Sunday Tangent: Economist excerpt on being foreign


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Hi Blog.  In its Xmas Special of December 19, 2009, The Economist (London) had a long and thoughtful essay on what it’s like to be foreign, and how “it is becoming both easier and more difficult to experience the thrill of being an outsider”.

It opens with:

FOR the first time in history, across much of the world, to be foreign is a perfectly normal condition. It is no more distinctive than being tall, fat or left-handed. Nobody raises an eyebrow at a Frenchman in Berlin, a Zimbabwean in London, a Russian in Paris, a Chinese in New York.

The desire of so many people, given the chance, to live in countries other than their own makes nonsense of a long-established consensus in politics and philosophy that the human animal is best off at home. Philosophers, it is true, have rarely flourished in foreign parts: Kant spent his whole life in the city of Königsberg; Descartes went to Sweden and died of cold. But that is no justification for generalising philosophers’ conservatism to the whole of humanity.

Inter alia, it asserted:

The well-off, the artistic, the bored, the adventurous went abroad. (The broad masses went too, as empires, steamships and railways made travel cheaper and easier.) Foreignness was a means of escape—physical, psychological and moral. In another country you could flee easy categorisation by your education, your work, your class, your family, your accent, your politics. You could reinvent yourself, if only in your own mind. You were not caught up in the mundanities of the place you inhabited, any more than you wanted to be. You did not vote for the government, its problems were not your problems. You were irresponsible. Irresponsibility might seem to moralists an unsatisfactory condition for an adult, but in practice it can be a huge relief.

It even devoted more than a paragraph specifically to Japan’s offer of foreignness:

The most generally satisfying experience of foreignness—complete bafflement, but with no sense of rejection—probably comes still from time spent in Japan. To the foreigner Japan appears as a Disneyland-like nation in which everyone has a well-defined role to play, including the foreigner, whose job it is to be foreign. Everything works to facilitate this role-playing, including a towering language barrier. The Japanese believe their language to be so difficult that it counts as something of an impertinence for a foreigner to speak it. Religion and morality appear to be reassuringly far from the Christian, Islamic or Judaic norms. Worries that Japan might Westernise, culturally as well as economically, have been allayed by the growing influence of China. It is going to get more Asian, not less.

Even in Japan, however, foreigners have ceased to function as objects of veneration, study and occasionally consumption…

What do readers think about this model for “foreignness” in Japan.  That everyone has a role and for the NJ it is to be foreign, and we are impertinent to speak it?  etc.

The entire article of course is worth a read. See it at:

Being foreign

The others

Dec 17th 2009
From The Economist print edition

It is becoming both easier and more difficult to experience the thrill of being an outsider

Arudou Debito in Sapporo

18 comments on “Sunday Tangent: Economist excerpt on being foreign

  • Very interesting article. I wouldn’t say that objectively NJ are ‘impertinent’ to speak Japanese, but it is going outside of the preconceived model of NJ. Basically, that we’re not playing the role we were meant to in this big ‘ol Disneyland.

    I’ve heard and tried to describe being foreign in Japan several ways. One was that being an eikaiwa instructor is much the same as being in college except you get paid: little-to-no responsibility, safe and parties every night if you want. At times I’ve felt that being foreign in Japan means that I am treated like a guest staying in a friend’s home. I’m welcome to sleep on the sofa, use the shower and eat meals with the family, but eventually I overstay my welcome and it’s time to move out and go home.

    These feelings are as much a product of my own imagination and Japan’s reactions to my actions as it is Japanese society’s reactions. And it may not be the same for everyone. I live in Shonan, which has a very distinct attitude towards foreigners compared to what my friends in Nagano experience.

    Anyway, stream of consciousness and all that. I look forward to what others think of this.

  • NJ speaking Japanese well–i.e., not acting like foreigners–undermines the myth of Japanese uniqueness. For some it may also threaten their self-image. Expats becoming citizens is even more subversive (and I mean that in a good way). As everyone knows, TV and other media mock/caricature NJ for comedic effect by having them speak a bastardized version of the vernacular. This isn’t particular to Japan. But looking at the whole picture–the lack of political will behind foreign language education, the cursory nature of so much J to E translation (can’t speak for, say, J to Chinese), the liberal and nonsensical mixing of pseudo-English in popular music and design, not to mention rigid immigration policies, double standards for justice, continuing discrimination/xenophobia, etc., etc.–it does seem that Japanese society as a whole is digging in its heals. And I don’t think this will fundamentally change until there is a very substantial influx of NJ who, by their very presence create a climate of crisis, to paraphrase M.L. King, that the ordinary citizen can no longer ignore.

