On Answering Stupid Questions in Japan

Imagine small, square dishes spread out on the black lacquer table, their white porcelain framing the slimy greens and reds of the usual Japanese delicacies. You’ve folded your legs, seiza-style, on cushions of gold-and-blue flowers. Your co-workers grab chopsticks and, with an “itadakimasu,” begin to eat. You join them. And then, almost as ritualistically as the tapping of beer glasses, someone turns to you and asks:

“You can use chopsticks?”

You can, you say.

I usually find myself pointing with sarcasm at the chopsticks, but regret it. I feel guilty for exposing the pointlessness of the question, as if it’s my fault that I’ve been asked.

This is the complicated world of the dreaded “microaggression,” a buzzword popularized in Japan by Debito Arudou in his The Japan Times column (blah blah).

Microaggressions, according to Arudou, are small, near-invisible reminders that I am Japan’s “them” and everyone else is “us.” They’re stresses that come from the gradual build up of tiny, repetitive actions from Japanese people, a carpal tunnel syndrome of the human spirit.

But “microaggression” is an odd word, given that no one’s claiming that there’s any hostility involved, just a perpetual “othering.” The idea that “othering” is an act of aggression is a very Western concept – diversity being a Western (even American) value, albeit, I would say, a totally awesome one.

It’s hard, though, to tackle the idea of “othering” in Japan through a Western lens. Japan has a lot going on.

The Tyranny of the Stupid Question
“Can you use chopsticks?” is the most referenced stupid question, but I’ve endured or heard of countless more, ranging from the unforgivable “You can eat onigiri?” (unforgivable because I was eating onigiri) to the geographically ignorant, “Do you have snow in America?”

Yes and yes, thanks for asking. At first I addressed these questions with goodwill. After all, I don’t know if Japanese people can feed themselves or have rain. I’d hate to be presumptuous.

Under the microaggression microscope (microaggressionscope?) these questions are dreamed up by Japanese people because they are ignorant of the outside world, xenophobic, and blissfully unaware that non-Japanese are capable of doing anything Japanese people do. It’s what we call a “lack of imagination.”

Perhaps this is true, but it seems a bit mean and unproductive not to discuss this stuff in a broader cultural context. I’ll lay these out and let you decide if this contributes to, or detracts from, microaggression theory.

Point One: It Would Be Weirder If They Didn’t Say Anything
In his masterpiece book, “Language in Thought and Action,” SI Hayakawa discusses the phatic role of language, where “the focus is not so much on what is said as on the interpersonal, communicative function, on the faculty of language to … reach easy agreement through relatively insignificant small talk.”

Hayakawa uses the example of a driver coming across someone struggling with a flat tire. The passerby pulls over and tells the stranger, “Looks like you’ve got a flat tire.”

We ask if the tire is flat because our language is a way of offering our voices to each other. Dogs sniff butts, human monkeys listen to tones and inflection. When we say dumb shit like “Can you use chopsticks?” to a person using chopsticks, we’re expressing a need to share our tone, in this case, a tone of curiosity.

Imagine standing at the side of the road, struggling with a flat tire, and being approached by a stranger who stands there saying nothing. Silence is awkward.

So why is talking to a foreigner a communal national effort, in which the same set of questions are the proper ones to ask? Well, you tell me. That’s what the comments section is for.

Point Two: All Japanese People Always Say The Same Things
If you sit at a restaurant long enough, a gaggle of Japanese women will eventually start picking apart a piece of food shaped like an alien baby. All of them will announce that it looks oishii (delicious), then, once eating the alien baby, they will declare that it is, in fact, oishii. Then they will ask each other, “Is it oishii?” after everyone has eaten it.

If a kitten unexpectedly arrives in a top hat and monocle, sneezing rainbows, everyone will shout “kawaii!” and then they will ask each other if it is kawaii, and then declare, afterward, that it was a kawaii thing that happened to all of them just then.

I have a wild theory that Japanese people aren’t as stupid as these conversations make them sound.

But there’s a social element to saying the same thing in Japan: The alien baby is being shared. Sharing food is a communal experience and demands a communal response.

Going the extra mile in that communal response – going beyond the phatic use of language into the communicative, such as improvising a short list of top 5 best meals ever eaten – is showing off. Everyone says it’s delicious? OK, go along with it. Join the commune. Don’t draw attention to yourself. That’s not the Japanese way.

