Monday, March 23, 1998

How Come Your Japanese Isn’t Better Than It Is?

Foreword (January 4, 2007)

The following is a write-up of an exchange I had with a Japanese colleague at Keio University back in 1998, reduced to a simple question/answer dialogue. This colleague was a friend who, if you read your way into this lengthy exchange, you will see I was on quite close terms with. This means she could say things (and I could respond) on a level of frankness many people fail to reach with colleagues. Despite the testiness, we remain friends to this day. It is actually a composite of several conversations over several months’ time. It is my version of our exchange, and there is bias in the tone, and I have to admit I make myself sound more articulate than I actually am in live situations (I really did do some extensive editing). But all the questions to which I responded are real, and I believe I have not altered them in any significant way. At the risk of sounding even more defensive than I do in the exchanges (which, I concede, does not portray me in a very generous light), I ask only that you recognize by piling them all up together as I have done here, they come across with greater negative intensity than I think they actually did coming out small bits at a time.

I do not present my views as a model for others. Much of what I say of my workplace and my sense of self as an American living in Japan is unique to my situation. Yet, while I might have removed certain details which seem irrelevant to the main point, which is to shed light on sociolinguistic and pragmatic issues of working in the Japanese linguistic social context, I trust you will see they are not irrelevant, because that context determines the very nature of relationships as well issues of simple comprehension. At the same time, the answers I have come up with to my colleague’s litany of complaints have grown out of now countless discussions with other non-Japanese and Japanese colleagues, and I have the sense that I am articulating a view that others may well share.

Still others will tell me I am too easy on myself, that I really ought to have bit the bullet and made a better showing of myself as a learner of the language of my chosen country.

But, as I write this now, in January of 2007, having left Japan behind and returned to live in my home in California, I find considerable sympathy for this person I was ten years ago. Not because he was right. But because he called the shots as he saw them.

For those of you whose Japanese has gone well beyond mine, and this looks like just so much sour grapes, God bless. Your labors have obviously paid off. This is not a shoe for all feet.

Foreword (March 23, 1998)

Non-Japanese who live in Japan and get together with other non-Japanese residents for the first time have "peculiarities of living in Japan" as an obvious starting place for conversation. One of these is the frequency of the curious phrase, "Ah, Nihongo wa joozu desu, ne!" It serves nicely as a focal point for complaining about the endless reminders that one is an outsider.

What is curious about it is its automaticity. Certain phrases in Japanese strike the Japanese language learner as overused. "Waa, kirei desu, ne" to anything of beauty; "Kawai, ne" to babies and old people and any object smaller than a breadbox unexpectedly encountered. They are not "overused" from a linguistic scientific perspective, since "overused" is a judgment made from outside the culture. They only appear that way to people convinced they have more variety in their own speech.

"Nihongo wa joozu desu, ne!" said in response to even a simple "please" or "thank you" causes discomfort for a similar reason. People from other places maintain they themselves would not use it so often, that it is insulting in the way it focuses on the person himself and not on the communication, and patronizing, in that it is commonly said in response to even a "please" or a "thank you" uttered by a foreigner in Japanese.

The reason for the negative reaction is probably that it is literally, instead of culturally, translated. Literally translated, it means "Your Japanese is good, isn't it!" Culturally translated, it means something more on the order of, "How nice to see you speaking Japanese," the ellipsis being "I understand Japanese is difficult to learn; many foreigners don't even bother, and you do me and my fellow Japanese honor by your efforts. I won't be petty and analytical and discuss how much more or how little else you can say; I'll just take this opportunity to pay you a compliment." I'm obviously playing very loose with this cultural interpretation.

When you've lived in Japan for years, and have listened to "Nihongo wa joozu desu, ne" hundreds of times, imagine what it does to your sense of world order to suddenly hear one day, "Nihongo ga naze jootatsu shinai ka?" In this case, there is also a gap between the linguistic meaning, ("Why isn't your Japanese better than it is?") and the unstated, but more important meaning below the surface. In this case, the "real" meaning is something like, "You've become a pain in the ass; after all this time here, you are still dependent on people like me to do your translating for you; you give a bad impression of yourself; and your refusal to play by the local rules is insulting." Lucky me. I've had colleagues comfortable enough with me to have been quite vocal about articulating this honne.

Playing the tatemae/honne game is one of my favorite pastimes. A culture known for elaborating and maintaining "public truth" or "public way of being" or "public face presentation" (tatemae) sharply distinct from "what's really on your mind" (honne) provides endless opportunity to engage in the mystery adventure game of guessing what people really mean. There are lots of ways to play this game. One particularly nasty one-upmanship variation is to take every tatemae as if it were true and ignore what you know people are really getting at. Foreigners often take this line of least resistance, and ride the waves of Japanese assumptions that they lack the ability to read the subtle clues, anyway. Might as well have the game as the name, they think.

Like anybody else, I'm not above reading things on occasion as they suit me, and I have taken to reading "How come your Japanese isn't better than it is?" as a sign that I am now, really, at long last, "one of them." They wouldn't talk to me so rudely if I weren't, right? I feel justified in maintaining this view. I really believe it's true. I have stopped complaining, at long last, of being treated like an outsider. I have lived in Japan a long time now, and my friends and many of my colleagues now treat me like one of them. That's my problem. "Be careful what you pray for," runs the old fortune cookie advice, "your prayers may be answered."

