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By Tom Bidwell

Culture crash

If Japanese people really want to learn about life overseas, they should ignore foreign “experts”

Tom Bidwell is a lawyer who watches too much television

As is evident from the large number of language schools in Japan and the plethora of TV programs that feature language classes, the Japanese are hugely interested in learning foreign tongues, especially, but not only, English.

Coming from Britain, where most people are monolingual despite the proximity of other countries, I think that this appetite for learning is a wonderful thing that should be celebrated and encouraged as much as possible. However, we should be careful not to conclude that this interest in learning our language stems from a belief that our culture is superior or because the Japanese have a desire to ape whatever we do. In short, we should approach this task with a sense of humility.

Naturally most of us will acknowledge this as a self-evident truth, but I fear that the treatment of English on television occasionally shows us in a very bad light.

I saw a program recently that purported to be teaching British, or at least English, culture. It featured a British guy teaching a Japanese woman how to serve and enjoy proper English tea. I really dislike these programs and, unfortunately, the type of person who tends to present them. Apparently, the only talent one needs is to be born British and to exploit that ruthlessly.

This particular guy, we were told, is a well-known chef who has now lived in Japan for many years. Well, his Japanese was worse than mine, and his attempts at teaching culture were an embarrassment to anyone British. I had no idea we were such a patronizing and arrogant bunch until I saw this “cultural expert” joylessly intone the correct way to enjoy a cup of tea and some food at around 4pm of an afternoon. It was as if he were bringing sophistication to a previously savage nation.

He went on to show how to eat scones properly. “We have a rule in England,” he laboriously explained, “jam first, then clotted cream” Excuse me? Is that a rule? It sounds to me more like a custom that one can take or leave—though I may be wrong, as I’m not such an expert on tea like this chap. How can this man have any self-respect trotting out such obvious rubbish?

The worst thing was his supercilious attitude. “Oh very good, you’ve got the hang of pouring hot water on top of tea leaves very well,” he said, as if it were incredibly complex and he had spent a life time mastering it. “Perfect, just the right amount of jam on that scone,” as if there is a correct amount and not a matter of personal taste. I hope that Japanese people in their earnest way will not feel the need to try and follow his instructions when they visit the UK.

On another program, a different British host took a Japanese reporter to tea at the Dorchester to see how it should correctly be served. I am not sure where to begin when thinking about the obvious incongruity of taking someone to a smart hotel in central London to experience a typical English tea. From my infrequent visits to the Dorchester, I would say that having tea there is an entirely foreign experience and far removed from a typical tea time.

Some of the “learn English” programs fall into the trap of simply being vehicles for the host to show off his ability to speak Japanese. On some shows, the foreigner does not utter a word of English. I would have thought the benefit to having a gaijin on the program would be to provide the viewers the opportunity to hear some native speaking. Instead, all the English in the sketches is explained in Japanese by one Japanese presenter to another. I wonder why the foreign guy is being paid? Although the producers have ultimate control over their shows, foreign hosts should recall that most of the viewing public wishes to learn English, not watch a foreigner speak Japanese.

These programs contrast with the excellent German and Spanish language shows. The Japanese co-hosts are a mix of experts in the language and some students. The experts explain the grammar in Japanese while the foreign presenters sensibly and helpfully speak in their own language. They correct the pronunciation of the students while the translations of new words appear as subtitles. When students try some local food, they take it off the plate and put it in their mouths without any, “Well done, you chewed that chorizo perfectly.” On one show, a Japanese woman learned to make all sorts of different types of German bread, but they stopped short of telling her how to eat it.

Perhaps the English-speaking world still has something to learn from the Europeans.


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