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.

XOXO,
— 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. Jason Says:

    When I read a word borrowed from English and written in katakana, I consciously try to pronounce it in my mind using the English pronunciation, not the Japanese. However, when I speak to Japanese speakers, I always pronounce it with katakana.

    Example: 東京ハイスクール near Gotanda Station is always read as “Tokyo High School” in my mind when I am silently reading its advertisement, although when I discuss 東京ハイスクール with Japanese speakers, I use the Japanese pronunciation.

    When speaking in Japanese with Japanese speakers, I use Japanese words, and MAKUDONARUDO is, warts and all, a Japanese word. I agree with Matt that it is physically and mentally difficult to splice an English word into a Japanese sentence. But I have separate rules governing my mind.

    The reason I do the above is to preserve my own sanity. I will never be able get over the ugliness and awkwardness that is katakana, and I hate the idea that an important part of learning this occasionally-beautiful-but-many-time-frustrating foreign language involves intentionally perverting the pronunciation of English, my native tongue.

    I understand that this is peculiar (and almost certainly indicates some deeper, unaddressed problems I have with this language/culture/civilization), but you do peculiar things living in a city where the mispronounced and the ungrammatical are literally pasted all around you. Ideally I would like to be comfortable with katakana, but it asks too much of me.

    It’s a little truce I have made with my psyche.

  2. Adamu Says:

    What a great discussion! Considering that many Westerners in Japan avoid each other like the plague (did you see the backpage column of this week’s Newsweek Japan? I’ll be posting it on MF soon), it takes a lot of guts and openness to discuss these issues so openly. I have my own thoughts on all these issues, but I will have to save them for later after seeing the reactions from others!

  3. M-Bone Says:

    This is great stuff. I like the format a lot.

    “I can only code-switch in a Japanese accent. Am I in the minority on that one?”

    I’m the opposite, I think – I massacre Japanese words when I use them in English (which I do quite often, talking about Japanese history in English, etc.) because I have trouble code-switching the other way.

    I typically speak in hyojungo in shops, with people that I don’t know well, etc. and in dialect with my wife and in-laws. I think that we all have to find our own balance here.

    What I don’t like, however, is the guy who doesn’t “really” speak Kansai-ben but learned it from a book to show off. People have to knock this off. You guys briefly outlined some classes of people who are learning better Japanese (grad students, people fascinated by the culture – I fell into both categories when I started) but there is another type – the person who does not speak Japanese to be understood or to understand, but more for the act of speaking – to impress people (sometimes not even Japanese – other JETS or eikaiwa teachers are prime targets). This is the type who will criticise another foreigner for using hyojungo – you know, it is so “cold” and “impersonal” (unlike my Kansai-ben that I learned from a website last night).

    There is also an entierly new class of “Japanese bluffer”. I once had a guy recount a conversation about politics that he supposedly had in Japanese in an izakaya. A year later, he asked me to come to a post office with him to help him mail a postcard. What gives? I guess as foreigners have gotten better and better at Japanese, the pressure for short timers to pretend has gotten higher and higher.

    I agree quite strongly with the comments that Matt made in the first part of the last letter re: Japanese working creatively within established patterns. I also agree strongly with Marxy’s assertion that we don’t need to be keigo masters. I only aspire to use it as well as Japanese my age. But we SHOULD use it.

    “Saying “MAKUDONARUDO” for McDonalds”

    That’s what Makku is for, right? I like slang and shortened words when they make my life easier.

    I also think that it is more or less inevitable that people who read difficult fiction or non-fiction in Japanese on a daily basis are going to end up $#&ing up their speaking to some degree – as with hyojungo, the secret is to adjust to different situations and different company.

    I had an interesting incident with my father the other day – I asked him if he had eaten ラーメンbefore. He didn’t know what I was talking about so I tried as many other pronunciations as I could think of – raw-men, ram-men, ray-men, etc. until I finally got one that seems current in Canada. This can suck. I have also been told that saying とうきょう instead of Toe-key-oh when speaking English is pretentious….

    Like Marxy, I also don’t consider myself an “ore” and I very rarely use “kimi”.

    Finally, in a way, isn’t “reading Japanese” like the old “speaking Japanese”? I’ve met some people who make their ignorance of kanji into a point of pride.

  4. ClamBake Says:

    It’s so good to see something like this appearing here. Thanks so much.
    I’ve been following this site from the beginning, and there have been plenty of excellent things, but this is the first time I’ve been moved to comment. Maybe that’s just because I feel like I may have a little something to add.

    First of all, as Adamu said, there is a lot of weirdness between non-Asian foreigners in Japan. Most of that weirdness and even subdued hostility is the product of us all being weiners in different ways. The reasons for that have been addressed on this site from a few angles (especially “ex-pat syndrome”), but I’m really glad that the linguistic side of it is being brought forward here.

    This was a particularly challenging aspect of my time in Japan because I felt cofident in my Japanese, and so did most Japanese people, up to a point. But still, the temptation to hotdog it around and use Kansai-ben (though I spent nearly all of my time in Japan in Tokyo) and just sort of be a jerk in subtle ways was nearly irresistible most of the time. And it wasn’t that I wasn’t aware of what I was doing. And I was always sure to be the first one to call other people’s (foreigners’) bullshit. (Never to their faces, of course.)

