Missives on Outlander Japanese

Dear Matt,

As Japan’s global role shifts from fearsome economic power to lovable cultural hotspot, the tenor of foreigners living in Japan is also in flux. The majority of “foreigners” in Japan are Asian immigrants, of course: those working “immigrant jobs” and living at the margins of society. But if we may narcissistically limit the following conversation to Japan’s immigrants of non-desperation — those like ourselves who are here for more complicated reasons and/or have no obvious way of blending into the dominant racial paradigm — I would argue that the widespread respect for contemporary Japanese culture has summoned a new breed who enthusiastically embrace the Japanese language rather than see it as a noisome barrier for colonial English universalism.

Thanks to more effort, the quality of foreigners’ spoken Japanese is greatly increasing. PhD candidates outshine professors. Granted, the quality of Japanese pedagogy at learning institutions is much better than decades previous: no more learning from Caucasian grad students intoning textbooks like in the 1960s. Most Japanese teachers overseas are now native Japanese, and classes focus on real-life speaking, not reading dead texts (or breaking codes).

Books like John Nathan’s Japan Unbound give the impression that speaking Japanese to a Japanese person will result in desperate confusion: how can this non-Japanese racial individual speak Japanese? Maybe this was true in the late 1950s, but speaking Japanese fluently in Tokyo is no longer so problematic. Of course, you may have to answer a few preliminary questions about why you speak Japanese, but after those matters are settled you can start communicating without much cultural (or racial) interference.

So now the question is no longer, “can foreign residents speak Japanese?” or “should foreign residents speak Japanese?” but “what kind of Japanese should we new immigrants speak?” This is a pedantic exercise, no doubt, but language will be a primary means of creating an identity within Japanese society. For some, “becoming naturally fluent” will mean speaking as much slang as possible, but I personally fear becoming the analog of a Japanese resident of Brooklyn, New York greeting his friends, “Dawg, whassup?” And there are other issues beyond clunky use of slang: for example, the widespread abuse of the “foreigners do not have to learn to speak politely (keigo)” exemption. But how can we be welcomed linguistically without actually working within the full language?

I know I am asking for trouble, but here are some thoughts on basic guidelines/goals to guide fluent foreign speakers:

  • Hyōjungo (standard textbook Japanese) is a best bet, with regional dialects only being used in unforced provincial contexts
  • All gairaigo (foreign loan words) must be pronounced as close to the Japanese as possible. DVD should be “DI-BUI-DI” and schedule is “SUKEJUURU”
  • No obnoxious use of yonmoji jukugo or other literary expressions in everyday speech
  • As little slang and “degraded” verb forms as possible, unless actually talking back to someone using these

Obviously, foreign residents want to show Japanese speakers that they have a strong command of the language, but going overboard may be counterproductive. “Showing off” immediately reminds the listener of your foreign status. You become a foreigner speaking silly Japanese, not an individual communicating. In other words, there should be as much effort to sound like a normal Japanese person as possible. If they aren’t pulling out gruff verb forms or obscure maxims or talking a million miles a minute, neither do you.

Interested to hear your thoughts on this.

— David

PS – Thanks to Adam from Mutantfrog Travelogue for the suggesting we tackle this topic.

Dear David,

Trying to show off will generally backfire, I agree. The difficulty lies in defining where “speaking well” ends and “showing off” begins.

You might say, well, where your language tricks start to impede communication, there’s the line. But is that really a good rule of thumb? Perfect communication with zero friction is a desirable goal in some cases (“911, what is your emergency?”), but speech is often more about performance and display. Sometimes you need to meet crudity with crudity (good-natured argument in an izakaya) or wax especially eloquent (first time meeting your significant other’s parents). If you were always perfectly clear and unambiguous, you would by definition be incapable of telling a joke. You would also probably find it hard to get much of an emotional reaction from people in general.

Hōgen/dialects (along with “slang and degraded word forms”, many of which are actually just Edo/Tokyo hōgen, so same thing) raise similar issues. Your proposed guidelines include the exception “unless talking back to someone using these,” but this is so broad that the actual guidance intended is unclear. It’s not a major issue for you because your Japanese roots are in the Tokyo area, but what advice would you give to someone who has lived in and loved Osaka for five years, can switch fluently between hyōjungo and Osakan dialect, and is now moving permanently to Tokyo? Should they always use hyōjungo now because everyone else around them does? Or should they stick with Osakan, even though that will make them stand out, because that reflects their personal history and their sense of self?

