My latest SNA VM column 14: “Visible Minorities: Weaponizing the Japanese Language”, on how Foreign Minister Motegi’s discriminatory treatment of Japan Times reporter Magdalena Osumi is part of a bigger phenomenon, Sept 21, 2020


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Hi Blog. My latest Shingetsu News Agency Visible Minorities column 14 discusses how Japan weaponizes its language to require “perfect Japanese” from non-native speakers only, and when they can’t speak it perfectly, they get discriminated against. Consider this:

Visible Minorities: Weaponizing the Japanese Language
Shingetsu News Agency, SEP 21, 2020 by DEBITO ARUDOU in COLUMN

On August 28, Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan’s foreign minister, was giving an official press conference to reporters in Japanese. A foreign reporter for Japan Times, Magdalena Osumi, asked some questions in Japanese. When Osumi followed up on a point he left unclear, Motegi responded to her in English.

Osumi then retorted in Japanese, “You needn’t treat me like I’m stupid. If we’re talking in Japanese, please answer in Japanese.” Damn right.

How many times has this happened to you? You ask a question in Japanese of a shop keep, clerk, passerby, or somebody on the other end of a telephone, and they flake out because you got some words in the wrong order, had an accent, or just have a foreign face? Many automatically assume that because you’re foreign-looking or -sounding, you must be able to speak English. So they reply in English.

Or how many times, as a budding Japanese language learner, were you told that what you just said “is not Japanese,” not “it’s not correct Japanese”? Just a flat-out denial, as if your attempt is in some alien tongue, like Klingon.

This phenomenon, where it’s either “perfect Japanese” or you get linguistically gaijinized, is odd. It’s also based upon a myth…

Read the rest at

The video of that Motegi press conference is at (watch from around minute 2 onwards)

Other sources within the SNA article:

Japan Times: In case you missed it: Trump’s awkward response to a Japanese reporter: 

Mainichi: Minister under fire for questioning foreign journalist’s Japanese at press conf.

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30 comments on “My latest SNA VM column 14: “Visible Minorities: Weaponizing the Japanese Language”, on how Foreign Minister Motegi’s discriminatory treatment of Japan Times reporter Magdalena Osumi is part of a bigger phenomenon, Sept 21, 2020

  • I feel a little bad, because she was asking a question I had requested her to ask.

    Regardless, Motegi was such a **** to her; it made my blood boil.

    Yes, she didn’t push the language issue, but she’s probably knew when a battle was worth fighting. Additionally, she probably didn’t want to risk getting barred further, but I think she did well to stand her ground like she did.

  • It happens to me all the time, I usually reply with “日本では人々が日本語を話しています” (in Japan we speak Japanese)
    If they insist then I speak regular English without easing up on speed or idioms and when they get lost I say “分からない?じゃー日本語話ししてもいい?”

    This is a problem in Japan, one of the best way to learn a new language is to be challenged in everyday situations and this is something foreigners are simply denied of.

    At the first word you (a foreigner) don’t understand or hear you’re simply cut out and this is in sharp contrast with how they deal, for example, with old J people.
    Sometimes they don’t understand or hear something being said and instead of cutting them out, they take their time to repeat things and to explain everything using proper Japanese.
    It sure would be nice if we would get the same courtesy instead of degrading the conversation to piglatin English with mixed katakana.

  • I agree that it is uncalled for in this kind of official situation. But in all fairness (and not related to this specific instance from the press conference), I would say that there are times when a Japanese person may speak English with you (after you have addressed them in Japanese) because they are excited by what may be a rare opportunity for them to practice English with a native speaker. I know that, in the very rare instances that I encounter a Japanese person in Portland, Oregon I am excited by the chance to speak Japanese again (after 10 years living in Sapporo). But I do always ask first if I may speak some Japanese with them, for my practice.

    So I would suggest that, rather than simply react as stated in the article: “When people click into English despite your Japanese, make it clear you find it patronizing.”, it might, depending on the situation, be a more reasoned approach to ask out of sincere interest why they are speaking English to you when you spoke Japanese to them and then formulate your mental and vocal reactions.

