When in Japan Do As the Japanese Do

By Donnie | Articles

A karate friend and I were chatting last weekend about about general foreigner-in-Japan type things. The conversation started off with the upcoming release of the Marvel vs. Capcom 3 video game. I personally don’t own a video game system anymore, but I was a big fan of the Marvel vs. Capcom fighting franchise, and seriously thought about buying a system just to play that game. Anyway, somehow the conversation changed directions and we started talking about what living in Japan is like. I believe my friend Lavon has been in Japan for seven years or more. He has a wife, and two beautiful daughters (one a newborn). So I was asking him about what he did to improve his Japanese, and he said that he used to live in the sticks…where there were no other foreigners in his area, so when the only way for him to survive was to learn Japanese. He eventually met the woman who would become his wife, and he said this was when he made the most significant improvements in his Japanese (his wife doesn’t speak English). Lavon then went on to tell me about a friend of his who has been living in Japan for years and simply refused to learn any Japanese. Whenever he would ask his friend why he wouldn’t learn Japanese, his friend would reply “Why can’t they (the Japanese people) learn English?” I laughed because, at the time, it struck me as funny. But in hindsight, maybe it’s not so funny.

I have definitely run into foreigners who simply refuse to learn the language or even attempt to adapt to the Japanese culture. I know that Japanese can be a difficult language to learn and all, but even trying the basics can make a tremendous difference. I truly think that Japanese (in general) people respect foreigners who are making an effort to understand and learn aspects of their culture.

For those foreigners who can speak REALLY well and truly embrace the culture, they earn/command an even deeper level of respect. Respect is nice, but beyond that, those who can speak, read, and write in Japanese, and can understand Japanese customs, create a wealth of opportunities for themselves in Japan. It sometimes frustrates me to see foreigners who get irritated with Japanese people for not being able to speak English…THIS IS JAPAN FOR GOODNESS SAKE!! That’s like me going into someone’ s home for the first time and getting mad at them for not following my rules; it’s not my house. Now I’m not saying that you have to be fluent, but at least try to be respectful of the culture all around you.

I am definitely trying to learn as much as I can about the culture and the language because I think it’s cool, and I enjoy it. I try to speak whenever I can, I try new foods, and try to have new experiences (as best I can) in Japan. I also think that being able to speak with people in their own language will allow me to build much stronger relationships, communicate in Japan much more easily, and experience Japan more fully. I definitely feel that when in Japan, we should do as the Japanese do.

What do you think?

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  • Amanda says:

    I completely agree! I’m actaully feeling some frustration now because I can’t really have conversations with anyone outside of my comfort zones of work and home. I’m looking for somewhere to take free Japanese lessons right now. It’s like, logically I know it takes a while to learn a language, but I want to know right now!

    • Donald Ash says:

      I still have that frustration, Amanda. My karate teacher was asking me some questions during my last class, and I understood, but for some reason the Japanese speaking section of my brain must have been in off mode. I felt like I couldn’t make a decent sentence and stumbled through my words. Sigh…I’m going to get this Japanese thing right one of these days. There are days when I want to speed up the process, too. I wish there was like a Japanese cookie I could eat and instantly become fluent, but I haven’t seen those cookies at my local grocery store just yet. Good luck, Amanda!!

  • Roger Starkey says:

    In the sticks + no English Japanese wife = 10,000 hours Japanese practice in maybe 1.5-2 years. Practice makes perfect…that’s how I did it.

    • Donald Ash says:

      You know it, Roger 🙂

      While some people don’t like living in the sticks, I would imagine it’s a great way to acquire some great Japanese skills, as there aren’t many foreigners around. I’m going to keep at, in hopes that I’ll learn Japanese if I practice the right things the right way.

  • Yasushi Kawata says:

    I’m Japanese guy .
    I read your blog .I agree with you .
    Japanese also usually think we want to talk with foreigner if we can speak English well . Almost Japanese is shy in front of foreigner. So if foreigner and Japanese cement a friendship more, we can introduce you more deep Japanese life .
    When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

    • Donald Ash says:

      Kawata San, I appreciate your response. It’s great to get a Japanese perspective on this issue. I am definitely trying to improve my Japanese so I can have a deeper, Japanese experience. Thank you for sharing.

  • Mo says:

    The Japanese people know more English than you know Japanese. The more Japanese you learn, the less English they use. If you really care about Japan you will do everything you can to help this culture speak English. You can gain a few comforts for yourself if you speak more Japanese, get a some sex, maybe get a wife, get some money from a job, but you’re only looking out for yourself. If you want the best for Japan, then it’s TNT for Japanese, and English all the way, unless absolutely necessary for basic understanding. otherwise stop being a self tugging nihongophile, and help this country catch up with the world.

