Monday, July 06, 2015

Language will NOT be a Barrier in Shizuoka

This is another blog entry to have you consider Shizuoka, Japan for the 2017 WorldCon.
One reason someone might choose one of the other sites bidding for the 2017 WorldCon would the perception of a language barrier.  The two North American cities, Washington D.C. and Montreal, are guaranteed to be English friendly.  Most Europeans seem to speak English as a second language, so Helsinki would be fine as well.  
Japanese, on the other hand, is just too...  Different.  You can’t even sound out the street signs.  This is what someone might be thinking.
I don’t think you need to worry, though.  Here is what my experience has taught me.

1) There will be more English there than you might think.  
By the time they graduate from High School, the average student has about six years of English study.  Japanese going into service or travel industries often get more training on top of that.  This is most apparent in the larger cities, like Tokyo and Osaka, where numerous times people would come up to me when I looked lost and ask, “Do you need  help?”  Even in a smaller town like Shizuoka, the hotels have people on staff to assist you in English.  
This was actually a disappointment for me when I went to Japan in 2007.  I’d been studying Japanese for about a year at the time.  I was looking forward to using it.  
The first time I stood in a line at Narita Airport, I would listen to the attendant greeting the passengers.  
“Irashaimase!” is the traditional greeting given to customers entering your business.  It means something like, “It’s an honor to have you here.”
They helped one customer after another in typical Japanese efficiency.  
I was waiting my turn, practicing in my head what I would say in Japanese.
I stepped up to the counter.  I opened my mouth to make my request...
“Welcome!  How can I be of service to you?”
I don’t think I ever got my “Irashaimase!” 
The closest I came was when I went to have dinner at one of the two best ramen shops in Kyoto, which happened to be next door to the other one of the two best ramen shops in Kyoto (only the Japanese would do something like this, I think).  
After waiting in line (both shops had long lines to get in extending in the opposite direction from either entrance), my fellow members on the tour stepped inside and up to the hostess station.  
"Irashai!" She said as grabbed some menus, using a more informal version of "Irashaimase!"  When she turned to look at us, though, she went stock still and her eyes widened in surprise.  
"Oh!  She doesn't know English!  I can use my Japanese!"  Again, I opened my mouth to display what I hoped to be my hard won level of fluency.
Before I could utter a word, she spun the menus around in her hand and thrust them toward my face.  There, on the back, was the English version of the menu.  To order, all we had to do was point. 
Damn!  I soon learned that if I wanted to use my Japanese I would have to just use it, even as they answered back in English. 
But if that doesn't convince you, then remember this...
2) This IS the 21st Century.  We have tools at hand to help.  
When I went in 2007, I didn't have a smart phone.  And Google Translate wasn't available.  Today it's very different.  The Japanese have been ahead of the United States in this area of technology from the consumer standpoint for a while.  I would guess that if there was any issue in getting something across, someone will pull out their phone, type something, then show you the result.  Google Translate can come up with some pretty odd translations at time, but the basic meaning will come across.  
One time, just outside the Inari Shrine in Kyoto, something like that happened to me.  I spotted a bakery and decided to buy some “anpan” for me and my roommate on the trip.  Anpan is a bun filled with red bean paste, very sweet and tasty.  
I asked the girl behind the counter in Japanese if they had any anpan.  She lead me to two bins against the wall, saying they had “koshian” and “tsubuan.”  
Huh?  I had not heard these words before.  I asked her to repeat them more slowly.  
Instead of repeating them, she pointed to the first bin and said, “sumuuzu.”  She then pointed to the second bin of identical looking anpan and made a pinching motion with her thumb and forefinger.  “Tsubu...  Tsubu...  Tsubu...” she repeated with each pinch.  
I shook my head.  It made no sense.  She asked me to wait then retreated to the back.  She returned after a moment leading another young lady.  She was explaining the situation very rapidly in Japanese, pointing at the two bins.  
With an air of authority and confidence, this new store clerk stepped up to me.  She extended her hand to point at the first bin. 
“Sumuuzu.”  She then pointed at the other bin, and lifted her other hand up to make a pinching gesture.  “Tsubu.”  
OK.  Not a help.  
But the new girl did have her cell phone with her.  She flipped it open, typed something into it then showed me the screen.  A Japanese-English dictionary.  The top entry was the word, “Grain.”  
Ah!  I got it.  The first set of anpan had a creamy, “smooth,” filling.  The second set had a filling made from coarsely chopped red beans that was “grainy.”  I bought a dozen of the anpan with the “sumuuzu” filling. 

Which brings me to the third point about language being a barrier.  This one is not so much an assurance than it is a reassurance.
3) There will be misunderstandings.  But they’ll be worked out.
When I arrived in Japan in 2007, they were hosting the International Track and Field Championships that year.  The headquarters for the event was the same hotel we were staying in Osaka.  That first night I heard almost no Japanese, though I did hear lots of French, German, Swedish, Norwegian, Spanish and English.  Lots and lots of English.  I felt more like I was in a hotel in Los Angeles than Osaka.  
I boarded the elevator to return to my room on the seventeenth floor.  A crowd of people followed me in, pushing me to the far back corner.  A Japanese woman dressed in a sweat suit was standing by the door and the buttons to push.  
"Sumimasen...  Juu nana kai, onegaishimasu!"  Excuse me...  Seventeenth floor, please!
The woman acted like she didn't hear me.  Well...  It was crowded and noisy, so...
"Sumimasen!  Juu nana kai no botan wo oshite kudasai!"  Excuse me!  Please press the button for the seventeenth floor!
Still nothing.  Did this Japanese woman not like Americans?  Was my Japanese pronunciation THAT bad?  
"Sumimasen!"  I raised my voice until everyone in the car stopped chatting and looked at me.  "Juu nana kai de oritai desu.  Sono botan wo oshite kuremasen ka."  Excuse me!  I want to get off on the seventeenth floor.  Could you do me the favor of pushing that button for me?
The woman heard me then, turned and looked back at me.  
“Are  ya’ll talkin’ ta’me?”  She was with the American team.  From Texas.  She pushed the button for me after that. 
It goes to show you that even between two English speakers, there can be problems.  With patience and persistence, you'll be fine.


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