(last updated Jan 24, 1997)

(Sent to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, JALTCall, and Friends Thu, 23 Jan 1997)


At long last, here are the results of the informal survey I started some weeks back.


The issue, as a refresher:

Enter our hero stage right, tired old Dave A travelling in Oita. Then enter stage left a stranger, the "language beggar", who stops DA to practice his English. Our hero wasn't in the mood so he basically tells the antagonist (in Japanese) about his antipathy towards being used as a means to a tongue, moreover for free. LB pushes the point, and DA continues walking. Exeunt. But then Hamlet's knotted conscience (in italics--skip it if you've got a good memory) sets in:


"Look, you should have at least thrown him a bone and answered a couple of his questions. You deal with taciturn students all the time who don't want to learn, and here you are rebuffing somebody who has the gumption to come up and talk. You encourage your students all the time to be outgoing, so aren't you being a hypocrite if you don't respond favorably to it in the real world? What would it have cost you to have been friendly? Now he's probably all dejected and thinking ill of foreigners. Must you have money to teach somebody? Shame on you."


"You are under no obligation to teach this man, nor to uphold the image of 'gaijin as good guy'. Coming up to you right out of the blue is an imposition, one that he should realize he's imposing. Money is not the issue--it's common courtesy between strangers, who through common sense should know not to intrude without good reason. If he wants to chat that badly, he should go overseas, and make the same investment of time and money that we have in learning Japanese."

Okay, enough revamp: Responses:





In other words, a slight tip in favor of the "get out of my face" approach. But only a slight one. If you held a gun to the head of the ambiguous people and had them choose, it might go either way.


1) Small sample: response rate of around 5% (since this survey was sent to DFS, ISSHO, JALTCALL, and Friends, probably reaching at least 1000 mailboxes)

2) Shallow background info on respondents, which might have shed more light on motivation (I deliberately did not ask for age, sex, nationality, length of stay in Japan, language ability, etc, because I wanted to keep this survey informal and easily answerable. Call me Shere Hite.)

3) Odd framing of the issue--reactions to this situation are not entirely dichotomous, so the need to straddle makes ambiguity inevitable, and the survey more inconclusive.

Enough cold water. Now for


AMBIGUOUS is the easiest school to summarize, so let's start with it. AMBIVALENTS said that their response depended on their mood. Excusing oneself (politely, in English or Japanese) due to travel tedium would have been okay, but my reaction, given that he pushed, was understandable.


The ones who said SHAME ON YOU (well, not in so many words) basically reasoned that it would have done no harm to be polite. Throw the gentleman a bone and all would have been well. In more detail:

DSR said basically why not be friendly to friendly people?

"I would welcome any Japanese to come up to me and attempt to begin a conversation. Far from being "put upon" I would find it refreshing from most of the reticent Japanese I encounter. Yes, I look upon myself as somewhat of an ambassador for the USA wherever I go, pollyanna-ish though it may be. I find it is wonderful to make friends and I would much prefer to have friends in foreign places than people who are disinclined toward me."

Paul brought up an issue of professionality:

"We are - in my opinion - the guests in this guy's country, and most of us get paid well over the odds for what we actually do (OK it's arguable!). The other argument is that we are'professionals' and our real job description is much larger than just the time we are paid for (if you were a doctor and saw someone ill on the street, what would you do?)"

MG and GD both pointed out a possible double-standard. MG:

"How would you have felt if this had been three body-con girls instead of one businessman? Would your reaction have been different? Would you still have considered it to be such an imposition?"

Hmm...possible enough. But that would REALLY have to depend on my mood, especially if it was only ONE lady in a mini-skirt... : )

TDC got a bit tautological by saying:

"You should have spoken to him in English. And I think you know that, else you would not have had a grain of doubt in your mind. If you were really doing the right thing you would not be conducting this survey."

Finally the miscellaneous: Some said they too had practiced their Japanese on others at the beginning stages, so this was just quid pro quo. Other noted that I could have taken advantage of the situation and given him my meishi (might even make a student out of him yet!), despite the fact that, um... I live in Hokkaido and was only passing through Oita. Still, I don't know if I would do that even in Sapporo. I get enough crank calls in the middle of the night without needing to invite them in.

But the bottom-line logic was basic bonhomie--that "manners cost nothing", which is axiomatic and warm-fuzzy if you can put it into practice. If you relish communication regardless of source, power to you, I say.

Now a qualifier: not to sound belittling, but when indicated, there was a tendency for shorter-termers (stays off-and-on of a few months or years) to be more accepting of this behavior than long. This is not surprising considering how jaded some people, who don't get out enough for air, can get--cf. letters to the Japan Times!

Still, I don't want to insist that discourteousness is the future for all of us. Au contraire, as long-termer SO said: "

As for me, I generally try to respond in the language in which I am addressed... When I first came here 14 years ago I was very sensitive about getting English responses to my Japanese. Now I don't give a shit. Life is too short."

BTW, Completely independent to our discussion was this recent letter to the Japan Times (Jan 8, 1997), sent to me (via snailmail!) by alert reader Mark in Tomakomai:


Now that's what I call jaded in the other direction. If you don't like servicing people, leave Japan. Fortunately, apparently nobody (save possibly Edith Terry) on our networks is as narrow-minded as that.


Those who told me I had done the right thing had a lot more interesting reasons, and not just because we are all curmudgeons with a curt bent:


K down south said:

"personally, i have recently, after 5 years residence in japan, refused to speak to such people, not only unknowns but also "friends" (see to what extent they are really your friends!), and feel much better about myself. the issue for me is whether i am treated like a human being, or, in the case you describe, like an english machine. there are proper ways of approaching people, as you mention. the kind of people you describe have no concept of your humanity."