Now honne invites honne, so I'd like to let out some steam. I know some people will say it's not nice to put honne into writing, but I won't force anybody to read this, so even though it is a public forum, I will take some liberties. Here's what I think when you say to me, "How come your Japanese isn't better than it is?" Here is a sample of questions put to me by colleagues on this topic, most of them friendly, some of them not, about my Japanese language proficiency. I have put them down here to the best of my memory. They represent different people's questions on different occasions, so they are out of context. Put all together in one place, they sound more aggressive, less generous, than most comments actually were. And my answers, obviously, are not the answers I gave at the time. They are the answers I wish I had given, the ones that come to mind afterward, when the moment is lost. The tatemae response to "How come, etc." is, obviously, "You're right. I have not worked hard enough. I will work harder in the future." Mostly, I'm well-behaved. I give tatemae responses on tatemae occasions. This is the other side of the story. This is honne.

"How come your Japanese isn't any better than it is after all the years you've lived in Japan?"

My Japanese is not "good enough," you say (or imply). Well let me start by agreeing with you. It isn't. I carry around with me a terrible sense of inadequacy that after all these years in Japan I still have only this degree of proficiency in the Japanese language. So we are not really at odds here on the question.

However, I have one little question to ask you in return. How good is good enough? What level of proficiency would I have to attain before I could feel reasonably certain that this question would not come my way from curious people like you?

You see, over the past twenty-eight years, I have:
• traveled alone throughout Japan, asked directions, ordered food in restaurants, booked hotels and arranged bills;
• Left things on trains, called the station on the telephone, specified time and location where I lost things and arranged to pick them up;
• bought a television set, a VCR, stereo, washing machine, dryer, kitchen range, refrigerator, futons, desks, tables, and other furniture, bookcases, carpets, and a number of frozen turkeys, all on different occasions and had them delivered to my house;
• argued with the Hitachi repairman who falsely accused me of keeping a dirty lint tray and gotten him to admit maybe Hitachi dryers are not totally flawless;
• bought a tansu at a flea market through several weeks of price haggling, and arranged for delivery;
• conducted several love affairs, from 24-hours to seven years in duration;
• explained to a stranger on a train that I was having a fainting spell and needed to sit down (I got the seat);
• explained to several doctors that I would not take medications without knowing their side effects and made them explain those side effects to me;
• taken taxis to hundreds of locations;
• explained to young people the importance of safe sex and the use of condoms and changed their behavior;
• acted as an intermediary between a friend and her husband on problems of sexual incompatibility;
• walked into a real estate agency without introduction and gone through the elaborate process of renting an apartment, each time fast-talking my way through their desire not to wait on gaijin, and more than once past an insistence that there were no places available for such beings;
• opened bank accounts at five different banks;
• arranged with banks to pay my bills for gas, electricity, rent, telephone, bookstores, Kinokuniya groceries, newspaper subscriptions and other services (more than a dozen times);
• acted as consultant for several juku and yobiko and spoken "words of welcome" at opening ceremonies;
• spoken at weddings;
• acted as interpreter for a Japanese student (in America) being interviewed by a psychiatrist on whether he should be committed for having planned to kill his girlfriend (He was committed, and I followed the situation for the next six months until he returned to Japan);
• called an ambulance and taken a friend to the hospital;
• endured the torture of overnights with eighteen-year-old first-time drinkers at freshman camp on eight separate occasions;
• interviewed the personnel managers at every major company which has sent its employees to graduate school at Stanford University—such places as Toshiba, Hitachi and Daiichi Kangyo Bank.

I could go on, but this self-indulgent partial list of successful speech acts which I performed entirely (except for half of the time when I was acting as interpreter) in the Japanese language ought to suffice to demonstrate that my efforts to acquire proficiency in Japanese have met with some success. You are looking at my glass as if it were half empty. Why?

At the same time, I realize, none of these "successes" in Japanese obviates your implication that I ought to work harder and get even better. I am not a native speaker of Japanese and I barely read and write the language. There is much indeed I could learn.

But, I repeat, how much would I have to learn to satisfy you? If I sat down an hour a day for ten years, and if I committed a thousand more kanji to memory so that I could give you the on- and kun-reading of each one on sight, plus at least three compound words in which it appears, would you stop suggesting that my Japanese could get better? You see, I've done that at some point in the last thirty years. I've spent hours on the study of kanji, committing to memory symbol after symbol lacking in real-world references. To paraphrase Mark Twain's comment on how easy it is to give up smoking, kanji are easy enough to commit to memory; I've memorized some kanji a dozen times.

There are non-Japanese scholars who devote their lives to the Kojiki; Donald Keene is a marvel. Chalmers Johnson's book on MITI, I'm told, is required reading by MITI employees. Lost Japan, a book I read recently, was written by an American who wrote it first in Japanese and won a literary prize for it. Models abound, if I want them, of foreigners who have "mastered" (whatever the hell that means) the Japanese language and use it with ease (as much ease as a Mombusho-trained Japanese can use it, in any case). But these are scholars with jolly good reasons for making the effort to learn Japanese. I am not a Japanese scholar! Never intended to be! Why do you hold them up to me?

"But you could do much more than you are doing, and it would make your life in Japan much richer. You'd save so much time!"

Yes, it would make my life in Japan richer. How often I think of what I'm missing; how often I curse the delay when I have to stop and ask for translations. But the criticism you are leveling is emotional. It is not about time and what's good for me. We'll get to that later. But since you brought up time, let's look at time. For me to get from where I am to a level of Japanese proficiency which would enable me to engage with Japanese colleagues as a linguistic equal would take months and months of worktime. It would mean a radical transformation in the way I live, setting aside vast areas of my life to make room for Japanese study. It would mean putting aside the New York Review of Books to study kanji. Cutting into the limited time I have for reading for pleasure and curiosity about the world, cuttingdown on class preparation to study kanji. Taking time from a life I know is going to end long before I can get to the books on my shelves, all the conversations with friends I want to have, an adequate knowledge of my environment, all to study kanji.

