In our last article, Alison noted how lazy we Brits are when it comes to getting a handle on the native language when preparing to travel abroad. From my own experience I’ve seen just how extensive this can be and I’m guilty as charged.
In both 2011 and 2012 I travelled to Tokyo for a combined total of 5 weeks. As a generally reserved chap, I wanted to try and make sure that I could be polite and avoid any basic cultural faux pas. So I learnt how to say “please”, “thank you”, “excuse me” & gave myself a crash course in Japanese numeracy and most important of all, ensured I could order a beer. A bit of light reading from a guide book and off I went.
I was travelling with a couple of friends who had been to Japan a few times before. Their knowledge of the language was better than mine, so I figured if it came to it, I would rely on them (it turns out that knowing a little more than nothing, is still pretty useless, big surprise).
When we touched down in Narita, it was soon clear that any notion of ‘getting by’ with my new found language skills *cough* was hugely misguided at best and downright morose at worst (again, not really a surprise). Picking up our all-access rail cards from a small office where we had a completely English conversation baring a token “Thanks and good bye” in Japanese. We were thoroughly put to shame by an aging American couple who managed to have a seemingly reasonable conversation with the conductor next to us. I could already tell that aside from being hopelessly unprepared linguistically I was probably going to end up being much better at charades when I got home.
That said, with Tokyo being the multicultural epicentre that it is, it certainly wasn’t as bad as it could have been. After a few nights frequenting the same bar (we are English after all) we started getting to know the owner (a great guy called Masashi Sanada), his English was good but limited, a thousand times better than our pitiful knowledge of Japanese at any rate. Once this connection was made however, communication became a daily point of entertainment, a few nights at the bar turned into every night at the bar. He would introduce us to his regulars who were eager to try out their English and would sit, play cards and chat with us for hours. It also allowed us to pick up a lot of phrases in Japanese that weren’t in the guide book that didn’t sound forced or awkward. So while we were still painfully ignorant in terms of language, we did manage to achieve a degree of politeness (well, we really did try our best).
The locals took particular enjoyment from teaching us phonetically how to introduce ourselves as “Stupid ignorant English tourists” which repeatedly got smiles and claps from the strangers we encountered. It seems the British sense of humour resonates well with the Japanese. A smile can help relieve a lot of the frustration due to a language barrier and buying a round of drinks for all the patrons helps even more 😀
One particularly funny moment I recall from our last trip in 2012, was catching the last train on a Saturday night from Shibuya, to where we were staying in Shinjuku. If you have heard the stories about ‘pushers’, rail staff that actually push and squeeze people onto the trains, I can confirm they are all true. The train was so crowded, if you got in with your arms by your side there is no way you would be able to raise them again until you got off, for this reason we couldn’t hold on to anything to steady ourselves and had to rely on the fact that we were all so squashed in, that we wouldn’t fall. As the train lurched away from the station the motion caused a wave which resulted in most of the people in the carriage literally lying on the person next to them. The Japanese adopt the same rules as London commuters do on the tube, that is no small talk or eye contact what-so-ever. We continued our short journey, I found myself sitting on a complete stranger’s lap, with a slightly older gentleman in a suit sitting on mine. I don’t know what either of them looked like as I could barely move my head without head butting my neighbour. There was absolute silence which I found inherently funny, given the compromising situation we found ourselves in. It got to a point where I couldn’t hold myself back anymore and said to my friend, sandwiched a foot or so away, in a slightly exasperated, louder than necessary tone: “I think I just got pregnant”. A ripple of laughter broke out through the carriage as those with a knowledge of English giggled and translated the joke to their friends.
Another instance occurred when my friends and I went to a different bar (ed. shock horror, there’s a theme developing), where the staff couldn’t speak English at all. Luckily for us we could now muddle through with beer related phrases and our now standard introduction of “We are stupid ignorant English tourists” at the ready. It seems every Japanese we met in Tokyo, had an electronic translator to hand. We spent a good few hours getting to know the staff and when the conversation moved away from alcohol based requests we had many laughs trying to decipher the machine translations from the ‘British’ friendly device. Then it turned to Karaoke where diplomatic negotiations began to break down (Strangely, their renditions of English songs were usually much better than our own attempts, even when they couldn’t speak the language).
Towards the end of the last trip, we were sat in our new friend’s bar (we don’t have a problem, honestly) when the unmistakable sound of a Birmingham accent wafted in from the street. Two middle aged couples walked in and began to order from the counter in exactly the same way they would in their local Pub, no Japanese at all and a reasonably gruff ‘thanks’ when they received their order. It was at this moment that it really dawned on me just how bad we are as a nation when it comes to making an effort. From my own experience just trying to engage with people in this sort of scenario is so much more rewarding. I also can’t help but feel that we are the first to be critical of anyone visiting England from abroad who doesn’t take the time to make an effort with the language.
Even though my friends and I were arguably not much better in terms of language preparation, our efforts to try and communicate (flawed as they were) helped us meet a lot of people we can now call friends. We, in turn, got more out of the experience as the people we met took us to places we just wouldn’t have known about had we adopted the apparent go-to insular British method. Moreover though, It’s a huge testament to the Japanese people how friendly and accommodating they are of “Stupid ignorant English tourists”. Needless to say, I will be brushing up significantly for the next time.
All images © Jonathan Henchman, 2013