Echoing this were the non-Anglophone natives, particularly French and Germans, who found the assumption that a White equalled English very annoying. They (and English natives who knew a third language) would avoid any language comprehensible to the beggar altogether to teach him a lesson. (Problem is that sometimes the beggar knew a good bit of French or Spanish too!)

MM said:

"I take the latter view that you have no obligation to speak in English if approached in the socially retarded manner you described. I think it also goes both ways. There is a monthly discussion group of Japanese graduate students (snip) at Johns Hopkins every month held entirely in Japanese. One of the few non-Japanese who attends simply for language practice is largely, and rightfully, ignored."


Doreen said:

"Nice people who really want to converse with foreigners will not mind doing it in Japanese; so we owe nothing to the other kind, who at best are one-sided, and at worst are creeps."

BP said:

"I indulged someone like this once, he got on the bus with me, and talked my ear off. What he was saying made me believe very strongly that he was an Aum member, or some other kind of cult ("our leader wants to change Japan" etc.)"

3) IT'S DANGEROUS: (and these put an X-Files chill down my spine)

Another BP said:

"In Korea, I was approached by what looked like a regular businessman, with the same kind of story. He studied English and needed practice. The friend with him couldn't speak English, he said. I had just arrived, so the two of them showed me to my hotel. It was lunch time, so they offered to take me to lunch, in exchange for English practice. I accepted. We went to a restaurant. It was a very enjoyable lunch. I was having a good time. After lunch, they stole my wallet and disappeared. Just a word of caution."

KM brought up in my opinion the best point yet:

"But it seems to me the issue has nothing to do with English teaching/speaking per se but everything to do with privacy. How much do you want a stranger to know about you? And could you be putting yourself in danger or an awkward situation by being Mr.Cooperative nice guy gaijin?

"One example should illustrate and coincidentally it is another Kyushu story [boy, this Kyushu place...]. A female friend of mine on a Japan Rail pass was traveling the country. Somewhere in Kyushu on a train platform a friendly fellow comes up to her and wants to chat too. Being a cautious person, she was not about to give him her life story. She answered only two questions: where are you from? Holland. And where are you going? Ibusuki. End of conversation. Bye. Bye.

"That evening she was sitting in her hotel room when the phone rang. It was the fellow she had met in that far off train station, just wanting to chat a bit more. How did he find her? Quite simple really. He assumed there was only one place for a foreigner to stay in Ibusuki-the big international hotel. So he called there and asked to have himself connected to the Dutch woman's room.

"We all had a good laugh over it at the time but it could have had its spooky side too. What if he had just showed up at her room. The hotel would likely have given out her room number. With just the barest civility to a stranger she could have been putting herself in danger. AS a male and an American, one might have a bit more anonymity but probably not much.

"So my advice. Dont worry about strangers who want to practice. Every podunk town in the country has an English school now just dying for customers. Let the fellow find one. And follow our mothers' cardinal rule - never talk to strangers even in Japan. This place is not the lalaland it once was."



Let's get down to the common denominator in this issue--the remarkably uniform treatment of foreigners by Japanese. It never ceases to amaze me just how uniformly people react toward us in this society--even right down to the very same words verbatim. Always the same questions about nattou and raw fish. Sneezes inexplicably receive the query "kaze hiita ka na?", which is not a orei like "bless you". My younger (blue-eyed) daughter invariably receives several "oningyou-san mitai" ["she's like a doll"] --no variations, like "oningyou-chan ni nitteiru"--every single time we're out in public.

Moreover, it doesn't seem to be a "regional thing"--it could happen to you anywhere in Japan, be it Hokkaido or the Ryuukyuus. This survey shows that just about all of us non-Japanese, who look it, get approached at some time in our stay solely for English practice--often enough times that we have to make personal policies to stop thinking about it too much. And this policymaking gets passionate and dipolar--a good two-thirds of respondents didn't think that this issue is trite or worth ambivalence. This matters because it affects us down to the personality level--either we transform into the genki gaijin or the rebuffing grump.

Still the mystery remains about the other side of the mirror. Is there an unspoken handbook that Japanese have that elicits a conditioned reflex of "let's go up and do a Nova salaryman on that gaijin!"? Or is it just something encouraged by English schools or taught by Monbushou? (Actually, according to one of my Japanese friends in Otaru, her college English club had senpai who actually recommended that she go "gaijin hunting" [gaijin hantto suru] for native speakers to practice on...)

I know. I'm being "fresh off the boat". It's all part of the mental barrage that one gets here, and it can be intriguing to some, infuriating to others, or both, at times, to pointdexters like I.

So slapping me into place came a response from Uncle Rube, the unrepentantly jaded Osakan:

"You are showing your youth. The correct term, I believe, is 'English banditry.' This country is therefore full of English bandits. 10-12 years ago there were numbers of Letters to the Editor of the [Mainichi Daily News] talking about English bandits."

A youth I yam. I guess it's just a phase I'm going through, and my tired old software needs rewriting. The point is that according to the survey, there is the following tendency: the longer one stays here, the more likely you are to be curt. Not surprising, but it is relieving to know that I am not all that inherently eccentric. Better stay outta my way when I'm tired.

Thanks to all the respondents for making this such an interesting topic, and for helping me find a more "strength-in-numbers" way to resolve my nagging conscience.

Dave "Curt" Aldwinckle

No longer in LalaLand

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