As for yoji jukugo, sure, overuse of these is as tiresome as overuse of dead clichés in English. But surely you can’t be contemplating a personal ban on ever saying 「一石二鳥」 or 「一所懸命」 again. There’s nothing showboaty about these — they’re common, useful phrases. So, again, the problem is not “yoji jukugo” so much as “yoji jukugo that make you sound like a tool”.

Ultimately your guidelines boil down to “Don’t be a wiener.” But that’s not really useful. Who is a wiener on purpose?

Learning a language as an adult takes more than just technical fluency and contextual knowledge. It also involves building a new personality, a “language ego,” to speak it. There is some danger in building a personality before you fully understand how others will perceive it. We all know That Guy who talks in a high-pitched voice and gestures like a girl when speaking Japanese because he learned it from his Japanese girlfriend back home in the States. No-one wants to be That Guy. But on the other hand, if we always err on the side of the unremarkable, aren’t we condemning ourselves to mediocrity and blandness?

Let me play devil’s advocate and ask: exactly what is your beef with a hypothetical Japanese resident of New York saying “Dawg, whassup?” Is it that you don’t think a non-native speaker can ever develop a personality of which “Dawg, whassup?” is a natural, unaffected expression? That these could only ever be set phrases picked up from 50 Cent songs and deployed like awkward raisins in a flavorless textbook English pudding? Why should this be?

Two areas we can definitely agree on are loanwords and keigo. The gray area described above doesn’t really exist for loanwords: if the word contains sounds or sound combinations that don’t exist in Japanese, the person you’re speaking to may be unable to understand the word unless you pronounce it Japanese-style.

(As an aside, the opposite problem often vexes me, too: speaking English, I pronounce “Tokyo” to rhyme with “Soho”, but when it comes to minor place names, what’s best? Should I pronounce 大宮 “Ōmiya” exactly as in Japanese, or Anglicize it to “Oh-miya”?)

Keigo is the new Japanese: many people seem almost proud of not understanding it, dismissing it out of hand as impossible and unnecessary. But if you can speak fluent Japanese but haven’t bothered to learn how to show formal respect, well, folks will draw conclusions. Future generations will look back on keigophobia the same way we do the ridiculous “Oh, no foreigner could ever learn Japanese — it’s far too illogical and mystical for the Western mind” attitudes of yesteryear.

— Matt

Dear Matt,

You ask, “Who is a wiener on purpose?”

I can regrettably say that I have been a wiener in my spoken Japanese on many occasions in the last decade, although I was never aiming for this. There are immediate rewards in using fancy Japanese in front of Japanese people: wow, you know the word X? At that moment, you do feel pretty fancy, the time spent in studying obscure Japanese feels completely justified, and your speaking partner probably does not necessarily think you are a wiener. The issue, however, is that becoming a working member of society means not always pointing out the fact that you are attempting to become a working member of society.

A personal anecdote: I ran into one of my graduate student acquaintances at an alumni party recently who introduced me to some new student as “the guy who once used the word 「港湾」 for ‘harbor.'” He meant this as praise, but clearly, the episode — which I have no memory of every occurring — better demonstrated my lacking command of common speech.

But on the other hand, if we always err on the side of the unremarkable, aren’t we condemning ourselves to mediocrity and blandness?

Japanese is an extremely ritualized language. In English, I feel that I am expected to have slight personal tweaks on basic expressions like “hello” and “goodbye”: like “Hey, what’s up?” and “Take care.” In Japanese, no one would bat an eye if you introduce yourself with “Hajimemashite. Yoroshiku onegai shimasu.” So mediocrity and blandness are actually incredible efficient means of proving natural fluency. Isn’t the idea of “wanting to create personality” through speaking actually a Western-biased idea? Private persona aside, public speech in Japanese is supposed to reflect social position — not internality. “Being yourself” is only for talking off the clock or to inner group members.

Is it that you don’t think a non-native speaker can ever develop a personality of which “Dawg, whassup?” is a natural, unaffected expression?

I am unfair here to foreign speakers with a command of irony. Also, “Dawg, whassup?” is unfair because it’s not particularly contemporary nor even in the natural word order, but I do think we judge all speakers — even native speakers — on the relation between their social identity, background, and choice of words. A lot of this is tied up to the unique American ideas on racial division, identity politics, and the Western emphasis on “being real,” but I personally am careful about “appropriating” the language of cultural subdivisions of which I am not a member. I am not even sure if I properly belong to the ore (俺) class of Japanese males.

