The other day I attended a barbecue with a few people from my local area. It was held by a Japanese family who had friends in the international community. I represented Britain well by quickly turning lobster red in the sun and eventually snoozing in a chair with a beer on my stomach. Other guests included Filipinos, Brazilians, Peruvians and a woman from Bolivia. All of these people had come to Japan as adults to make a new life here. Their children, however, had not. Their children had been born here and attended the local primary school. The children’s friends were Japanese. Most had never left the country. This was the only country they knew. They spoke Japanese as any native speaking child would, as you would expect.
As you would expect, well-adjusted reader that you are, but not, unfortunately, as a couple of otherwise seemingly well-balanced Japanese women in attendance would expect. They overheard a ten-year old girl of Brazilian parentage chatting merrily with her Japanese friends and expressed utter amazement at her wonderful Japanese ability. They commented with slack-jawed admiration at how she could speak just like a Japanese.
‘She was born here,’ I said. ‘It’s basically her first language.’
‘But, it really is just like a Japanese child,’ one woman said.
They later spoke to the girl directly. They asked her when she had come to Japan and if she liked Japanese school. Not if she liked school, which would be a reasonable question to ask a child, but Japanese school. What did she have to compare it with? They asked her about whether or not she could eat various foods. They complimented her on her Japanese.
The young girl quickly got bored and rejoined her friends. I watched them as they played happily together as any group of children can. The young girl seemed to be a part of the group every bit as any of the other kids. But as I fell into conversation with the other women again, I wondered if things would one day change.