Ten Things You Should Not Say to People from Other Countries
This is a version of an article that was originally published on the Teacher Talk blog at azargrammar.com. It has been adapted to make the references more appropriate for Japanese learners. Please feel free to copy it if you would like to use with your students. Click here to download a Japanese translation of the article. If you have any thoughts on the topic, please add a comment.
Many Japanese people feel nervous and excited when they use English to speak to people from other countries. This is natural. People from other countries feel the same way when they try to speak Japanese. Unfortunately, people sometimes say things in a foreign language that they would never say if they were speaking in their own language. This can make them sound rude. There are also some things that would be okay to ask in Japanese that might sound rude if you asked them in English.
Even if what you say is not rude, it may still annoy the other person or make them angry. Remember that a lot of the non-Japanese people in Japan have been here for many years. These people become tired of hearing the same comments and questions over and over again. If you want to communicate effectively in English with people from other countries, it is important to know what you should say to them, but it is just as important to know what you should not say. Here is a list of ten things that you should avoid.
1. Where are you from?
There are a couple of problems with this question. The first is that it is in English. Remember that not all people with white or black faces speak English. Even if they do, they may be annoyed if they come from a non-English speaking country. If you want to talk to someone from another country in English, try speaking to them in Japanese first. (If you speak to them in English, they might think that you just want to practice with them.) If they do not understand you when you speak Japanese, your next question should be, “Do you speak English?” Even if you find out that they do, do not ask them questions about America unless you are sure they are from the U.S. This is very annoying for people who come from other countries.
The second problem with this question is that it shows the first thing you are noticing about the person is that they are different from you. It is therefore not a good way to start a conversation. It is much better to talk about the environment you are both in to establish things you have in common. Some examples might be “It’s hot today, isn’t it!”, “This shop is very crowded!”, or “Have you been waiting long?” After you have been talking for a while, it is okay to ask, “Where are you from?”, but do not try to begin a conversation with this question.
2. “We Japanese…”
Many Japanese people use this expression when they want to say wareware nihonjin, but most non-Japanese feel uncomfortable when they hear it. One reason is that it is strange because it sounds as if you are saying that all Japanese people are the same. For example, it is not true to say, “We Japanese eat rice for breakfast” because many Japanese people do not. Another reason is that it makes the other person feel like an outsider, and it can even sound quite racist. Does “We Japanese” include people of Korean nationality who were born in Japan? How about the native people of Okinawa or Hokkaido? It is better to avoid this phrase altogether when you speak English.
3. Nihongo jozu desu ne!
Some Japanese people may be surprised to hear that non-Japanese do not like to be complimented on their linguistic ability. Actually, some might not mind—it depends on how long they have been in Japan and how good their Japanese actually is. If someone is new to Japan, and if their Japanese is not very good, there will be no problem if you say nihongo jozu desu ne. The person will probably be very pleased. However, if someone has lived in Japan for many years and uses the language as part of their everyday life, hearing this makes them feel uncomfortable because you are treating them as an outsider. If someone really does speak good Japanese, you should just talk to them as you would talk to a Japanese person. That is the best compliment you can give.
4. Do you like natto?
In most English-speaking countries, food is not a topic that you discuss with someone you have just met unless you meet them in a restaurant. Also, when you meet someone for the first time, it is natural to try to find things that you have in common. If you ask someone whether they like a food that even many Japanese people do not like, it might seem as though you are trying to find differences. This is not a very friendly thing to do. You should also know that many, many Japanese people ask foreigners this question. Please try to imagine how tired they are of hearing it.
5. Can you use chopsticks?
Many people who are not from Japan eat Asian food in their home countries, and it is not unusual for people to be able to use chopsticks. In fact, using chopsticks is not particularly difficult, and most people who live in Japan pick it up within a few weeks. When I said that to a Japanese friend of mine, she said, “But my three-year-old daughter has trouble with chopsticks even though she is Japanese.” I said, “Yes, but that is because she is three years old! Please don’t compare me to a baby!” Complimenting someone on their use of chopsticks is a bit like complimenting them on their ability to tie their own shoelaces. It is very patronizing.
6. Comments or questions about a person’s body or age
It is not polite to make comments about people’s bodies, even if you mean it in a good way. Comments like, “Wow, your eyes are so blue!” or “You are so big!” make people feel like zoo animals. You should also avoid asking questions about people’s height or weight, and unless you are talking to a very small child, you should never ask the age of a person that you have just met.
7. Are you married?
Some people will not mind if you ask this question, but others will be very angry, so it is safer not to ask it at all. If you know that someone is not married, you should never ask, “Why aren’t you married?” Asking someone if they have any children is okay, but if they say “No,” never ask “Why not?”
I have a Canadian friend who is married to a Japanese man. People often ask her, “Why did you marry a Japanese man?” This is a strange question. She did not marry “a Japanese man;” she married her husband because she loved him. She gets very angry when Japanese people ask her this question.