Hyōjungo may unfairly represent the Japanese of upper middle class Tokyoites but at least it does possess a universal leveling. I have to learn it just like someone from Ishigaki or Aomori does. In this way, hyōjungo puts immigrants in the same boat as a majority of the country. It also creates a portable identity that can be used everywhere in Japan. Speaking Kansai-ben in Umeda makes a lot of sense, but sounds ridiculous and affected in Ikebukuro. Hyōjungo sounds equally bland everywhere.

About gairaigo, there’s no excuse for using foreign pronunciation in a Japanese sentence. But I guess many foreigners avoid the katakana version out of snobbery — whether conscious or not. I mean, I am sympathetic to Parisians having to butcher the French lexicon in order for Jimmy of Ohama to understand. Saying “MAKUDONARUDO” for McDonalds is a chore, for sure, but if you say “McDonalds” in plain Midwestern English, yeah, no one may understand what you are talking about. The further the pronunciation differential, the more you feel self-conscious using the Japanese, but the more you need to.

With keigo, there are clearly ridiculous levels that we could not hope to master; there are just not enough opportunities for practice in this age of reduced social hierarchy. But seems like we should at least try to hit the levels that do still exist. Besides the odd textbook “doozo yoroshiku,” the most grating tourist Japanese is having people say the very impolite “arigato” to everyone in sight. If they followed that up with lots of equally-patronizing “gokuro-san,” I’d be fine with it. I can’t stay mad at tourists for learning all their Japanese from a single Styx song, but for those who live here on a somewhat permanent basis, I think politeness in speech is a great way to embrace a humility required to really fit into Japanese culture.

— David

My dear David,

So mediocrity and blandness are actually incredible efficient means of proving natural fluency. Isn’t the idea of “wanting to create personality” through speaking actually a Western-biased idea? Private persona aside, public speech in Japanese is supposed to reflect social position — not internality. “Being yourself” is only for talking off the clock or to inner group members.

I really don’t think so. Perhaps it is more common in Japan to find yourself in a situation where you have to play the role of an interchangeable, personality-free cog — and most of this is really just a hangover from Meiji-style Westernization, nothing quintessentially “Eastern” about it. But people in Japan obviously still have personalities, and when they are free to express them, they do, in word and deed.

Even on the clock, someone who can make the room laugh at a boring internal meeting is just as valued in Japan as anywhere else. People who can speak persuasively have more influence on the group consensus than people who can’t. You just have to be able to make those set phrases and required setups work for you.

(Why are we limiting the discussion to talking on the clock, anyway? Don’t you do most of your talking off it?)

I guess what I am arguing for is the goal of fitting in as opposed to blending in. The Platonic ideal of the NHK announcer on beta blockers is not something I aspire to. I want to speak a Japanese free of errors (for some practical definition of “error”) but not one free of any remarkable quality whatsoever. When I can get away with it, I use the occasional archaicism in my English. Why not in my Japanese too? (Don’t answer that.)

“Being a working member of society” doesn’t require that you become indistinguishable from other members of that society. You can contribute to group harmony by complementing the other members rather than mimicking them in every detail. Humility doesn’t have to mean camouflage.

Your comments about hyōjungo make sense. It is a great leveler, and since it is an artificial dialect that nobody “owns,” anyone can use it without fear of being thought a subcultural identity thief. But I do think you are being inconsistent in your application of the idea. For example, not using ore presumably means using boku (僕) instead — but this is an active choice to identify with the boku-zoku, who are no less a subcultural “class” than the ore-cking crew.

It’s interesting that you feel self-conscious using the katakana pronunciations of foreign words when speaking Japanese. For me the exact opposite is true. Even given a listener I know will understand the original pronunciation, dropping those consonant clusters and awkward stresses into a Japanese sentence throws me completely off my game. I can only code-switch in a Japanese accent. Am I in the minority on that one?

I remain,
— Matt

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

Matt Treyvaud is a writer and translator living near Kamakura. He is Néojaponisme's Literature/Language editor and the proprietor of No-sword.

65 Responses

  1. 272255225 Says:

    My thoughts (I’ll try not to be repetitive):

    What about using the word 「俺」 makes you uncomfortable? A lot of my (spoken) Japanese was learned through playing sports. As such… I learned the word お前 before I had mastered basic grammar. In all male environments (where everyone is around my age) I actually feel uncomfortable using 僕 or 私…

    Similarly… it feels a lot more natural using 俺 with friends. To be honest, I probably use all three in the course of the average day. At this point it isn’t a conscious decision. Japanese people switch between very formal and very casual ways of speaking countless times everyday. A truly fluent foreign speaker should be able to as well.

