I have written a second book (after Sex, Drugs and Scuba Diving)! It’s an autobiographical account of my time in Japan (2006 – 2011). A fascinating, but not always easy time in my life, being a foreigner in what must be the most closed society of all developed countries. I had both really intriguing cultural insights as well as laughs at the involuntary comedy often going on in the land of the plastic smiles. All of these experiences seemed so remarkable to me that I wrote a book about it. I am still looking for a publisher for it. Here, as an excerpt, is the chapter about foreign languages in Japan, which I hope you all will enjoy. If you are a publisher or literary agent and interested in taking this manuscript on, please get in touch with me. If you are friends/lover/roommate with a literary agent, and you like my writing, let him or her know about the opportunity!
Japanese English: An oxymoron? No, a new language!
The Pacific Ocean is a vast body of water. Vast both in sheer physical expanse, and in the wide range of cultures it is a home to. Just a few thousand kilometers south-East of Japan are the lovely islands of Micronesia. The scientist truly loves the diving, the Pacific island culture and the people there. On his second trip in as many years to these island wonderland of Yap, he is meeting a number of friends again whom he met the first time around. It’s no problem to talk to them in English, although they speak Yapese at home. One of his friends, a high-school teacher, originally comes from Palau, so he also speaks Palauan, and Chukeese, his mother’s mother tongue (would that be his grandmother’s tongue?). From a pretty female Japanese dive guide he, as a ladies’ man, had also picked up some basic Japanese.
A week later, even further distant from the centers of technological civilization, on a small atoll a few hundred kilometers away from Yap. Again, lovely people. The island is a friendly and social place. The scientist walks across the taro-patches in its center and runs into an old man, dressed in only a loin-cloth. The scientist greets him in his native language, one of the few phrases he had learned so far in Ulithian. The senior islander greets him back in English “Good afternoon! Welcome to Ulithi”. That evening, he has the chance to talk to his new-found friend some more. Fascinating. It turns out that he had gone to primary school during Japanese colonial times, and could still speak the Japanese language as well as sing the Japanese imperial anthem. Having spent some time on the main island of Yap, he can speak Yapese, and of course English as well. He has many anecdotes to tell from a life in Micronesia under Japanese, American and independent rule. It turns into a fun, long evening with lots of talk and laughs and coconut-beer.
Another week later, back in Japan. Tea-time in one of the neighboring labs. There is a guest from Europe attending, and the lab head asks all of his students to introduce themselves and their research topic. All of these students were as undergraduates top-performers in the top-Universities of one of the world’s top technological powers, Japan. They had decided that scientific research is so important in their lives that they would dedicate a few years to it, and go on to do a doctoral thesis. These are supposed to be junior top-notch intellectuals.
That’s not how they sound, though. Their English is rocky at best, and typically close to non-existent. Now, they all know very well that if they go to any scientific conference, they will be required to present and discuss their scientific work in English. Speaking that language is a prerequisite for a successful scientific career. Most of them sound more as if they are reciting a few memorized sentences as if they are introducing themselves in a language they can speak. And it’s only a short introduction they have been asked to produce, not an explanation of a complex protracted issue of any sort. Nevertheless, they struggle to a degree that makes it painful to watch. Being put on the spot, even if it’s just in front of about ten people clearly also adds to their nervousness.
“My ah ahm name is a ah ah Makoto Tanaka, I work, ahm ..” – awkward pause – “ehm” – very awkward pause -“I am sorry. My Japanese not so good.” What?
What he meant to say was of course that his English is not so good. Thanks for telling us, we wouldn’t have noticed. Everybody present noticed that he misspoke in this pretty entertaining way. They all laugh. That’s pretty much the worst thing that could happen to a Japanese person, to be laughed at in public at work. The graduate student repeatedly bangs his forehead with the palm of his hand in shame. No, that did not look particularly dignified.
The head-banger was only young and at the beginning of his doctoral thesis, surely anyone who had risen to any prominence in Japanese science will be fluent in English just like top-scientists everywhere else?
That afternoon, there is a talk by one of the most senior professors of the institute. In contrast to grumpy grandpa professor, remember him, he is a mild-mannered and friendly man. He has achieved considerable scientific success in his field. He talks about his plans to build an even more advanced machine based on physics which the scientist, a mere biologist, does not fully understand. He gives a competent talk which he surely must have given several times before in that form. Rightfully proud of his science, he stands in the middle of the podium and elaborates on the specifications of his machine. After he finishes with his presentation, there is, as usual, time for questions. A well dressed, really good-locking Japanese woman gets up and steps closer to the professor. Who is she and what is she doing there? It turns out that that she is his secretary, translating the questions posed into Japanese for him and then translates his answers back!
