My husband and our son went back to England for a month about a week ago. So, it is just me, our daughter and our au pair who will have to survive just the three or us for the next 4 weeks. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a helpless female relying on my husband to chew my food for me, but I have to admit that I am a little worried because I feel that now I am on my own trying to sort things out in a culture I don’t know very well, in a language whose basics I’m even yet to learn. I feel it’s somehow less stressful trying to pay our gas and electricity bills at the corner shop or transferring our rent from my Japanese account to our landlord’s account on an ATM that displays only some of its functions in English when there are two of us there, even when both of us are equally clueless about how to do these things. Luckily, our Kiwi estate agent, who speaks Japanese offered to help me with the payment of our rent and my colleagues at work have been beyond helpful in translating our bills and letters, buying ‘Oyster’ cards for public transport, investigating where I can do the hobbies that I’ve implied that I might want to try during our stay in Japan, chasing missed Ikea deliveries, organizing bank card deliveries etc. I really don’t know if we could have survived the first 5 weeks of our stay here without all the help we have received.
The main reason why things would have been difficult, or impossible, to sort out without the help we’ve received is to do with many Japanese people’s English-language skills. I mean, if your children want a career in hospitality or customer service industries, send them to Japan. I guarantee, that experience will transform them! But if you want them to learn English, you might want to think twice before sending them over here. Japanese people are a bit like Glaswegians in that their English is extremely poor. In terms of writing, there are mis-spelled, grammatically incorrect and downright gibberish signs everywhere in Osaka. I think the Japanese have not heard of ‘proof reading by a native-speaker’ or even ‘proof reading by a non-native speaker with a relatively good understanding of how the English language works’. Anyway, I’ve attached below a small selection of erroneous signs I’ve encountered within the past 5 weeks. I’m not joking, if one was randomly to pick three signs written in ‘English’ when walking around Osaka, you would be lucky if only one of those three has an English-language error. The level of errors varies. Some of the errors like ‘Please power off the mobile phone’ which I saw on the train the other day, is not too bad, given that all English speakers can understand what the message of that sign is. It is just the unconventional use of the combination of the noun (power) + preposition (off) as a phrasal verb (power off). However, some of the signs make no sense at all, although usually one can guess what message the writer intended to convey. There is also the matter of typos. I mean, I am not as anal about typos as my husband or my mother-in-law, but the initial humour factor wears down pretty quickly when mis-spelled words are everywhere.
In addition to errors in writing, many Japanese people also make several errors with English pronunciation. Their difficulty in distinguishing, for instance, the sounds r and l and b and v means that:
Tom and Jerry becomes Tom and Jelly
Really? becomes Rearry?
Steering committee becomes Stealing committee
Hello! becomes Herro!
Right becomes light (or write)
Vermicelli becomes bermicelli
Libby become Livvy
I am not trying to imply here that Finnish or English speakers do not make mistakes when they speak foreign languages. Because they do. For instance, most Finnish people are unaware of the fact that the s-sound at the end of the words dogs and cats have different qualities, dogs ends in z-type sound while cats end in s. They also struggle to identify that certain word-initial consonants (e.g. p, t, k) need to be produced with a puff of air. Hence, a typical Finnish person attempting to produce the word ‘pill’ in English sounds more like ‘bill’ to an English person. I can’t resist and point out though that while most Japanese and Finnish people try to learn English (and other foreign languages) most native English-speakers have the motivation level of a kangaroo to learn anything other than the phrase ‘Do you speak English?’ in a foreign language. Let’s however imagine that there was an English person, who was eager to learn a foreign language, for instance, an English statistician who wanted to challenge themselves with a particularly difficult but rule-based language like Finnish (I’ve understood that statisticians like rule-based phenomena. Hence they are one for those few people who would choose to study Finnish). Even if the stats guy (or gal) took to the Finnish inflectional morphology like our son has taken to eating octopus dumplings they would probably struggle with the vowel qualities of Finnish and find it difficult to discriminate between long and short vowels and consonants. Consequently, if the statistician asked a Finnish person for a pear (päärynä) the chances are that he would be handed a potato (peruna) because s/he would produce the first vowel of the word too short and mispronounce the second. The point of this paragraph is to illustrate that even though Japanese people are particularly bad at English, learning foreign languages is difficult for everyone. After all, I have lived in Osaka for about 5 weeks now and one of my key sentences in Japanese is still ‘Do you speak English?’
The fact that it is rare to find a Japanese person who speaks good English, means that foreigners stick together. Yesterday on the train, a Korean man asked me, rather than the 40 Japanese people in that carriage, whether the train was going to a specific station. Any non-Japanese person is more likely to be able to give an answer even when they, of course, are less likely to know the city and its train routes as well as the 40 local people. In the park and children’s playgrounds Westerners also sniff down other Westerners and start chatting. Perhaps ‘sniffing’ is not a very good word to use here. The reason being that an old fashioned Japanese view is that Westerners stink. I bet you didn’t see that coming! Japanese people (used to) think that the fact that Westerners consume relatively large quantities of dairy products make them smell of cheese. This snippet of information has curbed our 20 year-old au pair’s previous habit of drinking several pints of milk a day. I believe he quite likes the local ladies and does not want to ruin his chances of getting invitations to ‘karaoke’ by unpleasant aromas of Edam.
