For those of you who have wondered about the naturalization process in Japan, look no further than the site Becoming Legally Japanese. In particular, cast an eye upon the Questions section of the blog for answers to questions you may have (and answers that may surprise you). I highly recommend it.
In a recent post they directly address the question of Why Japanese assume that people who appear non-Asian can't speak Japanese and give a very plausible answer ("it's bad for business.") One that makes sense to me and is probably true in many places - not just Japan. And there is advice for how to avoid situations where the Japanese are most likely to speak English to a foreign Japanese-speaker.
It's a very thoughtful post and I recommend it as highly as I recommend the blog. But I do have some thoughts and questions of my own which I offer here. It's a great topic and one I wish we migrants/expatriates would talk about more.
English: The post was written from the perspective of English-speakers and English is clearly touted by all (including the Japanese government) as being "the" foreign-language to learn. Speakers of other languages (like my spouse) are forced to use it more than they would like. Think of English as a "lowest common denominator" language - the one most likely for both Japanese and foreigners to speak. And this is good for some business - no doubt about it. I do note, however, that in Osaka inside and outside of tourist areas there are signs that say "No English Menu" or "English menu available" which seems to indicate where tourists are and are not welcome. But wait! There are also plenty of signs that say "Chinese spoken."
Are the proprietors of the "No English" establishments committing economic suicide in support of some higher principle? That is a serious question because there does seem to be this enormous push by the Japanese government and people to learn English. I could well understand a resistance to that. I suspect that business decisions do drive a lot of this and English, contrary to the ideology of English as globalization, really isn't necessary for many businesses to thrive (or avoid going broke). In Osaka there are certainly many tourists but most of them are Chinese. And just from walking around the city for a few years, the impression I have is that they are the ones with the money. So perhaps it's about what kind of tourist a business wants to draw in. And here it looks like Chinese is an equal or better bet to draw customers.
Class: And here I go into a subject that many Americans are mighty uneasy about. I suggest that "tourist" is sometimes used as a code for middle or lower-class Americans. These are the people without the time (almost no vacation) or money (they have jobs or families at home they can't leave) to do more than spend a few days or weeks in a foreign country. That is not to say that American migrants or expatriates are rich - they may indeed very often come from the same socioeconomic class as the tourists. But the American migrants found a way to go abroad and stay. And having earned that social capital (often though much hard work and hardship) and raised one's status, how horrible and embarrassing to meet... yourself. What you might have been if you hadn't applied for that visa. There is a sick feeling that associating with them might drag you back, much as if you were the first person in your family to graduate from college and get a white-collar job. Suddenly your old friends from your old town showed up one day to meet the family and drag you off to a bar to talk about people and places you had hoped you would never see again (or only see when visiting family back in the home country).
I don't know if the above is true of anyone but myself. (But I suspect that it is.) And I should know because I have felt all of those things at different times in France and I have sat with my fellow integrated migrants and talked about how to avoid those "short-timers." If the author of the blog post had come to France I would have treated him badly and not wanted to associate with him/her since I would have assumed that he was just another of those "tourists" (and yes I would have been using that word as code for class). I would have also treated badly those migrants that I deemed "not integrated enough" or those not lucky enough to live in Paris or those Americans who still wore tennis shoes and a whole host of other things. It is safe to say that I was a perfect class-conscious snob.
How I came to this realization is a story for another day. Suffice to say that the idea of separating friends by their level of integration and language ability reminds me a lot of separating friends into "those who have MAs" and "those who don't." And while I do understand that these strategies would be helpful when it comes to learning a language and not being treated like a tourist, I have to ask if something is also missed when we do this. If the author of the post, for example, came to Paris and I dismissed him/her as an ignorant, non-French speaker tourist, then I would lose the benefit of meeting someone who has a whole host of experiences that I am ignorant about. He/she in turn might find out a few things about what it's like to live in France which would broaden his/her experience of what it means to live in Japan. In short, we both might learn something from the experience, but if we aren't open to even acknowledging each other than we both miss out. That is how I have come to see it.
Integration: Finally, I would agree that the total immersion approach is probably the most effective way for learning a language quickly. However, where that happens is important and goes beyond restaurants, karaoke bars, family, and friends. I am talking about the world of work. Most of us have to do that. That is one area where the stakes are highest, but one where I would say you get the most gains. Your sposue and friends may forgive your accent and grammatical errors, the poorly written email or lack of accent marks, but your boss and colleagues are less amused.
From what I have seen most Anglophone foreigners work in the "cultural services industry" where their foreignness and language skills are what got them the visa and the jobs in the first place. I believe that it is very hard to speak English for 8-10 hours a day and master the local language at the same time. I'm sure that some do manage it but I would argue that they are the minority. Those I have met who really have mastered Japanese had the time to study before they started working and so they were able to go to Japanese universities or apply for jobs in Japanese companies. So I speculate that there is a catch-22 situation here where, for example, teaching English (or in English) means that it takes longer to learn the language. But without local language skills (which include literacy) it is extremely difficult to get a better job in a Japanese company (or a French one for that matter.) I note that in addition to the sterotype of the visible-minority foreigner lacking Japanese language skills, there is also one that sees them as all teaching English for a living. And that one, I'm afraid, probably is true. But if there were better economic and occupational integration than I strongly suspect that better cultural integration will follow. (And that goes for migrants/expats in other countries as well.) The problem is solving the catch-22 problem and I have no good answers for that one.
My .02 and please go ahead and contradict/argue/agree. I'm offering this up for discussion, not as a lecture where I think I'm right and that's all there is to it. In fact. rereading this I can see where I could easily argue with myself. So fire away, my friends!