Japanese Girls And Their English
I've been reading your site on and off for about a year and always enjoy your commentary and the emails you get every week. Never felt compelled to drop you a line until I saw what this guy had written (pasted below): "It has often been said on this site that one of the biggest – maybe THE biggest – reasons for being in Thailand is the beauty of the women which compensates for all the hassles that are a part of life here. Well, I have recently spent time in Tokyo and Beijing, and I have to report that the women there are just as cute, and don't have a mental age of 12 as you too often find in Thailand. They also speak much better English, learnt from the time they begin school. Both Japan and China are more expensive than Thailand, but that merely underlines that with Thailand you are close to the bottom of the barrel. Thailand is cheap in so many ways, from poor infrastructure to the filthy streets to the antiquated buses. Standards are so much higher elsewhere."
With all due respect to this traveler, I think he had a very limited experience of what Japan really is like. I've lived here for almost five years, all of it in the countryside of Hokkaido (while also visiting many cities), and my experiences couldn't have been more different. What this individual fails to realize is that Tokyo, and Beijing, are not the "real" country. These are world-class cities comparable, and maybe even eclipsing anything in the west, and as such are likely to house a large proportion of the population that is inclined to mix with foreigners and is used to them; hence their decent command of English and general affability. (I should note that while I am not fluent in Japanese, I have a solid command of it.)
The girls here are as cute as the ones in Thailand but a large majority of them are vacuous, money-grubbing consumerist pods that spend untold hours on their hair and makeup while leaving their inner development to whither on the vine while they search for the vanishing species of the tall, handsome "sarariman" with a large wallet. Good luck, ladies… If you can get past the two inches of foundation they plaster on their face, you might find someone cute behind it but the utter lack of self-development is, for me, a complete turn off. Don't get me wrong though – there are some great girls here. I'm just referring to the dominant species that seems to roam the streets.
His comment about how the girls don't act like they have a mental age of 12 made me laugh out loud. I showed it to one of my friends and he did the same… Seriously? He must have been very lucky to not run into one of Japan's "ambassadors of cute". You know the ones that talk in the high, squeaky voices of teenagers but are in their late 20s and still live with their parents, driving their mini car filled with Winnie the Pooh paraphrnaelia, and spending all their disposable income on Gucci purses and dinners with their girlfriends? "Kawaiiiiiiiii!!!"
As far as English goes, anyone who has taught it for a living here (and that includes me), knows that it's mostly a complete joke. While some people may take English language learning seriously on an individual level, most of the people engaged in it do it because: 1) they are housewives who need to fill up the gaping hours in their empty, unexamined lives; 2) it has cachet that you can lord over your friends (even though you can't speak it – you go to class!); 3) they are hoping to meet a foreign guy who can take them out of this sexist country; 4) they are students and they have to study it. Studying English is merely window-dressing in most of these people's lives. It's not a way to communicate, it's a way to look cool by sprinkling a few words of it into your conversations here and there.
Teaching in the schools, which is what I do (elementary and middle), is not much better. Yes, English is mandatory from middle school but they way in which it is taught does not foster learning. The focus is on reading and writing and rote memorization (read – repeat, read – repeat); not the recipe for learning a language. The last time I checked, the best way to learn a language was to SPEAK it. With few exceptions, that is not done here (which is where I am supposed to come in). And besides, the Japanese are the most naval-gazing, insular, xenophobic people I have ever met, and most of these students know that they are never going to leave Japan or interact with a foreigner so why should they study another language?
The whole enterprise is built on "tatemae", the face you show to others – not your true intention, and is merely just a dog and pony show for the outside world. "Look at us. We study English!" If you go on to high school here, which 99% of people do, that means you have studied English for six years. The retention rate of all of this studying is abysmal and that is why they have the lowest English comprehension rate in Asia.
This probably ended up being another expat rant but that wasn't my intention. I just felt I needed to contrast your reader's assertions about this country… I actually like living in Japan, I like the people, I like the girls with brains, and, for the most part, I'm pretty happy here. However, I'm looking forward to leaving next year and was thinking about going to Thailand for a year to teach. After visiting twice this year and reading your column though, I'm starting to reconsider because it seems like the quality of people it attracts are pretty low. I think that's a real shame but eh…what can you do?
I have to admit that when I first read that original email which I posted in my weekly column that it did NOT represent what I had heard from others, including two mates who have spent a lot of time in Japan. Yours was not the first feedback refuting that email so I think we can safely say that the writer, while in no doubt about what he saw, probably didn't spend enough time in either place to really see how things are.