    My response in the Osumi/Motegi situation would have been something like: “My question to you was in Japanese. Please respond in Japanese as this is an official Japanese press conference and your answer is on record and must be understood by all participants.”

    — I’m sure you can think of all sorts of hypotheticals. This is a matter of communication between individuals and their TPO preferences, so if you’re not feeling patronized by a particular exchange, ignore the advice. But as you basically state, Motegi and the cases mentioned in the article weren’t issues of language practice. And outside of a classroom, everyday interactions rarely are.

  • Also, the moronic action of replying to your correct Japanese in bad, broken and accented Engrish is doubly annoying and just insulting. So much for Omotenashi. (and how is Japan going to “anticipate needs of NJs? Sounds like an oxymoron.)

    I also recall my Japanese teacher praising my pronunciation (my other areas being not so good). And yet ,when I asked a taxi driver to go to the local famous and only hospital, he saw my gaijin face and absolutely could not get it, he claimed, because of my pronunication.

    Japanese is not like Chinese or Thai, with different tones changing meaning. Even if one sound was slightly off, it wasnt that off and what else could I have meant?

    I think I ll just put it down to either stupidity or lack of local knowledge. Of course it wasnt a micro aggression or othering. (sarcasm).

    • Baud, for the record, I did meet my share of people with less than optimal pronunciation, even some I’d risk saying that had some genuine pronunciation problems (which I believe have much to do with one’s mother tongue)

      1. Long/short vowels (お vs. おう)
      2. Ni/n’i (に/んい)
      3. ち・じ・し distinction
      4. Double consonant (まか vs. まっか)

      I can imagine all of these pronunciation issues can lead to a misunderstanding! (although maybe not 100% of the time)
      So perhaps (wild guess) you having all of these covered led to you being praised by your sensei?

  • One thing worth adding is that the journalist wasn’t born in an English-speaking country. Even though I trust her English is at a native level, it must have taken her a lot of effort to convince any prospective employees, especially if they as prestigious as the Japan Times, that she’s “good enough” for the job. I speak from my own experience. It adds another layer of insult if your Japanese is perfectly understandable, but you get responded to in English (good or bad, doesn’t really matter), reducing you to “just another foreigner”, judged purely from your appearance and with no regard to your actual background. If a Japanese person abroad spoke in more or less fluent English and got a reply in Chinese just because they look “Asian”, they wouldn’t take it kindly, even if they could understand Mandarin.

    She probably couldn’t have stood up more for herself, because she might lose access to these press conferences and because the Japan Times don’t really seem happy to address this type of issue. Having said that, I wish I had the guts to say, “don’t treat me like an idiot,” when this happens to me. The other person sometimes deserves it. What I usually do (in much less tense settings) is ask why they are speaking to me in English, which mostly seems to be enough, not enough though to stop them from annoyingly throwing in the occasional and still fairly patronising katakana word.

    However, I disagree with you on one thing. I don’t think Trump’s treatment of the Japanese journalist was any less deplorable than that of Motegi. Both have a fairly consistent record of hostility towards journalists of other races and saying “I don’t understand,” is still really condescending.

      • True. Accountability basically doesn’t exist in Japanese politics and othering is seen as acceptable in Japanese society. However, the article talked about the politicians’ behaviour, not the response to it.

  • The problem here is that the question is still not answered.
    What is the scientific basis for the discriminiation of foreigners under these entry rules?
    Students with CoE are still not allowed to enter and can’t apply for VISA (Only some MEXT students can enter which is a tiny fraction). In 2 weeks our semester starts, and many had to defer to January/April, or will have to wake up at 3 am for online courses.
    Yet Japanese may travel freely and many of the restrictions have been lifted, as we could see with crowds during silver week.

  • Another great column Debito! I especially liked this part:

    “When people ask me, “Is Japanese difficult?” I reply, “Well, the language is challenging, but so are all languages. What’s difficult is talking to Japanese people.”

