A friend sent me this link to the Japan Times this morning, with the comment, “I think we have all had both these experiences at some point.” He was absolutely right. Anyone I know who has spent more than a few months in Japan will have at least one incident where the Japanese person can't understand Japanese when a foreigner is speaking it. One memorable time, a Chinese-Canadian friend and I went to eat ramen. She spoke almost no Japanese. I ordered for us, and translated a question she had about one of the dishes to the waitress. The waitress and cook both kept talking to her and directing their attention to her even though it was obvious that my friend spoke virtually no Japanese. It didn't matter that I was fluent and she stumbled through "please" and "thank you." The thought process was: I looked foreign, she didn't; therefore she should be able to speak proper Japanese.
I’m in a sort of linguistic limbo right now. My Japanese is way too good for everyone to treat me like I don’t know what’s going on, but it’s not so good that I understand everything. I’ll have problems like missing the topic at the beginning of the conversation, so I don’t get the rest of it. Or I’ll misunderstand who is doing what to whom, though I’ll catch how many cookies were paid. Doesn’t matter though, because no matter how impeccable my Japanese is, I’ll still run into the occasional person who looks at me like I’m speaking Swahili when I talk to them.
The first time I remember this being a real problem was in my first or second year here. I’d gone to Tokyo with a friend to visit the sword museum near Harajuku. As many guide books and sites point out, it’s not easy to find. We knew we were in the right area, but unsure about which way to go from there. I asked an old woman — in Japanese — while pointing to a map — written in Japanese — where we were. Her reply? 「英語が分かりません！」(I don’t speak English.) I replied, again in Japanese, that I wasn’t speaking English, and that I just wanted to find the sword museum. But she said,「すみません、わからないよ！」(Loosely translated: “Hey, I told you, I don’t understand.”) At that point I gave up, apologized to her, and we looked for someone else who might be able to help. We never actually made it to the museum.
I think that behavior like that is actually one reason I lost interest in trying to improve my Japanese past a certain point. It seemed like I was getting more and more negative responses to my increasing fluency. People started deliberately talking over my head, or expecting native-like cultural as well as linguistic performance from me. I’m ashamed of it, but I did start playing the role of a semi-fluent bumbler because I got better treatment sometimes.
It’s an ego boost to hear Japanese girls squeal, 「日本語上手！」(Your Japanese is so good!) but they only do that when you’re at the “See Dick run. Run, Dick, run!” level of Japanese proficiency. If you want to pick up chicks, pretend you only speak a few phrases of Japanese. Scary but true, at least for the kind of girls you can pick up in an evening.
Now, of course, I’m pissed at myself for playing to type, and it has cost me a great deal of fluency that I could have acquired over those years. The problem is that fighting against any aspect of Japanese culture is like beating your head against the proverbial brick wall. The pain doesn’t stop until you stop trying so hard. I stopped trying years ago.