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Getting to know you

May 8, 2009

If there’s one thing you should be ready for when you come to Japan, it’s the Getting to Know You conversation – the one where you’re the only foreigner at a social gathering, or you’re simply accosted in the street.

First things first. Let’s be absolutely clear on this – the Getting to Know You conversation is NOT about getting to know you. While newly-arrived foreigners, still a bit green, might fall into the trap of thinking that they themselves are the point of interest, that’s not the case at all.

If ever there was a nation of navel-gazers, it’s the Japanese.  (Your word for today is omphaloskepsis.)   Some say it’s arrogance, self-obsession. Those more charitable but equally damning call it paranoia, insecurity, a desperate desire to be well thought of.  Whichever, if you’re a foreigner in Japan, the Japanese want to know what you think of Japan and the Japanese.

Except they don’t.  Actually.

This is no time for home truths.  No time for honest answers to straight questions, because these are not straight questions.  The Conversation is in fact a subtle test – a test of how you’re going to fit in, a test of your social graces.  Sounds complicated?  It is. That’s why I’ve compiled this little guide to surviving the test and passing with flying colours. So strap on your tatemae and let’s go.

Question 1 then…

Where are you from?

…is what normal people would ask. You will of course be asked…

Are you from America?

The assumption that anyone not obviously Japanese must therefore be American shows quite a lack of imagination, but don’t let that rile you. Just smile and give an honest answer. This will be the last time you’ll be required to do so.

Question 2

Why did you come to Japan?

This is a fun question. Most people will use 何で (nan de) to say “Why…?” Which can also mean “How / By what means?”

– The Green Gaijin will give an honest answer – “I came for work / chicks / travel / anime / whatever.” Bad luck, you messed up. Your interrogator will maintain a polite demeanour, but rest assured, they’re bored of you now.

– The Correct (points-scoring) Answer is “Japan is a fascinating country and I wanted to see it for myself.” 10 points.

– The answer you’ll want to give at your hundredth identical interrogation and beyond is “飛行機で。” (“I came by plane.”) On no account give this answer, you’ll confuse and alienate everyone.

Question 3

Can you use chopsticks?

– GG answer “Er… yes, of course.”

– Correct answer “I can, but yes, chopsticks are difficult for foreigners aren’t they!”

– Jaded answers “Can you use a fork?” / “I’ve only been doing it for 30 years.” / “I’m a foreigner – I only eat burgers.”

Question 4

Can you eat Japanese food?

– GG answer “Yes, it’s very nice.” (Because you’re catching on by now, aren’t you. Or so you think.)

– Correct answer “Yes, it’s DELICIOUS!” (Remember to adopt a pained expression – If you’re not saying that Japanese food is so good it hurts, then you’re paying no compliment at all.)

– Jaded answer “I can just about gag some down before I go out and look for something with a flavour.”

Question 5

“Do you like Japanese girls?”

– GG answer “Er… yes. They’re beautiful!” (Nice generalisation, buster. Warming up nicely. Without the hesitation, this would be the Correct Answer.)

– Jaded answer “You bloody fool, my wife is sitting right next to me! I want to hurt you…”

Married gents, this question is a shit sandwich. If your wife is Japanese, you’re pretty much in trouble whatever you answer. If your wife isn’t Japanese, you may as well cut them off yourself and slam them down on the table. In a world with justice the person asking this question would be taken outside and beaten to a pulp.

Question 6

“Does your country have 4 seasons?”

Unless you’re from the tropics, this will seem like a bizarre non sequitur.

– GG answer “Mm? Yyyyes…”

– Correct answer “It does, but they’re not as distinct or as beautiful as they are in Japan!”

– Jaded answer “Yes, yes, we have 4 seasons. Unlike Japan’s 5.”
On no account should you point out Japan’s secret 5th season, no matter how obvious you think it is. The Japanese have built an enormous mythology around their “4 seasons”. Pointing out that tsuyu (the rainy season, which is clearly not the same as summer) makes 5 is like tramping the toilet slippers through a tatami room.

So you can see that every question is a like a hand grenade with the pin pulled out. With a bit of deft manoeuvring, you can escape with your life and your good name. It may seem unfair to expect you to be primed when you’re fresh off the plane, jetlagged, but you’ll get used to these questions.

Oh BOY you’ll get used to them.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. Name my Name permalink
    May 8, 2009 10:12 pm

    Why are you in Japan then?

    • May 8, 2009 10:14 pm

      Why are you anonymous?