8. What is your religion?
Religion is a sensitive subject for many people. You should avoid discussing it with anyone you have just met.
9. When are you going back to your country?
For many foreign people who have lived here for a long time, Japan is their home. Some of them are married, and many have children who were born here. Asking a person this question shows that you think of them as an outsider.
10. Do you like Japanese sushi?
Many Japanese people feel that they have to stress the “Japaneseness” of things when they talk to people from other countries. You do not need to talk about “Japanese sushi,” “Japanese ryokan,” or “Japanese sumo wrestling” because everyone knows that these are Japanese things. Remember also that many things (such as chopsticks and kanji) that you might think of as “Japanese” actually came from other countries.
Other important points to remember:
If you meet someone who clearly speaks Japanese much better than you speak English, do not try to communicate using bad English. This is very rude because it seems as though you are saying, “Your Japanese is not good enough, so I will speak English to you.” It is also not necessary to add simple translations in poor English if the other person obviously understood what you said. (For some reason, older Japanese men often tend to do this.) Unless the person is your teacher, he or she is not being paid to try to practice English with you, so use the language that you can both speak—Japanese.
A final point to remember is that you should always look at a person when they talk to you, even if they are not from Japan. Many non-Japanese find that if they go somewhere with a Japanese person, other Japanese people prefer to look at and talk to that person. This often happens even when the non-Japanese person speaks perfect Japanese. In restaurants, for example, I often find that when I ask a question in Japanese, the waiter or waitress looks at me when I speak, understands what I am saying, and then turns to give the answer to the Japanese person I am with. This is very rude. If the person can speak your language, you should look at them as you speak, even if they are not from Japan.
If you have a teacher (or a friend) who is not from Japan, ask them what they think about these points. Ask them if there is anything else not listed here that annoys them. You might find that your teacher has some very strong opinions on this topic!
PS: I read another article after I wrote this that reminded me of one more thing you should avoid asking people from other countries: “What do you think of Japan?” This is basically just putting pressure on people to say nice things about your country. You would never say, “What do you think of my house?” or “What do you think of my children?”, so why would you say “What do you think of my country?” Japan is a fantastic place, and people will have lots of positive things to say about it without being pressured to do so!
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I felt that people of other countries may more sensitive compared to Japanese after I read this blog.
Though I don’t know feelings of other Japanese,I will ask and say to foreign people
“Where are you from?”
“Do you lile sushi or natto?”
“Your Japanese is so good!”
because I want to know more deeply about the person and I want someone be pleased.
I was surprised the best for this.
“Comments or questions about a person’s body or age”
Prpbably,some Japanese in Japanese feel not good when they asked “How old are you?”but I think there are few people who feels not good when they said ” Your eyes are so beautiful.”or “Your leg is so long.”
Because we feel “We are said good thing!”
I don’t know why the peole feel not good when they so though I think about it.
I want to attention these point when I talk with foreign countries!
Thank you very much Mr.Barker.
Thanks for your comment. These points are not just my feelings – I asked a lot of non-Japanese people living in Japan how they felt, and most agreed with all of the above.
See you on Thursday.
Pretty prescriptive! Lot’s of shoulds! Who is to say your notion of the universe is the correct one? If you choose to lve n a foreign culture then you have to take the good with the bad. Personally I find none of the things on your list offensive, just innocent Japanese being Japanese. If you live in America you will be twisting yourself into contortions trying to accommodate the feelings and needs of every group you come in contact with. It is not comfortable. Don’t try to force this on the Japanese. Roll with it and let them live in bliss. At least you get to eat sushi and natto.
Thanks for your comment. I have been thinking about writing this article for years, but I held off because I thought it was just me being a grumpy old man. Last year, however, I started talking to other teachers about it, and all of them encouraged me to write it. Most were only too willing to add to the list!
I take your point that it is prescriptive, but surely that is the case when you learn any language. I remember being given a long list of dos and don’ts when I began learning Japanese. Anyway, I believe that as a teacher, it is part of my job to at least make learners aware of these points.
Last weekend, I went to conference at a teacher training centre in Ibaraki. In the evening, we all went to the bath, and there were teachers from other groups in there. As soon as I got in the bath, I was asked, “Where are you from?” I remember thinking how much more appropriate it would have been for the guy to ask me why I was at the training center, and how much more willing I would have been to talk to him if he had done so. Surely it is worth making our students aware of this.
You don’t mention how long you have been in Japan (or whether you actually live here), but I think that for many of these points, the problem is more one of repetitiveness than anything else. I wouldn’t mind a couple of people complimenting my Japanese, but when it is the first thing that everyone says to you everywhere you go (I am not exaggerating here), it gets a bit old.
Anyway, it’s useful to hear an opposing viewpoint. I hope some other people will post comments to add to the discussion.
