For an English speaker to learn Japanese to any degree of fluency requires a huge investment of time and effort. Of course, living in Japan should help, but it is a language so different from English that you simply don’t learn it by osmosis. Add to that the fact that the writing system means it is impossible to read anything of length until you have been studying some time and probably many years before you can hope to tackle a newspaper and you have what I believe is known as a bastard of a language to learn. I’m not saying nobody can learn it – in fact I think anybody can – it just requires some serious study.
Before coming to Japan I had spent an academic year at university in France. My French improved with not too much effort, largely because I already had a solid base, I could read, it is not too dissimilar to English and, unlike the Japanese, French people expected me to know their language. I was living in their country and they spoke to me accordingly. I’ve been in Japan for long enough now to have a reasonable grasp of the language (although I still have an enormous amount to learn) but even when they know how long I have lived here, some people express surprise that I can do things like go out alone or put petrol in my own car. There is also, amongst many, an assumption that I won’t be able to speak Japanese.
I don’t mind this if the person talking to me can speak English, as all I care about is communicating and whichever tongue is easier suits me fine. With the majority of Japanese that would now be their language, and children and the elderly seem happy to let it be so. They will talk to me or at me in rapid Japanese and expect me to understand. A few people, however, insist on trying to speak to me in a form of English which is by and large incomprehensible. Witness an exchange I had with a neighbour when I went to put my rubbish at the collection point. I greeted the man, a chap who I often see walking his retriever by my house, with a cheery, ‘Ohayo gozaimasu!’
‘Good morning!’ said the man in heavily accented English. Then, ‘British golf open.’
‘Sorry?’ I said.
‘Golf,’ he said. ‘British golf open.’ And then he looked at me as if expecting an answer. When I looked somewhat confused he said, ‘Lady.’
‘Women?’ I said, in Japanese. ‘Sorry, I’m not sure I understand you.’
‘Yes!’ he said excitedly in English. ‘British golf open!’
‘Is it today?’ I asked.
‘Yes!’ he said. ‘Perhaps.’
And with that I bade him farewell.
These sorts of exchanges are more frustrating these days than when I first arrived because now I know they are largely pointless. We would have been better off both speaking in Japanese, but that particular neighbour will have none of it and will always insist on throwing random words at me in English. I’m sure he goes home quite happy, feeling that he was able to communicate with the foreigner in the foreigner’s own language, even though he wasn’t.
But when I first came to Japan, and for some quite considerable time afterwards, all such frustrations were my own fault, for there was nobody in Japan who was worse in English than I was in Japanese. I arrived knowing only sayonara, which must be the worst possible word to know if you are trying to start a conversation. I didn’t let my linguistic ineptitude prevent me from trying to go about my daily business, though, and I attempted to do things myself rather than bothering Japanese people for help. This could be frustrating. Actually it was always frustrating.
It was always frustrating because the staff in banks and post offices always did two things: they questioned my handwriting and they always seemed to need to discuss something. Nobody ever needed to discuss anything with me when I used post offices in the UK. In fact, they seemed to disdain my presence and conducted transactions with as few words as possible. Rude it may have been, but I soon came to realise that that was just what I wanted here. Anything to avoid the painful discourse that always became part of trying to send something abroad.
I admit I have very poor handwriting. It stopped developing at about the age of eight. But because I am aware of this I make every effort to print as neatly and as legibly as I can whenever I need to fill in a form or address an envelope or parcel. I write so that there can surely not be any single letter or number that would cause confusion. Yet there always is. What on earth is this letter here? The one that looks exactly like an ‘M’? That’s an ‘M’. And what about this? Is this ‘S’ or ‘5’? ‘Oh, that! That’s an “S”,’ I say, wondering whether the woman could honestly have thought I was hoping to send a package to a place called 5cotland.
At least these days I have enough ability in the language to communicate with the staff. But in those early days, going to the post office was enough to make you understand why some people snap and decide to walk in one day and take out all the staff. The people that worked there, you see, always seemed to be trying to complicate matters. I would enter the post office, small parcel under my arm, duly addressed in impeccable script and simply requiring it to be weighed and have a few stamps applied and, theoretically, that could have been done without a word being exchanged. You know, just pop it on the scales, have the woman type the price into the register and show me what the total is. But for some reason it was never that simple.
Firstly, they would say something and when it became apparent that I couldn’t understand, there would be a mild panic and a staff meeting conducted in whispers. I think they must have drawn straws or something because then another man or woman would attend to me and, if it was a man, he’d have perspiration on his brow. He’d attempt to speak to me in English by saying something like, ‘Eto, please,’ and he would hand me a form to fill in to send my goods by express mail or regular air-mail or who-knows-what mail and I would duly fill it in and return to the counter. And then it would be examined by the first lady and she would go off and get the chap with the perspiring brow again and he would come back and they would discuss matters for some five minutes and then attempt to address me directly and I wouldn’t have a clue what they were going on about. I’d open my wallet and urge them to just take what they needed and let me go.
On one occasion, I remember I thought I was getting their gist but it seemed as though they were saying that I hadn’t written the number seven in the address properly and I naively assumed that such a small error couldn’t possibly merit a discussion of such length and accompanying expressions of concern. Especially since the number seven had been written perfectly correctly. A nice female customer who had spotted an opportunity to show off her mediocre English skills intervened and offered to help. My mounting rage was compounded when she turned and said, ‘Please, this is seven?’ to which I replied, ‘Yes,’ wondering what on earth they thought it could be, and she said ‘Please write seven this,’ and demonstrated how to write a number seven with an extra stroke bit coming down from the start of the top horizontal, and then she smiled as if I were a slightly backward child. I reluctantly complied with the ludicrous request and all the staff bowed and smiled and apologised with such evident relief that you would be forgiven for thinking I had just declared I wasn’t going to punch or rape anybody, rather than just having finally succeeded in sending my mother a present.
So, if you are new to Japan and have not yet mastered much Japanese, be thankful for Amazon and e-mail because when I first arrived in Japan I could use neither and I came mighty close to sitting down and crying in banks and post-offices all over town.