Foreigners who speak Japanese are able to understand Japan better than people who cannot speak the language, according to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. For most foreigners, mastering the language is a daunting task. Fortunately, the Japanese themselves are striving for better English and claim to have invented a wonderful machine which translates Japanese to English if you hold it in front of your mouth when speaking.
Some foreign diplomats based in Tokyo had a treat this week: lunch with the Prime Minister. He chose guests who speak Japanese and praised them for learning his country’s language.
“It is very encouraging for us to have people like you who can understand and speak Japanese,” Mr Abe told his guests.
“I would like people like you, ambassadors, to speak about the true colours of Japan and charms of Japan in what I hope will become a powerful force in promoting understanding of Japan,” he said.
I have respect for any foreigners who can understand the prime minister’s Japanese. Despite intense efforts to learn the language, I would find it difficult to grasp a phrase like that, especially if it were delivered in the formal type of language known as keigo.
The article led me to ponder the question: how much of what I know about Japan came through speaking about it in English? And what extra things have I discovered about the country through learning Japanese?
Before attempting an answer, let me share some responses to Prime Minister Abe’s speech on the discussion area of Japan Today, which is often used by foreigners who know Japan well.
A poster called Katsu asked: “Isn’t the job of ambassadors to promote their countries’ interests in their host country and not the other way around? That’s why they live in their host countries but don’t get paid by their host countries.”
A poster named Strangerland said people who understand Japanese “can obtain information that is not filtered through translation (translation almost always loses some nuances and subtleties), and in learning a language, one learns more of the culture… (because) language shapes the thought of the people.”
The majority of things I have learned about Japan comes from conversations I have had with Japanese people in English. After that, books, newspapers and the internet written in English have shaped my understanding. But my enthusiasm to learn the Japanese language and my willingness to use it has encouraged the Japanese to tell me more about their country, so my understanding has deepened.
Fortunately for foreigners, the Japanese enjoy learning English. For example, this week we read of a plan to test junior high school students in English conversation.
However, all that study is tiring so how fantastic to read about a machine that automatically translates spoken Japanese into English. It appears to be an old fashioned megaphone, with a clever translation device built in. Speak into the end and your Japanese words change to English. You can judge for yourself how well it works by watching the video.
I would love one for Christmas.