The Blue-Eyed Japanese Speaker

By Meredith Stephens

After multiple changes of aircraft I land in Tokuyama Airport, and am greeted by the northern hemispheric heat as I exit the terminal. Taxis are waiting for us on the kerb, and as I head towards the first one, the driver emerges to put my suitcases into the boot. I sit on the back seat in grateful silence, only rousing at intersections to give directions. When we arrive he rounds the fare off to give me a discount, and as he explains this, I laugh. Realizing that I have understood what he has said, he compliments me on my Japanese. The reason I laugh is that I am the one who usually gives tips and it is nice to be given a discount.

As I drag my suitcase down the lane to my house, my sprightly neighbour greets me, and says she was wondering what had become of me because the house lights hadn`t been on for a few days. I am grateful for her solicitude. I explain that a sudden illness in the family prompted me to make an urgent return to Australia. After a brief chat I enter my house to freshen up before the afternoon`s lesson.

The next morning I am off to work early on my bicycle, and I spot my solicitous neighbour on the street, collecting newspapers from the kerb, to raise money for tsunami victims. I wave at her enthusiastically. It`s hard to bow on a bicycle, and my neighbour would never have had a need to wave all of her life, not mixing with any foreigners. Nevertheless she returns my wave with a wide smile and urges gambatte (Keep at it!), knowing that I have just flown in the day before. I have two days to get through before the weekend.

* * *

Finally the weekend arrives. One of the pleasures I have been anticipating is the opportunity to do indigo dyeing by hand. Indigo is a natural, calming colour, and I harbor a desire to dye all of my clothes indigo. I take a collection of light-coloured clothes in natural fabrics to the indigo-dyeing facility. I hope they won`t treat me as a tourist by speaking to me in English, because of my foreign appearance. How could a tourist possibly find her way to the remote location where indigo is dyed? It takes local knowledge.

I take a selection of garments to the counter at the entrance to be weighed. It costs 15 yen per 10 grams to dye your own clothes indigo in the traditional way. I am issued with a ticket to dye three garments, and I head to the vat of dye. As I am greeted by the assistant I note that intense look of concentration that precedes an attempt to talk in an unfamiliar language. My appearance has prompted her to assume I am a monolingual English speaker, despite my opening gambit in Japanese. Maybe this is her one chance to speak English, so I decide to be patient and go along with the role play. She demonstrates how to immerse the garment in the vat of dye. I follow her instructions holding it under the surface,

“Don`t float,” she urges, laughing.

I wonder what faux pas I have committed. Perhaps I am not allowed to make waves in the vat. The second time she urges this, I realise that I am supposed to completely immerse the garment in the dye, and not allow it to rise to the surface.

I must stretch out each garment in the vat, to spread the dye evenly through the garment.

“Open”, she instructs, and I realise I am to extend the garment as it is immersed in the dye. Then she instructs me to take one of the garments out of the dye, saying “Knit”. I realise from the context that she wants me to take the knitted garment out of the vat. My classroom experience has taught me patience, and the context provides the meaning.

After rinsing the garments in buckets of running water, until the water runs clear, the assistant dries them off in the spin cycle of the washing machine. Another assistant folds them for me and puts them in a plastic bag. I eagerly take them home and dry them on the line. The next morning I am rewarded. My garments are now in the indigo blue I had been longing for.

* * *

At this stage I am not sure whether I prefer being patronized in English, or the expectation at my workplace that I will master the intricacies of Japanese honorifics. This will soon be put to the test. Back at work I have to visit a student called Yusuke on his English teaching practicum at the high school that he graduated from. We exchange emails and he tells me he is nervous but excited that I am coming. I dash into the office to pick up the requisite gift and a set of freshly printed calling cards with my name and affiliation on them. I look up the map of the high school on the internet, draw a rough sketch on some scrap paper, and cycle off to the school in the intense heat and humidity. I arrive at the high school without mishap, but struggle to find the entrance. After finding myself in the gym, I wander into the canteen thinking that must be the office, and am then given directions to the reception. I am shown to a waiting room, and then finally the time has come for me to be escorted to the classroom by one of the teachers. On the way I see calligraphy, including a massive work painted on a sheet of paper the size of a small room, decorating the school entrance. The teacher explains that this is a poem from the Heian Period, about a local mountain.