    • Donald Ash says:

      I never got the chance to respond to this, because I’ve been really busy, but don’t think for one freakin’ second that I was gonna let you slide with this one, Mo.

      Some Japanese girl must’ve done quite a number on you, or you must have had some kind of bad experience with a Japanese person, here in Japan, or in some other foreign country. They have self-help groups for that you know.

      Whatever the reasons for you being as closed-minded as you are, you’re entitled to your own opinion, as bull-headed and misguided as it may be.

      First things first,

      You said “When in Rome/Japan do as the Roman/Japanese do is for those who care about nothing but an easy ride for themselves.”

      I’m sorry…but what the hell are you talking about, Mo? Easy ride? Coming to Japan, living here, trying to learn hundreds of kanji, struggling to the point of tears to get people to understand you, trying to respect another country’s lifestyle even when it’s hard…that’s an easy ride?! And you say I’m the one whose talking bullsh*t? That doesn’t even make any sense!

      Learning Japanese for selfish means? You obviously don’t know a damn thing about me, and I’m gonna say your assumptions are WAY off the mark…period.

      Yes, I am a nihongophile, and that’s not gonna change because someone has a humongous chip on their shoulder. If fostering better relationships with people of the country I’m living and trying to be more open to the world around me makes me selfish…then…so be it, Mo.

      You also said the Japanese people know more English than I know Japanese. I’m sorry, since when did you become expert on what Japanese people know and don’t know?

      If you’ve ever walked Japanese hospital, or taught English in Japan you’d know that’s not case. There you go again making these unfounded, blanket-ass assumptions. I’ve met Japanese people with amazing English abilities, I’ve met others who’s English needs some work. As far as my Japanese abilities go, I’m not even going to quantify that with a response, because, again, you’re making assumptions..this time about my Japanese skill level.

      Foreigners go to America all the time, and it’s expected that these people to learn English and adapt to American culture. Yet you see nothing wrong with that, do you? It’s a grossly unfair double standard for things not to work the other way around.

      Let’s do a little argument flip here. Let’s use Chinese as an example (because it’s anticipated that China’s power will someday exceed that of even America). If some Chinese man said that the best thing to do is to teach Americans Chinese, that learning English is a lost cause. Teaching Americans Chinese will help them catch up with the world. How would you feel? YOU’D BE LIVID! You’re the one that needs to catch up. We don’t live in a one-language world anymore. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but they made this thing called the Internet that brings people together like never before. In my humble opinion, the need to communicate in other languages has increased if anything.

      So, I’m sticking to what I said originally…When in Japan, Do As The Japanese do.


      Donald Ash

      P.S.-Did you call me a self-tugging nihongophile? I actually found that quite amusing. I needed a good laugh today. I hear that self-tugging relieves stress. Maybe you should give a try, it might help get your underwear out of the obvious wad that they’re in.

      P.P.S.-Mo, seriously. I appreciate you coming by to share you opinion. Feel free to do so anytime, you are TOTALLY welcome…that’s why I approved your comments without changing them, but don’t make assumptions about me, especially ones that are completely baseless.

      • LanceT says:

        hehe, I think I just saw sparks flying out of my monitor. Nice to see you aren’t afraid to give ridiculous comments a good lashing on your site. XD

    • Patrick says:

      Donald’s response pretty much decimated this ridiculous point of view, but I thought I’d throw my two cents in for kicks.

      It sounds to me like Mo hasn’t spent much time in Japan. And if he has, he’s the kind of person I try to avoid while living here. He shows a complete lack of respect for the country’s culture, pride and sensitivity. I’m not sure why he even has an interest in Japan if this is the way he’s going to think. Moreover, he total missed the point of the original article. (Don’t worry, guy. It makes a lot more sense to us who’ve been here a long time.)

      Foreigners living in Japan – whether as English teachers or not – have a responsibility to share our language and culture with those who want to learn. And when we make an effort to learn the Japanese language and culture it shows that we are actively exchanging our systems and beliefs rather than just pressing ours onto everyone else. Japanese people respect foreigners who show an interest in their language and country and will listen to what they have to say and teach. As far as internationalization goes, this is crucial, especially in a country where most people don’t speak English. (Yeah, Mo’s assumption that “the Japanese people know more English than you know Japanese” is a little overblown.)

      If you’re going to come here and refuse to learn Japanese, don’t expect to make much of an impact beyond the English schools. Have fun hanging out with other foreigners while the country carries on without you.

