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Visible Minorities: Weaponizing the Japanese Language

SNA (Tokyo) — On August 28, Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan’s foreign minister, was giving an official press conference to reporters in Japanese. A foreign reporter for Japan Times, Magdalena Osumi, asked some questions in Japanese. When Osumi followed up on a point he left unclear, Motegi responded to her in English.

Osumi then retorted in Japanese, “You needn’t treat me like I’m stupid. If we’re talking in Japanese, please answer in Japanese.” Damn right.

How many times has this happened to you? You ask a question in Japanese of a shop keep, clerk, passerby, or somebody on the other end of a telephone, and they flake out because you got some words in the wrong order, had an accent, or just have a foreign face? Many automatically assume that because you’re foreign-looking or -sounding, you must be able to speak English. So they reply in English.

Or how many times, as a budding Japanese language learner, were you told that what you just said “is not Japanese,” not “it’s not correct Japanese”? Just a flat-out denial, as if your attempt is in some alien tongue, like Klingon.

This phenomenon, where it’s either “perfect Japanese” or you get linguistically gaijinized, is odd. It’s also based upon a myth.

You don’t need a degree in linguistics to know that there is no “perfect” version of any language. Even “standard Japanese” has plenty of grey. All “natural-sounding” language has normal differences due to, say, accents, regional dialects, age levels, literacy levels, and fields of work and study.

For example, a Japanese bureaucrat in Tokyo is obviously not going to talk the same way as a Japanese truck driver in Osaka. But I bet you’ll never hear that bureaucrat telling a truck driver speaking in the Osaka dialect that he might as well be speaking Klingon, or see him click into English.

So why is “perfect Japanese” required for non-native speakers only? That’s where the racialized component comes in. Japan’s kokugo (national language) is used as a weapon against Japan’s minorities. All it takes is an accent, a turn of phrase that deviates from the norm, a rhythm or tone out of turn and — wham! — you get “othered.”

Weaponized language not only makes a society unrealistically intolerant of accents, but it also disempowers. Consider the lack of recourse for non-native speakers when communications break down. Plenty of times (especially in court disputes involving foreigners), the Japanese speaker has the trump card: the simple claim of a language-related misunderstanding, and suddenly it’s the foreigner’s fault. The fundamental assumption is that the non-native speaker communicated or comprehended imperfectly.

This linguistic bullying also creates a vicious circle, making Japanese harder to learn.

When people ask me, “Is Japanese difficult?” I reply, “Well, the language is challenging, but so are all languages. What’s difficult is talking to Japanese people.”

There’s so much baggage to get past. Start with the “feeling of incongruity,” if not outright amusement, that the self-appointed “Guardians of the Kokugo” freely express towards non-natives fumbling their way to fluency.

Unless you’re already magically good in Japanese, you’re going to find it hard to get good, because templates are in short supply: people answer you in English, or in “broken Japanese,” or in any manner of unnatural ways that hinder improvement.

Finally, after years of toil and trial-and-error, many people do get fluent. Yet a belittling amazement at the kokugo flowing from a foreign mouth remains: “It’s like seeing my dog talk,” I’ve heard more than once.

With that background dynamic in mind, let’s return to Foreign Minister Motegi and his treatment of fluent journalist Osumi.

This situation is more complicated than an everyday interaction. This is a minister at the highest level of government communicating official business to professional reporters. That’s why Motegi’s reflex of clicking into English as a “gaijin handler” was extremely disrespectful, especially given how much pressure is put on foreign correspondents to speak Japanese as a precondition for entry.

Yet Motegi didn’t stop gaijinizing Osumi there. Switching back to Japanese to give her a non-answer, he still capped his answer patronizingly with a question he asked Osumi, thrice: “Did you understand the Japanese?”

Clearly Motegi’s point was to put the foreigner back in her place.

Now let’s expand the focus to consider the ramifications of this attitude. Consider how weaponizing a language fosters blinkered world views and bigotry.

When Japanese officials and media pundits get caught saying racist things in Japanese, you get the odd defense that they were misunderstood or taken out of context, as their thoughts were “for a domestic audience only.” Or remember how government reports (such as the 2012 report of the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission), translated from Japanese “for a foreign audience,” have significant differences in content. And conversely note how foreign-language books critical of Japan get translated into Japanese only to find their criticisms muted. Treating the Japanese language like it’s some impenetrable secret code reserved for Japanese speakers only abets propaganda and exclusionism.

So what’s the solution? As non-native speakers devoting our lives to learning how to communicate in Japanese, how do we deal with a weaponized language?

I say follow Osumi’s example and stand up for yourself.

When people click into English despite your Japanese, make it clear you find it patronizing.

Now, the Guardians of the Kokugo might argue that Osumi is not a good example. When you listen to the video of the proceedings, Osumi’s question was a bit meandering. But I could understand the content of her question just fine. So could Motegi. That’s why he could answer it in whatever language.

But the point remains that Motegi chose to officially gaijinize her with English. As Osumi herself later put it, “I’m a foreign reporter, so he diverted the topic to one about language.” Exactly. Weaponized language used to distract and obfuscate.

And for once, it mattered. Even the Japanese media took up the case, and Motegi got some egg on his face. A much-needed discussion ensued about whether this was rude behavior.

However, this is beyond rude, and Osumi unfortunately didn’t seize the opportunity to press it home. She declined to call what Motegi did “discrimination,” even later equivocating it as “probably the same as if a reporter of Japanese nationality asked a question.”

I disagree. Put the shoe on the other foot. Lots of Japanese reporters have trouble getting out their questions in a foreign language at press conferences. Do they get belittled like that? Rarely if ever.

Consider the most extreme example, Donald Trump, who hates the press. At a presser in November 2018, even he didn’t treat a faltering Japanese reporter with as much disrespect as Motegi treated Osumi.

That’s why this hegemony of “perfect Japanese language” must stop. It suppresses diversity, delegitimizes foreign voices, and otherwise puts pressure on non-natives to give up their power to native interlocutors. Not only is it exclusionary, it’s also extremely disrespectful towards our visible minorities, who respect Japan and its people enough to dedicate their lives to learning Japanese.

But for that to happen, non-native speakers have to stand up for themselves at the grassroots level. So next time you’re linguistically gaijinized, go ahead and say in Japanese, “Don’t treat me like I’m stupid. Talk to me in Japanese.” Feel no guilt. You have as much right to speak the kokugo, and be respected for it, as anyone else.