Exorcising the demons of the Japanese language

Opinions - November 19th, 2004
David Tharp

by David Tharp 

We all know the stories about Japanese who can’t master their Ls and Rs, and other problems they have with English that drives them into a love/hate relationship with this language. I have friends who have been so traumatized by the English teaching system in this country that they absolutely refuse to say a word of English anymore. On top of that there are dilemmas about whether they should learn British English or American English.

I even have Western friends who have written books about the mistakes that the Japanese make in English.

But, hang on half a moment – what about gaijin and their Japanese?! I know a British man who regularly criticizes his wife’s English, while he can’t string together enough words in Japanese to buy himself a Union Jack in a flag shop, or there’s the fellow who applies for a job to do cross-cultural counseling based on his 30 years in Japan, but has been “too busy” to learn the language. And, the stories go on and on in this vein. Yes, of course, there are people who are going through the transit lounge at Narita who need not go to this trouble, but it behoves the rest of us to make an effort, no matter how humble that may be.

I know a major embassy that shall remain nameless in which the staff there all spoke Japanese from the doorman all the way up to the ambassador. On the opposite side of town in another major embassy, meanwhile, it was hard to find someone who could hire or fire a Japanese employee in this country’s language. We could all throw up our hands like St. Xavier who wrote Rome hundreds of years ago saying that the Japanese language was the invention of the devil to prevent the spread of the gospel, but fortunately the angels have been putting in some overtime in recent years so that fluent Japanese speakers of all nationalities are on the increase, including the pimps and drug pushers on the street in Roppongi.

There is one story about an American English teacher who was late going to his class one day to teach. He pushed the stop button at the back of the bus he was riding, but it seemed to be malfunctioning, and didn’t light up or ring a bell at the front next to the driver. As the bus flew by his school’s stop the American called out in panic what he thought meant – “let me off!” in Japanese. There was no response from the driver and the bus plunged ahead, although the other passengers near him seemed to wince with concern.

Once again the American called out more loudly what he thought meant “let me off!” Again this plaintiff appeal had no effect but passengers were now turning around and staring at him. So, in desperation as his school faded into the distance, he jumped up and ran to the front of the bus yelling what he thought was “let me off, let me off.” The driver slammed on the brakes, opened the bus door and pushed the American off into the street, shouted “kichigai” (crazy) and quickly drove away.

Exasperated the now late American ran back to his school and told his story in self  righteous indignation to his class – who all began rolling in the aisles laughing. Stunned, the teacher collapsed into a chair perplexed with anger and embarrassment. Finally, one of his students managed to stop laughing long enough to explain what the people on the bus experienced. First of all, he explained that the Japanese for “let me off” is oroshite kudasai. But, the American had been yelling “koroshite kudasai” – please kill me!!

The moral of the story is probably something like — exorcise your own Japanese language demons before laughing at someone else’s Rs and Ls or whatever, and you’ll probably have a much better relationship with your Japanese friends and acquaintances. Failing that, write in and tell me any of your most embarrassing moments in Japanese.

Nihongo Gambatte!!

David Tharp exorcises demons of a different kind as a psychotherapist specializing in intercultural problems, depression, group and dance therapy, couple relationship and sexual therapy.