Perhaps the best audience for this would be the teachers who introduce the topics in the first place. Students may get the message quicker and not feel reprimanded for ‘practising whenever possible’. The departure point, and an interesting one it is, indeed, is how we are similar and how we are different culturally.
Still, I will give your text to my Conversation Stategies students and see what their impressions are.
More comments to follow.
I thought about this on and off today. Actually I lived in Japan previously and am familiar with the point of view you are expressing and the types of people expressing them. I agree with you in that part of a teacher’s job is to make students pragmatically aware but the things you describe sound more like pet peeves and are relatively benign. I guess the question I grapple with is to what extent we should try consiously, more often it is unconsious, to impose our view of what is appropriate in cross-cultural exchanges. I am sure you are well aware that the Japanese do not corner the market on cultural insensitivity. But as I said, when they make comments like the one’s you describe, I truly feel there is not the kind of underlying malice intended that you may find in other countries. I guess the teaching moment enters when you have the chance to describe “why” these comments and types of behavior might make foreigners uncomfortable. Overall, the benefits of expat life in Japan outweigh the minor inconveniences that accompany pragmatic breakdown. Thank whichever deity suits you that you cannot fully integrate into Japanese society. The social pressures that accompany this privilege will find every overpaid, under worked gaijin heading home to find a job at the first convience store job (if you can find one) that will have them.
I agree with you 100% about the lack of malice, which is why I think it is even more important to teach Japanese learners about these points. To be fair, there is no way they could be expected to know that complimenting someone on their Japanese or asking them about food might actually create a negative impression unless we tell them. The Japanese guy who talked to me in the bath at the weekend turned out to be (a) really nice, (b) a fellow teacher, and (c) a graduate of my university! If we had not been in the bath, however, I would have been trying to get away from him the second he asked, “Where are you from?” If someone had taught him the appropriate way to start a conversation, the exchange would have been much more successful, which is presumably what he would have wanted.
I admit that some of the points I have described sound like “pet peeves,” but I believe that many long-termers in Japan agree with me. I guess posting this article is one way of finding out whether this is true or not. I have lived in Japan for 15 years, and I speak the language to the point where I am able to write books and conduct lectures and seminars in the language. I feel as though this is my home, and it is really annoying to be complimented on my Japanese every time I open my mouth. Someone went into raptures the other day because he couldn’t believe that I was able to write my address! I couldn’t wait to get away from him. Of course, I don’t get angry with people or shout at them when they say these things, but it makes me far less willing to talk to them. That is the message I want to get across to Japanese learners: it’s not necessarily rude to say these things, but you will “turn off” many foreigners who have lived in Japan for a long time if you do.
I take your point about cultural insensitivity in other countries, though. When I take Japanese students to the UK, it makes me cringe to hear my fellow countrymen shouting “Ni Hao!” at them across the street.
Thanks for your comment. I think the thing about “practicing wherever possible” is that a learner’s efforts to engage a foreigner in conversation are much more likely to be successful if they are aware of the points above. I remember an older Japanese guy walking up to me in Starbucks once. He pointed at himself, pointed at me, and said, “English conversation?” That was never likely to be a successful strategy!
Anyway, I would be very interested to hear your students’ reaction to this list. My guess is that most of them will be very surprised. You can read the reaction of one of my students above.
I hear you and understand your feelings. I’ve enjoyd this exchange and look forward to reading your future posts!
I am currently working on a PhD on pragmatics. This discussion reminds me of a time I was at a ski resort and I was waiting in line with another foreigner to get on a four person ski lift. We were engaged in a rather animated conversation as we got onto the lift and a third person joined us. We continue the conversation as we went up the lift. Within the first few seconds of the ride the third person, an older Japanese man, burst into our conversation and said, “Where are you from?” He showed no regard for “turn taking rules.” He didn’t wait for a pause or some other indication it was his turn to speak. He just burst into the conversation. Instead of making a scene or ignoring him we answered his question in short one word answers and continued our conversation. I mention this because I told my wife about this experience and she said that maybe we were being noisy, rude foreigners on the lift and not following proper Japanese ski lift protocol. And this was all he could do to shut us up. I hadn’t thought of it that way.
Hi John. Likewise. The next one will be bit less controversial!
Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure I would agree with your wife’s interpretation, though. I have spent hundreds of hours on ski lifts in Japan, and Japanese people often talk in loud voices while they ride them. I would guess it was more a case of the man finally plucking up courage to try out his English.
David, your products have been very helpful for me. Thank you.
Thanks Chris. If you are still using the books, please sign up for the mailing list from the home page. I will be using that to keep teachers updated as we develop new online resources.
> Even if they do, they may be annoyed if they come from a non-English speaking country. If you want to talk to someone from another country in English, try speaking to them in Japanese first. (If you speak to them in English, they might think that you just want to practice with them.)
Wow!! This is exactly what my husband always complains about !!
He speaks some English, but he comes from non-English speaking country. When Japanese people talk to him in English from the beginning, he always answers in Japanese to them.
