When subjected to culture shock over a longer period of time... culture shock can turn into a persistent state, a syndrome.

My hope is that through an objective look at the next 3+ years I will be staying in Japan, I will be able to circumvent these symptoms and provide valuable insight to others who may look to follow a path similar to my own.
>>gaijin syndrome explained<<

lesson 4 : barrier to entry

I've sat on an idea for a few months now, pondering and poking at it little bits at a time. This idea first came to me after making an overnight trip to Tokyo, the nature of which allowed me to clearly see the distinction between the environments in Tokyo and the countryside. I spent most of my summer vacation summer playing the role of translator for my travelling friends and family before giving myself a week of leisure time in Tokyo. Now I can confidently elaborate on this idea which I like to call a 'barrier to entry' that encompasses a foreigner placed in the gaijin stereotype.

Anyone visiting a foreign country with a national language different from one's own will undoubtedly encounter the language barrier. This term is used to describe the inability to achieve complete understanding of another person or situation due to the lack of a common communication language. This broad term covers little things (like not realizing that the green light on a traffic signal is called 'blue' in Japanese) to more complicated things (like failing to see the humor in puns on a Japanese variety show). While the traveler may have an ability with the native language, it often is not the same as the native's ability, and so all kinds of details are missed. It's simply part of learning the language and culture, something that is hard to avoid when immersed in it.

A barrier to entry, however, is the obstacle placed in front of the language barrier. If the language barrier is a castle wall, the barrier to entry is the moat. A foreigner placed in the gaijin stereotype must first convince the native that they can communicate in plain Japanese before the native will speak at a level with a tolerable language barrier. Just as I quoted in my post staring ignorance in the face,
It's like having to untangle your headphones before you listen to music. Every. Single. Time.

It is especially difficult in the countryside where the natives are not so accustomed to interacting with foreigners. The first problem is that most foreigners encountered by native Japanese can't speak Japanese. The second problem is that the native Japanese don't know how to communicate outside the context of the limited, fumbling, scripted conversation practice they got in English class growing up. Communication through body language, symbols, or even using pictures is a skill for some that has not been learned. Even more, the anxiety of confronting a foreigner may be so great, they will go to great lengths to avoid the foreigner altogether.

In Tokyo, the first reaction is varied. With regards to people who interact with customers daily in their jobs, many will just try Japanese with me first. Those that are confident in their English ability will try a phrase of English instead. Depending on my reaction, they decide which language to use. If I appear not to understand the spoken Japanese (often due to background noise, soft voices, or contextual confusion), the speaker might switch to English. If I respond to the English with Japanese, the speaker might try Japanese again. Sometimes however, the conversation might go back and forth a few times before I have to clearly state that Japanese is OK. Other natives yet will just ask from the start 'is Japanese OK?' In this way, it is obvious that the people of Tokyo are much more experienced with talking to foreigners with varying degrees of language ability.

The barrier to entry is more of an obstacle of confidence than understanding. It takes confidence for a learner of Japanese to take the leap and tell someone you can speak Japanese. Proceeding to misunderstand the following conversation is an undesirable embarrassment that takes confidence to beat. And learning how to deal with such a situation is key to gaining the necessary confidence.

Practicing how to overcome the barrier to entry in Tokyo where it is considerably less obtrusive than the countryside has given me a newfound confidence which I hope to bring with me back to my daily life. Learning how to describe my ability with Japanese from the start so that others are confident in using their Japanese with me has been my greatest lesson this summer. From the beginning, I had continued to respond to questions about my ability with irony (saying 'no, I don't understand at all' in Japanese) or modesty (saying 'well... only so much'). Having others rely on me for translation this summer really helped me to break away from such behavior and admit to others as well as myself that I can in fact speak Japanese.

Amazing, isn't it? Six years of study and only now can I confidently admit to having an ability with the language. Learning and using a foreign language is a constant battle of confidence. Just like with sports, some days you are just not on top of your game. But with enough perseverance I'll have the confidence to try a certification test. Then at least I can say for certain how good my Japanese really is.


  1. a couple of comments...

    i know what you mean about the confidence that being a tour guide can instill...i miss a lot of opportunities to speak japanese when i'm with my (japanese) wife since people naturally just talk to her, and most of the time i'm fine with that...but when i've had chances to venture out on my own to other parts of japan, it has made me feel good that i can function in japanese and given me more confidence that i can do so...

    regarding the barrier to entry, another comment involving my wife...her hometown is in the remote countryside, yet by virtue of the fact that i am her husband, the barrier to entry was much easier to overcome than the language barrier...i was readily accepted into her family (and by extension i suppose the community), but the language barrier is much more difficult to overcome, especially considering that they speak crazy inaka-ben, and i generally leave feeling much more hopeless about my japanese ability than i do when i'm off on my own...

    in the end, it all comes down to people's ability to communicate, whatever the language...and of course, having a few friends on the inside never hurts...


  2. Hey Casey, thanks for the comments.

    In my experience the barrier is really only there when meeting strangers. Even then its different on a case by case basis. One time I met a guy about my age at a club in Osaka for the first time, with nobody to vouch for my ability. I was having a difficult time thinking straight enough to talk Japanese clearly, but to my amusement (and delight) he acted as if he was sure my ability was much higher than it appeared to be, even joking about how I was off my game at the time. Such kindness! Where any other Japanese person might conclude that talking to me is too much of a chore, he didn't give up on me. That sort of interaction makes a language-learner feel good enough to try the hardest. It's when natives have no tolerance for learners that the foreigner feels unwelcome. And my defiant nature makes me want to become perfect with the language so as to make them question such an ignorant way of thinking...


What did you think?

If you have a Google account, AIM name, etc, you can sign the comment by selecting your account below.

Or you may just leave your name and/or website by selecting Name/URL.