The same instinct kicks in when the foreigner is around. Ask the same stuff everyone else asks out of the officially approved Questions for Foreigners Handbook, or you might shake the boat. You have no clue how to address this person from UnJapan. You might offend the foreigner, and that disrupts the wa. So, protect the wa – keep it phatic.

Point Three: There is Only One Way To Do Anything, and It’s Japanese.
Innovation is hard to come by. During the Tokugawa Shogunate, there was a law: “No one shall create anything new” (This sounds like a joke – it’s not). If anyone attempts to break tradition, it had better work. If it fails it was the fault of a cocky innovator who didn’t know their place.

So everyone in Japan is pounded like mochi with the same values in school – taught to write kanji in the same way, to play musical instruments the same way, to shoot bows and arrows in the same slow, painstaking, repetitive way.

When you’re trained that everything has a specific way of being done, you subconsciously tune into cues about things that have no rules and feel your way through what seems to be the consensus. This includes the Japanese Way of Meeting Foreigners.

The first thing to do with a foreigner is avoid them (the taint of the foreign being something I’ve addressed before).

If you have to entertain a foreigner, assume that they are guests. This means you won’t accidentally pick up any interference from the outside ways.

There are protocols for how to treat guests.

You make sure that they’re comfortable. You don’t raise controversial questions. You ask them if they can eat with chopsticks, because if they can’t, maybe they’ll bring you a fork. You bring them an English menu, because they’re probably embarrassed that they can’t read Japanese. It’s hospitality.

This mindset explains why Japanese people have occasionally felt obligated into extremely unnecessary acts of kindness. Upon picking up a 100-yen coin for an elderly woman in a train station, she asked me where I was going, then rode the train with me to get there, showed me the temple I was looking for, found an English tour guide, and bought me the local snack (for 500 yen). Then she left.

Was I being microaggressed? Was this woman punching me in the face with her tiny, tiny fists? According to Arudou, the default belief is that foreigners are guests (a position many foreigners agree with). The idea of the foreigner being “Japanese” is a paradox. You’re either nihonjin or gaikokujin, Japanese or “foreign,” and you don’t get to pick sides.

This old woman, whose kindness is indisputable, was also operating on a lot of heavy assumptions: The assumption that I needed someone to show me how to ride the train or find a giant shrine. The assumption that I was a visitor, a tourist, and not a resident.

Help, Help, I’m Being Microaggressed!
So, what does it all mean? If we look at these phenomenon through the micro-aggression lens, we can see them as independent pieces of a cultural puzzle, or pieces of the puzzle that fit together to make “microaggressions” inevitable. I’m curious to know what readers think of how these concepts interact. Where do you stand?

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30 Responses to On Answering Stupid Questions in Japan

  1. TJ says:

    And another great article~
    I just started writing about this point of Japanese always saying the same things in any given situation, and now I abandon yet another article lol.

    I look forward to linking to this post~
    Cheers man

  2. I enjoyed this article. The phatic role of language; I had never heard of that before. It probably does explain a lot about what is going on here, but I will still desperately hold on to my status as a victim of enhanced microaggression techniques. I may need that someday.

  3. Do you find any sort of disconnect age-wise when it comes to the Japanese xenophobic approach to, not foreigners, but foreignness? I read your post, at least I think it was yours, about the adoption of certain Western ideas, like punk rock, and how the Japanese tend to forgo all the anger and integrity we sometimes associate with that scene.

    I should probably preface this by saying that I’ve never been to Japan. I’ve been taking Japanese language and literature classes for just over a year. I teach English Comp at the same university, and quickly became friends with my Japanese language instructor, who’s been living in the US for 8 years and plans on returning to Japan soon. I realize that the vast majority of my contact with her friends, all in their 20s, has been through Bonenkai or any number of similar situations, so I don’t have an accurate idea of how they really see me, as opposed to how I might perceive our relationship. Plus, though I hate to put it this way, they’re on my turf, which I’m sure makes a huge difference.

    • owwls says:

      There are disconnects age-wise and also, whenever talking/reading/writing about “a country” it’s always important to note the difference between the “people of Japan” and “people in Japan.” Surely, there are people in Japan who are open-minded, progressive, and aren’t hellbent on samurai customs. I know plenty of these people, and they range from really young to really old.