> Asking someone if they have any children is okay
Oh, is it?
I think this question is getting a taboo among Japanese people, because more and more Japanese women are having infertility problems nowadays.
> If you meet someone who clearly speaks Japanese much better than you speak English, do not try to communicate using bad English.
I guess my husband speaks English better than most Japanese people do. He speaks Japanese better than they speak English, so it’s better to talk all in Japanese for both of them, I think.
I always communicate with him using Japanese, because he speaks Japanese much better than I speak his language.
I’ll ask him later if these 10 questions annoy him.
See you !
I would be very interested to know what your husband says. Please let me know after you have shown him the article.
Re the question about children – I think that like most things, it depends on the context. Personally, I think that it’s okay to ask someone if they have children provided that you don’t start asking “Why not?” if they say no. That would be very rude and insensitive.
As for the question about children – I think it also depends on how old the woman or the wife of the person you talk to. I personally think if the person is around 35 already, it’s better to avoid the question. Likewise, if you don’t know the age of the person’s wife, it is safer not to ask the question, I think.
>I would be very interested to know what your husband says. Please let me know after you have shown him the article.
Yes, I will.
I actually didn’t ask him last night because he worked overtime and looked very tired, but I think I can have a long talk with him on weekend.
Reading your article, I thought of writing my version ; “Things You Should Not Say To Mixed Children and Their Parents”
My son is a mixed child and has a bit exotic face.
Some Japanese don’t realize that he is a mixed child, because my husband is Asian, though.
Most frequent questions from other Japanese are ;
1. Is he a mixed child? (Ha-fu desuka?)
2. Where is his father from?
(Papa wa dochirano kunino kata desuka?)
3. What language do you speak at home? English?
(Ie dewa nanigo de hanasunndesuka? Eigo?)
– Most Japanese don’t seem to know that my husband’s country has their own language.)
4. Does your husband speak English?
5. Does your husband speak Japanese?
6. What does he do? English teacher?
(Dannasan oshigoto wa? Eigo no sensei?
– In Japan it is unusual to ask this question to the person who you met for the first time, but people don’t seem to hesitate to ask this when your husband is a foreigner.
7. Are you going back to his country with him someday?
(Showraitekiniwa dannasan no kuni ni issho ni kaerundesuka?)
– My son was born in Japan and he is half Japanese. He may choose Japanese nationality and live here until he dies. Do people want to tear my family apart!?
8. Do you(and your husband) teach English to him(my son)?
– Why? By chance I’m teaching him English, but it is not because he is a mixed child, but because I like English.
I can’t think of more than these now, but I’m almost sure that my son would end up struggling with following questions in the future….
– Do you speak English?
– Speak something in English.
– Although you’re a mixed child, why can’t you speak English?
I wonder why Japanese people expect that all mixed children speak good English.
Neither parents of my son comes from English-speaking countries, so I think the questions above are a bit cruel for him.
Bye for now !
That would be a very interesting article! Japanese people definitely tend to think “foreigner=speaks English,” so I guess it is up to people like you to educate them.
By the way, I have heard that parents of children of mixed race prefer to think of them as “doubles” rather than “halves.” Actually, I recently read an article in a newspaper in the UK saying that people of mixed race tend to have a lot of advantages because their genes come from two completely different gene pools. Apparently, a very high proportion of top athletes in the UK are of mixed race. It’s funny that people throughout history have talked about being “pure,” but from a genetic point of view, “pure” is the worst thing you can be.
> I have heard that parents of children of mixed race prefer to think of them as “doubles” rather than “halves.”
That is a very positive way of thinking !
Children of mixed race are the fruits of two different humanbeings from two different countries, so the term of “half” is indeed not appropriate for them. “One” plus “one” is two/double, not “half”.
> Actually, I recently read an article in a newspaper in the UK saying that people of mixed race tend to have a lot of advantages because their genes come from two completely different gene pools.
I’ve heard of the theory before.
> Apparently, a very high proportion of top athletes in the UK are of mixed race.
This reminds me of an athlete named Dean Genki who is a javelin thrower.
His father is English and his mother is Japanese.
He is Japanese by nationality.
Apparently, he might become a national team member for London olympic games.
Yu Darvish, Koji Murofushi(shot-putter gold medalist) are also children of mixed race.
> It’s funny that people throughout history have talked about being “pure,” but from a genetic point of view, “pure” is the worst thing you can be.
But, of course, I think there are a lot of people with good genes among “pure” race too.
By the way, I’m wondering if I should post comments here, because this is actually “blog for teachers”, right?
However, I learn a lot from reading comments of native English speakers here !!
Feel free to post here if you find the topics interesting.
I showed your article to my husband last night.
Please remember that he is quite optimistic and easy going.
Here is his reaction :
1. “Where are you from?”
-He thinks it is very natural to start a conversation with this question. But, he agrees with you in that we should not expect all foreigners speak English.
