s willing to degrade himself that way to appear on television. He’s from Nigeria, right? While I can’t claim that Americans are any more enlightened when it comes to racial attitudes, it’s shocking to see such transparency over there (we try to disguise it a little, at least). I actually saw a copy of Little Black Sambo in a children’s book store in Tokyo once, for example. The whole practice of hiring black people (carribean maybe? They often speak Creole) to front for hip hop stores also gets my goat. I know this is nothing new, of course, but it’s something that’s always upset me about Japan.

  13. marxy Says:

    ”But that is hardly a gaijin-only thing as the same can be said for Hard Gay as well.”

    This is a good point: forcing celebrities into constantly repeating one-note “I didn’t do it” gags is not a punishment only bestowed on foreigners. That being said, what is the “joke” assigned to foreigners and are there racial and sexual dimensions?

    The only foreign celebs who can have “wow!” fluent Japanese are generally white N. American males. Girolamo has to be the Italian playboy. The Africans all have to be hilarious natives.

    Other East Asians, however, do not get to be impressive when they speak flawless Japanese. They are merely “adequate.”

  14. john Says:

    So wait, おなかすいた is not a proper way to say one is hungry? And same with おなかいっぱい and being full then?

  15. alin Says:

    > forcing celebrities into constantly repeating ..

    wow, now we have punished jap. celebrities and africans and europeans all waiting to be rescued. by whom? by ‘wow’ white N. American males of course.
    Hard Gay just bear a bit longer, operation white cock is on its way.

  16. Mulboyne Says:

    What foreigners are asked to do on TV and film and how they are treated in day-to-day life are separate issues, although there is a degree of overlap.

    For instance, there’s a “spoof Japanese TV programme” in Britain called Banzai. “Mr Banzai” is played by Masashi Fujimoto while Eiji Kusuhara and Bert Kwouk are commentators. All three speak good English but they ham it up to such a degree that it has been accused of being an Asian minstrel show. They are being asked to play a role in the same way as many foreign tarento.

    This isn’t just limited to Asians. If someone employed Jean Reno only to discover that he spoke fluent English with a mid-Atlantic accent, I’m sure they would be disappointed. Many actors have built their careers on playing up their nationality. I wonder also how Henry Kissinger and Arnie would have fared if they’d lost their accents.

    Fluency comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. I often hear that foreigners employed as “fake priests” at wedding ceremonies are encouraged to dumb down their Japanese to emphasize their foreignness. I think that is also mostly a question of accent rather than grammar – as long as you “sound foreign” then you can achieve the desired effect even if you leave your particles in the right places. It actually mirrors what happens to some Japanese students in London who earn occasional pocket money appearing as “geisha” welcoming guests into parties. They are routinely asked to “sound more Japanese”.

  17. alin Says:

    > オナカスイタ!” (Very, very liberally, “Oh, me so hungry.”)

    this is indeed so strange but truly fascinating – surely one of the reasons i keep coming here. why, especially with your objectivist inclinations, go very liberal when you can translate it straight: “I’m hungry !”.

  18. der Says:

    I have to agree with Mulboyne, it seems to be universal that there is commercial / entertainment / brand value in foreigners keeping their foreign accent. A European example would be Rudi Carrell, a Dutch commedian who had most of his career in Germany. It was always said that his off-duty German was much better than what he used on TV. And then of course there’s Arnold Schwarzenegger. Erm, no, actually, he’s not a good example, his accent apparently really is that bad.

    Come to think of it, maybe there’s a difference in that elsewhere foreigners are allowed or perhaps even expected to keep their accent — but I guess lexical and grammatical problems would be much less appreciated. (Such problems being much more associated with limited abilities than accent.)

  19. marxy Says:

    “you can translate it straight: “I’m hungry !”.”

    When I wrote that, I said to myself, if I saw that on a blog, I would immediately write an angry comment saying that “onaka suita” is perfectly normal and said by native speakers. Maybe you will forgive me if you get the joke of my phrasing.

  20. yago Says:

    alin et al, shut up if you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    The use of katakana when writing normal japanese sentences usually means a thick accent, or bad pronunciation. A bad speaker would try to say something and just sound like オナカスイタ, but a fluent speaker’s speech would sound better, that is, おなかすいた。
    An even more elegant or delicate accent would be written as お腹空いた.

