3 Times Speaking Japanese Paid Off
Learning to speak Japanese with any amount of fluency is hard. I know; I speak Japanese to some degree after over two years of living in Japan and an even greater amount of time studying the language.
Possibly the greatest reward that comes from your efforts is when a Japanese person or group suddenly finds out suddenly that you speak their language. Some of the most glorious of moments in life come when someone suddenly realizes that the foreigner next to them understands exactly what they have been saying.
Speaking Japanese in Mexico
For example, one of my favorite experiences speaking Japanese was in Mexico. I was privileged to study abroad for a short while and visited many of the ruin sights. I was one of the few students on the trip who spoke no Spanish, and the only one to speak a second language other than Spanish. I felt out of place more than once, but really enjoyed the trip.
I remember my visit to Chichen Itza, one of the seven wonders of the world, with particular fondness. I had seen several Asians as we toured around Southern Mexico and Guatemala, but never found anyone who spoke Japanese. We visited Chichen Itza the day before we went home, and my hopes at meeting anyone who spoke Japanese were very small.
So, it was without any expectations that I passed close by a group of Asians I spotted wandering the grounds around El Castillo. Though I didn’t have any expectations, I just had to just to take a quick listen to see if I recognized the language.
To my utter astonishment, as I passed by the group I caught the end of a sentence that was indeed Japanese.
I whirled around and immediately asked where they were from.
You never saw a more surprised group of Japanese people than when this little white boy down in southern Mexico started speaking Japanese to them. They had no idea which way was up. I felt immediately like a celebrity as people crowded around wanting to talk. (I felt the same way when we saw them again the next day at Tulum.)
After about 10 minutes of conversation the party started to break up. I did spend another 20 minutes or so walking around with a grandfatherly sort of fellow. He enthusiastically spoke of Japanese-American relations, wishing both countries the best in their endeavors several times.
It wasn’t until after we got on the bus over an hour later that one of the professors (who had a Hispanic mother and Irish father, and spoke perfect Spanish) saw me grinning myself silly and asked with a knowing smile what I was so happy about.
“Those were MY people!”
He just threw his head back and laughed.
Speaking Japanese at work
Another incident occurred while working at a tour bus company in Alaska. Cruise ships showed up every day, and my younger brother and I worked at the company in Southeast Alaska for five years. It was an absolute riot, driving tourists to the glacier or the whale-watching boat docks and telling them all about Alaska.
Both of us just so happened to speak Japanese, and were very excited one day when our boss called us in and said that which ever one of us would pay him more would be privileged to drive a Japanese group around.
In a flash, both of us reached for our wallets (and found that neither of us actually had anything to give him). He got a chuckle out of it and in a magnanimous gesture said that the charter group had requested two buses. We would each drive a group around free of charge. He had informed the tour leader that he just so happened to have two Japanese speakers for their group and would have them ready for the group’s tour to the glacier.
We were beside ourselves with excitement on the appointed day, and couldn’t wait for dispatch to call us down to the docks. Boss was there to make sure things went smoothly, and after an eternity and a half the tour leader made her way down the gangplank to come and see if her buses were ready.
Boss greeted Tour Leader, who spoke English well enough to ask which buses were hers. Right after getting an answer, she inquired as to the location of the promised Japanese speakers. Boss nodded in the direction of brother and I, who were wearing our bus driver uniforms and standing right next to him listening in on the conversation.
She looked straight over our heads. And couldn’t find the people Boss had indicated.
She asked again, and Boss said that they were standing right here.
It took a moment, but she eventually realized that the two young bus drivers that a second ago couldn’t possibly do more than breathe and drive at the same time were in fact her Japanese speaking guides. And I didn’t have my camera on me, which was a darn shame.
Her eyes bugged out to the point that I though the nice thing to do would be to let her know that we did indeed speak Japanese. I greeted her, introduced myself, and explained that we had each lived in Japan for two years, though in different areas and times. She recovered nicely, and the three of us chatted for a bit before getting down to business. And, it was most entertaining to have her agree to not tell our passengers that I spoke Japanese until after we were all settled on the bus.
To this day, I think one of Boss’s favorite war stories is that first Japanese charter. Either that or the Otter Pop incident of 2013, but we won’t talk about that here.
Speaking Japanese in Alaska
And possibly my favorite experience where speaking Japanese came in at the perfect moment occurred while on a date with my beautiful soon-to-be fiancé.
Without a doubt the best restaurant view in Southeast Alaska is from the top of the mountain in downtown Juneau. Accessible via “The Tram,” a gondola that shuttles people up and down the mountain all day, the Timberline Grill has pretty good food as well.
I asked the beautiful young lady that I am now married to if she would accompany me to dinner up at the restaurant. She eagerly asked if she could dress up for the occasion.
And boy did she dress up! Hair, pink dress and makeup; the works. She looked absolutely stunning.
So it was with no small measure of pride that I escorted her up the mountain for a romantic evening meal. And just as we got off of the tram and were headed to the restaurant, I clearly heard a woman’s voice ask a question in Japanese.
“Hmmm, I wonder if it’s a wedding?”
I immediately looked around for the source of the voice. Just off to my left, sure enough, stood a Japanese couple. As there were no other possible candidates to whom that comment could have been directed, I decided there was no way on earth I could pass this up.
“No, this isn’t a wedding. This is just date night.”
The poor lady was flabbergasted. Just about the last place on earth you would expect to find a foreigner who spoke Japanese, and the one person she made a comment about just so happened to understand exactly what she said. The chances were astronomical. Her reaction? Priceless.
While in Japan, I rarely assume that no one around me speaks English. You really never have any sure way of knowing when someone will know exactly what you are saying.
Best to always err on the side of caution.