One evening, I went out to eat with a group of friends. We had just left our jazz circle meeting and went to a local restaurant for dinner. I, the only foreigner at the table, knew immediately what I wanted, so my friends prompted me to go first.
ニラレバ炒めと、炒飯をください (I would like fried chive liver and fried rice, please.)
It was a simple order, but the waitress stared at me when I looked back up at her from the menu. There was an awkward silence before she looked at my friends. When they had to repeat my order, I felt my face turn hot red with embarrassment, unsure if there was something fundamentally wrong with my Japanese. Even though she was the only person who seemingly did not understand me that day, I felt like I had failed such a simple language task.
This is not an unusual experience among Japanese-speaking foreigners, though. In fact, I personally could share many similar awkward interactions. Times when workers have handed me and my Japanese partner an English menu despite the fact my partner can’t speak English, or when I went out with non-Japanese speaking Korean/Chinese friends and the workers became confuddled by the obvious foreigner carrying the Japanese end of the conversation. I think the most frustrating was the time I went to the bank to transfer money and the bank teller would refuse to speak to me until I came back with a Japanese classmate.
It doesn’t matter how basic or advanced your Japanese is or how good you are at mimicking Japanese body language and mannerisms; it seems inevitable that at one point or another in your life, you will run into a similar problem.
This leads to a very common question that pops up in expat groups in Japan: Why is it that Japanese people don’t understand when foreigners speak Japanese?
Japanese Perceptions of Foreigners
I have already written about Japanese perceptions of foreigners in my article Finding Your Place: Navigating Japan’s Immigration Landscape as an Immigrant, so if you’re interested in a more in-depth analysis, please reference my previous article.
However, two major elements are crucial for understanding this phenomenon: the strong idea of Japanese identity and the perceived temporariness of foreigners’ lives in Japan.
Japan is an old country that has been around for thousands of years. This means the idea of what a Japanese person is has had thousands of years to develop!
Nowadays, in America and other Western cultures that have been heavily affected by globalization, there is a strong distinction between race, ethnicity, and nationality. However, this distinction is less common in Japanese as the idea of Japanese ethnicity combines Japanese race and nationality into one.
This strong identity also creates strong exclusion criteria where the image of a Japanese person exists strongly in the cultural view of Japanese, and the further away you get from that ideal image becomes socially shamed as can be seen in issues around conformity and social shame that occurs in Japan.
Because of this, strong in-group (Japanese/日本人) and out-group (foreigner/外国人) becomes a major reality within Japanese society.
The second idea comes from the fact that a large portion of foreigners present in Japan tends to be international students, temporary workers, or quite simply tourists; thus, Japanese individuals are less likely to make long-term meaningful friendships.
In past research, when Japanese participants shared their opinions on immigration, a considerable number mistakenly equated the term ‘immigrant’ (移民) with ‘temporary foreign worker’ (外国人労働者. Consequently, they assumed that the concept of ‘immigration policy’ 移民政策 encompassed programs related to temporary workers as well.
This is a good example of how many Japanese are used to seeing foreigners in Japan as temporary. A foreigner is expected to come to Japan, fulfill a specific goal like receiving a degree or enjoying Japanese tourist experiences, and then go home. This assumption appears everywhere in a foreigner’s life, from the common question of “What do you plan to do when you go home?” to bank books often explicitly reminding you to close your bank account when you leave Japan.
From this, it is easy to see how foreigners exist in a strange place within Japanese society, which likely contributes to how foreigner Japanese use is perceived, but let’s return to that point in a moment.
Surprisal Theory in Language Processing
In computational psycholinguistics, surprisal theory is used to understand how people process language. In simple terms, surprisal theory is the idea that processing language takes longer to process less predictable words. This happens because our brains are wired to make predictions about what comes next in a sentence, and when those predictions are off, it can make understanding more challenging.
So, the point is that our expectations about what words come next affect how we understand a sentence. Humans tend to anticipate the next word when listening or reading. When the actual words don’t match these predictions, it can make it harder for us to understand and process the information.
Now, let’s talk about how social biases play into this. There’s a growing consensus that we must consider language and context in modeling language processing. Recent studies show that social identity, such as group membership, can influence how we process language. People tend to categorize others into “us” and “them” (or in Japan, 日本人/Japanese and 外国人/Foreigner), affecting how we remember and process information about different groups.
For instance, individuals with strong in-group bias tend to be more conservative in their predictions, especially when dealing with their own group. The study found that these biases also affect how we remember words. In-group words are remembered more distinctly than out-group words, but this is only true for strongly biased individuals.
So, what does all this mean for foreigners learning Japanese in Japan? Two things to consider are 1) the nature of using a second language and 2) the in-group bias affecting Japanese speakers’ perception.
In the first point, think about non-native speakers in your home country. Even advanced speakers might use language differently based on where they learned it and the biases from their native language.
There is a broad population of non-native speakers of globalized languages like English, given the sheer number of countries that use the language as a lingua franca. Therefore, most English speakers have to get used to hearing various accents, making them more adaptable in predicting how a foreigner might speak. On the contrary, Japanese is geographically limited, with fewer non-native speakers, making it harder for Japanese speakers to experience non-native Japanese speech that would be needed for them to predict how a non-native speaker might use the language properly.
The second factor involves biases among Japanese speakers. As stated before, many Japanese people have limited interaction with non-native speakers due to low immigration rates. Visitors to Japan are often tourists or short-term residents, less motivated to learn Japanese. Also, many long-term residents might not fully learn Japanese with English as the international language and have difficulty learning to speak Japanese.
