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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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Black Hearts in Bunkyou; or, Racism vs. Cognitive Dissonance
This comedy sketch came out a while ago, and has proved quite popular with people learning Japanese, especially Westerners who've travelled to Japan and found it hard to get Japanese people to speak Japanese to them, even when they were fairly fluent. (I wasn't at all fluent, but even I remember the rabbit-in-headlights panic of some people when I'd ask in Japanese how much an item in a shop cost, for instance.)

Well, it's an amusing sketch, but its structure is familiar enough. It’s basically the same joke as the classic "Miss Triggs" Punch cartoon. In both cases, the joke is funny (in a rather painful way) if you recognise the situation, and not if you don’t. Miss Triggs would be baffling to someone who was oblivious to workplace sexism, I suppose.

Recently a Japanese Youtuber did a vox pop in which he asked Japanese people to react to the sketch. The result was fascinating. (If you don't have time to watch the whole thing, skip straight to 4:15.)

Yuta the Youtuber was surprised (and so was I) that so many of the Japanese people watching didn't get what the sketch was about. Of course, that just underlines the point of the sketch.

But what was the point of the sketch? Was it about Japanese racism? Those are the terms in which many commenters view it, and it's easy to see why. The waitress is treating people differently according to her race-based assumptions about them, after all. If the Miss Triggs cartoon is about sexism (and it is) then by this must be about racism, right?

But one difference is that the men in the Miss Triggs example have seen women all their lives. They have had ample opportunity to notice that women are capable of intelligent suggestions - Miss Triggs’s is just the most recent of many they must have encountered. In Japan, by contrast, Western-looking people who speak fluent Japanese are pretty rare. (In many parts of the country Western-looking people are rare altogether.) Not expecting Westerners to speak Japanese reflects their lived experience.

Even so, the people in the restaurant give ample proofs that in this particular group the Japanese-looking woman cannot speak Japanese, and the Western-looking people can. Despite this, the waitress persists in her error. Isn't that racist? Or is it more like the kind of playing card experiment Bruner and Postman famously conducted in the perception of incongruity, and which you can enjoy here courtesy of Interstate 60?

“If you do the test again, you’ll pass,” says Dr Ray. Perhaps that’s the real test?

Well, I end this post rather stutteringly because I haven't really come to a settled conclusion about all this, but I'd be very interested in your views on the relationship of racism, Bruner and Postman, assumptions based on past experience, etc.

Blacks do not have a great reputation in East Asia. As for language, reminds me of Holland. Most times my Dutch was met with English replies. Getting better though, last time I stumbled buying stamps for a postcard - the woman made me finish it in Dutch.

I bet she understood English, though - or she'd be the only Dutch person who didn't. It's not so universal a skill in Japan, despite their learning it at school.

Perhaps. As for TEFL in Japan it is of a low standard and taught by rote. I find TV a good way to learn.

Despite this, the waitress persists in her error. Isn't that racist? Or is it more like the kind of playing card experiment ...

In the playing card experiment, the victim got it as soon as the experimenter held up the cards for more than just a flash. But in the restaurant sketch, one guy gave the waitress a whole long speech explaining and double-underlining the situation, and she still didn't get it. Of course, this is a comedy sketch, and comedy often comes from prolonged not getting it (I once showed you Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?", didn't I?), and I'd hope a real person wouldn't be quite so clueless. But terminally clueless the waitress is.

Additional points:

1) I had some memorable experiences in Italy showing that no matter how halting your Italian is, many Italians will assume you're fluent and, once you address them in that language, they will respond at top speed, impossible for me to follow. Of course, race wasn't an issue for me there.

2) A closer equivalent is what happens in Chinese restaurants here. (And probably in Japanese, but I almost never eat Japanese food.) If you're a Westerner, many places will automatically bring you a fork. I prefer the ones that don't, unless you ask. While I'm not really fluent with chopsticks, I'm reasonably competent.

3) I would never have been able to guess the cards, even if they weren't trick, at that speed. I could hardly see them in the video. And, while I have no trouble distinguishing hearts from diamonds, I always have to stop a moment and think before saying which is a spade and which a club. So I would have given up early, and if the researcher had been willing to go more slowly, I might have noticed the trick.

The "bringing a fork" thing is always a slight mortification. It's one of those situations where you feel bad for resenting it (because of course it's intended to be helpful), but also slightly put in one's place.

A bit to the side of the topic, but I've never had trouble getting Japanese people to speak Japanese to me. My problem was more that I'm nowhere near fluent, so I could often ask questions but not understand the replies. Mostly people seemed impressed/appreciative of me even making an effort, which gave me the impression that a lot of foreign tourists don't even try to learn more than a few words. Though there's also the cultural factor of encouraging people for making an effort, period.

I'm not putting down the tourists who don't attempt it. I've gone to countries knowing nothing more than "Hello." The only reason I've tried to learn Japanese at all was that I realized after the first time that I'd be coming back. I find languages extremely difficult and wouldn't put in that level of effort for a short one-time visit.

I agree, the experience shown in this sketch (even in a less exaggerated form) isn't universal: I find myself in that "I can ask the question but not understand the reply" situation several times - certainly more than I had the rabbit-in-headlights "Westerner-speaking-Japanese-does-not-compute" reaction. But mostly, as you say, they were appreciative, tactful and helpful.

Agreed too with your last point. When I went to Taiwan a couple of years ago, I got by with "nihao", "chie chie" and a lot of gesticulating. I was only there for three days, and learning Chinese specially wasn't something I was capable of.

Black Hearts in Bunkyou

Can I hope this is a Joan Aiken reference?

I had not heard of the card experiment, so having it explained by Christopher Lloyd was a nice bonus.

Can I hope this is a Joan Aiken reference?

You can. :)

This works well as a sketch about expectations, but I don't think it stands up to any kind of scrutiny. Not that comedy sketches necessarily should, of course and many do fall apart if you start to think about them for more than one moment.

As you say, most white people in Japan will not be fluent Japanese speakers, so the waitress's initial assumption was in fact perfectly reasonable. However, research I heard once on Radio 4 suggests that what people sound like is actually more important in identifying people as "us" than what they look like, so it's actually her persistence in addressing the Japanese looking woman whilst ignoring the fluent speakers who are white/black that makes the sketch funny because it's so ridiculous.

Having said that, expectation does play a part in comprehension, which is one reason why I find it so difficult to practice speaking Welsh. Too many of my native Welsh speaking acquaintances have me filed as "I speak English to this person" and trying to change that really throws them.

By coincidence, I can offer an example that made me do a mental double take while watching a Welsh quiz show a couple of days ago. Here's the link if you want to see a very Chinese-looking young man called Iolo speaking perfectly fluent and native-sounding Welsh. (Scroll forwards to 15:55 if you do follow the link.)

Celwydd Noeth (Naked lies)

The game show was fun!

I agree that's how the sketch is designed to work, and one might think obviously so - but that's why I was surprised by some of the vox pop reactions, especially the young woman at 4.15 who could only suggest that the waitress might have used gestures to make herself understood.

This is hilarious and a bit surprising.