      The issue is, even if 1 out of every 4 people I meet here are open-minded and open-armed, that still leaves 75% of the country, which is why we end up with “typical” customs and cultural trends.

      Your co-worker and her friends have, of course, self-selected out of the Japan pool by virtue of being abroad and teaching languages. SO MANY people in Japan are incredibly interested in foreigners and foreign customs, but they don’t know how to talk about it – so the “chopsticks interrogation” can come from these people, or it can be awkward small talk with someone who wishes you weren’t ruining the restaurant he hoped to eat in.

  4. Laura says:

    I got this too, all the time, as did plenty of 2nd-4th gen Japanese-Americans from Hawaii (FUK is kinda cool/unique in that y’all have so many nikkei/sansei JETs).

    I like to give Japanese people the benefit of the doubt and assuming they are operating on kindness. Unless someone challenges you point-blank (“So your country is getting weaker, isn’t it?”) I’ll always take it as an endearingly stupid gesture of benevolence. Much easier to keep the ol’ blood pressure in check that way, since you’re already eating 5000 mg of sodium/day with all that soy sauce and getting felt up by kids.

    • owwls says:

      I gave the benefit of the doubt to the guy who won a shot-drinking contest against me and then declared, “Victory! Japan wins Pearl Harbor!”

      Turns out he actually is a pretty cool guy.

  5. kamo says:

    I’m not sure I have much more to add to this, without repeating myself (again). I’m all mircoagressed out. However, “carpal tunnel syndrome of the human spirit” is a beautiful way of putting it, and that alone deserves some kind of response.

    Acts of kindness or curiosity are good. Acts of prejudice are bad. Trouble is, they’re not mutually exclusive. If I’ve just met somone in a bar and they ask me if I can use chopsticks, fair enough, they’ve little else to base their opinons on besides my obvious foreign-ness. If we’re on the second course of a meal in a restaurant, and we’ve already covered the fact that I’ve been in Japan for a good few years, and have a job and wife and a child, then they do have other stuff to base their opinions on. I’f I’m asked then (and I have been, everyone has), then that’s not asking an innocent question, that’s blindly ignoring stuff in favour of their own prejudices. And more to the point, they’ve clearly not been really listening to anything I’ve just said or watching anything I’ve done. That’s crappy communication in any culture.

    A lot of this stuff gets dismissed as ‘just making small talk’, or a particularly Japanese fear of ‘making people feel uncomfortable.’ Trouble is, it’s particularly bad small talk, and it does make people feel uncomfortable. It’s not inclusive, it’s obviously exclusive. Unconsciously, perhaps, but obviously none-the-less. It’s all very well lauding the sopposed subtexts and subtleties of Japanese communication, the appreciation for the unspoken and unsaid, but those rules (along with so many others) so often go out the window as soon as a non-japanese gets involved. I don’t mind people showing an obvious curiosity in me, in fact it’s rather flattering. I do mind people merely pretending to show curiosity just to appease their own prejudices and insecurities.

    More link spam, but in my defence this was a while BDA (Before Debito’s Article) –
    http://fightstart.blogspot.jp/2012/03/i-wish-i-was-special.html

    • owwls says:

      Great comment, and great post.

    • Leah says:

      Concurred. It’s small talk, yes, but, as you said, bad small talk that gets on people’s nerves. For example, there is a cocktail bar I go to about once a month in Kanazawa. They have an English menu and a Japanese one. I am used to being asked if I would like an English menu, or, better yet, given both, or, best of all, having a regular menu that is bilingual so there’s no need to worry about the language of the customer. Every single time I go in there, they hand me an English menu, and every single time, I have to ask for a Japanese one instead of or in addition to the English one. Once, I was in a large group with some Japanese speakers and some English speakers, and when I asked for the Japanese one in addition to the English one that was thrust upon me, the waiter was baffled. As if this group could have people of varying language knowledge! Then, every single time, the waiter asks if I like Japanese whiskey, and would I like to see a whiskey menu (that has no English version). I don’t expect them to remember me, but I do expect to be treated like I might actually live in town and speak the language.