  • Mo says:

    And this “when in Rome/Japan” is bullshit. Romans conquered every where they went, so I might be in Rome, but really it used to be my friggin home, and the Roman’s conquered it and now I have to do what they do.
    The people who came here and “invented Japan” conquered and slaughtered those that were here, why didn’t they “do as the people that were here do”. Because “when in Rome/Japan do as the Romans’/Japanese do” is for those who care about nothing but an easy ride for themselves. Or those who are as arrogant as “the Romans’/Japanese” and want a piece of the pie.

    • Nanami says:

      I think that it’s not a “When in Rome..” situation rather than respecting the country and citizens you work with. It’s not like you speak Japanese in the classroom to the students constantly. No, of course not. However, what kind of ignorant ass does a person present when they go to a country, refuse to learn the language and then look down their nose at the local populace. That, in my unhumble opinion, is being self-serving and egocentric. Sociologically, total immersion is the best way to learn a language–yet it is extremely rare that this opportunity is given to an individual unless they are an expat.

  • Janet Molnar says:

    Your blog is interesting. I stumbled on it while looking up Tsukuba news. My son (Canadian) and his Japanese wife live in Tsukuba. I worry about the radiation levels rising if those reactors aren’t brought under control. I wanted also to see if there is any worry or panic due to shortages on food & fuel in Tsukuba. You wanted to know if reporting in the US has been factual. Pretty much I think, except Nancy Grace. She is blowing EVERYTHING out of proportion, and sensationalizing the small levels of radiation that a plane from Tokyo had when it landed in California…YIKES! Anyhow, what are job opportunities for a guy who has some Japanese now (he’s been there 2 years)? His old contract is coming to an end.

    • Donald Ash says:

      Thank you Janet. Honestly, I’m worried about radiation, too. There are lots of researchers in town, and I am hearing that levels here are quite normal, but it’s hard for me to pinpoint how accurate these sources are. I know several of my foreign friends left town. I eventually decided to stay (I have to pick up a washing machine for my apartment, tomorrow), but bags are packed and ready.

      Although gasoline and food are pretty big problems (water was a problem until things came back on a couple of days ago for most residents) it’s more of an inconvenience than a crisis. As far as food goes, the convenience stores are still pretty barren, but grocery stores have opened back up and it provides some sense of relief. I don’t drive, but the gas situation definitely seems like a borderline crisis. If you could see chain of cars lined up at all of the gas stations, it looks serious.

      AHhh…Nancy Grace. I never really watched her much, for that very reason. Oh well, at least there is factual reporting happening. That’s good.

      My contract just ended with my company in February, and I’m going for a second helping of teaching but in public school. There are possibilities for other things from corporate jobs to garbage collectors. Teaching public school gives me a chance to hear Japanese more regularly. Once you have a solid understanding of Japanese I think the opportunities grow by leaps and bounds.

  • LanceT says:

    This is absolutely right. I’m not sure how Mo became so badly derailed, but if you are going to live in a country where your language isn’t the primary language, then you need to step up your game and learn the nation’s language. If you are there to teach your language, then of course teach your language to as many that will listen. There is give and take in all things. Take up their language while you give out your language. Seems simple to me.

  • TJ says:

    I haven’t visited any other country other than Jamaica outside of the US, however, if I lived in another country I feel I’d be at a disadvantage to not know and/or try to learn the language. It is to me disrespectful to not even attempt to learn the language and adapt to their native ways, just as it is for someone to come to the US and not adapt to our way of life to some degree.

  • Kurt says:

    Mo exemplifies what I have always seen to be the problem with Americans…we wave our big foam #1 finger like at football games and believe the whole planet should do it ‘our way’ because obviously we are the bees knees. The reason I always got along so well in other countries (25 to date) is because I understood I was in their home and respected it and had at the least a curiosity to learn about it. I can imagine someone from another country moving to the U.S. and proclaiming ‘why should I learn English…shouldn’t they just speak ______.” Oop, bad example…the Mexicans are doing that here already.

    So why did Mo(ron) move to Japan? Did he/she?

    Bah, keep it up Donald. Great recall of an old entry.

    cheers (oop, sorry again, that was proper when I lived in Australia.)

  • Koji in Vermont says:

    “If some Chinese man said…Teaching Americans Chinese will help them catch up with the world. ” LOL! You brought up a good point here. Putting yourself in others shoes is not easy for some people, including myself. This has nothing to do with how well-traveled you are. Nothing to do with how many languages you speak, for that matter. Keep up the good work!

  • Bon says:

    My name is Lavon… I’ve never even met another Lavon, let alone one spelled the same way as mine! C:

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