Monday, 11 May 2015

The Japan Files ~ Question Time

It's very common that when you meet someone for the first time, there's always gonna be that general exchange of questions that people ask each other to get some perspective on the people they're talking to. As humans, we are social. We need conversation and common ground to form relationships or get to know each other. But whenever I meet a Japanese person for the first time, it isn't uncommon to come across the same pattern of questions every time, to the point where I can almost literally predict what is going to come out of their mouths. And it doesn't matter the age or gender. Because it seems that the vast majority of Japanese people tend to blend together as is the culture really. Though there are those that stray from the norm, Japan is an extremely conservative society where it's important to fit in. Differences, while apparent, are sometimes hard to come by. So allow me to introduce to you, my pattern of five; the questions that I have received the most since my arrival in Japan.

Where are you from?

Potentially, the most - if not the most common question that any Japanese person will ask upon meeting a foreigner for the first time. Foreigners are hard to come by. We make up less than 2% of the population and the majority of that two percent happens to come from neighbouring countries like South Korea or China. It is physically impossible to know where someone is from based on their appearance alone although it's a very typical thing to make assumptions. As a result, there seems to be a continuous interest in foreigner origins. But sadly, this question is a little bit too common for my taste so I've actually resorted to making people guess where I'm from to entertain myself. And I've had it all. People have assumed I'm American, African, Brazilian or Canadian. (I even had Indian once but I'm wondering if that person was serious). It seems that it's difficult for people to comprehend that a person that looks like me could be from a country like England. So I feel quite proud of myself when I open someone's eyes to the possibility for the first time.

How long have you been in Japan?

Recently, I've been getting this one a lot. I guess it's kind of a given though. I am not Japanese and as a result, the length of time I've been here is bound to be shorter than any Japanese person who was born and raised here. Maybe it's a way of gaging whether I'm a newbie or veteran. After all, newbies are expected to know virtually nothing about Japan. And veterans? Well, they're expected to know virtually nothing about Japan too. I usually get asked this one a lot at work so maybe it's a way of checking out my level of experience. But that says nothing really; for all they know, I could have taught English back in England as well.  If I'm honest, I'm not 100% sure about this. It could be actually be a foreshadowing of the next question...

How long will you stay in Japan?

To a lot of the locals, foreigners have an expiration date. And while various foreigners stay for long periods of time or make a life for themselves in Japan, there are a great many still who put a time stamp on their time here. Some decide to stay for a year and then head home, while others can only stay for a year due to visa restraints. Others stay for extended periods of time and then evidently decide to go home when they feel the time is right, while others just never leave. That said, because the locals are used to seeing foreigners come and go, it is often expected that we aren't in it for the long haul. That said, whenever I get asked this question, the response is always a shrug of the shoulders. I know it won't be forever but I really don't know how long I'm gonna be here. As it happens though, I quite like my life in Japan right now; I've always mentioned that it feels easy to live here; even without a firm grasp on the language. This brings me to the next question...

Can you speak Japanese?

I've always believed that it's important for people to speak the language of the country they are in. And I'm sure English speakers galore would agree that they expect people to speak English if they're going to be living in English speaking nations. But not all nations seem to agree with this notion. In Japan, it isn't uncommon for even the oldest fogey to know a little bit of English. But they still want to know whether you can communicate in the language and personally I don't see anything wrong with this question as it's usually assumed that foreigners cannot speak Japanese at all. But the more I'm asked this question, I'm starting to wonder if the answer to this question from the expectant Japanese perspective is only either "yes" or "no". I usually say "a little" because I do know a little but I'm starting to wonder if "a little" more of less translates into "no".

Why did you come to Japan?

A friend of mine once asked me why I was learning Japanese because Japanese is a language only spoken - for the most part - in Japan and can't really be used anywhere else. Therefore, it has made me consider that the reason people ask this question is a way of downplaying Japan. After all, modesty is extremely prevalent here.. But at the same time, I'm starting to wonder if people think I'm crazy for coming here. There seems to be a divine interest in all things non-Japanese. Or whether it's a way for people to hear others say good things about Japan. After all, the vast majority of foreigners came here or their own free will. They wouldn't have come here if they didn't like it. That said, my answer to this question is simple. I took an interest in Japan and the rest is history. In the same way that the kids are all obsessed with American musicians and K-pop idols, I chose Japan. This reason, and the fact that I wanted to teach.


Now all of these are perfectly acceptable questions. I suspect it wouldn't be uncommon to hear them had I chose to move to another country instead but the sheer frequency at which I have encountered these questions has lead me to do just that...question these questions. And what I've noted is that all of them have at least one thing in common. They continually reaffirm my status as a foreigner in Japan. Where are your from? Somewhere else. How long have you been in Japan? Not long. How long will you stay in Japan? Not forever. Can you speak Japanese? Not well. Why did you come to Japan? State your purpose. I believe it's been spoken about in other blogs - this notion of uchi-soto or "us versus them" but for a country that's keen to break down international barriers, I'm starting to wonder if they're going about it the right way.

Now where I'm from, when meeting someone for the first time, one of the first questions that generally pops up is "what's your name?". Since I've been here, I often ask this and find myself having to introduce myself without having received an enquiry in return. Further down the line, it's not uncommon to ask about someone's interests but (in reference to my earlier entry), this seems to rarely come about unless I've introduced the topic myself. 

Now perhaps its a clash of culture. Maybe it's uncommon here to pry too deeply into a stranger's state of affairs, especially if the subject is particularly controversial. But I don't understand how the question "How long will you stay in Japan?" takes precedence over "What do you do in your free time?". As I sit here evaluating it, the former question seems a little bit "cold". It's a surface question that seems to bare no interest in me as the individual. But again, Japan is not a country where people disclose their opinions freely and openly so it does not surprise me that the questions that I receive as a foreign seem to be more of the same.

I do wish they would change it up a bit however, but I guess I can't expect miracles in a country that is so very uniform. So foreigners with no clue about Japan - and even those with a clue - brace yourself.

It will get old.


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