A Conversation in a Smokey Bar

It strikes me as interesting in Japan how no one speaks English to me first. The first assumption from all Japanese  I’ve spoken with is to speak Japanese first and then English after I’ve proven myself woefully incompetent in their language. I asked a couple friends what they thought of this. What follows is a rough breakdown of what they said. For the safety of the innocent and guilty and myself alike their names have been changed.


Guybrush Threepwood:  They do it because they want to show you how superior they are. If they downgrade their language they have the social advantage!

Anastasia Beaverhausen: That’s ridiculous. Japanese people are polite in the extreme. They are being polite and assume you are capable of speaking with them rather than not because that is the polite thing to do.

Guybrush Threepwood: I find that assumption to be shockingly naive. Japanese people are not being polite; it is a disguised cultural norm to avoid potentially embarrassing situations. By starting in Japanese, you look silly failing to speak Japanese and they save face if their English isn’t good enough.

Anastasia Beaverhausen: That is incredibly racist to suggest that they are being “sneaky Asians” by calling it “disguised”. Not everyone of Asian descent is trying to be underhanded and get the better of you.

Guybrush Threepwood: I’m not being racist! This is a social coping system that avoids anyone from being embarrassed.

Anastasia Beaverhausen: That’s just another racist concept: Japanese obsession with embarrassment. You’re probably about to say this is avoid ritual suicide aren’t you?

Guybrush Threepwood: Well…it would be silly of me to do that now wouldn’t it?

Anastasia Beaverhausen: I knew it! You racist pig! How could…


At this point the conversation had devolved rather appropriately assisted by alcohol and we were all  granted a spectacular view of the gutter. The point, however, was understood.

Potential racism aside, there is value to the suggestion that it’s some kind of social embarrassment avoidance strategy. This is after all at least part of the purpose of euphemisms: by changing the embarrassing part of the scenario we can avoid a lot of potential problems which in my mind speaks to a lot of Japanese culture.

Having worked here for over a year now I’ve gotten a lot of insight into Japanese culture. And in simple terms it’s an attitude of avoidance that permeates throughout all facets of life. I suppose that wasn’t very simple, let me try again:  Nobody likes being embarrassed and Japan has elevated it to a fact of their culture.  People at work will always ask first before assuming anything because if it goes wrong they get embarrassed. Why get embarrassed when they can avoid it in the first place and protect you from it as well? It’s enlightened really, a social contract that helps everyone.

Or at least it’s another possibility for explaining this crazy country where very little seems to make sense most of the time.

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