Multilingual Japan

One big difference I’ve noted on this, my first extended trip back to Japan in 20 years, is how much more multilingual the nation is. I don’t mean so much that more Japanese seem to speak foreign languages better than at any time since 1945–though I suspect that is also likely to be true.

What has struck me instead, on our attempts to get maximum usage from our rail passes, is the much greater quantity of signage in Chinese and Korean–and some Russian in Niigata–designed to help tourists speaking those languages. Many goods imported from other Asian countries also list instructions or ingredients in both Chinese and Korean.

But another thing that has struck me is that most Japanese now seem to expect foreigners to speak enough of the host country language to conduct simple transactions such as making purchases and asking directions. And I’ve been very impressed by the many people I’ve queried in my limited but sometimes deceptively fluent Japanese who’ve communicated very effectively in simplified and maximally redundant Japanese designed to get through to foreigners with limited proficiency.

Of course, a few bumpkins still just repeat the same thing more loudly when dealing with non-Japanese-speaking foreigners, but many people I’ve met have proven quite adept at effective foreigner talk in Japanese. The flip side of this–the hound that no longer barks–is the near absence of the reaction I used to get so often 20 or 30 years ago: Elaborate praise from strangers on hearing my first few words of Japanese. I’ve only encountered that reaction once or twice in the past 3 weeks. Nor have I encountered the speechless panic that used to overcome so many Japanese when a foreign face approached them to ask for information. Now, when speaking Japanese, the panic is more on my side, as I anticipate the inevitable hurdles of inarticulateness that are sure to trip me up the longer the conversation goes on.

Another reaction that has mercifully become much rarer is the kneejerk shouts of ハロ、ハロ (hah-ro, hah-ro) from groups of Japanese schoolboys. The only such reaction I’ve noticed on this trip has been from a group of uniformed middle-school boys touring a Japanese shrine in Sapporo who greeted us with ヘロ、ヘロ (heh-ro, heh-ro). The girls who followed greeted us instead with a civilized 今日は (kon-nichi-wa).

UPDATE, 23 August, 23 September: Yesterday my wife applied for her alien registration at the Ashikaga city office, where I learned that Japan will conduct a national census on 1 October 2005. The notice was posted in the following languages, in the following order: English (in larger type at the top), Korean, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, Thai, Tagalog, Indonesian/Malay (“Sensus nasional dilaksanakan”), Farsi/Persian (I think), Vietnamese, Hindi, Burmese, French, German, Russian, Malay/Indonesian (“Sensus Penduduk”), Arabic (if not Persian).

The same office also offered a Tochigi International Association flyer for “Consultation and Information Services” with contact information listed in the following languages: Japanese, English, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, Persian, Thai. The local prefectural lending library, however, had nothing substantial in any other language than English, but had many volumes of classic literature translated into Japanese from English, French, German, Russian, Korean, Chinese, German, Spanish, and Italian (roughly in that order, by quantity).

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