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The 5 Types of Conversations You Will Have in Japan

Overall, Japan has allowed me to meet all kinds of people, good and bad. As someone with an ongoing fascination with how the human mind works, that is something I will always be grateful for.

By 9 min read

Next month it will be 9 years since I first moved to Tokyo and over the course of those 9 years I’ve met a lot of great people. I’ve also met some truly awful people and also probably more than my fair share of people I wish I had never met.

However, for budding amateur psychologists such as myself, the chance to meet and to learn from new people is always fascinating.

As in any kind of experiment, be it social or scientific, I have noticed various repeating patterns. In this context I am referring to those conversations we find ourselves having over and over again, and the types of people we continually encounter. Of course, generalizing people can be dangerous, however I think most of you who have been in Japan for any length of time will have encountered the types of people.

From my own experience, here are some of the most common scenarios, conversations and people I have encountered and I how I chose to deal with them. You may of course totally disagree with what I say here, but in the end debate is healthy, and hopefully we can provoke some discussion today.

The “Oh your Japanese is really good” conversation

If, like me, you work in a predominantly Japanese working environment, you’ll come across this one quite a lot. The minute you utter a few barely coherent words of broken, heavily accented Japanese, suddenly your coworkers fawn over you and tell you your Japanese is excellent. Quite why anybody would find this irritating is beyond me, but from what I have read and witnessed down the years it seems that quite a few foreigners in Japan take umbrage at this. They find it patronizing and condescending. In order to get some perspective, let’s see what happens when you reverse the roles.

Imagine you’re working in an office in your home town, and they bring in “the new guy”. They tell you he’s from some far away country and that he doesn’t speak English. Yet, he makes the effort to try and engage you in conversation. Despite the fact he can barely string a sentence together what are you going to say other than “hey, your English is really good”?

Your colleagues will compliment your Japanese for two reasons. First, because they want to encourage you to speak more, and secondly because they are probably feeling awkward and aren’t really sure how to engage you in conversation and, lacking any source of common interest, have taken an easy option. So I say lighten up, see it for what it is, a compliment, and take it as such.

The “My Japanese is so much better than yours” conversation.

This one is one that really gets on my nerves I have to be honest. Language learning, like all kinds of study is easier for some than others. Some people can pick up Japanese in no time and be basically fluent in 2 or 3 years. Others, like me, take longer.

I was inundated with a barrage of “you’ve been in Japan for so long, you should have level 1 by now!

I took the level 4 Japanese exam last month, and hopefully I’ve passed it. But if not, I’ll go back in again in December. And yet, I recall when I made a post last year about taking the level 5 test, I was inundated with a barrage of “you’ve been in Japan for so long, you should have level 1 by now!” type comments.

I’ve seen this similar kind of bullying, superior attitude on numerous other comment boards too. Anyone with even a shred of educational know-how should see that this is not helpful. I see it in daily life too. People who rather than be grateful for their own language abilities and supporting those who wish to ascend to their level seem instead to be determined to put down anyone they perceive to be below them.

It’s elitist, it’s arrogant in the extreme and I have absolutely no time for these kind of people. Let people learn at their own pace, and support them where you can. Remember when you were in the same position they are now. Does putting people down actually help anyone?

The “Japan is not as good as it used to be” conversation

As I mentioned in a previous blog, from my own experience long term residents in Japan seem to break down into two types. There are those who have fully embraced life here and have set up a home, a family, a stable job and they seem very content and happy in their lives. Then, conversely, there are those who have become jaded, cynical and bitter about the whole experience, yet as much as they gripe about life here, they never seem to want to leave.

When I first arrived in Japan, of course practically every foreigner I met was more experienced in living in Japan than I was, so I listened to everything they had to say. Now, some year later, I find myself approaching the conversation from the opposite side. Now, I am the senior, the “sempai” as it were, whom these new arrivals look up to. I love Japan, and whilst I can see its various flaws, my impression of the country is still overwhelmingly positive.

This is the image I try to convey to any younger people who ask my opinion. This flies in the face of the people I am talking about now. They will tell you how back in the 80s and early 90s English teachers used to earn double what they do now, and how Japan’s economy is collapsing and prices are ridiculously high now, Japan is such a racist country, etc. In all honesty, these days I do my best not to engage these people in conversation. Hyperbole about wages aside, the entire world is in an economic slump right now, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

Provided that you avoid the less reputable companies, Japan still offers a competitive entry level wage to new teachers, and the standard of living is amongst the best in the world. There are of course some unscrupulous operators out there, but if you educate yourself about what to look for and what to avoid, then you’ll be fine. Other industries in Japan also offer very competitive packages to newcomers.