      As a foreign national who speaks Japanese, that’s one thing, but there is a growing population of children born in Japan to foreign nationals who look foreign, such a friend who was raised in Japan, speaks Japanese as a first language, and is white and blonde. Japan needs to learn not to judge on appearances–the white woman might be a fluent permanent resident or citizen; the Japanese-appearing person might speak no Japanese and have ancestors who moved from Japan to Canada in the 1900s.

      So, while I definitely understand your take on microaggressions and how they are meant to create community and gauge a person’s level of knowledge of culture and language, they still hurt sometimes–most times. I wish there were a guide on how to talk to people you think are foreign without accidentally being rude or racist.

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  7. columbine says:

    Linguistically, I’ve noticed two more possible contributions to the dread ‘can you’ questions. Firstly, if the question is being posed in English, then this may well simply be a matter of language comfort zone for Japanese speakers of English. ‘Can you ~ ‘ is pretty elementary English and a level which you’d be surprised how many quite proficient speakers fall back on when they’re making first conversations- a combination of nerves or perhaps even humility. At any rate, ‘can you’ is an easier question to form than the more ‘polite’ “Do you ~~ often?”, or “when did you learn to ~”, which they might also consider too prying.

    Secondly- a kind of translation error. I noticed amongst Japanese exchange students fresh off the boat speaking in Japanese asked questions of this sort using the potential form of each other: 英語、分かれますか。Translated, this literally comes back to ‘can’ but in Japanese I think the inflection is a little different. Potential form seems to be the Japanese version of ‘are you any good with ~?’ or ‘do you often~?’ or even ‘do you like~’, maybe because (inverse to western conventions) directly asking -how good- someone is at something is considered kind of rude, just in case they’re very good. Showing off is of course, embarrassing and puts you above the group, and no one wants that. Conversely, if you’re bad you can say ‘I can’ and then under your own volition expand on how awful you are, rather than be forced to admit it right off. So, personally, I think a lot of Japanese people find themselves in a situation where they would naturally use potential form and just swap that to English, or we as JSL speakers, translate it internally and get the intention wrong.

  8. タジ says:

    “英語分かれますか” means “does English diverge/split/divide”? In Japanese we just say “解りますか?(“Do you understand/know?”) ” The meaning of “can” is understood, but not linguistically included. That said, I agree that the “can you…” phenomenon is often a result of speaking a foreign language (English). Generally a Japanese wouldn’t ask a foreigner if they can use chopsticks in Japanese, but would most likely compliment them on their skill. “お箸の使い方うまいっすね” or “日本人より上手ですね” – (“you use chopsticks well” or “even better than a Japanese person”) with the idea of “日本人より~” (more[/better] than a Japanese person) probably being another of these “microagressions” complained about by foreigners who live in gaijin bubbles and hate everything about Japanese culture, language, and people other than the cool “zen-y” stuff. However, the “can” is very often included in the Japanese, but as you suggest the nuance is a little different. Although stated as a question, it’s not actually requesting the information – “Can you write that kanji that I see you writing?” – but rather expressing surprise or admiration at the fact that you can – which they are of course witnessing. A rhetorical question of sorts.

    As for why the Japanese are so damn stupid? The reason you are all so much better and culturally advanced than the racist Japanese is that in your countries experience has not taught you that “foreigners can’t do the things we do”. You’ve probably met lots and lots of foreign-born persons who are not visitors, who speak your language – albeit with an “exotic” accent, who can figure out which train to get on, who can use forks, who can read signs and menus, etc. Therefore when you meet one you do not automatically assume that they can’t do any of these things.

    Unfortunately this is not the case in Japan. The GREAT MAJORITY (just trying to emphasise this – please don’t accuse me of capitals abuse) of foreigners that Japanese come into contact with here cannot in fact do these things. Younger generations of foreign visitors can nowadays generally use chopsticks, because they use them even in their own countries when getting Chinese takeout – but this is a recent thing. My parents cannot use chopsticks, and when they visited Japan they needed forks. Other than the chopsticks thing, there are loads of things that even long-term residents of Japan cannot do. Most foreigners cannot speak or read Japanese. Most do not understand many things Japanese and may inadvertently commit cultural faux pas. Therefore it is extremely understandable for Japanese to assume that when they meet a foreigner, the foreigner probably belongs to the 99% of foreigners who fall into that category. If you are one of the 1%, congratulations. Hopefully each time you meet a Japanese person your knowledge and understanding of things Japanese will have some affect on the future expectations for interacting with foreigners on each Japanese person you meet. However, as long as it remains true that the majority of foreigners people come into contact here cannot speak or read Japanese, etc, there is no reason to expect that Japanese assumptions on foreigners’ language ability, cultural knowledge, etc. will change. If you really want to change Japanese opinions and expectations on these things, then study Japanese diligently and become fluent in the language and also knowledgeable about the way things are done. The more Japanese come into contact with foreigners who possess these skills, knowledge, etc. the more their expectations and assumptions will change when meeting new foreigners.