Kanji is a rich and beautiful art form. I understand why you hang onto this ancient treasure. But for me it is barrier to communication unequaled in its difficulty, a wall a mile high which says to those who would enter the Japanese cultural world, "KEEP OUT, YE WHO WILL NOT PAY THE PRICE." A way of keeping a very closed door closed. I learned the Greek and Russian alphabets in high school in a few days. Korean took a weekend of riding around in Seoul on the subway, comparing the Hangul with the romaji on the subway stops, plus a day of serious study. Arabic, with its complex variations, took me a few weeks. The Thai alphabet I mastered on a beach in Ko Samui in three days. Once those barriers to the written codes fell, the languages were there for the taking. "Come on in," they said. "I won't try to stop you." Japanese eludes me after years.

And for what would I fight this battle? So I could write books in Japanese, perhaps? I can write books in English already and reach an infinitely larger audience. To acquire enough Japanese now at my age to be able to write in Japanese would mean those books I might write in English, already very shaky possibilities, would never see the light of day. What would I gain by giving up this bird in the hand? I would love to be able to mix metaphors like this in Japanese--I really would! If I want to reach a Japanese audience, there is a gigantic translation industry out there looking for work. A much more efficient system, I think you will admit. I could also become a doctor, but it makes more sense for me to pay somebody else to interpret my EKGs and X-rays.

"You're making such a big deal about kanji. You can still improve your Japanese without studying kanji."

That's not true. I am already a fluent speaker of Japanese, as I've pointed out! But I've gone about as far as I can go without leaping ahead in vocabulary, and vocabulary is never effectively acquired except through extensive reading. Don't let all the kids on busses and trains with vocabulary lists fool you. They're cramming words into their short-term memories, not learning them for the long haul. And the sorry state of English fluency in this country, considering everybody is subjected to six years of English in the schools, should make that obvious. One "secret" of language learning that seems to escape people here is that vocabulary is acquired only through extensive reading. Show me somebody with a large vocabulary and I'll show you a reader.

"Well, I think you should do what it takes. If we can learn English, you can learn Japanese."

When you make these tit-for-tat arguments, you are forgetting you learned Japanese when you were a child, when much of your day was spent on familiarizing yourself with kanji. Imagine starting that process as an adult. How long did it take you to learn the basic sound-grapheme correspondence necessary to sound out words in English? And how long after that to develop some fluency in reading? And how long after that before you could look up a word in a dictionary with ease? Now be honest with me. How long does it take to do analogous tasks in Japanese? Never mind that most Japanese kids learn romaji in school when they are young, and you are dealing, in me, with a man who began the study of Japanese at the age of 30. When you approach a language written with an alphabet, you begin the process of extensive reading early on. Japanese requires laborious intensive study before you reach that stage. Any tit-for-tat comparison ignores that very fundamental difference. More simply stated, it takes considerably more effort to learn Japanese than it does to learn English and any argument that runs, "If I can do it, you can do it," despite its "common sense" allure, is bogus and specious.

"You could work on the parts that need work, and ignore the others."

Language is learned organically. That fact is commonly misunderstood and profoundly important. Learning to speak helps you learn to read; learning to read is essential for the acquisition of vocabulary, which is essential for interaction, which is essential for further motivation. No piece of language is acquired without having an effect on the next piece that is learned. An inability to read is a devastating handicap. Years ago, when language pedagogy focused on cutting language learning into chunks and following the alleged "natural order" (the way children learned), teaching the spoken language first, the written language later, it became obvious quickly that the assumption adults acquire language the way children do was unwarranted, and this approach was tossed out. There is no way into the Japanese language except through the acquisition of kanji.

"But doesn't child language acquisition research show that Japanese children learn Japanese at the same rate as other children learn their languages?"

Japanese children learn to speak Japanese at the same stage of growth as children who live in other language groups using alphabets learn their languages. You are citing language acquisition research which deals with development of the brain and with oral language. Literacy is a very different matter. And we cannot deny the importance of literacy here. Japan is one of the world's most literate cultures. To "know" Japanese must be defined as being at least in the same ballpark as native speakers of Japanese. If we were talking about a non-literate culture, we might talk about learning to understand and speak, but to get up to speed with Japanese (which, after all, is the essence of your question), one needs to be able to read and write.

But this issue of literacy speaks only to the literal meaning of your question. It doesn't speak to the emotion of your question. What we are really comparing is you and me. You, a Japanese university professor who knew your American Ph.D. depended on a very high level of English proficiency indeed. I never set out to achieve such a goal; I did my Ph.D. in my own language. You deserve no small amount of credit for your accomplishment, but you are comparing apples and oranges here. I came to Japan for very different reasons from the reasons you went to America. And if my life had been one clearly planned journey, if I had known at an early age that I would end up living so many years in Japan, you can be very sure my perfectionism alone would have directed me to the study of Japanese. Much harder. Much earlier.

"So you are admitting you should have studied Japanese harder!"

Yes. I just did. But you know, after a bit of reflection, I realize that's a tatemae answer. Excuse the slip. The truth is that I am quite content with my life. I don't mean this to sound arrogant, but I don't see any purpose in regretting anything. If I had the power to go back and live my life over again, and tried to fix all the things I think I did wrong, who knows how many valuable experiences I would wipe away to my own detriment. If I am going to respect my own experience, I have to take it all, the good and the bad. Why are we wasting time on something we can't do anything about anyway.

