“I am not American!” — on speaking English to the French in Japan

Probably one of the most frustrating things about being a westerner in Japan is that people see you, notice you’re white (or not Japanese/Asian), and assume you’re a tourist/outsider, that your stay is short-term and temporary and thus you have not learned Japanese. Even once they find out you’re a student of Japanese, they still probably assume your Japanese must not be very good. (Because Japanese is such a special and esoteric language that it’s almost impossible to learn for non-Japanese! Of course!). Their next assumption is that you are a native English speaker, and based on that most people will avoid you because they are shy, ashamed of what they perceive to be their poor English (despite studying it for years in school–but speaking is the skill least emphasized there so many are weak at it) and don’t want to have to speak English with you because they might be embarrassed. Or, although this is a minority, they do want to try speaking English with you to improve their abilities so you are accosted for free English conversation practice/lessons.

To throw a personal anecdote in here, once I attended a fall festival with my host mom and sister where my host mom was performing with her gospel choir (I know!). After the performance, she introduced me to some of the other ladies in the group, most of whom were older, like 40s-50s. Several of them were the type to pursue English as a hobby, and evidently wanted to speak to me in English, so they did (even though it had already been established by that point that I had come to Japan to study abroad, studying Japanese, and they had heard me speak Japanese). This was maybe one of the first times this had happened to me, and I didn’t know what to do. What I did know is that my brain was in Japanese mode. I had been speaking nothing but Japanese with my host family for a day or so by that point, and I was enjoying the immersion. To just switch to English because some older ladies wanted to practice their English with me–because I’m non-Japanese and different!–seemed ludicrous to me at that time. So, I responded to their English questions in Japanese. I wasn’t trying to be rude; I just honestly didn’t know what to do, and I was in Japanese mode, so I spoke Japanese. Maybe they did think I was rude because their interest in me seemed to fade after that point.

Thinking back on the whole situation makes me feel crappy, because–did I do the right thing? If not, what should I have done? I feel like I was rude by speaking Japanese to them when they wanted me to speak English, but if I’d spoken English it would have negated the whole reason I came to Japan–to practice my Japanese! As the person spending the money on the abroad experience as opposed to the person who is just taking advantage of free opportunities from home, shouldn’t I get to dictate the terms? Or is that just typical American selfish thinking? I really don’t know. Maybe I will write a Japanese entry on lang-8 about this and see what kind of responses I get from Japanese people. In any case, as my story demonstrates, it’s sort of a lose/lose for you as a westerner in Japan (whether you’re avoided or too-eagerly approached as a presumed speaker of English), especially if you do want to interact with Japanese people and speak Japanese with them.

It couldn’t possibly get worse unless… you’re non-Asian and yet you’re not even a native English speaker… and you may not speak English very well at all! I suspected this might be the case for nationalities like French; I figured many French people had visited Japan only to meet with the expectation that they speak English when many do not (let’s be real, largely out of that French-language-superiority pride). It’s often occurred to me to consider answering anyone who insists on speaking to me in English instead of Japanese with, “あ、フランス人です [Oh, I’m French]” and see if that gets them to switch to Japanese (sometimes people are so flustered by the sight of a foreigner that they will answer your Japanese query in English). (This could backfire if the Japanese person turns out to also be fluent in French, but those chances are slim, and besides I do speak French, more or less, just am obviously not a native speaker.) I was curious to see if I could find French people complaining about this phenomenon happening to them, so I did a Google search using some key French terms… and I hit paydirt! I uncovered some really interesting stuff. We don’t read a lot about this in English because, naturally, those it happens to (non-English-speaking non-Asian-appearing people) are not going to write about their experiences in English. I thought it would be cool to translate some of it so all can enjoy the French perspective on the assumption that all westerners in Japan speak English. Naturally, there’s a lot of complaining!

First I found this thread (active from 2006-2007) on the France-Japon forums. In a subforum entitled Japanese Society, someone started a thread called The Japanese and English. (I translated the below into English.)