Therefore, it is safe for most Japanese people to assume English is the default, especially the less the person looks like a Japanese person. When a non-native speaker breaks this expectation by speaking Japanese, it can lead to a discrepancy in what the Japanese person expects to hear.
What is the harm caused by this phenomenon?
So, why does this matter? What’s the big deal if Japanese people assume you can’t speak Japanese when you actually can? Sure, it might sometimes feel awkward, but is it a significant issue?
On the surface, it might seem like a minor problem, but it becomes more significant when this assumption is applied more broadly. One area where it can cause harm is in the division it often creates between foreign and Japanese communities. While this is a complex issue with multiple factors, the language divide (both real and perceived) contributes to this division. It creates a bias that makes Japanese people less likely to engage meaningfully with their non-Japanese neighbors and coworkers.
It makes sense to some extent. For example, if a Japanese person sees someone who looks obviously foreign in their apartment hallway and assumes the foreigner doesn’t speak Japanese, they might hesitate to talk to them. In many cases, a potential language barrier is very plausible. However, this assumption can prevent opportunities for meaningful interactions. Maybe that foreigner is actually studying Japanese, and by assuming they can’t speak the language, the Japanese person misses a chance to offer valuable experiences and advice that could help the foreigner integrate better into Japanese society.
The more these assumptions happen, the more likely foreigners will stick to groups of other foreigners or English-speaking Japanese people who want a chance to use their English skills. This reduces the pressure to practice communicating in Japanese and lowers the chances of continuing language practice.
It’s a two-way street – the assumption that a foreigner can’t speak Japanese makes it harder for them to make Japanese friends, hindering their ability to learn Japanese.
However, the bigger issue is that these assumptions can lead to direct discrimination against foreign populations. I’ve discussed housing discrimination in more detail in a previous article, but this bias plays a role in problems related to housing, banking, and employment for foreigners in Japan.
Landlords and employers often hesitate to work with foreigners due to language concerns. They worry about communication issues, leading to outright rejection of housing and job applications from foreigners.
This further pushes foreigners away from being able to integrate into Japanese society as the places they find homes and work are communities with already high foreign populations. And, of course, this makes sense; why fight a landlord who is hostile to you when you can live in an apartment that openly accepts and embraces foreigners?
Finally, these assumptions impact a foreigner’s ability to integrate into Japanese society. While it may initially feel nice to receive compliments on your Japanese skills, these comments gradually distinguish you from your Japanese peers.
Imagine living in a specific community for many years. Humans are social creatures who need a sense of belonging. The longer you are in a community, the more you identify with it. Now, imagine a barrier being created. Every time someone comments on your Japanese or assumes you are only here temporarily; it reinforces a division between you and the community you live in.
This constant reminder that you don’t fully belong can lead to discomfort and mental fatigue. Many foreigners eventually leave Japan because they feel lonely and isolated from their community, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
How Can I Get Japanese People to Speak Japanese with Me, Even If I Don’t Look Asian?
Let’s say you’re keen on learning Japanese and genuinely want more opportunities to speak the language. It can be frustrating when conversations keep switching to English, right? So, how can you avoid this?
One useful trick is to avoid speaking in a foreign language (even non-English languages) when Japanese staff is around. The more Japanese speakers mentally connect you with being non-Japanese, the more it contributes to the non-Japanese bias, and they might start trying to communicate with you in English.
Similarly, if you’re with friends learning Japanese and want to practice it more, encourage them to stick to Japanese as much as possible. It’s common for foreigners to default to English when speaking among themselves, but this may not always be productive if you genuinely want to improve your Japanese.
Likewise, in public, other Japanese people tend to make assumptions based on the lowest common denominator at the table. If others start speaking in English or show difficulty in Japanese, they might switch entirely to English or direct all communication to the person who seems most fluent in Japanese, whether they’re Japanese or not.
Of course, don’t use this as an excuse to exclude friends who don’t speak Japanese. For various reasons, someone may not want to learn Japanese, and not every social interaction needs to be a language practice session. Sometimes, it’s perfectly fine to let go of the idea of speaking exclusively in Japanese and just enjoy your time with friends.
Another tip that might help is to keep your international or English-speaking Japanese friends separate from your regular Japanese friends. Oddly enough, the more exposure Japanese people have to speak English, especially if they work at a foreign company or have spent time overseas, the less likely they are to treat you instinctively like any other person in Japan.
They’ve bought into the idea of globalization, which suggests that the world is moving towards a universal culture and language – which happens to be English. This can be frustrating because these friends often switch to English even when others in the conversation can’t follow. When people who don’t speak Japanese see a Japanese person talking to you in English, they might assume that you can’t or don’t want to speak Japanese for an extended period. This can lead to you being excluded from conversations and opportunities that Japanese individuals prefer to have exclusively in Japanese.
The last tip is to interact with the local community around you regularly. This will require you to get out of your comfort zone and enter spaces where English cannot be used as a crutch, but the more you actually engage in the Japanese-speaking community around you, the more you’ll be seen as just another local.
Investigating perception of spoken dialogue acceptability through surprisal by Sarenne Wallbridge, Peter Bell, Catherine Lai
Exploring social biases in language processing by Sara Iacozza
The Effects of Surprisal across Languages: Results from Native and Non-native Reading by Andrea Gregor de Varda and Marco Marelli
Why Japanese assume that people who appear non-Asian in Japan can’t speak Japanese by Inoue Eido