Nov 15, 2018

A recurring problem with communication as an Expat in Japan

I’ve lived in Japan long enough to be fluent in Japanese. I use it professionally and in my everyday life.  Still, I encounter circumstances surrounding my language usage that remain incredibly frustrating; the main one being when I’m speaking Japanese to someone and they insist on speaking English back to me--even though they are incapable of having a conversation in English, and I’m more than capable of having one in Japanese.   Sometimes it makes me wonder if it’s just that their brains can’t compute that someone who looks like me can speak the Japanese language. 

Whatever the reason may be, if the person can speak English well enough, I usually just go along with it to make the situation easier, but in certain circumstances that option just isn’t available because they don’t have the capability of doing it. It can be extremely prohibitive trying to get things done when people can’t recognize that the conversation can and should happen in Japanese. 

Allow me to offer an example of this:

A recurring problem with communication as an Expat in Japan photo

I had purchased some paint for the house, and I ended up having more than was necessary. So, I called the store where I got the paint and asked them if it would be possible for me to return it, since they don’t normally have a returns policy. The store manager said it was no problem.  [Note: all of this was done in Japanese]

When I went to return the paint, things didn’t go quite so smoothly. I took it to the customer service desk as was requested, presented the paint and the receipt, and asked to return it. The individual looked at me as if I was speaking ancient Egyptian. He then proceeded to pick up the phone, and ask if there was someone in the back who could come to the customer service desk and speak English because there was an American customer there. 

As he was talking, I said to him (in Japanese) “we are having this conversation in Japanese! You don’t need somebody who can speak English.”

All he did was nervously nod and ask me to wait.

The problem is, in this particular store, there weren’t any staff members who could speak English. So here I am, in a Mexican standoff with a customer service clerk who can’t comprehend that I’m speaking to him in Japanese, and who was simply waiting for someone who could speak English to rescue him from the situation.

Thank goodness one of the cashiers overhead what was going on and came over.  She apologized and said that she would help out. I’m not quite sure what we would have done if that wasn’t the case.

Of course, this is only one example. I’ve faced similar issues at doctor's appointments where the doctors try to explain complex issues in broken English rather than fluent Japanese, or when I’m conducting business meetings with Japanese counterparts who would rather use less-than-stellar interpreters than to just hold the meeting in their native tongue.

I know the limits of my Japanese, and I understand that I speak accented Japanese. But it’s very difficult as an expat here when you do speak the language, can pass the language exams, and 90% of your interactions in Japanese are just fine, to have 10% be marred simply because you don’t look like somebody who should be speaking that language.

I don’t know how one goes about fixing that, but I think that in a country where homogeneity and uniformity are prized, I’m not sure that it can change for everybody in the near term.

In the meantime, here are some tips that I have:

- Be patient.  There's no point in getting heated--it will only make the situation more difficult.

- Ask for another representative.  Whether it is a doctor or a customer service rep, sometimes the best thing to do is bring a different person into the conversation.

Have you ever encountered a situation like this? How did you handle it? Any extra tips? Feel free to use the comments section below!



Hitting the books once again as a Ph.D. student in Niigata Prefecture. Although I've lived in Japan many years, life as a student in this country is a first.

Blessed Dad. Lucky Husband. Happy Gaijin (most of the time).


  • Eli

    on Nov 15

    I get that all the time. I ask someone a question in Japanese and they respond in broken English. Usually, it helps when I tell them I can understand Japanese and that there is no need to talk English. I also once had a situation where I inquired about a lost shipment to an online store. I send my e-mail in Japanese which at that time was far from perfect but understandable. They replied to me in terrible English and I didn't understand a word of what they are trying to say. I replied again asking for an e-mail in Japanese so that I can actually understand it and again I got a reply in English. Was quite frustrating.

  • helloalissa

    on Nov 17

    So weird... how did he know you're American? Or even an English speaker? I'm always surprised when I hear these stories because I can't remember this happening to me. (I'm fine with conversation but not fluent.) Even kids passing me in the neighborhood will say konnichiwa!

  • genkidesuka

    on Nov 18

    @helloalissa I used to live in an area with a fairly heavy population of Americans, but I’m sure the number of Americans around there who couldn’t speak Japanese contributed to the disbelief that I could. I thought it might be more like your experience once I moved out to Niigata, but it still happens more than I expected.