An experience Japanese speaking foreigners find annoying – and Japanese don’t understand?

After I came to Japan my experiences with talking to Japanese people obviously got a lot more and even though in general the conversations were (and are) really pleasant, I did find myself occasionally in odd situations.

Last year, in the summer, I wrote about those strange encounters and shared a link to the YouTube video “But we’re speaking Japanese! 日本語喋ってるんだけど“, which shows an exaggerated sketch about just this type of conversations. Currently the video has over 1.300.000 views. I can easily see why, because the video manages to showcase an important point and is absolutely hilarious while doing so. For all of you, who might not have seen it, watch below:

Funny, right?

But just now I found a video from a Japanese YouTuber, who went out on the streets of Tokyo, showed the video to several (young) Japanese and filmed the reaction to it. Let’s have a look at that, as well.

Of course showing only such a small and limited amount of people does not reflect the country in its totality, but I was really confused by it. Did they really not understand the point of the video? I mean, I could understand, that they just don’t think it’s such big of a deal, or don’t think it’s funny, but missing the point completely?

Maybe the following statement is just as bad, but when I’m in Germany, I actually expect that any person I meet will speak German, not matter what they look like. It might be confusing at first, if you were completely immersed in a daydream and someone asks you for the way in English, which you in turn answer in German. But as soon as someone has my full attention, I think I would recognize, if he spoke my language and react accordingly.

Are those just two extremes? Thinking that no one speaks your language unless he looks like you vs. everyone speaks my language, no matter how they look?

Don’t get me wrong, I do not want to bash the people seen in this video. I am honestly curious about the fact, that people see the same thing and understand something completely different.

What do you think about this/these video(s)?

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12 thoughts on “An experience Japanese speaking foreigners find annoying – and Japanese don’t understand?

    • I think all of them go eventually somewhat to the point of the video, after the interviewer asked them questions about it.
      On the other hand I thought it was very telling that the one girl said the waitress should have tried gestures to communicate and only realized the flaw in her thinking after the interviewer said “but they all speak Japanese”… ^^

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      • How about pronunciation. A non-native Japanese speaker may speak the language in such a way that it is technically correct, but might be misunderstood.

        As a Northerner (USA) I often have a hard time understanding Southern’s accents:

        “Bald Peanuts” …
        Oh. “Boiled Peanuts” and thousands of other examples.

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      • Yes, there are beginners (and others) whose pronunciation might be hard to understand for Japanese people, just as the English of some Japanese people is hard to understand.
        Though I don’t think this is really the issue here. This type of conversation happens to fluent Japanese speakers more frequently, compared to people who speak broken Japan (so far as I’ve heard)
        I do think it’s an interesting topic and I might try to discuss it with Japanese friends at the next nomikai (^∇^)

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  1. Based upon my experience in Japan, I believe this video is accurate. I will be the first one to say that my Japanese is not very good: I struggled with pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary, and at times my weaknesses manifested as a reluctance to communicate in Japanese. Therefore many times I was that foreigner who appreciated English communication.

    Where I did apply myself, however, was in learning how to write kanji. I took Heisig’s curriculum and worked really, really hard my first year. My second and third years this got me praise from some Japanese people…as well as surprise and shock.
    1. At one point the students at my junior high were learning the names and capitals of all of the Japanese prefectures for a writing test. I got a copy of the study guide and worked really hard for a weekend. When it came time to take the test, I scored 98%. The students knew I was taking the test, and the next day, when their scores were posted, they asked me my score, and I showed them my paper. While one or two high achieving students politely congratulated me, I saw dismay in many of their eyes. One wondered aloud, “But I’m Japanese and you’re not! How did you get a better score than me?” The answer to that is simple: I’m better educated and have had more experience cultivating study skills.

    2. Once while teaching at an elementary school I had a free period. The fifth graders were practicing calligraphy, and the teacher invited me to join them. The kanji they were working on that day was one I had studied before. While the techniques of moving a brush were new to me, the stroke order was familiar, and my performance was not perfect, but was certainly legible. At one point the principal turned to a student and rebuked her: “You are Japanese, but the foreigner is doing better than you.”

    Fundamentally, I got the impression that Japanese people are taught, “Japanese is a difficult language, and only those who are ethnically Japanese can read, write, and speak Japanese properly.” In the west, certainly in the U.S., we fall to the other extreme and expect everyone to know our language. Both are ignorance, and both are ethnocentrism.

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    • I do think, that it’s great to see and meet so many Japanese people making an effort to speak the language they think the person in front of them speaks and of course everyone not speaking Japanese will be glad about it. There really isn’t anything wrong with that.

      Kudos to you for being able to learn Kanji to such a degree. I am still struggling with those and I think I might actually have forgotten more than I want to admit. It’s a constant learning, but thanks to my freelance translation work I am forced to always keep up.
      (Bonus points for you, if you can actually write Kanji instead of “painting” them ^^)

      Though I studied the Nihonjinron – basically the school of thought, that Japanese are so unique, that no one outside of Japan and not from Japanese descent can understand their culture, thinking, and of course the language – but it did surprise me to find it still present in those young people.

      You are right, that both are ignorance and I think many of us, who might think that they are open-minded, will be surprised to discover that things we take for “right” and universal, are actually culturally ingrained beliefs. At least I am often, even after all those years of marriage, when I tell my husband something is “of course” this or that way and he looks at me like I’m crazy 😉

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    • Unfortunately I don’t speak sufficient Chinese (yet) but I had the feeling that in China the people were more open to the concept of foreigners speaking good Chinese. Though maybe the stronger feeling is, that you might speak the language but can’t ever really understand the nuances behind it? I could see how both cultures might have this in common

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      • Sometimes I get the easily impressed “You speak so well!” reaction, but it’s not uncommon to be pronouncing something completely correctly and people just don’t understand.

        However, to be fair, something very different from the monoculture of Japan is that many (usually older) Chinese people don’t even speak Mandarin. That can happen when traveling to smaller towns.

        Liked by 1 person

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