Why to Japanese people answer me in English when I speak to them in Japanese?
A question that many foreign Japanese-speakers find themselves asking at one point or another.
I had been speaking Japanese outside of Japan for about a year when I first set foot in Tokyo. I landed in the country excited to exercise my language skills and headed right to the nearest JR ticket counter to ask for a map and to buy some tickets.
Prepared with my Japanese language skills and a level on confidence which was probably undeserved at the time, I walked up to the counter and made my request in full Japanese. The staff smiled, opened a drawer, and replied to me in what I can only describe as a near-embarrassing attempt at English which came out jumbled and incomprehensible…
I stood, confused.
Why… why when I spoke to her in Japanese, did she answer me in English? And in broken English at that…
I couldn’t understand what she said but didn’t want to make her feel as low as she had just made me feel, and so I put on a smile in return and nodded my head pretending to understand what she had just said to me.
This is a situation that is all-too-familiar for foreigners in Japan.
You say something to a Japanese person in Japanese, and they respond in English.
When I first got to Japan, this bothered me like crazy… It would happen at restaurants, on airplanes, while shopping, and even with friends. And especially in the beginning it felt like a punch in the stomach every single time.
I would always doubt my Japanese skill when it happened. I would wonder if my Japanese was so bad that they felt the need to push the interaction into English just to achieve an acceptable level of communication with me…
But over the years, as my Japanese language skills developed and grew in fluency, elegance, and overall pzazz, I came to realize that it was time to adjust my confidence level. It seemed that my nihongo skill level had little, if nothing, to do with it. The more I improved, the more my confidence grew. And the more my confidence in m Japanese skill grew, the more I began to understand that Some Japanese people just want to speak English. And the more I understood this point, the less I cared when it happened. In fact, it has worked itself comfortably and naturally into my life to the point where I barely notice anymore.
But that doesn’t mean it goes unnoticed by everyone. Japanese people responding to your nihongo in English can be everything from discouraging to shocking, or for some, even embarrassing or disappointing.
On numerous occasions, I have had to laugh as I hear people say things like “I have had more chances to speak Japanese in my own country then when I visited Japan. Everyone here seems to want to practice their English”
Why do I laugh? Because it’s true.
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to meet more Japanese people in social and business situations than I can even count. And I have found that there are 4 main types of English-speaking Japanese people that you will commonly encounter:
Type A – Can’t Speak English, But Want To
This type is pretty much harmless. They are generally friendly and may simply be fascinated with foreigners or English but had little chance in their life to use or try it. At the very worst, they are the type who view gaijin as a brand, and may even go through great efforts to befriend you.
Some people will take their attempts at English as “microaggressions” (aka a mild, unintentional form of racism), but in the end, I think it holds more of a child-like curiosity tone to it. (I once went a little far with this analogy comparing it to a young child seeing a new animal for the first time, and mimicking the animals sound in the hopes of achieving communication. They might just wanna be friends! – this analogy was not well taken by some. lol)
Type B – Can Speak English, But Have No Confidence
This type, much like Type A, are relatively harmless. Chances are, unless you actually ask them, or unless someone else says something, you may not even know that they speak English. They come in all shapes and personality types, and usually had a rather specific reason for studying English in the first place (whether it was for a certain goal, or simply a strong personal interest). While still very much aware of the fact that you are a foreigner (and potentially more aware than Type A of what that really means), Type B will usually be happy as long as they can communicate with you.
Type C – Can Speak English, But Don’t Really Care
I like this type. They can speak English, but will typically carry the communication with you in whatever language you set as the precedent. More often than not, the language will jump back and forth seamlessly in conversation with them, and there is more often than not, a general feeling of equality. Type C is the truly internationally-minded type and unfortunately they are also the rarest type.
Type D – Can Speak English And Want To Show It
This is the type to watch out for. They are the ones who will blatantly ignore your Japanese and respond with English, and they are commonly a little different from the average Japanese person. These people see English as “cool” and therefore want to be seen/heard speaking it as often as possible. Unfortunately, this usually comes from a deep seeded issue with their self-esteem, and therefore it doesn’t stop with English. It is far from uncommon for these people to be disliked by fellow Japanese and foreigners alike for being condescending or generally annoying.
Note: I have purposefully left out 2 types from this list
Type P, which are people like the JR staff above, who may just be doing it for the sake of “professionalism” and making things easier.
and Type O, which are the elderly people who will approach you in any range of situations just to practice their English.
I have left these types out, because 9 times out of 10, the person in types P or O will also overlap into one of the above 4 types.
So when it comes down to it, there is only one type that you really need to be concerned about; Type D. But even though three out of four sounds like pretty good odds, it’s still a little tough to put a population percentage statistic to each type, so it’s still up to you to identify and adjust your social filter.
I was going to add an entire section talking about what do do when a Japanese person responds to your Japanese in English, but instead, I’d really like to hear your thoughts. What do you do in that situation?
The scary part is that if you really think about it… You could apply almost every point in this to foreigners who speak Japanese….