    The tensions between “being myself” in my second language, trying to act like a normal (Japanese) person, and trying to prove my Japanese competency gave me fits at times. And it always left me feeling like a real jerk. It still does, even outside of a completely Japanese context – working between Japanese in America and other Americans in my company (some of whom have some competency themselves), not to mention at school (in an undergraduate Japanese Studies program). It’s hard enough maintaining an identity in one language.

    OK, maybe this is getting too long and rant-like, but I just wanted to get some things out there. Anyway, thanks for all the good work.

  5. M-Bone Says:

    “And it wasn’t that I wasn’t aware of what I was doing.”

    I think that if you (for some reason) want to play the a-hole for laughs or something, by all means, go for it. That is one of the fun things about learning another language. My complaint is really about people who do it and think they are cool or do it to put themselves above other non-native speakers.

  6. Daniel Says:

    I am not even sure if I properly belong to the ore (俺) class of Japanese males.

    Like Marxy, I also don’t consider myself an “ore” and I very rarely use “kimi”.

    Two quick stories about these. Like you guys I rarely use ore. I was shocked to hear one of my former elementary school 1st graders ask me, “Why do you call yourself boku?” Totally blew me away. I was equally surprised to hear the Japanese Teacher of English I worked with for three years ask me to use kimi over anata, “because the kids probably don’t understand you when you say the latter.” Those were both in fairly casual settings, though – the classroom, where the teachers often used the regional accent.

    One question I have is – which do you think should be prioritized, accurate pronunciation or accurate grammar? Personally I think that accurate grammar and a big vocabulary trumps pronunciation anytime.

    Oh, and maybe you guys should have cited Brians Crecente and Ashcraft for the format? Definitely reminded me of the thing they do over at Kotaku…although much better written, of course.

  7. Claire Says:

    So, I have a question. What do you do with your hard-won Japanese fluency when you have a kid who you raise in Japan with your Japanese partner and Japanese in-laws and Japanese schools? Do you just speak Japanese to them all the time? They say the best way to teach you child your native tongue is to pretend that you don’t understand any other language. Personally I have a really hard time pretending I don’t speak Japanese in front of my daughter after years of trying to prove to the people around me that I can speak Japanese just as well as them.

  8. Mulboyne Says:

    I asked an older friend of mine some years ago about his Japanese accent – which didn’t sound particularly native even though he’d been in Japan since the fifties – and he had a few thoughts which might be pertinent here.

    Firstly, he wondered why “you youngsters” were so hung up about accent. He noted that a non-native speaker of English can be accepted as fluent even while speaking with a heavy accent (e.g. Henry Kissinger) to the degree that there are some we would find odd if they lost their accent (I can’ remember his example but Frenchman Jean Reno comes to mind).

    He went on to say that we also don’t demand a native accent from a Japanese national speaking English. The man who stood out for him in that regard was “coroner to the stars” Thomas Noguchi. You can hear his heavy Japanese accent in some YouTube clips about the assassination of Robert Kennedy. I remembered what my friend said when Rocky Aoki died because video showed the restaurateur to have fairly elementary English as well as a heavy accent. I suppose that became part of his identity, and was part of his business, in the same way as Reno’s French-accented English is part of his.

    I put it to him that he was almost suggesting that speaking English-accented Japanese was a conscious choice and he maintained that it was to some degree. I didn’t quite see his point at the time, however, there may be a clue in the comments above about pronouncing loan words. Perhaps the same gag reflex which prevents some foreigners from pronouncing a loanword as it would be said by a native speaker also prevents people from trying to sound native at all. This is all part of the question raised above of what identity you take on when you speak another language.

    My friend’s last point on accent was to say that his foreign friends with the best Japanese accents were also the most likely to modify or lose their own English accent in conversation with native speakers from other cities or countries. I think he was just suggesting that some people have a tin ear while others are natural mimics but I’m not sure his broader observation necessarily holds.

    After defending himself from my veiled criticism, he then went on the attack. Conceding that younger speakers made the effort to pronounce their Japanese like a native, he argued that many lacked the ability to vary their tone with their choice or words. He thought that we didn’t have as much experience with Japanese composition as his generation and so didn’t get used to handling a variety of tones. He particularly aimed his barbs at foreigners who knew how to use keigo with their bosses but couldn’t sound like a boss to their underlings. He thought that the fault was more glaring because the accent was usually excellent.

    I can’t say whether his diagnosis is correct but I’ll admit my composition skills are pretty weak. However, I think he was making a similar point to another friend who said once that it is easy to lose your Japanese fluency just by getting older. Most of us will put in a furious effort to learn the language when we are young but not many of us will care so much about regular maintenance. If you keep speaking like a youngster in your fifties, though, it might sound odd or even creepy.

    As a small example, it’s interesting to read people writing above about boku and ore. Using those for the first time is part of getting to grips with the language. But what about washi? Has anyone set a date for when they plan to start using that pronoun or do you think you will always feel awkward using it?

  9. Akaki Kuumeri Says:

    Excellent article. I don’t even know what to comment, the author and everybody commenting here have opinions so much more developed than mine.

    The 外国人 in the comic ダーリンは外国人 (Tony László) solved the problem of always getting “I don’to speak Englishhu” as a reply to asking for directions from a Japanese in perfectly good Japanese by instead asking the question in kansai dialect. According to the book, this got the average Japanese person to reply in Japanese. Being a wiener?