I have a little problem sometimes in my relations with Japanese people – or I should say in my meetings with Japanese people, as this doesn’t happen anymore with those that I know.
There is a reflex deeply implanted indeed in the Japanese consciousness: when they see a foreigner, they start to go off in English. That irritates me, that irks me, it puts me off and that’s only the beginning: I am NOT AMERICAN!!!!!

For some reason I’m ignorant of, but which is maybe linked to the American occupation after World War II, the Japanese developed a complex which borders on paranoia about English and that makes some of them particularly aggressive. As a foreigners, we find ourselves approached like this by two types of people on the street:
– those who will ask the time with no Japanese on hand…
– those who will try and get free “English lessons” through contact with a foreigner.
The second category is – by far! – the largest.
And it’s incredibly exasperating when English is not our mother tongue and when, like me, you speak it very badly. One time, fine, two times, okay…
By the 150th time in 3 months, you start to want to take swipes – which have escaped from me the few times I’ve reached my limit…

Again – I am sure of this – for those that speak Japanese easily while not speaking English, these “approaches” by Japanese in search of English teachers can give way to friendly meetings and eventually continue as friendship. The problem is that the aggression about English is so developed that these people will fall all over you until they understand that you don’t speak English well and, in any case, it’s exhausting for them to make the effort to come practice it regularly with you (this has often happened to one of my Filipino colleagues).

This morning again, there was one who came up to give me his little spiel (hello, how are you etc. I am sooooooo happy to see you… I want to speak english but…), and it almost took my entire cup of coffee before I contented myself with asking him if he knew how to speak Japanese. Like always, that stunned him for one whole minute, then he asked me where I came from, a little polite conversation for 10 minutes and goodbye…

This attitude isn’t flattering to the Japanese or to the foreigners. I’m aware I have an all too French perspective on this, but I find it particularly depressing to see Japanese people self-destruct in the way they “stoop” to speaking English to any old foreigner. As if the Japanese didn’t value their national language in any way and as if it were normal for a foreigner to live in Japan for 2-3-5 or 10 years without learning to speak the first word of Japanese (and there are some like that!).
In France we wouldn’t imagine for a second that someone would come to live more or less long-term to work or study without learning at least the basics of the language. But the Japanese seem to find that natural.

Moreover, their attitude is so simplistic compared to the outside world, which has been reduced to an English-speaking country. You really get the sense that in the Japanese mind it’s “outside Japan, it’s America, and if it’s not really America, it’s the same because outside Japan the whole world speaks English (that’s a fact)”.
See how that’s not flattering to Japanese culture (there was even one – just one, I’ll emphasize – who asked me if France was in Europe) and is particularly insulting to the Russians, Arabs, Greeks, etc. who are not necessarily seasoned English speakers but who have a separate language that is also worth studying!

[…]

My “problem” is that I speak Japanese or Arabic or Italian but not English (or a little…), so it has a strange effect on me to be categorized as “English speaking” just because I’m white. Especially because the opposite is false, when I was in France and I saw an Asian person on the street, I didn’t really think he was Japanese. He could have just as easily been Chinese, Korean or Indonesian and would not really have appreciated it if I came to speak to him in Japanese!

Of course, it’s relatively innocent but it’s still very urusai!!!

[…]

What I find shocking is that the Japanese find it normal for a foreigner, even one living in Japan for 5 years, not to speak Japanese and they beat themselves up because THEY don’t speak English in their own country. I would understand that attitude from a Japanese person who lives in the US or even in England but I don’t really see why English should be “THE” language in Japan.
I’m not talking about tourists, they won’t invest in learning Japanese for a 15-day vacation. But in my office (and this is just an example!) there’s one guy who’s worked there for more than 5 years and, except for “konnichiwa” and “chotto matte kudasai,” he doesn’t understand the first word of Japanese. It turns out that this guy has two school-age kids and he berates the teachers because they don’t know how to speak English. I swear, any French person in the same case would throw this idiot out, but since they’re Japanese they apologize, saying they’re sorry, and go out to accost the first foreigner they see to try and improve an English they don’t have.