    I’m definitely going to use this reply from now on. The worst part of this is that I noticed that a lot of foreigners actually believe the myth that Japanese is some kind of mythical language and that “western” foreigners can never become fluent in it. To give just one example, there’s a subreddit called r/learnjapanese which, as the name suggests, is a forum for learners of Japanese. A few months ago a user asked if it’s possible to achieve native level fluency in Japanese as English speaker. Most of the answers were negative and people demanded some ridiculous criteria of language ability to be considered “native fluency”. Now, I understand that there is no unified definition of fluency and everyone has his or her own idea of what language fluency should look like, but in no other language are the hurdles placed that high. Some users for example suggested that in order to be considered fluent, you would have to understand different dialects, understand all cultural and subcultural references, and be able to read scientific papers. English isn’t my first language, yet I’ve never met a single person (foreigner or native) who demanded that I know all of this to be considered fluent. Yet when it comes to Japanese, non native speakers place such high hurdles onto themselves. Seriously, just think about how ridiculous this is. Do all native Japanese people know dialects, or have advanced vocabulary required to read a scientific paper on quantum physics? The answer would be no, and these things are definitely not required to be considered “fluent” no matter what definition you apply to that term.

    I already commented about Motegi’s behavior here on, so I won’t do it again. I’ll just say that his behavior was racist and condescending, and a person like that would never hold a position as foreign minister in any other country. Like you wrote in the column, his only goal was to put the foreigner back in her place.

    “So next time you’re linguistically gaijinized, go ahead and say in Japanese, “Don’t treat me like I’m stupid. Talk to me in Japanese.” Feel no guilt. You have as much right to speak the kokugo, and be respected for it, as anyone else.”

    True words being spoken here. I’m glad that Osumi stood up for herself at the press conference, even though she backpaddled a bit later on Twitter. I think that’s to be expected though since this guy can basically end her career in Japan if he choses to do so. Having the guts to tell him “don’t treat me like an idiot,” at a press conference is pretty remarkable if you ask me.

  • The thing I’ve found fascinating about some Japanese people’s way of weaponizing the language is how they seem to directly correlate their language skill with intelligence.

    One example from my observations and experiences, there are employees in the IT industry I’ve known who had very subpar skills, as in they would have no chance in Silicon Valley, yet their 偉い日本語 carried them to a VP position or leadership position that they’re completely unqualified for.

    I’ve seen those people lose tons of money for the company, and would’ve been fired/laid off on the spot anywhere else but Japan.

    I also see why some apologists circlejerk over fellow foreign residents Japanese ability, because it’s all they have and they lack in everything else skill wise.

    I’ve seen Japanese speak with a mumbling, mush-mouth like tone when asking questions, and if you explain to them that you couldn’t hear (note I said couldn’t hear, not couldn’t understand) or to repeat…they show their real attitude and get all huffy. They speak to you as if you have a mental deficiency. I can only imagine what Asian-looking people that aren’t Japanese or non-Japanese speaking Japanese-Americans go through.

    A lot of Japanese really have no patience once they see a visibly non-Japanese face. God forbid, the US would have treated Ichiro the same way when he never gave any answers in English.

    How they make language ability equate to how smart a person is without considering other factors is just so illogical.

    It’s really playing a game to lose living in this country.

    • This comment is excellent. The number of times a Japanese person slurred/mumbled half a sentence at me in a barely audible manner, that required me to ask them what they were talking about (talking in sentence fragments for gods sake), only for them to talk to me like I was 6 years old, ‘Oh! He doesn’t understand, Japanese is difficult isn’t it’ loud enough for the whole room to hear.
      In the end, I just ended up limiting my conversation to closed questions, preferably answerable by ‘yes’ or ‘no’ just to save myself the stress of having to suffer their insecurities, and avoid wasting my time.

    • I can only agree with Jim Di Griz , excellent comment. I also worked in the IT industry and a co-worker once told me once that foreigners can’t speak fluent Japanese because their brains are “differently wired” than the brains of Japanese. I pointed out that his comment was racist and that there are plenty of foreigners who speak Japanese at native level fluency (I named Dave Spector and Christelle Ciari as examples) and I made the point that most foreigners who stay in Japan long term (I defined long term as 10 years or more) speak Japanese at a fluent level. I pointed out that he probably mostly met foreigners who only stayed in Japan for a short time (such as me) and that he can’t judge the language skills of all foreigners based on such poor anecdotal evidence.

