I know it sounds like a weird topic – “Is It a Crime to Speak English in Japan?” But this question reflects a number of experiences I had as a Japanese living in Japan. I’ve always loved language and have spoken English fluently since I was a teenager. Later, I learned French. But whenever I spoke English or French too fluently to Westerners, weather they were exchange students, English teachers, or visitors, I would be stared at by Japanese as if I were committing a crime.
Japan is a group oriented society which values conformity. There is a certain comfort in knowing that the people around you are similar to you in certain ways. But when you stand out too much, it quickly attracts negative attention and can create problems. In my case my English fluency was something that was hard for many people to achieve although they wanted to and French was almost out of the question. Throw in a lot of jealousy and it created a situation where I had to be careful how much I spoke those languages around others when interacting with Westerners. If I didn’t, I would have to deal with uncomfortable looks and sarcastic comments like “are you really Japanese?” which really made me feel bad.
Group oriented societies like Japan are self-policing. This helps keep the harmony and uniformity. But for those who deviate too far from the standard there is a lot of pressure and even group bullying to deal with. It can be quite abusive. This is unfortunate because there are many Japanese who are interested in learning foreign languages and have a lot of potential. But many who study language (English being the most popular), only ever progress so far, hitting a type of glass ceiling created by the society.
Because Japanese is only spoken in Japan, languages are like bridges or passports for us. Despite all of the trade, mass media, and the Internet, Japanese don’t always feel connected to the rest of the world, and won’t until society can become more accepting of diversity.
When I was bullied by a large group of Japanese because of my language skills I was isolated from society. I didn’t have friends and my family even treated me differently. But I always had faith in me. I always believed in myself. I thought that some day life would change and that’s why I continued to put a lot of effort into studying English and French. That isolation made me focus even more on studying languages.
My dream has come true now. I’m living in the United States with my American husband and speaking English freely without hesitation or worry. I can connect with the rest of the world. To me languages offer me a lot in life. They’ve also changed my perception of life. That’s why learning language is so important.
By me writing this, I want Japanese people to continue studying languages. I know it might be tough to speak different languages in Japan. You might experience a lot of friction with the society. But that’s OK, because some day you will be speaking those languages freely everyday like I am now. So please don’t give up!
Where will language take you?