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Yet another theory on the eternal ‘Japanese struggle with English’

‘The notion that she had studied the language in public school seemed to her to be a perfectly sufficient explanation for her fluency’


Recently I was invited to a university in Taiwan for research and presentation purposes. After arriving at the university-affiliated hotel late, hungry, and thirsty, I immediately went out to check the local offerings (foodies know that Taiwan is one of the world’s great eating countries). Just around the first corner, about 20 metres from the hotel exit, there was a neon sign displaying the magic words ‘CRAFT BEER’. Bingo! Grab a local snack and sample a local brew. I apologized to the beertender (a young woman) for not being able to speak Chinese but she waved it off immediately, ‘No problem. What are you interested in?‘ This was delivered in completely unaffected West Coast American English. After making my selection I asked her where she had spent time abroad. The US? Canada? 


‘Actually I’ve only been to Japan and Hong Kong for a few weeks, never to North America.’

I was flabbergasted.

Oh but… your English is… umm… excellent. Why?

Without any pretensions or affectations she responded, ‘Because I studied it in high school‘. End. Period.

The notion that she had studied the language in public school seemed to her to be a perfectly sufficient explanation for her fluency (and, although she was a student at the highly-ranked university now, she wasn’t studying English there).


Explanations — although some might call them excuses…


This immediately brought to mind the obvious struggles that most Japanese students in similar positions have when using English. The explanations (some might say excuses) are quite familiar to anyone who has been in Japan long enough to chomp down on an onigiri:


We don’t learn or practice speaking in schools.

English is very different from Japanese.

We have no chance to use the language.

We study English only for entrance tests (hence grammar/vocabulary).

We get nervous and English words simply won’t come out.

We are afraid of making mistakes.

Our teacher’s English is not natural.


But hold on a sec. Except for one (can you guess which?) of these items, Taiwanese students will tell you the exact same things — except they can generally speak English a lot better. Ok, English may be marginally closer in basic syntax to Chinese than it is to Japanese, but that can’t be the whole problem. Teachers in Japan often give the following additional reasons:


Students are too passive.

Students are extraordinarily shy or lack confidence.

Students have little or no desire/purpose/reason to speak English.

Official policy (at some level) is backwards or unsupportive.

Reticence and indirectness are Japanese cultural values that negatively impact using a second language.


But after (what feels like) hundreds of years spent teaching in Japanese classrooms I have come to the conclusion that there is one main causal factor at play:


It’s society’s fault.


Yes, you read that right. Ok, I know that’s the standard, meaningless, fob-off expression that people use when something horribly inexplicable or hard-to-accept occurs (‘In a sense, haven’t we all as a society committed multiple arsons?’) but in the case of Japanese English I think it’s fitting. Let me explain…


The three Ps


Japanese society is very tightly wound (think of the three Ps: procedures, protocols, propriety – maybe even ‘packaging’) and thus so is the use of the Japanese language. Let’s use the craft beer bar as an example. The standard Japanese beertender would invariably say, “Irasshaimase” upon your entry. This is usually translated as ‘Welcome‘, except that equivalent uses of ‘Welcome‘ in English are rather uncommon — it would come across as somewhat awkward. There is in fact no set phrase to mark the interaction in English. This type of thing can tongue-tie many Japanese.


In fact, almost every interaction not involving family and friends in Japanese begins with a bit of formulaic speech (and often does not proceed much beyond that point). Now, going through the formulas is an essential social routine — true in all societies — but much more so in Japan than most. This lingo-cultural baggage carries over into their attempts at English. The students can construct a billion decontextualized English sentences on paper or with a slot-and-filler prompt — but, hey, just what is that opening social formulaic phrase in English? 


The three ‘ans’


Often this hesitancy is explained by commentators as being due to the influence of keigo, the polite/distant/formal Japanese language. There is some truth in this, but other Asian languages have similar politeness levels (Thai, Khmer, Vietnamese) yet without the same degree of L1-L2 transfer baggage. There must be more going on. And I’m saying that the issue is connected to three Japanese central values — which I’ll call the ‘ans‘: anshin, antei, anzen (meaning: sense of safety, well-being, orderliness, propriety, harmony, stability). These words and concepts are very, very commonly used as selling catchphrases in Japan.


