** updated**Acts of Retaliation #3: Don’t you understand Japanese?

One of my pet peeves is when staff people feel obligated to speak English to me because I’m not Japanese. Whether or not I’m using Japanese is irrelevant. My native language is irrelevant. Whether or not they can even speak English is irrelevant. Foreigner equals English. English is the language of foreigners.

So, occasionally, when I feel impatient with this presumptuousness, the following occurs:

Conversation 2/25/09 (at an Izakaya)

Me: Sumimasen… (Excuse me…)

Staff: Hai! (turns and upon realizing I’m not Japanese) anooo! Please your order!

Me: Toriaezu, nama biiru wo kudasai (well, first of all, a regular draft beer please)

Staff: would you like beer, yes. I…

Me: Eee! Dou iu imi ka? Nama biiru wo wakarimasen? (What does that mean? Don’t you understand what a beer is?)

Staff: Eeeto ne. (in a stage whisper) sukoshi Eigo mo  syaberemasu kedo… (then louder) English also I speak in English a little…

Me: Eigo? Kankei arimasen! Eigo ga zenzen wakarimasen…Nihongo wo hanashite iru yo ne. Nihon-go ga wakarannai no? (English? That’s not my concern! I don’t understand English at all…I’m speaking Japanese aren’t I. Don’t you understand me?)

Staff: Wakarimashita! Moshi wake gozaimasen! (Yes, I understand! Bowing deeply. I apologize. There’s no excuse for my behavior.)

Me: Mashi ni natta! Ja, biiru motte kite! (That’s better! Now, bring me my beer!)

Staff: kashikomarimashita, sho sho omachi kudasai (Certainly! please wait for a moment)


Interesting video related to this topic below:

This guy is a naturalized Japanese citizen, formally American, and fights for the rights of non-Japanese Japanese citizens.

He shares my idea about this subject only he’s a little politer than me (-;

Quick shout out to my boy Justin at English Banditry! Thanks a lot for the info!!

Loco (-;

43 Responses to “** updated**Acts of Retaliation #3: Don’t you understand Japanese?”

  1. February 26, 2009 at 3:24 pm

    You know me – always looking at the flip side – sometimes I think the people here who don’t speak English that well see me as an opportunity to practice. That want to speak English to me to see if I can understand them. And of course, they laugh at me when I try to speak Hindi – apparently I say it funny – it is amazing how well you seem to know Japanese. I am impressed!

    • February 26, 2009 at 4:01 pm

      hey reason2 (-;
      yeah, I’m the opportunity to get their English on…only sometimes I just want a beer, not give out free English lessons to presumptuousness people. lol
      Actually my Japanese still sucks but I can make sentences and I know a lot of phrases that look and smell like fluency…it’s much easy to write than listen.
      thanks for dropping by (-;


  2. 3 TLR
    February 26, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    Now I am not one to judge but I sense a bit of a chip on the shoulder not just on one but maybe on both. Now forgive me for saying this but if you look at it purely from your stance of “just wanting to get a beer” the language used is not what its all about so no matter if you were grunting or doing sign language the goal was to quench your thirst. To me looking from the outside in. It appears you took the long confrontational route instead of the least path of resistance. Now this is me looking at it from 15 years of aikido training but hey we all have to experience conflict before we realize that the path of non-dissension is the way to peace. and getting a beer. : ) grin… loved the story… I just wished it ended with a hug.

    • February 26, 2009 at 8:58 pm

      Aloha Yo! Yeah, you’re right about that, and believe me the path of “let that shit slide this time and let them practice their English” is well-trodden. Grass will never grow there again, and the stones are as smooth as those found in a riverbed. But sometimes i take a detour and the detour is as, if not more satisfying than a ice cold brewski in a heat wave (-:


  3. 5 XO
    February 26, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    “the path of non-dissension is the way to peace”

    But the waitress initiated the conflict. He asked the question in Japanese. She started a fight by not taking the path of non-dissension and just reply in the language that he spoke and she knows.

    He wants to be accepted as a full-member of society. In Japan, that means people need to stop pretending that there are not 2 million foreign quasi-permanent residents here. A first step is to not make a big deal out of foreigness and just answer his question in the language he asked it in. Day after day, this passive-aggressive shit gets old, fast.

