“You don’t need to know Japanese.”

I’m going to take a moment here to talk about the vast number of people living in Japan who can’t speak Japanese. I don’t mean Brazilian enclaves or people studying the language at a university. I don’t mean tourists or people on short-term working holidays. I’m talking about people who come here to live and/or work and can’t hold a simple conversation. Frankly, I don’t understand it.

I do understand the lure of Japan. People from all over the world move here for the traditional culture and religion, the chance to work in Asia, or the geeky pop culture that’s been so popular for the last couple decades. I absolutely get why people want to move here. What I don’t get is why anyone would move to a country and not have at least a basic working knowledge of the native language.

Sure, English has become the world’s lengua franca, and there are many people in Japan — especially in major cities like Tokyo and Osaka — who can and will speak English. But for every Japanese who can speak enough English to help a foreigner, there are a handful whose English is borderline insufficient and many who can’t express themselves in English at all. (As you might expect, the concentration is higher in tourist areas and lower in rural areas.)

Working as an English teacher, I have a lot of non-Japanese coworkers. Of the ones I’ve met, very few of them speak any Japanese past a handful of words and phrases they’ve picked up while living here. Even my boss, who’s lived here for ten years, has no real Japanese ability; the handful of phrases he uses when answering the phone he learned phonetically. One of my students told me about a new intern he works with from the US who has to use pictures on his phone to ask for what he wants at restaurants and stores. It’s baffling.

For these people, there are very few ways to compensate. Some find Japanese girlfriends/boyfriends or wives/husbands who can translate for them or take care of complex issues. Some only associate with other expatriates, effectively keeping themselves in bubbles of English until they leave the country or find a partner (see above). Regardless, the bulk of them are cut off not just linguistically, but culturally and socially, from their new home society.

While none of us foreigners will ever be accepted fully into Japanese society, those of us who can communicate or have at least basic conversations will always be viewed in a somewhat-better light, if for no other reason than it’s far less hassle to talk to us. It’s easier to make friends if you don’t need an interpreter or phrasebook. And really, it’s a sign of courtesy and respect for any society if you can speak some of the native language before trying to integrate. How well can you really fit in somewhere if you can’t understand what people are saying?

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