    As for believing that Japan is the only country in the world with potable water, four seasons, humid summers, green mountains, and – ahem – super long intestines… well, this I reckon is an education problem exacerbated by too many old wives tales, urban legends, etc. This, however, is definitely not unique to Japan. My parents once mortified me at the dinner table by asking our Brazilian guests if they had swimming pools in Brazil and if they’d ever eaten ice cream. You foreigners living here in Japan are world travelers! But honestly, do you think that every country bumpkin back in your home country who’s never even left their county or province knows all there is to know about the many lands and cultures beyond their own countries’ borders? Hell, most Americans couldn’t find Brazil on a world map and probably think that Japanese sounds like “ching chong chang”. This constant “analysis” of Japanese people’s interaction with foreigners and knowledge of the world in general is tiring and quite frankly extremely aggressive – a “macro-aggression” if you please. If you dislike it so much, then just move on to a better, more educated and civilised country. さらば!

    • I really enjoyed your post! Very witty. And I agree; I generally take “microaggressions’ as compliments. Probably because I’m micro-talented in most things, so any compliment is welcome and appreciated.

    • owwls says:

      I basically agree with you, but I’m far less defensive about it that you are. I’ve explained exactly your position about two posts ago – that it’s kind of insane to expect Japanese people to react to foreigners as if they are an everyday thing, when they are, in fact, a ridiculously rare thing. A lot of complaints by foreigners about microaggressions does feel like we’re asking Japanese people to be able to differentiate tourists from residents on sight. But, other commenters have good points – what about people who don’t stop complimenting your Japanese, or don’t stop remarking that you can use chopsticks, even after knowing that the foreigner has lived here for six or seven or 20 years? Then it seems patronizing.

      • タジ says:

        Haha, yeah, mate, I did come across pretty defensive/offensive there. Arudou Debito’s constant stream of hate that he flings with every sentence he constructs has admittedly got me a bit angry at the people who bitch and bitch and try to portray themselves as victims of a uniquely Japanese phenomenon with very clear overtones that Japan’s is an inferior society to our own Western one. I read Arudou’s “essay” last week and then followed a post on a friend’s Facebook that brought me to your post here. I’m sorry I’ve never actually seen any of your previous posts – only this one – so I didn’t know what kind of opinions or positions you had posted before.

        I think that my experience is a little bit different in Japan, and I’m not really sure why. People do often comment on my Japanese, because they are surprised. Some people will tell me that they’ve never met a foreigner who can speak so fluently, some people ask if I was born here or if I’m a half that just looks incredible foreign (which is pretty funny if you actually saw me), but most people in fact don’t say anything about my Japanese – they just engage in normal conversation about normal things. I never get complimented anymore for the chopsticks thing, although I used to when I hadn’t been here so long and my Japanese was still iffy. I don’t know why everyone else seems to have a very different experience in Japan, but I can only suspect that it’s because people assume that foreigners who have not mastered Japanese probably have not mastered other things as well. I also used to feel patronized by the silly compliments and things as well. But then I reminded myself that the Japanese are humans, too. We shouldn’t put higher expectations on them just because we are now the one in the foreigners’ shoes. So many people get so upset over here that they move back home only to realise that home wasn’t exactly utopia either. A good (and quite funny) reminder of how ridiculous people are back in our home countries can be found in those videos on Youtube with titles like “Shit White Girls Say… To Brown (Desi/Indian) Girls” “Shit White girls say to Asian girls”, etc.