    Foreigners should use keigo. However, foreigners shouldn’t use a mastery of keigo to try to say ‘look! i understand’… that’s just going to make you look like a brown-noser or a fool.

    As far as using them ‘fancy words’… well… reading a lot can tend to make you sound kind of out of touch. Especially if you make a serious effort to tackle literature that’s included in the Japanese cannon. I mean… quoting Natsume Souseki in daily life isn’t going to get your point across any more smoothly. I started hanging out at 食堂 too much, learned a few too many kotowaza… and ended up talking kind of like a grandfather / uncle for a few months before I snapped out of it. I agree with Marxy… there definitely is a moment of pride when you are able to successfully use rare Japanese. However, in the interest of communicating effectively, it’s probably wise to limit this kind of showboating in daily life.

    As far as accent goes… why would you not want to sound as ‘correct’ as possible? In English foreign accents can sound kind of cool (Brazilian), sexy (Spanish, French) or strong (German). In Japanese foreign accents just sound foreign… I don’t want everything I say to sound like 「ワタクシハ目白駅ニ行キタイです」to a nature speaker. I mean… in the interest of being understood, having a good accent is key. That being said, some people have more difficulty than others. Natural ability does make a big difference.

    I’ve resigned myself to having to have the same ‘why can you speak Japanese?’ conversation every time I meet someone. There isn’t anything you can do about it… it’s just the way things work. My friends are all people who were able to get over that kind of preliminary bullshit. Some people will never stop looking at you as a just a foreigner.


  2. 272255225 Says:

    P.S. My English is clearly deteriorating.
    **a native speaker

  3. Daniel Says:

    Natural ability does make a big difference.

    It’s good that someone brought that up.

    What about using the word 「俺」 makes you uncomfortable? A lot of my (spoken) Japanese was learned through playing sports. As such… I learned the word お前 before I had mastered basic grammar. In all male environments (where everyone is around my age) I actually feel uncomfortable using 僕 or 私…

    I guess it’s all about the situation in which you first learned the language. If it was a classroom where they forced you to use desu/masu and called you lastname-san, then isn’t it understandable that ore is a little frightening? I, for one, (there’s my watashi wa) was always a lot more comfortable with desu/masu and even watashi for a long time. Now I’m trying to get over all the “~ yatte mi” and “~te goran”ing I did in the elementary school classroom.

    The other interesting thing to note is that Japanese doesn’t require the use of a personal pronoun at all – you could go months without saying one! I’ve lived with a couple of Japanese guys for a while now, and to be honest, I’m not sure what their personal pronoun of choice is.

  4. language hat Says:

    Fascinating discussion, amazingly free of dickishness: congrats all around.

    I agree entirely that the language which you are speaking, and the context which you speak it in affects the range and tone of expression: I tell different sorts of jokes in Japanese than English, different sorts of jokes to my wife than to my boss, and so on.

    The thing is, this kind of adjustment is in no way unique to speaking a second language. It’s the sort of thing we do all the time, often without thinking about it (what I’m trying to say is the adjustments to a foreign setting are of degree rather than order).

    I assume this is true for Hlem, but I think it’s unusual; I, like everyone I know who is fluent enough in a foreign language to carry on conversations, definitely feel my personality is different in different languages. I remember an evening spent with a French couple in their Paris apartment drinking wine and discussing politics, comics, the history of Paris, and I no longer remember what else; afterwards my then wife said I seemed like a different person, and I agreed that I had felt very different. It seems to me that each language has a different set of habits, from the way you construct a sentence to the way you put sentences together to the kinds of references you make in conversation, and if you have any of what Keats called “negative capability” the sum total of all those habits creates a noticeably different… persona? avatar?… out of what is of course at base the same person. But I think it is unique to speaking a second language.

  5. Hlem Says:

    Yeah, I was trying to make a distinction, which may not have been useful, between how one expresses oneself, and identity(who you are in your own head).

    All I really wanted to say is that the whole idea of language as something that is threatening to identity (a sentiment I’ve heard expressed English-natives learning Japanese and vice versa- usually in terms like ‘I don’t know who I am when speaking X’), is just sort of crazy.