[…]

A guy comes and speaks to me in English, so I explain to him gently (this was at the beginning of my time in Japan, before it bugged me) that I am French and that I don’t speak English. He keeps going in English, so I repeat myself, insisting that “eigo ga dekinai,” I ask him if he understood and he answers “I understand” and continues in English – which must have been very good or very bad because I didn’t understand a word of his speech!
If his English had at least been at my level, somewhere between bad and passable, or if he’d spoken to me in his language or in mine, maybe we would have understood each other. But there was nothing to be learned like that….

Responses in the thread range from “true, but what can you do?” to “English is THE language of international communication, and the Japanese know this” to “this has been happening to me for 25 years, and it doesn’t bother me! Then I give them a lecture on how appearances can be deceiving, because I’m not a foreigner even though I look like it!” — and someone even proposes a humorous “counter-attack” that entails speaking Chinese to Japanese tourists in France!

Someone else chimes in:

Yes, let’s not confuse “foreigner” with “Westerner” at least! The vast majority of foreigners in Japan are Asian and the languages most spoken by foreigners are Chinese, Korean, and certainly Portuguese and Spanish, rather than English…

Yes, it’s true that they automatically speak English to us. Whether in thinking that we’re actually American, or in simply thinking that we naturally speak English. Even worse, there are even people who come talk to me (in Japanese) about this or that random fact about the USA for 5 minutes without even asking me if I come from there…

To me there are two reasons:
– They think that Westerners in Japan don’t speak Japanese (and they are unfortunately often right!)
– They think that all Westerners speak English

I don’t know more but I read someone who said he’d answer, when someone spoke in English to him automatically, “And would you like it if everyone spoke to you in Chinese when you were abroad?” I think I’m going to test this argument some time… 🙂

And again, we are rather well served being French. Everyone knows France, and most of the time people really LOVE the country. I have friends who are asked if their country is really found in Europe, if “that’s a country?!” etc…

I can’t conceive either how you could live in a country without trying to learn the language.
But we also have to tell ourselves that it’s also a little our French culture that makes us have this reaction: in France, for us it’s inconceivable for foreigners to emigrate without learning French. But in other countries there isn’t really the same implicit “requirement.”
Let’s think also of all the immigrant communities in the USA where only the second generation speaks the language – when they do speak it…!

Another perspective:

I don’t think it’s worth getting upset over, let’s give them a good image of France by keeping our calm and our good manners! And by doing so, that will make several more Japanese aware that not every foreigner speaks English.

I would add that the French have the reputation of not liking anything but their language, and of refusing to employ English out of loyalty. I’m not at all like that, as I love all languages, English included, but I didn’t know that we have a reputation for also being narrow-minded.

The French are, on the other hand, very inclined to confuse Japan with China, when you return to France, your kids will automatically be labeled “Chinese.” And when you go to Spain it was “Chinos”!

The OP responds to that:

There, I am absolutely in agreement, last year when I returned to France for my brother’s wedding, I wore a kimono for the ceremony. All my family congratulated me on my elegance but on the street between the church and city hall, I couldn’t count the “Ooooh, what a pretty little Chinese costume.” I tried to explain to several of them that the outfit was Japanese and not Chinese but I was hit with indifferent looks and “Ahhh, it’s all the same!”
It may be, moreover, that the French become unbearable in the eyes of foreigners by their refusal to speak in English, but as I am French myself and totally schooled in the language, I have a little trouble realizing it. We need the perspective of a foreigner who lived in France.