      But to answer your question – “Japan is a fascinating country and I wanted to see it for myself.” Yay. 10 points to me.

      • Name My Name permalink
        May 11, 2009 12:12 pm

        これだから外人は駄目だって言われるんだろ。バカ!

      • May 11, 2009 2:50 pm

        For those who don’t speak or read Japanese, the above comment says, “This is why people say foreigners are awful. You asshole!”

        If you speak enough English to read my site, why attack me in Japanese? If you don’t speak enough English to comment in English, I think you seriously misunderstood that post. But I know nothing about you except you’re posting from Los Angeles, because you choose to stay anonymous (though I have your IP address, of course). How very rude and cowardly.

        The post is a joke. That’s why there’s a tag saying “SATIRE” at the beginning. You’ve either misunderstood the English, or the sentiment. So grow a sense of humour.

        You use an interesting passive verb in your comment – “言われる”, meaning “it is said that [foreigners are awful]“. Who says that? So far, only YOU say that. If you think foreigners are awful, be brave enough to say so. Don’t hide behind “people say…”.

        And “THIS is why people say…” This post is why people are xenophobes? No. They are xenophobes because they are ignorant.

        This is the end of this conversation. Further offensive or anonymous posts will be deleted.

        私のサイトを読めるほど英語が出来るのに、なぜ日本語で攻撃するのですか?
        もし、英語でコメントを書ききれなかったのであれば、たぶんきちんと理解できずに、勘違いして読まれたのでは?
        でも、あなたはロサンゼルスにいること以外、あなた自身のことは何も知らせず、とても失礼です。
        このポストは冗談のつもりで書きました。 だから最初に〔SATIRE〕と書いていました。
        この意味を理解していないのか、またはジョークをジョークととらえきれないのか・・・

        外人は駄目と言われる と書かれましたけど、誰に言われるのですか? あなたが言っているだけですよね?
        もし、あなたがそう思ったのであれば、誰かのせいにせず自分の口で言えばいいじゃないですか。

        これだから外人は・・・とありますが、こういうコメントをするから外人嫌いな人たちが出来ると思われているのですか? いいえ、そうではなく無知な人たちが外国人嫌いなだけだと思います。

        これでこの会話は最後にします。 今後、匿名でコメントしたり、不快感を与えるようなメッセージは、すべて消去いたします。

  2. Hear hear permalink
    May 9, 2009 1:23 am

    This is so true…

    Omphaloskepsis, huh…

  3. kalleboo permalink
    May 9, 2009 1:30 am

    So when’s part two in the series on how to deal with awkward train ride english lessons? Including tips for situations such as 「When do you use the phrase 『How’s them apples?』」

  4. Ian permalink
    May 20, 2009 3:42 pm

    Was Basil Fawlty part Japanese?

  5. Sam permalink
    May 25, 2009 12:24 pm

    Very amusing post. Thanks for that, it just made my day.

  6. June 26, 2009 11:12 pm

    I think such things aren’t unique to Japan, for example in America the question ‘How are you doing?’ or similar. People ask this all the time – but often don’t even expect an answer. It’s just some wierd social frill.

    Japanese people want to know if you can eat natto. Scottish people want to know if you can eat black pudding (if you’re non-British).

    One of my America friends told me of a Japanese exchange student who stayed with a local family. The local family asked her which country she liked best – and were unbelievably shocked when she said Japan. (This was somewhere in Wisconsin) They found it hard to believe anyone, having experienced America, that anyone wouldn’t vastly prefer it to where ever they’d come from 😀

    That said, I do think there are differences between countries, they’re just not that big. (Japan, Singapore tend to be very safe places, Saturday night in the middle of any city in England tends to be full of the violent and drunk)

    • Sarah permalink
      July 4, 2010 11:10 am

      I have to say Scottish people and black pudding are a bit different from Japanese people and natto – in Scotland we wouldn’t normally bring up whether you could eat balck pudding/use a knife and fork when you first meet someone, as seems to be traditional here in Japan :p I’m Scottish and living in Tamana (near Kumamoto) at the moment 🙂

  7. December 16, 2009 10:42 pm

    This is awesome – I stumbled upon your site when I was looking for that article you linked (the link is dead now, unfortunately) about how English in high school classrooms was supposed to be done entirely in English. I’ve since been reading the rest of your posts, and have found myself nodding in agreement, laughing, and sighing at most of it! Good work!

    (Oh, and great response to the anonymous one who thought he could be all smug and reply to you in Japanese!)

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