Ask James: Working in Japan

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Photo by Yasushi Matsuoka

Our resident working-in-Japan writer, James Winovich, answers your questions on everything from finding a job to networking to having more fun during school lunches and more. Got a question you’d like to ask James? Email it to editorial@gplusmedia.com.

Working in Japan?

Hi James,

I talk to my coworkers in Japanese, but they consistently answer in English (even though their English is far from perfect). Every. Single. Time. As I’m trying to become a real part of the workplace while practicing my Japanese at the same time, this is quite frustrating. Any suggestions on how to encourage them to use their native language with me?

— Frustrated Linguist

Dear Frustrated,

I know this feeling.

I had one school where — no matter how hard I tried — the staff just would not talk to me in Japanese. I would enter the teachers’ room  with a genki, “Ohayo,” only to be greeted with: “Good morning!” I would ask the vice-principal, “Nan ji desuka?” He would answer with “Three, to two,” or some other combination of numbers that made up the time.

It bothered me for a while, but in the end, I remembered my position and what that meant. I was an ALT, an assistant language teacher. One of the hats you wear as an ALT is “cultural ambassador.” I wasn’t there to learn Japanese. I was there to bring English into their school on multiple fronts and to help people have fun while hopefully learning to speak English a bit better.

So, I (begrudgingly) stopped using Japanese unless it was necessary for business reasons. Of course, I would also use my budding Japanese to help students who had a tough English question from time to time as well. And also to talk about Pokémon.

Like I said, only when necessary.

For this reason, I would say if you’re a teacher, it’s best to dance to the rhythm of your school. If everyone wants to speak English with you, great! Give them what they want. Greet other teachers with a “Good morning” and leave with “See you tomorrow!” Enjoy your role of teaching English to many, many people, because hey, that’s what you signed up for. (I also would like to add that EVERY school has a few great Japanese language partners if you look hard enough. I’m looking at you, librarians and secretaries.)

If you aren’t a teacher, that changes things a bit. If you’re in the average Japanese office, people will generally speak to you in whatever language they think will get the job done with the least hassle and wasted time.

So, if people are only speaking to you in English, you need to keep responding in Japanese until you have proven that Japanese is the fastest way for them to accomplish their goals.

This may take persistence, hardcore practice, and considerable study outside of work, but if you really want to use only Japanese in a non-English teaching environment and have the skills to make it happen, you just need to work on proving to everyone that Japanese is truly the best way to accomplish the company’s goals.

I’m confident that most people in Japan would love to work with you in Japanese, as long as you can first prove that it’s actually the fastest way to get things done. But if they’re trying to practice their English just like you’re trying to practice your Japanese… you might be out of luck.

What do you think? How do you use Japanese at work? Should its use be avoided if you work in a language school? Share your thoughts in the comments! 

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Refusing to be a bitter gaijin since 2007.

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