THE KUME GAFFE PART THREE
ISSUE HITS WORLD PRESS
(click here to see previous parts to this series)
Fukuzawan friends: Here is my piece on fluent foreigners from the Chicago Tribune that you helped me with. Thanks for the generous assistance. Mike Lev
Date: Sunday, October 27, 1996
Source: By Michael A. Lev, Tribune Staff Writer.
Section: NEWS Dateline: TOKYO
Copyright Chicago Tribune (to see jpeg of edited front page, click here)
(posted to Fukuzawa by the author Mon, 28 Oct 1996)
WHEN IN TOKYO, DON'T SPEAK AS THE JAPANESE DO
FLUENT FOREIGNERS OFTEN VIEWED WITH SOME ALARM AND SUSPICION
Marc Simmons, a British computer consultant who lives in Japan, was chatting with a young Japanese woman on the subway recently when she cried out in disgust. The reason: He switched in mid-conversation from English to fluent Japanese. "Yaadaa!" she screeched, using the Japanese equivalent to "yuck" and making it quite clear she suddenly found him repellent.
To Simmons, the episode was bizarre, but not unusual. In one of the odder twists to this small island nation's relationship with the rest of the world, many natives don't like foreigners who speak Japanese too well.
"I've spoken fluent Japanese to people and they've called me a `weird foreigner,' or an `overboard foreigner,' " Simmons said. "They don't feel anybody but the Japanese can speak their language."
Many foreigners fluent in Japan puzzle over the phenomenon. In their more charitable moments, they wonder if the reaction is based on surprise that anyone has mastered the difficult language, or disappointment that an exotic foreigner has suddenly become less interesting.
"I would call it defensive superiority--to make their club more exclusive," said Dave Spector, a Chicagoan who is a celebrity in Japan where he appears on television shows as a Japanese-speaking commentator and entertainer. "The Japanese are proud of the fact that they take a long time to get to know. If someone speaks fluently, then all of a sudden the theory that Japanese are impenetrable doesn't hold much water. It threatens the status quo."
Japan's geographic and cultural isolation spawned its sense of uniqueness and, arguably, superiority. Scholars agree that remnants of that ideology remain, but they don't agree that it's unhealthy.
"The majority of Japanese feel that foreigners are foreigners and Japanese are Japanese," said Shigehiko Toyama, a professor of English literature at Showa Women's University in Tokyo. "There are obvious distinctions. Foreigners who speak fluently blur those distinctions and that makes the Japanese feel uneasy." But Toyama said most of the reaction is wonderment at foreigners who are fluent. "It's not negative," he said.
Hiroshi Tanaka, a sociology professor at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, is more critical. He said the aversion to fluent foreigners is a legacy of Japan's militaristic nationalism. "The Japanese thought they were superior," he said.
Just how widespread this question of discomfort is among the Japanese was made clear on television a few weeks ago when a prominent newscaster commented on a man living in Japan who spoke perfect Japanese though his family is from India. "It's better if foreigners speak broken Japanese, right?" the newscaster quipped.
The comment, by Hiroshi Kume on the TV-Asahi network, set off a protest among some foreign scholars and business executives who speak fluent Japanese. Several have written letters or called the network seeking an explanation, and the incident has become the subject of intense debate with an Internet discussion group on Japan issues.
A spokesman for the network defended Kume's comment as a joke that acknowledged the fact that it remains somewhat rare-- and therefore a bit odd--to see a non-Japanese speaking the language well.
But some fluent foreigners said Kume's remark reflected an uncomfortable truth about this nation that will continue to get in the way of its relations with the outside world.
"There's an us-versus-them attitude," said Glen Fukushima, a prominent American executive in Tokyo and former U.S. government trade official. "It's a sense of being invaded or contaminated or polluted by foreigners and foreign ways."
Fukushima told of a visit he made with members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan to a prominent Japanese politician. When they asked for advice about how to lobby successfully, the politician replied that the chamber needed someone who could convey their message in Japanese.
"However, your spokesman's Japanese shouldn't be as good as Fukushima-san's, since it would no longer be cute," the politician said with a laugh.
Although Fukushima said the attitude is not universal--and he recognized that both the newscaster and politician could have been joking--he also said he believes many Japanese perceive fluent foreigners to be a threat to both Japanese culture and its business prowess.
"I believe there are many things the Japanese do that they don't want non-Japanese to figure out," he said. "They have a protective and secretive approach to the language. They have a word they use that means `saying different things to different audiences.' "
The question of uniqueness remains a fascination in Japan, where many books have been written about it. One of the more infamous claims was that Japanese intestines are longer than Westerners', making American beef an unsuitable import.
Many visitors to Japan complain that the same attitude prevails at even the most mundane levels. They say the Japanese express continual astonishment when a foreigner masters the use of chopsticks, eats sushi or speaks even a few words of Japanese.
Whether this reaction also reflects a uniquely chauvinistic view of outsiders is perhaps impossible to say. Many cultures consider themselves special. But longtime foreign residents like Marc Simmons say the exclusivity of Japanese culture is more intense, and frustrating.
Simmons told of a woman who was surprised at how well his young son speaks Japanese--for a foreigner. But Simmons' son was born and raised here, has a Japanese mother and looks Japanese.
"In other words, a boy who is born in Japan and speaks Japanese really shouldn't be able to speak Japanese because of me," Simmons said. "He'll never be Japanese because of me."
Simmons said the only way he can avoid some of the bad reactions to his ability with the language is to keep his good Japanese to himself.
"I put on a heavy accent and try not to be so fluent," he said. "I get more things done that way."
Click here to access the next round of the debate. I take on the word gaijin itself and describe how it is in fact a racist sentiment.