  4. 6 ItAintEazy
    February 26, 2009 at 10:05 pm

    If a man’s trying to get a beer, he doesn’t have time to navigate through broken Engrish in order get one. It’s amazing how even is you speak perapera Japanese, they just can’t wrap their heads around the fact that you’re speaking the goddamn language. It’s like they’re going “gaijin . . . English . . . gaijin . . . English . . . what, he’s saying “eki, doko e?” . . . no, he’s saying “Where…is…the…train…station?”. . . all right, what did Yamazaki-sensei teach me back during eighth-grade eigo . . .”

    Oh well, I guess the upside to it is that one of these days you’ll get so tired of speaking Japanese that you’ll be glad to encounter someone who’s able to speak English very well.

  5. February 26, 2009 at 10:24 pm

    XO / EZ

    Man, you two!
    Thanks for the love! We ought to hook up…cold brewskis are on me (providing we ain’t gotta hand out too many free English lessons to get it or wear ourselves out on the path of least resistance)
    No offense TLR. Shit, if i was in Hawaii I’d probably be toting around a lot less chips too. I hate the friggin winter.



  6. 8 Zen
    February 26, 2009 at 11:41 pm

    Hehaha That was funny. However I can see both side of the coin here.

  7. February 27, 2009 at 1:26 am

    – “It appears you took the long confrontational route instead of the least path of resistance.”

    Very nicely put TLR.

    I remember when I used to take offense to someone speaking to me in English…especially when their English was worse than my Japanese. But I think that had something to do with my own laco of confidence in speaking JP. I would sometimes reply in Spanish just to throw them for a loop.

    But at the end of the day was it really worth getting worked up over? If that upset you then you’re in for a long ride here in Japan (if you haven’t had one already).


    • February 27, 2009 at 10:38 am

      Billy san, thanks for the reply.
      I wouldn’t say I was worked up. I was just throwing them for a loop like you said, a shout out for the non-eigo speaking peoples of the world(-:Universal language? I don’t think so, and 2 billion in China will back me up (-:

      It’s just a peeve.


  8. 11 ItAintEazy
    February 27, 2009 at 5:35 am

    Free beer? Count me in, Sensei!

  9. 12 Hiero
    February 27, 2009 at 6:13 am

    hi loco,

    i knew about this japanese-gaijin phenomenon quite some time ago.

    i’ve asked them japanese folks and they told me that because a lot of gaijins are horrendous in speaking their language – incomprehensible accent and all that, probably – that’s why they speak to you in english. moreover, many have this illusion in their heads that they’re fluent in japanese and believe that the japanese can understand every word, syllable they said.

    and japanese use english, i think, because they have this “accommodating to others” culture so they do it your way, which is why they speak your native language.

    that’s why, i guess.

    i’m JLPT 2 but i’m struggling to make them folks understand me sometimes.


    • February 27, 2009 at 10:09 am

      Hiero san, thanks for your thoughtful reply (-:
      It’s not quite a phenomenon, but I know what u mean. I have, of course, inquired as to why they do it and had been satisfied with the varying responses, ranging from the one you mentioned to they want to practice. But, my point is how do they know I speak English? The staffperson has no idea what country I’m from. It’s the assumption that I must be an English speaker that rubs me the wrong way at times. And apparently that position is shared by some of the foreigners living here as well. That’s troubling. But, i have to step back sometimes and remember that I am a product of a multi-cultural community and city (New York) so I learned to respect other cultures and cultural differences. Many westerners, even Americans, come from homogeneous communities not very different from those found here in Japan. So they find Japanese behavior tolerable for it isn’t far removed from their own thinking and behavior back home.