In my case, they find that I really don’t speak English well, so I have to say “sorry” again when someone bumps into me on the street, that’s not a big deal, what exasperates me is the number of people who, after having chatted for 2 minutes, ends by saying to me “pliiiiiiiize, teach me english.”
The cherry on top was this winter in the Hiroshima region. It was really cold and I was struck with a desire to go in an onsen. I get to a hotel and ask the man I see at reception (in Japanese) to tell me where the baths are. And he answers me “nanakai, second floor.” Stunned, I ask him again, because I’m really bad at English, I understand “second floor” anyway and I get the same response. Assuming he spoke better Japanese than English, I found the baths quickly enough on the seventh floor but what to say to him then about forgetting English…
I heard it said – but I don’t know if this is true – that the Americans never went to the baths, maybe because they were being directed to the wrong floor at the same time!

And someone else hits the root of the issue right on the head:

What I don’t really like is when I’m put in a box right away, a stereotypical category (whether American or French) I would just like to be taken for me, with my level, my body, as a human being, to be able to exchange natural things from everyday life, to adapt as much as one can from one to the other in order to evolve based on that. But for that, their image of the foreigner would have to change, and apparently that’s not happening tomorrow.

The OP also says:

If by chance I run into a foreign tourist in town (which never fails to happen in summer), instead of going to talk to a Japanese person that everyone knows doesn’t speak a word of English, he will come talk to me just because I’m white! That’s happened to me many times and I hated it, but not more or less than if it had been a Japanese person…

Initially, and this is why I started this debate, what stunned me was the Japanese complex towards English. The French, totally known to be monolingual, the majority of the time had no reason to know or speak English in daily life. While a Japanese person, even if he finds himself in a professional and personal situation in life that will never ask him to use English daily, will have nightmares at night because he doesn’t know how to speak English. I’m exaggerating a little but I don’t think it’s far from the reality in which I see them coming towards me, desperate and pleading “teach me english”…

On the contrary, in France if a foreigner comes to stay 5 years to live and work in France, the average French person will not imagine that this person doesn’t apply himself to French. The average French person will find it totally normal that all the administrative documents be in French (and in the case of “This is France, you understand” it’s likely you’ll get it!), the butchers won’t know how to speak English and the school delivers diplomas in French and not in English or Moldovan (something that might change – at least I hope – with Europe and you’ll maybe have a choice between European languages).
On the other side, the basic Japanese person, so quick to say “ここは日本だから” at every turn, will find it normal that a person who lives and works in Japan for 5 years doesn’t even know how to say konnichiwa, goes to help him every year to renew his visa, every month to pay his electricity bills, and every day to his classes saying it must be “tsurai” for this poor man!

When it comes to English, there’s no more “nihon dakara,” it’s “sumimasen,” “gomennasai” and “shippai.” There are many ways to answer – or not answer – when you are spoken to in English and you don’t like that. In French is one and returning “nihon dakara” to them is another. College kids ask me often why I speak Japanese and I answer that it’s for the same reason as them. They are always very disappointed because I think they were anticipating very elevated, Zen philosophical reasons (but maybe I’m kidding myself, I haven’t had a lot of success yet in closing in on the problem).
You can also not answer if you’re tired, as far as with people you’ll never see again. But if it’s teachers at your kids’ school or your gym buddies, it’s worth the pain of explaining once and for all, right?

This remark was also very interesting:

In the end, you will also realize to what point the Japanese person is an American colony from a cultural point of view. It’s something harmful, as you would like for them to declare their independence, but there are certain Japanese who don’t want it and others who can’t. Those must be taught the idea of patriotism in a cultural sense.

(Also in that thread, hilariously, a French person calls a Québécois out on bad French! Damn! Typical French bluntness, I love it.)

I also found a Japanese who speak English thread on another forum, Forum Japon. But I think it says mostly the same things as above, so I’m not going to translate excerpts.

Then I came across this: Je ne suis pas Américain ! [I’m not American!], a journal essay by one Alain Delon accompanied by a drawing.