      After I pointed this out, he got very defensive and claimed that his comment wasn’t racist and that it was just his opinion based on his observation. I told him that claiming that brains of foreigners are “differently wired” than brains of Japanese people, isn’t an opinion, it’s a factual statement that requires scientific proof and it definitely sounds like 19th century eugenics to me. He was actually able to see my point after that and even apologized, and then changed the subject quickly.

      To be fair to the guy, I don’t believe that he was racist. He was actually one of very few co-workers who treated me well and he talked to me basically everyday. The other co-workers mostly completely ignored me and some of them even didn’t call me by name, they just called me “gaijin-san”. But this just shows how embedded racism in Japanese society is (as Debito has proved in his book). Even progressive people who aren’t racist say racist things from time to time and they don’t understand why these claims are racist, because they’re so widespread and accepted in Japan.

      • a memorized, handed down opinion showing a lack of free thnking in Japan
        -brains of foreigners are “differently wired” than brains of Japanese people, isn’t an opinion, it’s a factual statement that requires scientific proof and it definitely sounds like 19th century eugenics

        NIhonjinron propaganda has done a good job

  • Debito, what an excellent article! Brilliant! I don’t know how you do it everytime!

    I have been here some 30 years now and as you would expect my Japanese is at native level, nothing to be proud of there. But I still, on occasion, get some idiot who will reply to my Japanese in English! It just makes the other person seem intellectually challenged. I can’t be bothered with such people.

    • .-I can’t be bothered with such people.

      One microagression deserves another. Suggest you reply brielfy “You Speeku Enrishu bery goodo” . And then leave.

  • “But on Twitter, their exchange incited a stream of critical responses, including, “He treated her like she’s so stupid,” and, “The other person asked the question in proper Japanese. This way of responding, which lacks common sense, degrades Japan.”

    So basically the J “progressives” are worried more about Japan’s image, the old self interest angle, rather than the integration of the Japanese speaking “foreign” looking journalist.

  • Brilliant article. If Japanese people are going to weaponize the Japanese language, then so should foreigners. Beat the Japanese at their own game, and make them realize that skin color does not define talent. Foreigners dedicated to learning the Japanese language can indeed also use it as a weapon against Japanese supremacists like Motegi. Why does it seem that some Japanese people not want foreigners to learn the Japanese language? I previously authored a report that was posted on this website about a Japanese university’s exclusionary policies. What is written here to me appears quite similar to what I wrote in my report. Although, I would like to note that in reality, a significant number of foreign students at that university have no interest in studying Japanese and have next to no fluency in the language. But that should not be the reason for things like what that university did or what Motegi told Osumi to take place.

  • On this topic, broadly, sorry I hope I am not introducing too much of a ‘new topic, did anybody read the news the other day on how the ‘new; Govt of PM Suga plans to keep extending the working age to address the falling population and labor population problem?

    The aged population is now 28 percentof Japan’s population. In those news articles, almost as if it was a given and the most natural thing in the world, it was mentioned that this measure was to prevent Japan adopting a real immigration policy.

    Good luck with all this – those with families especially should be making real plans now to exit within 5 years or so.
    Yes our home countries esp the USA have problems and mine is going trhrough upheavals but it’s also the sign of a country and society where change happens because there is the desire for change. Even if our culture of political argument and discussion can get heavy.

    Better that than this quicksand here of anything different or real getting sucked down and lost.

  • Dr. Arudō, I feel like this has got to be one of your best articles in a while. Is it just me, or is this one of those all-too-common issues that seems to virtually never get brought up?

    Thank you for pointing out that the Japanese media took issue with this as well. I was quite pleasantly surprised when I Googled the issue to discover some well-deserved criticism for Motegi’s contemptible behavior.

    I know I mentioned that Ōsumi’s Japanese was “painful to listen to,” but I do hope everyone understands that I am not one of these “Guardians of the Kokugo.” There is no excuse for Motegi’s behavior.

    The final paragraph of the article really sums it up best, though. “But for that to happen, non-native speakers have to stand up for themselves at the grassroots level. So next time you’re linguistically gaijinized, go ahead and say in Japanese, ‘Don’t treat me like I’m stupid. Talk to me in Japanese.’ Feel no guilt. You have as much right to speak the kokugo, and be respected for it, as anyone else.”