    Also: once I got comfortable enough with my Japanese and the pronounciation, I would sometimes mix in the default american accent: “塩を取ってKUDA-SAY!”, “全然WAKARIMA-SEN!” To both show that I know enough to know what sounds foreign and what doesn’t and also to tell people that I am a jolly fellow who knows who he is and who he is not. (I am a foreigner and I will never be a native speaker, but I can make fun of the fact)
    After reading this, I fear I might have again been a wiener here; did I put down other foreigners? Was I being a recist? Crap.

    Neojaponisme: next analyze why it is that foreigners don’t like foreigners in Japan. Why is it that I wan’t to have the whole country for myself?

    http://westfearneon.com/2008/02/28/the-seven-stages-of-gaijinhood/ was actually a good start on this topic. (it is now deleted?)

  10. W. David MARX Says:

    What do you do with your hard-won Japanese fluency when you have a kid who you raise in Japan with your Japanese partner and Japanese in-laws and Japanese schools?

    I am currently up against this challenge. Speaking English in this environment is hard!

    Firstly, he wondered why “you youngsters” were so hung up about accent.

    Yes, I can see the generational shift here, but I think some of it is an artifact of bad pedagogy back in the day. Also, there was probably some colonio-psychological thing about “speaking with native pronunciation.” I do know some professors who can speak very fluently but have just wretched accents. Even the youths with tin ear these days at least sound like they are trying. Interesting topic though.

    He went on to say that we also don’t demand a native accent from a Japanese national speaking English.

    Well, this is because America is an immigrant country where we tolerate a wide variety of accents PLUS English emphasizes consonants so much that if you change vowel sounds a bit you can still understand. This is not true for Japanese. Pronunciation is very very important for communication. Just today I accidentally said カリア for “career” instead of キャリア and the person had no idea what I was trying to say.

    Laszlo

    Seems like an attempt to “outsmart” the Japanese at their own game is a wiener-move, no? John Nathan likes to talk about hustling people at izakaya in kanji-reading contests. C’mon.

    I think West Fear Neon stopped publishing because he thinks the idea of writing about Japan from a point of acquired knowledge is snobby or something.

  11. nate Says:

    the “boku-zoku vs. ore-king crew” bit made me chuckle.
    this needs to turn into a skit or short film.

    Great post! I liked the format.
    I’d better try to avoid being a wiener by getting back to work…

  12. cee Says:

    such an interesting discussion!

    I do think that, in speaking, accent should be worked on a little more than grammar – pretty much for the same reasons Marxy gives. In the US, UK, Australia etc you tend to hear a much wider range of non-native pronunciations, and we’re very used to compensating. That’s not something you can reasonably expect of Japanese people, though – even if a Tokyoite can understand an Aomori accent (isn’t that meant to be particularly far from hyōjungo?), that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be able to work out what someone means in, say, London-vowelled Japanese. My assumption is that natural grammar will come naturally, the more you read and speak and listen: but if you start out with a bad accent and don’t make efforts to improve it, you’ll be hard to understand for every new person you meet.

    Katakana words, for me, are so usually wasei eigo or at least subtly different in meaning from my own English definition of the word that I feel a lot more comfortable pronouncing them as katakana. (except for the standard sounding new ones out to find the word they came from.)

    I sort of assumed that westfearneon had deleted because his secret identity had been barechatta’d?

  13. Chris Says:

    Thanks for this, like many others I’ve been thinking similar things for a while now.

  14. Mutantfrog Travelogue » Blog Archive » An alternative perspective on the “Westerners in Japan avoid each other” phenomenon Says:

    [...] Neojaponisme has posted a fascinating, Einstein vs. Freud style debate between David Marx and Matt Treyvaud on how Westerners should properly speak Japanese. Marxy [...]

  15. Adamu Says:

    West Fear Neon chickened out, but it is not hard to understand why, considering the obscene levels of navel-gazing required to write in this field! I am as guilty of this as anyone, but it is enough to make you want to donate to charity in attempt to make up for all the self-obsession…

    OK on to language learning… I basically agree with all that, but would refine the direction of these suggestions — are we not trying to find some kind of “compromise Japanese” that takes into account the unique status of Japanese-speaking Westerners, linguistic limitations (how to speak with a foreign accent without annoying everyone around you), and the need to avoid preconceived notions to enable people to speak correctly for the occasion?

    I agree with the idea that writing from a position of acquired knowledge has some limitations… namely those who have not made it to “advanced” status might not be ready to receive your advice, or might misunderstand it, etc. It is really important for people to make mistakes but also to correct them when they are found. So rather than get all hung up on stated rules, it might be better advice to just get out there and learn it by experience. I think a lot of times the type of Japanese coming from foreigners that annoys OTHER foreigners might actually be serving that person’s needs pretty effectively. Of course, those in need of instruction should get it, and people are usually too polite to say “you keep calling your students anata and it makes you sound like a wedding priest” but at the same time it might be totally appropriate for a Burmese factory worker to speak Japanese like a working class oyaji.

    If I could offer quickie practical advice on speaking, it would be SPEAK CLEARLY… I had a tendency to mumble for a long time in an attempt to mimic a Japanese accent and it just didnt work.

  16. cee Says:

    (ps i apologise for weiner error of using a mangled japanese word where a perfectly good english one will do)

  17. Adamu Says:

    guys — it’s wIEner as in “don’t be from Vienna”

  18. ClamBake Says:

    M-Bone – “My complaint is really about people who do it and think they are cool or do it to put themselves above other non-native speakers.”

