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Thanks to Japan’s ever-increasing attempts at globalization and English education, the most recent generations growing up in Japan have all been exposed to foreign language classes. Some even started as young as preschool! However, because the island nation remains so homogenized, most Japanese citizens don’t come across many opportunities to practice and properly hone their skills. I’d say that with the exception of those who use English for work or have experienced living abroad, by the time they reach adult-hood, the majority of Japanese people only know enough English to not make any sense when attempting to speak it! They simply toss a few English words into a Japanese sentence structure and expect it to make sense.

This poses a problem for the foreign tourists who visit Japan without learning the native language and rely on English signs and helpful English speakers in order to get around. Luckily for both the lost tourists who don’t speak Japanese and for Japanese locals who can’t remember their English, there is a third language which can overcome all great language barriers and promote mutual understanding: body language and interpretive gestures. Although, sometimes these wordless conversations can seem a bit surreal in hindsight, which is why the Japanese site, Naver Matome, put together an interesting collection of Japanese people’s experiences flailing at foreigners.

First off, let’s see some successful tales of cross-cultural communication, even without the use of sensible words.

In shops and restaurants, store clerks and confused foreigners often collide:

“One day, a foreigner came into the convenience store where my friend was working. My friend can’t speak a word of English, and the foreigner didn’t know any Japanese, so they had to rely on body language. It seemed like the customer wanted some bandages, but just to be sure, my friend brought some up to the register and said ‘Ouch kuru kuru (sound effect for going in circles)’ while acting as though she was wrapping a hurt finger. Great communication! Ouch kuru kuru.”

“A foreigner used gestures to ask me if some price tag referred to a certain commodity. I responded with ‘Y-yes, goh kyu ppa (598 yen, but said in a stilted way that a preschooler might use).’ This is the extent of my English abilities.”

Then there’s the already confusing act of giving directions in a land with very few street signs:

 “Today in Meguro I had a foreigner ask me for directions to a ‘fishing shop,’ so I was thinking to myself ‘You’re not going to find any fishing tackle around here!” I made a gesture like casting out a fishing line, and the person laughed loudly! Then, they took hold of my clothing and slowly articulated, ‘Fashion shop.’ LOL”

“One time I answered a foreign tourist with my pitiful English skills by saying ‘Th…This way massugu (go straight)! Gyuun!’ complete with hand gestures. Miraculously, they seemed to understand.”

“I had a foreigner ask me for directions! I understood that they’d gone the wrong way on the subway and needed me to explain to them to take the descending stairs to get to the other train platform. But, I had to use gestures to make my point. I was totally flailing about, but hey, whatever works!”

Sadly, it doesn’t always work out so well:

“Yesterday a foreigner asked me for directions, but I could only push through with responses like ‘Yes,’ and ‘Oh…chigau chigau (that’s not right).’ I regret not just taking them to a police box for help.”

“A sharp-looking silver-haired foreigner asked me for directions to Isetan Department Store (I think). Honestly, I didn’t get 30 percent of what she was saying, but I did my best to help her using simple words and body language. In the end she said ‘OK…Thank you,’ and waved goodbye, but she looked dissatisfied. I wish I could return those five wasted minutes to her. I’m very sorry.”

But let’s not end on a bad note:

“I saw a foreigner having trouble with the ticket machine for a local train (one of the old-style ones where you put your money in first and then push the buttons). I can’t speak any English, but I smiled and helped them silently using gestures. I realized that if I ever went to a foreign country, I’d be no better off, so I felt that I needed to be helpful and nice.”

“This thing I just saw!! There was a young foreign man sitting on the train, but then he used gestures to offer his seat to a pregnant woman. Gentlemanly gestures overcome all language barriers!”

“I saw a foreigner having trouble, as they appeared to have dropped a 100 yen coin in the crack under a vending machine. They took a look around and just happened to meet my eye and come over my way. They compared our hands in a gesture that seemed to say ‘Do you have any change?’ so I gave them some money. It made me so happy to see their face light up.”

And, one last one for all the foreign Japanese speakers:

“Today I had a foreigner come to the register and gesture for some chicken, so I assumed that they couldn’t understand Japanese. When I rang them up for 569 yen they only gave me 560, so I forcefully said, ‘Please more juu (ten) yen!’ Their response was ‘Oh, sorry. My mistake,’ in perfect Japanese.”

For many foreign travelers it can become quite frustrating being surrounded by words that they don’t understand. It’s heartwarming to know that many people in Japan, even those who are not comfortable speaking English, do their best to assist those who are completely lost in a strange land.

Source: Naver Matome (Japanese)
Image: Tristan Newcomb