If you ask a foreigner living in Japan about their level of Japanese conversation skills you will naturally hear a mixed response, but one commonality for those living in the larger cities is that they struggle to find opportune moments to use this complex new language. Why is this you may ask……. well put simply it’s because locals wish to practice and hone in on their own eikaiwa [English conversation] skills.
Inevitably there is a somewhat stigmatic approach attached to using English when conversing with Japanese natives and you will enter lengthy debates on this topic whenever in the company of other foreigners living in Japan. You’ll hear streams of “They gave me an English menu!”, “I spoke to them in Japanese and they responded in English!”, “They only approached me to practise their English!” and whilst yes this may be true, is there perhaps a deeper meaning behind it?
I certainly encounter these situations on a weekly basis, and whilst it used to concern me a lot, it doesn’t bother me half as much as it did after I first arrived. I owe this to an expression I was introduced to whilst explaining my situation in a slightly over emotional way to a colleague. This expression is known locally as MENDOKUSAI. Literally translated to ‘bothersome’ or ‘troublesome.’
I often hear this word thrown around at times of trivial crisis. Maybe someone has dropped an ice cream on the floor or maybe someone is 1 yen short of the perfect change to purchase something. Maybe someone has parted their disposable chopsticks creating a harsh array of splinters or perhaps you’re at the front of a long line of people waiting to go through the station ticket gates and your IC card has run out of credit. You could attach ‘shouganai’ to many of these situations but in that bothersome moment the word ‘mendokusai’ rings true in my mind.
I have been privy to many awkwardly fascinating encounters in this vast mega city and you learn to gauge very quickly peoples intentions. For the most part there are very harmless and selfless agendas attached to each connection of minds, and yes very rarely you will stand there for a few uncomfortable moments as you are told that “Your Queen is very nobel” and how “There was once a cafe that sold high end tea in Cambridge in 1971”. Does this kind of interaction really take away anything from your life? Does it add something to someone else’s existence? Perhaps. I have simply learned to entertain the idea that each interaction is both significant and insignificant in its own respect.
One such encounter occurred during Tokyo’s first November snow in 50 years. I was given the day off from work and I took it upon myself to pursue some City Office based necessities. En route home through the back streets of my ward I stopped to pick up a handful of snow that lay upon someones garden wall. In doing so, I was noticed by an elderly gentleman on a bike who stopped to tell me that what I was holding was in fact snow. Now this conversation could have gone one of two ways.
- I could have simply ignored or brushed him off as I’ve witnessed so many people doing in similar situations.
- I could have responded and humoured the guy, discovering the intended route of conversion.
I took the latter and am so grateful in doing so, for it was one of the most sporadicly random conversations I have partaken in during my stay here. It transpired that he visited England many years ago and he could only remember a few interesting words which he then practiced on me. Said words included ‘large’ ‘breakfast’ and ‘rain’. He was very proud to use them after so many years and was happy to converse with an English native. His phone suddenly appeared and without warning I’m watching a slideshow of images depicting his 6 pet cats. The look of adoration and tenderness on his face as he explained each cats’ story was quite humbling. Our journey ended at his front gate where a couple of the cats came to greet us vocally. I was invited in for some green tea to which I kindly declined, and he shook my hand, thanked me and told me I had permission to always talk to his cats whenever I see them.
Now how ‘mendokusai’ was that? A kind-spirited, cat-loving elderly man simply wishing for a moment of my attention to discuss snow and cats, allowing us both to go about our day completely unscathed and distracted from any intercultural stigma or ignorance.
I regaled my friends with this witty anecdote to receive a multitude of responses. Some claimed they would have taken option 2 as I did, but most revealed they would have in fact followed route 1; missing this surprisingly uncanny exchange of minds on a rare November snowy afternoon. Which would you have taken?
If I took away anything from this conversation it’s that I am glad I entertained the thought of stepping out of the shallow mindset of some and allowed two individuals to essentially exchange some genuinely interesting and thought provoking conversation. Using two broken languages for the main focus of discussing a mans true love of his companion animals, we both walked away learning a little about the others culture (and you can’t deny the free listening and speaking practice was a treat). But all jokes aside, I now take any opportunity I can to appreciate these moments because you never truly know where the juncture will lead you.