"I still think you are using kanji as an excuse. Granted it's hard, but it's doable, isn't it?"

Yes, but so is learning to fly a 747. To learn a language you need access to the contexts in which it is used. I think I've made my point on the subject of kanji. Let's talk about keigo. One thing that keeps me from speaking out in public meetings is my limited control of keigo. My comprehension of keigo at the present time is fairly good, so I know what I might be expected to say, but I am perhaps overly timid in venturing into that territory. That's my problem and I'm working on it. This, I think, is a major reason you have for observing that my Japanese is "limited." Your "How come your Japanese isn't better" is another way of saying -- correct me if I'm wrong--"How come it isn't adequate to handle `advanced level Japanese,'" and by that you mean such things as keigo. Keigo, like slang, cannot be acquired in books. When you try, you come away looking pretty silly. It is acquired only by watching real people use it in real situations. And that requires hours and hours of high level interaction.

If you want to talk like a sailor, you have to live like a sailor. An art critic doesn't acquire the language except by talking with other art critics. One moves in the world of keigo only after one has been allowed in and has achieved the proficiency required to make use of what he or she is listening to. Your assumptions that language learning is a simple question of sitting at a desk and lifting words off the page and lining them up in the brain is a naïve view of language acquisition. (Sorry, but I had to say it.) You know how clumsily keigo is used even by Japanese native speakers, young people before they have the experience necessary to use it appropriately. I have only recently been exposed to situations where keigo is used around me. I am slowly -- very surely, but very slowly -- picking it up. Time, I need. Much more time.

"You go too far. You make it sound like you can only learn how to talk at a faculty meeting by going to faculty meetings. You can learn keigo from all sorts of places!"

You are right. But when you point out that I have been in Japan for years, you are forgetting that I have been in a world of English-speaking people, not in formal interactions with Japanese using high-level Japanese. I have been used as a resource. My value to others is my ability to talk to them in English. Even now I spend hours reading job applications (in English, of course), writing letters of recommendation for students going to American universities, editing colleagues' work (whose English after all those years isn't "good enough") conducting correspondence, and performing other tasks which I am required to do in English. When I talk to Japanese colleagues about intellectual issues, those whose English is more fluent than my Japanese use English. And given the fact that we are comparing Japanese who go abroad to get PhDs with foreigners who come to Japan to teach English, it is pragmatically awkward for them to slow down our discussions to accommodate my learning of Japanese. I speak Japanese all the time, but not in academic circles. The hard part has been making the break-through into academic Japanese. If you were a tad more generous, you would say not "Considering how long you've been in Japan..." but "Considering how much total time you have spent at Japanese language conferences and meetings..." And then you would not finish your sentence with "How come your Japanese isn't better than it is." You'd be obliged to observe that it isn't doing all that bad.

What we're up against here is what I call the "All or Nothing Syndrome" that afflicts people on occasions when they are expected to observe rigid standards of behavior. Knowing a language can never realistically be defined as knowing all registers, all fields, all styles or all levels of discourse. Not even a native speaker has that degree of mastery. A clerk in Akihabara who wants to sell me a television set would not dream of making negative comments about my Japanese. If he says anything at all, he tells me he's impressed with my fluency. Because he's willing to let me express myself clumsily and plainly, because he's interested in a sale and not in a formal ritual correctly performed, there is no question of my language proficiency. It is clearly adequate to the task. But when you say to me, "Your Japanese is not good enough," what you are saying is it is not good enough to perform tasks where I have to "look good." If I were to speak out in meetings, stumble over words, butcher the grammar and the keigo, I would be considered a shameful representative of the department, my colleagues, and my university. People are not generous about things like this. If they were, if they saw mistakes as part of a lifelong learning process instead of evidence of insufficient preparation, this imperfect condition of mine wouldn't bother you so much. In any situation where communication, or some other goal, like selling a TV set, is the goal, I speak uninhibitedly and I get assistance when I need it from those around me. On occasions when looking good is the highest priority, I am an ill-behaved relative best kept in the back room.

You must not think that because I cannot function comfortably at every linguistic event I cannot function well at any linguistic event. And you judge me unfairly by thinking I could reach the level of proficiency of my professor colleagues when they have had a lifetime of preparation. I will never get there, not with the best of intentions.

"You've made it perfectly clear you do not care much about the Japanese language and culture."

I know this all sounds like a terrible lack of interest in and respect for the Japanese language. How can I convince you not to look at it that way? My feelings of inadequacy in Japanese have to live side by side with the sad awareness that my German, once near-native, is slipping away. And with an even rustier French proficiency, and a Spanish proficiency rustier still -- to say nothing of my reading of Portuguese and Dutch. And what of my Russian? That language I once spent a year of my life studying, eight hours in class every day and all day Saturday and Sunday as well? And what of Italian? When am I to read in Italian?

"But you're not living in Italy!"

Oh yes, my dear, I am. I am in love with Italy. I go there every chance I get. I live on planet earth, and I want access to all its people and its languages and cultures. I am not down on Japanese; I am up on Japanese and French and Italian and Russian. I am proud of my German heritage and read in German every chance I get. And I'd love to have Arabic and Hebrew and a dozen other world languages under my belt. It wouldn't take much in some cases, actually. With only six months' effort, I think I could become fluent in Swedish! But don't tie me down to one country. I would die of loneliness for all the others. Breadth always comes at the expense of depth. Why don't you leave it up to others whether it is depth or breadth they offer you? Why must you fault the baker for not being a butcher?