2. “We Japanese…”
-He has never heard Japanese saying “we Japanese” in English, but he often hears the phrase, “日本人ってさ～”
from me or other Japanese people. But, it doesn’t annoy him at all.
3. “Nihongo jozu desune”
-He’s been living here for almost 9 years.
He doesn’t mind to receive this compliment at all and he will be just pleased.
4. “Do you like natto?”
– As you described, it might not be very common to talk about “food” in most English-speaking countries.
But, he is Asian and most Asian people like eating or talking about food. He is not the exception, so he doesn’t mind if a stranger asked this question.
5. “Can you use chopsticks?”
-As long as he’s never had meals with the person before, there will be no problem with this question.
6. “Comments or questions about a person’s body or age”
-He’s seldom been commented about that from other Japanese people. He’s been said, “Your head is so small” or “Your head has a nice shape”, but he didn’t feel bad, because they weren’t negative comments.
7. “Are you married?”
– He doesn’t mind. It all depends on how they ask him.
8. “What is your religion?”
– He doesn’t mind, but he also thinks that’s a very delicate matter for many people, and it’s better not to ask at all.
9. “When are you going back to your country?”
– He doesn’t mind unless the person knows him very well.
10. “Do you like Japanese sushi?”
– He can’t remember whether Japanese people usually put “Japanese” before “sushi” when they ask this question to him. But, this is indeed a very frequently asked question.
(By the way, German people frequently asked me, “Can you make sushi?” or “Do you east sushi everyday in Japan” when I was in Germany. I was tired of hearing and answering those questions.)
I’m sorry, my husband is easy going, so he might be too insensitive to comment on your article….
At last, here is one example what my husband feels bothered by Japanese people;
While he asks a question in Japanese in natural speed,
the person answers him in Japanese, but in extremly unnatural(slow) speed, as if he/she were talking to a very small child. He feels “This person treats me like a fool !!”.
See you !
Thanks for the feedback. Your husband certainly sounds very easy-going! Mind you, as an Asian, he probably has a slightly different experience from Westerners who live in Japan.
> Your husband certainly sounds very easy-going!
Hahaha…Yes, my husband is easy-going. He’s exact opposite of me.
But, maybe that is why we live in perfect harmony as man and wife now. 🙂
> Mind you, as an Asian, he probably has a slightly different experience from Westerners who live in Japan.
I think so too.
He probably feels less stress than Westerners who live in Japan, as Asian people have many things in common.
See you !
My exact thoughts! You’ve nailed it on the head. Congratulations!
All I need to do now is to translate it and distribute it (Course with your permission) among my colleagues.
I don’t think it’d be a bad idea to send a copy to various school borads as well.
I think Japanese people need to realize that “internationalization” is not just about possessing some European brand name goods!!
I also believe that these issues can be addressed very easily in the schools and the media but I have a feeling that they don’t want to since by doing so they have to eliminate the existing invisible line that seperates them and the outsiders!
In a nutshell, guests are welcome but no dwellers!
In the meanwhile, I suppose all we can do is to keep the faith and educate.
Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you liked the article. Please feel free to distribute it as far and wide as you can. I’m aiming for total elimination of the “natto” question from the Japanese psyche by 2015! (Not holding my breath, mind you…)
Good point about the translation. I guess that would be very useful for a lot of teachers. If you can give me a bit of time, I might be able to get that sorted. If I can, I will post it here in the near future.
Because I find this article very interesting, I’ve decided to use it for a discussion theme at the next English language club meeting.
I’m looking forward to hearing other members’ thoughts.
See you !
I have added a Japanese translation of this article for anyone who wants their students to read it in their own language. Please scroll to the top of the article and click on the link to download the PDF file.
Wow, you managed to finish it all in such a shor time!?
Aanyway, it’s a great help to me.
I’ll take your translation with me to next English language club meeting, because one of the members is a beginner.
Thank you !
What an interesting topic!
But again as they say here: JU NIN TO IRO.
I line behind Yu’s husband. Not so easy going,though, but I would like to give the Japanese the benefit of the doubt on most of these points. My gut feeling is that most of them are innocent openers to conversations, and you noted well, they also ask them in Japanese. I have noticed they ask the same questions to themselves as well(at least the relevant ones)! I don’t expect them to spare foreigners of the same.
So I will pray (and you may not need to ask me what my religion is!:
”Lord, grant me the grace to change what I can, and to accept what I cannot change, AMEN”
Thanks for your comment. As I said in an earlier posting, I think the important point for teachers to consider is not whether we personally would be bothered by these questions, but whether there are other people who might be. Personally, I don’t mind being asked whether I am married, but I know there are a lot of people who do, so I teach my students that it is better not to ask the question. If a teacher thinks, “I don’t mind being asked about chopsticks, so there is no need to teach my students not to ask it,” I think that he or she does the students a disservice.
Actually, there was an article about this recently in the Japan Times. Here is the link, if you are interested.
