Sunday, June 22, 2008


So an American, Iranian and a Russian wander around Tokyo.

Sounds like the set-up for some kind of crude ethnic joke, I know, but it's actually the scenario behind a TV variety show I occasionally catch while eating dinner.

Our three hosts, all of whom speak flawless Japanese, set out on a seemingly random jaunt through a local neighbourhood, and inevitably end up surprised, astonished, even amazed at the small restaurants, strange houses and colourful characters they come across. (I imagine the people they meet are equally surprised to see such odd 'gaijin' speaking fluent Nihongo; the two women are flat-out gorgeous, while the male American stands well over six feet and dresses like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, draped in a Columbine High School-style black trenchcoat. I keep waiting for the episode where he pulls out a shotgun and mows down some startled city folk.)

I highly doubt the authenticity of the hosts' 'surprise' at the people and places they 'happen' to locate; I don't think any show would run the risk of having nothing interesting whatsoever happen on any particular day without putting in place some plan beforehand, and the people they come across are invariably and suspiciously interesting and odd and altogether watchable.

What interests me more than the particular places they visit, however, is the speaking style of the hosts themselves.

All of them seem to be extremely exaggerated in their spoken and physical mannerisms. They express surprise and shock, glee and astonishment in a way that Iranians, Russians and Americans normally wouldn't. They point and jabber and seem genuinely impressed and delighted by each pedestrian answer to every innocuous question they pose.

They act, in essence, like Japanese TV personalities.

Which raises the question: Once you've got the language down pat, are you somehow being a kind of physical and linguistic fraud when you act like a Japanese in every other possible way too?

I ask only because, as a Canadian, the hosts' diction and deeds seem downright weird. (If not demented.) Seeing foreigners speak fluent Japanese isn't what's odd; seeing them behave like Japanese people behave -- or, at least, the way Japanese TV people behave -- is what strikes me as slightly skewed.

Having said that, I always tell my students: If you want to speak English well, imitate how native speakers speak.

But having said that, the foreigners on TV act in a way that I know they wouldn't act if they were shooting the shit in their local language, with people of their nationality.

On the other hand, If they walked around Tokyo responding, in Japanese, but with American, Iranian and Russian dialects and mannerisms, would that seem strange?

Yes. I think it would.

When you speak a foreign language, you invariably have to take on another self, and sometimes that alternate self has to behave in a way that your original self wouldn't.

Japanese are often quite mannered and reticent in formal situations. If they're speaking perfect English to a native English speaker, but maintain that same, sometimes stiff facade, commuication would be stifled, if not extinguished altogether.

Similarly, if a foreigner, speaking Japanese, were to maintain English conversation patterns, he or she could be seen as unnecessarily selfish or skeptical.

So perhaps in the end these TV hosts' habits aren't all that odd after all. They are behaving the way that people expect Japanese TV hosts to behave, oohing and ahhing over every little thing, verbal or physical, and exclaiming mightily over the smallest detail of trivia or food that is presented to them. They are using the language the way it's meant to be used, in the way that it's normally heard, and viewed. And it's good to remember, too, that TV hosts in all cultures tend to exaggerate and over-dramatize their facial expressions and spoken utterances.


I sometimes wonder.

If I'm surprised and a bit bewildered by these friendly folks, as a fellow foreigner, then what the hell does the average Japanese viewer make of them?