    @Daniel. Indeed, I was made fun by similar age male friends for sticking to the politer pronouns around them- It’s all about learning when to switch. They key to which in my opinion is imitate, imitate, imitate:

    I have a brother-in-law of similar age to me, who I like and is considered a polite enough guy, so anything he says is probably appropriate for me, and I copy accordingly.

  6. language hat Says:

    All I really wanted to say is that the whole idea of language as something that is threatening to identity (a sentiment I’ve heard expressed English-natives learning Japanese and vice versa- usually in terms like ‘I don’t know who I am when speaking X’), is just sort of crazy.

    Ah, that is crazy, and in that context I can understand your reaction. Thanks for the explanation.

  7. Nijma Says:

    You might be interested in this travel blog–not the typical tourist I would say. I don’t think she’s keeping the blog up any more–but I thought it was an interesting as an archive.


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  9. W. David MARX Says:

    Thanks everyone for all the comments.

    Clearly there is no “right answer” to this question, and thankfully, everyone gets to make their own choices and build their own language identities. If speaking in a mix of kanbun and Miyazaki-ben is impressing the table next to you at Café Renoir, who am I to butt in?

    As we have seen, writing about these “ex-pat issues” is a great way to win lots of comments, since everyone almost necessarily has an opinion. But to be fair to Japan, I don’t think we will be constantly overshadowing the blog with a constant stream of “what about us foreigners!” posts. We are annoyingly Western enough in our perspectives and choice of topics.

  10. Bathrobe Says:

    Having been out of Japan for 15 years now, my opportunities to use the language are diminishing, although I am still able to hold fluent and comfortable conversations in Japanese.

    The other day I was having dinner with a Japanese friend (late 30s), discussing the cost of living after retirement. I was searching for a word and finally found it — older people tend to have ‘tsutsumashii’ lifestyles. Well, my friend commented on my language in a most curious way. The word was felt to be perfectly good Japanese, but perhaps not something that someone might use nowadays. I’ve had similar comments before about choice of expression. (I think I remember that “hakigogochi ga ii” was one of them).

    I get the feeling that the Japanese I learnt in Japan was a kind of “good old Japanese” that has partly gone out of fashion as the language changes.

    Needless to say, modern vogue words are even more mystifying. Japan is wonderful for coming up with a new crop of vogue words every year, and it’s the vogue words that gaijin pick up that help identify when they were actually in Japan.


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  13. johnny0 Says:

    Ha! I like that, Bathrobe, gaijin carbon dating. Same could go for sumo. Terao! Mitoizumi!

    Any Japanese-[American/Canadian/Brit/Australian] expats care to comment on perception of accent and grammar? My Japanese is horrid and I was only there for a year, but I noticed some strange looks when my nisei/sansei friends were speaking Japanese.

  14. nyobshtayn Says:

    The part of your discussion about language and identity reminds me a bit of my experiences in Japan.

    I have been learning the language for a relatively short time (maybe 10 months, maybe not even that) before I got sent to an Osakan university for a year. There seemed to be a lot of pressure put on me (and my foreign coursemates) to actually use Kansai-ben, which didn’t seem to be a problem for most of them, as it was something different than what we were used to – therefore interesting. Unfortunately, I kept on finding it difficult and unnatural. Knowing and understanding was one thing, but using it and having to be constantly self-conscious of ones words (I mean more than usual, it is a foreign language ater all…) was uncomfortable and seemed a bit like cheating. And lead to me being irritated with friends overusing the Kansai-ben. Or more with the pride with which they used it.

    I could understand it if it waere a process. If we were living there for a while and after some time of breathing the dialect in we would start using it ourselves. A sort of language osmosis. But spending evenings to learn the dialect and use it, just for the kicks, for the praise and admiration received from Japanese friends felt, to quote some of the people here, weiner-ish. Like tring too hard to be someone else than you actually are. I sometimes felt I shouldn’t be thinking that way, because if that’s what makes them happy, then to each their own. But that’s easier said than done.

    I’m far from finding my own identity in the Japanese language but, when I do, I want it to feel comfortable and as much as my third skin as possible (second’s already taken).

  15. Marcus Says:

    “getting “I don’to speak Englishhu” as a reply to asking for directions from a Japanese”

    I assumed that this was made up for comic effect. I have never gotten this myself – just straight answers.

    Fresh in Kyoto, I asked for instructions in quite bad japanese. A young japanese guy answered:”go streitto desu then turn lefto desu”.

    At the time i actually might not have understood the answer in japanese, so i appreciated the joke in many ways.