“Why did you come to Japan?”

I’ve just finished reading The Inland Sea, the classic work of “travel fiction” (author’s description) by Donald Richie. Near the end of the book (published in 1971), he is surprised by an old woman, who asks him, in the course of a chance conversation, “Why did you come?”

” No one had ever asked me that before. How did I come – that I sometimes heard; or, since I had come, how did I like it, that I always heard; but why, why had I come? – I didn’t know what to answer.” (p. 239)

Now, in my experience (begun a good 18 years after this book was first published), a foreigner in Japan rarely gets away from an introductory chat in a bar, bed or classroom without being asked that question (How would sound silly now, even in Japanese). It’s just another way – so beloved in Japan and so necessary when speaking the language – of categorizing someone you are meeting for the first time (unlike English, Japanese even has a common word for such a person: shoutaimen, 招待面). We haven’t had to do this in English since we stopped using thee and thou, so it takes some getting used to (and some people never do).

Uncharitable foreign residents (and I, on a bad day) have remarked that everyone in Japan studies English in junior high and high school and at the end of six years, most people know exactly six questions. Of course, this is more of a comment on the system than on the students (on my part, at any rate). But the very sameness of the Six Holy Questions (contrary to the popular wisdom, English is not taught like math in Japan – it’s taught like catechism) can sometimes make one reluctant to go to a party with too many strangers. Most gaijin, though, never stay long enough to acquire the luxury of old friends, so many functions are spent answering, truthfully or otherwise, the following:

1.– Where are you from? Fair enough, although the information is rarely used again. When relating a story, most Japanese revert to the default, “a foreigner,” or “my foreign friend,” regardless of whether the person in question is American, French or Brazilian ( to make any sense of the story, you always have to cut in and ask, “where was he from?” – from the look you get, you might just as well have asked, “what was his shoe size?”) . EXPECTED ANSWER: An English-speaking country, but any Western European one will do in a pinch.

You might also be asked which city you’re from, but if your hometown’s not on the designated package-tour checklist, you’ll get that blank look (if you’re Canadian, opt for Vancouver, Toronto or Niagara Falls: Halifax is below the radar). If you turn the same question on the interviewer, he or she will often look at you indignantly and say, “I’m from Japan!” (although why it never occurs to anyone to just say, as I would expect them to say, “I’m from Osaka,” – or Nagasaki, or wherever – is beyond me). EXPECTED ANSWER: The biggest city in your country. Ottawa and Canberra often do not scan.

2.– What do you do? – A high school kid asked me this once – in a classroom, and I’m sure he was utterly incapable of irony. It will be assumed that you’re a teacher, but diplomat, journalist, or flight attendant (they have the same social status as brain surgeons here) will also do. A Swiss woman, who taught German in Osaka, c.1993, had a husband who was a shepherd. He had actually studied it at an agricultural college back in Switzerland. People would just look at him, blankly, even when he said it in Japanese. No “Oh, how interesting! Just like Heidi’s grandfather!” Just an uncomfortable silence. By the time I was introduced to the poor man, he was so defensive about it that the conversation just sort of petered off, as awkwardly as all the others. They didn’t stay long. EXPECTED ANSWER: Anything that justifies calling a big buffoon Sensei.

3.– How long have you been in Japan? Again, fair enough. The odd bit, though, is that no matter what you answer, 5 months or 20 years, you’ll next be asked …

4.– Can you eat Japanese food? This might just mean, Do you like it? or, Can you physically lift it to your mouth with chopsticks? or Are you not disgusted by fish heads and rotting soybeans? In some situations, you never quite know what the question means or how to reply, especially since you’re often asked it in the midst of dinner while you are obviously shoveling the stuff into your mouth with great gusto and with the traditional utensils in question (the corollary is that no matter how long you have lived here, you’ll be complimented on how well you use chopsticks). EXPECTED ANSWER: No is assumed, so yes is a pleasant surprise, eliciting a reaction well out of proportion to the pretty modest feat itself.