As for racism, well I hardly think anyone form the UK or USA is in a position to lecture anyone about racial intolerance, given some of the rampant anti-foreign extremism currently manifest among a very vocal minority in those countries.

As someone who has had issues with depression in the past, I don’t need the kind of negativity these people bring, and as such I honestly think they are best avoided. Japan is not the land of milk and honey, but neither is it the barren, desolate wasteland these people make it out to be.

As with all things in life, you’ll get out of your Japan experience what you put into it. Quite frankly, a lot of these types I have met seem to be blaming the country for their own personal failures and social inadequacies.

The “if you don’t like it, go home” mentality

Ok, so this may sound contradictory based on what I’ve just said in point three about those who whine incessantly about Japan, yet will never leave. However, what I’m talking about here is their polar opposite. Those who are so wrapped up in their perfect fantasy of life in Japan, that they take any comment or critique on Japanese culture or lifestyle as some kind of personal affront.

Their predictable response to any argument they are losing is always: “well, if you don’t like it, go back to your own country.” Apart from the fact that this sounds painfully like something a US Republican presidential candidate, or UKIP member would say, complete with its uncomfortable racial undertones, it is also a totally pointless and instantly refutable argument.

Anyone who chooses to live in Japan has as much right as another to express their concerns, their complaints and their worries. As I have said several times, I love living in Japan, but I will not delude myself that this place is perfect. It is certainly not above criticism in a number of areas.

There are various aspects of Japanese law that are discriminatory, there are numerous flaws and loopholes in Japan’s employment regulations that I don’t like, and there are also some social behaviors that although widely practiced in Japan, I find objectionable. Highlighting these, and challenging them in a constructive and progressive way is, I believe, a vital part of the acclimatization process.

The “how do they do this in your country” conversation

This last one is, on the face of it at least, far less problematic than my previous points. However, it’s still a difficult one to address. My colleagues and Japanese friends often ask me things like “Is (insert generic untalented musical act of the day here) popular in your country?”, or “Do people in your country like this Japanese food?” and so on.

For starters, I haven’t actually lived in Scotland for almost a decade. I have spent more of my adult working life abroad than I have in Scotland. In many ways, I identify myself as more Japanese then Scottish these days, if not in terms of nationality then certainly in terms of outlook and attitude to daily life. Again also, I am wary of applying a generalization. “Do people in Scotland like Okonomiyaki?”

In all honesty, most of them probably don’t even know what it is. So instead, of just making up an answer, I try to be honest. Unlike many of my colleagues, I don’t see a problem with sometimes saying, I don’t know or I don’t understand. Instead of answering the question, I instead sometimes try to take it in a different, and hopefully enlightening direction. For example: “I don’t think okonomiyaki is well known in Scotland, but many people there like haggis. Have you ever heard of haggis?”

Overall, Japan has allowed me to meet all kinds of people, good and bad. As someone with an ongoing fascination with how the human mind works, that is something I will always be grateful for. Long may it continue.

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  • Andrew says:

    Liam, great post. I think all you observations were pretty spot on and I’ve experienced most of them myself. I think these discussion could be made of any foreigner in any other country, but it’s more apparent here in Japan given the differences in culture between Westerns and Japanese.

  • Christopher Warren says:

    ‘As for racism, well I hardly think anyone form the UK or USA is in a
    position to lecture anyone about racial intolerance, given some of the
    rampant anti-foreign extremism currently manifest among a very vocal
    minority in those countries’

    Aside from the fact this is classic tu quoque fallacy, i love how the author acts as if some of us aren’t aware of the LOOONG history of imperialism and racism in our perspective countries, and/ or aren’t actively fighting/criticizing it……. be that as it may, the author really needs to brush up on basic sociology before making a comment like this. Even if within our society we are the majority and enjoy the social privileges in our home countries…….. this isn’t our home country, and we aren’t the majority. The social power dynamics favor the Japanese over here, and just because we from countries that have problems with racism themselves doesn’t invalidate our concerns or experiences.

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      The simple fact is, both the UK and the US have huge problems with racism, far more so than the actions of a tiny minority of bigots here in Japan, and I simply believe those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Contrary to your assertion, there are plenty of ignorant and uneducated people in both the UK and US who are completely unaware of their past and indeed their ongoing intolerance and imperialism. The rise of parties like UKIP in the UK and the tea party in the US serves only to demonstrate this. Pseudo-intellectual sociological posturing aside, you seemed to have missed the basic point of what i was trying to say.

      • Sean John says:

        It’s interesting how the two most multicultural countries in the West “have huge problems with racism”.

