Whew Chile – The Linguistic Privilege

For those who may not know, I speak Japanese. Whenever people ask if I’m fluent, my general go-to answer is “Fluent’s a strong word, but I can hold a long, detailed conversation.” My reading is getting better–I have some Japanese books at home and I read the untranslated versions of a few manga–but my writing could use some work. That said, if I were to get on a plane and return to Tokyo, I would be fine.

In the spring semester of third year, I was blessed with the opportunity to study abroad at Waseda University in Tokyo. At that point, I had two and a half years of Japanese under my belt. As soon as I landed, I made it my mission to speak as much Japanese as I could. Granted I stayed in a dorm for exchange students, meaning a lot of English, I still managed a good ratio of 50:50 English to Japanese.

In other words, I went to Japan expecting to speak Japanese. There were definitely times where natives looked at me and attempted to speak to me in broken English, but I always answered in Japanese and we continued the rest of the conversation in Japanese. I neither expected them nor wanted them to bend over backwards to accommodate me. In my mind, I was a guest in their country, so it only felt right to do as they do. Plus it was fun! In the case of going out with my friends, exchange student and Japanese, it was a great feeling knowing that I could communicate, laugh and joke around in both languages.

Last week I saw a post on Twitter, however, that irritated the life out of me.


I get it. English has become, for better or for worse, the global language. You go into a room of people from all different backgrounds and languages, none of them speaking one another’s mother tongue. More often than not, the safe route is to communicate in English. I get that it can be a common denominator, which is great! We can interact with one another and learn from one another because of that shared factor.

But what we’re NOT going to do is go over to a majority non-English speaking country and expect English to be abundant.

People like James are the worst kind of foreigners to visit Japan: the “everything’s about me and English should be spoken everywhere 25/8” foreigners. You have to be so far up your ass to not realize that the world doesn’t revolve around you. The sun doesn’t shine for you. The bees don’t pollinate flowers for you. Japan doesn’t exist for you and your weeaboo wet dreams.

I’m not excusing natives who purposefully refuse service to foreigners because they dislike them, because they believe that we’re all bad and come to Japan to open up Pandora’s box on their society. I’m not excusing Japan’s xenophobia; in 2017, out of 20,000 applications for asylum, they accepted an unsurprising 20 of said applicants. What I will not tolerate is this mentality that English-speaking foreigners have about Japan and other non-English speaking countries. It is not their job to make you comfortable. You made the decision to visit the country, and therefore also made the decision to not learn useful phrases in their language.

Say it with me: English is not the end all be all.

On the flip side of that, there are Japanese people who attempt to speak English and are ridiculed by foreigners because the pronunciation is poor or the grammar is incorrect. These are the people who took one Spanish class and think their poorly pronounced Spanish equals fluent.

I do not believe the sign was promoting “Japanese only” in terms of Japanese people. They just wanted a common denominator, the chance to serve their customers to the best of their ability. It just so happens that their ability is in Japanese. Hence, James, if you weren’t so self-absorbed, a quick download of any free “useful phrases” app could have taught you that you can enter that restaurant and be fine. Many of my foreigner friends who couldn’t speak a lick of Japanese were more than capable of pointing to what they wanted on a menu and uttering a simple phrase: “kore wo kudasai.” No hassle, no fuss, and it took all of five seconds. Or if you’re going to go to a restaurant and aren’t comfortable with doing that, try going with friends who do speak Japanese. That way they can help out and translate for you.

With the 2020 Olympics upon Japan, a lot of conversation concerning foreigners has been popping up, some of it good and some of it bad (I’m looking at you, minpaku laws). Nonetheless, it’s these kinds of conversations that are getting both foreigners and Japanese people to think about the other in more than just stereotype.

I can say from experience that being able to speak Japanese made my time over in Tokyo, Okinawa, and Osaka that much more enjoyable. I met so many unique and wonderful people. Instead, this guy has allowed his stubbornness, his inability to see past English everything, to make a non-issue a problem.

In the nicest way I can put it, get over yourself.

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