  • phil coristin says:

    Wouldn’t you say that the idea that Japanese don’t welcome non-Japanese speaking their language is a stereotype from the past? The expectation that non-Japanese can’t speak Japanese is still there, but in the case of Westerners at least there’s a good reason for that expectation. I find people are perfectly happy to speak with me in Japanese and don’t grade their language in a ridiculous way. (When I’m by myself, that is. When I’m with my wife or Japanese friends, the peculiar tendency of Japanese waitresses etc. to respond to my questions to the Japanese person instead of to me still grates on bad days.)

    But yes, absolutely, our role is to be the foreigner. It’s good that people like debito are not comfortable sliding into that cozy role and continue to fight for equal rights and mutual respect.

  • What do readers think about this model for “foreignness” in Japan. That everyone has a role and for the NJ it is to be foreign, and we are impertinent to speak it? etc.

    I think it’s an accurate description of the status quo and have a somewhat guilty role in maintaining it in my case, but am happy for people to challenge and change it.

    Amusing aside: I was gobsmacked recently when a visiting (emigre) Japanese who had married a British person, referred to her spouse and one other foreigner (in their absence) collectively as “gaijin-san” to a third party.

    — How awful. I also remember my ex-wife at a mothers’ gathering from the hospital referring to our first-born child (who had only been born months before, and who looks very Asian) thusly: “If Debito weren’t around, everyone would think of her as a real Japanese (hontou no nihonjin).” It became more grist for eventually getting out of there.

  • Who wrote this article? Do they have a clue about Japan, other than what seems to be a one-off visit? I m happy to report they ve already been taken to task in the letters section:

    -As a resident of Japan I can say that the statement that “The Japanese believe their language to be so difficult that it counts as something of an impertinence for a foreigner to speak it” is simply made up (Oh those wacky Japanese and their manners).

    Yes, made up. I remember in the 90s people from the BBC used to call my home number (someone else they had bothered had passed it on) just to try to get free information about Japan. The one I remember was they wanted to know how they could film a program called “Doorstep Challenge” in Yakuza controlled sex shops in Kabukichou.

    I told them to forget about evewn trying to do this, but that wasnt the answer they wanted. In fact, the western media’s eyes often tend to glaze over when Japanese residents dispel the stereotypes about Japan that are loved and cherished…

  • I’m no expert myself, but the Japan blurb seems to me to smack a bit of trying to simplify Japan too much, probably in an attempt to show that the writer understands Japan’s “unique” and “mysterious” culture.

    The fact is that probably most any culture is too varied and complex to really describe it in one blurb, let alone even a series of books. But it’s a magazine article, so what do you want?

    I do understand kind of what the author is getting at. If you are the only obviously foreign person in a setting sometimes that does become your part to play, whether you like it or not. Instead of talking to you about whatever normals topics that the event would dictate any topic or question directed at you becomes one about foreigness. You feel less like a human and more like a novelty, and it really wears on you after a while. There’s a reason I actively avoid “English conversation” or “kokusai koryu” events these days.

  • The Economist has had a tendency to write in a very know-it-all fashion. (Maybe the pot calling the kettle, but I don’t think so!)

    I imagine it’s very easy to still be a foreigner in many, many parts of the world. And what the Economist was picking up as “ease” probably has more to do with the prevalence of English around the world, compared to even 30 years ago.

  • Hmm, I wonder what the article means when it says become “more Asian”.
    Well I guess most people in Asia eat rice and have “Asian values”.
    Hah, what a crock of s.

  • I don’t get that “how dare you speak our language” vibe from 99% of the people I meet now as a housewife and mom. But I DID get it from over half of the “bilingual” people I met teaching English. It seems to me that many Japanese people who have made a career in the English teaching industry, even if they are not themselves teachers and in many cases ADMITTEDLY never studied English very hard until getting that job, feel that they need some kind of edge to… what? Make them more qualified than us? Keep us in our place? Assuage their own feelings of inferiority? I don’t know, but it seems much more rampant in the English industry than in the population as a whole.