Lack of knowledge does not equal lack of interest. To make that assumption is to pretend the difficulty of acquisition is not a significant factor, and I maintain it is precisely the difficulty that slows us down. Even when the spirit is willing, the effort seems to take something out of the flesh.

There is another issue here. At times, it seems to learners of Japanese that the greater the effort the smaller the reward. Claims are made right and left that "the Japanese don't want you to know Japanese; if you get too good, you're perceived as a threat to them!" I don't accept this view. I think what happens is that the more like a native speaker you get, the more people expect you to behave like a native speaker in all areas of language and culture. It's like watching a kid grow. Sometimes his feet are enormous in relation to the rest of his body, and it takes time for the body to balance itself again. People are not surprised when a beginner stumbles; it's kind of cute. But an adolescent who makes faux pas is more likely to annoy you than a toddler. And when he's around all the time, as foreign colleagues inevitably are, he may annoy you by his apparent unwillingness to stop being a teenager. I think you are trying to tell me to grow up. I'm trying to tell you I'm trying.

"But these expectations are appropriate! You have chosen to live your life in Japan. Why can't you, for every hour you spend studying another language, spend two studying Japanese?"

For every hour I spend "studying" another language, I spend ten studying Japanese. And that's no lie. Your question suggests that I am not living my life right, that I have not arranged my priorities right. It suggests that if I let you manage my life, you would juggle my activities so that there would be more room for the "acquisition" of Japanese. For the sake of argument, let me lay open my life to you to manage. Give me an idea of how you would manage my time. Which of the activities I currently engage in would you have me leave off to allow time for this study of Japanese? Which books in the library should I plan never to read? Which of the articles I am planning to write would you suggest I put aside? Which of the conversations with my friends would you have me forego? Which movies? Which travels to renew my spirit and my health and old acquaintances?

In the abstract, it is so very easy to suggest I find more time to do something of such obvious importance as to become one of the boys at work by minimizing my linguistic differences from them. I have just listed things I actually do that would have to go, or at least be cut back. How about some of the things I don't do that I would like to do? How about going to the gym an hour a day to lessen the very real possibility my angina attacks will develop into serious heart trouble? How about volunteering at the homeless shelter instead of merely writing letters to the editor complaining about inhuman treatment of these people? How about more time spent with my nieces and nephews who always let me know they wish I were not so busy? Which of these things which I don't even do now should I push even further down the list, so that they fall behind "more time studying Japanese"?

"I guess we just see things differently. We have different priorities. I maintain that if you live in a country you should speak the language."

I do speak the language. I just don't speak it well enough to satisfy you. I'm sorry to say this, but if you ignore my efforts to explain how I am hurt by this all-or-nothing attitude, I don't know how else to talk to you. You are not encouraging me here; you are scolding. You take upon yourself a position of superiority when you suggest that I could improve my ways, and you are assuming you can speak to my weaknesses without seeing the full array of activities in which I am engaged, and without regard for how much I may already be struggling to do the very thing you suggest. From my perspective, it is like asking me why I don't improve my character. How would you like it if I asked you why you were not working harder to be a more decent person than you are?

"That's not the same thing. All you need is a little more discipline. It would show more respect for the people with whom you have chosen to live and the nation you have determined to work for."

Whoa! I'm not working for the Japanese nation. I work for myself, to make a living to support my loved ones, to enhance the lives of the students with whom I come in contact. I never claimed to be working for the Japanese nation. Or for any other nation, including my own. And my respect for the institution that pays my salary ought to be perfectly clear from the way I speak of it in public, from the dedication I have to my students and the welfare of my colleagues. To you and others like you who are offended that I do not "show more respect by speaking Japanese," I can only say it is not my intention to offend you. I am not offended by your limited English. I am offended when people suggest I should try to look as they look, do as they do, like what they like, and be what they are, but not by any of their limitations. Since I have never intended to offend you by not accomplishing greater mastery of the Japanese language, and since I do not share the view that my "inadequate" Japanese is an insult to the Japanese nation, I can't help you with your problem here.

"Why do you make your Japanese colleagues do things for you in Japanese that you could do yourself?"

Well, mostly I try to do things on my own. If I have asked for somebody to shortcut my efforts on occasion, it is probably because it was late, or I was tired, or I had some other lame excuse I would not have used if I had been more considerate. If it is a question of my behavior which is a problem, the solution is a change in my behavior, not in assigning blame on the basis of what I know. One can be inconsiderate in any language. I trust you will let me know in the future if my behavior bothers you.

At the risk of becoming defensive on this issue, I have to tell you, though, that I would like to avoid becoming so independent that I never reach out for help. I spend my days and many of my evenings giving information about the world I come from. I think people should feel free to ask for help and I should feel free to comply or not. I like it when people deal with me that way. And I like to deal with other people that way. Say no when you have to. Don't ask me not to ask.

Hidden behind this question is the apparent assumption that we have unequal workloads. We cannot get to the question of my knowledge of Japanese, if that's not really your question. I can only urge you to separate the issues, and we'll talk about perceptions of who works harder in a separate venue.

"But after so many years you should do more on your own!"

So should the whole damn world. I don't want to offend you, but I'm drawing a line here. If it's letting off steam you're after, I'm not a good place to aim your spout. I haven't mastered the art, if that's what it is, of suffering abuse silently. If it's behavior modification you're after, you will reason with me, and you will restrict all criticism to particulars, not abstracts, so that my dignity and I can work together to change my ways and say I'm sorry, or show you why I think you are out of line.

