I’m certain that I’m not the only one puzzled by this: how is it possible for a country as developed as Japan, a country whose name is almost a synonym for the new and the avant-garde and at the same time with a tradition in learning and education that would put to shame almost any country (European or other) can have such an enormous problem with the English language. And by that I don’t just mean that the Japanese people have a problem with English; I mean that the whole country has a problem with English and this is obvious in all its attempts towards the cosmopolitan, from a simple poster for a music festival to the official documents of the Japanese state. If something is written in English, it’s almost certainly written in bad English. In very bad English.
Often, the whole thing borders on the grotesque and more than often goes beyond that, to the extent that even the most hardcore Japanophiles can’t suppress their amusement. Personally, even though I often share the absurdity of this phenomenon, I can’t stop trying to understand the “why” behind it; the explanations about the “sima-guni”, the mentality of a long isolated island-country or about the perfectionism that doesn’t allow the Japanese to speak English because they can’t speak it as well as they’d like or about the linguistic differences between the Japanese and the English language rendering the latter incomprehensible, firmly grounded in history, psychology and linguistics as they might be, still leave something unexplained.
My interpretation, knowing very well that it can be wrong, is that the Japanese don’t relate well to the English language (or to any other language for that matter) because they don’t really need it; neither the language nor the people speaking it. And I’ m not just referring to the fact that Japan is bigger than most European countries and financially stronger than all of them but also to the fact that the Japanese society is self-sufficient in everything. A Japanese can be born in Japan, grow up in Japan, go to school and college, start working, build a career and create a family in Japan and not once in his life come across the need to speak or read English; his society will provide him with everything he needs and, more than that, it will provide it in the way best suited for him: the Japanese way.
Being an alien in Japan, there are many instances that this situation asphyxiates me. But there are even more instances where what I feel is admiration mixed with some envy. I can’t even contemplate what it means to live your life being a part of such a big family (because that’s what it is) with all the pros and the cons this entails; and I have enough data to understand that the cons are not few, even though they are balanced with many pros. Yes, the internationalist in me believes deeply that the global society, besides being much more advanced than the national ones is also inevitable but a part of me stands in awe before the futile struggle of the Japanese to accept it in their own way. Even though they themselves don’t always realize they are doing it and even though this effort sometimes brings us outsiders to the brink of desperation.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.