      I guess what I was doing was more a reminder to that staff person (assuming they were aware at some point) that there are more than two languages in the world. I could have been Nigerian, Cuban, Peruvian, etc…Many countries are not English Speaking countries. The fact that I was using Nihongo, and apparently understandable Nihongo, gave HIM an opening. He could have asked, in Nihongo, whether or not I spoke English. If he,or any staff person, were to do that i would be so grateful I would speak to him or her in any langauge they preferred. (-:

      A student of mine told me that when he was in America, some Americans would assume he was Chinese and say ‘Nihao” to him in restaurants! I was aghast! That’s to say this is definitely not solely a Japanese “phenomenon” to be sure. And trust me I do understand their efforts to be accommodating, but sometimes I don’t want to be ‘accommodated’ or ‘accommodating’ if allowing myself to be accommodated in English means I have to suffer through English altogether ruder than the Nihongo they would have used- replete with imperatives and what not (sit please! wait please!) I’ll pass. I’d much prefer to be pampered with keigo. (-: Once you understand the difference between the formal and the super formal you really develop an affinity for it. Also, sometimes when staff people speak English, they have a tendency to get tooooo casual, by comparison, thinking this is “western” style and the way “we” expect or prefer to be treated. Again, this is presumptuous. And sometimes I feel compelled to let them know.

      Sorry for the long winded response. You caught me in a writing mood and you seem like a thoughtful person, so I’d be happy to hear your thoughts on my response.


  10. 14 jturningpin
    February 27, 2009 at 11:29 pm

    >Ja, biiru motte kite!

    This gave me a loud bark of laughter. “Fetch me mine beer, heathen!”

    Have had a couple similar episodes myself this past month, but haven’t gone quite so extreme in my response. Yet another reason I enjoy reading this blog so much. Thanks, Loco.

    • February 28, 2009 at 8:51 am

      Well, I wasn’t thinking Heathen for there’s nothing Christian about me, but the fetch part is about right. Do your friggin job!
      Thanks for the shout JT


  11. 16 cooledskin
    February 28, 2009 at 6:40 am

    “Nihau” = “Nihao,” actually.

  12. February 28, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    Hmm. Seems rather a rude way of dealing with the situation. I guess you must have been pretty peeved in order to result to humiliating that staff member…

    As much as I agree with you that many Japanese people still hold latent assumptions about other cultures, I would in no way think that the staff member was trying to be rude to you. Even people trying to practice their English on you, while irritating, is still a rare sign of assertiveness and hospitality for many Japanese people. I don’t know many British people who would try and do the same thing for foreigners here.

    Well. I’m guessing this post was half written to amuse, anyway.

    • February 28, 2009 at 5:06 pm

      Thanks for the shout Mike…

      I tried to react the way somebody who didn’t speak English would react to the assumption and reassertion that he could.
      Maybe it seems cruel because I can speak English…but try to imagine it otherwise.

      Maybe it was a tad over the top though….syou ga nai


  13. 20 Bored in Kanagawa
    February 28, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    Hello Loco,
    Very interesting read and one I think alot of foreigners have troble with. I understand how you feel, however, my friends and I handle the situation on our terms. What I mean by this is I only speak Japanese when it matters the most. Sometimes I feel to many foreigners go completely out of their way to prove their ability to Japanese. I’ve been to conferences with my Japanese colleagues and the other Americans go out of their way to switch an English conversation over to Japanese as thought they think it will earn some points or something. If I go to a restaurant and I’m greeted in English it doesn’t bother me in the least it only adds comfort for me. Suppose for the moment you force them to converse in Japanese to you and they accommodate by speaking on a level that you have yet to comprehend – How would that make you feel? And how much longer would the conversation be at this point when you could already have what you desired to begin with. I also think it is totally fair for them to assume by default that you can speak English as most foreigners here can regardless of nationality. Imagine being a Frenchman in Japan that could speak neither English nor Japanese. Most of us can agree that most Western Europeans can speak some degree of English. Once you have lived here longer I think these feelings will fade to the background of your mind and you will learn to use the language when you need and you certainly don’t to order a beer.