    Yeah… I started it (Kansai-ben) as a joke, and continued it for a couple of months – half to put myself above other non-native speakers, and the other half just because I have a tendency to be a jackass. Now most of it is finally out (in the end it just became a habit).

    I would like to say (in my defense?) that even in English, for a couple of years, I was speaking as though I were from somewhere around Boston, despite the fact that I was born and raised in Indiana, and have never lived anywhere near the east coast. I’ve always been overly-conscious of my linguistic identity, I guess, and have made deliberate changes to it throughout the years in ways like that. Now I’ve sort of worn that Boston thing out, but Standard English really is boring, and Southern Indiana English just doesn’t suit me…

    To bring it back to the original post a bit:

    “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 just think that if someone affects something for long enough, it can rather easily become a natural, unaffected expression. The problem is that most others won’t see/accept it as such.

  19. Roy Berman Says:

    ““Saying “MAKUDONARUDO” for McDonalds”

    That’s what Makku is for, right? ”
    Just don’t forget that “makku” is Tokyo-ben. Out in Kansai people say “makudon.”

  20. Roy Berman Says:

    Living in Kyoto I do tend to slip in and out of Kansai-ben, but frankly I don’t really have the ability to speak complete Kansai-ben very naturally. I have been in Kyoto a total of about 3.5 years so far-all of my time in Japan-but it’s also all been in university environments, where only a fraction of the students, or even faculty/staff, are actually from the area, so it’s actually not particularly common for me to spend a decent period of time conversing with people who actually speak native Kansai/Kyoto dialect. Sure, it happens fairly often, but not enough to be my dominant language environment.

    One Japanese friend (and I can’t recall who, which is annoying me right now) recently told me that I speak in “Kyodai-ben”, i.e. a combination of standard Japanese and Kyoto-ben typical of people who go to study in Kyoto from other parts of Japan.

    I did get a rather strange look the one time I accidentally said “oukini” at a store in Tokyo.

  21. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Yes, the preferred spelling of wiener is W-I-E-N-E-R, although E-I is an acceptable ethnic variant.

    Some great comments here, thanks folks. I only have time for a couple of points. (It’s recycling day.)

    Also: once I got comfortable enough with my Japanese and the pronunciation, I would sometimes mix in the default american accent: “塩を取ってKUDA-SAY!”, “全然WAKARIMA-SEN!”

    I do this too sometimes. I guess inasmuch as it is an ironic way of saying “I know enough to know that this much is wrong!” it is a form of wienerdom, but again, time and place. If it works as a joke, and you don’t make anyone else feel put down, have you really been a wiener?

    “compromise Japanese”

    This is true for me but perhaps in a different way — my Japanese is a compromise between NHK-normal and the $#&ed-up stuff I have learned from “difficult fiction [and] non-fiction” as M-Bone puts it. It’s like owning a chest full of fabulous clothes from fin-de-siècle France. The temptation to wear them is strong; they are, after all, fabulous. But just replacing your modern-day wardrobe with them that would make you look like, yes, a colossal wiener. So you have to discipline yourself, again as M-Bone says, to know when you can get away with what. There are some people with whom I can freely use 然れば and 決す and 女人 as everyday words, and some with whom I never would.

    “Kyodai-ben”

    Ha! Nice.

  22. M-Bone Says:

    “Has anyone set a date for when they plan to start using that pronoun (washi) or do you think you will always feel awkward using it?”

    Honest – I swear that I’m using this from 40. Maybe 35. I already call my wife “oi” half the time.

    Daniel – I think that I would use “kimi” for little kids, BTW. That’s a hierarchy that I’m comfortable with.

    Pronunciation – Mine is not the best. I have never been satisfied with it and can’t really seem to improve it (although I don’t think that it is shocking or anything). I don’t think that my (big) vocabulary makes up for it. I am, however, happy that Japanese people seem to understand me okay – I don’t feel a need to fool people into thinking that I am a native but I’m also not “proud” of sounding like a foreigner or anything. Seriously, does anyone here think that they sound 100% like a native and that it is just a matter of “working at it”? Or do we go for “people understand me, good enough”?

    Very different dynamic in North America, for example, where someone with a strong German accent (like Werner Herzog for example) would likely be considered more sophisticated because of it. Too bad that idea does not not exist in Japan, really (too bad for me anyway).

    “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.

    “Just don’t forget that “makku” is Tokyo-ben. Out in Kansai people say “makudon.””

    Hey, hey. Just because they don’t say it in Kansai doesn’t mean that it is Tokyo-ben – in my experience, people say makku in Chugoku and Kyushu as well. Hearing “makudon” I just picture a burger thrown on a bowl of rice….

    “It’s like owning a chest full of fabulous clothes from fin-de-siècle France.”

    I like busting out Japanized Chinese sayings like 両雄並び立たず in casual conversation with my wife to annoy her.

    Adamu makes a very good point about mumbling – some people seem to think that Japanese sound like this and try to imitate but you just end up sounding like a white guy mumbling bad Japanese.

  23. connor Says:

    As Japan’s global role shifts from fearsome economic power to lovable cultural hotspot

    Understanding that this is intentionally hyperbolic, and understanding that we don’t seem to agree on this, this is still pretty unfair. Morgan Stanley would almost assuredly not exist if it wasn’t for the $9b in capital Mitsubishi pumped in, and the latter was able to obtain a guarantee from the Secretary of the Goddamn Treasury stipulating that even if MS goes under and needs federal money, Mitsubishi does not lose its investment. Whether or not it’s a lovable cultural hotspot, it’s still a force to be reckoned with on the balance sheets; $12 trilli in liquid capital @ 110.5 yen to the dollar paints a different picture than the overall zeitgeist.