  • Robert Avery says:

    I agree with you about the many conversations. I am older and now wiser. I came here many years ago in the military, went back to the USA and worked until I retired with a pension. My family also comes from Scotland, I have often thought of playing the bagpipes here but do not want to scare the neighbors. I met my Japanese born wife in the USA and she said she wanted to move back to Japan, for a variety of reasons as all of her family was in Japan. We live on Okinawa, Her mother lives here, her father lives in Kanagawa. She has family in Tokyo and Osaka but likes the peaceful living here. We travel all over the world filming but we are slowing down to enjoy life. She wants to build a new house and I want a boat. I have ran into many of the same situations as a majority of our friends outside of family have moved here from the mainland so our friends are from many places and share one thing in common. We love it here. It is my friends in the USA that are most curious, some who accuse me of being a traitor for leaving California. I just laugh as one friend’s family left Armenia as immigrants to the USA. I have a former friend From Great Britain that bashes Japan and the USA on a non stop basis so I just quit talking to him. Easier to ignore than tell him to go back to bloody England. I have had American friends living in Japan who left after a few years, then returned after seeing how bad the economy had become. Yes there are many differences but as everywhere you learn to live with them or be unhappy. I prefer to live with them as each day coming back to our home I see the beautiful East China Sea and as I sit and type this, I can look out our front wind and see the beautiful ocean and see the island of Ie Jima on the Horizon. I watch the ships travel up and down and our view is very spectacular. Another friend from Wales lives in Yokohama and is a writer for the Japan Times. As do other friends from other parts of the world who live in Japan. I avoid negative attitudes and those that brag about their proficiency in Japanese. I speak German, French, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Spanish but those languages are just confusing my ability to really be proficient in Japanese but I like it that I understand Japanese better than I speak it as it gives me cause to learn more and forget less of the languages that I do not use.

  • Emilia Altera says:

    I am German and live in Germany. You can have all those kinds of conversations here, too. I think it is no japanese specific thing… Last week I met some japanese guy doing conversation 5 with him 😀

  • Claire Stanley says:

    Interesting article, I’ve just arrived here in the last week or so to be an ALT so I look forward to having all these conversations! I may possibly have had a couple of them already…. I’m Scottish too btw. I tried to explain haggis to a couple of Japanese teachers when I went round my schools for the first time. Then someone looked up a picture of haggis on his phone which made it really hard to convince people that haggis is oishii! Please excuse this comment being on a complete tangent to the article.

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Thanks Claire and welcome to Japan.
      As for the Haggis thing, theres a popular Japanese dish called Horumon which uses a lot of the same innards as Haggis, so if you tell people it is just like a spicy minced horumon they will understand it better and probably be more eager to try.

  • Liam Carrigan says:

    Thanks for commenting Barnaby. Whether the Japanese government want to admit it or not, increased immigration is necessary in the not to distant future. Japan will adapt and hopefully it will finally bring an end to the collective mindset you speak of.

  • Liam Carrigan says:

    Thanks Tess, i’m glad you enjoyed it.

  • jamesAD says:

    Not a bad article, but I really take exception to the author’s veiled portrayal of UKIP as a party of right-wing racists, which it is not. It IS a party that is voicing the concerns of the vast majority of British people over the impact that over a decade of unrestrained immigration has had on our small island. That’s not rascism – it’s a legitimate debate. UKIP got over 4 millions votes in the last election – considerably more, I might add, than the Scottish Nationalist Party.

    • Robert Avery says:

      You are correct in much of your response but I question how many real non Scots voted in the last election. Too many outsiders moved into Scotland. One reason in Japan, you cannot vote unless you are a citizen. In the USA, voter fraud has never been higher.

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      James, thanks for commenting. Just for the record, theres nothing veiled about what i intended to say. UKIP are a party of racist, ignorant bigots, who prey upon the misinformed, albeit well-intentioned insecurities of people like yourself.
      They certainly do not speak for me, nor do they speak for the majority of decent, educated British people. Lets take England as an example, a country of some 55 million people. For argument sake lets be generous and say 40 million of them can vote. UKIP took 4 million votes. Roughly 10%. Hardly a majority is it? And if we are being honest this was little more than a reaction to the political impotence of the Labour Party than anything else.
      As for your dig at the SNP, well that really isnt a valid comparison is it? A party taking more than 50% of the vote in a country of around 4 million voters, compared with less than 10% of the vote in a country of 55 million. Really??
      And if they are going to call themselves the UK Independence Party, how come they only seem interested in courting English votes?
      This is a party whose own MEP said “immigrants should go back to Bongo Bongo Land”. This is a party whose leader said he was “uncomfortable” with foreign languages being spoken on UK public transport. This is a party populated by mostly former conservatives, right wing extemists and various other political opportunists.
      Every major study into immigration in the UK has shown that immigration has been a good thing. Despite what you read in the daily mail, immigrants consistently put more into the economy than they take out. They create jobs, they enrich our society and they are 5 times less likely to claim benefits than a UK native.
      I stand by my assertion. UKIP are racist, and they seek to profit from the fearmongering of the right wing media and the irrational insecurities of the bigotted, the uneducated and the ignorant.