    I work freelance for a company that I won’t name because the job is nice for me in many other ways… but I find errors in the bilingual sections of the textbooks FAR too often, considering that they are selling these lessons as their product. When I find something, I point it out… the difference between a raise or a promotion for example, or the fact that “significant other” means something different than a literal translation of “significant” and “other” mashed together. And invariably, I get a response that reads something like “Oh we are so surprised to see that you can read kanji!!! Thank u!!!” …they are more than happy to change the mistakes that I find. Not so happy to treat it like anything other than a monkey doing a trick for applause.

  • I agree with it. There has been many chances for reform and some positive changes that have occurred, but in my opinion Japan is a nation with a long history of power-holders maintaining an order totally devoid of any social mobility which was enforced in part by a belief in an ideology part of which emphasized the uniqueness and purity of the Japanese race along with its language, to justify political discipline among their subjects. And that this political order from the past continues to provide instruction to each generation of Japanese, defining what is and what is not Japanese, and discouraging dissent including turbulence caused by foreigners who have not grown up in Japan and are not acclimated to this level of control, or HARMONY,(i.e not Japanese), and that might disagree with the established order, to the exclusion or relegation of foreigners to the level of guest.

    Further I believe at the heart of every cultural relativist argument concerning Japan contains justification to continue this political order of subjugation, whether the person is aware of it or not, and should be stopped with every means of education available.

  • regarding “more asian” – gee, i always thought japan was in asia. or was my junior high school geography class bogus?

  • Where did this myth that japanese is oh so difficult to learn come from? It’s not particularly difficult at all I think. I mean there isn’t the tonal system of Chinese or the wicked grammar of Russian for instance. And pronunciation is easy. Maybe the japanese just like to feel a sense of comfort by believing their language to be difficult??

    — It’s political. It creates both Team Japan and The Chrysanthemum Club. Something you can exclude people from at L1.

    In the same issue of The Economist, it just so happened, we have an article on the world’s hardest languages:

    With all that in mind, which is the hardest language? On balance The Economist would go for Tuyuca, of the eastern Amazon. It has a sound system with simple consonants and a few nasal vowels, so is not as hard to speak as Ubykh or !Xóõ. Like Turkish, it is heavily agglutinating, so that one word, hóabãsiriga means “I do not know how to write.” Like Kwaio, it has two words for “we”, inclusive and exclusive. The noun classes (genders) in Tuyuca’s language family (including close relatives) have been estimated at between 50 and 140. Some are rare, such as “bark that does not cling closely to a tree”, which can be extended to things such as baggy trousers, or wet plywood that has begun to peel apart.

    Most fascinating is a feature that would make any journalist tremble. Tuyuca requires verb-endings on statements to show how the speaker knows something. Diga ape-wi means that “the boy played soccer (I know because I saw him)”, while diga ape-hiyi means “the boy played soccer (I assume)”. English can provide such information, but for Tuyuca that is an obligatory ending on the verb. Evidential languages force speakers to think hard about how they learned what they say they know.

    Japanese as a language, believe it or not, in a two-page article didn’t even merit a mention.

  • I agree that grammatically Japanese is pretty straightforward (just a bit odd). But you’ve got to admit that the writing system is genuinely hard – you may have heard of the problems that Aso had in reading fairly straightforward kanji, and I’ve had some moments of amusement testing native Japanese with my Nintendo DS. FWIW, they didn’t pass at the standard jouyou kanji level, and I’m not talking about educational drop-outs but rather highly educated phds from high-ranking universities. It is commonplace to find that people do not properly understand written material.

    Of course loads of adult immigrants still learn it to a high degree of fluency. But I think it is only being realistic to accept that many are going to lack the motivation and/or ability to get there.

    — Just as there are people who are native speakers and well-educated natives of English who can never learn how to spell, and have trouble pronouncing words they’ve only seen written but not spoken.

    All languages are hard. Let’s not get into a pissing contest without having some specialist comparative linguists referenced.

  • Both articles are sloppy and underwhelming. The former oversimplifies the category of foreigner to a tiny slice of the truth while ironically providing advice to potential “foreigners” that can only result in the gaijin-ghetto plight they declaim inevitable of life on the margins, unable to participate meaningfully in local community or society, stuck with the other outsiders. The latter pops between irrelevant factoids about various languages without providing any framework for understanding them other than its agenda of presenting them as evidence of the languages’ difficulty.