    In point of fact, I think that this particular phenomenon probably warrants the sort of humanities-centric analysis that you people on this site are good at. Why are the narratives of “Japan Passing” so powerful and simultaneously so absent in the actual fucking numbers?

    I was auditing a class in 比較経営史 at Yokohama National sometime last year and the Prof (a dipshit to be sure) asked the class which economy would be dominant in the century to come. Some said the US, some said China, a few said India, none said Japan. The Prof asked why. Nobody knew. Being that the US, even at the time, was largely assumed to be on the down and down, and that China’s rate of expansion is widely known to be based on a bunch of bubbles and currency manipulations, and that the economic welfare of both is predicated on an increasingly tenuous cycle of transactions between the Chinese Government and the US Treasury, I was curious as to how anybody would arrive at such conclusions.

    I think West Fear Neon stopped publishing because he thinks the idea of writing about Japan from a point of acquired knowledge is snobby or something.

    You’ve been out of the country too long. In 2008, acquired knowledge is snooty in and of itself, right up there with arugula.

  24. Adamu Says:

    One thing that makes you sound like a wiener is correcting other foreigners’ Japanese… so forgive me for saying that it’s makudo, not makudon (I think Roy made a typo)

    But Google tells me that apparently some people do say makudon as some kind of playful inside joke, at least according to this thread on Mobage-Town:
    http://www.mbga.jp/.pc/_ques_view?ques=7390836&o=2

  25. Hlem Says:

    I’ve always been of the opinion that a good accent was mostly a matter of innate ability- having a good “ear” or not.

    I was a lazy student in my years in Japan but picked up a very good accent from exposure. I knew far more studious and intelligent people who were unable to do the same (my accent in my native English is also very flexible, for whatever that’s worth.)

    Re: Slang: Using age appropriate slang in moderation in casual settings is ok, but people look like fools when they overdo it. Also, beware of out of date slang from older movies and whatnot.

    I’m surprised so few of the people here are comfortable with ore(俺). Obviously you want to use pronouns appropriate to the situation, but in informal situations with people of the same age group I’m surprised nobody uses it. My friends range from blue-collar to salary-man types, but all of them used 俺、 and I was told any number of times it would be the natural thing for me to use. I switch over to boku when I speaking to my father-in-law, or to watashi in many work-related situations.

    I too, would love to transition to Washi, but I’d have to think 60 or so is the downward limit.

    I am eternally mystified by all this talk of assuming another identity or feeling foreign when one speaks another language. Bad gaijin often use this as an excuse not to learn Keigo (“I won’t grovel for anybody” these brave souls declare), as though English contained no rules of politeness or exchanges that establish hierarchy between speakers. Someone incapable of adjusting the level of politeness in their native language would be a social cripple, and a refusal to attempt to acquire the ability is silly.

    As for ‘identity’, look, you manifestly are who you are as long as your thought patterns continue to inhabit the particular grey matter which is yours.

    Language is a set of encoded burbles.

    Learning a new set of burbles doesn’t change who you are.

    Oh, and great blog and interesting comments all around (I’ve been reading for a long time but have only commented to make silly jokes and attack my arch-nemesis Don Delillo).

  26. Roy Berman Says:

    ”Hey, hey. Just because they don’t say it in Kansai doesn’t mean that it is Tokyo-ben – in my experience, people say makku in Chugoku and Kyushu as well.”

    Fair enough. I need to spend a bit of time somewhere in this country that isn’t Kansai OR Tokyo.

  27. Roy Berman Says:

    “makudo, not makudon (I think Roy made a typo)”

    Yeah, my bad. Although they should probably put M-bone’s ” “makudon=a burger thrown on a bowl of rice” on the menu now.

  28. youngjames Says:

    I am eternally mystified by all this talk of assuming another identity or feeling foreign when one speaks another language.

    I dont know, I found that part to be the most accurate and telling part of the whole exchange. And the difference in my personalities is something that i am constantly aware of.

    While your “identity” may not change, your ability to represent that identity is definately different in different languages and changes radically based on your level of fluency. I like hip-hop and while i can express this in Japanese, i cant wax eleoquent on rhyme patterns or beat structures like i can in english.

    The inability to express that facet of my personality does definately affect the way im percieved, and my (in)ability to express these things colors my relationships, my environment, and the social options and avenues available to me. this in turn reflects on the way i grow and develop as a person.

    Now i may be an extreme case, but my mannerisms and voice in japanese are different then they are in english, to the point where when i speak english in the office (which is rare) people are surprised. As ive developed my Japanese ability ive become more able to express the breadth of my personality and the two are more similar now, but there are equally parts of my japanese personality (like sense of humor) that dont translate back into my english personality. Even should my japanese ability grow to the point where i can express the full breadth and depth of my passions and experience differing mores and social expectations dictate that how and what i express will be different.

  29. M-Bone Says:

    “Yeah, my bad. Although they should probably put M-bone’s ” “makudon=a burger thrown on a bowl of rice” on the menu now.”

    I’m going to get takeout and make my own.