    • columbine says:

      I think you make some good points about foreigners being a rarity, but it’s still a bit confusing- there’s a lot of western media here, people don’t live entirely in a bubble. Then again, I’ve had far more blunt and ignorant questions from Americans. Yes, boy-from-illinois, I know what a Happy Meal is. You’re right, typing this early this morning, I made a Japanese error in my explanation. 分かる does mean ‘to understand’- I meant ‘分かりますか’. Perhaps a better example would have been ‘英語を話せますか’?

  9. Tsuyoshi says:

    I came across your blog through your interview in the Japan Times. I very much enjoyed your indepth look at Japanese culture. Great stuff, keep it up.

  10. Audrey says:

    Those dumb questions used to bother me when I first came to Japan. But one day it clicked. The people who seem to ask me the stupidest questions the most are the one’s looking to start a conversation with me, namely the bored principal with too much time on his hands. The chopsticks one is pretty infrequent. I also found that once I actually got good at speaking Japanese, people didn’t comment on it anymore.

    After sending my kid to Japanese preschool I had a bit of an epiphany. Only the kids who suck at something get the encouragement. The kid coming in first? Everyone claps politely. The kid getting dragged around the track by the school aide, everyone yells and cheers and once she’s finally across the teacher will heap on the praise.

    Now that doesn’t really make me feel better about having my Japan Life Skills TM praised. We all have our days when we just don’t want to smile and nod, myself included. If a modest rejection of the praise doesn’t shut them up (まだまだですよ。) then accusing them of outright flattery will get them to clam up mighty quick. (お口がうまいね。)

  11. Jack says:

    Is there anyway you can refuse the micro-aggressive acts of generosity?

    • owwls says:

      It’s awkward to do so, you can see the disappointment on people’s faces. It’s not intentionally hostile, and explaining why it feels bad just makes well-meaning people sad.

  12. You’re much too kind to call it microaggression. It’s just fear and ignorance coupled with an overwhelming sense of inferiority to Anglos. Thanks for sharing.

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  14. Well-written and thought provoking.

    Although the longer I was there the more often I would get annoyed, I tried to temper my frustration at such questions with a similar way of thinking to the “looks like you’ve got a flat tire.” In a lot of situations I realized that the people I was talking to were nice enough and were just searching for something to say, often to break the ice. Heaven knows I have said dumb things in my lifetime, so I tried to cut them some slack.

    Also have to keep in mind that like most generalizations, the trends you mentioned are displayed by a large amount of Japanese, but not all. Some of the Japanese people I was friends with in Kansai and my ex-girlfriend didn’t really make assumptions based on being people Japanese or non-Japanese (or maybe if they did, they had the good sense not to voice what they were thinking).

  15. I think for the most part, I have become pretty comfortable with being a foreigner in Japan. I can understand the basis for microaggression in such a homogeneous country. I’ve tried to learn to accept the pros and cons of these interactions.
    First off, I usually under exaggerate every compliment I receive in my head. The famous compliment on speaking such good Japanese that any foreigner will receive even if they only speak one word- can be obnoxious. I try to appreciate it as much as I can though. It’s better than having someone tell you you really suck. I’ve come to enjoy seeing the surprise on faces when I speak Japanese.
    Besides that,of course comes the questions. I don’t mind ability questions so much…like “can you…” and so on and I’ve come to accept all the standard questions I will be asked for as long as I’m in Japan. Its a part of the foreigners club. I think the questions I hate the most are about America. Most Japanese can answer questions like “Do Japanese people….?” or “How does Japan feel about….?” and they will feel confident that their answer will accurately represent the standpoint of Japan. They don’t understand that America is a very diverse place, with so much variation that I never feel comfortable answering on behalf of my country. I always feel like I have to give a disclaimer every time I give an answer. (Maybe I’m the only one with this problem) I also hate getting questions that involve, how many/how much/how often like “what is the population of America?” Because then I realize how ignorant I am about my country stats and I have to do the whole “Well hmm….a lot, I don’t know exactly” and then depending on the urgency I google the answer. Maybe it was just my host mom, but she always asked me questions I couldn’t answer.
    In the foreigners club I take advantage of my Gaijin power. I know I will never be Japanese and be on the “inside” and so I don’t stress myself to death with trying. I do my best to understand Japanese culture and to try and not stick out, but at the same time, I know I can get away with things Japanese people can’t because I’m a foreigner. I get some leeway and as was pointed out, I will be treated like a guest. If I’m traveling, and I want to avoid trouble I can dumb down my language skills to get more compassion. (I don’t do this very often though) I do know that the way I am treated will be directly related to my language abilities. If I can barely speak Japanese, I can get away with more. The more fluent I am, and the more my speaker knows me or my fluency, the higher the expectations become.
    Last I know that I can always get laughs when I “get a word wrong”. What I liked to do to get into a conversation I couldn’t understand to well was pretend I thought one word they used was a completely different word (like “do you mean this?! knowing full well I was wrong.) People would laugh a bit and then usually explain things if they could. Good times.