    Regardless of that, I’d say there’s a kernel of truth in the claim that Japan works hard to keep its foreigners separate from the natives. I have certainly felt the sentiment that Japanese (the language) is for Japanese people. Non-Japanese use of the language is viewed as one would a younger sibling, playing with the toys of their betters; cute, but ultimately, baby-play not to be taken seriously. The compliments of skill are quick in coming (indeed, a reasonable “oyahou gozaimasu” can result in a chorus of “jouzu!”), but all too often the rejoinder of “gaijin toshite” (for a foreigner) can be read on their faces. I hate to paint with too broad a brush, but I have noticed this tendency to negatively correlate more often with experience abroad than with skill in English – in other words, this sentiment occurs among native Japanese regardless of skill level in English, but is much more prevalent in those who have not spent significant time living abroad.

    The language article seems ultimately designed to exoticize rather than inform. Agglutination, gender, and clicks are traditional bugaboos of the language world, and don’t really provide a solid reason to believe in providing difficulty for the language in itself, but rather for the language as a second language for native English speakers. The article almost makes this focus explicit in the fourth paragraph, but then meanders back into tantalizing tales of extraneous exoticism. We could try to argue the place of Japanese on this list (in fact, as an agglutinative language, I’d say Japanese has some good ones: tsukaikonasemasendeshita, “I was unable to master its use,” is a good example), or argue fairly convincingly of the unique difficulties of kanji in the Japanese system (characters have HOW many readings now?), but I fear I’m already just preaching to the choir on this one.

  • Mark in Yayoi says:

    That Economist article was a fun read, the errors in it, some mentioned by the commenters afterward, are forgivable enough; you can’t write even a few paragraphs containing so many different languages and orthographies without a few typos.

    What I found interesting was how many of the linguistic features touted in the article can be experienced without leaving Japan.

    The agglutinative features of Turkish, as Jack mentions, exist in Japanese as well, and are well known, but if you spend some time talking with older Okinawans who still speak their original languages, you’ll see many more — the “inclusive vs. exclusive we” exists in Yaeyama (no, it’s not socially off-putting), as do (on some islands) phonetic rarities like aspirated vs. unaspirated consonants, and a set of nasal vowels.

    The author thinks evidentiality is exotic, and despite it not being as extensive as it is in Okinawa, a vestige of it remains in Common Japanese, where the suffix -sou exists to indicate non-firsthand experience or information. (No one has to “think hard” about where the information came from; it’s part of the language and it’s as natural as talking),

    Over in Shikoku the verbs have the very highly useful feature of distinguishing whether an action has begun and is not complete, as opposed to one that is going on at this very moment. (Benkyou shite-oru means you’ve started studying something, and are not done with it, but you may or may not actually be studying at this very moment, whereas with benkyou shi-oru you’re sitting at your desk as you talk.)

    The creators of Tokyo-based hyoujungo just tossed this latter one aside.

    It is unfortunate that the central government is still putting forth so much effort to stamp out all this variety. In Okinawa they went as far as to force kids who spoke the local language to hang “dialect tags” (hougen fuda) around their necks.

    (And lest you think that Japan is particularly cruel in this regard, remember that the English did the exact same thing in Wales, putting “NW” (‘Not Welsh’) tags on such children.)

    My question for you, Debito, is: why do you think Japan didn’t get mentioned despite some of its languages having these “exotic” features? Because Japanese is declining in importance, or because Japanese has become “mainstream” enough that discussions of it no longer impress the public?

    I’m thinking it’s the latter, and that that’s a very good thing. The only things about Japanese that seem “hard” enough to scare potential learners are the extensive interlocking rules of social hierarchy that dictate what politeness and humbleness levels to use, and the many seemingly-arbitrary kun-yomi assignments of Japanese words to Chinese characters (as opposed to the rather regular on-yomi).

    I’d like to see two things happen: Japanese people need to become more accepting of the foreign learners who are 90-95% competent in the language (as Jack mentions, they’re often not taken seriously, or are only treated as functioning adults until they misuse one word or lack one word; then a switch is flipped and it’s as if they don’t speak Japanese at all), and, at the same time, foreign learners need to discover that Japanese is no more exotic than any other language, and need to put in that effort needed to reach functional fluency. People can’t complain about not being taken seriously when they don’t take the language seriously themselves.