    On the issue of identity – Being a Japanese-stuff university prof is a (the) major part of my identity but I will sometimes just introduce myself as a “teacher” in Japanese. Otherwise, many Japanese will assume that I am “erai” and that makes things a bit uncomfortable. I just don’t want to be taken that seriously.

  30. Akaki Kuumeri Says:

    Wikipedia ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bilingualism#Comparing_multilingual_speakers ) also speaks of this persona-per-language phenomenon some of us have found.

    I certainly feel like I have a different personality to each of the three languages I speak. It might well be just because of the limitations in one language or in my skills in that language that makes me come over more laid back in Japanese and more noisy in English.

    Naturally, having people respond to you like they do to a laid back type whenever you speak Japanese might further differentiate the way you act in a Japanese environment (as opposed to an English one)?

    Maku丼 or McUdon? McDonald’s of Japan: I would listen to these ideas if I were you!

  31. M-Bone Says:

    Having maybe sorta like kinda invented the Makudon(TM), I’m going to have to exercise my right to veto McUdon.

  32. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    There’s a nice essay on the “different personalities” concept here, too.

    I think that youngjames hits it well: even if you believe that you have a core, unchanging “identity” within you (a dubious idea, but I’ll grant it), other people can only know it through what you say and do. That is what I mean when I talk about different personalities. And since by definition you cannot say the same thing in two different languages, people will experience your “personality” differently. The two “personalities” will probably be functionally equivalent in many ways, of course, but they will be different just as a saxophone and a guitar make different sounds even if they’re playing the same tune.

    The extreme end of this idea is kind of Heraclitean: No-one has a stable “personality”, but rather something that is redefined with our every word and deed, no matter what language we are speaking–and furthermore everyone we know has their own unique interpretation of what our “personality” “is”. We can’t play the same tune exactly the same twice, even on the same saxophone.

    Having a different personality in different languages is just a gross macroexample of this, and one we are more acutely aware of because when we first begin to learn the new language we struggle with a painfully tangible inability to express what we understand to be our “true selves”. As we grow more fluent, we fill in these gaps until we may become confident that we are expressing the same “self” in both languages, but the fact remains that our new personality is not and cannot be identical with our original one because the medium through which it is expressed is completely different.

    But surely that can’t affect our “selves”, whatever they might be? I guess not, if you have a “self” that is completely impervious to influence from both verbalized thoughts of your own and the reaction of people around you to what you do and say.

  33. kira Says:

    Maybe I’ll sound like a heathen, but I think part of our position in the social hierarchy is “gaijin,” and to never acknowledge our own foreignness in Japanese is sort of weird. At least if you look, sound and have the name of a Japanese person, I think that letting it slip into regular conversation that you are not prevents others from judging you through Japanese ideals — in particular, gender ideals (though I think this dialogue has been more geared towards people that are “obviously” foreign (meaning white? or incredibly fobby?)).

    For me at least, I enjoy making crude or thorny jokes once in a while that point to Japanese as a secondary language. I feel like the range of jokes possible for a female perceived as attractive and likeable (according to various feminine ideals in Japan) are very limited, so I feel like joking around boyishly once in a while allows me to fit more into the “female foreigner” category than into the “Asian girl wanting to be like a mote CamCan girl or a pure Aoi Miyazaki or a cutesy Kyoko Fukada, etc.” If I don’t, I don’t have enough wiggle room in the future to not be perceived as disgusting or totally arrogant when I say something that reflects confidence or firmness (like “what the hell are you doing?” or saying firmly “I’m sorry, but I can’t do that” or “I really think it should be this way”). A foreign identity allows me to navigate Japanese society in a somewhat masculinized way, which is unfortunately, much more free.

    And as I was saying before, I think it allows others to be more comfortable around me. A foreigner that is foreign makes people at ease. I think in America (similarly?), a girl that is boyish makes people feel at ease.

  34. Hlem Says:

    Re: the identity thing mentioned above. 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).

    Also I guess I’m thinking of internal identity, rather than how one is perceived (perceived identity being so malleable and beyond ones control that there’s not too much point in fretting over it anyway).

  35. Hlem Says:

    Oh, and as for pronouncing English words in Japanese. If you don’t use the katakana accent, you’re not doing it right, end of story. I’d say the same also applies for going in the other direction: in English 東京 is To-ki-o, and most people who haven’t been to Japan would find tou-kyou difficult to understand. I do this instinctually now- and certainly think it’s the way to go- but still find myself wincing at my butchered, anglicized pronunciation of Japanese words in English.

  36. Jade Oc Says:

    Popping over from Mutantfrog for a moment….

    I vaguely remember as an undergrad my prof suggesting I avoid the ‘overly fancy’ 手中する and use a simpler form(手に入る). Once or twice in essays I also attempted to get a little poetic (「廃塵に帰した」 or
    something similar) to describe the fall of Ichijodani and was told to knock that off. Okay, maybe it wasn’t suitable for a history essay…. However I was also blessed with a prof that wouldn’t take the gaijin excuse for lack of keigo (this is in Japan, and not a Japanese language prof) so I’m reasonably good at that. But he didn’t like me using too much kanji for grammatical words (eg 為, though I admit that 乍(ながら:然し乍)was a bit much) although I actually prefer reading when there is a lot of kanji: そのために、その他、目に、その為に…. Also my Japanese teacher in high school back in the old country (arrr…) didn’t even admit there *was* an alternative to formal hyojungo until our last year….

