One of the most frustrating parts about living in Japan was when I would go out to dinner with my husband. No, it wasn’t because I wasn’t able to read the menu or because I don’t like Japanese food – it was because more often than not, the server wouldn’t speak to me.
Since my Vietnamese-American husband cannot speak or read Japanese, I would always do the ordering. What the servers saw was a woman with a caucasian face speaking Japanese and what appeared to be a Japanese man not ordering for himself. After placing my order in Japanese, the server would turn to my husband (who couldn’t understand anything she was saying) and ask follow up questions about our drink order or any add ons. I would in turn, translate for my husband in English, and then answer our server in Japanese, but any remaining questions would be directed once again to my husband. This language triangle would continue until all the ordering was completed.
Of course, this didn’t happen every time, but enough for both my husband and I to take notice. When relating the story to my friends, many would confirm that they have encountered a similar situation. Some would posit that the server thought my husband was letting me practice my Japanese and was looking to him to confirm that’s actually what I wanted. But no matter the reason, I was always left a little frustrated.
A recent video on YouTube titled, “But we’re speaking Japanese!” confronts this exact situation, bringing light to a lingering stereotype in Japan.
Many commenters loved the video:
“Kinda sad how true this is :/ Great video guys!!!!! ”
“Thank you for capturing my life so perfectly.”
“Definitely one of the more annoying things that happens in Japan…”
“Every. Single. Day.”
But some couldn’t relate:
“Lived in japan for 5 yrs and never seen or heard of this happening. maybe it’s because i live in osaka.”
“I’ve lived in Japan for five + years and haven’t seen this sort of thing either. I’ve read that it used to be a big thing in the 60s-70s etc…I thought it was cute. Sure, maybe playing on a Japan that hasn’t existed for 30+ years, but still cute.”
“Maybe if you actually spoke Japanese you wouldn’t have that problem. Nobody is that racist and ignorant. gtfo here with that.”
However, many foreigners who have lived in Japan chimed in with their own anecdote regarding similar situations, giving credibility to the video:
“I currently live in Japan and have for over 3 years. My wife is Japanese and she has had to tell waitresses and clerks over 20 times in the last year that I was speaking Japanese. I have no accent when I speak Japanese.”
“Very irritating to talk reasonable Japanese in Japan to restaurant staff, real estate agents, neighbors, cash register staff in the konbini.. and so many other places.. and have them answer to the Japanese person we are with.”
“Best example: I flew JAL, and ANA for several years (internationally). Each time I boarded, I asked for a Japanese newspaper (in Japanese). Each time, the stewardess (a different one each time) looked surprised, and then HAD TO SAY: “oh, you want to look at the pictures” None of them could process that I could actually read the newspaper (which I can).”
“my husband looks japanese, is japanese, citizen inside and out, but just cause part of his name is foreign and in katakana, people had straight up freaked out and asked him if he spoke japanese despite talking with him over an hour. as if suddenly noticing he might be foreign erased that entire hour of conversation.”
As hard as it is for some people to admit or relate to, as shown by the numerous comments from foreigners with experience in Japan, this situation is all too real. Of course, the scene presented by Ken Tanaka and crew was exaggerated, but the reality in Japan is that the stereotype of “Asian=Japanese speaker, Everything else=English speaker” does exist. One commenter described the video perfectly: “I laughed because it was funny :D Then cried because it was true D:”
Screenshots: YouTube (helpmefindparents)