In addition to Westerners, our au pair and I have been lucky enough to have had a chance to talk to Japanese people in public places as well. It is a shame that the bonkers old lady who came and talked to us last Sunday in the park had an extremely limited vocabulary of English and the only things we could establish were: (a) what my, my daughter’s and my husband’s names were, (b) whether I wore make up, and (c) whether my eyes were truly green (which they are). Our au pair got his share of this lovely old lady as well. We still don’t know whether she was asking or proposing when she looked at our au pair and repeatedly uttered ‘wife’.
I have to admit, I am a little jealous at my husband for being back in the UK. First, he gets to see all our friends, and the second night back in Brighton he went to the pub with some of his friends. I have not been to the pub here yet, because of our childcare arrangements were not in place when my husband was here, and now that I have childcare that I could take advantage of I don’t really know anyone I could go out with. You see, I don’t know anyone else in Osaka other than my work colleagues. The problem is that (a) it might be a bad idea to expose my cider and gin & tonic loving side to my work-colleagues and (b) no-one at work has actually asked me out drinking (yet). I don’t know whether it is because they don’t like me (or my cheesy aroma) or because they themselves do not go out either. But it is starting to look like my gin & tonic days are over.
Second, I am jealous at my husband because he can walk into a shop and buy European stuff at ‘normal’ prices. I mean, some things in Japan are really inexpensive. For instance, going out for food in Osaka is roughly the same price as going to the supermarket and buying ingredients for that food and cooking it yourself. So we eat out at least a couple of times a week and I never take packed lunch with me to work. But some imported goods can be a complete rip-off. The other night after work I went to a local shop to buy some hair spray. I had noticed that many Japanese hair sprays weren’t quite the same as the ones I usually use, so when I found some non-Japanese hair spray in the shop I bought three bottles. It was only at home that I realized that I had paid for my hairspray in total 4500 JPY (£27 or €35). I know you are thinking: what the hell am I raving about. It’s only 9 GBP per bottle! Yes, it is only 9 pounds but it is about twice as much as what you would pay for that product in England. I’m Finnish and therefore tight with money. So, spending that extra £13.50 on those hair styling products really pissed me off and made me promise myself that I would check prices more carefully from now on.
Third, while in England, my husband gets to eat English and European food. I am getting so desperate to having a burger and chips for a change that I am actually seriously considering doing something I have not done since my mid 20s – going to McDonalds. Japanese food is really tasty, but there is only so much rice and noodles a Westerner can take. 14 days into our Japanese experience my husband and I were already dying for something other than rice/noodles. So we went for pizza – with some high hopes I might add. I can’t emphasize enough how disappointing that meal was. It was disappointing for two reasons: (a) the pizza was not the size of a pizza that you get in England or Finland. It was about one quarter of it (see photo). So, size-wise it certainly wasn’t satisfying, and we nearly ordered a second lot of the same, but then felt that we would have insulted the chef had we done so. (b) I would not exactly call the mountain of salad leaves on a soggy frisbee ‘a pizza’.
The cross-cultural cuisine exchange does not quite work in England either. A couple of years ago we had an Italian student stay at ours for 4 weeks. When she was leaving to go back to Italy, she gave us 5 kilos of sausages that she had kept in her room. She explained that the assumption amongst Italian people is that English people cannot cook pasta; they over-cook it. And I am sure the Italians are right: many people do over-cook pasta. So she was well prepared for her England experience and brought with her 4 weeks worth of rations. Without sounding too pleased with myself, I take the fact that she left us her rations to the last sausage to mean that one Italian person learned that a Finnish/English person can cook pasta (nearly) as well as an Italian person!
One good thing about my husband being back in England is that when he comes back he can bring with him some tights for me. I did bring several pairs with me when we arrived in Japan but 5 weeks of wear is showing. The fact that Japanese hosiery shops do not have what my husband calls ‘a Godzilla section’ I cannot find tights/stockings big enough to fit me. The biggest size in most Japanese sock and tight shops seems to be L-LL. Presumably translating into Large-Large Large. This size, according to the tight packaging, corresponds to a person’s height 155-170cm (so Large would fit a person who is 155cm (5ft) tall!). The fact that I am approx. 170cm tall should therefore entail that the LL size fits me, but think again. My legs are not as thin as Japanese women’s legs. This means that some of the length of the tight goes in the width. This in turn means that tights whose upper limit fits 170cm person (with skinny legs) the crutch will be somewhere in the region of my knees when I try to squeeze into them. So, this Godzilla’s husband will be her tight-mule on his travels between England and Japan.