    Damn, I want a makudon. No, wait, no I don’t. I’ll have a Mosudon thank you. Would a MOS riceburger in a donburi automatically be a MOSudon? Or would I need to add noodles?

    I think the issue with pronounciation of Japanese placenames and other words in English conversation is pretty simple: if it’s Anglicized, like Paris, Vienna, and Florence, then pronounce it the English way (I would come off a right tosser for saying “I went to Firenze” in English, even though it’s more natural to me since I refer to the city far more in Japanese than in English). if it’s not (eg not in a good dictionary), then pronounce it ‘natively’ please. In France, for example, we have Parisss and Cannn (Cannes). In Japan, we have Tokio and Fooku-orca (NOT Fuckyou ochre).

    And you will Not Be Understood pronouncing ‘Western’ words in Western accents in Japan. Which can be a problem, as it’s not always obvious how Japanese deals with any given word (why is ‘campus’ said with a ‘y’ sound?), so if you don’t know the exact katakana word, it can be hard to guess. It goes the other way something, though: I learned the correct(ish) way to say “Versace” from the Japanese, so never needed to worry about “Versayse”. And sometimes they are even more accurate than (most) native speakers – Sir Walter Raleigh, for example, was not “rally” but “rawly”.

    The idea about accent is ridiculous though. Why not strive for as good an accent as possible? The ideal, as far I am concerned, is passing the Japanese language version of the Turing Test: if they can tell you’re a gaijin on the phone or not. My wife will sometimes correct (ie laught at) my accent, though it’s more a matter of intonation rather than accent, per se. Stressing the various syllables exactly right can be hard (a simple example: ‘bridge’ vs ‘chopsticks’). Of course that’s not always the same across the country – listen to an Osakan say ‘日本’. Sounds like an Edokko saying ‘二本’.

  37. An alternative perspective on the “Westerners in Japan avoid each other” phenomenon | BLACK TOKYO Says:

    [...] Neojaponisme has posted a fascinating, Einstein vs. Freud style debate between David Marx and Matt Treyvaud on how Westerners should properly speak Japanese. Marxy writes: As Japan’s global role shifts [...]

  38. neogeisha Says:

    the gender angle, to which kira alluded, is huge. as a woman, i have found that speaking terrible, overtly gaijin-esque japanese serves me better than proper japanese does. the linguistic ability is processed as the outermost layer of an identity; the broken japanese signposts a rupture with assigned roles, and gives me more freedom to be wagamama.

  39. Mulboyne Says:

    Some Japanese women use similar tactics to kira and neogeisha. I remember hearing an argument between two Japanese colleagues, a man and a woman. The exchange was getting heated, which was strange enough, when the woman broke into English, snapping “So don’t accuse me!”

    It seemed strange to me that she would reach for a foreign language when tempers were running high because that’s often a situation when people will rely on their mother tongue. I asked her about it later and she said that didn’t have the words in Japanese to make her point. She couldn’t use men’s Japanese or “gaijin Japanese” so she went for gender neutral English. And it was a conscious choice.

  40. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Yes indeed, we are two pasty white males which obviously affects our personal perspective on this. Thanks for the commentary. (Anyone with a different knapsack want to write a follow-up?)

    (why is ‘campus’ said with a ‘y’ sound?)

    Because æ after a velar plosive (/k/ or /g/ equivalent) palatalizes the consonant so you get /kya/ instead of /ka/ and so on. Simple!

    But seriously, loanwords just have to be learnt like all the others. If nothing else the pitch accent is bound to trip you up.

  41. napa Says:

    >West Fear Neon chickened out

    Some of it is still there:
    http://westfearneon.blogspot.com/

  42. Roy Berman Says:

    For a while the blog was entirely offline. I guess he decided it was silly to erase past articles and put them back up?

  43. cee Says:

    Because æ after a velar plosive (/k/ or /g/ equivalent) palatalizes the consonant so you get /kya/ instead of /ka/ and so on. Simple!

    Assuming this was the case i’ve always pronounced camden town ‘kyamden town’ when describing it to Japanese people, and confused them horribly as it’s in fact pronounced ‘kamuden’. oh rules, why can you not be hard and fast.

    I wish I could say my mismatched Japanese was part of a strategy to avoid being put into Japanese-woman pigeonholes but it’s probably just that I’m not quite good enough to speak consistently. And being very obviously western means I get so much slack it’s sometimes hard to work out how to address people more appropriately.

  44. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    D’oh! That’s gonna bother me all day now.

  45. Morgan Says:

    Camden is the heart of darkness.

    I agree with kira and neogeisha– as a female, using Japanese that I know is not exactly right or appropriate (speaking in a more boyish way) gives me more leeway, particularly when talking to men. It’s an easy way of endearing myself to my interlocutor while placing myself out of the cultural framework, thus allowing me to push harder on some things that I just couldn’t in Japanese. If I use correct Japanese I find my requests get ignored.

  46. Adamu Says:

    I won’t name names, but I feel like some of these commenters need to postpone drawing conclusions about this sort of thing for a few years. Go out and experience life for a while and then wallow in self-examination. (This coming from a 26 year old, but still)

  47. Durf Says:

    @ Claire (7) and Marxy (10): I don’t find it tough to speak English to my daughter. She’s almost 20 months old now and her vocabulary is starting to grow, and it’s interesting to see which words she takes from my contributions and which from (Japanese) mom’s. She clearly understands plenty of terms in both languages, though, even if my “shoes” only gets her to say くっく in return.