You know, of course, that in many cases it is not I who ask you for language help, but others who ask you because they assume they cannot approach me directly. Secretaries have become impatient, I know, when I have failed to comprehend a word here and there. I have been unsuccessful in getting them to keep talking instead of staring in silence at the wall wondering what the single elusive English word was for what they were trying to say. I know their first course of action is to approach me through my English-teacher Japanese colleagues. I have made efforts, (and I will do more!) to get them not to do that, to try me first. I cannot control an entire administrative staff, and I cannot prevail against a mighty tradition in a day that puts us soto no hito at arm's length, that thinks we are children that need special pampering, that assumes lack of familiarity to be the default condition.

Some days I am nearly speechless with the irony that some people can gush over me, and my supposed linguistic skills (My barber still tells his other customers every time I come in that "the sensei is `more Japanese than the Japanese.'") while others complain my limitations are enough to justify calling me a cultural imperialist. Some days being a gaijin in Japan takes a lot out of a guy.

There is no shortcut solution to this problem. I keep telling my barber this talk embarrasses me. Someday, I think he will listen. If you and I together will get the secretaries and others to just keep talking when language difficulties arise, more learning will take place all around. And, in the end, your instruction could take you no more time than it takes to say (in words as nicely put as you want to put them) "Ask him yourself."

"I'm not really talking about you; I'm talking about people whose Japanese is not as good as yours is."

Ah, but it was me you put the question to. It was my lack of Japanese proficiency that bothered you.

"I'm sorry, but it is the accumulated effect of all the foreigners around here who think they own the world and can dictate that it should speak English."

Whoa again! I insist you take us one at a time. I won't be sloshed with that broad a brush. I have no sympathy for that stance. I can't carry the burden for the cultural and economic imperialists of the world. I will say that there are complex issues of power and cultural difference at work here, and there are ways of dealing with stress and with conflict. Power and conflict are of concern to me too, but right now we're not dealing with power, except, of course, with your power to question my limitations and my conflicting desires to explain and dismiss. Right now, though, we're dealing with your question about why I don't have greater mastery over the Japanese language.

"But why can't you speak Japanese like Ken the TV Talent? Or like your colleague in the Korean Department? Or like [Mr. X, Dr. Y or Rabbi Z]?”

That's an easy one. I'm not Mr. X or Dr. Y or Rabbi Z. I'm somebody else. I don't have the particular constellation of experiences and motivation that brought them to where they are today. I've told you some of the things I've been able to do in Japanese. I might add that although my language appears to have fossilized, it has not. It continues to improve. It is now, however, at a high enough level, that the improvements lack the drama they did when I was at a much lower level. Although I don't like looking at language learning as a linear process, for the sake of simplicity here let me argue that moving from proficiency 4 to proficiency 5 is a 20% jump, but the same distance between proficiency 99 to proficiency 100 (the same distance, an increment of one) is only a 1% jump. Only 1/20th as noticeable.

Why can my Korean colleague, who came in with less proficiency than mine a year ago outshine me today, you ask? Why did he make such progress? Until we get better at brain scans, I can only guess. My guess would be that it is a) because the Japanese language is more important to him at this stage of his life and career than it is to me; b) because his department's teaching method requires the use of Japanese while mine does not; and therefore c) because he had to promise he would use every spare moment to get his Japanese proficiency up quickly; d) because he is young and junior and his job involves more time in contact with students, while my job entails, among other tasks, keeping in contact with 28 mostly native speaker teachers of English on questions of curriculum, morale and coordination; and e) because he speaks a language which is much closer to Japanese than any of the languages I speak, and, more importantly, because he has an enormous head start in being able to read kanji.

"I still don't understand why if I had to learn English to go to graduate school, you can't take it when people put the same expectations on you!"

There are two issues hidden here in one. In the first place, I didn't come here to get an advanced degree in a Japanese university; if I had, your question would have some meaning. The second part of the answer has something to do with your underlying resentment. In an ideal world, we wouldn't have unequal life conditions. Kids in the ghetto would not have to work harder to get an education. Nobody would be below average intelligence. There would be no dysfunctional families.

But I did not design the part of the world that works to my benefit. My being a native speaker of English means I experience the world differently from people who do not speak English. And asking me to live in the world without using that advantage makes no more sense than asking a tall person to scrunch over so he or she will not see so far. English language proficiency gets you into more places around the world than Japanese does. 80% of all business letters are written in English; people entering the computer age have to do advanced computer science study in English if they want access to research and opportunity. English is miles ahead of Japanese in terms of usefulness. I'm not defending the status quo; I'm trying to say that you might, if you were in my shoes, also use the line of least resistance.

Language learning motivation includes a whole host of push forward/pull back factors. Your encouragement for my learning Japanese is a push forward. So is my own perception of how much easier it would make my life. So is the realization that I could have deeper, closer connections to people I know only superficially now (although that assumes, falsely, that there is a lack in the broad range of associations I have now). Pull factors include being told I'm an outsider, being treated like somebody for whom the rules and rewards do not apply. It includes the difficulty of the kanji barrier. And it includes the fact that English gets me so much, takes me so far, so easily. If I were a true Puritan soul, I would resist this temptation to be lazy, retire later and rise from my bed earlier, and pick up the challenge to do it the hard way. But I've been running from a Puritan background all my life. There is a little homunculus in my head which says, "Go easy. Who needs to work up a sweat!"

