“Westerner in Japan = Fluent English speaker.” Is this axiom really true?

YouTuber That Japanese Man Yuta always delivers the goods when it comes to testing out theories about Japanese society. He’s also particularly sensitive to the specific experiences of foreign residents, and through his series of street interviews, we’ve been able to learn a lot more about what Japanese people really think.

His most recent video, “Do foreigners in Japan really speak English?” sees Yuta and pals take to the streets of Shibuya to see how many visibly Western foreigners know conversational English. The aim of the video is to test the hypothesis, widely taken as fact in Japan, that “Westerners = English speakers.”

Let’s check out the video!

Every single person was either a native English speaker or a speaker of English as a second language.

As we’ve discussed before, some foreigners in Japan don’t like it when Japanese people speak English to them. In fact, some even get offended. Nobody likes to be pigeonholed or categorised, and  it’s easy enough to become frustrated when you’ve lived and worked in Japan for many years and speak the language fluently, and you’re constantly faced with well-meaning Japanese persons who address you in English, especially when they don’t even speak decent English. This usually only crosses into obnoxious territory in the case of Gaijin Hunters/English Vampires, who will stubbornly persist in speaking English to you even when it’s obvious you speak much better Japanese than they do English.

▼ Engrish: it’s probably better than nothing

Flickr/James Gochenouer

Certain stereotypes stubbornly pervade the Japanese consciousness, with axioms such as “foreigners can’t speak Japanese” and “all Westerners basically speak English” being taken as fact. Sometimes, this idea is so ingrained in people’s psyches that it cannot be overridden, even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary.

Generally, however, speaking English to westerners in Japan is done as an act of politeness, carried out with the best intentions.

And, there’s actual validity to this way of thinking. First, Japanese is a Category 5 language, which means it takes around 88 weeks of study to achieve fluency for a native English speaker, far more than any European language. Attaining fluency in Japanese is no mean feat, and something that many foreigners, even ones who’ve spent years in Japan, struggle to master.

Secondly, all Japanese people study English as a second language at school (whether or not the teaching is actually effective is another matter), whereas in native-English speaking countries, people usually learn European languages (and in Europe, they learn English), rather than Japanese.

Finally, English is a global language, with the third highest worldwide rate of native speakers. What’s more, speakers of English as a second language are estimated to exceed 1 billion.

So, isn’t it possible that Japanese people who automatically assume that their (at minimum) high-school level English is the best way to communicate with a “visible foreigner” are simply making the most logical deduction, rather than being racist or exclusionary?

Source and screenshots That Japanese Man Yuta