    — Wellup, you asked my opinion above (never do that!), so here goes::

    Frankly, I’m glad Japanese wasn’t mentioned in the article. Cos 1) it’s hackneyed by now, like an overplayed song, 2) I wanted to hear about other languages for a change, and 3) too many times the “difficult” and the “unique” concepts become interchangeable, and play too much into the “we are special and impenetrable” game that is de rigueur when talking about Japanese here. I think your last paragraph echoes that.

    Again, Japanese is tough. But so is English. And so are all languages in one way or another. But I defer to Mark (the linguist’s) opinion on matters such as these. I am just tired of the politics of uniqueness that all the overseas attention given Japanese plays into.

  • Ah yes, the language issue. Everybody wants us to learn Japanese, but everyone is surprised when we speak it well. Having become a relatively fluent Japanese speaker, I see this a lot.

    I think it is useful to remember, however, that this is not a logical issue but an emotional one. I’m sure many Japanese who would logically conclude that foreigners can learn Japanese perfectly well, are nevertheless surprised when they actually encounter someone who is fluent. Just as I was surprised, not that many years ago, by being served tea on a UK train by a black man with a perfect Scottish accent.

    The key here is experience. Once there is a collective experience of Japanese-speaking foreigners in Japanese society, it will become as normal as it is to be an English-speaking foreigner in New York or London or Sydney.

    Until then we will just have to play our pera-pera parts. Of course, putting an end to revolving-door labour policies wouldn’t hurt either.

    — I don’t know about you, but I’m not a person willing to wait for some “Tipping Point” and in the meanwhile conform to some pera-pera pigeonhole. I’ll push for improvements now.

  • According to, the instruction required for a student with average language aptitude to reach level-2 speaking proficiency for Japanese was 1320 hours. Whereas to achieve the same level for Dutch was 480 hours.

    I read many moons ago (but can’t remember the source, sorry) one way to rank difficulty is to measure how many words someone needs to know to be able to understand 80% of spoken language. Most European languages come in around 2,000 words, Japanese comes in at 8,000 (the equivalent of learning 4 European languages simultaneously). Chinese needs a trifling 1,200. Surprisingly, Chinese, Japanese,Korean and Arabic were all in the hardest level in the above link, so I have to question my memory.

    At the anecdotal level, a friend of mine who lived in Japan for 2 years, studied hard, could make himself understood after his stay. I went to see him in China about 8 months after he left and found him, and pretty much all the westerners I met, speaking quite fluent Chinese (to my ears).

    There is an ancient Chinese proverb, which no Chinese person I’ve asked has ever heard before, “To hear is to forget, To see is to remember, To do is to understand.” Most Westerners can only hear and do Japanese. The Chinese in Japan can also see (read). Not surprisingly, every Chinese I’ve ever encountered speaks amazing Japanese after about 3 months of living here.

    — All sorts of poor science happening here. We need some qualified linguists commenting.

  • >>I read many moons ago (but can’t remember the source, sorry) one way to rank difficulty is to measure how many words someone needs to know to be able to understand 80% of spoken language. Most European languages come in around 2,000 words, Japanese comes in at 8,000 (the equivalent of learning 4 European languages simultaneously). Chinese needs a trifling 1,200. Surprisingly, Chinese, Japanese,Korean and Arabic were all in the hardest level in the above link, so I have to question my memory.<<

    The basic linguistics is this:

    If two languages are not related, speakers of each language will face a longer struggle to get to fluency.

    The word counts cited above seem dubious. For one thing, definitions and concepts of 'word' vary too much. I think it is fairly commonplace that if you have truly mastered the 3500 most frequent words of a language (but remember that could mean thousands more multiple meanings, uses, and fairly opaque collocations) you can follow most text. Research on listening comprehension is more sketchy to come by. For one thing, if the languages are not related, the processing speeds of full-blown listening can be challenging.

    I think the biggest breakdowns in trying to learn Japanese include:

    -lack of reinforcement from the everyday environment until enough kanji have been learned (unlike an alphabetically literate society)
    -often huge discrepencies between everyday spoken language and more formal registers (such as professors opening up in front of a faculty meeting)
    -foreigners are often taught how to be politely neutral, but everyday communication often requires you to choose towards less polite or more polite. And you often won't hear the polite neutral Japanese you are being taught.

    I remember pointing out to a town committee back in the 1990s that had set about trying to make life in the town better for the foreign residents. I pointed out that adding English translations to so many signs was of dubious use because the Japanese didn't know that English. What the foreigners needed as well were romanizations of the Japanese words, which, if you have noticed, on things like government office signs, get very daunting.


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