It's like knowing you should walk to the grocery store and leave the car at home. I know I should exercise my Japanese, but in a pinch (and when are we not in a pinch) it's easier to use the English vehicle. In America, in my experience, people assume people who come in from abroad will become fluent in English quickly. The feeling is that they are dumb, and maybe a little self-destructive, if they don't. As a speaker of Japanese, possibly with limited English, you no doubt resent it that you cannot make the same demands on gaijin in Japan, or benefit from the same incentives. But you can't. They are not there. You have to watch foreigners choose to live sometimes decades in Japan without learning Japanese, and I understand how that must rile you.

Look at the folk wisdom out there on this issue. "You can catch more bees with honey than with vinegar;" "The donkey will run faster after a carrot than from being beaten with a stick." There are lots of indicators that people have discovered universally the point I am trying to make. There is something in the human experience that suggests you are not going about it right when you come down with the criticism inherent in "Why can't you...Why don't you..." You can help turn some of the pull factors into push factors, in other words.

"I wonder if you would have the same attitude if you were in my place and I were in yours."

What a good question. You're at the Golden Rule. We are talking to each other across a chasm of different ways of being in the world, ways that we did not create. All we can do is tell our stories and listen to others. I'm asking you to understand mine, not to stop telling yours. The world would surely be a more comfortable place for you if Japanese were the international language English is. Monolingual speakers of English have infinitely more facility in moving around the world than monolingual speakers of Japanese. English is an international language. People don't learn English as a second language because they love American (Canadian, British, New Zealand, etc.) culture; they learn it because it makes life easier for them. If and when learning Japanese offers the same advantages, people will do what it takes to learn Japanese in equal numbers. In the meantime, the present situation will continue. People will learn Japanese not for international advantages, but for very specific Japan-related reasons. Because they want to sell something to Japanese; because they want to get information from the Japanese; because they have a special affinity for Japanese thought and literature and culture. You will find anthropologists specializing in Japan learning Japanese because it is essential to their lives; English teachers and other foreign faculty at Japanese universities whose major professional focus is anything other than Japan area studies will not fall into the same category.

English-language speakers are drawn to Japan by the thousands by a law of supply and demand. That's what drew me to Japan nearly thirty years ago, and it was my doctorate and my English language skills that those who hired me in 1989 were interested in. Otherwise they would not have devoted hours to those areas and only minutes to my Japanese language proficiency. If Japanese should attain the rank of world language, perhaps you will find yourself in a large community of Japanese ex-patriates someday in, say, Afghanistan sitting at a Japanese wapuro typing a letter like this one, entitled something like "Pashtu-go ga naze jootatsu shinai ka?"* And perhaps not. Perhaps you will resolve never to let things happen like what happened to me. Perhaps you will make learning the local language your highest priority. People will admire you for it. Whatever choices you make, I hope people will not give greater weight to your limitations than they give to what you can offer them.

In the end, you and other Japanese can head off the "problem" of having foreigners in your midst whose Japanese you feel is inadequate. You can impose stricter standards on those you hire in the first place. Make Japanese language proficiency a higher priority and you will not be in this kind of confrontational position in the future.

I hope, however, that you will not do this, not because I have a vested interest in getting foreigners with low language proficiency hired, but because I think it would not serve your best interests. Now the policy is to hire people for the talents you need most. In various departments across universities are foreign faculty who are hired because of their knowledge of economics, music theory, computer science, linguistics, business, international relations -- whatever -- an almost limitless list of expertise. Knowing they don't have much knowledge of Japan and the Japanese language, you hired them anyway, because of what they do know. Your compatriots have taken a pragmatic approach, in other words, which works in their best interest, rather than a cultural nationalist approach which satisfies a baser instinct.

When a French professor is hired at an American university for his expertise in French language, literature and culture, universities in the United States can assume that he has a working knowledge of English -- most Europeans in higher education do. Furthermore, if he doesn't, English and French are so close that he can be expected to pick up English in a matter of months, and if it is his intention, become highly articulate in English in a year or two. Some do it in far less time. The same situation obtains (not as quickly, of course) if it is a Japanese professor in America. But a European or American professor in Japan whose knowledge of Japanese is at an extremely high level, is likely to have put his efforts into Japanese area studies, not into economics or some other area. The pool of Japanese language speakers is considerably smaller, and the length of time necessary for acquisition of Japanese is markedly longer.

Cutting off good people because of limited language abilities would be limiting yourselves to a very few individuals indeed, certainly not enough to go around to all universities and other work places. To put this issue in perspective, consider this. How many Japanese have taken law degrees in America and elsewhere abroad, law being an area where linguistic skills are paramount? And how many foreigners have ever "passed the bar exam" in Japan? I don't have the figures for foreign-trained Japanese lawyers, but the number of foreigners who have passed the Japanese bar exam seems to be one. And that's because he's "foreign" only to the bureaucratically minded. He was born and raised in Japan to a Japanese mother. **

This situation is changing. More people are studying Japanese in 1998 than did in the 1960s when I went to the university. Your pool will increase, eventually. But in the meantime, I hope you will appreciate the gains you can make by accommodating foreigners with limited Japanese language proficiency.

I hope you will not think I am saying we won't learn your language and that's just too bad for you. I hope you will understand I'm trying to say we can (and I believe we should) learn your language, but it's in your interest both to be a little more sympathetic to the extreme difficulty of the task and to keep your eye on the practical advantages of accommodating strangers in your midst. Japan is joining the rest of the world in recognizing there is virtually no such thing as a monolingual nation. Just as we now build theater seats with hearing aids, streetcrossing signals for the blind, ramps to give wheelchair access, we are accepting those of different language backgrounds into full membership in our personal lives and professional communities. In the end, there are no losers in this effort. Only winners.

"I still think you could just cut through all this argument, and make greater efforts to get along with your colleagues in Japanese."