Almost all social protocol in Japan revolves around avoiding meiwaku (the disturbing or inconveniencing of others) and the formulaic use of language is used to reinforce this. When the formulaic language form is not clear (as it often is in English or when a Japanese is dealing with a non-Japanese speaker) there is an increased sense of ‘fu-an‘ (the opposite of the three ‘ans‘: non-orderly, improper, unstable, or uncomfortable) among many Japanese. Why? Because one is thus more likely to create meiwaku by not carrying out the correct sociolinguistic protocols. And that’s why, if you remember the list of excuses mentioned earlier, so many Japanese English learners say, ‘We get nervous and English words simply won’t come out. The three ‘ans‘ are under threat.


If this all sounds a bit ‘Orientalized’ let’s look at some actual, specific, more concrete examples:


Case 1: ‘What are you doing?’


I’m sitting at a table in the main university cafeteria working on a nifty 3-d puzzle for a few minutes of my own amusement. This catches the attention of several of my nearby students. They want to ask me what I am doing (they talk among themselves saying things like, ‘What’s he doing?’ ‘Ask him!” ‘Ehh! How?’) — but they can’t and don’t. But why not? Everyone of them knows the phrase ‘What are you doing?‘, it is, after all, a 1st year junior high school item. The problem is that to open a dialogue with me, someone outside their circle — and with teacher rank to boot — by using ‘What...’ would seem a bit brusque by Japanese standards. Japanese protocol would demand it be dealt with more indirectly, perhaps: ‘Good afternoon. That looks interesting. I’ve never seen it before’ with the implicit question of ‘What are you doing?’ contained therein. But it’s all such a sociolinguistic burden — so they get confused, nervous, hesitant. and ultimately avoid the interaction.


Case 2: ‘Can I get the handout?’


A student comes to my office. He was absent for the previous class and wants to get an important handout. He knocks on the door, opens it, and stands there fumbling for words. Japanese protocol requires a ‘shitsurei shimasu‘ or ‘o jama shimasu‘ here (usually translated to ‘Excuse me‘, but better delivered perhaps as ‘Sorry to bother you but...’). He senses (correctly) that ‘Excuse me‘ seems a little odd in this scenario, so he struggles to search for an appropriate opening. He then wants to say, ‘Can I get the handout from this morning’s lesson?‘ but he can’t retrieve it. Why not? This phrase too is well within his English skill range but he continues to fumble. He’s struggling with the word ‘Can‘ which he feels (again, based on to Japanese protocol) might be a bit rough and ready in this type of encounter. ‘Get‘ also seems overly selfish, indulgent, and familiar. He runs through various options for the topic/head of his utterance, unsure of any of them being appropriate. So I interject, anticipating his need (this is a crucial element of Japanese interaction) and ask, ‘Do you want this morning’s handout?‘ — and the situation is soon resolved.


In short, it’s the interference of the L1 social baggage — particularly opening gambits, those scene and relationship setters — that flummox so many Japanese English learners. Wanting to avoid committing ‘meiwaku‘ while preserving the three crucial ‘ans‘ — stifles fluency in English. This is the source of those ‘We get nervous and the words don’t come out’ claims. It inhibits even the most basic utterances. It makes the simple become unnecessarily complex. Worse, it’s hard to imagine how your average English teacher could possibly address this adequately.


Any suggestions?






Mike Guest

Mike Guest

Michael (Mike) Guest is Associate Professor of English in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Miyazaki (Japan). A veteran of 25 years in Japan, he has published over 50 academic papers, 5 books (including two in Japanese), has been a regular columnist in the Japan News/Yomiuri newspaper for 13 years, and has performed presentations and led workshops and seminars in over 20 countries. Besides ranting and raving, his academic interests include medical English, discourse analysis, assessment, teacher training, and presentation skills.
Mike Guest

4 Responses to Yet another theory on the eternal ‘Japanese struggle with English’

  1. Dave and Amy Long

    HI Mike–I really enjoyed this post.  And agree.   Years ago, when Dave and I were in our 20s we went to one of our friend’s parents house.   They were “famous” doctors in our area.   The 2 Japanese friends also with us couldn’t speak to our friend’s parents — because of their age / rank.  Dave and I—with no such thoughts of that — had no problems just speaking normally—albeit in our bad Japanese.   At the time, I thought, how terrible.   People are missing out on an opportunity to KNOW each other/ talk to each other over social protocol.

    • Thanks for the comment. When the interaction is in Japanese, Japanese people will be aware of the protocols, even if this means that some have to take more passive roles, and this results in at least a certain degree of comfort (a good example being university gurukon parties, where both professors and students are present). But when the lingua Franca is English it can all so easily become discombobulated.

  2. Great! Agreed 100%.Working on this everyday.

  3. An insightful and entertaining post. 

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