    Every japanese knows these nuances, and if you don’t it means you’re just not fluent.
    I just can’t see the point of trying to make your petty little ツッコミ in every single post.

  21. Andrew Says:

    When I lived up in Hokkaido during my high school years, I befriended a Russian guy who would do this quite often. Though his Japanese skills were very well developed, he often affected a strong accent in order to make himself seem more mysterious and foreign. When he explained this to me, it seemed unusual, but I simply accepted it. It seems entirely plausible to me that the minds behind Japanese television shows might have a lot to gain from sensationalizing or accentuating certain guest’s foreign-ness. Part of the spectacle. I seem to remember watching a program once where a half-japanese guest had his name (I believe it was japanese) written in katakana. It’s clumsy, but then again, we tend to treat all Japanese as ninjas, or geisha, or sumo, or anime characters, etc, etc.

  22. marxy Says:

    “alin et al, shut up if you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

    No baiting the assault forces!

    But yes, you make a good point, Yago. Katakana has the implication of “sounding like Japanese, but not being Japanese.”

    We’ve talked before about how half-Japanese with Japanese last names are not supposed to use kanji when they write their name. Kimmy Kawashima is not 川島 but カワシマ.

  23. alin Says:

    >shut up if you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    point taken , katakana can mean lots of things (and it’s a different kind of code, basically untranslatable into english) but , yes, i was being obnoxious beyond trying to make a point. (no need to address me as if i’m a multitude though)

    >We’ve talked before about how half-Japanese with Japanese last names are not supposed to use kanji when they write their name. Kimmy Kawashima is not 川島 but カワシマ.

    I remember that talk (and the hysteria caused by the supposed fact that japanese people get their kanji ‘confiscated’ if they leave the country) and it turned out that there was no rule as such, while the media can go both ways. then of course we have foreigners free to take kanji as they wish (Aridou of Santosu) but, sure, go on building your hermetically sealed system.

    der, i think turkish would make for more poignant examples in german (media) than dutch.

  24. marxy Says:

    “then of course we have foreigners free to take kanji as they wish”

    He has kanji because he became a naturalized citizen.

  25. Ken Y-N Says:

    Talking of katakana for foreigners’ Japanese reminds me of an episode of Shimura’s Zoo I saw: they had a foreign camel handler who spoke reasonable Japanese subtitled in katakana, but then when Pan-kun the chimp came on, he got his thought bubbles in hiragana.

    Oh, and I’ve seen Girolamo ham up his Japanese for the telly. I thought it quite funny, I suppose, that he interspersed his baby-Japanese with katakana eigo, not italiago.

  26. der Says:

    A note on these accusations of hysteria: “One should recall here the key strategic role of the signifier `hysteria’ in the modern `radical’ discourse, up to the Bolsheviks, who dismissed as `hysterics’ their opponents who groaned about the need for democratic values, the totalitarian threat to humanity, and so on.” (Zizek 1999) [I love the “and so on”.]

    Or maybe it’s just “look at how relaxed I am, you hysteric girls”.

    Less off-topic: I think the use of Turkish accents on German TV is different. Turkish-German being an accepted variant, its use (or fake use or overuse) on TV signifies more sociolectal variation. It’s more like Osaka ben in that respect, I guess.

    A more pertinent example is perhaps Roberto Blanco), a black entertainer in Germany about whom it was also said that he played / had to play the role of the always cheerful primitive man with funny language.

    Any examples from France anyone? As an ex-colonial power, maybe foreignness works differently there?

  27. der Says:

    (And just to raise the level of the discussion: a comic strip*. (Note the ALT tag.))


  28. alin Says:

    der, nice point sbout hysteria and i’d be totally behind it if marxy-kei actually accepted their minority position and acted as hystericaly as they can could/need from that position. as it stands though their moral majority arrogant stand gets little sympathy from me.

  29. Slim Says:

    All these comments and no one mentioned Kume Hiroshi’s infamous “gaijin wa nihongo ga katakoto no hou ga ii” line on News Station? Maybe it was before some of your times in Japan.

    Debito made a huge deal about it at the time but I kind of sympathized with Kume’s comment. I always loved the little comments he always made at the end of a segment before going to commercial – and this one was no exception! I think his “katakoto” comment was a bit more nuanced than Debito is capable of understanding.