It's hard to respond to that. It sounds to me like you're not listening. I recognize that there are pressures on you to think this way, but you are perhaps attributing to language all the problems of difference. It is an easy catch-all. When one appears not to understand, one appears not to be interacting. Any alleged problems between me and my Japanese colleagues now or in the future (I honestly don't see any now!) can have any number of sources, from difference of opinion, to apparent loyalty to one faction or another, to lack of shared professional knowledge or expertise or simple lack of interest in engaging in a particular issue. Distance from colleagues is attributable to many things more significant than the fact that we are not members of the same linguistic in-group.

"But isn't language the first step to anything resembling collegiality?"

Yes. But I ask you, why do you assume that because my Japanese is not native that I cannot enjoy a comfortable association with my Japanese colleagues? I ask you again, have you checked the real reasons? Or are you carelessly attributing distance to alleged language inadequacy?

Having said that, I cannot deny that I have spent less time with Japanese colleagues who do not speak to me in English than I have with colleagues who do. But why must you conclude that I am missing something? There are only so many hours in the day. My work life and my personal life is full of productive activity and satisfying relationships. It is you who assume I am "missing" something, not I.

"But I always see you sitting at lunch with colleagues from the English Department!"
How many times have you seen language teachers from any language department sitting with anybody else but their language department colleagues? Anybody who understands the importance of morale understands why. You must not judge me on a different scale from my colleagues.

"But you are a full professor! You should be sitting with other full professors! Not lesser colleagues!"

Are you not ashamed to be so brazenly elitist? Even if you are not, can you not allow others to live by other standards than your own? Do you not understand that intelligence, wit, charm, congeniality, shared experiences, and a challenging point of view are good reasons for selecting lunch companions? To say nothing of the need to get some real work done on occasion over lunch. And, by the way, who is measuring the status here?

While we are in this awkward place, maybe I should ask you why you do not allow me to judge your life as you judge mine? Forgive me for stating the obvious and for becoming so unbecomingly defensive here, but your assumption of the right to comment on my choice of companions opens the door to a response on the same level of intimacy. Are you sure that I envy you your capacities? Do you really think I would surrender some of mine for some of yours? I have a lot of work to do, and I can do my work in the English language. I define my purpose here as one of helping learners learn. Those who believe they can learn from me come to me, just as those who think they can learn from any of my colleagues go to them. Some of my Japanese colleagues have more to offer to greater numbers than I do, perhaps, but then some of them have more to offer than you do, also. You must judge yourself by the same measure, and measure your criticism of me accordingly. And in the end, we do not measure success in terms of numbers, but in quality of interaction. You have no reason to find me wanting as a faculty member and teacher. That should not be a reason for saying, or implying, that I would be a better teacher if I spoke Japanese better. Like everyone else, I do what I can with what I've got to offer, and like everyone else, I could perhaps do better. And that brings us back to where we started.

"If you put as much effort into studying Japanese as you put into [writing defensive essays like this one], you'd be miles ahead of where you are today."

That's mean and absolutely false. I have spent a few hours so far on this essay. How much Japanese am I going to learn in a few hours? Certainly not enough to satisfy those who are using their perception of my language ability as a weapon against me.

"I don't mean today. I mean all the times you've been defensive. They would all add up to much more Japanese."

Right. That's true. If I never defended my position and always took the attitude some colleagues have told me to take -- submissive to authority and always willing to assume I'm in the wrong -- I'd have more points with some people. But not the kind of people whose authority I respect, you may be surprised to hear. Fortunately, there are plenty of people around, some of them in authority over me, who are willing to reason, give me the benefit of the doubt most of the time, and listen to my point of view. If I worried only about the few whose insecurity and need to dominate makes them unreachable anyway, I would be doing my good colleagues a great disservice.

"OK. Never mind those people. But how about the ordinary interactions with the administration where you get things translated into English or you don't participate?"

Are people complaining that I don't participate? Why? Because they want me? Because they think they're missing something because I'm not there? Well, they can have me. But I'm linguistically handicapped. It's as if I'm in a wheelchair and need special ramps. You think I'm in this wheelchair by choice. I don't think I am. I came to where I am along a path that did not include total mastery of the Japanese language. I never promised anybody I'd become even a near-native speaker of Japanese. If anybody had that expectation of me when they hired me, it was their duty to say so. I would have told them then I could not have met that expectation. Probably we would have by-passed the whole thing; I would have said, "I'll try," and they would have taken that as a self-imposed obligation. Neither of us at the time would have understood the full extent of the task.

So here I am now, a "handicapped" employee in your environment and we're at odds over what to do about me. You think I should become un-handicapped. I think my handicap is overrated. We don't (or shouldn't) judge people in wheelchairs as if they had nothing else to offer us but their wheelchairs. Why do you not see all that I can do for you, your colleagues, your institution as a native speaker of English, an insider in the American educational system, a professional educator with thirty years' experience, a first-hand knowledge of life in half a dozen countries, a man as well-read as most of your colleagues. To say nothing of my wit, my charm, and my devastatingly good looks.

If we could just agree on those two things, we could -- can -- work wonderfully together. I'll agree to keep plugging along on my Japanese, and you agree to see my glass as half full instead of half empty. How about it?

Berkeley, California March 23, 1998

*"How Come Your Pashtu Isn't Better than it is?"
** By "bar exam" I mean the entrance examination to the Legal Research and Training Institute (Shiho Kenshujo), which Ivan Hall refers to as Japan's "only law school." See Hall, Ivan P., (1998). Cartels of the Mind. NY: Norton, p. 20.