    I understand that the common arc is for the kid to reach age 4 or 5 speaking dad’s language to dad and mom’s language to mom, at which point she realizes that dad speak’s mom’s language when talking to her, and then the child switches to that language more exclusively as a time-saver. But those early formative years are already under her belt by that point, is the hope.

  48. Mulboyne Says:

    I forwarded this post to five older acquaintances of mine – two Americans and three British, all men – who all learned Japanese before 1975. I thought they might comment here but instead they have emailed me. I thought I’d pass on some of their relevant thoughts.

    Firstly, they picked up, and agreed with, Adamu’s comment that “a lot of times the type of Japanese coming from foreigners that annoys OTHER foreigners might actually be serving that person’s needs pretty effectively”. One wrote “There’s no better way to stop people learning a language then to condemn them for making mistakes.”

    Another picked up on David’s comment that “Thanks to more effort, the quality of foreigners’ spoken Japanese is greatly increasing. PhD candidates outshine professors” and said “That was the same in my day”. He went on, “Back in the so-called good old days, there were those who were every bit as good as the touted ones are today. It’s just that there were fewer of them…I think ranging from your time to mine, as I said we have had our great ones, it’s just that with a few exceptions they did not get a lot of publicity”. He noted with irony that, when he was based in Japan and selected for language training, he was sent back to the US to study at the Defense Language Institute rather than do so in the local environment.

    On a similar point, where David wrote “I do know some professors who can speak very fluently but have just wretched accents”, a British guy said that, at least in his day, the most natural speakers were rarely academically-inclined. He said that by far the best Japanese speaker in his class was a Pole who could also speak Mandarin, Cantonese, English, Russian, French, Hungarian, German and probably more. He turned up to the classes one year, seemed to have a permanent hangover, and left two terms later having demoralized the rest of the class with his natural talent. It doesn’t sound like he bothered with kanji to any degree.

    Interestingly, an American believes there was a difference between the British and American students of old: “As much as I hate to admit it, during that time frame I found my British linguist counterparts much more skilled and prepared in reading, writing and the culture, where the Yanks were probably a little more up on the spoken language.”

    There were some differences over the accent issue. An Englishman, who speaks Japanese with an excellent accent, says he believes English-accented Japanese is more acceptable today than it used to be because more Japanese have been exposed to it (and this applies even more so to Chinese-accented Japanese). Another argued, however, that this also means that a poor accent is less excusable. He said that it was common to get a blank look no matter how good your accent was in the sixties so some learners might have felt more incentive to get their grammar right rather than their accent but doubts if that is true today.

    Another Englishman recalls a moment when he considered asking his wife to stop speaking English with him. As she got better, her accent had improved and “she started sounding like Queen Elizabeth which was very unsettling”. He said nothing but later found out from his wife’s friend that she thought he sounded “too much like an NHK public service announcement”. They got into the habit of holding bilingual conversations where each used their native language.

    Three of the men thought it was redundant for foreigners to be judging the Japanese of other foreigners. “The only constituency that matters a damn is the Japanese”, wrote one. However, another said that Japanese commentators were one reason why people might think old Japan hands didn’t master Japanese, “Another deceiving factor in evaluating the abilities, is the Japanese themselves. As you know, many hold the firm belief that no one can master their unique language. After the San Francisco treaty, they felt safe to talk more openly about foreigners, they preferred to limit all discussions and wrote a lot on the lack of proper Japanese speaking foreigners. They just seemed to overlook that they existed, preferring to concentrate on the ‘Hey You! Takusan Sukebe Hancho Ne!’ speakers from the US Bases.”

  49. Adamu Says:

    Nice to see some reaction from people who don’t spend their free time commenting on blogs. And I am heartened to hear that I struck a similar note as those older and wiser than myself.

    A trend I see emerging in these comments is that “foreigners speaking Japanese” is a very broad a subject, posing the risk that conclusions drawn from it might be inappropriately applied to unrelated situations. Where are you from originally? Who are you talking to? Why are you learning the language to begin with? The appropriate Japanese to use can vary widely on any of these.

    The terms of this discussion were pretty well laid out at the beginning. Even so, we should recognize that the stated scope of this debate to “narcissistically limit the following conversation to Japan’s immigrants of non-desperation” does place some serious restrictions on the relevance of the conversation. I mean, how many people really fit that description? And then, how many fit it to the point that their Japanese improves to the point where this advice becomes helpful? We aren’t talking about JET program teachers or university students, we are talking about permanent “immigrants of non-desperation,” a group which may have grown but remains quite small. I think part of the whole mission of this site is to emphasize the importance of this group, but perhaps it does so at the expense of excluding wider swaths of experience.

    That said, as one of these “immigrants” I do think our experience can be instructive in one way or the other and deserves to be told. It’s just interesting to be reminded how different everyone’s experience is. For example, women here seem to be having completely different experiences than any of the men.

  50. Adamu Says:

    “The appropriate Japanese to use can vary widely on any of these. ”

    I mean “the PATH TO appropriate Japanese” will vary.

  51. 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.

    以上です。

  52. 272255225 Says:

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

  53. 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.

  54. 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.

  55. 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.

  56. 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.

  57. 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.

    http://pseudo-asian.livejournal.com/

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  59. 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.

  60. 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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  63. 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.

  64. 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).

  65. 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.