    BTW, I’ve heard people complain that they were speaking “fluent” or “good” Japanese and had Japanese people fail to recognize it and speak to them in English or behave as if they didn’t understand. But I never experienced anything of the sort myself, in person or on the phone. I always suspect the people that this phenomenon happens to may have a large vocabulary (much better than mine I’m sure) but strange pronunciation and/or their syntax may be straight out of the textbooks/classroom instead of the way Japanese really speak on the street. Also, if a non-asian walks up and just starts talking it may take the listener a while to clue in that the gaijin is using Japanese because it just wasn’t expected. And by the time it registers with them, it’s too late to have caught the actual content that has been said so they’re lost. But if s/he starts just as a japanese would, with some ano ne and eh to and chotto ii and sumimasen this and that all that crap before starting in on what one wants to say, and also uses the appropriate body language, no one will fail to recognize s/he’s speaking japanese.

  30. Slim Says:

    p.s. As for the shukan gendai headline, I don’t think we should translate “pera pera” as “fluent”. It’s a much more casual term expressing no more than the ability to talk a lot without too much hesitation. In the entertainment world, this may mean simply the sort of basic aisatsu and casual conversation that makes up that type of person’s daily life and interview questions on tv. We’re not talking about an ability to read or debate articles in the keizai shimbun.

    As Gaijin being to speak Japanese, they will first get the “nihongo umai” comments (that’s when you know you really suck at it), then as they gain ability they’ll be described as pera pera, then still later their language skills might be described as kampeki. (and then still later i assume a more academic term for fluency which i don’t even know since i never got to full fluency. do people use the term ryucho?)

  31. Adamu Says:

    I wonder, does retired soccer star and ex-Brazilian Ramos fall into the “passable” category? I only remember his TV appearances on Koko Ga Hen Da Yo, Nihonjin where he sat in the moderator’s chair next to Konishiki, and neither of them had their Japanese subtitled. That meant something on Kokohen, because it was premised on foreigners who can speak Japanese engaging in a “talk battle.” Most of the guests had accents and therefore had their comments subtitled in full, but the moderators, which included the two I already mentioned plus Japanese people including Beat Takeshi, RIKACO, Terry Ito and some other people I can’t remember, who only had their punchlines subtitled just like on other shows.

  32. Pass The Couvoisier Says:

    In the late 90s I was acquainted with a couple of the regulars on Koko ga hen dayo…(one who later wrote a book of essays about life in Japan). Several times a week it was down to Roppongi to bask in recognition (hopefully leading to sekkusu), argue with cops at the koban about bullshit and try to blag into clubs. At the time it was quite entertaining (and sometimes mesmerising) to watch pera pera types do their thing while nihongo nonstarters nodded off on the sidelines.

  33. Ken Says:

    Adam’s on to something, for sure. When the nihongo is understandable, there’s no need to subtitle. I’ve heard Ramos speak Japanese in person – he’s amazing fluent. Sure, slight accent, but every word is clear.

    As far as John Nathan goes, if people are asking for an interpreter, it’s because they can’t understand you. I was fortunate enough to learn the language due to life circumstances, do not look very Japanese, and not a single person has ever, ever claimed they couldn’t understand me…

    The thing is…body language goes a really, really long way…

  34. marxy Says:

    “(and then still later i assume a more academic term for fluency which i don’t even know since i never got to full fluency. do people use the term ryucho?)”

    The magazine uses 流暢 interchangeably in the article with ぺらぺら,and I, like you, would have thought the former to be a stronger term.

    “if people are asking for an interpreter, it’s because they can’t understand you”

    I have not run across this ever either, although I think the early 60s were a different time. If you were an old person then, you would probably have never seen a single non-Japanese person speak Japanese.

  35. Mutantfrog Says:

    For what it’s worth, job classifieds seem to equate 流暢 with “almost functionally equivalent to a native speaker.” It seems to me rather dramatically stronger than “perapera.”

  36. Aceface Says:

    None of you watch アイチテル?
    Maybe if you work in water business,you catch
    better Japanese than going to language school…

  37. marxy Says:

  38. Aceface Says:


  39. James Says:

    Leah Dizon does exactly what she is told to do by her managers. Although her on TV Japanese may be intentionally poor, she cannot get away with it for her singing career where she has to get it right. Her first single softly is a pretty good effort