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Saturday, Jan. 11, 2003

JAPAN LITE

Get ready for Japanese inside and out


People often ask me what they should expect before coming to Japan. It's hard to say, but if you don't speak Japanese, at first you'll be limited to communicating with Japanese people who can speak English. Be ready to meet these people:

The hardcore Japanese: These are people are Japanese inside and out, and are single-handedly responsible for keeping the traditional Japanese arts alive. They grow bonsai, give ikebana exhibitions and hold tea ceremonies in their homes. They speak textbook English, know more about English grammar than a native speaker and may have been abroad once or twice on holiday. They always put foreigners on a pedestal, so you'll enjoy being treated as king or queen, always given the best seat and receiving the most exotic food. These people will also be proud to show you off to their friends, so you'll get called on to attend weddings of people you don't know and lectures in Japanese that you can't understand. The hardcore Japanese give many gifts and are always out to impress you. You won't be disappointed. These people grow in clumps at culture centers and international events, serving as Japan's welcome committee for foreigners.

The biculturals: These people have lived abroad for a year or two and can speak some slang, maybe even do the high five. Outside, they appear almost "gaijin," with their casual English and easygoing manner. But inside are traditional Japanese values and deep bows. When they speak English they are free spirits, but when they speak Japanese they are conscious of their social status and their relationship to their superiors. They are happy living a double life -- being Japanese with an occasional jaunt into the gaijin world via the English language. The biculturals may be prone to imaginative ideas such as giving up the corporate life to raise cattle in Hokkaido. Despite their free spirit, they retain enough of their Japaneseness to still give you the seat in front of the "tokonoma."

The gaijin converts: Last is the Japanese who have converted to "gaijinism" and actually see themselves as a foreigner. Typically, it's a man who, during his years working abroad, has learned the joys of gesturing. He has the unusual knack for spotting a foreigner in Tokyo while he is standing in downtown Osaka. If you happen to be that gaijin in Tokyo, you'll suddenly notice a man sprinting toward you yelling, "Hey, I stayed in the U.S. for 10 years!" When he finally reaches you, he'll introduce himself, usually using the name "Ken." He'll shake your hand as if he were a bartender and you were a gin martini, shaken not stirred.

I'll never forget meeting my first "Ken." While living in the U.S., Ken must have gotten into some serious study of gestures, enrolling in advanced courses such as "Enlarging your gestures" and "Using gestures to scare people into buying your product." I even wonder if was an adjunct professor, dressed in jeans in sneakers, teaching night classes on "How to gain more personal space through gestures." Ken is a happy guy but openly shows his dislike for Japan, resenting especially the fact that Japan is not exactly like the foreign land in which he lived. He wears a sport jacket over a T-shirt and likes to wear a New York Yankees baseball cap. Funny thing about Ken is that Barbie is never close by.

Once you start learning Japanese, you'll start meeting people who don't speak any English. You may even become "hen na gaijin," one who speaks fluent Japanese. When that time comes, think about your image as a gaijin who speaks Japanese. What type will you be?

Check out Amy Chavez's new column, "Parents Do the Strangest Things," at www.amychavez.com.


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