I don’t really agree with the idea of “micro aggression,” but the readers’ responses in the follow-up article showed that a lot of people out there do.
Thanks again for the comment.
Yesterday we discussed this article at the English language club meeting.
Usually it takes time to change our conversation from “Japanese mode” to “English mode”, but thanks to your interesting article, yesterday we had a lively discussion “IN ENGLISH” after a long time! Thank you!
They agreed with you on some points, but it is also true that they disagreed with you on many other points.
One member (she is a beginner) said, “I always talk to people from other countries in English regardless of their nationality or mother toungue, because I want to practice English.”
I didn’t expect that there was such a shameless(図々しい) person in my English language club, but wow!!,there certainly was !!! (She is a nice person, actually…)
After all, I feel that what you say is very true :
> I think the important point for teachers to consider is not whether we personally would be bothered by these questions, but whether there are other people who might be.
A common sense for yourself is not necessarily a common sense for other people. Because everyone has a different personality, and they will have different ways of feeling.
Finally, I was just lucky to have met an easy-going foreign man like my husband, as I think I have asked/said almost all questions you pointed out here to him around the time I have just met him.
Thank you again for the interesting article!
Bye for now !
Thanks for the feedback. Glad to hear that the article was useful for your club. I hope lots of other people will be able to use it in the same way 🙂
thanks for your Arudou article. I have to appreciate this is a big problem for many folks out there (I hope I am not one of those living in denial!!), and I think you are right to posit your whole argument into the perspective of my duty as a teacher and the service I should do to my students to help them NOT to come across as ”Microaggressors.”
By the way, when I discussed this with an NJ co-worker on the school bus yesterday, he reminded me about the taxi drivers’ assumption that all NJs are from the USA!!!!
TD: Where are you from?
NJ: I’m from the Uk.
(after a few minutes)
TD: So what are the summers like in the States?…..
Thanks David – interesting and thought-provoking as usual. I’m going to give out a copy to my third year students and get their reactions.
Read the article and am LOL!! Thought you`d been asked a dieefrfnt question at first when i saw the letters KY up there. Wonder if they know the usual English understanding of the meaning those two letters create?Anyway great post and links, the wife and I are now educating ourselves to talk to our rapidly Yunkeefying kids.C U L8R (best i can do i like real words!! Ore wa Ojisan desu)Damon
“If you choose to lve n a foreign culture then you have to take the good with the bad. Personally I find none of the things on your list offensive, just innocent Japanese being Japanese.”
I 100% disagree that you have to take the good with the bad. Sometimes the bad needs to be addressed and changed. It is how cultures/countries/society as a whole progresses and becomes more accepting and open-minded – ie could give various examples of not accepting gays, women being seen as second class citizens… Pressure from others is often what makes change, not silently “putting up” with things. Indeed, there are cultural differences and whatnot but starting a conversation addressing how “you” are different from “us” is never going to be the way forward.
“Japanese being Japanese” isn’t a reasonable excuse anymore. Nor is “We are a small island nation” which I often hear for an excuse of bad behaviour or narrow-mindedness. With modernization and mass communication, if Japan wants to have a chance in the global markets and being seen as a leading nation, they need understand that a lot of the things “they” say to foreigners isn’t okay – even if it is based on ignorance and no malicious intent is there.
A lot of irretation is based on the fact that things get repeatedly asked/stated by numerous people. True, and perhaps is it unfair for “us” to be upset at it but I have no doubt most Japanese would be miffed if they went abroad and were constantly asked about manga, cosplay and sushi – I have students who studied abroad who complained about the foreign otaku who only wanted to discuss these types of things. I would rather someone discuss the weather with me than take notice of the fact that I am not “one of them” and move from there.
I had an interesting conversation with my English majors last week with regards to “Who is Japanese?” and they all agreed that people had to stop judging people based on their looks with regards to nationality. Needless to say, was rather happy about that!
Thanks for your comment. I had forgotten about the ridiculous “It’s because we are an island nation” defence. When people say that to me, I tell them I am from Britain and suggest that they might like to look at a map, paying particular attention to the blue colour around the borders of my country. I imagine people from New Zealand and Australia have a very similar reaction.
I agree that it is appropriate for us to try to “address and change the bad,” particularly when our role in this country is that of educators. This is also true when we go back to our native countries, of course. As I said in an earlier comment, I find it incredibly embarrassing to hear idiotic British people shouting “Ni hao!” across the road at my Japanese students. When I was in the US many years ago, a young guy asked me where I was from. I told him that I was from England (I had learned by that point to give up hoping that anyone might have heard of Wales), and he said, “England? That’s where they speak French, right?” It’s difficult to know what to say to that!