For most Japanese, France is an American state somewhere between Kansas and Idaho, and French people in Japan are inevitably American. Usually American tourists.

It’s very hard to speak Japanese with a Japanese person.
Believing it will please you, and too happy to be able to put to use two patient years of night classes with Nova, a Japanese person will always do what he can to respond to you in English. Don’t bother telling him that you don’t understand anything Anglo-American, he will be totally lost. But tell him you’re French, and maybe things will start to clear up. “Sasuga furansujin!” (“Just like a French person!”) he’ll say, “Amerikagirai!” (“Anti-American!”).

What’s never occurred to any Japanese person is that if the French balk at speaking English, it’s not because they hate the United States or England, which are their allies, but very simply because they love their own language. What the French refuse at the core is very naturally what no English speaker has ever accepted for himself throughout the world: to change languages like you change shirts.
Also, how could the French be able to hate the English, since England doesn’t exist…

But French speakers don’t just love their language, they also love all languages. A Frenchman in Tokyo, if he’s enlightened, will want to speak Japanese above all, and French on the side (despite all there are some lying dormant, and I know a certain number of French-Japanese couples who persistent in loving and fighting in English… It’s very sad).
The Japanese, for their part, well, they clearly make less of a fuss: you can count today infinitely more Anglo-American words in the neon signs of Tokyo than German phrases on the walls of Paris during the occupation, and the announcements of certain train lines, like the Toei Mita, are in Japanese and English (but the New York subway announcements are maybe in English and in Japanese?).

In short, this is not the time to be French, Italian, Greek, or Swedish living in Japan. To do it well, you’d almost have to be able to wear two T-shirts nonstop: one “Boku wa kankôkyaku ja nai! Nihon ni sundemasu!” (“I’m not a tourist! I live here!”) and the other “Boku wa beikokujin ja nai!” (“I’m not American!”).
With a little luck, the face of your interrogator will clear up: “Naruhodo! Aran Doron ni niteru!” (“I see! He looks like Alain Delon!”). This will signify that the message is passed, that in their eyes, finally, you are not just a mere American in Tokyo!

I also want to say that I really enjoyed discovering my ability to read these French forum threads and understand the vast majority without once consulting a dictionary! I also learned some new words and phrases that amuse me, such as abbreviating c’est à dire [that is to say] with c.à.d. — hee! (Those cute colloquialisms are always what I love learning best, no matter the language!) I can only credit this to completely throwing myself into French spring 2007, reading only in French, doing my best to talk to my host family and express myself as best I could (even though I failed miserably so many times). I arrived in France only a month after leaving Japan, so in many respects I was experiencing culture shock not from the U.S. but from Japan (such as wanting to continue to have totally impersonal shopping/dining experiences, whereas in France it is extremely rude not to greet people in the service industry with “Bonjour” when you first come up to them–something I unfortunately didn’t learn until after I left), and I missed my wonderful experience there terribly especially when my time in France began shaping up to be not as ideal. Nevertheless I did my utmost to immerse myself and the fact that I can still read easily in French today is proof that it was worth it. I do enjoy many aspects of French, and learning and reading about the relationship between France and Japan, in any of those three languages, is one way to keep my interest in it alive despite my need to focus the majority of my attention on Japanese, the language I’ve finally chosen as #1.

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One thought on ““I am not American!” — on speaking English to the French in Japan

  1. Die Huusfrau says:

    I know this is a very old post but just came across it.

    Non-english speaking ‘white’ or ‘white looking’ people in East and SE Asia can get super frustrated with people assuming they can/want to speak English.
    In the same way East Asians or East-Asian looking people in the West can get frustrated with people assuming they don’t speak English.

    Why can’t people just try speaking to individuals in the same way they speak to everyone else, to see how they respond (which shows whether they can/want to speak a certain language) instead of just deciding at first glance that a certain individual can’t possibly speak a certain language just because of how they look?

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