      • Sean John says:

        Haha Liam Carrigan needs a trigger warning! I’m not surprised you think the UK has a racism problem then if you think people are willing to vote for a (supposedly) racist party, just to react to political impotence in the Labour party. Also, ALL political parties prey upon misinformed “insecurities”.
        I think you’re being overly politically correct. One guy from the party makes a culturally insensitive remark, that was stupid but only hurt a few feelings, and suddenly the party is racist? If the UK’s immigration laws were a bit more stringent things like the Rotherham scandal might have been caught a bit earlier, or maybe even prevented.
        You’re projecting your own notions of racism and bigotry onto UKIP, and swallowing the media garbage written about them too. Immigration is a serious issue in Europe at the moment. According to the BBC there are 800,000 illegal immigrants expected in Germany this year. There are more who are going elsewhere in the EU (UK and Sweden being the top other destinations). That’s a culture-threatening amount, and they’re not going through the legal channels, making a mockery of our legal systems. It’s not racist or bigoted to oppose accommodating all those people.
        To counter your argument, where I am, immigrants send €795million a year out of the country, which is suffering economically. There’s no cultural enrichment where I am apart from a few Dawah centres, and Islam is hardly what we want at this point seeing as the country is still recovering from the Catholic church’s own reign of terror.
        You’re totally projecting all over UKIP. If you’re educated and support UKIP you’re a racist by your logic. I’m from the UK originally and support UKIP, but also have huge appreciation for plenty of cultures that aren’t my own. But I’m also strongly against mass immigration. Valuing your own culture isn’t racist, though it commonly is perceived as being so as nationalism is quite taboo in Europe. Funnily enough I think this is why Japan is often called a racist country, which I disagree with.

  • Joakim Johansson says:

    Point number 2 is me in a nutshell, I love the sound of Japanese and want to learn it so badly, so I am here in Japan to study the language but it is super slow and I have to stay in classes when the others move on and I get frustrated over the minimum knowledge I have in the language.
    So every time I here point number one I get happy and embraced instead ha ha.
    Good blog.

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Thanks Joakim,
      With Japanese, persistence is the key. You will get there in the end. Best of luck with your studies.

  • maulinator says:

    I have had each of these conversations in the US, except for the second one. For whatever reason the “my English is better than yours” conversation does not happen in the US. I am fluent with no accent so there would be no point.
    For conversation 3 you are correct. Many people blame the country for their own personal failures and inadequacies. Just like Americans who blame Obama for everything. The economy sucks shit and you make due. Get a grip. Complaining about it will get you nowhere fast.
    For counversation 4 I agree this is a cop out. But something is bothering you so much and you are complaining about it constantly and making yourlife that unbearable then leave. No one is stopping you. But I think the people who get this response in a conversation tend to be people who are complaining for the sake of complaining. It is a way of saying “your complaining is getting on our nerves, STFU”
    But I have also had the conversations: “Wow, your English is really good!” in Japan. The “Where are you from” “I am from the US, New York to be more specific”,”No where are you really from” conversation in Japan. These are less annoying, more racist.

    • Robert Avery says:

      Being from California, and going to the South, I was continually irritated by those that continually said “you people from California talk so funny”. Really? I like New York, I can understand a person from New York better than one from Boston but it is just regional. Bigots come in all colors and from everywhere, just unhappy people who cannot control their own lives. My family Mother’s family came from Scotland, My father’s side from Canada but I was born in Minnesota. I wonder if I had stayed there how my English would have sounded. Just a fun pun intended, no jab at Minnesota.

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Thanks for commenting. Its always interesting to see an alternative perspective with these issues. The “where are you really from?” is one that i can definitely understand, though as a white male, I have not personally been subjected to it. I imagine it must be very unpleasant and it certainly could be interpreted as racist.

  • Richard Solomon says:

    Sometimes the 5th kind of question is motivated by a genuine interest in the differences between your home/native country and Japan. Sometimes it is simply an attempt, albeit an annoying one, at making conversation.

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      I would tend to agree with you Richard. I think, more often than not, it is just social awkwardness more than anything else that can create potential flashpoints in these situations.