Re the nationality / looks question, there is a very strong myth here that Japanese people somehow look “different” from Korean and Chinese people. Whilst this is definitely true with regard to clothes and fashion, I don’t think it has any validity if you are talking about facial characteristics. When I lived in Singapore, I went to a nightclub one night with some adult Japanese students of the language school where I was working. In the bar, I saw a gorgeous young woman. I was sure she was Japanese, so I asked one of my male students to go and talk to her. He said, “She is definitely Chinese, so go and talk to her yourself.” He then went on to explain to me how “We Japanese can tell the difference even if you Westerners can’t.” Anyway, I kept pestering, and eventually he gave in just to prove me wrong. It turned out her name was Naomi and she was from Kyoto! Actually, I still have some photos of four women that I dated when I lived in Singapore. Two were Japanese, one was from Taiwan, and one was Thai-Chinese. I have shown those photos to many Japanese people and asked them to guess which were the Japanese girls, and without fail, they always get at least one wrong.
I just remembered that long a go the Governor of Tokyo Ishihara called Korean residents in Japan, Chinese and Taiwanese “三国人”, which was a disparaging word after the WWII, and his statement aroused a great deal of controversy. (Now he is trying to buy the Senkaku Islands, and I’m on pins and needles for fear he might say something rude to our neighboring countries again.)
I don’t want to admit this as a Japanese nation, but there seem to be still some Japanese people who strongly believe “Japanese are superior to those three nations”, which is very ridiculous.
I know nothing about your student in Singapore, but I suspect his words just came from his beliefs(wrong impression) that he(Japanese) was superior to Chinese.
By the way, I went to the city hall with my husband the other day. The staff took me for him. My husband was caring of our son on the waiting bench at that time.(My husband has an exotic face and looks obviously a foreigner.) She thought I was a foreigner!? No one has told me I look a foreigner in my life, though…
So, I don’t think Japanese people’s eyes are that reliable.
I always use the UK as an example of a “small island nation/kingdom” to address the issue of this reply. Glad to see I am not alone! 😉
I also 100% agree with your comments with regards to educating those “home”. I had to let a few people know during my year in London that “Jap” was not a cool word to use, more so to someone with a Japanese husband… The thing is, none of the people I spoke to disagreed with me. I was given an apology and I don’t doubt those people don’t use the word anymore. Frustratingly, I can state the same with regards to being called a “gaijin”.
Yu, I think Ishihara has upset many with his “bugler” comments with regards to the islands. I know myself that I wish Ishihara and his cronies would, well, move to the islands themselves and stay there so the rest of us don’t have to listen to him his racist, sexist, narrow-minded self. Why people in Tokyo continue to vote for this man is beyond me. He makes Japan look bad. I am hoping Japan doesn’t get the olympics because I think this man is nothing but disgusting with regards to how he views anyone not Japanese – and well, he’s done so many other things but won’t get into that now….
I also have to laugh at the city hall story. My husband now knows he has to do all of the talking while I say nothing. Even when I speak, they address all answers and questions to him so I’ve given up.
> I think Ishihara has upset many with his “bugler” comments with regards to the islands.
I know that. I just hope he will not continue it.
He is a hard-liner(hawk), but he should always keep in mind that what he states in public is very influential as he is a politician.
> Why people in Tokyo continue to vote for this man is beyond me.
I guess he won the last election because he cried for
“Brave Fukushima 50″(!?) It(his reaction) looked rather a monkey show to me, though…
> Even when I speak, they address all answers and questions to him so I’ve given up.
Hahaha…Please don’t give up and continue to educate Japanese people!!
This is one of your old coworkers from Gaidai here. I remember hashing out the questions in the lunch room last year. Howz life?
Anyway, my two cents’ worth…
About mixed kids, I’ve started to like using the term “hybrid” to describe my son. It’s cool, modern, high tech sounding. Plus, it’s accurate. A hybrid car has 2 engines, which each work when they are needed depending on the situation. My son has 2 cultures/languages, and deploys each depending on the situation. Both are equal and integral.
Keep up the good work!
Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you approve of the final result of all our discussions 🙂
I’ve never heard the term “hybrid” used in this way before, but it makes a lot of sense. I love the idea of deploying whichever culture or language is appropriate for the situation.
Hi, Mr.Barker. 初めまして。美帆と申します。
I am not sure if I should post a comment here because it has been a while since you posted this article, but I could not help.
I found this article while I was trying to find an interesting one for my English lesson and this is very informative.
I have to admit that I have done most of the things you listed and I never expected anyone to feel bad about the questions.
Just like your student, Rina san, mentioned, I asked these questions because I always thought that it would make fun conversations.
But after I read your article, I came to think that it would be absolutely frustrating if I am freaquently asked these questions in foreign country. The questions especially No.1, 3, 6 and 9 that I found the most annoying.
Thank you so much for sharing your idea with us.
Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you found the article useful.
This is all true, but to really be useful shouldn’t it be written in Japanese?
It is! Just click on the Japanese button at the top of the page or click on the link in the introduction to download a PDF of the translation.