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  17. Archana says:

    I was really grateful for the unexpected kindness.

    I took a coach to Ushiku (Ibaraki Prefecture) with 2 giant bags and very a heavy backpack. It dropped me off near nothing – and I stood there trying to use my phone but it was no use. No taxi’s were coming and it was hot! I saw a man in his 50’s come out of his house and tried to ask if he could call me a taxi. He kept shaking his head to indicate there was no taxi here. I could see that. There was in fact, no taxi in front of us.
    Then he left.
    And I just stood there – with luggage I couldn’t move. 10 minutes went by and i kept trying my friend’s phone. The the same guy drove up with his car – took my bags, my backpack and motioned for me to get in his car. He seemed totally trustworthy – and I got in. He drove me to the station and gave the address I had to the taxi drivers there. None of them knew the address. I knew the directions from the station but because they didn’t recognize the address, none of them wanted to take me. I thanked him and off he went.

    Then I was standing near the taxi stand and trying my friends phone again. 2 ladies approached me and asked me where I was going. I explained that it’s only 5 minutes away but the taxi drivers haven’t heard of it. One of the ladies made a phone call and, after she hung up, she said,’My friend get map from office. Don’t worry.’ While we were waiting, she entertained me with pictures of her cat and asked me if I liked cats.
    Then her colleague came, they looked and found the address, showed the map to the taxi drivers – one agreed to take me. I got to the flat and he left me at the bottom of the building with my bags and backpack and didn’t charge me. I don’t know why. I had the money ready…
    Then I stood at the bottom of the stairs, working out which apartment was the right one and 2-3 ladies showed up and asked (through weird charades) if i needed help taking my stuff upstairs. I asked how they knew I was going upstairs (but they didnt speak English so…). They took my stuff upstairs, showed me that there was a balcony, a bathroom (they even explained how the shower worked – I will never understand that one – it wasnt even their place). I thanked them and they left.

    This kind of stuff happened a lot during my time there. Not asking for help and just receiving it. Like a travel assistant. I had no problem with any of it. It enabled me to travel alone and not worry because if I got lost (i surprisingly didnt have any bad luck after my first day) I know someone would help me.

  18. Lucius says:

    During my years in Tokyo, I’m sure I was “microaggressed” upon in many ways. I just never cared and never took it negatively. Of course Japan is different from America. Of course there are cultural discrepancies. Like you said, it would be bizarre not to talk about them. And it was always, to me, abundantly clear that those phrases were being offered in good faith–never disparagingly.

    Now, were there times when I felt isolated and marginalized? Many. But those always had to do with big-picture things–language barriers, job-market barriers, lack of any family living in Japan, needing to worry about visa renewals, constantly putting up with the non-relaxed tatemae work environment, etc. I think most foreigners would be well advised to focus on surmounting those big obstacles to integrating into Japanese life, instead of nitpicking about the microaggressions.

  19. Paul says:

    When I went to Tokyo in 2009, I stayed with a Japanese host family for the summer. The first evening we ate dinner together, they gave me the usual praise about chopsticks and whatnot. After that first night they stopped.

    Aside from my host family, I did get a lot of people asking me why I study Japanese or why I came to Japan, to which I replied, “Why do you study English?” If I felt the person was being really patronizing, like asking me if the US had four seasons, I’d turn around and ask them a similar question about Japan. If the guy in my class was amazed at seeing me use chopsticks, I’d commend his refined skill with a fork. I found that helped me deal with a lot of the annoying questions surrounding my “otherness.”

    If the other person’s intent is merely to build rapport with their questions, then they shouldn’t feel threatened by my question-answer. Assuming, of course, that I was polite.

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