  • Liam Carrigan says:

    Thanks for commenting Mark, hope all is well back in Scotland and you’ll have the chance to visit Japan again sometime.

  • Liam Carrigan says:

    I think spending any amount of time in a foreign country gives you a different perspective on racism. Having gone from enjoying all the trappings of “white privilege” to now being a minority myself has certainly been an enlightening experience

  • Liam Carrigan says:

    Thanks for commenting Emma. For the avoidance of any misunderstanding i am not saying these experiences are unique to Japan. Rather, as a non-Japanese who has lived here a number of years I am simply sharing my experiences as I, as a foreigner in Japan, have percieved them. Had I lived elsewhere other than my country of origin may well have had similar experiences.

  • Stremon says:

    That’s a great post, I think you have a good and realistic view and the points you are mentioning.
    You don’t do like many people, just making a list of things they like/dislike without trying to moderate it.

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Thanks, im glad you enjoyed it. I always try to give my opinions in an honest way and also to back up what i am saying with balance and fairness.

  • 深夜雨 says:

    Good points, good read. However, Japan is not the only country to attack with this kind of conversations. Now, I can’t speak for all the countries in the world but as far as East Asian countries go – the behaviour is fairly the same. However, I do not remember getting same type of conversations while living in the states or England… I wonder if this type of behaviour is area based thing..?

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Thats an interesting idea. However i have to say that when I lived in Hong Kong for 3 years i didnt really experience many of these kinds of conversations. But Hong Kong, given its colonial past, is probably a special case in the asian context.

  • Liam Carrigan says:

    Thank you. I hope you are enjoying Tokyo life so far 🙂

  • Holly Bronte says:

    this was great to read especially when you were talking about the jlpt. i want to take my n5 in december but every blog or video on youtube i watch says how easy it is and that it is pointless. yet it is tricky for me and my japanese teacher keeps telling me i am doing really well. it’s frustrating as it undermines our triumphs with our learning and makes them seem pitiful when we are trying really hard. especially as i live in england and don’t have any japanese friends, vocab etc. take a while to master. i wish people who were on these blogs were more encouraging and in the ‘tip’ videos actually explained things we need to know (e.g. test format, how to answer ques, type of ques) instead of dismissing it as ‘easy’ and pointless. thank you, you gave me a boost 🙂

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Holly, as someone who passed the N5 last December, i congratulate you on your hardwork so far and wish you all the best for the test in December. Ignore the negative, hateful people who may talk you down. The N5 is a difficult exam for those who are new to formal language study and even now, i still struggle with some of the grammar. Be proud of what you have acheieved thus far, ignore the haters and keep going 🙂

  • Chuck H says:

    Liam, I think this is a great article, as I think it highlights the root of most social dysfunctions in Japan that involve or are experienced by foreigners in Japan… the foreigners themselves. In every of your 5 examples, the native is not the problem, the foreigner is. In your first example, who cares why Japanese are complimentary? Foreigners (Americans, at least, which I am one), are so quick to find a reason to be offended, even in the face of someone being nice to them. In your next 3 examples, it’s the foreigner that’s being a jerk. In the last example, you essentially have someone taking an interest in engaging you and where you’re from. Oh, how offensive! I read clearly in your piece that you find all this to be as ridiculous as I find it to be, so I’m offering nothing more than what I think is the summary of your well written article. I lived in Nagoya in the late 80s, early 90s. I was the kid making 10,000 yen/hour teaching English with no more than the high school education I was actively finishing. I thought life in Japan was wonderful. I hope to work there again someday. I find the culture and approach to others to be refreshing, generally free of the “chip on their shoulder” of most westerners. In fact, while first arriving in Japan, I was in shock by all the differences, feeling completely isolated without the first language skill, and wanted nothing more than to return to the comfortable crib from which I came. But upon my return to the states, I was no less shocked by the jerky attitudes of nearly everyone here. No place is perfect. And I have no doubt that Japan has changed a lot since the 25+ years ago that I left it. Nonetheless, I for one, fell in love with the place and am sure – given the things I loved it for that seem to persist to this day, I’d love it no less if I moved there tomorrow. Thank you for writing this as I think its moral is that one should look more at themselves than at others when interested in realizing why they’re not happy… advice that is solid no matter where you’re from, or where you live.

    • Wilbur says:

      Thanks Chuck,

      I couldn’t agree more and you, too, put it perfectly.

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Thanks for commenting Chuck, im really glad that you see what I was trying to achieve with this post. I think not just in Japan but in most instances of living abroad, we could all get on a lot better if we look at ourselves before we criticize our environment.

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