Inference and the Japanese Language


Confusion from vanpelt's photostream


The Japanese language usually relies on the listener to infer a lot of the meaning. “Samui” just means “cold” but should be understood to mean “I’m cold or “It’s cold” depending on the situation. I think speech is kept deliberately vague so each party can infer their own personally satisfactory meaning from any conversation and that keeps things nicely amicable.

This sounds like a great idea but it does seem to have unexpected draw backs. Last night for instance I had a text message (on my mobile phone) and it said

“Did you forget your English class at Fureaikan today? Everyone is waiting for you! Can you come to the Fureaikan now?”

This was from my Japanese teacher. Now I know there is some place called the Fureaikan, it’s like a community center, and I know there are English classes taught there. In fact I’ve covered twice for a friend “teaching” his advanced class, which is mainly lonely old people who speak pretty fluent English – in no way do I actually have class that I regularly teach. After passing some text messages back and forth I get to the bottom of it. It seems that in a brief passing conversation more than a year ago with my Japanese teacher, something along the lines of “There’s an English class that wants an English teacher – can you do it?” to this I made a non-committal reply assuming the hint was taken (the hint being: No).

Crazy lady from Orin Boborin's flickr stream

Obviously we each understood this conversation differently. With hindsight it’s obvious that from this exchange I was suppose to infer that: I would be expected to begin teaching a class over an entire year later an a certain date, at a certain time – also I was to infer the level of the students and what they’d like to be taught. Unfortunately, for me, my Japanese isn’t quite that good yet … but I’m practising.

The day before I’d had another one of these conversations come back and bite me. I believe I’d had a conversation about three months ago that had ended with the following agreement:

“If I’m in school one day in the summer and free, provided we talk to the principle, I can leave my school and come to your school and play with your kids”

Which turned out to be “I will suddenly and continually start to call you and send you letters several weeks hence. One Wednesday your spirit will break and you will agree to something that I must clearly by now realise you don’t want to do. Immediately after school you will be driven to a small wooden lodge in the hills 8 miles away. There your working day will be extended by continuing to entertain and teach children English while I continually refer to you as ‘Josh’. When the night is of the thickest blackness that it is likely to get for the night – I’ll drive you back, give you an envelope and suggest this becomes a regular thing.”

These things seem to happen from time to time (I guess the above was one of the betters ones as the envelope had money in it but they usually when least expected or wanted). I think my art of saying no needs to be refined. There is stereotype of the polite Japanese person and generally it is true but there are definitely some pushy ones too. These are the people which are great to have helping you cut through layers of bureaucracy but awful to have, when, to take an example from my own experiences: They would unexpectedly like you to sing. Now. In front of a room full of Japanese environmentalists at a conference that you are attending. You have to wonder at this point what the image of “foreigner” in Japan is!
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