Japan & America: Linguistic Differences, Cultural Differences, and Being a Foreigner in Japan

Japan and America

I just finished reading a book called Japan & America, by Bernice Z. Goldstein and Kyoko Tamura. It examines certain differences between Japanese and American linguistics in the interest of using those differences as a base for analysis of cultural differences. Their specific interest is in who is talking, how that person talks to the listener, and how they talk about a third party, when mentioned. In their own words:

We assume that any language is a pattern through which a speaker learns how to conceive of himself in relation to others and learns to think of others in relation to himself and still others. Most particularly throughout the course of this book, we suggest that Americans and Japanese see these relationships of speaker to listener and to third parties in very different ways, and we believe that the differences between American English and Japanese melt into differences between culture and personality in our two societies. Fundamentally our problem concerns the question of who is related to whom and how. This question is pertinent to the study of any language, but our focus is “who is related to whom and how” as it applies to differences between American and Japan, first from the vantage point of language differences and later as it applies to differences in culture and personality.


They conclude that American English and the child-rearing practices of the American mother serve to create a person who relates to other people by linguistically minimizing differences in rank and status, for the most part, between himself and others. Self-identity is expressed through means such as personal comments tacked on to standard polite forms. An individual may be part of a group, but group associations are often fleeting and not usually considered part of the definition of his identity.

The Japanese language and the child-rearing practices of the Japanese mother, however, teach a child from early on to be keenly aware of differences in status between individuals and the groups they belong to. Part of one’s self-identity as expressed in conversation concerns the manipulation of polite and humble linguistic forms to indicate to which groups the speaker and listener belong and how they relate to each other.

The book is 35 years old, but based on things I’ve learned from other sources and my own experiences in Japan, the information contained therein remains relevant. Personally, I found it an enlightening read. As I read it, little memories popped into my head, providing illustrations from personal experience. Mistakes I made during my stay in Japan punched me in the mental nose. Jumbled information about Japan and the Japanese language clicked into their proper places. This one book solidified my understanding of aspects of the Japanese language and culture which I have studied for almost ten years with middling success. Now I’ll be armed with much better manners when I return to Japan.

I recommend Japan & America to any native speaker of English who is studying Japanese, of course. However, it’s suitable for anyone with interest in the differences between the Japanese and western cultures. I am unfamiliar with differences between the United States and other English-speaking countries, but my limited understanding indicates that there are at least some parallels. And if not… who knows? Maybe you’ll learn something about the USA while you’re at it.

On Being a Foreigner in Japan

Party at My Place in Japan

Upon closing the book on the last page, my mind flitted back to a post on Gakuranman’s blog earlier this year about becoming Japanese. A bunch of J-vloggers on YouTube got into a lengthy and heated debate about Japanese acceptance of foreigners who have chosen to live in Japan.

Any foreigner who’s lived in Japan for longer than a week has experienced an array of special treatment in every range of the spectrum from good to bad. Sometimes you encounter someone who believes so strongly that foreigners can’t learn Japanese that he won’t realize you’re not speaking English. Some people will buy you pricey gifts or food just for the chance to practice their English on you for half an hour. At all times, though, there is an invisible wall, of sorts, a distance between you and them. There are exceptions of course. Most are younger folk who have visited a foreign country before or would like to in the future. For the most part, though, you’re never quite accepted.

Some foreigners (at least, among us English-speakers) are bothered by the fact that the Japanese refuse to adopt us. Others (myself included) are okay with it. If you visit that post of Gakuranman’s and watch the videos, you’ll see an interesting array of perspectives on the topic from a variety of people whose experiences in Japan differ by length and type.

Tying Experience to the Book

Now, while I don’t mind that I’ll always stick out a bit in Japan, it is nice to have a better understanding of why that’s so. This is where Japan & America connects to the issue.

If the authors, a linguist and an anthropologist, are correct about how the association of individuals to groups and of groups to other groups make up such an integral part of the Japanese collective psyche, then it may very well be impossible for them to forget that we are foreigners. We non-Asians stick out like bright blue thumbs in such a homogeneous society. One could argue they can’t help but be constantly reminded that we’re in a separate group. The rules of Japanese society practically require them to treat us like members of an out-group at least part of the time.

To compound the problem, we’re part of an out-group about which everything they know is learned from movies, TV, and other media. You all know how the media distorts things, right? Right. Well, Japanese media does it, too. So they’re left to categorize us as a group by what they’ve learned through the media, giving them either an idealized or criminalized view of us, full of oversimplifications and rife with misinformation either way.

I think it’s unfortunate that so many people are bothered by how the Japanese treat foreigners. It makes me wonder if the people who are bothered have really tried to understand the Japanese people. Are they just looking at it from a western perspective and expecting Japan to conform to western ideals? Our cultures are different on so many basic levels that I believe trying to make the Japanese accept us using western ideals is uncool and a fruitless effort. If they’re unhappy with how the Japanese treat them when they live in Japan, maybe they should consider returning to wherever they came from.

Nine years later edit (April 18, 2019): I’m happy with this post up until the last paragraph. I should not have assumed these others who’ve lived in Japan haven’t tried to understand the Japanese perspective. Everyone who lives in Japan for the long haul thinks about these things.

One thought on “Japan & America: Linguistic Differences, Cultural Differences, and Being a Foreigner in Japan

  1. Hello,
    I am a sixteen year old girl who grew up in Tennessee and am now currently going to an international school in Japan, my home country. I have experienced education in both America and Japan, and I am bilingual. I am interested in writing a piece on my experiences as a bilingual/education, for your blog as a guest writer. Please let me know if you are interested in my work. You can contact my at tommy.girl_02@yahoo.com . Hope to hear from you soon!

    Kyoko Toyozumi

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