Written by Maciamo on 4 April 2005 (last updated in July 2014)
Since I wrote this article in 2005 hundreds of comments have been posted about it on the Wa-pedia Forum, on other forums, and on social media such as Facebook. I have noticed that I have not made my position clear enough, which can lead to misunderstandings. I grew up in Belgium and am not a native speaker of English. I was brought up in a multilingual country where it is not only normal but expected from everybody to learn languages other than one's mother tongue.
I was instilled from an early age the motto "When in Rome, do as the Romans". And this is what I have always done when living abroad. I just cannot understand how people would live in a foreign country without learning the local language(s) and customs. Before living in Japan I have lived in five other countries beside my own, where each time I did just that. Even when I am travelling as a tourist I always try to pick up some of the local vernacular. Adapting to a foreign culture was therefore not a novel experience for me when I first set foot in Japan. Not only did I land in Japan with more experience in that regard than most foreigners ever will, but I probably had stronger motivations to soak up Japanese culture than average for the simple reason that I fell in love with this country from my early childhood.
I grew up watching Japanese anime from the age of three and started judo at the age of six (where I sat in seiza on tatami and picked up my first Japanese words). Later I played Japanese video games, learned karate, and as a late teenagers developed a passion for traditional Japanese culture and Japanese cuisine. This was all before the first trip to Japan and before I met my future Japanese wife while I was living in the UK. I came with here to Japan and I decided to stay and live with her, find a job, and learn more about that country that always fascinated me. Within a year I had set up my own website, which would eventually become Wa-pedia.com.
If you disagree with parts of this article or can't understand why I am "being so sensitive" about all this, just keep this in mind where I am coming from. Japanese culture has been in my life since my early childhood, like for a lot of other Westerners. If you have never learned martial arts you may not be surprised when a Japanese person asks you if you can sit on a tatami. If you have never eaten Japanese or Chinese food with chopsticks before coming to Japan, then what are you even doing in Japan ?
As a follow-up to my article Common Japanese misconceptions regarding foreigners and foreign countries, I'd like to provide some advice to our Japanese readers as how to better address Westerners so as not to irritate or offend them. I understand that not all Westerners feel the way I feel about these issues, but I also know that a considerable number of people do.
1. Questions about food
Do not ask someone "can you eat (something)", but "do you like (something)". We can only say that somebody cannot eat something when they are allergic to it, cannot eat it for religious or ideologic reasons or because they dislike it so much that it makes them throw up. It doesn't matter in what language you ask this question (even in Japanese), it is not a matter of cultural difference about the meaning of "can" (dekiru, taberareru...), but just a matter of accuracy of vocabulary. So please say "what kind of food don't you like ?" and not "What kind of food can/can't you eat ?". If someone ask me if I can eat something, my answer will be "yes", even if I don't like it, as I have no allergies or religious restrictions.
There is also food which I can it, like, but don't want to eat, because they may be unhealthy or I may be afraid to eat (e.g. beef because of BSE).
2. Questions about the weather & seasons
Avoid asking if a temperate country has four seasons like Japan, as it will feel quite odd for Westerners, because:
- almost all Western countries have four seasons.
- some countries like the US or Australia are so big that the climate can be very different depending on the region.
- it sounds like the Japanese are proud of having 4 seasons (why would it matter?), and are naive enough to think that many Western countries don't.
To avoid such reactions, ask instead :
- "How is the climate in your country/state/region/hometown ?"
- "How is the weather at the moment in your country/hometown ?
- "Is the weather in Japan very different than where you come from ?"
If the person has stayed in Japan for at least a year and experienced all the seasons in Japan, you can ask :
- "Do the seasons start and end at different times of the year where you come from ?"
- "How would you compare the climate in your country/hometown and Japan/(place where you live in Japan) ?
From my experience, the problem of many Japanese is asking too simple questions, which sound quite naive, and may be offending if the person who is asked think that the person who ask is only feigning not to know. Anyway, it's either one or the other. Interestingly, I did not notice any difference when the question was asked in Japanese, so it's not a matter of linguistic abilities. In fact, even Japanese people who are very fluent in English ask those questions the same way. If they have lived abroad or have (had) a Western partner, they are less likely to ask those questions though.