Why can a fisherman from a small Pacific island nation, or, for that matter a bouncer in an Egyptian bar and a Korean hotel receptionist speak fluent English, while a Japanese graduate student and University professor can’t? Is it because Japanese is so different from English? Certainly not more different than Yapese, Ulithian, Korean or Arab I would think. No, in my opinion the reason is a combination of not caring about the world outside of Japan, and very poor language education. The cement of the Great Wall of Japan is definitely made from the nation’s poor foreigner language skills, and conversely, the wall is a major obstacle in language learning. If people are scared of talking to foreigners, how would they learn to talk like foreigners? This also extends to English teachers – remember my girlfriend’s friend who, while studying English at the University was too shy to talk to me in English? Glorious prospects for the language skills of the next generation if people like her will end up becoming English teachers. Several times my friends with children in Japanese school remarked that the English they were taught there was grammatically obviously incorrect. It is not that Japanese kids don’t spend enough time studying English; rather, it is one component of the notoriously hard University entrance exams and children spend many hours in cram schools studying for these tests. These tests don’t quiz the students’ ability to communicate, they examine a thorough command of the English grammar, quite out of context of any act of communication. English instruction in Japan is more akin to learning Latin in European schools than to studying a living language. And, so we predictably end up with lots of young people with high test scores and low communication skill
The idea that it could be possible to study a language while avoiding talking too much in that language, particularly to its native speakers, has further repercussions. The “English” spoken in Japan rapidly drifts away from standard American English. I noticed this in two regards: At my workplace, officially an international English-language institution, many documents were formulated using English words arranged in a highly unusual order. The authors of these documents did not simply use Japanese grammar – I learned enough Japanese to realize that – but what they wrote certainly also wasn’t English. This was extreme to the point where even the few Japanese colleagues who were competent English speakers – typically people with American spouses or those who had spent time abroad – were seriously irritated by this linguistic loonyness. Another unmissable aspects of life in Japan is the omnipresent “Engrish”: seriously funny pseudo-English found on T-shirts, warning signs and product labels.
In Papua New Guinea, the national language is called “Tok pisin”, which is tok pisin for “talking in pidding (English)”. It developed on the plantations a hundred years ago where Papuans were convinced with shiny beads or the threat of violence to work for their colonial masters. The large number of often significantly different languages in Papua New Guinea made it impossible for anyone to communicate in their native language with too many others; the Papuans had to invent a consensus language which they formed from English. Words were taken from English; grammar and idiomatic habbits formed newly, since the plantation workers mainly used tok pisin to communicate amongst themselves. Examples of tok pisin are “haus dok sik” (= House for sick dogs, veterinary hospital) or “olgeta” (= all together).
Japanese English is well along the way to becoming Japanese tok pisin.
But communicating information is only one of many functions of language. It also transports a message about the social status and the tastes and the group membership of the speaker and writer. That’s why martial arts aficionados in the West often sport tattoos with Chinese or Japanese characters on their chest. And that’s why lots of Japanese band names, prints on T-shirts and stickers on cars are written in an involuntary comical version of English. Legions of band managers and fancy clothes designers try their hands at putting English words on CD covers, concert posters and cloth in an attempt to show how cool their products are. These efforts are a constant source of entertainment for any expat in Japan and are called Engrish. In a certain sense Engrish is the popular-culture version of the Japanese English I encountered in the office. Besides consumer items, another source of Engrish are public signs and announcements directed at foreigners – we should definitely be made aware of the Japanese rules and restrictions!
How about we indulge in some good Engrish:
All pictures taken by myself. Some of these signs had been written by hotel clerks or car mechanics where one wouldn’t necessarily expect multilingualism. It is nevertheless telling that nobody noticed that there is anything wrong with the English language here. Some other examples come from the design or marketing departments of at least mid-sized companies – where there was obviously not even anyone with a friend of a friend capable of expressing herself in Shakespeare’s tongue. And there was no one who even suspected that their attempts are un-grammatical and in need of correction. Mind-boggling!
As the photographer’s saying goes, “the best camera is the one you have with you” – the best Engrish I ever saw I failed to photograph for a lack of a camera:
The scientist sits alone in a cheap soup restaurant, eating a tasty noodle-soup. His friend from work comes in and joins him on his table. The place is full, and the waitress quickly comes to their table. Some people get up and leave, the door opens and new guests enter the restaurant.
A rather conservative looking middle aged man with his wife and young daughter come in. He carries a mid-sized beer-belly around with him and wears a green T-shirt. What’s written on his T-shirt, a parody of a well-known credit card ad, must be one of the most involuntary funny things the scientist has ever seen.
There is no way he would be wearing that if he understood what it meant. In German, the queen of languages when it comes to composite nouns, there exist the term “Fremdschämen”: to be ashamed for someone else, who really should be. What the scientist just saw was one of the most intense cases of Fremdschämen he was ever involved in.
“Mark, turn around if you want to see something funny, but don’t do it too obvious, ok?” “Ok. What’s so funny?” “The guy.” “Which guy?” “With the green T-shirt.”
The friend almost spits out his soup. The T-shirt reads:
“Dinner: 25$. Movie ticket: 15$. Finding a woman who swallows: priceless.”