Turnover notes from the depths of my desk drawer: Communicating in Japanese, Part 1

In the drawer adjacent to my desk are papers stuffed at random, filling the files to the brim. There are old weekly schedules. There are  copies of articles written by previous Pep Officers, one written by Captain J.M. Ellicott in 1947 about Japanese students at the United States Naval Academy , filled with typical adjective-laden Naval prose.  There is an original copy of an article written by a Pep Officer, which I can deduce was written in the early 1980’s, due to its mention of the Imperial Naval Academy that existed “40 years ago.”  And, although incomplete, their is a two-page copy of an article called “EtaJima, the Dartmouth of Japan”, which is astutely written, in particular the author’s observation of the “nearest approach to misbehavior in my three years at Eta Jima:”

One day, during the very hot summer weather, I came into the classroom and found the words, “We want to sing an English Song!” written on the blackboard. The cadets would never have though of doing such a thing in one of their instructor’s classes, and the impression I got from their shy smiles and triumphant chuckles was that they had pulled off a very daring prank.

Their is also a large volume of turnover notes on my office computer. They are as casual as a saved email correspondence between on-coming and off-going Pep Officers and as formal as an 8,000 word document that seems to be an ongoing document updated as the current officer sees fit. Some of these turnover notes are handwritten and saved in old-three ring binders. Perhaps due to the intimate means of hand writing a document, the handwritten documents include as much about the qualitative side of the job as the quantitative.  One gem that I came across was written in 1991, but an unnamed officer, simply titled “Communications.” It includes advice about the difference in Japanese language and culture. Upon reading it, I have felt better about the many confounding aspects of my transition to this country. I would like to share with you the first part of this advice, which focuses on the mechanics of the Japanese language:

Communications: This has been one of the biggest problems here, if not the biggest.  Don’t know whether I can discuss it intelligently or not, but I’ll try. One big problem is, of course, the language. This is normally no cause for concern-the everyday dealings are very easy in Japanese. However, when you’re dealing with something important, make doubly sure that you are understood and understand what’s said to you. Don’t be embarrassed to stop them and say you don’t understand.  A minute of clearing an uncertain point is well worth the effort.  You’ll find that some people take your ability for granted and they talk to you just like they would another Japanese. I’ve come to understand them, even though they talk fast, but this takes time. Just tell them to slow down. By my experience, they slow down for about two sentences and then “resume base speed.”

Along these lines, do not get upset when you find that you do not understand speeches of instructions/directions. These employ difficult Japanese and it would most likely take the best part of 10 years. So see the light in this area.  Also in the language area, you’ll find an extreme reluctance on the part of some people to communicate with you in either English or Japanese. They are either shy or ashamed or afraid of things foreign or a combination of these and others. I haven’t found an answer. I’ve had instances when I would ask directions or something and use perfect Japanese and the person wouldn’t understand me. I say wouldn’t understand, but I knew he did understand! It’s simply a refusal to believe that a foreigner can speak Japanese. This kind of thing is very frustrating.

With these people, and the people who are reluctant to talk to you, you can expect rather cold treatment.  These cases are very few, though, and would happen anywhere. Just telling you so you’ll know that it happens to everyone. Language is a problem–there’s no way around that–but it’s definitely not the biggest problem in communication at Eta Jima. Indeed, it’s probably your greatest asset.


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