    It is imperative that all immigrants understand this. This ties back into my oft-repeated mantra about how we as immigrants should learn Japanese and strive for fluency. We live and work here, and minority Japanese are increasingly born here as well. Trying to segregate us linguistically with the “English for ‘foreigners'” nonsense is, in a sense, the last defense of the racists who seek to answer the question of “Who is the true ‘Japanese’?” with racist drivel disconnected from reality. (That, or the continued practice of writing “foreigner” names in katakana. I would encourage everyone to likewise write their own name in kanji, or at least hiragana. You probably won’t be surprised at how much backlash you receive for it.)

    I would also really like to encourage everyone to respond to the, as Dr. Arudō puts it, linguistic gaijinization, or linguistic segregation, very directly. Dr. Arudō makes the same point, but seriously, do not sink to their level.

    By the way, Peppe, the point you’re trying to make would be better expressed as 日本ではみんな日本語を喋るんだ, but this is factually inaccurate and could be twisted around to attack people who can’t speak Japanese or would prefer to speak a different language. The point is, intentionally responding in a different language based on the race of the person to whom you are talking is racist, no matter where you live or what language either of you is speaking. Anybody should be free to speak any language he or she pleases anywhere, but to respond to Japanese with English or semi-English because your conversational partner is not a Wajin is simple discrimination and othering. This is the bottom line.

    Thus, the line Dr. Arudō suggested is fine, but personally, I like to respond with 人種差別をやめてください。(~やめてもらえますか。)相手が白人(黒人)だからといって英語で話し掛ける(応える)んじゃありません。If I’m not feeling terribly hospitable, or I don’t need any cooperation from the other person, I switch to やめろ or やめなさい, and んじゃありません becomes んじゃねぇよー.

    I think it’s best to be moderately polite (です・ます調)as a general rule, but if the rude and racist behavior is occasionally greeted with hostility 仕方が無いでしょう。

  • Kirk Masden says:

    I’m coming to this rather late but would like to offer a few comments.

    1. There are some fairly good articles about this in Japanese:
    The last of these has audio.

    2. 茂木健一郎Ken Mogi (different person, same last name) has put out a YouTube video that demonstrates that he just doesn’t see the problem. Interestingly he insists on reversing the name order in Japanese, which should be 大住 マグダレナ according to the journalist’s LinkedIn page. Obviously, 大住 マグダレナ has failed to understand that the real order of her name is not what she has chosen to use in Japanese. It is what this guy has determined to be correct: マグダレナ 大住 .

  • Kirk Masden says:

    Hi Debito! Hi everyone!

    I find myself wanting to continue this discussion long after it has died down. I hope that’s OK.

    I’ve found a thread about this topic on researchgate:

    I asked about scholarly treatments of the kind of linguistic domination / subjugation via code-switching . . . I’m not sure how best to describe the fundamental issue . . . and was introduced to your Shingetsu article, Debito. That’s a tribute to the importance of your work but it would also be nice to be able to refer to a body of work that includes other scholars and commentators too. If any readers of this thread are interested, please take a look at the researchgate thread. If you have any clues or ideas regarding how to connect this issue to previous research, either by Debito or others, please post, either here or there.

    I think that the kind of phenomenon we observed with Motegi ought to be within the purvey of sociolinguistics (pragmatics, code switching, etc) but I’m having trouble finding articles and books that help to explain the kind of behavior that he exhibited.


    —- Thanks Kirk! BTW, is happy to have people comment any time on topics past and present. It’s an archive of issues both fundamental and evergreen, and if they can remain relevant, great!

  • Kirk Masden says:

    Thanks Debito!

    After thinking about this some more, it occurs to me that the notion of “native-speakerism” may be relevant to this topic. I cited you for your contribution to a chapter I put together in this book:

    Native-Speakerism in Japan: Intergroup Dynamics in Foreign Language Education

    Still, it seems like there ought to me a lot more scholarship on how language is used to “other” and subjugate in Japan.

    — Thanks for the cite!


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