I am used to seeing Yusuke in casual clothes, and here he is in a black suit and a pristine white shirt. He smiles at me, and I try to reciprocate, while maintaining the reserved expression that is expected of me in this role. I sit at the back taking notes. The lesson

proceeds impeccably, and the children are fond of Yusuke. After the lesson we are shown to another room to have a discussion in private to reflect on the lesson.

‘I cried when you came. I was surprised that you looked so serious when you were observing my lesson,’ he admonished me.

‘Really? Did I look serious?’ I apologised, surprised.

I must have been too successful in my attempt to look like a visiting teacher from the university.

The next day I was due to visit another student on her practicum, Risa. Again, I make my way to the university office, collect a gift, and then look up the address of the school on the internet. I cycle off once again in the intense heat and easily manage to find the school. This time I have more success, and announce myself at the reception. I am shown to a small room adjoined to the staff room, and wait to be shown to the classroom when the lesson starts. This time, my student Risa arrives in the room, and unlike Yusuke, instead of crying, she gives me a hug. I am taken aback by this show of affection but reciprocate, lightly hugging her slight frame.

Risa is a dynamic and energetic teacher, and again demonstrates excellent teaching skills to the class of 35 children and eight other university student observers on their practicums.

So far my arrival at schools has been met with tears and a hug, so I wonder what is in store next. I am delighted to be greeted with so much feeling by the students on their practicums in the local schools. Their emotional responses demonstrate their familiarity with me and trust, even though I am always positioned as a foreigner. They challenge the stereotype of East-Asian reticence.

The other schools where our students are on their practicums are outside of our prefecture, so we must contact them by telephone rather than visit them in person. The young administrative officer has kindly anticipated my difficulties in using the formal register of Japanese for official communication, and has thoughtfully sent all of the teachers visiting schools a script. I know it is for my benefit alone, because the Japanese speakers will have no trouble whatsoever using this register. The administrative officer has saved my face by sending it to everyone. He has written it in Japanese characters, and although I can read them, my reading is somewhat slow. I can read them much more quickly if I transliterate them into romanized Japanese. I carefully rewrite my telephone script in romanization, and practise reading it as naturally as possible, trying to minimize my English accent. On the phone the receiver will have no forewarning of my foreign appearance, so I have to lessen the blow with comprehensible Japanese. The office worker has written out the scripts in a series- one for the conversation with the receptionist, another for the conversation with the principal, and another for the conversation with the supervising teacher. I hope that the telephone conversation will proceed in the assumed order.

I put off the telephone call daily, until it is the last day of the practicum, and I can’t procrastinate any more. I have rehearsed the honorific speech given to me by the office worker, and am ready to dial. The first conversation, with the receptionist, was anticipated correctly. I successfully begin in the scripted honorific Japanese, and am passed on to the principal.

‘She is a wonderful student’, he assures me enthusiastically.

‘How about her lesson plans?’ I query, following my script.

‘She produced an excellent lesson plan. I observed her lesson myself. I really hope she realizes her dream to become a teacher,’ he responded sincerely.

Now I have to move to the next section of my script.

‘Can I speak to the supervising teacher?’

‘Do you need to speak to her?’ he questions.

I realise that he has given me all of the information I need, so I go off script, and continue in honorific language that is not quite up to scratch, thanking him for providing a placement for our student.

For my one remaining phone call, I continue to procrastinate. Finally it is Friday, the last day of the practicum, and I have no choice. I telephone the receptionist using the script. I skip the next step, and ask for the supervising teacher. The teacher is unavailable. I telephone three more times that day, and each time the teacher is unavailable. At the end of the day I realise that my habit of procrastination has caught up with me. It is the end of the school day, and I haven’t managed to contact the supervising teacher. I arrange to telephone on Monday. In remorse I send an email to the office staff worker, explaining my failure. He kindly replies, and sends me an exemplar of what to write in my report for this scenario.

On Monday I rehearse my script again, and make the phone call, to no avail. This time the receptionist takes my phone number, and the supervising teacher calls me back. I follow my scripted questions, and again receive a favourable report on our student’s practicum.

I am able to write my reports for these four practicums, using English to reply to questions in Japanese. The administrative officer politely thanks me for these efforts. As for the next series of honorific phone calls, I have a year to continue to rehearse them until the next series of practicums, and to imagine how to respond to conversations which will inevitably be off-script. I can’t blame my Japanese interlocutors for their expectations of my Japanese which may be too high or too low. It is impossible for them to guess my proficiency based on my appearance, but given a choice between the low expectations of those restricting themselves to English, and the high expectations of those who expect me to master the register of honorifics, I would definitely prefer the latter.