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CULTURAL CONUNDRUMS / The Japanese of non-Japanese: Not always what’s expected

By Kate Elwood / Special to The Japan NewsLike many people, in past years I often received telephone calls on the landline in our home, although people are more likely to send emails or call us on our cell phones these days. If the person was calling for my husband, they might not know that I, his wife, was not Japanese. I’d answer the phone and if my husband was not home, a short conversation would ensue as they left a message or inquired when best to reach him. The conversation would usually continue for a bit, at which point I’d say something a bit awkwardly phrased. There’d be a sudden pause, and the person on the other end of the line would say, “Oh! Is your mother home?” This happened countless times.

I felt strangely gratified each time I unintentionally misled a caller into thinking I was a child and not a non-Japanese adult, although why this should give me pleasure is hard to say. I suppose I felt I had proven something about my Japanese, even if I evidently sounded childish. Perhaps part of my satisfaction came from having my linguistic proficiency blindly judged, without other assumptions of non-competence that were made on most occasions when a stranger spoke to me face to face. Of course, I wasn’t so obsessed with the delight of the false impression that I’d continue to play out the assigned juvenile role. I’d explain that I was his wife but that I was non-Japanese, the other person would apologize, and we’d resume the conversation with the mystery of my slightly clumsy phrasing properly resolved.

I have a high-pitched voice, which may have contributed to the confusion, but I’m pretty sure that the reason for the skewed interpretation of my linguistic shortcomings was that my gaffes were not what Japanese people typically think of as the mistakes of non-Japanese, such as grammar and pronunciation. They more closely resembled faux pas that people without sufficient knowledge of social niceties are apt to commit — like children. Adult non-native speakers of foreign languages also struggle with the challenge of speaking appropriately, frequently long after they’ve mastered other elements of the language, but such difficulties tend to receive less focus.

I was reminded of these comical phone calls recently when I read a fascinating article by the linguist Satoko Suzuki. Suzuki introduces a novel by Kotaro Isaka called “Ahiru to kamo no koinrokkaa” (translated on a cinema website as The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker). Suzuki analyzes the Japanese of two characters in the story and demonstrates how readers’ assumptions are hoodwinked based on their beliefs about how Japanese men and non-Japanese men speak Japanese.

One character named Kawasaki, who is active in the present time of the novel, uses typically male language, such as the first-person subject “ore”; the sentence-final particles “zo” and “na,” direct imperative forms like “oshiete kure” (tell me) and “ki-o-tsukero” (watch out), and the sentence-ending form “daro.” The linguistic style gives us rich intimations of the rough, perhaps even menacing, man Kawasaki is.

Another person who appears as a character in the story two years earlier is a man from Bhutan named Dorje. Isaka expresses Dorje’s words in various ways that indicate that he is non-Japanese. His speech appears faltering by breaking up sentences with commas, such as “Mada, hanashi, shitai desu” (I want to, still, talk). Dorje’s words sometimes show problems in pronunciation, saying “mo” instead of the elongated vowel “mo~” and “ite” instead of the germinated consonant “itte.” He speaks the desu/masu sentence-ending polite form rather than other styles like Kawasaki’s “daro.” And when Dorje says “so desu ne” (That’s right), it is written in the katakana orthographic style used for foreign words rather than the standard hiragana script.

Two different men, two different nationalities, two different ways of speaking Japanese. The dramatic, dumbfounding twist comes when it is revealed later in the novel that Kawasaki is in fact Dorje. Dorje has become better at Japanese in the interval between his appearance in the action of two years earlier and the present, and has been passing himself off successfully as a Japanese person. Readers of the novel never suspect the impersonation because they do not expect a non-Japanese to speak the way Kawasaki does.

The literary mischief resembles a brainteaser that was popular in the United States in the 1970s: A father and son are in a terrible car crash that kills the father. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate — this boy is my son!” I’d thought that no one today would find the riddle as challenging as many did four decades ago, but in 2014, gender researchers Mikaela Wapman and Deborah Belle demonstrated that it is still difficult for many Americans who haven’t heard the scenario before to figure it out (The doctor is the boy’s mother).

It’s not easy to recognize our cultural (or gender) expectations. As is often the case, they remain unnoticed until thwarted by an unforeseen reality. Each time as I hung up the receiver I pondered what those callers thought when they realized they had made a false assumption — and of course I also wondered about all of my own still-hidden cultural beliefs.

(The next installment will appear on Jan. 5.)

Elwood is the Dean of the Center for International Education at Waseda University and a professor of English at its School of Commerce.Speech

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