Today's featured guest is author Walt Mussell, author of THE SAMURAI'S HEART, a samurai story of forbidden love that battles religious bias in 16th Century Japan. Walt, while living in Japan, battled a much different opponent—language—even though he speaks Japanese. Here, he elaborates that while love is a universal language, Japanese isn’t…
Ana, thank you for having me today.
I lived in Japan in the early 90s. I was there for four years and worked hard to learn Japanese so I could fit in.
However, no matter how hard I studied, there was one thing that I and many Japanese-speaking foreigners occasionally experienced: speaking passable Japanese but hearing the reply “I don’t speak English” in return. Sometimes, we got no reply at all. Just a stare.
This reaction wasn’t meant to be an insult to my language abilities. It’s just that some Japanese people were unaccustomed to seeing a non-Japanese face speaking Japanese, outside of a few television personalities.
The reaction happened more often outside of major cities and mostly with older generations. The only time I remember this in a large city was dealing with a near-retirement age bus driver in Kyoto. No matter how often I asked him the fare, he just smiled and said nothing. I finally showed him a handful of coins and he took what he needed.
My most memorable experience of this, however, was the day when this reaction came from a young woman standing behind a hotel front desk.
It happened in 1993. I’d been in Japan nearly three years by then. Three friends and I decided to visit a Japanese tourist spot in the off season. We were trying to get away from it all. We succeeded. The place was dead.
We noticed that one hotel was offering a violin concert and went inside to inquire about the price. Three of the four people in our group spoke Japanese, but the young woman behind the front desk saw our faces and became almost mute. She looked around, stammered the words “just a moment,” and left. She returned a short while later with another young Japanese woman who said, “May I help you?” in perfect English. We got the price, found it to be too high for our liking, thanked the “interpreter” for her time and left.
About an hour or so later, we passed by the hotel on our way to the only Coke machine in the area. We were surprised to see the interpreter rush out the front door toward us. She told us the owner of the hotel had seen us and inquired why we were there. She had come out to tell us that we could attend the concert for free. Apparently, the number of guests staying at the hotel was light and the owner was afraid of embarrassing the violinist, a Japanese woman with international competition victories. Extra numbers were welcome. As the violinist studied in Europe, our being foreigners was a plus.
So, this is one case where the peculiar habit of not hearing Japanese when spoken benefitted me. My friends and I enjoyed the concert. The hotel owner even invited us to the wine and cheese party after the concert was over. We counted ourselves lucky. If not for the reaction of the young woman at the front desk, we would have not been at the concert or the party.
Nor would I have had the chance to get to talk with the interpreter at the party and try one of the world’s worst pick-up lines.
Nor would the interpreter have looked at me and thought “He’s been in Japan for three years and THAT’S the best he can do. Obviously, he isn’t going to bars every week and hitting on Japanese girls like some foreign males do, so he might be a decent guy.”
Thanks to the reaction of that hotel front desk clerk, the interpreter and I will celebrate our 24th anniversary later this year.