    • February 28, 2009 at 5:10 pm

      Hey Bored,

      Well Said…food for thought! (and I mean it!) I have been and continue to be victimized by my deficiencies in spoken Nihongo.
      As far as the other part, I think some people (though I’m not sure why you singled Americans out) probably go out of their way because it seems to my POV that japanese go out of their way to push their belief that Nihongo can only be spoken affectively by natives…that the complxities of Nihongo can only be hurdled by Japanese minds. It’s a normal reaction to that kind of thinking I think, to prove an ignorant assumption wrong when the opportunity presents itself. Maybe it’s just a competitive instinct that americans have or maybe we just detest presumption more than other people because of our history with presumption and the many errors and inhumanity that resulted from it…sure it’s hard to conceive of any crimes against humanity coming from the japanese but sometimes they start small…then grow. Best to nip that shit in the bud while it’s a relative non issue. Certain issues need to be addressed one way or another. One of these issues, I believe, is this notion that they, or anyone, is superior in any way to anyone else, by design, or by nationality, or by nature. Cause that seed can certainly fester into something much worse i’m sure you agree.

      Thanks for the advice (-;


  14. February 28, 2009 at 5:53 pm

    When this happened to me I used to speak English so quickly and with as many complex words as possible that the waiter would be forced to give up, then I’d use Japanese.

  15. 24 Hiero/fudgepudge
    March 1, 2009 at 12:22 am


    >> this guy has some interesting experience with the local folks too.. you guys should talk~!



  16. March 2, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    I feel ya on this one, Loco. Usually, I just let it slide, but on a lousy day, it tends to rankle.

  17. March 2, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    Thanks for the Shout Billy-san (-:
    Yep, it rankles and vexes and makes a lousy day lousier…


  18. 27 xuncius
    March 4, 2009 at 12:02 am

    I guess you have too much of an accent, which japanese people are not used to, so it just feels awkward to them to speak in Japanese. When you get better you don’t have this problem.

  19. March 4, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    Yo Bandit!! Great link! I love the interview!!
    Thanks a mill!


  20. 30 ItAintEazy
    March 5, 2009 at 1:28 am

    I dunno, first of all, the guys were speaking in rapid-fire English, so you can forgive the waitress for assuming that they would only understand English. Second of all, I don’t care how long he lived in Japan, he has a very heavy accent that is common for people that learn a language at an adult age, and like you said, this very insular island country just is not exposed to enough foreigners for the people to get used to accents. And third, the interviewer said the same thing happened in Kyuushuu, hell I don’t even think they even speak Japanese there, if they do, it’s very non-standard so it’s a moot point.

    All right, done advocating for the Devil, the waitress needs to fucking pay attention. Is it that really hard?

  21. 31 LB
    March 6, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    You know, while I have had Japanese just start talking to me in English, I have honestly never had a Japanese continue speaking to me in English after I started speaking Japanese. Maybe I am blessed that way.

    I do admit to finding it annoying when people assume that someone speaks English based on the fact they look foreign (as in white or black usually). There was a manager at the McDonald’s on Showa-Dori next to Akihabara Station who was infamous (or is, I haven’t been there in a long time, no desire to what with BK right next door) for seeing a foreigner and turning the menus over to the English side, as well as switching into English herself. Me, I’d just give the menu a funny look, say 英語読めへん, turn the menu back over and place the order in Japanese. She’d keep yammering in English, and I’d just look at here like she was a Martian and keep speaking in Japanese. だから英語解らへんって。なに?

    That said, as ItAintEazy already pointed out, you got two fat white boys yammering away at each other in English in a restaurant, and the waitress who ALSO speaks English (and quite well) notices and addresses the customers in English. That is called “courtesy” by most folks who aren’t Debito and don’t have a massive ship on their shoulder.

    • March 6, 2009 at 5:56 pm

      Funny! Actually he spoke to her in Japanese and she continued in English as if to ignore his Japanese. You don’t find that just a tad bit rude? If it happens often enough it’s enough to put a chip on Ghandi”s shoulder!!(-; I think MLK would jab someone after a while. LOL


