Foreigners in Japan: Not a Language Barrier, But a Stupid Barrier

If you’re foreign in Japan, there isn’t just a prevailing assumption that you don’t speak Japanese, there’s an assumption that you are completely stupid.

Ever see Lost in Translation? That scene where Bill Murray keeps doing something wrong, but he doesn’t know what, during a commercial shoot in Japan? The director speaks for paragraphs, but the translator only says five words to him. It’s a famous scene, and one I particularly love, because it summarizes how often miscommunications happen in Japan, even when your Japanese is plenty good enough, or even perfect.

The above in mind, here’s what happened I went in for an MRI the other day…

For background, I was sent in for an MRI after a sports doctor x-rayed my back and concluded that my recent tailbone pain wasn’t related to the weird twitching in my legs and face.

However, twitching legs and a cheeks are kinda weird. And they make it really hard to sleep. I want to make sure this is like, benign, or just a symptom of stress or something and not a sign of something more serious. Given that it’s been going on — and getting worse — for well over a year, I agree with the doctor that it’s best to solve this problem.

So, while getting screened for the MRI…

Nurse: Pace maker or metal implants?
Me: No.
Nurse: OK. Now, it’s important that you don’t move during the whole MRI.
Me: Yes I know. But I have a question. Right before I sleep, or when I try to hold still, my legs move. And sometimes my face.
Nurse: Ah, ah, yes. For 30 or 60 minutes, please don’t move.
Me: Right. But I can’t control it. That’s kind of why I’m here.
*Nurses talk to each other*
Nurse: It’s an important rule for all MRI patients. You must not move.
Me: Yes, I understand that. But I can’t control it. If I lose focus for even a second, my toes might twitch, my leg might kick, or I might smile with half of my face. I don’t want to. I just do it. That’s why I’m getting this MRI.
*Nurse calls for English translator*
*English-speaking nurse is briefed*
Nurse: It is rule.
Me: …
(We have the exact same conversation, but in English this time.)

There’s not a language barrier, there’s a stupid barrier. A lot of times, locals think foreigners are generally stupid.


Perhaps this is best captured when I was buying a bus ticket to pick up my brother from the airport.

I asked for a round-trip ticket. In perfect Japanese, I said, “Today, my brother is coming to Japan. So I’m going to the airport.” I even added a “Pikku-appu” (pick up) in Katakana-go for added “LOL I’m foreign right?”
(今日,弟は日本に来ます。 だから,僕は,空港に行て来ます。)

She asked, “One way?” I said, “No, round trip.” I was standing there with no suitcase. No backback. No baggage of any kind. Nothing. Did I look like I was going anywhere for a long time? I must have.

She panicked. She refused to sell me a same-day round-trip ticket. She said there were none. I pointed to the fucking things and said there were. I would go, and two hours later, I’d ride back. What was the problem?

She continued her panic and summoned an English translator.

The translator explained that the clerk’s concern was that there was not enough time to ride to the airport, fly overseas, and come back in the same day.

…At what point did I say I was going overseas? I said my brother was coming to Japan. I didn’t say I was fucking leaving. I have no luggage. I have a clearly defined product — which you sell — that I want. I’m an adult and I’m asking for it, offering you money. I spoke Japanese without flaw.

But no. The stupid barrier comes in. They thought I was enough of a fuckin’ idiot that I imagined a pair of 13-hours flights and a pair of 2-hour bus rides could be fit into a single afternoon.

So if you’re in Japan and speaking Japanese as a foreigner, but feel like you have a hard time being understood, don’t worry. It might not be a problem with you. And there sadly might not be any way to prevent it.