A woman I recently met called Satoko Watkins just put a great post on her Facebook page. As you might guess from her last name, Satoko has had a lot of experience of dealing with people from other countries. Here is her list of “Nine things you shouldn’t say/do when you meet an Asian:”
1. When you want to know what race I am, do not ask me if I’m Chinese. There are other Asian countries besides China and Japan…just FYI.
2. Also, you do not need to tell me that you think Chinese women are beautiful after I have said I am Japanese.
3. Do not ask me “What are you?” The answer will be “I am a human being.”
4. Do not point at me. I may not know your language, but I understand that you are probably saying, “Look, it’s an Asian!”
5. Do not just walk up to me and bow. I usually smile and bow back, but I’m thinking “what the heck?”
6. It is not ok to assume that all Asians know Karate and love Hello Kitty.
7. No, you will not find Ninja or Samurai in Japanese forest. I’m sorry.
8. You do not need to tell me that you have a Korean friend. There are 3.9 billion people in Asia, and I’m pretty sure I don’t know the person and I will never meet him/her.
9. Not all Asians have constipation (or constipated grimace), and that is certainly not the reason that we have squinty eyes (although I found this joke hilarious).
I found number 8 the funniest. When people in my country hear that I live in Japan, they always feel the need to mention a brother / cousin / nephew who has visited or lives in Japan. As Satoko says, it is pretty unlikely that I will know them, so why are you telling me?!
I also like number 5. In Japan, people often walk up to me, offer to shake my hand, and say, “Nice to meet you” even though I have no idea who they are!
Anyway, thanks, Satoko, for the great list.
Thank you for adding my list to your article. I’m glad that you found it funny:) In regard to #5, people do not only bow but also they put their hands together and pray for me, like I am Buddha or a Kung fu master. haha I understand that is how people greet each other in Cambodia and some other countries, but again I don’t think they do that to strangers:P
I found Satoko’s list funny perhaps in a different way from yours. I was always asked if I were a Chinese when I lived in America when I was a child, not only by children but also from adults, and they never seem to change after nearly 40 years have passed. I believe that things are different according to the number of people from other countries living/visiting there, but I really like the way Vick said that things are JUNIN TOIRO（十人十色）. There are various people regardless of nationality/races/appearances, and I’d just ignore those people who would ask me stupid questions or bow at me for no reason or show me kung foo actions. ( Don’t they learn that kung foo is a Chinese thing?)
However, I’d like to talk about these things to my students because I would never want them to give stupid impressions to others.
When people bow to you, you should kneel down and bow to them on the floor just to see what they do! It’s embarrassing to say this, but I think most western people’s ideas about Asian politeness come from Kung Fu movies.
Vick has a point, but I don’t think we should use that as an excuse for not teaching our students not to do these things. Vick is probably the most easygoing person I have ever met in my life, and I can’t imagine him ever being offended by anything. Unfortunately, not everyone is like Vick.
Anyway, the thing I liked most about Satoko’s list is that it reminds us that saying stupid things to foreigners is not only something that Japanese people do.
I totally agree. I’ll just let the people I don’t know do as they like (it’s none of my business!), but it’s really my business if my students or my children did that. I also think that it’s not just a kind of language problem but also a common sense which we have to teach to our younger generations.
Please allow me to post my comment here for this time only, though I’m not a teacher.
> Anyway, the thing I liked most about Satoko’s list is that it reminds us that saying stupid things to foreigners is not only something that Japanese people do.
I totally agree with you.
Lots of strangers (regardless children or adults) have spoke to me when I lived in Germany like; “Hey, Ni Hao!”. I always just ignored them, but I felt very bad because some of them shouted at me from the other side of the street laughing foolishly. I thought “They’re looking down on me.”.
I have to admit that my husband is very easygoing, but like you mentioned about Vick, “I can’t imagine him being ever offended by anything”. He is a human being, too. I have a feeling that people like him or Vick have a little more patiance for everything other people do than we have.
It’s safer to teach your students or children the ways adjusting to the majority. I mean, people like us, not like my husband.
I think and am almost sure that this was written by a Japanese. I do not have anything against Japanese, they are good guys in general but they are the ones susceptible like described herein.
I really do not see any foreigner (I do not include Korean and chinese, because their culture is different to the Japanese one but closer than would be with mine from Africa).
So, you can ask me whatever I will even not have a single problem with that.
Thanks for your comment. Actually, the writer of the article was me, and I am British. As I said in other comments, I realise that there are many people who would not be bothered by some or all of these questions, but there are many others who find them very annoying, or even offensive. I think it is a good idea to make Japanese people aware of this possibility.
Reading this as an American who later moved to Canada. Even though the two countries are close to each other, I still get some of these questions. I hate it when people ask how I like Canada, because of all the pressure. An interesting article, though.
Thanks for your comment, Kaitlin. It’s interesting how the same problem occurs in different situations around the world. As I mentioned somewhere above, I always find it really embarrassing when I take Japanese students to the UK and idiots shout “Ni hao” at them across the street.