Wednesday, September 9, 2009


I suppose that since I’ve studied Japanese for quite some time now, I often get tired of the extremely patronizing “you’re so good at Japanese!” after I’ve only uttered something like “good morning” or “nice to meet you.” Not long after these remarks, many people go on to say “Japanese is so difficult.” This, according to Greg Smits, is somewhat a source of national identity for people. It's like a little taste of Japanese nationalism. He says in his online text that:

“Indeed, for many in Japan this alleged difficulty is a mild source of pride in one's national identity (e.g., "Yes, I speak a very difficult language--how impressive"). According to linguists, however, it does not make any sense to say that a particular language is "difficult" in absolute terms. If that were really the case, then children in some parts of the world would master the stages of language acquisition significantly faster or slower than children in other places. If, for example Japanese is really an unusually "difficult" language in absolute terms, Japanese children would learn to speak at a slower pace than children in places where an "easy" language is spoken. In fact, however, children all around the world acquire language in the same sequence of states, and, on average, at the same speed.”

Personally, I think it has to do a lot with 日本人論 ("theories of Japanese cultural or racial uniqueness", as my dictionary defines it), which is a topic for another time and place. Smits even covers the truths behinds the myths of this “alleged difficulty”:

“Much of the talk in Japan about the alleged "difficulty" of Japanese is actually not about the language itself but about the writing system used to represent the language. Writing is not language2 but a system for representing language in a durable medium. Unlike the case of languages, which are all about equally "difficult," at least in terms of the speed children acquire mastery of them, there is wide variation in the efficiency of writing systems. As it is written today, Japanese employs a relatively inefficient writing system (as does English, with its inconsistent, often illogical spelling). Though a simple alphabetic script could handle Japanese quite well, owing to the early contact with China, the first Japanese exposure to writing was Chinese characters. Unfortunately, Chinese characters are not well suited for writing Japanese.”

I took a class from Dr. Smits while I was studying at Penn State. I’m pretty sure that he got sick of the constant “日本語上手ですね!” after simple words and phrases after all of the living/traveling in Japan that he did. I’m pretty sure that’s what motivated a lot of this commentary on language that appears in his textbooks. Anyway, even if it’s not, it’s exactly the same as I feel about it.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is don’t try and patronize me with your insincere “tatemae” flattery. It gets really old.

If you want to read more stuff by Dr. Greg Smits, you can read his online textbooks (which I have found to make for some really good reading) and his book “Visions of Ryuku” is available on Amazon. The entrance to the site is at


  1. Very interesting post.

    I don't know...If the Japanese person who is complimenting you on your Japanese truly believes that Japanese is a difficult language, s/he may very well be ignorant(according to Dr. Smith et al.) but are they being insincere?

    My mother does the same thing when we are watching TV and they show a non-Japanese person speaking Japanese. "あら、すごいね" "日本語上手だねぇ", etc. I say to her, "There are many (non-Japanese)people out there who speak Japanese.", to which she counters, "I wouldn't know...I've never met one.".

    It's a whole different story in big cities like Tokyo or Osaka but in a place like Ashikaga, there are people who have spent their whole lives without meeting a single "foreigner". While I do know that there are those who comment on your Japanese, or your excellent chopstick skillz in condescending ways, I hope you realise that that is not ALWAYS the case and try to understand where each person is coming from.

    My apologies for the long-winded comment. It's just that I had gone through the same thing as a Japanese person in the US ("wow...your English is very good for a Japanese person", etc.)and I didn't want you to think my dear mother is an insincere, card-carrying militant nationalist should you ever come in contact with her somewhere in Ashikaga and she complimented you on your Japanese. lol  

  2. I guess this is just all coming from my own experiences, and it is ALWAYS important to understand where people are coming from!!! I totally agree.

    As to whether or not people are being sincere... well.. it's hard to say, really, when tatemae comes into play. What it boils down to are people's motivations for saying these things. Some people say them because... well.. they don't know what else to say, especially if they have never met a foreign person before.
    I never think of anyone as a militant nationalist, because well, it's never ok to assume something like that about anyone. I guess what I was trying to say with this little piece was that sometimes.. it gets a little old hearing the same things over and over again.. no matter how long you've lived in Japan. I know I'll never fit in here, and I'm not trying to be Japanese, but I wish I wasn't always such an oddity... all the time. sometimes is ok :)


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