  22. 33 P
    March 12, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    I have to admit, it really annoys me when they break out the English on me when, a) I’ve already spoken to them in Japanese and b) they are clearly not capable of continuing the conversation in English unless I slow it down, simplify it or even speak with a katakana inflection. But I wish it didn’t annoy me because it happens a lot and I never feel good after I’ve reacted to one of these ingurishu episodes. Afterwards I think, I could have just said “It’s ok I speak Japanese” or something witty and brushed it off but they always catch me off guard and I end up saying “Look I ordered in Japanese why are you trying to speak English?” or something like that.
    I have however had friendly conversations with people here in English when it has become apparent that they can hold a conversation. Of all the times I pretended to be French, German and once even Brazilian it turned out that the random punter who had tried to start a conversation with me was fluent in the language of my new randomly chosen nationality. Hearing this I obviously complemented them on their pronunciation of Portuguese or other said language then tried to get away as quickly as possible. So yeah, I understand how you feel but maybe you should try and find a new way to have fun with this recurring situation not because English is a widely spoken international language, not because “chill out man they are only trying to be polite” not even because a very large proportion of the westerners out here can’t speak Japanese but because you’ll feel better about the exchange afterwards and probably live longer. The other sollution would be to get a full Sean Connery in You only live twice makeover and change your name to Suzuki.

    • March 12, 2009 at 12:46 pm


      P, you just made my list!!! Now you’ve obligated yourself to responding regularly because I’ll be expecting to hear from you, and if you don’t I’ll cyber stalk you hehehe
      Thanks for the helluva shout and please come back….or else


  23. 35 P
    March 12, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    Don’t think I’ve ever been cyber stalked. Do I have to do anything?

    • March 12, 2009 at 1:44 pm

      beats me! I’ve never cyber stalked before…but if it’s anything like the real thing then all you have to do is lock your doors and windows….lol
      but there’s an easier way…just drop me a line or two from time to time. I’m easily appeased.
      and thanks again

  24. 37 erik
    March 18, 2009 at 9:53 am

    its the same everywhere, Japanese speaking English in the states and folks go wow, you speak English or they speak really slow English thinking that will help..
    in Japan, most gaijin don’t speak Japanese so they are shocked to hear gaijin speaking Japanese. My pet peeve is those Japanese who just learn slang esp those Japanese girls who’ve been hanging around gaijin trash too long

  25. 38 音吉
    March 30, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    こんにちは。空さんのブログから来ました。ロコさんのブログは、読むのはすごくたいへんですが、とてもおもしろい・・・タダの英語レッスンありがとう 🙂


    engrish を使う日本人にも、悪い気持ちはまったくないんですよ。erik さんの言うとおり、むかしは、日本語を使える外国のひとはほとんどいなかったので、単になれてないのです。たしかに日本人の「ガイジン=英語」の先入観はひどいけど、これはかならずしも差別ではないし、また「日本語の心は日本人にしかわからない (Nihongo can only be spoken affectively by natives)」などと考えているひとは、いまはほとんどいません。平均的な日本人より日本語がうまい外国人は、すでにたくさんいますしね。



  26. 39 Simon
    August 31, 2009 at 5:29 pm

    Loco, just a friendly tip for next time this happens (because you KNOW it will …)

    Instead of ビール持ってきて, you ought to be saying ビール持って来い! which is much more fitting of your masculinity. Similarly, switch よね with のだ to become much more forthright.

    These are a bit more in keeping with how insulted you are (supposed to be) in such a situation and show that you are (even!) aware of your higher position to the lowly waiter.

  27. 41 Janay
    March 11, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    I know that this is an older post, but I’ve just started looking through your blog and I love it! I’ve only been to Japan for 2 weeks so far and even in that short time, I’ve been through a lot of what you’ve talked about… certainly being African American, but that’s a whole ‘nother comment XD

    This was one thing that bothered me also. I know that there were sometimes that I did screw up a grammar point, but there were also times when I knew that my Japanese was spot on and I’d get this clueless look from people. “I know that you understood konnichwa!” I would think! It was especially annoying being automatically handed the English menu at restaurants (that only listed about 7 items from the actual menu for some reason) and again getting a crazy look when I ask for the Japanese one.

    I know that most Americans come over not even knowing what island they’re on, never mind the language, so I can understand… but give us a chance! Dang!

    Alright, that’s enough of my rant… I’m looking forward to reading more of your work!

    • March 11, 2010 at 1:54 pm

      Thanks Janay! Yeah, it can get to be a bit much sometimes, but i’m used to it as much as anyone can get used to that…like getting used to someone pelting you with stones everyday LOL…enjoy! And drop comments anytime!

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