3. Questions regarding general abilities
Just don't ask a foreigner if they can use chopsticks, sleep on a futon, sit in seiza, or whatever.
If they have been in Japan for some time, your asking will sound odd, irritating, or even offensive because you are supposing that they cannot do it just because they are foreigners. This sounds racist and is bound to anger many people if you ask (some people don't care, though).
If you ask people who have just arrived in Japan, or while you are abroad to people who have never been to Japan, it will sound like you are proud of being able to do these things while they probably can't because they are not used to them. If people are not offended, they will think you are vain or weird. So just don't ask.
If you really need to know, for example if a short-term visitor can sit in seiza and use chopsticks because you want to take them to a restaurant where they have to sit on a tatami, then ask it more tactfully like :
- "I hope you don't mind if we go to a restaurant where we have to sit on a tatami".
- "This restaurant doesn't have chairs; is it a problem for you ?"
In my experience, Japanese people tend to be abrupt when asking such questions to foreigners, even when asking in Japanese. A typical question is asked like "Can you sit in seiza ?" with a tone of voice expecting a negative answer or strong doubt. Such directness is for the least surprising for a culture said to be so indirect, polite, and careful of other people's feelings. Or maybe is it a special treatment for foreigners, because Japanese people mistakenly think that all Westerners are direct and abrupt in their questions ? Or because foreigners cannot possibly need to be asked tactfully (as they don't feel the same way as the Japanese) ?
4. Addressing a Westerner in a public place
There are a few rules that should be followed here if you do not want to appear impolite, abrupt, shameless or just weird.
- Don't assume that all Westerners are native speakers of English
- Don't assume that foreigners can't speak Japanese
- Don't talk to a foreigners in a public place just to practice your English, especially if there is no eye-contact before that invite you to do so (e.g.don't do it if they are reading a book, resting, thinking, talking to someone else, walking, etc.). It happened several times to me (and many other Westerners in Japan) to be suddenly approached by some people in the street who apparently just want to speak English (e.g. asking where I am from, etc.). This happened when I was riding my bicycle (waiting at the traffic light), when I was reading in a cafe, walking to work, and even when I was shopping with my wife. This is just rude and should be avoided. Acceptable situations would be at a party, or when your are both sitting in a cafe and make some eye to show that you are interested in communicating.
- Don't answer with gestures or think 2min about an answer in English if a Westerner ask you something (e.g. if you work in a shop) in Japanese. Just answer in Japanese. The reasons are that 1) they may not speak English (over half of all Westerners are not native English-speakers), and 2) it can be very annoying to be answered in incomprehensible English or by gestures when one is trying to communicate in the local language. They may also think that you just don't want to talk to them because they are foreigners, as no Japanese would reply like this to another Japanese. So only reply in English if you are confident enough and are sure that the person asking speaks English (e.g. if they have a strong English accent in Japanese or you heard them speak English to someone else).
5. If addressed by a Westerner
Many Westerners in Japan complain that when they ask something in Japanese to a Japanese person, they will almost always reply to an accompanying Japanese person if there is one. For example, if I am with my wife or another Japanese person and I ask some information to a shop attendant, real estate agent, metro staff, government official, etc., they will ignore me and reply to the Japanese person with me. This is not just annoying, it's plain rude and disrespectful. This situation even happened to me when I was with a Korean friend who didn't speak much Japanese, just because she looked Japanese.
The problem is that it happens almost all the time. And even when I continue asking more questions in Japanese (which they always understand easily, so they can see I can speak Japanese), they still don't look at me and insist on talking back to my wife or Japanese friend. This should be avoided at all cost if you don't want to give the image that the Japanese are disrespectful (even insulting) to foreigners and thus maybe racists.
So don't reply to an accompanying Japanese (or someone who looks Japanese) if a Westerner ask you a question in Japanese. Reply to the person who asked the question.
Secondly, never reply with gestures (e.g. pointing at the price on the cash register) if a foreigner address you in Japanese (except if you want to appear unfriendly or scornful on purpose). This usually happens to people who do not speak English at all and presume that Westerners can't understand Japanese. So responding with gestures with make you look prejudiced and ignorant. Just answer normally in Japanese.
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