Can’t deal with foreigners
One thing that I used to find terribly disspiriting to hear was that such-and-such-a-person “doesn’t know how to deal with foreigners”. I just didn’t get that.
Deal with me like you would anyone else, I thought. Well, that might actually be the last thing you want.
When my wife met new people in England, they would invariably bombard her with questions about Japan, the part of Japan she was from, and about her, and construct a very informal chat around that.
When I’ve met people for the first time in Japan, it simply isn’t usually like that. For a start, the questions. They may at first appear to be about you, but look more closely, and you’ll find that they are subtlely disguised questions about Japan. You’re not chatting, you’re getting an invitation to indulge in a series of ritualised compliment-paying about Japan, Japanese food and Japanese people.
This is safe ground. And safe common ground is essential to so many social exchanges in Japan. Apart from with friends and family obviously, a lot of interaction is very formal, and therefore ritualised. Chit-chat spontaneity and informality can throw many Japanese unused to it into a headspin, and make them socially uncomfortable. And fear of this discomfort is what can lead otherwise perfectly sane people to clam up and stutter at the mere appearance of a foreign face.
I usually find the best approach is to pretend you haven’t noticed. Plough on regardless, as if nothing were up, and you give the other person a chance to save (red) face.
There are other factors at play, of course. The sheer lack of a large number of foreigners to interact with. The method of teaching English in schools that leaves most people unable to use it conversationally, and with a firm belief that English is rocket science. Talk to Japanese people who’ve lived or studied abroad, or have had their family invaded by a hairy barbarian, and it’s usually a different story.
Another factor is how the Japanese language is learned by many foreigners. Many Japanese will assume that if you’re not Japanese, then you don’t speak Japanese. And why do they think that? Because it’s usually true. This is going to lead to more discomfort. A surprising number of people, of every nationality and language, are unable to simplify what they are saying. Non-students don’t know what to avoid when they’re speaking to a learner (like idiomatic, metaphorical, or similarly non-literal language). This can bring the simplest interaction to a grinding halt, and in Japan can also be the cue for some flustered panicking.
So to get along in Japan without leaving a trail of red-faced people in your wake, you need to master some level of keigo – the highly formal register of language mentioned earlier. But for that, you need already to have a pretty decent level of Japanese anyway. For example, the girl in the supermarket will ask you “O-kaimono bukuro wa o-mochi deshou ka?” (A highly formalised version of “Do you have a bag?”) If you’re still learning “Taro-san wa Nihonjin desu” (“Taro is Japanese”) this is going to stop you in your tracks. Most Japanese language learning texts don’t go into the insane complications of keigo, even though these are likely to be your first, frequent interactions in Japan – with no Japanese language, you can shy away from most people except shopkeepers! So the truth is, unless you arrive speaking the language to a reasonable degree, you need to be shut in a room for six to twelve months of language study before you can safely be let out.
But to take my own situation, when I first arrived, although I had the time to study, with no job I didn’t have the money. By the time I had the money, I had no time. So learning the language (and the rules) has been a long, slow process. But gradually, as my Japanese becomes less clumsy, and my community gets more used to me, I’m becoming a foreigner who’s not quite so difficult to deal with.