5a.– How old are you? The traditional Western response (“None of your damn business.”) doesn’t really work here. You’ve noticed by now that a lot of these questions seem fairly irrelevant, but in Japanese they are crucial – a younger person uses entirely different words to speak to an older person or superior, and corresponding modest language to talk about himself. The British with their class anxiety are as nothing compared with two Japanese businessmen who don’t know each other’s seniority rank. Business cards are exchanged and memorized as soon as possible. Although you don’t need to know someone’s age to speak English to them, old habits die hard, especially at the Japanese Ministry of Education. How old are you used to immediately lead into…

5b. (formerly 6)– Are you married? This one has fallen slightly out of favour lately, but still pops up from time to time, especially when you’re talking to older people. When I first arrived here, a woman who wasn’t engaged by 25 and married by 26 was an object of pity, a burden to the family, and referred to as Christmas Cake (“stale by the 26th”). A man who was still single past thirty could not look forward to a promotion anytime soon – can’t handle responsibility, would be the judgment of his superiors. The women, at any rate, don’t have to put with this as much anymore, and the marriage age has risen accordingly (and the birth rate has plummeted, but that’s another story). EXPECTED ANSWER: Of course! (unless you’re of marriageable age and the other person is interested)

6.– Why did you come to Japan? I still think that a more relevant question is, “why do you stay in Japan”, or, “why do people come back to Japan?” (I’ve written about this before, here) In a small talk session in a classroom, or at a bar, or at a reception (your hors-d’oeuvre growing colder and soggier by the minute), , though, you can’t get philosophical. If you’re an English teacher in, say, Sweden, your students will probably assume that you came to Sweden to teach English. Yet I was asked this question again today, by someone I’ve taught since last April.

One thing Richie is right about: it is difficult to answer. For some of us anyway – even to ourselves.

EXPECTED ANSWER: “I’ve always loved Japanese culture.” Sadly, “I have to get a student loan paid off fast,” or “I’m unemployable anywhere else,” will not win you points (or pints) for honesty.

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8 Responses to “Why did you come to Japan?”

  1. Why are the Japanese so uptight about foreigners? And what do you think a good answer to that question would be?

  2. Laura says:

    Brilliant post. Loved it.
    Am getting really tired of running through these questions with the door to door salesmen here in the country side. Have taken to answering the door with phone in hand and pretend to talk even if no one else is on the line–they give up and go away quicker.

    Laura

  3. Melody says:

    I would love to write that my Japanese friends never asked me those questions, but sadly, I can’t even count the number of times that I’ve answered them. The only one that irked me a bit is #4, can you eat Japanese food, sushi, use chopsticks, etc. That one never failed to make me bristle because I took it personally like a bit of an insult. I always fantasized about answering with “why the hell wouldn’t I be able to? It’s not like it’s Thai food that is spicy, or Indian with a myriad of exotic spices. What’s the issue?”

  4. pastilla says:

    I have to say when I moved to Sapporo from Osaka it was a refreshing change. Without exception I was treated with more respect in Sapporo and never asked any of the Big 6.

  5. nagaijin says:

    Hi, Pastilla,
    Oh, I think it has more to do with lack of imagination than lack of respect. People have been drilled in this since 1947 as the only way to get to know someone and no one wants to be the first to do it differently. Once you get that nonsense out of the way, though, you can still make friends.
    Richie does mention that there’s less of it once you get out of the big cities.

  6. Angel says:

    When I first came to Japan I used to get “What is your hobby?” but far less now. I don’t know what happened. The delivery of the question was always in a way that you just knew it was a memorised question from a list (like your holy six). After about three dozen times of giving the same boring answer, I started giving a different colourful reply every time in search of that coveted blank look — that became lots of fun. Shellfish hunting. Tropical bird collecting. Amharic. Rogue country politics. Teaching English.

  7. azumarisan says:

    Oh Laura you crack me up. That reminds me of my MIL, she hates answering the door to salesman but once when she refused to listen to him, he started yelling abuse at her and stuff, so now she is afraid to say “no”. Crazy Japan. If he did that to me i would of karate kicked him in the head! I should tell her your phone trick… 😉

    I always get asked “do you cook japanese food” after they find out my hubby is japanese. I feel like saying “no, i cook indian, DUH”, i know it’s abit narky but i get sick of the same question. Where is the originality??

  8. Wonderful post. I have been in Kyushu for 9 years. Great read here. A handful of years ago I was standing in front of a gym packed with 3rd and 4th year students. Question time was something else – Some of questions that come to mind – Did you fly to our school today? When I mentioned I lived in the same town as most of the students a huge roar of broke out. A more bizarre question, however the kid was dead serious – Are there other life-forms in America? hmmm…

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